Scarab 25.1

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“This is exactly what I was talking about.  She’s a dangerous influence.”

“She’s a sixteen year old girl with strong opinions, Wilkins,” Armstrong answered.  “Nothing more.  She holds onto those opinions and her core worldview, and vulnerable people get caught up in her momentum.  Cult leaders will do the same thing, only it’s purposeful in their case.  Get people tired, get people worn out, scared and hungry, and then give them someone with presence to give them support.”

“You’re saying she’s an accidental cult leader?”

“She’s in a position where it’s very easy to sway others.  A lot of the parahumans out there fit the criteria I’m talking about,” Armstrong said.  He glanced at Glenn, who looked distinctly unhappy.  “So, apparently, does our staff.”

“I think you’re off target,” I said.  “You’re talking about Foil, I get it, and Parian, and now the Chicago Wards and Glenn.  But all of the decisions they made were when I wasn’t anywhere near them.  Unless you’re implying I have some sort of mind control.”

“No,” Armstrong told me.  He didn’t fit his name; he looked more like my dad than anyone, though he had a peculiarly prominent jaw and a forehead that made it look like he was perpetually glaring.  “It doesn’t matter if they’re near you.  The message and the idea stays with them even after they leave your presence.”

“Tecton just wanted someone to call the shots, to replace Raymancer,” I said.  He was defending me, but it wasn’t helping.

“We saw the video,” Director Wilkins said.  “We know what he said.  I think it’s best if you stop talking.”

I bit my lip and turned my eyes to the table.

“Well,” Glenn said.  “What’s done is done.  Can I suggest that perhaps, because it’s been a long day, we should retire?  All of us will still be here in the morning.”

“It sounds like a good idea,” Armstrong said.  One or two heads around the table nodded.

“We’re going to handle this tonight,” Wilkins said.

“While the girl’s so tired she could fall asleep sitting up,” Glenn observed.  “Or is it that you want to resolve this while Chevalier is in the hospital?”

“Chevalier doesn’t matter,” Wilkins said.  “This is PRT business.”

“I agree.  His input would be appreciated, if he was in a state to give it, but it’s ultimately not his decision,” the Washington director said.  He reminded me of Piggot, but he wasn’t fat.    Heavy, but not fat like she’d been.  It was more the way he held himself, his tone and approach.  His graying hair was cropped close, and he had a combination of paler skin and dark circles under his eyes that made me think of a corpse.  Director West.

“We lose nothing by waiting,” Glenn said, calm, unflappable.  I’d seen that confidence before, in people who’d had nothing to lose.  I’d had that confidence before.

“We lose time.  If we’re going to respond to the press and the public, we need to act sooner than later.”

“My concern…” a woman said, drawing out the thought, “Is that her actions go against the spirit of the PRT and the groups under the PRT’s umbrella.  Conspiring with a known terrorist, betraying the truce, even, for a subtle advantage in dealing with that terrorist, returning to her old team against all terms of her probation, rejecting orders, and taking reckless risks with PRT personnel, getting two injured.  A longstanding goal of the PRT has been to reassure the public, and this only paints heroes as something dangerous.”

I already didn’t like her.  I wasn’t even sure what city she was from.

“That doesn’t even include the fact that this leak shows capes going all out.  When the joy at the victory wears off, people are going to look at the footage and wonder if they’re in danger,” West said.

We won, I thought.  We beat him, and you’re quibbling over details.

Why were they doing this?  Why were they so intent on railroading me?  Screwing me over?

These guys, or some of them, were the old guard.  Defenders of the status quo.  Tagg would have fit into this little cadre.

Maybe that was part of the reason.

“-Birdcage.”

The word hung in the air.

I snapped to attention, fully awake in an instant.  I had to take a second to look at the faces of the people around the table before I realized who’d said it.  Armstrong, the man who’d been my advocate an instant ago.

“A little extreme,” West said.

“The next few fights are going to be crucial.  Every time the Endbringers come, there are major losses.  We lose good capes.  Others step in, but they don’t have the experience or the organization, so we lose more.  New Delhi was very nearly the culmination of that.”

“We won New Delhi.”

We lost.  Scion won,” Armstrong responded.  “Participation will be up for the next fight.  Let’s use that.  We bolster the numbers further, by tapping the Birdcage.  There are powerful capes in there, and some are cooperative.”

Oh.  They aren’t talking about me.

“And if they start wreaking havoc afterward?  Or turn on us?”

“We can be select about it.  Dragon’s willing to give us a searchable database of all of the conversation and behavior records within the Birdcage.”

I raised my head at that.  “Dragon’s alive?”

“She got in contact with us a short while ago.”

I nodded.  I felt a little dazed, confused.  Too much in a short time.  I was reaching the point where I wasn’t sure I’d be able to take it all in.

“It’s not worth it,” West said.

“A moderate risk for a chance to save hundreds, thousands, even millions of lives,” Armstrong said.

“How many lives do we lose because of the monsters we set free?”  West retorted.  “Those criminals were put there for a reason.”

“At first,” Armstrong said.  “But the rationale for indefinite detention has been getting weaker, and the number of capes going in has been increasing.  I-”

“It’s not going to happen, Armstrong,” West cut him off.

Armstrong deflated a little, settling back in his chair.

“The media is already reaching out to us to ask for interviews with Weaver,” one of the other Directors said.  “They love her or hate her, but this won’t die down anytime soon.”

“Primacy effect,” West said, frowning.  “That video is going to be the first thing people will think about when they think about people in the field during an Endbringer attack.”

“So we drown it,” the woman from before said.  “Release the footage we held back, footage with a more favorable effect on us.  Weaver gets lost in the shuffle, and we quietly address the unbecoming conduct.”

We won, you bastards.  I clenched my fists beneath the table.

“Address how?”

“It’s a violation of her probationary membership.  She’s off the team for the time being, if not permanently.  She fulfills the remainder of her sentence, then remains in our custody as a consult.  ”

I noticed that my bugs were acting of their own volition, treating this as a crisis scenario.  They were massing, and they were winding silk threads around the PRT uniforms that guarded the room, around the containment foam sprayers and guns that they held.

I’d missed the Undersiders, hated that I wasn’t there with them as they said goodbye to Regent.  Part of the reason I’d become a hero had been to reconnect with my dad, but the gap seemed too wide.  I’d killed, and he’d seen me kill.  He was afraid of me.

It would be easy to disable the PRT uniforms, attack the directors and simply make my way to Brockton Bay.  I could patch things up with Grue, help Rachel, ensure that Imp didn’t go to a dark place.

But it wouldn’t get me anywhere.

He wanted to play hardball?  I’d play hard in return.  I turned my attention to my swarm for a moment.

“I think you’re underestimating how badly the public would react if Weaver was punished,” Glenn said.

“We’re facing a lose-lose situation, Mr. Chambers,” Chief Director West said.  “We cut our losses, take a hit in PR, but we can continue operating as we need to.  So long as it’s quiet, she goes to prison and doesn’t go out on another big excursion, I don’t think anyone’s about to make a big deal of it.”

…make a big deal of it.  I turned the words around in my head.  Manipulating the media, manipulating the local capes.  Damn.  I’d had high hopes for Chevalier’s new Protectorate, but it didn’t seem to extend to the PRT.

“We can deflect,” the woman from before said.  “Raise another issue, change the focus of the public.”

“Not so easy,” Glenn said.  “It’s been done too often in the past.  They’re watching for it, even anticipating it.”

“But the majority won’t be,” she responded.  She turned to Director West.  “The alert, educated minority will complain, but they won’t achieve anything meaningful.  They never do.”

“I’m inclined to agree,” Director West said.  “It’s not pretty, but it’ll suffice.”

Why?” I asked.  “You can’t deny I helped.  I didn’t deliver a serious blow, but I helped to coordinate, I had ideas, I used them.”

“There’s other smart capes out there,” a man said.  He didn’t give me the impression of a PRT director.  Another staff member?

“I did a lot of good, and you’re railroading me.  Is it because you’re losing control of things and I make an easy target?  Because you’re afraid of me?”

“Because you’re consistently unpredictable.  Unreliable.  We set rules and you break them,” West told me.

“Rules don’t generally apply during an Endbringer attack,” I said.  “The only thing that matters is taking the motherfucker down.  We did.”

“I’m inclined to agree,” Armstrong said.  “This is going a step too far.  She did well.”

A few heads nodded around the table, but they didn’t have the majority, and they didn’t have the clout that Chief Director West did.  Glenn had spoken of a fifty-fifty split in the reactions, and he was more or less on target.  But the power held by the people who were standing up for me was nothing compared to the clout the others had.

“This is beyond the Endbringer attack.  It’s overall conduct,” the woman at the far end of the table said.

“When? Can you name incidents?  Beyond the Endbringer attack?”  I challenged her.

“Spiders in the less traveled areas of the prison,” West told me.

Spiders in the prison.  Shit.

I felt myself deflate a little, but I managed to keep my face straight.  “If there are any, they’re eggs that recently hatched.”

“And the costume?  A weave of silk cloth hidden out of sight.”

Damn.

“That predated my discussion with the Warden,” I lied.  “I got rid of the spiders, moved on.”

“You could have reported it.”

“That an abandoned time-killing project was stuck in behind some pipes?  Why?”

“Because this happens.  There’s no reason to believe you.”

I clenched my fists.

“You’re dangerous, Taylor Hebert.  Unpredictable.  You’re deceptive, clever enough to come up with tricks, but not clever enough to stick to the straight and narrow from the beginning.  Armstrong said it himself.  You’re good at manipulating people.”

…Manipulating people, I thought.  Not as good as I wanted to be.

Armstrong spoke up, “You’re twisting my words, West.  I said she was well situated for interacting with vulnerable people, and stalwart enough in her own worldview that others can get swept up in her flow.”

“Regardless.  Ms. Hebert was right about one thing.  It’s late.  It’s been an emotionally exhausting day.”

“Physically exhausting too,” I said, not taking my eyes off the Chief Director.  “You know, running around, fighting Behemoth while you guys sit in your-”

Glenn shifted one leg under the table, pressing it against mine.  A nudge, not overt.

I stopped.

My power crackled at the edge of my attention.  My bugs were moving again, without any direct instructions from me.  I reined them in, and then distributed them through the building.  Was there someone I could contact?  Something I could communicate to the right person, to change what was happening here?

West ignored my comment, turning his attention to Glenn.  “Mr. Chambers, you’re relieved of duty.  You likely knew this already.”

“I understand,” Glenn said.

“We’ll discuss on our own whether we need to press charges.”

…Press charges.  Bastards.

“Okay,” Glenn said.

West met my eyes.  “Taylor Hebert, you violated the terms of your probation.  You’ll return to Gardener tonight, and you’ll carry out the rest of your sentence.  Your test run with the Wards teams is over.  Offer rescinded.  Provided you do not talk to the media, we stop there.  We’ll talk to you when you turn eighteen, to see about plans for the future.”

“This is a mistake,” Glenn said.  “Chevalier had a number of plans, and you’re unraveling them.”

“Naturally, Mr. Chambers.  We’re aware of the thrust of those plans.  Recruiting villains.  A darker, edgier Protectorate.  Provided he keeps to the rules, we’re willing to let that be.  But with the administration, the underlying framework that makes his teams possible, we have to maintain a balance, keep the public and the President happy.  He won’t have our assistance.”

…He won’t have our assistance, I thought.

I heard the words, and my bugs spoke them.  Every bug, within the building, repeated him, verbatim.  The good, the bad, the details that damned me.  It wasn’t a question of finding the right person, or saying the right thing.  It was everyone, saying everything.

In that manner, my bugs repeated it to staff members, to the Chicago Wards, and to the Protectorate members who’d accompanied their Directors here.  It was too late for reporters to be around, but I didn’t deny the possibility.

Tens of thousands of bugs speaking words at a sound barely above a whisper, louder in places where more people congregated.

Dispatch and Exalt were the first to make their way to our floor.  They entered the room without knocking.

I met Dispatch’s eyes.  Not the rescuer I’d hoped for.  We’d worked together, but he’d disliked me from the outset.

“Dispatch?”  West asked.

Dispatch didn’t reply right away.  He glared, and it wasn’t at me.  It was at the Director.

“We’ve been listening,” Exalt said.

Listening?”

“You’ve been bugged,” Dispatch said.  “Only the bugs are the ones outside.  They’ve been talking.  Reciting.”

I could see Chief Director West’s eyes narrow as he looked at me.  He would be replaying the conversation in his head, trying to figure out if he had said anything damning.

“No guarantee she’s telling the truth,” West said.

“Provided he keeps to the rules, we’re willing to let that be,” Dispatch said.  “Spiders in the back areas of the prison.”

“Yes,” Director Armstrong said.  “That’s accurate.  I can’t speak to particulars or the little details, though.”

“I repeated everything verbatim,” I confirmed.

“The goings-on of this meeting are confidential,” Director West said.

“Nobody told me that,” I answered.  “It doesn’t matter.  I violated my probation anyways, apparently.”

“Anything goes against Endbringers,” Tecton said, from the hallway.  He’d just arrived with Grace and Annex beside him.  “We wouldn’t have done half as well if it wasn’t for her.”

“Tell that to Kismet,” one of West’s flunkies commented.  “Or Particulate.  You don’t really want her on your team.  Not when she’s going to stab you in the back for a better margin of victory.”

“I do,” Tecton said.  “All of us do.  We watched the video together.  We talked about it.  Kismet made a mistake.  As far as Particulate, we looked him up.  He’s reckless, dangerous.  Not the best way she could have handled it, but it worked.”

West didn’t take his eyes off me.  “Even if we ignored everything else, this kind of behavior, it’s-”

“It’s exactly what Chevalier wanted,” I said.  My eyes dropped to the table.  I didn’t meet his gaze, didn’t try to engage the visitors.  “Open, honest.  Exposing the rot at the center.”

“You’re saying you’re not rotten,” the woman at the end of the table said, almost mocking.

“Maybe I am,” I told her.  “I’m not all good, not all bad.  I’m just… getting by.  Doing what I can, not holding back against enemies who don’t deserve it.  And under Chevalier’s system, Glenn’s system, I guess I’m revealing all of that stuff we usually keep hidden, and it’s up to others to make the call whether they can roll with it or not.  Up to the public, my potential teammates.”

“Honestly,” Tecton said, “If you’re going to lock her up after all this, you can consider me done.  You’re going to undermine Chevalier, when what he’s doing worked?  I’m gone.”

Here and there, there were murmurs of agreement.

There was a very long pause.

“Weaver,” Director West said.

I met his eyes again.  I could see the hate.

“You’ll make your way to Chicago at the end of the week, and provided everything goes well, you will be a member of the team.  If you’re wise, you won’t take interviews, and you won’t take any action that draws attention to you.”

I drew in a deep breath, then nodded.

“You’ll wear a tracking device at all times, and any time you leave the defined area within the Chicago headquarters, you’ll have an escort, a longstanding member of the team in your company at all times.”

“Okay,” I said.

“See to it that you follow these rules.  You’ve got the backing of the heroes here, maybe you’ve got the public’s favor, but we will remove you if you give us an excuse.”

“I understand,” I said, suddenly very weary.

Beside me, Glenn stood from his chair.  I took his cue.

The PRT uniforms stepped out of the doorway, where they’d been barring the small crowd access.  We made our exit, joining the Wards and PRT staff members.

“Weaver,” the Chief Director called out.

I turned around.

“You didn’t make any allies in this room today.”

“I think you were my enemies before we even met,” I said.  “You’d never have given me the chance to be your ally.”

“You’re wrong.”

I shrugged, then turned to walk away.

Tecton gave me a nod as I approached.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Not a problem,” he said.  “You kept us alive, I figure we owe you one.”

“I don’t think you owe me much, but I’m not complaining,” I said.

“We should go.  We were in the middle of something.  See you soon, I hope?”

“Yeah,” I answered.

When they’d broken away, it was Glenn and I, together.

“That was foolish,” Glenn commented.

“They wouldn’t have given us any slack.  Nothing we could have said or done would have changed the outcome, unless we attacked from a different angle.”

“There’s a habit some people have,” Glenn said, “Where they divide people into enemies and allies.  It’s in your records, as a matter of fact, your propensity to define people as enemies and act without mercy, while being gentle and kind to your friends.  The Chief Director is another person who is very similar.  Pairings you two together, you could have been great allies or great enemies, but there’s not much middle ground.  It’s a shame you have a powerful enemy, now.”

“I still don’t see how we would have been friends.”

“I don’t think you would have been.  But humiliating an enemy is a dangerous thing.  Doing it again would be terminal.  You’ll need to be clever about your approach from here on out, so you aren’t threatening them to the same degree.”

“I’m too tired to strategize any more, Glenn.”

Think.  What’s motivating the Directors?  First thought that comes to your mind.”

“Fear.”

“Of?” he asked, without a heartbeat of hesitation.

“Me?”

He shook his head.  “More specific.  If they don’t act now, what happens in the long run?”

“They can’t control me.”

“People would recognize it, that the PRT didn’t have the ability to control all of its heroes.  Some would act on it.  It would be devastating, damaging on a fundamental level.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” I asked.  “Your ‘harbinger’?”

“It is.  Can you guess what I’m going to suggest, now?”

“You want me to make a move.  Powerful enough to shake them, break the status quo, not powerful or blatant enough to break my probation or give them an excuse to drop the book on me.”

“You’ll be with the Wards by the week’s end, if someone doesn’t trip you up.  Do you think you can manage it?  A big success?”

“Maybe,” I said.

“The moment you drop out of the public eye, you become vulnerable.  You’ve got a reprieve, but when you do act, you’re going to need to act big.  And you can’t stop once that’s happened.  Once you act, you’ll be giving them an opening, and you have to keep moving after that.  Understand?”

“Yeah.”

“Keep the ramifications and the scale of your actions in mind at all times.  Use that strategic brain of yours.  Above all, be patient.”

“Now hearing case two-seven-two-four, Weaver.”

I stood.  “I’m here.”

“For the matter of committee record, would you affirm that your full name and identity are a matter of public record, and that the committee is free to use it?”

“I will.”

“Will you state your name for the record?”

“Taylor Hebert.”

“Your date of birth?”

“June nineteenth, 1995.”

“You are a minor.”

“Yes.”

“Will you testify that you were not coerced into this arrangement?”

“I’m here of my own free will.”

“You were not offered any bribes or incentives that are not already a matter of record?”

“To the best of my knowledge, it’s all been aboveboard.”

“As a minor, we ask that you have a guardian or respected professional to help guide you through the process, and to help verify what you’re testifying.”

Before I could speak, I heard someone’s chair scraping against the floor somewhere behind me.  Standing up.  “Her father.”

I felt my heart leap.  I hadn’t seen him when I’d peeked through the crowd behind me, but I hadn’t been using my bugs either.  No use disturbing anyone.  I kept my eyes fixed in front of me.

“Would you please approach?”

I could hear him walk, but didn’t turn to look.  Fuck, I was still hurt, still angry, even in the moment I was filled with relief.  He came to stand next to me, and my hand found his.  I squeezed, hard, and he squeezed back.

He was here now, at least.  Not while I was in prison, not when I’d started my forays into the Wards.  But he was here now.

“Your name?”

“Danny Hebert.”

“State again for the committee record, your relation to her?”

“I’m her father.”

“You’re aware of her standing in regards to the law?”

“I am.”

“And you’ve read the documents detailing her probationary status within the Wards?  Document two-seven-two-four-A?”

“I have.”

“You’ve read the statement and accompanying paperwork provided by Taylor Hebert, AKA ‘Weaver’, document two-seven-two-four-B?”

“I have.”

“Do you hereby attest that all statements disclosed in the latter document are the truth, to the best of your knowledge?”

“Yes.”

I watched as the committee members paged through the documents in front of them.

My heart was pounding, and it wasn’t just my dad’s impromptu arrival.  This was it.  The moment my future hinged on.

I’d made enemies in the upper echelons of the PRT.  The question was whether they’d pull a maneuver, do something sneaky to undermine me or screw up the case to leave me stranded without anyplace to go but jail.

“I believe each of us have reviewed the files?” the man at the center of the table finally spoke, looking to the others for confirmation.  “Case two-seven-two-four has met the requirements for probationary admittance to the Wards.  She is to follow the stipulations as outlined in document two-seven-two-four-A.  Failure to comply will result in a return to medium security detention for a span of one and a half years or until such a time as she turns eighteen, whichever is longer.  Further, failing to meet the terms for probation will result in a forfeiture of any earnings or rights granted her by the PRT, which will be held in trust until such a time as she reaches the age of majority.  Do you understand these terms?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Yes,” my dad said.

“With that, you are now a probationary member of the Wards, until such a time as you turn eighteen or violate the terms of your probationary membership.  Congratulations, Taylor Hebert.”

There were cheers from the sidelines.  Tecton and his group were among them.

“Next case,” the committee members said.

My dad and I retreated into the aisle.  We made eye contact for what felt like the first time in an age.

“Thank you for coming.”

“I wasn’t necessary.  You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have someone else lined up.”

“It matters, dad.  More than you know.  Thank you.”

“Is this fixable?  Us?”

I frowned.

“What?” he asked.  He opened the door so we could step out of the committee room and into the hallways of the PRT office.

“I’ve kind of come to hate that word.  ‘Fix’,” I said.

“You don’t think-“

“I don’t,” I interrupted him.  “We can’t fix ‘us’, society can’t be fixed.  It’s impossible.”

He frowned.  “I don’t think it is.”

“Things change.  Destroy them, rebuild them, you’re just causing change.  Can’t we… isn’t it okay if we don’t try to go back to the way things were?”

“You don’t want to be a family?” he asked.

“I do.  But… we tried to go back, after the city started to rebuild.  It didn’t feel right.  It was nice, but we were playing roles, and there was more stuff unsaid than said.  Lies, unasked questions.  Kind of unhappy at the root of it, you know?”

“I know.”

We found an empty bench and sat down.  I could see the Chicago Wards stepping out into the hallway, but they kept their distance.  Revel made her way out the door a few seconds later, and started talking to them as a group, at the opposite end of the hall.

“You’re so far away,” he said.  “Doing things I can’t even imagine, facing serious danger, even on a more mundane level, the way you’re going to be living at the headquarters.  It’s a fourteen hour drive.”

“Can’t we visit, though?”  I asked.  “Send emails every day, videochat?

“We can.  I’ll come see you at the headquarters before I leave for home, see how you’re getting by.  Maybe, if you need me to, I can pick up some essentials.  Things you wouldn’t want to ask them for, or things they wouldn’t know your preferences on.”

I wondered momentarily if my dad even know what my preferences were, nowadays.  I didn’t voice those thoughts.  At the same time, I meant what I said as I told him, “That sounds amazing.  Yes. Please.”

He smiled, but the expression faltered as he glanced a little to one side.  “I think your team wants to talk to you.”

I nodded.  “Talk to you in a bit?”

“Tomorrow,” he said.

“Tomorrow,” I replied, standing from the bench.  The Wards had turned to face me.

When I approached Revel and Tecton and the others, I cast a glance back.  My dad was still sitting on the bench.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was a step forward.  It had to count for something.

“This space was for vehicles, but Stardust graduated three years ago, died a year after joining the Protectorate.  We’ve been using it for storing paperwork, and your moving in was a good excuse to get some things sorted out.  Your workshop.”

I nodded, doing my best to maintain eye contact.  Campanile was about eight feet tall.  I’d been given a complete physical and fitness test right off the bat, and I was five feet and nine inches tall.

The height difference put my eye level just a couple of feet above Campanile’s hip level.  He wore a skintight suit, and there was little left to the imagination.  I thought I might have seen a ridge or a vein, in that split-second I’d glanced down to make sure my eyes weren’t fooling me.

If I were more well adjusted, I would have been embarrassed, even offended.  Instead, I almost wanted to laugh.  Neither would have done well in terms of first impressions.

Focus on your bugs, I told myself.  Look interested.

“Talk to Tecton before you grab anything from the build room.  That’s where we keep all the panels, portable walls and furniture for customizing our spaces.  Tools and everything would be down there too, but it’s easiest to let Tecton keep it all in his workshop.  He’s our only tinker, and it’s not any harder to ask him for something than it is to go all the way to the basement.”

“Got it.”

“You’re distributing this stuff to other groups, right?  The silk?”

“After I’m done outfitting my team, and you guys, our Protectorate.”

I’ll give Campanile thicker fabric below the waist, maybe, I thought.

“Well, there’s a budget, so negotiate with Tecton on that front.  We all use the account, but the rest of us usually just dip into it to replace broken pads or lenses, stuff like that.  Tecton pays for materials, which is usually enough to empty the budget, but he makes and maintains knick-knacks and tools that he rents out to other groups.  Earns a bit of money to make up for taking an unfair share.”

“Got it.  I can do the same?  Selling the silk?”

“Yeah.  Might be easier, since your stuff can be mass-produced.”

I stared out at the workshop, glad for the excuse to look away.  Did he know how tightly the costume was clinging to him below the waist?

“It’s good,” I commented on the workshop.  Better than the one in my old lair.

“Your bedroom isn’t with the others at the hub, since there’s not a lot of privacy there, and people are always coming and going.  It’s more a place to kick back and nap if you’ve had a long patrol, keep some books and magazines, maybe some games.  You do have a nook, though.”

I nodded.  Maintain eye contact.

“You’re just down the hall.  Here.”

I checked out the bedroom.  It was better than my cell, but plain.  The fact that I could come and go when I pleased was a plus, even if I was confined to the building when I didn’t have an escort.

“I can buy stuff to make it my own, right?”

“Yeah.  But you should know that they’ve got cleaners to do the PRT supplied laundry, sheets pillows, towels, the generic skintight suits.  You’ll have to do your own laundry, and that includes any sheets you buy or whatever.”

“Got it,” I said.  I very nearly glanced down to make sure the protrusion in his skintight outfit was still there, stopped myself.  Even in my peripheral vision, it stood out.  Seriously, that thing’s as long as my forearm.

“Computer’s here.  PRT issue laptop.  Take some time, remove the crap.  If you don’t know how, or if you’re not sure what’s dead weight on the system, ask Tecton.  Username is your codename, password to start with is your birthday.  Month-day-year, followed by your middle name.  Once you type that in, it’ll set everything up automatically and prompt you for a new password.”

“Okay.”

“You’ve got a small bathroom just down here,” he pointed down a short hallway, “No shower, sorry.  There’s one in the main area, not a lot of privacy, but you’ll figure out the patrol schedules, and figure out when you can go shower without a chance of being bothered, if you’re shy.”

Shy.  I very nearly cracked a smile at that.  He was the one who should be bashful, but he just radiated confidence, instead.

“I’ll manage.”

“Let’s see… there’s the phone and earpiece, they’ll get that to you soon.  Identification, the same.  Can you think of anything you need?”

“A few million Darwin’s bark spiders,” I said.  “I could do with even just a hundred, but it’d mean a slow start.”

He didn’t even flinch.  “We can probably arrange it.”

“Black widows would work too.  Easier to find, but not nearly as good.  Maybe just need an escort so I can go out for walks.”

“We could arrange that.  I’m going out in an hour, meeting some kids at the hospital.  If you don’t mind the detour, we could swing by a park or something.”

I tried not to imagine him in the pediatric’s wing of a hospital.  You’d need to change.  Or wrap something around your waist.

I didn’t voice my thoughts.

“The hub is right down here, bottom of the stairs.  Command center, nook-slash-temporary bedrooms, spare costumes, televisions and everything else.”

Tecton, Wanton and Annex were at the bottom of the stairs.  Grace, Golem and Cuff were sitting at the computer bank against the one wall, but they were watching.  Grace had a wicked smile on her face.

I realized why.  The bastards.  They were pulling the same trick Campanile had, stuffing something in the front of their costumes.  Tecton, for his part, wore a mechanical suit, so he’d simply bulked out the crotch portion of his armor with additional armor plating.  Obvious, not even trying to hide what they were doing.  Wanton gave me a cheeky smile as I made eye contact with him.

For my part, I managed to keep my expression straight.

Over the course of seconds, Annex seemed to get more and more uncomfortable.  I made eye contact and maintained it as he squirmed.

“She’s not reacting, and I’m feeling really, really dumb,” he said.

“Aw, Annex, c’mon,” Wanton groaned.  “She would’ve cracked up.”

Grace was laughing, now.  Cuff, by contrast, wasn’t moving her eyes from the computer screen.  She was probably the ideal target for this kind of prank.

“Don’t sue me for sexual harassment,” Annex told me.

I smiled a little.  “I’m not going to sue.  I’ve been around people who did worse.”

“It seemed funnier when we were talking about it before,” Tecton said.  “It’s… kind of awkward, right now.”

“It is funny,” I said, smiling, “You guys did get me, I was so busy trying not to stare at Campanile that I barely heard what he was saying about the tour.”

There were a few chuckles.

“I was thinking it was a bad idea,” Golem said, “With your background, that you might not like being picked on.  They gave me one, but I thought it was a bad idea to test you.”

“It was a terrible idea,” Tecton said.  “Juvenile.  But sometimes you need a cheap laugh.”

“They’re embarrassing themselves worse than they’re embarrassing me,” I told Golem.  “I’m okay with it.  I’m glad to have an initiation into the group.  Could have been far worse.”

“Alright guys, joke’s over,” Tecton said.  He unclasped and removed the metal codpiece from his armor.  “She’s right.  We’re just embarrassing ourselves now.  Get rid of the damn things.  And I don’t want to see them lying around anywhere.”

“I could keep it this way,” Wanton joked.

“No you couldn’t,” Tecton said.  “You’ll forget about it, switch to your other form without absorbing it and wind up bashing someone unconscious with a foot-long silicon club.”

I glanced over my shoulder at Campanile, and saw him standing by the trashcan, no longer endowed.  He didn’t look quite so ludicrous now.  Freakishly tall, yes.  Not freakishly long, so to speak.

“Sorry,” he said.

I shrugged.  “I figure I’ve got blackmail material now.  Just need to get my hands on the security camera footage.”

He smiled and shook his head.  “Welcome.  Be good.”

“I don’t think these guys are setting the bar that high on the ‘good’ scale,” I told him.

He clapped one hand on my shoulder, then turned around to go up the stairs, leaving.

Annex had fled, but Wanton was taking his time in leaving, with Tecton giving him the occasional push to get him to walk faster.  Over by the computer bank, Grace and Golem were wrestling with something.

“Do it,” I heard her.

“No way, no way,” Golem responded

“Do it.  Just a little.”

She said something else I didn’t make out.  It didn’t go much further before Golem gave in.

Wanton doubled over mid-stride, falling to the ground.  Once he realized what had happened, he started thrashing in his effort to get the offending object out of his pants.  I had to avert my gaze before he inadvertently flashed me.

“Geez, guys,” Tecton groaned, “Too far.”

Golem rushed over, apologizing, while Wanton cursed at him, throwing the lump of plastic at his teammate.  Grace had fallen out of her chair laughing, and Cuff had done the opposite, putting her unburned arm on the desk and burying her face in the crook of it.

In the midst of the chaos, I made my way over to the computer bank and leaned over the keyboard, typing in the username and password I’d been given.  The desktop was up and running in heartbeats.  Access to nice computers was apparently a perk of being a hero.

I dug around for the files on the local powers, and began studying.  I tried, anyways.  Grace’s continued laughter was so infectious and unashamed I couldn’t help but join in.

My new home, for better or worse.

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Crushed 24.5

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The damage Behemoth was wreaking in New Delhi was, I thought, a microcosm of what was happening all over the world.  Three or four attacks a year, since the Simurgh had appeared.

The fight with Leviathan in Brockton Bay had been a good day.  We’d lost people, we’d lost good capes, but we’d more or less bounced back, made it three-quarters of the way back to where we needed to be, in a matter of months.  There had been ugliness, infighting, a hell of a lot of doubt, but we’d started to make our way back to where we should be.  It had been the lowest number of casualties we’d had in an Endbringer attack in years, not counting a few of the Simurgh attacks.  A good day.

This?  This isn’t a good day. 

Behemoth roared.

This is the other end of the scale.

For nearly twenty years, we’d endured intermittent Endbringer attacks, and the end result was, globally, what was happening here in a matter of hours.  We were divided, scared, fighting among one another, and our defenses were being eroded.  We were being forced into pockets of defense, instead of a united one where we all stood together.  Those pockets, in turn, were at risk of being wiped out with a series of decisive blows.

Yes, we had our good moments.  Doing as much damage to him as we just had, that was a good moment.  But we had bad ones too, and the end result was always the same.

The bastard –the bastards, plural– kept coming.

Phir Sē’s light had cleared smoke and dust from the sky, though it had been almost entirely directed upward, with concentric rings still marking the skyline.  Smoke was free to rise, and Behemoth was in plain sight.  He was moving on three limbs, planting hands on the ruined, half-toppled and flame-scorched buildings to stay more upright.

His body, though, was a mix of high contrasts.  His flesh, what little was visible through the black ichor that dripped from his frame, glowed a silver-white.  The remaining material of his claws, teeth and horns remained black.

Tecton had pulled ahead of the group, and turned abruptly, skidding to a stop.  Cuff’s body was folded over the back of the bike, limp.  The Yàngbǎn had two more bodies with them, as well.  I’d taken my flight pack back from Imp, and was airborne as he raised a gauntlet to get my attention.  I descended to meet him, and we were soon joined by Dispatch, and Exalt, who carried an unconscious Revel.

“Where to?” Tecton asked.  His voice was hoarse.  He was recovering, it seemed.

“If we’re sticking with the regular plan,” Dispatch said, “We should gather with other capes, form another defensive line.  I think we should hold to the plan.  Working together with a less than ideal plan is best, until we can come up with something better.”

I glanced over my shoulder at Behemoth’s barely visible profile.  How far away was safe, if he was emitting that kind of radiation?

Far, far away, I answered my own unspoken question.

“Weaver?” Tecton asked me.

I ventured, “There’s a temple, not far from here.  Tattletale’s there, medical facilities.  Direction he’s moving, he’s headed in that general direction.  We protect them, hold position, see if we can’t figure out a way to keep him away from Phir Sē.  It fits with Dispatch’s idea of sticking to the plan.”

“Why don’t we press the offensive?”  Grace asked.  She still sat astride her bike.

“Believe me, I really want to press the offensive,” I said, “But I don’t want to get close to him while he’s glowing like that.  That would be a pretty good reason unto itself.”

“He won’t be using the radiation forever,” Tecton observed.

“There’s another key reason,” I said.  “Our guys are scared, maybe a little desperate.  It’s not a good mindset for fighting.”

The heroes turned to look at the others, who had apparently taken our stopping as an excuse to tend to other business.  Golem had stopped to raise some hands, more lightning rods between us and the Endbringer, and others were flanking him.  The Yàngbǎn were looking after their injured.

“Desperate,” Exalt said, gazing at the rank and file troops.

I wanted to join the others, to get involved and help, offer what little medical care I could, and the mental and emotional support I knew they needed, but we needed a greater direction, a mission.  I turned my attention back to Exalt.  “Regent was desperate, maybe, and he died.  I’m scared that our side would take risks or put themselves in danger if we ordered them back into the fight.  This is getting uglier by the minute, and we’re prone to doing stupid shit if we’re backed into a corner, or if we feel like we need to end this fast so our friends can get the medical help they need.  Let’s get the medical help, catch our breath.”

“There’re more capes joining the fight now,” Grace said.  I wasn’t sure if that was a rejection of my plan or an agreement.  I followed her gaze to see a torrent of flames making its way in Behemoth’s general direction.  A cape was hurling fireballs with some sort of space-warping effect tied to them, so they swelled dramatically in size with each second they were airborne.

I assumed it would be to Behemoth’s advantage, to have access to that kind of flame, but he wasn’t deflecting them.  The fire exploded through the area around him, and I could see him lose his grip on a building as he reeled from the impact, slumped down to a place below the distant skyline of damaged and half-collapsed buildings.  Orange light lit up the area around him, marking the areas that had been set on fire.

The fireball hurler, barely visible as a speck against a backdrop of black-brown smoke, stopped abruptly.

“Why’d he stop?” I wondered aloud.

“The radiation?”  Grace offered.

“The radiation was there before he went on the offensive,” I said.  “I don’t see Behemoth retaliating, but the cape stopped lobbing fireballs.”

My bugs noted Eidolon’s descent.  I turned around to see him depositing Rachel on the ground.  She shrugged out of his grip without so much as a ‘thanks’.

“He went underground,” Eidolon informed us.

“He ran?  It’s over?”

“No,” Eidolon said.  He didn’t elaborate as he watched Rachel back away and whistle to call her dogs.  The opaque pane of his mask was heavily shrouded beneath the heavy hood he wore, a dim blue-green glow emanating from within.  He was burned, his costume scorched and shredded in places, but the body armor beneath had more or less held.  Shaped to give the illusion that he had more muscle than he did, it seemed.  I could see blood running along the cracks at one panel of armor, where he’d apparently sustained a heavy blow.  He was mortal, after all.  Eidolon could bleed.

Fitting, that he layered disguises behind disguises.  Regent had done the same thing, to a lesser degree, had worn armor behind the deceptively light and delicate shirts he’d worn, had padding beneath his masks to cushion any blows, had hid a taser in his scepter.

I felt a pang of guilt, a swelling lump in my throat.  I’d never really gotten to know Regent, not to the extent that I’d gotten to know the others.  He hadn’t really revealed much about himself, either.  I’d reminisced before about the intimacy of friendships, about the sharing of vulnerabilities, allowing others to be close, exposing oneself to possible harm.  I’d done it with Emma, back in the day, and I’d suffered for it.  I’d allowed myself to form a kind of intimacy with the Undersiders, and it might well have been a reason we’d survived this far.  Regent hadn’t established that kind of intimacy with us.

Except maybe for Imp.

He’d hidden so much.  I’d only glimpsed the seriously disordered personality that lurked beneath the outer image of the lazy, disaffected teenager, had only seen traces of that part of him that just didn’t care that he could enslave a person’s body and leave their mind as little more than a helpless observer.  And beneath that aspect of himself, he’d had something else, something that had driven him to distract Behemoth so Imp might live.

My eyes fell on Eidolon.  Was there a similarity to Regent?  Lies, deception, a false face behind a false face behind a false face?

What was at the core?

Eidolon turned away from his observations of Behemoth, and he briefly met my eyes.

I felt intimidated, despite myself, but I didn’t look away.

“Alexandria,” I said, “How is she-”

And he took off, not even waiting for me to finish.

“-still alive?” I finished.

“I don’t like him,” Rachel commented.

“Nobody does,” Dispatch said.  Rachel seemed to accept that with a measure of satisfaction.

“And why won’t this motherfucker die?” Rachel asked, looking towards Behemoth.

“He’s been fighting us for twenty years and he hasn’t died yet,” I said.

“So?”

“So… he’s tough,” I said.  It was hard to answer a question so… what was the word?  Innocent?  Guileless?

“We’re tough.  Let’s fuck him up.”

“I was arguing for that,” Grace said.

Oh great.  They’re of like mind.

“But,” Tecton cut in, turning his head her way, “Skitter had a good reason as to why we shouldn’t.  We need to recover, recuperate.  Other heroes are picking up the slack, applying some pressure.  Or they were until he burrowed,”

Rachel snorted.  “We do the chain thing again, cut him in half at the middle instead.  Or cut off his head.”

“Honestly?” I spoke up, “I’m not sure he’d die if we cut off his head.  And correct me if I’m wrong, but he could go after the people that carry the chain.  Even if it’s someone like Eidolon, he could overheat and melt the part they’re holding on to.”

“You’re really a buzzkill,” Grace said.

I didn’t deny it.  “There’s one more reason we should go, though.  He’s going to-”

Retaliate.

Behemoth rose from beneath the ground a distance away.  In a heartbeat, things shifted from a near-quiet to chaos.  He was still glowing, and his claws crackled with electricity as he struck quickly, violently, and indiscriminately.

Three capes taken down, struck out of the sky by the bolts of electricity.  Even if they’d survived that much, the kill aura and the radiation would end them.

He turned, facing us, but the Wards were already moving, their wheels squealing on the pavement before they peeled away.

It’s the Endbringer’s pattern.  We hurt them or stall them enough, they change tactics, hit us back.

“Go!” I shouted.

Rachel moved, climbing astride her dog in an instant.  She whistled for her other dogs, directing them to Imp, Parian, Foil and Citrine.

Golem’s hands absorbed some of the lightning that crackled around us.  Not one stream, but a storm, with Behemoth at the eye of it.

And he was standing.  He didn’t necessarily have a full leg, but he had the ability to stand upright, now.

And Rachel, as I saw her making her way to the Undersiders, looked determined.

Was it weird that she seemed more comfortable in the here and now than she had before the fight started?  It wasn’t that she didn’t look scared, I could see the way her entire body was rigid, her hands clenched, white knuckled.  But she had a role here, she fit into a dynamic.

We took off, moving behind cover, running, as Behemoth crashed through a line of buildings.  Heroes from even half a mile away were lobbing attacks, and the stray shots that missed the Endbringer crashed down around us, tearing through buildings, turning stone to liquid, igniting nonflammable materials, one doing little damage but detonating so violently with the impact that my mounted teammates were nearly thrown free.

Behemoth roared, and I could see the Wards and Undersiders suffering.  A dog shook its head in an attempt to shake off the noise, and lost its sense of direction.  It crashed into a bike and sprawled.  Parian, Foil and Grace were dismounted.  Grace landed on her feet and physically ran, reaching for Tecton’s outstretched gauntlet.  He extended a piledriver to give her something to hold onto.

Few bugs had managed to keep up, much less the ones with wires, but I brought a curtain between us and Behemoth.  I was past the point where I wanted to conserve them.  If it was lightning, I could only hope that Golem’s makeshift lightning rods and my wires would protect us.

But it was flame.  It sheared through my swarm, and it splashed down around Parian, Foil and the dog.

The Endbringer had more aim than I’d expected.  He wasn’t blind, despite the fact that his eye socket was empty.  But he wasn’t entirely on target otherwise.  Was he relying on another sense?

The Yàngbǎn intercepted the attack, raising forcefields.  Parian did something with her thread, slapping the dog’s hindquarters, and it bolted.  They were carried off, tied to its side, a flame still burning on Parian’s sleeve and the hem of her dress.

Someone, an Indian cape capable of getting inside Behemoth’s kill aura, closed the distance, and Behemoth was momentarily distracted by orange cords that bound his head, lashing him to the cape.  With that, the others had a chance to escape.

“Regroup!” I called out, as I descended to the midst of the Undersiders and Wards.  “I’ll point the way!”

The sound of the fighting stopped with a crash.  Where was the motherfucker?  I rose higher to check, but saw neither Behemoth nor the cape who’d been binding him.  He’d burrowed.

It was quiet, all of a sudden, if not quite silent.  The defending capes were spreading out, and were hovering in place or holding positions, rather than bombarding the landscape.  The lightning and fire had stopped, and no shockwaves ripped through the city.  The rumbling was intermittent, mild when it wasn’t almost imperceptible.  The ringing in my ears was louder than the ambient noise.

This was his new tactic, burrowing, surfacing.  But where was the retaliation?  Their whole damn pattern centered around repaying us twice over for any abuse we inflicted on them.

The armband crackled, and I jumped, despite myself.  The first message didn’t come through the static, but the second was clearer.  “Be advised, seismic activity suggests the Endbringer is still local.  Regroup and form defensive lines.

I did a little mental math, then pressed the button on my armband.  “Armband, note that Behemoth may have a likely target, roughly eight to fifteen miles north-northwest of India Gate.”

At least, that was my best guess, judging by the flight speeds Defiant had noted for my flight pack and the time it had taken me to travel.

Every armband in earshot repeated my message.

“Keep going!” I called out.  “Keep moving!”

Surely he couldn’t keep up with us while moving underground.  I didn’t want to underestimate his intelligence, but was he even capable of holding a grudge?

What was Behemoth really doing?

The travel was uneventful, uninterrupted and eerily quiet, as we made our way to our next destination.  Three times, we stopped to pick up wounded, fashioning another quick sled for the dogs to accommodate all of them.

We reached the temple and delivered the sled to the temple doors.  The Chicago Wards stopped to park their bikes off to one side.  I waited for the Yàngbǎn to gather, extending my range, before I reached out to Phir Sē.

He’s underground.  He may be coming for you,”  I informed him, speaking through my swarm.

“I assumed,” Phir Sē responded.  “Thank you.”

You need to leave, soon.”

“I have a way out.  I’ll leave when trouble begins.  Could you rid me of the bugs?  When you leave them, they fly about me, and I cannot afford distractions.”

I hesitated, then removed the bugs, shifting them to nearby rooms and corridors.  I left only a pocket of them to communicate with.  “Be safe.

“You as well, Weaver.  Thank you, for the cooperation.”

Have you gained a bit of faith?

“Faith gained in this, perhaps, faith lost in another.”

I know what you mean.

“Good bye.  If we both live, perhaps we talk again, in a less dangerous time.”

Good bye,” I responded.

I drove the remainder of my swarm from his chamber.  It once again became a blind spot, an emptiness in my power’s range.

“You okay?” Tecton asked, as he caught up with me.  He held Cuff in his heavy armored hands, as though she were a small child.

“Saying goodbye to a self-professed madman.  Is she okay?”

“She’s breathing, but I can tell she’s hurting.”

I nodded, glancing over my shoulder as the others caught up.  Bitch brought her dogs.

We entered the front door, and I saw the amassed capes within.  Innumerable teams, looking after their wounded, lacking in direction.  The temple interior had no benches, and bedding had been laid out flat on the ground, capes set down in rows.  Medical teams were scrambling to take care of them, and capes with first aid experience were hurrying to help.  Dispatch already had his costume jacket off, his sleeves rolled up, and his hands dirty, taking care of a cape in power armor.  Parian was sitting on a mattress, tearing at her sleeve to show the burn, with Foil and Citrine beside her.

I couldn’t help but notice that more than half of the capes were covered in white sheets.  That wasn’t counting the innumerable capes left lying dead in the streets, like we’d done with Regent.  Behemoth killed more easily than he wounded.

Clockblocker had fallen.  I looked for him in the crowd of injured.  I didn’t see him.  Then again, I had my suspicions already.  This only helped justify them.

Too many others I needed to track, to watch for.  But I couldn’t use my bugs, and the dust and smoke had desaturated the colors.  Blood, in other places, marred the colors further.

“Miss,” a local man in white said, in an accented voice, “You cannot bring these animals.”

He was talking to Rachel, who glowered in response.

“Leave the dogs outside,” I said.

“I’m not leaving my fucking dogs,” she said, her voice hard.

Damn itMy eyes roved over the crowd, but I couldn’t see Grue or Tattletale.  I didn’t want to use my bugs, not in a sterile environment.  It was left to me to rein her in some.

“You can come and look for Grue and Tattletale with me, or you can stay outside with the dogs.”

She scowled, and for a second, I thought she’d stride out of the doors.  Instead, she pointed, barking out orders, “Out!  Go guard!”

The dogs filed out of the double doors of the temple.  I could see the man relax visibly.

Don’t let Grue be dead.  Don’t let Grue be dead, I thought.  Tattletale was okay, she was okay the last time I saw her.

“My friends, they were stable,” I told the man in white.  I saw Tecton crossing the room to lay Cuff out on one of the thin mattresses, turned my attention back to the man.  “They were here since a little while ago.  Where are they?”

“Stable?  They were better?”

“Mostly better.”

“Up,” he said, pointing at the nearest stairwell.

I used my flight pack without thinking, to give myself extra speed as I headed to the stairs.  Rachel was just behind me, her boots thudding on the floor.

There were more wounded above, recuperating in a long, narrow room with beds on one side.  In a grim twist, like a reminder of how close they’d come to dying, the opposite side of the room had more mattresses on the floor, more bodies.

How many dead, all in all?  Fifteen in this room alone, placed side by side, their shoulders touching.

“Skitter,” Grue said, as I approached. Tattletale stood at his bedside, her phone in hand.  There were no curtains here.  No privacy.  This was all improvised, care facilities hashed together with what the locals had on hand.  He still wore his helmet, but he had his jacket off.  He noted the arrival of the others.  “Imp.  Bitch.”

“It’s Weaver now,” I corrected him.

“You’ll-”

“I know,” I said.  I looked at his arm.  The burned flesh had angry blisters.  “You okay?”

A hand pushed at me, moving me out of the way.  Imp.  She approached her brother’s bedside.

“Hey kid,” he said.  Beside him, I could see Tattletale’s reaction.  She was silent, silenced by the damage to her throat, but she communicated well enough, that she’d drawn the full conclusion from our presence.  Her eyes closed, her head lowered.  There was no smile on her face, as she heaved out a whistling sigh through the plastic tube taped to her throat-wound.

“Regent’s dead,” Imp said.

I could see Grue go still.

As if reminding us of the culprit, there was a distant rumble.  It grew steadily in intensity, then stopped abruptly.  As far as I could tell, with bugs spread out over the area within two thousand feet or so, the Endbringer wasn’t moving any closer to us.

“I should have been there,” Grue said.

“Yeah, well, you weren’t,” Imp retorted.

I put a hand on her shoulder.  She tried to knock it away, and I dug my fingers in as I refused to cooperate.  It must have hurt; my old costume’s fingertips had clawed points.  She didn’t say anything on the subject.

“No, Grue,” I told him.  “You want to feel bad?  That’s allowed, but I forbid you from taking the actual blame for this.”

“You can’t do that,” he said.  His voice was hard.  “I’m team leader, not you.  I’m supposed to pick up the slack, remember?  I’m supposed to manage these guys.  So don’t turn around and decide shit like this, when you leftI dropped the ball.  I didn’t move fast enough, I got hurt, and because of that, I wasn’t there to help, to lead.”

“You’re not allowed to take the blame, because if you start, then I’ve got to own up to it too,” I said.  “I-”

My breath hitched.  It caught me off guard.  I had to stop and take a deep breath.

Staying calm, composed, with my words carefully measured out, I said, “-I was there, and there was nothing I could do.  And if you’re saying you could have done better, I’ve got to think I could have too.  So I’ll match you one for one on any guilt trips.”

He sighed, heavy.  “Fuck.”

“Fuck,” Imp echoed him.

“Fuck,” Rachel followed, from the entrance to the room, as if we were toasting Regent in our own messed up way.  Tattletale was nodding.

Fuck,” I agreed.

“Christ,” Grue said.  “What do you even say to that?  How… how do you even pay your respects to a guy like him?”

“He was a jerk, and worse,” I said.  I saw Imp bristle, but held on to her shoulder, “And he died for Imp’s sake.”

Grue looked startled at that, as much as one could look startled with an all-consuming costume like the one he wore.  Tattletale, beside him, was unfazed.  She frowned a little.

“Christ,” he said, again.

“So maybe we respect him by respecting that.”

There was no response to that for a few seconds.

“Yeah,” Imp said, her voice small.  “I’m going to fucking kill his dad for him.”

“That’s not what I meant,” I said.  “I meant we should remember the best part of him.”

“That part of him would’ve killed his dad too,” Imp said.

I sighed.  I wouldn’t win here.

I changed the subject, seeing how quiet Grue was.  “You should know, Grue, we got ours back.  We hurt him.  Behemoth.”

Grue raised his head, meeting my eyes with the empty black eye sockets of his mask.

“The others will explain,” I said.  I let my hand fall from Imp’s shoulder.  “You wouldn’t believe how much I want to be an Undersider again, right this moment… fuck me, I want to remember the guy, to reminisce.  But this isn’t over, and I’ve got another team to help look after.”

“We’ll-”  Grue started.  He stopped as some doctors came barreling in, wheeling in beds with unconscious capes.

“Out!” one of them shouted at us.  “No more visiting, there isn’t room!”

“Asshole!” Imp snarled, jumping out of the way as someone moved the bed beside Grue’s, nearly sandwiching her between the two.

Go,” Grue ordered her.  “Go irritate someone who isn’t loaded with painkillers.”

“A way of remembering Regent?” she asked, as if she were trying to be funny, but there was a break to her voice as she altered the pitch to make it a question.

“Exactly,” he said.

“Fuck it,” she said, under her breath.  “Fuck it, fuck it.”

We left the room, with only Grue and Tattletale staying.  The three of us made our way down the stairs, Rachel just to my right.

I glanced over my shoulder at Imp.  Her head was lowered a fraction, her arms folded.  Her gaze was on the rows and columns of injured and dead capes in the main hall.

We hadn’t brought Regent’s body.  We’d left it lying in the streets, too busy trying to stay alive to collect it.  Was that what she was thinking about?

There was a rumble, with a shaking that affected the whole structure.  Something distant, beyond my power’s range.  A heavy crash.  Somewhere in a northwesterly direction.

Phir Sē, I thought.  Had that been his complex?

At the entrance to the temple, heroes were gathering.  Our last stand.  I could see the Chicago wards at one corner.  Tecton was talking to Wanton, who was on crutches.  Wanton’s right arm ended in a stump at the elbow, bandaged with crimson on the end.

Bad luck, I thought.

I joined Tecton, only to realize that Rachel had accompanied me.  I supposed she didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Imp didn’t either.  Another glance showed her lagging behind the group, clearly lost in thought.

I lowered my voice “Rachel, maybe you can do me a favor?”

“Hm?”

I ordered my thoughts, then voiced them, “Grue and Tattletale are too injured to help out.  I’m focused on other stuff, and Parian and Foil are looking after each other.  Can you keep an eye on Imp?”

Rachel made a face.  “I thought you wanted me to do something.”

“This is key,” I said.  “She needs someone to be there, right now.  That’s all.”

“I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to do.  What if she gets…?”

Rachel trailed off.  Emotional?

“Support her,” Tecton cut in.  I suppressed the urge to wince.  He went on, “She’s your teammate, right?”

“How the fuck do I support someone?” she asked.  “Stupid.  Not my thing.”

“You-” I started, but Tecton was already talking, his voice deeper, his conviction stronger.  Grace was listening in as well, now.

Empathize,” he said.

Rachel glowered at him, unimpressed.

He tried again, earnest, “Okay, here’s a cheat I learned in a leadership seminar.  It’s called active listening.  Someone says something, a complaint, or a criticism, or they’re excited about something that happened to them.  For a lot of us, our instinct is to offer a solution, or expand on an idea, to fix or offer something.  The key is to think about how they’re feeling, be receptive to that, and parrot it back to them.  They just got a new car, and they’re happy about it?  A simple ‘that’s excellent’ or ‘you must be so proud’ works.  It leaves room for them to keep talking, to know you’re listening.  For your teammate who just lost someone she obviously cared about, just recognizing that she’s upset and she’s right to feel upset, that’s enough.”

I opened my mouth to say something, but I couldn’t even begin to sum up how useless this advice was to Rachel in particular.

“That’s retarded,” Rachel told Tecton.

“It works.  And I know Grace is going to say something to me about it, about it being fake or false, but the thing is, you do that, and you start to do it because it’s genuine, because you care about their feelings, or because-”

I cut him off.  “Tecton.”

He fell silent, turning my way.

“We don’t have time to get into anything complicated,” I said.

“It’s retarded anyways,” Rachel added.

I turned to her.  “Rachel, did you ever have a dog with a deep attachment to another person or dog?  Someone they lost, before they found their way to a shelter, or to you?  Where they were still dealing, after the fact?”

She gave me a one-shouldered shrug.

“How would you treat that dog?”  I asked.

“Dunno, depends on the dog.”

“Basically, though?  You’d just be there, right?  Do that for Imp.  Stay close, make sure she doesn’t run off, as much as that’s even possible with her, and give her the benefit of your company without intruding into her space.  Make sure she has all of the basics, both in the near future and in the next few days.”

“Okay,” Rachel said, frowning a little.

“I know it’s not the easiest thing, but she’s a teammate, all right?  It’s what we do for our team.”

“Right.”

“And just like a dog that’s had a recent bad experience might snap, bark or growl, you need to understand that she might do the same.  Only it’ll probably take a different form.  She’ll swear a lot.  She’ll probably try to get a rise out of you, try to provoke you or someone else.  That’s how Imp growls.”

Rachel didn’t even offer me a monosyllabic response at that.  She frowned instead.

“Trust your instincts, Rachel.  You’re smarter than you think, and your gut responses, the decisions you make on the fly, they’re good ones.  Turning around and using the chain for a second cut, back there?  That was good.”

Anyone else might have accepted the praise with a smile, but her frown only deepened.

“How was your advice better than mine?” Tecton asked.  He sounded a touch offended.

“Customized to the individual,” Grace said.  “Don’t be a sore loser.”

“I’m not sore.  I’m just usually pretty good at this, and I got called retarded.”

“The advice was called retarded,” I said.  “Don’t worry about it.  I’ll explain another day, if we make it through this.  How’s Cuff?”

“Skin’s badly burned, but the burn didn’t go much further than that.  She’ll have the most amazing scars, too.  No serious internal or mental damage, as far as we can tell, but her muscles convulsed so badly they broke a bone.”

I winced.

“She’ll make it to tomorrow, provided this doesn’t turn ugly,” Tecton said.

I nodded.  I sensed a rumble.  I couldn’t tell how distant the attack was.

Where the hell was the bastard?  I was a little caught off guard by how quiet things had gone.  He was giving us a chance to regroup?  Or was he letting us gather, so he could take us all out at once?

“Don’t suppose you can sense seismic activity?” I asked.

“Not with my suit.  My computers got toasted.  I’m running purely off the basics, and my intuitive understanding.  Stuff I reinforced, so I wouldn’t get trapped in my suit like I did with Shatterbird.”

I nodded.

“Generally, though?”

“He’s taking his time.”

If he was massing his strength for one good retaliatory hit, how would he do it?

Volcanos?  Earthquake?

“Let’s go,” I said.

“Go?”

“I’ve got a bad feeling,” I said.  I turned to look for Rachel, saw her a distance away, her arms folded as she stood beside Imp.  They were looking at the sea of injured capes.  “Rachel!”

I saw her attention snap to me.

“Go!  Get your dogs!”  I said.  I turned to the Chicago Wards, “Wards!  Bikes!”

“You’re serious,” Tecton said.

“Everything I know about Endbringers, about basic parahuman psychology, it demands retaliation.  What’s he done so far?  Saturated an area in radiation?  Thrown a few lightning bolts around?”

“You’re expecting worse.”

“I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Go.  Spread out.  We might need to respond to an attack on another location, with no time to spare.”

Tecton nodded.  He turned to his Wards, “Go!”

I pushed my way through the gathered crowd.  I could see Defiant, with Dragon beside him.

“Weaver,” he said.  “Dragon says that was you, with the blast.”

I shook my head.  “I helped coordinate, nothing more.”

“You hurt him.”

We hurt him.  And he’s burrowed.  He’s looking for a target, and I can’t think of a better place for him to hit than this.”

“We’d be able to put up a fight.  We have defensive lines.”

“Probably,” I agreed.  “But my guys are moving out anyways.  We’ve never done this much damage to him, and yet he’s sticking around.  What I’m wondering is, why?”

Defiant glanced at Dragon, then spoke.  “He’s-”

The ground shuddered.  Again, as before, the rumbling intensified.

This time, it didn’t stop.  It got worse with every passing second.

“Reinforce!”  A cape hollered.  Someone else took up the call in an Indian language.  Hindi?  Punjabi?

I could see Annex flowing into the entryway, soaring through the wall’s surface to the ceiling.  Golem created his hands, protecting the rows and columns of injured capes.

There was a press as the bodies flowed out the door.  I used my flight pack to fly over their heads, but even then, I bumped shoulders with others who could fly.  I wanted to help, but there was little I could do inside.

Eidolon and Alexandria had arrived at the building.  Eidolon touched the exterior wall, and an emerald green glow started to surround the structure.

The rumbling reached the point where capes were unable to keep their balance.  I raised off the ground, but the movement of the air in response to the shuddering was enough to make me sway.

Tattletale.  Grue.  Parian.

Behemoth emerged with a plume of gray-brown smoke, and the landscape shattered.  It was Tecton’s natural power, taken to an extreme.  Fissures lanced out in every direction and disappeared into each horizon.  Secondary fissures crossed between each of the major ones, like the threads of a spider’s web.

As far as the eye could see in every direction, terrain shifted.  Hillsides abruptly tilted, standing structures fell like collapsing houses of cards.

A full quarter of the temple collapsed.  The bugs I’d kept to the edges of the room could sense it as a small share of the capes who were in the entry hall were caught beneath the falling rubble.  The ones furthest towards the back.  Eidolon’s protective effect kept the remainder intact.

Behemoth emerged from the smoke.  He was more robust than he had been, but that wasn’t saying much.  Seventy percent burned away, perhaps.  The regeneration had slowed, but it was still functioning to a degree.  He’d recuperated, built his strength, and he’d used the time to, what?  Burrow through strategic areas?  Had the distant rumbles been controlled detonations or collapses at key areas?

The temple was the one building that stood.  Everywhere else, there was devastation.

How many refugees had just died, with this?  How many had stayed within their homes, rather than try to evacuate?

I felt hollow inside, just standing there, stunned, trying to take it all in.  The area around us was still settling, sections of land tilting and sliding like sinking battleships sliding into the water.

How many of us were left?  Seventy?  Eighty?  How many of them were hurt, exhausted, their resources spent?  Could we even coordinate, with so many of us speaking different languages?

“Last stand!” a male cape I didn’t know hollered the words, his voice ragged with fear and emotion.

Behemoth, three or four hundred feet away, responded to the shout with a lightning strike.  Our capes were too slow to erect barriers, and the protection insufficient.  Capes died.  For the first time, I averted my eyes.  I didn’t want to know how bad the casualties were.  Our numbers were too thin.

I saw our Protectorate, what remained of it, stepping forward to form our defensive line.  Our last defensive line.  The major ones, the ones I’d been introduced to, too many had died, or were injured.  These were unfamiliar faces.  The ones who were second in command, if that.

Eidolon landed to one side.  The Triumvirate had often posed in that classic ‘v’ formation, with Legend in front, Alexandria to his left, Eidolon to the right, the lesser members in the wings, Eidolon was now apart from the rest of the group.  His cape didn’t billow, his posture was slightly slumped.  He was tired, on his last legs.

There were murmurs as Alexandria advanced from within the temple.  Unlike so many of us, she didn’t flinch as Behemoth struck out with lightning, the barriers holding this time.  Golem had raised lightning rods on either side of the road, fingers splayed as if he could gesture for Behemoth to stop.

Alexandria found her way to the end of the crowd opposite Eidolon, to our far left.  Satyrical and the other Vegas capes followed her.  Only a small fraction of them remained.  Others had apparently been injured or killed in battle.

Alexandria glanced over our ranks, and her eyes moved right past me, not even recognizing me.  For the briefest instant, I met her eyes behind that steel helmet of hers, and I saw that one had a pink iris.

That answered my question, I supposed.  Pretender couldn’t take over a corpse, but there was no reason for him to take over Alexandria if she was alive and well.  Cauldron had collected Pretender, and they had him controlling her because she was no longer of any use to them on her own.

Our side was busy getting sorted into groups, spreading out so he couldn’t hurt too many of us at once.  We were finding our formations, as our toughest capes absorbed and redirected the lightning he was throwing in an almost experimental manner.  He changed tacks, throwing flame, and a team composed entirely of pyrokinetics caught and redirected it with a concerted effort.  I backed away, and found Tecton at my back, with the remaining Chicago Wards.  Bitch stood just off to one side, her dogs ready.

One structure among several hundred thousand still stood, and our adversary was wounded, though undiminished.  Our ranks had been thinned in the most violent ways possible, through fire and lightning and a roar that could render organs to mush.  We weren’t stronger than we’d been at the start of all of this.  I couldn’t even say that the weak had been thinned out, or that we’d been united through hardship or loss.  Behemoth had picked off some of the strongest of us, and the trust between our factions was thin at best, with some eyeing the Yàngbǎn, others watching Satyrical’s contingent.  We were just less.

“Hold the line,” Exalt called out.  Other capes translated for him, echoing his words with only a few seconds of delay, in four or five different languages.  “We defend until the ones inside can be evacuated, and then we leave.  There’s nothing left to protect here.”

A thin heroism, but that was heroic, wasn’t it?  Protecting the wounded, defending the ones who’d put everything on the line to stop this monster.

If this was all a kind of microcosm for the world at large, that small heroism had to count for something.  I wanted it to so badly I ached for it.

Behemoth roared, and the last engagement opened.

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Crushed 24.4

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Particulate said something, and the amount of invective in his tone was enough to make it clear, even if I couldn’t understand the language.

Phir Sē said something in response, his voice calm, almost as though he were talking to a child, then took another drink of his water.  His eyes didn’t leave the screens.

Behemoth had nearly reached India Gate.  The defense continued to be staggered.  One to four parahumans working together to slow him, to impede his progress and buy time for the others to wear him down.  When they failed, the measures circumvented or the capes in question killed, he advanced, the heroes retreated as best as they were able, and they enacted the next counteroffensive.

But each time they fought, he did damage.  Capes perished, tinker devices were turned into lumps of hot metal.  Each time the capes mounted a defense, the defense was weaker.

“Something is wrong,” Phir Sē said.

“Chevalier was attacked,” I answered.  “They were planning a coordinated defense, I think, but someone beheaded our group at the worst possible time.”

“I see.”

“I’m not going to ask any questions about how you guys operate, but it’s obvious you’re organized.”

“Careful,” Phir Sē told me.  He didn’t even look at me.  The defensive line was using Clockblocker, now.  They’d erected a loose grid of wires, almost invisible, but for the flashing lights set at regular intervals.  Alexandria and Eidolon were trying to hammer the Endbringer into the barricade.

“You’ve got secrets to protect.  Fine.  Cool.  I’m not going to pry.  But maybe we’ve walked similar paths.  We had similar practices, probably.”

He cast me a momentary glance over his shoulder, meeting my eyes for a second before he turned back to the screens.  An acknowledgement, without accepting or denying my point.

“My old team wasn’t nearly as effective as you guys seem to be.  But we operated in secret, we understood some key elements.  The need for information, having to know when to go on the offense, being unpredictable against enemies who are already expecting you to try and catch them off guard.”

“Talk slower, please,” Phir Sē told me.  “My English is not strong, and I am very tired.”

He looked like he might drop any minute, like he’d barely eaten, hadn’t slept…

“How long has it been since you slept?”  I asked.

“Three days.  We thought an Endbringer would attack soon, so I prepared, to be ready when the time came.  Too early, I had to stop, restart.  This time, he came, but I am weary.  The talking, is good.  Distracting without being dangerous.  Continue, please.”

What happens if he nods off?  I wondered, looking at the ‘time bomb’.  The same thing he’d stated would happen if he were killed or knocked out?

“Okay,” I answered.  I took a second to compose my thoughts.  “You mentioned how you have to be hard, heavy handed if you’re going to succeed in a situation where your enemies are as scary as the people you and I have gone up against.”

“Yes.  Heavy handed.  Like the judge’s hammer…”

“Gavel,” I supplied.

“The gavel.  Harsh justice.  Crush the enemies who cannot be converted to your side or convinced to do otherwise.”

“Yes,” I said.  I thought for a second, then made my argument.  “And you know the power of having all of the information.  The power of having a group that can communicate that information.  Communication is key, and a group that doesn’t even need to communicate because they function so well together is better yet.”

“You had this.”

With the Undersiders.  “We were close.  And losing that, it’s scary.  Maybe the least fun part about being a hero.  But you understand?  You agree, about information and communication?”

He didn’t respond, as he watched the screen.  Is he going to nod off right here?

On the monitors, a successful hit on Eidolon’s part struck Behemoth into the grid of wires.  It had taken time for the Endbringer to approach the wires, set safely outside of his kill range, and some were already coming free of Clockblocker’s power.  Still, they sank deep, cutting a diamond-shaped pattern into his hide, shoulder to heel.  Alexandria charged, trying to drive it home, and Behemoth struck out with one claw, a swipe.

He must have captured all of her forward momentum and motive impact and redirected it at her, because he didn’t move an inch in response to the hit, and she crashed into the ground at a shallow diagonal angle.  Her body carved a trench a few hundred feet long, judging by the cloud of dust that rose in her wake.

Behemoth lurched forward, and the grid of wires cut him again on their way out.  Chunks of flesh were carved free.

The Endbringer clapped his hands together, and forcefields went down, defenses and defending capes falling in response to the impact.

Clockblocker’s grid of wires dropped out of the sky, blinking white lights falling like sparks from a large firework.  I suspected that I knew what it meant.

Shit.  I hoped he was okay.  Clockblocker wasn’t a bad guy, as heroes went.

“I agree,” Phir Sē told me, belatedly.  “And I think I see what you are going to say.”

“Let’s communicate with them.  With everyone.  Half the screwed up crap I’ve seen, it’s been because we’re fighting between ourselves.  The best achievements, the truly heroic stuff I’ve seen?  It’s been when we worked together.  So let’s maximize our chances.”

“You have been doing this how long?  A year?”

“Months.”

“I have been doing this for ten years.  I admire you for retaining your…” he trailed off.

“Idealism?”

“Not a word I’m familiar with, Weaver.  Faith?”

“Faith works.”

“I have none left, after ten years.  No faith.  We are a wretched, petty species, and we have been given power to destroy ourselves with.”

“Ironic, given what you’re trying to do here.  You’re going to kill people, kill bystanders, on a gamble.”

Phir Sē peered at me.  “What chances would you give this gamble?”

“One in three?”

His stare was cold as he met my eyes.  “One in three.  That is… perhaps unfair.  No matter.  If I’m wrong, we lose this city.  If I’m right, we kill Behemoth.  I would take those odds, Weaver.  I would take them, I would watch this city be wiped from the earth, knowing that people I am fond of would die.  I live in a civilian guise most days, waiting until I have a task from those more powerful than I.  I would perhaps be killing the butcher I talk to every day when I walk to the store for food.  I would kill the widow who lives next door to me, her child, if they have not evacuated.  I have mentioned my daughter, much like you in her abundance of faith in people.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call myself an idealist to that extent,” I said.  I paused.  “Phir Sē-”

We’d started talking at the same time.  He talked over me, half of his attention on the screens.  “I will take this gamble and perhaps kill those people in the process.  I will kill those people who can make me smile and feel more human than I am, I will grieve their deaths, and then I will take that gamble again.  Because one city, however grand, is worth that chance.”

I thought of doing that, of rolling the dice like that, with my father, with the people in my territory.  “Easier to say than do.”

“I have done it, Weaver,” Phir Sē told me.  “My wife, my sons, years ago.  A similar problem on a smaller scale.  I can walk through minutes, I could have walked back to save them, but I let them die because it meant a monster would remain gone.  What merit is a gamble, a sacrifice, if you stake things that matter nothing to you?”

I stared at him.  He was young, no older than thirty-five, but the lines of his face, the slumped posture, the slowness with which he moved… they spoke of a horrendous exhaustion.

I didn’t have a response for Phir Sē’s question.  He smiled a little, and turned back to the screens.

Behemoth was roaring, a sound that didn’t reach us underground.  With the monitors on mute, it didn’t translate there either.  Still, the images vibrated, the flickering intensified, and the defenses the heroes had established were crumbling.  India Gate was damaged, an incidental casualty of the fight more than a target.

My bugs sensed motion to my left.  I glanced at Particulate, and saw him holding his scanner behind his back.

It was pointed at Phir Sē’s ‘time bomb’.

His other hand was drawing a slender gun from a pocket in his combination lab coat and jacket, a gun like something from retro science fiction, with no barrel.  There was only a small extension on the end, much like a satellite dish.

Another disintegration gun?

He saw me looking, glanced at Phir Sē, who had his back turned, then looked back at me.  His eyes flicked over in Phir Sē’s direction, his intention clear.

He had a solution in mind.  A way to disable the explosion and stop Phir Sē.

I had only an instant to decide, before the teleporter intervened, or Phir Sē noticed what was going on.

I met Particulate’s eyes and nodded once, curt.

The scanner disappeared into a pocket, and he drew something like a grenade from within his flowing coat.  Then he drew the gun on Phir Sē.  I felt the tug of the thread in my hand, attached to the gun.

Without thinking, I hauled on it, pulling it off-target.  The gun hit one screen, two feet to Phir Sē’s right, at stomach level.  It exploded into a swirling cloud of black dust.

Phir Sē whirled around.  He barked out a word I couldn’t understand.

“No!” I called out.

Phir Sē made a gesture with his hand, just as the teleporter flickered into existence.  The man didn’t intersect Particulate, but appeared behind him, deftly disarming him of the grenade and pistol before flickering back out of existence.  He took Particulate with him.

“Don’t kill him,” I said.

“You would feel… blameful?” Phir Sē asked.

Blameful?  “Guilty,” I corrected him, before I realized what I was doing.

I could see the small smile on Phir Sē’s face, disappointed and proud and a condemnation at the same time.  “I watch you.  In reflection of screen.  You set him up, to put yourself in my good will.”

Had I?  Not wholly consciously.  I’d set up the string, but how much of that was intentional?  Was it habit, now, to have a measure on hand when dealing with any weapon?

I focused on the swarm, focused on the cords and threads that traced the room.  One in the doorway, one at each of Phir Sē’s feet, just waiting for me to finish the deal and bind him.  Others extended between us, spiders poised to cut the threads or tie them, as the situation demanded.

The passenger, or was it me, being wary?

“I guess I did,” I said.  I made the spiders cut the threads between us.

He shook a finger at me, “I was not born yesterday.  This silliness could have gotten you killed.  Would have, if I did not feel need for outsider to challenge my ideas.”

“I guess…” I said, searching for the phrase, “A gamble’s not meaningful if you’re not staking something important, right?”

He smiled a little, and there was a slight twinkle in his eye, “Your life?”

“I suppose,” I said.  My heart was still pounding, my mouth dry, and it wasn’t just the Phir Sē thing, or the teleporter.  The passenger.

“You think.  So we know where you stand, now.  You are crafty, dangerous.  Underhanded.  You turn on an ally and use him as a pawn to express something to me.”

“He wasn’t quite an ally,” I said.  “He helped us get inside this underground base.  But he was reckless.  Breaking into this chamber in the first place, preparing to attack you.  A chaotic element.”

“I do not know this ‘chaotic’ word, but I get your meaning, I think.  There was no communication,” Phir Sē said.  He smiled as though we shared a private joke.

“I’m doing what I have to, to ensure we all come out of this ahead.  Just like you, but I didn’t get the ability to manipulate time, or to create this sort of ‘time bomb’.  I work on a smaller scale.”

“I get the joke,” Phir Sē told me.  “It is joke?  Small?”

“Sort of,” I said, and I smiled a little in return, behind my mask.  This guy was borderline unhinged, too much power in too unstable a package, and I almost liked him.

“What is it you wish to express to me, Weaver, that you would sacrifice a pawn and risk your own life?”

I wasn’t sure I had a response to that.  I tried anyways.  “You want to hit Behemoth with your time bomb?  Okay, let’s do it.”

“Oh?  You protested only minutes ago.”

“I’m not about to change your mind, I’m not about to stop you.  So let’s make it happen.  We’ll let the defending heroes know what’s up, set up something-”

“Slower.  Speak slower.”

“Let me go.  We work together with the heroes.”

“The heroes will die in minutes.  Before you arrive.”

I glanced at the screen.  How bad was it?  It was so hard to get a sense of how many heroes still stood.  An ugly feeling gripped my chest.

“We’ll try.  Let me try.  I can give you a signal.  You strike then.”

“You are asking me to have faith.”

Let me go, Phir Sē,” I told him.  “You said you have to stake something that matters on a gamble.  Stake your doubt.”

“I do not understand this,” he said, suddenly sounding weary.  “My English-”

“It’s not your English; what I’m saying doesn’t make a lot of sense,” I said.  I had to resist the urge to rush and hurry through the explanation.  “But your doubt, your lack of faith, it’s something safe.  No disappointments, no fear things won’t work out.    Risk that.  Risk losing that.  I did, when I became a hero.”

“Not such a hero,” he said.  “Bargain with the madman, turn on an ally.”

“I’m realizing I’m a pretty lousy hero,” I agreed.  “But I’m trying.  I made a leap of faith.  I’m asking you to as well.”

He smiled a little, then reached forward and took my hand.  He raised it, simultaneously bending over, and kissed the back of it.

“One more,” he said.

“One more?”

“To wager on a gamble.  A pleasant conversation I might look forward to.  Gone, when you die.”

Die?

He spoke a word, and I tensed.  I tried to pull my hand back, but he held on, my fingers wrenching painfully as I tried to get away.

The teleporter appeared just behind me.  His manifestation was followed by a gentle brush of air, as oxygen was displaced from the area his body now occupied.  I could feel my heart skip a beat, the air catching in my throat.

No pain.  A second passed as I made an assessment, realized that he hadn’t impaled me with one of his limbs.  Only surprise, and that vague sense of a killer instinct.

The man’s hands settled on me.

“Fifteen minutes, Weaver,” Phir Sē told me, releasing my hand.  “Fifteen minutes, or if the heroes cannot put up fight any longer, whichever is first.”

And I was gone, out of the basement, planted in the midst of the battlefield.  Phir Sē wasn’t even in my range.  I’d made the call to work with him, and now it was set in stone. There would be no going back to change his mind, to stop him.  He’d strike, guaranteed.

Even with the filter of my mask, the smell of ozone and the heated air burned the edges of my nostrils.  Acrid smoke was so thick in the air that I could taste it, breathing in through my nose.

And Behemoth loomed in front of me, far too close for comfort, his silhouette shrouded in the smoke around him.

I turned and activated the antigrav panels, running to help get up to speed before it could help me lift off.  

The ground abruptly tilted under my feet, a steep shelf of street and underlying rock rising in front of me, blocking my path.  I managed to grab the uppermost edge with my hands, hauling myself forward enough that the flight pack could take over.

No bugs.  I’d left them behind in Phir Sē’s lair.  If I’d thought about it, I might have asked for time to collect them.  At the same time, I couldn’t have spared the minutes.

Two or three thousand bugs, the only silk I had were the cords that were still attached to me, the ones I’d stretched between Phir Sē and myself and then cut.  I had my taser, laughably petty in the face of Behemoth, a small canister of pepper spray, and the flight pack.

Long odds, even at the best of it.  I pressed the button on my armband, spoke into it, and got only silence in response.

My bugs moved throughout the battlefield, and I marked every cape I came across.  Shelter was scarce, and hard to make out in the smoke.  Each flash of lightning marked an unfortunate cape who’d found themselves too far from cover and in Behemoth’s sights.

In the midst of it all, I could speak and I couldn’t make myself out.  It was almost like being in Grue’s darkness, before his second trigger event.  Couldn’t see.  Couldn’t hear.  My movements, even, were harder to judge.  I felt like there was a pressure, here, as if the smoke had substance, and even Behemoth’s existence, somewhere nearby, was weighing on me.  Was I tired, or was everything heavier?  Or, it struck me, maybe the oxygen content in the air was lower.

I wasn’t sure about the ramifications of that.

So few bugs to draw on.  Five to ten touched a single cape, allowed me to check if they were anyone I recognized, then all but one would leave.  One bug per cape, the rest scouting.

Ligeia was the first I recognized.  The conch shell mask, one of Accord’s people.  Citrine would be close by…

Or not.  I swore under my breath, touched ground to reorient myself, then hurried around a corner.

She was creating a massive portal, widening it with every passing moment.  It made me wonder if there was a reason there were so few recordings of the Endbringer attacks, if the PRT hid this sort of thing.  They’d hidden the particulars of the Echidna attack, and one of the reasons Alexandria had argued, a reason I had argued in favor of that, was because it wouldn’t go over well with the public to know just how much devastation a single parahuman could be capable of.

Her portal was perhaps twenty feet across, circular, and cold water gushed out, as if forced by an incredible pressure.

It was the sort of defensive measure that you employed when there weren’t any frontline combatants left.  A desperate, violent one, like Sundancer’s sun.  My bugs found her ear, and I communicated as clearly as I could, “Run.”

She didn’t hear.  Doggedly, she stood her ground, drenching Behemoth, widening the portal’s radius.  So hard to tell just how much, without losing bugs to the spray.  Twenty five feet?  Thirty?

Run,” I tried again.  I muttered, “Run, Ligeia.”

He erupted with lightning, and I could momentarily see his silhouette in the distance, the light cutting through the thick clouds of smoke and dust.  I could see the tendrils of lightning as though through a strobe light, holding positions as they followed the flow of the water, then changing to other targets, finding solid conductors to latch onto.  The entire geyser was lit up.

She changed tacks, and the portal began sucking.  The lightning disappeared, and Behemoth stumbled forwards towards the opening, the water now reversing direction.

Eidolon appeared like a spear from the heavens, striking him between the shoulderblades.  Behemoth nearly crashed through.  His claw settled on the portal’s edge, as though it had a physical mass to it, slipped through.  The lightning wasn’t traveling far, now, and the image of it was soon lost in the smoke.

The portal closed, and Behemoth managed to claw his way back, simultaneously fending off Eidolon, the lighting growing stronger with every passing second.

He lurched, and dropped several feet, the ground shaking.  The light show marked the geyser spraying up around his leg, apparently having sunken into a portal.

Close it, I thought.  Sever it.

But she didn’t.  Not an option, it seemed.

Move, Taylor.  Deal with your own jobs first.  How long did I have?  Fifteen minutes?  Thirteen?  Twelve?  So hard to keep track of time right now.

My underlings.  Wanton, he was nearby.  Larger.  He carried stretchers with the wounded, which moved around the very periphery of his range, where they rotated slower, and other objects closer to his core.  An armband, a dismembered arm with scorch marks at the base.

His or someone else’s?

Once I caught up to him, I found the others a distance away.  Tecton had fashioned something crude to attach to his armor, a shelf on his back that would hold injured capes.  He rode his three-wheeled bike forward, stopped to slam his piledrivers into the ground to erect a wall of stone, punched through an obstruction, made more forward progress, and then created another wall.  A staggered retreat.  Grace, Cuff and Golem followed, each with wounded behind them on their vehicles.

Annex?  I couldn’t find him with my bugs.  He was either swimming alongside them, helping to clear the way, or he was injured.

I was on my way to catch up to them when Ligeia was struck down.  A chance lightning bolt had struck her, just like that.  Behemoth surged to his feet.  Lightning traced the arc of the water that still geysered up, less impressive with every passing second.

Even killing her hadn’t forced the portal closed.  Damn.

I came to a stop at Tecton’s side.

“Sorry,” I panted.  My voice sounded so rough-edged.  So hard to breathe.

“Tecton can’t talk,” Cuff said.  Her voice was oddly level, in contrast to how she’d acted early in the fight.

“What happened?”

“Clipped by another cape,” she said.  Still with no emotion, no affect.

“Doesn’t matter,” Grace cut in.  “Where the fuck were you?”

Tecton’s hand moved, settling on her shoulder.  Grace backhanded it away.

“I found what Behemoth wants,” I told her.  “Where’s Rime?”

“Dead,” Golem said.  He carried a small child, and was falling behind,

“Who’s next in command?”

“Prism, but she’s injured,” Grace said.

“I need to communicate with someone in charge, and we don’t have time,” I said.  “Dragon?  Defiant?”

“Metal suits are all toast,” Grace said.  “No clue about Defiant.”

“Revel?  Your boss?”  I asked.  Then I corrected myself.  “Our boss?”

“Saw her two minutes ago.  No word on chain of command.  She said we should run, take anyone we can help.  Scion’s dropped off the radar, but last we heard, he was heading north.  Not east, not west.  He has to be trying to avoid this fight,” Grace almost snarled the words.

“It’s not hopeless,” I said.  “We’ve got a shot, here.  Behemoth’s target is a weapon.  Kind of.”

“A weapon?” Golem asked.

“A bomb.  Maybe big enough that it makes an atom bomb look like a hand grenade.  Something that’s supposed to take down Endbringers.”

“No shit?”  Grace asked.  I could see a trace of hope in her expression.

“An energy weapon,” I clarified.

I saw that hope become confusion.  “But that’s-”

“It’s something that could go really right or really wrong,” I said.  I saw the confusion become a momentary despair.  “Which is exactly why we need to get in touch with someone that matters.  Where are the heroes?  Where was Revel?”

Golem pointed.  “That way.”

“Citrine?  Woman in yellow dress.”

“Yellow bodysuit now,” Golem said.  “She stripped out of the dress when he pushed past the command center.”

Fuck me.  Now that he mentioned that, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d sensed her with my bugs and dismissed her as a stranger.

“I think I know where she went,” I said.  Same direction Revel went.  I was already lifting off the ground.  “Go, drop off injured, then come back if you can.”

“Revel told us to scram,” Grace said.

“I’m telling you that we need to distract that motherfucker for five seconds,” I said.  “Where’s Annex?”

“Here,” Annex said, from behind me.

I turned to look as he stepped out of a building.

“You’re with me,” I told him.  He didn’t have any wounded with him.

“I need to ride something,” he said, “Not fast enough.”

“Define ‘something’,” I told him.

“Something heavy enough to hold my entire body mass.”

Could I hold an entire other person?  No.  I could hold a child, but that’d be a stretch.

“Climb inside my costume,” I told him.  “The flight pack too.”

He gave me a bewildered look.  “You realize I’d be right against-”

“Move!”  I barked.  How long did I have?  Not enough time.  Modesty was not an issue.

He flowed into my costume, and I could feel him against my skin, his body strangely cold and smooth.  A lump of him stuck out over one shoulder.  His head, not quite normal, not quite his specter form, had formed itself in my shoulderpad.

And we were too heavy for the antigravity.

I’d have to gamble, make compromises, take risks.  I looked to the others, “Reach deep inside, find your second wind.  Find your third wind, if you can.  Rendezvous with me over there if you can make it in eight or ten minutes.”

Then I deployed my wings, activated the propulsion system alongside the antigrav.  It was slow to lift off, but it was faster than running. 

If I got shocked, or if the electromagnetic radiation got any worse, this could cut out on me any second, but I needed to move.  I needed assets, even if I didn’t know for sure what I’d do with them.

The Chicago Wards peeled away behind me, abandoning the defensive walls and careful retreat in favor of speed.

We found the defensive lines in a minute, if that.

The Undersiders were there, fighting.  Three stuffed goats and the dogs provided an added barricade for them to hide behind, while Foil was firing her needles.  Regent held her quiver, handing her bolts to fire, while Imp lurked on the far side of the street, her back to the wall.  Citrine was peering between two dogs, erecting a field of golden light near the Endbringer.

Grue wasn’t with them.

“Gah!”  Regent cried out, as I landed, folding the wings back into place.  “Jesus fuck!”

Right, I had two heads.  “Out, Annex.”

Annex flowed out of my costume and straight into the ground.  Within seconds, he was shoring up the wall, drawing in debris and using it to rebuild and reinforce.

“Where’s Grue?” I asked.

“Hospital.  Burns,” Imp said.

I nodded.  “Bad?”

“More mentally than physically.”

Ah.

I could only hope he’d bounce back.  To business. “Revel.  American cape with sort of an Asian-themed costume, lantern.  Where is she?”

“Zapped,” Regent said.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

My disbelief was tempered by a measure of alarm.  I was limited in time, and that was bad enough, but if Phir Sē decided our defending forces weren’t sufficient to put up a fight, he could strike sooner.  If I couldn’t find someone capable of leading the defense, if we were little more than scattered remnants, why would Phir Sē wait?

“Revel absorbs energy, kind of,” I said.  “She might be okay.”

“She got hit by lightning,” Regent told me.  “Kind of lethal.”

Rachel snorted.

I glanced at the dogs.  She didn’t seem to mind that they were somewhat exposed, huddled against the ruined wall the Undersiders were using for cover.  One of the dogs seemed to be reacting badly to the lightning strikes, and was huffing out deep, very un-doglike noises each time one struck nearby.

“Listen,” I said.  I flinched as lightning touched nearby.  He was focusing more on a quantity of bolts than on the really heavy hits.  Cleaning up the remanants of our defenses.  “Revel.  Where did she fall?  Or you could point me to anyone else that might be in charge?”

Parian pointed, almost absently.  I couldn’t tell if she was dismissing me or if her focus was taken up by the stuffed goats.  One took a lightning bolt, and she was patching it up and reinflating it within a second.

I took off.  Again, I tried my armband.  Static.  Better than nothing, but not ideal.

I passed over the contingent of Yàngbǎn.  Just getting near them, I could feel my powers swelling, my range growing, a crackling at the periphery of my attention.

And then it was gone.  I was leaving them behind.

Eerie.  Uncomfortable, even, with the recent reminder of how my powers were feeling vaguely out of my control.  A boost in range wasn’t worth any surprises on that front.  Bugs were almost useless here, more bugs wouldn’t make a difference.

Revel was in Dispatch’s company, alongside a cape in white, with a starburst worked into his helmet, radiating from the eyeholes and the gap for his mouth.  She was lying down, using a piece of rubble for cover.  She stirred as the ground rumbled, marking Behemoth’s rapid footsteps.  Not a run.  It felt off, saying something like him was running.  But a lope, like how a gorilla might move, that fit.

“She conscious?”  I asked, as I landed.

“She is,” Revel answered for herself.  She seemed to have to work to focus on me.  “Weaver?”

“I found what Behemoth is after.  Who can I talk to?”

Dispatch stepped out of the way, so the man in white with the starburst helm was free to act.

“Me,” the man in white said.  “I’m Exalt.  Interim leader.”

“The Texas Protectorate leader.”

“Houston Protectorate, yes.”

“A local cape has gathered up a whole mess of energy.  Enough to wipe India off the map.  He’s planning to hit Behemoth with it, in two or three minutes.”

“It won’t work,” Exalt said.

“I know it won’t work.  But he’s going to try, no matter what we do, and we need to distract the Endbringer long enough to give it a chance.”

He exchanged glances with the others.

Hurry, I thought.  I was panting, my mouth thick with the taste of ozone.  Even with my lenses, my eyes were watering from the peripheral smoke.

“Go,” Revel said.  “Expend it.”

Expend?

“It’s too soon,” Exalt said, “And we don’t have all the informat-”

“No time!  Decide now!”

I saw him hesitate.

Swearing under my breath, I turned on my heel and flew away.

I was burning bridges, but that was a hell of a lot better than everyone here dying.  How long did I have?  I couldn’t even begin to guess.  Two minutes?  Eight?

Big difference between the two.

Fuck it.  A waste of time.  I’d burned precious minutes finding them, and they’d been too slow to help.  I wasn’t sure I could work with the Protectorate, with the Wards.  Not if they failed us like this at this crucial juncture.

Assets.  Didn’t have enough resources here.  We needed to pull something decent, something that could…

I had no fucking idea.  How were we supposed to keep Behemoth sufficiently still and distracted, controlling a detonation that had the potential to level a continent?

The Chicago Wards were arriving, minus Wanton.  I signaled them with bugs to fine-tune the direction they were traveling, putting them en-route to the Undersiders.

And behind me, as if they were feeling guilty, Exalt and Dispatch were giving chase, rapidly catching up.  Dispatch moved in bursts of speed intersped with moments where he ran at a normal pace, Exalt flew with Revel in his arms.

I found the Yàngbǎn and approached.  They were reacting even before I’d landed, turning, hands raised to attack.  There were twenty of them, or close to.

“English?” I asked the Yàngbǎn.

They were silent, almost cold in response.

They were nationalist capes.  I was a foreigner, maybe an enemy by default.

“English, please.  This is it, the deciding moment.  Your help, it’s… it’s essential.”

No response.

Exalt, Revel and Dispatch were slowing as they approached me.  I drew an arrow in the air with the few bugs I had left and pointed them to the Undersiders.  They ignored the instruction, setting down just behind me.

“Weaver,” Exalt said.  His voice was grim.  “They aren’t allies.

“We need all the help we can get,” I said.

“The Yàngbǎn pulled an assassination attempt on Chevalier,” Exalt told me.

My eyes widened.

“A traitor among us,” a young man spoke, his voice badly accented.  Another snapped something at him, and he responded in Chinese.

None of the heroes replied.  I couldn’t bring myself to speak, couldn’t think of a single thing to say that would be remotely diplomatic, in the midst of this.

“We do need all the help we can get,” Exalt said, not taking his eyes off the group.  “You want to make amends?”

The English-speaking one translated for the others.  I fidgeted nervously.  How many minutes, now?  Why hadn’t I asked for more time?

Shì de!” one cried out.

“Shì de!” the group called out in unison.

“That’s a yes,” Exalt said.  He was already turning, taking flight.

Twenty Yàngbǎn members.  Exalt.  A dazed Revel.  Dispatch.  The Chicago Wards.  The Undersiders.  Citrine.  Me.

The sum total of our defensive line.

And Behemoth was getting too close.  A hundred and fifty feet?  A hundred and twenty? He was swiftly approaching the hundred-foot mark we’d been warned about, where he could close the distance with a single leap.

There were so few heroes capable of holding him back.  He was covering ground at twice or thrice the speed he had been earlier, and the Undersiders didn’t have the means to know.  They were on the ground, blinded by the ambient smoke and the dust of the hundreds of buildings that had fallen across the city.

Run,” my bugs communicated.  But nobody responded, nobody reacted.  Too much ambient noise.

Run, they spelled out words, shaping letters with their bodies.  Too much smoke.

I bit them, stung them, and that spurred them into motion.  Maybe too late.

He wasn’t even a full city block away from them.  Only a few half-destroyed buildings stood between him and the Undersiders.  They were still sorting themselves out, getting mounted on the dogs for a retreat, but it was too little.

Behemoth leaped.  Not the monumental leap he’d used early in the fight, but a leap nonetheless.  He landed in the midst of a building, knocking much of it over, and the impact was enough to bounce Citrine off one dog, to knock Tecton over.

The Endbringer had closed half the distance.  A mere twenty feet separated them from his kill aura, if that.

I landed beside Citrine, helping her up, using my legs and the antigrav to try and help her  onto the dog’s back.  She kicked her heels the second she was seated, shouted an order I couldn’t make out.

The dog, scared, growled and held its ground against Behemoth.

“Rachel!” I screamed the word.  “Call him!”

She whistled, sharp, and it seemed to break the spell.  The dog lurched around and ran, nearly knocking me to the ground.

The Yàngbǎn were landing in the Undersiders’ midst, joining the fray.  I could feel my power swell, my range increasing by one block, two…

I could sense the underground complex, where Phir Sē was.  He swatted absently at the bugs that had been left behind, uncontrolled in my absence.

Wait,” I communicated to him.  “Almost.”

Either we’d manage this in the next few minutes, or we’d be dead and it wouldn’t matter.

I called the bugs, leaving only enough to speak to Phir Sē.

The Yàngbǎn opened fire with lasers, and erected forcefields to ward against the lightning bolts.  Golem’s hands rose, faster with the Yàngbǎn’s help, but too slow to make a substantial difference.  Tecton’s walls, similarly, couldn’t rise high enough to block Behemoth’s line of sight.  The power boost would increase his tinker abilities, but it wouldn’t empower the results of his technology.

Citrine’s power intensified in the depth of the yellow-gold light, in size.  Grace shimmered, Cuff was better armored, Annex covering more ground.

Why couldn’t the Yàngbǎn have helped like this sooner?  From the very start of the fight?  Damn people.  Damn them all, for their idiocy and selfishness and their small-mindedness.

This wasn’t enough.

Behemoth reached out, and lightning plowed through our ranks, left to right.  The Yàngbǎn forcefields fell in the lightning’s wake, and Tecton was struck from his bike.  Cuff was too far back, unprotected, dropped in an instant.  I ducked low, covering my head, as it crashed against a quadruple-layer of forcefields the Yàngbǎn had provided.  One of them was knocked prone as the last forcefield shattered.

A stray Yàngbǎn member, too far to the right, was knocked to the ground.  She started to struggle to her feet, then collapsed a second later.

Revel flew to the injured Wards, but didn’t have the strength to stand.  Instead, she raised her lantern, ready for the next strike.

The Yàngbǎn hadn’t even raised their forcefields again when he hit us with lightning once more.

Revel absorbed the initial impact, sucking it into her lantern.

I wasn’t close enough to benefit.  I saw the lightning twist in the air as Behemoth swept his hand out to one side, striking another two Yàngbǎn members, just out of the lantern’s reach.

Dispatch appeared next to me and other Yàngbǎn members, and in an instant, everything went still, quiet.  My ears roared with a high pitched whine.  My breath sounded too noisy, my heart beat so fast I couldn’t even see straight.

Like Clockblocker’s power extended a temporal protection, almost impossible to break, Dispatch’s power seemed to do the same, even if he was effectively achieving the opposite, accelerating us with the outside world moving at a snail’s pace.

The effect ended just as Behemoth moved on to other targets.  Another Yàngbǎn member was struck down.

And, inexplicably, he continued his lightning strike, carrying over to the far end of the street.

There was a yelp, and I could see Imp, all at once, sheltered by a wall that was shrinking in size with every second the blast continued.  She held the Yàngbǎn member who’d strayed too far away from our main group in her arms.

He’d seen her.  Sensed her.  And now, behind a wall no more than three feet high, she had nowhere to run.

I pushed past Yàngbǎn members, unstrapping my flight pack, tearing at the parts that fed down to my gloves, to get it off.  If I could get it to her…

I couldn’t.  I stopped, the pack in my hands.  The lightning would break the thing before it could carry her away.

If Grue’s alive, he won’t be able to forgive us for letting her die.

Citrine drew a yellow glow around Imp, and the lightning fizzled as it passed the perimeter.

The Endbringer switched to fire, and it passed through.  It seemed to halve in intensity, but that was enough.  I could hear Imp scream in alarm and fear.

He advanced a step, and the fresh angle afforded her even less cover.  His kill aura… if he simply ran forward a few steps, he’d murder us all in seconds.

But Golem’s hands held his legs.  One had sunk deep into a pit, hands of pavement gripping the knee, melting at the close contact, even as others rose to reinforce.  The other leg was raised, but held in much the same fashion.

Imp screamed again as he directed another wave of flame her way.  It was a scream of pain this time.

Foil shot him, but he didn’t turn away from Imp and the Yàngbǎn member.  Instead, one hand stretched out, casting flame towards her.  The cloth goats blocked it, and were promptly set aflame.  He maintained two columns of flame from his hands, one directed at Imp, one at Foil and Parian.

Revel launched a mess of spheres at his chest, and the surviving Yàngbǎn followed up with lasers.  Behemoth simply maintained the assault, almost uncaring as the lasers and disintegration spheres ate into his torso.  Negligible damage, in the grand scheme of things.

“Fuck it,” Regent said, his voice almost inaudible.  He was looking at Imp.

“Regent,” I said.  When he rose to his feet, I raised my voice, “Regent!”

“Hey Shitcrumb!”  Regent hollered, backing away from cover.  “Easy-”

Behemoth dropped the flame attack.  I could see Yàngbǎn members raising forcefields as he reached out, casting a bolt of lightning in Regent’s direction.  The forcefields did nothing, not even softening the blow in any measurable way.

Regent was snuffed out, dead.

A small sound escaped my mouth.

But there was no time to react.  Reeling, grieving, it would cost us.  He’d done what he did for a reason.  The antigrav on the flight pack kicked in, I waited until it started to drag me, then let it go.  It skidded across the gap, across the road, to Imp.  She caught it, and I controlled the motion of it to drag her away.

Retreat!” I called out, and my voice was strangely ragged.  “Citrine, cover!  We need forcefields too!”

And Exalt.  We needed whatever power he could bring to the fore.

Eidolon landed between us and Behemoth.

He said something I couldn’t make out, then raised his hands.

A forcefield, taller than Behemoth, separated us.  For seconds, Behemoth was muted.  He swiped his claws at the forcefield, fell short.  He couldn’t advance, with the way Tecton and Golem had him held with one leg buried up to the knee, couldn’t reach far enough to touch the forcefield.

One claw dashed a hand of asphalt to pieces.  Golem started to raise another to replace it, but Behemoth torched it, turning it to a liquid or a glass.  Something flat, shiny.

We pulled ourselves together.  I changed Imp’s direction, brought her to us.  She let go, and the thing careened dangerously, striking the ground a little too hard.

She crouched by Regent, touched his throat.

She shouted something.  A string of swear words, insults aimed at Regent.

Come on!” I screamed the words at her.  It took me a second to get the flight pack going again.  I steered it, like a fish on dry land, towards her, as Rachel hauled me up onto a dog’s back.

“Weaver,” Phir Sē said, almost half a mile away, still in the room with the monitors, “If he advances any closer to me, I won’t have any option but to strike.

Wait,” my bugs communicated.

Reluctantly, Imp reached for the flight pack, hugged it to her chest.  Not the best option, given the options I had for controlling it.  Still, it was a way to get her moving towards us.

Some heroes were pelting Behemoth from another direction.  So little, in terms of effect, but it was a distraction.

We needed to regroup.  Needed to form some kind of plan, however haphazard.

Fuck it.  Foil had the facemask… who else?  Citrine and Foil… the back of the head of the dog they rode.  Dispatch wore a helmet… but I could use bugs to draw an arrow on the ground.  That left Annex, where the hell was he?  My bugs couldn’t sense him.

My eyes could.  In the midst of the smoke, I saw the bike Tecton rode was lighter than the rest.  Annex was inside it.

I pointed them in the same direction I’d sent the others.

We converged on the same point.

“Dispatch!” I called out.  “Huddle!”

He reached the midst of our group, and his power surrounded us.

Silence, stillness.  The buzz of my power at the periphery of my consciousness was a fraction of what it might otherwise be, limited to the bugs that crawled in the recesses of my costume.  There was only the press of bodies, two dogs and all of the rest of us in an area smaller than my jail cell.

I tried to speak, and emotion caught my voice.  It threw me, as if it didn’t match how I felt, didn’t match the composure I felt like I had.

Nobody cut in, nobody used the silence to venture an opinion.

When I did speak, I did it with care, shaping each word, speaking slowly, so I wouldn’t embarrass myself again.  “How long?”

“This?” Dispatch asked.  His voice was low, grim.  “This many people?  Those dogs?  Four minutes.  Maybe two, if we’re all breathing this hard.  Once we run out of air, I gotta cut it out.”

I nodded.

Think, think.

“Sorry about your pal,” Tecton said.

I shook my head.  A denial?  He was important to me, but… what, then?  Was I wanting to focus on the situation?

“Not now,” I said, sounding angrier than I meant to.  “Need a plan.”

“A plan?” Dispatch asked.  “We run.  We pray.”

“Last I heard, Scion was nowhere near,” Foil said.  “Nobody to pray to.”

“Not funny,” Dispatch said.  “This isn’t the time to fuck around on the subject of God.”

I shook my head again.  Plans.  Options.  I had an idea, half-formed in my head, and I couldn’t bring it to the fore.  Some missing element.

“Rachel.  You wanted revenge on that motherfucker?”

“Yeah,” she said, “Leviathan killed my dogs.”

“Behemoth killed your friend,” Tecton added.

“And Leviathan killed my dogs,” Rachel said.  “They both pay.”

“They both pay,” I agreed.  “What the hell’s Exalt’s power?”

“Aerokinesis and telekinesis,” Dispatch answered me.  “But he spends a charge, takes a day or days to build it up again.”

Which explained why he hadn’t helped.  Fuck.

“Eidolon’s power… he chooses what powers he gets?”

“He gets the powers he needs,” Dispatch said.  “He can be receptive to new ones, hold tighter to ones he wants to keep, but that’s it.”

I nodded.  He was at the mercy of his passenger, it seemed.

I glanced to my right.  “Foil.  Can you use your power on just the tip of an arrow?”

“Yeah.  But why would you want me to?  Fucks up the trajectory.”

“Just thinking,” I said.

“You have a plan,” Rachel said.  There was a measure of smugness in her voice.  No, I was reading her wrong.  Satisfaction?

“Maybe, yeah,” I said.  I glanced at the space outside the bubble.  The people were moving at a glacial pace, heads turned our way.  Eidolon flew in the sky above.  “We need to hurt Behemoth, and hurt him badly enough that he gets distracted.  Then I signal Phir Sē, and hopefully we aren’t vaporized in the wake of all that.”

“Explain,” Dispatch said.

“Each of us has a role to play,” I said.  “Timing’s essential.  So’s luck…”

The bubble burst, and we moved into action.  Behemoth had barely advanced from his position.  The others were still running.  We’d earned ourselves two minutes to think, to plan and discuss.

I’d gathered countless bugs through my journey across the city.  I’d briefly lost track of them when I was teleported away from Phir Sē, but they were still there.  Relatively few had died, even from the start, their lives thrown away to test the boundaries of fires or gushing water, or shielding people from the roar.

A lot of bugs, held in reserve.

“Golem!”  I called out.  “Metal hands.  Doesn’t matter how big.  Find a way.”

He glanced at me, still jogging away from the Endbringer.  Still, he managed to find a shop with a metal shutter at the doorway.  He plunged his hand inside it, and hands appeared in various places across the street.  A large one from a rickshaw, another from a car’s engine block, small ones from the metal grilles covering windows.

Half of my bugs gathered.  Another half began chewing through power lines.  The transformers here were nightmares, tangled messes, and had an abundance of wires.

Each of the others was carrying out their tasks, their roles.  Rachel had a chain stretched between two dogs, and was attaching the chain from one dog’s harness to it to extend the thing further.  Annex stretched it further, extending it so each link was nearly two feet long, thin.  Citrine was tinting the area between us and Behemoth.

Dispatch called to Eidolon, and the ex-Triumvirate member descended.  Dispatch contained them.

Eidolon needed time, and he needed to hear the details of our plan.  Dispatch would give him both.

In the distance, Behemoth pushed his way through the forcefield, shattering it.  We had a minute, if that.

I waited impatiently as the others tended to the chain.

Dispatch’s effect ended.  He and Eidolon relocated to the other end of the street, Dispatch took a second to catch his breath, and then he used his power on Eidolon again.

Come on, come on, I thought.  This could go awry with one lucky shot from Behemoth.

“Yangban!” I shouted, no doubt mispronouncing the title.  “Forcefields!  Protect the teams!”

Lightning crashed against the forcefields only moments after they went up.  Some diverted to the metal hands.

And my swarm started to arrive.  Millions of insects, bearing power lines that they were still stripping of insulation, hauling the wire itself, bearing the ones who bore the wire in turn, or hauling on silk that was attached to the wire.

I’d hoped to drape it over the hands, to wrap it around.  I was forced to attach it to the base of the hands instead.  Too heavy to move otherwise.  Conductive hands, conductive wire.

“Go!” Foil shouted.

The dogs moved.  Bitch rode one, hollered commands to get them to stay apart.  The chain stretched taut between them, long, thin.

I saw Dispatch’s effect end.  Eidolon took flight, following.

“This’ll work?” Imp asked.  Her voice sounded more hollow than Grue’s did when he used his power.  I jumped a little to hear her suddenly speaking beside me.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Because if this is revenge for Regent, it has to work.”

“It’s for him if it works,” I said.

“Mm,” Imp said.  “I’ll kill you if it doesn’t, then.”

“We’re all screwed if it doesn’t,” I said.

“Mm,” she said, and she didn’t say anything else. 

The Endbringer lashed out with a mess of lightning.  It caught one dog before it disappeared behind cover.  The dog slowed, but it recovered and found its pace, redoubled its efforts to catch up, as Rachel continued to shout commands to keep the chain taut.

Behemoth used fire, instead, targeting Rachel, and Citrine’s power dampened the effects.  That was her role in this.

It was just a question of whether it would run out prematurely, if the dogs would get far enough.

He clapped, and a shockwave tore through the area.  Rachel was already directing the dogs; they moved so there was cover, buildings between them and Behemoth.  The chain, imbued by Foil’s ability to shear through anything, cut through the buildings as though there was nothing there.

And just like that, they made it.  The dogs passed Behemoth, a hundred and twenty feet of chain maintained between them, and the chain cut through him as easily as Foil’s arbalest bolts had.

Too low.  There was just a little slack, and they weren’t high enough off the ground.  The chain cut through the soles of his feet, through the lower part of one ankle.  Insignificant.  He didn’t even fall over.

Then I heard Rachel through my swarm.  A shout.  “Back!”

The dogs stopped, one doing so so abruptly that Rachel was nearly thrown to the ground.  Nearly touched the chain, losing a limb.

The Endbringer moved his hands in anticipation of a clap, and Exalt used his power.  Blades of wind, a hundred strikes in a moment, a thrust of telekinetically controlled air from across the city, rushing past Behemoth, making the Endbringer stumble.  The clap arrested.

Rachel held on as the wind hit her, held on as each dog turned a hundred and eighty degrees.  They passed Behemoth a second time, only this time, Rachel shouted another command.  One of the first I’d heard her give.  I knew now that it was the command for ‘up’.

Her dog leaped up to the highest point on a ruined building, and the chain caught Behemoth at the knee this time.

They got halfway before Foil’s power wore off.  The dog tumbled in midair, Rachel thrown, flipping head over heels.

Behemoth crashed to the ground, one leg a stump.

Eidolon caught Rachel with one arm, and extended the other towards Behemoth.

Now,” my bugs told Phir Sē, as the field surrounded the Endbringer, a forcefield, extending into the Earth, surrounding Behemoth on all sides, a cylinder.

Phir Sē’s portal opened beneath Behemoth’s feet, aimed upward, and a plume of light speared into the sky, consuming Behemoth, covering him.

Eidolon’s power held.  He’d had the situation explained, had been given time to let his power build up to full strength, and his passenger had supplied something with a durability on par with Clockblocker’s ability.  Inviolable.

“That’ll do,” Imp said, quiet.  The light continued to flow upward, a narrow column no more than fifty feet across, billowing out only slightly as it reached the top of Eidolon’s barrier, parting smoke and clouds in a circular ring, revealing the intensely blue sky above.  The entire sky seemed to brighten as the light dissipated beyond our atmosphere.

Phir Sē’s light faded, and the barrier collapsed.

Dust continued to fill the area, plumes of it.

Behemoth lurched forward.

Not quite Behemoth, but a skeleton, something like a skeleton.  Emaciated, a black-red frame dripping with ichor, it had all of the key features, the basic underlying structure with the horns and the gaping mouth, the claws and the way the shoulders were broad enough to host his bulky frame, but a good eighty percent of him had been torn away, shredded.  A skeleton covered in a veneer of meat.

Go,” I whispered, feeling a quiet despair.  “Go home.  Go underground.  Leave.  We hurt you as badly as we’ve ever hurt you bastards.  That’s enough.”

He reached out, and lightning reached across the landscape, striking Golem’s metal hands, into the grounding wires I’d rigged.  The hands melted with the intensity of the strikes.

Behemoth wasn’t any weaker than he had been.  Not in terms of what he could dish out. As much as he was wounded, he was healing.  Even from where we stood, I could see him healing, flesh expanding, swelling, regenerating.

The Endbringer lurched forward on three intact limbs, starting to glow with that radioactive light of his.  He was ignoring or ignorant to Eidolon’s escape, as the ‘hero’ carried Rachel away, the dogs following on the ground.

He was continuing to make his way towards Phir Sē, who had formed another portal, was gathering power for a second strike.

“Retreat,” I said, only to realize I wasn’t loud enough for anyone but Imp to hear.  I raised my voice for the others.  “Go!  Retreat and regroup!”

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Crushed 24.3

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Eidolon and Alexandria had settled into something of a rhythm.  Though his powerset was similar to Alexandria’s on the surface, the eerie noises and the dimming of the light around the areas his punches landed suggested he was transmuting the kinetic energy of his punches into something else altogether.  Between Eidolon’s strikes and Alexandria’s, Behemoth couldn’t quite adapt to the point where he was redirecting every strike, let alone the barrage of ranged attacks that the other capes in the area were directing his way.

The Endbringer staggered under the onslaught, but he was slowly adapting.  They’d managed to pin him for a minute, even costing him some ground by driving him back once or twice, but each successive minute saw him rolling with the punches more, advancing further when he found a second or two of mild reprieve.

His target: the command center.  Our flying capes weren’t working fast enough to clear the entire rooftop, and every shaker we had -every cape capable of putting up a forcefield or creating a portal, raising a barrier- was busy trying to slow down the brute.  The Chicago Wards, or most of the Chicago Wards were among them.

I tensed, but I couldn’t move without exposing myself to one of the lances of electricity that were crashing down around us.  The capes on the rooftop were protected by an arrangement of tinker-made forcefields, it seemed, but those wouldn’t hold.  Fuck, hanging around on rooftops was dumb.  I’d learned my lesson on my first night out on costume, had avoided being put in that position since, excepting the fundraiser, where we’d been on the attack, and the time Defiant and Dragon had dragged me up to one, just a bit ago.

The guys up there were tinkers and thinkers.  They were our communications, supporting roles, strategists and healers.  A few of them were long-ranged capes.  Not really people who could hop or fly down five stories to the ground and walk away unscathed.  Not without help.

I waited and watched as Behemoth engaged the other capes, tracking what powers he was using and when.  He was presently staggering forward when he could, otherwise holding his ground, deflecting and redirecting attacks.  When he was free to do so, he reached out with his claws, and lightning lanced out to tear through the assembled capes.

Golem, to his credit, was going all out.  Hands of stone and metal rose from the ground to shield defending capes and balk Behemoth’s progress.  I could make out Hoyden, leader or second in command of the Austin Wards.  She wasn’t on the front lines, but was defending the mid-line capes.  It made sense with how her power worked, as her defensive powers provided more cover from attacks at greater ranges.  She threw herself in the way of lightning bolts and stood between Behemoth and the wounded.  When lightning struck her, detonations ripped out from the point of impact, seeming almost to short out the currents.

“Come on, come on,” I muttered.

I could see Tecton creating fissures in the ground, no doubt intended to reduce the reach and effects of Behemoth’s stomps.  Annex was creating bridges so heroes wouldn’t fall into the gaps.

Dispatch, vice-captain of the Houston Protectorate team, zipped over to a group of wounded with accelerated speed, only to seem to pause, as though he and his immediate surroundings were only video footage.  Color and space distorted violently in an irregular area around him as he hung there, just an inch over the ground, one hand at his belt and another reaching for someone with intense burns.

A half-second later, the effect dissipated, and they were all moving.  Dispatch was carrying one of the most wounded, gloves off and the sleeves of his costume pulled up, dried blood up to his elbows.  Others were bandaged and sutured.  His name, I knew, came from his ability to pick out targets in a fight, closing the distance to them and catching them in his temporal distortion effect.  He’d have minutes or hours, however long it took the air within the effect to run out, to end the fight with his super strength, durability and the close confines of the bubble.  To any observers, it appeared as though he’d won the fight in a heartbeat.  Apparently the idea extended to medical care.

Revel, leader of the Chicago Protectorate and official overseer of Tecton’s Ward team, was stepping up to the plate.  Floating up to it, whatever.  She rose into the air, and caught one full current of lightning inside her lantern.  The sheer force of the blast knocked her back, and she struck a wall, pressed against it with her lantern held in front of her.

She began releasing spheres of light from the lantern, each larger than a human head, slow-moving but numerous.  Their trajectories were unpredictable, some striking friendlies, others carrying forward towards Behemoth.  Where they struck friendlies, they only exploded in brilliant showers of sparks.  When they touched Behemoth, they sheared right into him, cutting two or three feet deep before flickering out.

When she saw it was working, she only intensified the assault, spending the charge she’d accumulated to create fifty more orbs, before hurrying forward to intercept another stream of lightning that was flowing from Behemoth’s claw-tip.  It was impossible to actually get in front before the lightning appeared, to save the lives that Behemoth was taking with the initial moments the lightning appeared, but she was stopping the lightning from flickering to the fourth, fifth or sixth target.

That was what I was waiting for.  My limited experience with Endbringers had taught me one thing.  When someone actually found a way to respond, to cancel out the attacks or to deliver a measure of real damage, they changed tactics.

Some capes were already responding.  Captains and leaders were giving orders, and various barriers were being reinforced or thrown back up.  Some were trying to give the warning, but their voices disappeared in the midst of the chaos around us.

“Take cover!” I hollered, and my swarm carried my voice.

It was only two or three seconds later, as the second wave of spheres drifted to Behemoth and began to cut into his torso and groin area, that he responded.  His ‘mouth’ opened, the craggy spikes of obsidian ‘teeth’ parting.

And he roared.  A sound that was slow at first, growing steadily more powerful.

Sound was a bitch of a thing.  It could be muffled, but blocking it entirely?  We didn’t have Grue.

I fled, cranking my antigrav to ‘high’ and risking unfolding my wings to use the propulsion systems as I made my way to for cover, putting as many buildings between Behemoth and I as I could.

My swarm responded to my call, assisting the capes who weren’t fleeing fast enough.  They rose as a singular mass, a wall of tens of thousands, and absorbed the worst of the scream.  I wasn’t sure it was enough.  Even with some distance and a dozen buildings between Behemoth and I, I had no defenses as it reached a crescendo.  My sense of balance went out the window, my very bones hurt.

Closer to Behemoth, capes were bleeding from their ears, vomiting, passing out.  Organs and brains would be reduced to jelly as he continued.  My bugs weren’t doing much to muffle the noise or soften the damage, if they were helping at all.

But my focus was on the rooftop.  I’d been waiting until he stopped using his lightning.  There was nothing saying he wouldn’t use it now.  He could use multiple attack forms at the same time.  Still, he was more focused on picking off the defending capes, the ones who were suppressing the noise.  Was Citrine among them?  I could see the golden glow of her power in the distance.

Director Tagg had given me an effective ranking of two for every single power classification.  Ostensibly, it had been because he hadn’t wanted to underestimate me.  Was there a note of truth to that, though?  I wasn’t sure about the ‘brute’ or ‘mover’ classifications, but did my power over bugs afford me a versatility that let me cover the bases on other fronts?

They still hadn’t completely evacuated the roof.  The people who might have helped them down were disabled or otherwise occupied.  Getting them down was key, here.  The flying capes were more focused on assisting the capes near the front lines, helping the ones who could deal damage escape Behemoth’s implacable advance and avoid the kill aura that accompanied him.

The roaring made it impossible to hear.  Even seeing was difficult, as my vision distorted and lost focus.  I very nearly tipped over, until I turned to my swarm sense.  Not perfect.  Even they were suffering, scattered and dying, at close range to the roar.  But it gave me an orientation, a plane to compare the tilt and angle of my body with.

I looped to one side to intercept some of my bugs, collecting the strands of silk they’d woven in one hand, then made my way around to the back of the building the heroes were clustered on.  Flying capes were settled on the ground, pausing to recuperate from the roar.  I took a second, myself, to get my bearings.  My back against the concrete, I could feel the building shuddering in response to the roar.  But at least there was a small degree of reprieve, here.

When I’d caught my breath and reassured myself my insides hadn’t been vibrated to pieces, I flew to the rooftop.  My bugs swept over the crowd.  No Tattletale that I could see.  No Accord, either, for that matter.

Two capes approached me, not quite Caucasian but lighter-skinned than the Indian capes.  One had a costume with a spiral to it, the other wore armor with tiny faces that looked like baby’s heads.  Was he a villain?  They were rattling off something in French or Spanish as they reached out to take my hands.  Their eyes were wide with fear and alarm.

“I can’t carry you!” I shouted, raising my voice to be heard over the perpetual roar.  “My flight pack isn’t strong enough!”

They clutched at me, and one even pushed at another cape who’d gotten too close.

A little too much.  Too intense, here, too forceful.  I just want to find Tattletale.  I’ll find a way to help you once I’ve done that.

“Back off!” I said, raising my voice.

The guy with the faces on his armor shouted so forcefully that spit flew from his mouth, as he pointed to the ground beyond the building.  He approached me, trying to hug himself tight to my body.  I pushed him away and backed up, trusting the antigrav to hold me aloft.

One of the capes on the rooftop approached me, pushing her way through the crowd.  She wore a golden mask with a woman’s face, the mouth parted a fraction, with a black bodysuit.  It was softened a touch by the loose black cloth that draped down from her golden shoulderpads and breastplate.  The black didn’t look so dramatic as it might have, mottled a brown-gray by the loose dust that had accumulated on it.

“Weaver,” she said, her voice melodic.

“Arbiter,” I responded.  One of Rime’s underlings.  The one with the social danger sense, forcefield and sonic beam.  I supposed her forcefield wasn’t quite large enough or versatile enough to offer a bridge down to the ground.  “I’ve got other stuff I need to pay attention to.  Don’t suppose you speak French?  Or Spanish?”

“Portuguese,” she said.  “And no, but give me a moment.”

She turned to the capes, but a heavy crash interrupted her before she could speak.

A building had fallen, toppling, and Behemoth hadn’t done anything to precipitate it.  Nothing except the roaring.

Was that enough?  Was this building coming apart beneath us?

Where the hell was Tattletale?  My bugs flowed into cracks in the building, checking rooms only to find them empty.

“Hurry!” I said.  I turned my attention to my swarm.  They extended out beneath me, forming into neat lines.  My bugs were slow to move through the structure.  I had to use the cracks that already existed in the walls, ducts and vents that just happened to be open.

“Speak to me,” Arbiter said to the Portuguese capes.

The one with the spiral costume chattered out something I couldn’t even guess at.  Arbiter nodded.  In very broken Portuguese, she asked a question.  The spiral man looked at the one with him, gesturing.

In less broken Portuguese, she spoke again.

That prompted another burst of explanation, or what I took to be exclamation.  They sounded desperate, afraid.

When she responded, she spoke just as quickly and flawlessly as the two native speakers.  She’d picked up the language in a matter of three exchanges.

I bit my tongue as the roar abruptly intensified, jarring me enough that my jaw was slammed shut.  It wasn’t that he was roaring louder; one of the capes who’d been keeping the worst of the noise at bay had fallen.

Focus.  My bugs extended lines of silk to the ground, while others held it aloft and kept it more or less straight, allowing the lengths to be carefully measured, the amount of slack controlled.

“Weaver!” Arbiter said, raising her voice so I could hear her.

I turned around.

“I don’t quite understand, there’s a gap in translation, but he says he’s pregnant with his dead teammates,” she said.  Her voice cut through the noise, “They’re asking for him to be rescued next.”

Pregnant with dead teammates?

Suddenly the little faces on his armor seemed twice as creepy.  I really hoped that was a tragically bad translation.  Parahumans could be so fucked up sometimes.

“He gets rescued with everyone else,” I said.  “There’s no way to prioritize.”

“Right,” Arbiter said.

I secured the lines of silk on the roof’s edge and on the ground.  I then pulled off a shoulderpad and retrieved the strip of silk that had held it in place.  I folded it over the cord and stepped over the edge, letting myself slide down the length of the cord.  Both ends were tied, and the slack was enough that it should ease people to the ground.  I was okay with doing the test run, as my flight pack could handle the fall.

It didn’t break.  Good.  Better than nothing.  I flew back to the rooftop, and I could feel the roar rattling me as I made my way up past the more solid cover.

“Should be fairly safe,” I said, “Silk cord got warm, from what my bugs are feeling, but I’ve got six arranged.  One person at a time, delay by about… twenty seconds, at least, between trips, so the heat and friction doesn’t wear through the silk.  It’s not the strongest thread I’ve ever made.”

Arbiter glanced over the roof’s edge.  I followed her gaze.  The silk was barely even visible.

“You’re sure they’ll hold?”

“No,” I said.  I glanced over at Behemoth, “But I’m less sure this building’ll be standing in five minutes.  If a cape falls and dies, I’ll take the blame.  Better than having everyone up here die.”

“You’re not convincing me,” she said, but she said something to the cape with the spirals on his costume.  With gestures and careful explanation, she got him to step up to the front, pulling his glove free of his fingers, using the excess fabric to slide down the silk line.

My bugs checked it after he’d passed.  Warm, but not so much that I was worried it’d split.

“Go!  Go!”  Arbiter said, grabbing the attention of the capes who’d been standing back and watching.

In seconds, we had capes sliding down the lines.  Arbiter was careful to keep them from overloading or applying too much friction too fast to the makeshift ziplines.

Behemoth had stopped his endless roaring.  He was using fire, now.  There was none of the uncanny precision the lightning had, but the fire moved with intelligence, spread easily, burned hotter than it should have, and it was virtually impossible to stop all of it.  It slipped between force fields, between the fingers of Golem’s stone hands, and it ignited any fabric and wood it touched, set grass alight.

I had to pull back my bugs.  I’d managed to keep the vast majority from dying, some fires and casualties from the roaring excepted, but this wasn’t a place where they’d help.

Six more capes made their way down the line.  Arbiter used her forcefield to block some more agitated capes from making their way down before it was time.  She spoke in one of the local languages to the group.

“Thank you,” I told her.  “For helping keep this sane.  If it comes down to it, and the cords don’t hold, I’ll lend you my flight pack.  I can control it remotely.”

“Give it to someone else before you give it to me,” she said, without looking at me.

“Right,” I answered.  “Listen, I’m-”

A cape gripped the cord for his turn, only to turn out to be far heavier than he looked.  Arbiter placed a forcefield under him, but it didn’t do much more than slow his descent as he crashed through it.

Five cords remained, and there were too many capes here.

Fuck,” I said.

“He’s okay,” Arbiter observed.

But the others seemed more reticient now.

“What the hell is going on downstairs?  Are stairs too difficult?”

Arbiter shook her head.  “Government building, it’s set up to lock down in a crisis, which it did.  A rogue cape turned on the people inside, so the metal doors closed to protect others.  We’ve been reeling since.  Command structure’s down, our battle lines collapsed-”

“You’re talking about Chevalier.”

“Yes.”

“Then where’s Tattletale?”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“Teenage girl, dirty blond, costume of black and light purple.  She would’ve been with a short man wearing a suit.”

“I saw them.  They went downstairs with Chevalier.”

I could feel my heart in my throat.  “Where are they now?”

“With other wounded.  We’re relaying them a half-mile that way,” Arbiter pointed.  “Far enough away that Behemoth won’t be endangering them anytime soon.”

Behemoth generated a shockwave, and one forcefield at the front of the roof flickered and died.  A tinker moved forward to try to restart it, and was struck down by a bolt of lightning before she could.

A wave of capes mustered the courage and slid down.  There were only eleven of us on the rooftop now, myself and Arbiter included.

I checked the lines, then cut one that was too frayed.  Four left.

“Four lines left,” I reported, before someone reached for one that wasn’t there.  My thoughts, though, were on Tattletale.  Injured or dead.

“Go,” Arbiter said.  “To your friend, your teammate, your partner, whatever she is to you, she’s important.”

I shook my head.  “You need me.  I can use my bugs to check the lines are okay.”

“There won’t be any major difference if you’re here or not.  Three more trips-”

A flying cape touched the rooftop only long enough to take hold of one of the people on top, then took off again.

“Maybe two trips, and we’re clear.  I’ll go last.  Go.

Another shockwave knocked out another forcefield panel.  A tinker was working on the generator, best as she could while hunkering down behind the sole remaining panel.  She said something frantic.  I couldn’t understand her, whatever her language, but I could guess.  It wasn’t her tech.

I hesitated, wanting to take the offer to escape.  Then I shook my head.  “I’ll stay.  Tattletale’s important to me, but so is doing what I can here.  I can check the lines in a way nobody else here can.”

Arbiter only nodded, her eyes on the ongoing fight.

I drew up decoy-swarms, placing them across the rooftop, and stepped off the rooftop, hovering and using the building for cover.  Arbiter raised her forcefield to fill some of the gap in the tinker-created field, crouching in the crowd of swarm-people.  Others followed suit.  I covered them as much as I could without obscuring their vision.

Seconds passed before Arbiter gave the go-ahead.  Capes evacuated the rooftop.

Behemoth’s lightning strike flashed through our ranks, right over Arbiter’s squatter forcefield, through two decoys and striking a cape.

The crash of thunder seemed almost delayed, synced more to the cape going limp than the flash itself.  The body struck the roofop, dead before it touched ground.

Had the decoys spared two people from being hit, or was it chance that the bolt had made contact with them?  Fuck.  Having more information would be key, here.

Behemoth was continuing to suffer blows.  His progress had all but stalled, but he wasn’t changing tactics.  Why?

Did he have a strategy?  The Simurgh was supposed to be the tactician, Leviathan had the brute cunning.  Was Behemoth harboring a certain degree of intelligence?

I didn’t like that idea, but I couldn’t think of a good way to explain just why he was willing to stand there and take abuse.

Flying capes evacuated two more.  Arbiter gave the go-ahead for more to use the ziplines.

That left only the two of us here, and I had cover, at the least.

Lightning lanced past us, burning much of its initial charge on the forcefield.  It danced through the ranks of my decoy bugs.  Arbiter was left untouched.

“Damn,” she muttered.  “Damn, damn, damn.”

“Fuck waiting for heat to dissipate, just use the zipline,” I said.  “Hurry.  Second one, it’s least worn, coolest.”

She half-crawled, half-ran to me.  I handed her the strap that I’d used for the test run, and she looped it over the line.

I followed her to the ground, my hand on the armor at her collar.  I probably didn’t have the lift to keep her from falling, but I might have been able to soften the blow.

Not that it mattered.  The zipline remained intact, and she touched ground with a grunt.

I found Rime, casting wave after wave of crystals at Behemoth.  He was using shockwaves and fire to prematurely detonate or push away Revel’s spheres, and Rime’s attacks were suffering from a similar angle.

Rime was second in command, wasn’t she?  Or was it Prism?

Rime would be more receptive to listening, either way.  I used my bugs to speak to her.  “Command center evacuated.  Can relax front line if you need to.”

She didn’t respond to me, but I could make out her orders as she shouted the words, “Fall back!  Stagger the retreat!”

I exhaled slowly.

“You’ve done your duty.  Go to your friend.  Figure out what’s going on,” Arbiter said.

I nodded and took off.

Through my bugs, I spoke to Tecton, “Back shortly.

He mumbled something I couldn’t make out.  It might have been ‘okay’.

As I got more distance, I felt safe to withdraw the wings again.  I picked up in speed, putting Behemoth and the fighting behind me.

I found a temple with wounded inside.  The exterior was opulent, the interior doubly so.  Now it was a triage area.  There were more burns here, crushed limbs, people coughing violently.  It wasn’t damage suffered from direct confrontation with Behemoth.  It was secondary damage, taken from the fires and smoke of burning buildings.

And inside one curtained area, there were the wounded capes.  I approached, folding the wings away and moving forward with antigrav and the occasional touch of foot against ground to propel myself forward further.

I stopped by Tattletale’s bedside.  I’d found her within instants of the temple falling in my range.  Her lips moved as she recognized me, but no sound came out.  My eyes moved to the tube sticking out of her throat.

“You really gotta stop doing this,” I said.

She only grinned.  She reached over to the bedside table and retrieved a pen and notepad.  Her grin fell from her face as she wrote something, then tore the page free, handing it to me.

he’s going easy on us.  all Endbringers are.  but Behemoth holding back, even from moment he arrive.  taking more hits than he should.

“We already knew that they’re holding back for some reason,” I said.  “The way they space out attacks, they could accelerate the timetable or coordinate their strikes if they wanted to fuck us over.”

Another note:

they want to lose I think.  set themselves up to fail.  but not fail so bad they risk dying.  levi was after something, noelle I think.  but why didn’t he show up closer to downtown?

“I don’t know,” I said.  I felt a little chilled at the idea that this was the Endbringers pulling their punches.

big b wants something.  not at india gate.  somewhere past it.  why not come up right underneath it?

“I don’t know,” I repeated myself.  “It doesn’t matter.”

matters.  looked at past attacks.  pattern.  small pattern.  behe attacks nuclear reactor, appears some distance away.  attacks birdcage, appears in rockies, no sign he was close or beneath cage.  pattern says he wouldn’t emerge this close if he just wanted to attack india gate.  He attacking something north of it.

“Just tell me, is there anything I can do?”

I was trying to find his target.  accord was trying to find way to stop him, coordinate counteroffense.  accord dead, I useless.  get me computer?  maybe I can help still.  Ppl here not helping.  scared of me.

Accord was dead?  What did that spell for the Undersider-Ambassador alliance?

No.  I couldn’t let myself get distracted.  There were more immediate concerns.

“Computers are probably down,” I said.  “I think there’s too much electromagnetic energy, no cell towers, no radio, no internet.  Armbands aren’t working, and I’d expect them to be the last thing to stop working.”

She spent an inordinate amount of time writing the next message.

I shifted my weight from one foot to the other while I waited for her to finish, then accepted the note and read it.

FUCK

Each letter had been traced over several times, and the entire thing had been underlined twice.

I glanced at her, and she was scowling, already writing the next message.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said.  “You’re a distance away from the fighting, maybe a phone works.”

But she was already handing me the next piece of paper.

you go.  find it.  find his objective.

“There’s other capes better for that than me.”

get help then.  but you can use swarm.  search.  we win this by denying him his target.

I frowned, but I didn’t refuse her.  I started to leave, then hesitated, turning back to her.  I opened my mouth to speak, then saw the note.

go already.  I ok.  I get healer another day.  not worried.

And I was gone, flying over the heads of the wounded as I made my way to the front door.

The availability of healing made for an interesting, if ugly, dynamic.  Capes like Tattletale, capes like me could be reckless, we’d get our faces slashed open, our backs broken, our throats severed, blinded and burned, and we’d get mended back to a near-pristine condition.  Tattletale still had faint scars at the corners of her mouth, regenerated by Brian after his second trigger event, but she’d mended almost to full.  I’d had injuries of a much more life-altering scale undone by Panacea and Scapegoat.

If we died, we were dead, no question, unless I gave consideration to Alexandria’s apparent resurrection.  But an injury, no matter how grave?  That was something that could be remedied, it lent a feeling of invulnerability, an image of invulnerability.  So we continued being reckless, and we would continue to be reckless until something finally killed us off.

Was there a way to break that pattern?  Could I afford to?  My ability to throw myself headlong into a dangerous situation was part of the reason for my success.

I looped back towards the main confrontation, finding the thinkers I’d helped off the rooftop.  Some were moving to assist allies, others were fleeing.  One pocket, at a glance, seemed to be trying to form a second command center.

I moved towards the cluster of them.

Two Indian capes, one Caucasian.

“English?” I asked.

“Yes,” the Caucasian said.  “Just me.”

“Trying to enlist help.  Names and powers?”

“Kismet, balance thinker,” the Caucasian said.  He wore a white robe with a hard, faceless mask that had only slits for the eyes.

“And the other two?”

“As far as I can tell, Fathom and Particulate.  Best translations I can give.  My Punjabi isn’t strong.”

“Their powers?” I asked, with a restrained patience.

“Displaces people or things to another dimension, filled with water, brings them back.  Particulate’s a dust tinker.”

What the fuck is a dust tinker?  Or a balance thinker, for that matter?

“Okay, I’m going to find others,” I said.

“Wait, what’s the project?”

“A mission.  Finding whatever it is that Behemoth wants.”

“We’ve got others on that already.”

“Nobody’s reported back,” I said, “Or at least, nobody’s formed a defensive line or put safeguards in place.”

“You’re sure he’s after something?  They’ve attacked cities just to kill people before, and this is a dense population center.”

“He’s after something,” I said. “He’s got a direction, and a friend told me he’s targeting a point beyond where the heroes are searching.”

“We’ll help look,” he said. He rattled off a few lines of Punjabi to the capes in his company.  One of them, Particulate, I took it, removed what looked like a fat smart phone from one pocket.  He peered at it.  Some sort of scanning instrument.

“Hey, either of you have a phone?”  I asked.

Kismet nodded, then handed me the phone.

“Can I keep it?”  I asked.  “I can get it back to you later, probably.”

He made an exasperated noise.  “I thought you wanted to make a call, not keep it.”

“It’d be for a good cause,” I promised.

He sighed, “Take it, then.”

I wound silk around it and then had bugs carry it off in Tattletale’s direction.

“You think it’s a cache of nuclear weapons, or what?”  Kismet asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Go look, towards India Gate.  I’m going to round up others.”

“On it,” he said, before speaking another line of Punjabi.  “And kid?”

I hesitated in mid-air.

“Thanks, for the escape route from that rooftop.”

I didn’t respond, taking off.  Rude, maybe, but taking the time to respond was stupid, when there was this much going on.  Making me wait while he thanked me was similarly dumb.

I waited until the phone reached Tattletale’s hands, then drew closer to the fighting, and the capes who were closer to the battlefront.  When Rime was in my power’s reach, I contacted her.

Tattletale thinks she has a lead on Behemoth’s objective.  Mobilizing thinkers to find it.

I was nearly drowned out by the chaos of the fighting.  Behemoth was standing partially inside a building, and it was blazing, pieces of it falling down with every heavy impact the heroes delivered.

“Say again,” she said.

I repeated myself, speaking the words aloud under my breath, to gauge the proper way to form the sounds with my swarm.

“Good,” she said.  And that was all.  She was fighting again, trying to freeze the building so Behemoth was encased.

I found two more thinkers and gave them directions.  We’d search the area beyond the Rajpath.

Behemoth generated a shockwave, and I could sense the heroes reacting to it.  The only cover here was cover heroes like Golem were creating, and the concussive shock traveled through the air, knocking capes off their feet or out of the air.

I grit my teeth and pressed my back to a building as it rolled past me, fell over at the impact.

The Endbringer strode forward, using the momentary break in the attack to cover more ground.  Unfortunate capes who’d been pushing their luck were left trying to run for cover, only to be caught within his kill aura.

Rachel rescued one or two, though the heroes might have debated the nature of the rescue.  Her dogs seized people in their mouths, running, dropping them at a safe distance, before moving in to retrieve more people.  Some of the rescued individuals were left slowly climbing to their feet, no doubt bruised from the dog’s teeth and dripping with drool.

One dog, a person in its mouth, was struck by a bolt of lightning.  It fell, sprawling, then slowly climbed to its feet.  I could tell with my bugs, that the person in its mouth was no longer alive.  Still, it dutifully carried the body to safety and deposited it on the ground, before limping back towards the battle.

I belatedly remembered to pay attention to my team.  Tecton was busy erecting barriers, raising the earth in shelves with his piledrivers. Annex was reinforcing everything, fixing other people’s work, providing loose cover for ranged heroes to hide behind, and delaying collapses.  Powerful.

Grace, using her strength to carry the wounded.  Wanton was venturing into more dangerous ground with the safety of his telekinetic body, returning to human form to help the wounded and trapped, then retreating with the same form, moving on to the next person.  Cuff was helping a tinker.

Golem was forming barriers, limiting the movements of Behemoth’s legs, and shoring up the building the Endbringer was wading through.

The constructions weren’t doing enough.  We needed to change tactics now that this wasn’t working, sort of like the Endbringers did.  If not constructions, then maybe destructions.

Tecton, pits.  Have Annex cover them,” I ordered.  “Think controlled collapses.

I couldn’t make out his response.  I hoped that didn’t mean he couldn’t make out my statements.

You’re in charge until I get back.  I have other orders,” I added.

I returned to collecting thinkers and other stray capes, taking only a minute before heading for our destination.

There were heroes and PRT officials at India Gate, and lined up across the Rajpath.  A handful of thinkers and tinkers were here.  Not ones I’d sent, but official ones, directed to scan and search for whatever Behemoth might be after.

Search north,” I communicated, sending moths and butterflies to pass on the message.  I didn’t wait to see if they’d listen.  I kept moving.

I zig-zagged across the landscape, scanning every surface with my bugs, as the fighting continued in the distance.  Behemoth wasn’t quite visible from this vantage point, but the cloud of smoke and the lightning suggested it wouldn’t be long.

How many capes had he killed?  How many more would die?

I crossed paths with Particulate, who had apparently been filled in by Kismet.  He handed me one of the scanning devices, and I took off.

Damn tinkers.  Their stuff was making life so complicated, now.  Too many things to keep track of.  Antigrav, propulsion, sensing things with my bugs, paying attention to what I was sensing with my bugs, coordinating people, with sectors for them to cover, and now tracking the stuff with the scanner.

Not that it was impossible.  I was managing everything but the bugspeak without a problem.

The scanner showed me only gibberish at first, with sixteen bars divided into eight individual pieces, each of which could be any number of colors.  Each rose and fell as I moved and as I turned the scanner.  Moving past Particulate, I noted that the rise and fall of the bars was linked to my relation to his scanner.

We were triangulating.  Or did we not have a third?  Kismet was somewhere out of my range, at present, as was Fathom, so I couldn’t be sure.

The bars rose as I pointed in Behemoth’s direction, a mix of blues, greens, yellows and reds.  Was it tracking energy?

I turned away, and found another bump, almost all white, the rest yellow.  Nothing tracked in any significant quantity at Behemoth’s location.

It was something.  I circled around until the bars reached a peak, every single one of them topping the charts.

Nothing.  I used my power, but I couldn’t find anything more complex than a desktop computer.

Then it adjusted.  The bars each dropped until they were only four or five high.

Was Particulate doing something on his end?

It dawned on me, as I tried to narrow down our target, that this was big.  Something that topped the basic readings just by being within a mile of it.

And I found it.  My bugs could sense an underground chamber.  Concrete walls, impenetrable to earthworms, and no obvious entrance.  I looped back to communicate to the others.  The English-speakers, anyways.

Then, as the faster and the closer thinkers caught up with me, I approached the site.

Particulate and Kismet joined me.

This underground chamber was different from the one I’d seen closer to Behemoth.  There was no ramp leading up, nothing to suggest an elevator.

“Not sure how to get through,” I said.

“Smart of them,” Kismet said.

“I know, but it doesn’t help us.”

Kismet said something to Particulate, and the tinker drew a gun from a holster with an excess of care.

Then he fired.  There was no beam, no projectile.  There was only a corridor, three feet across, carved into the earth, and plumes of dust.

We backed away, Kismet coughing as he caught some of it.  Particulate, a tinker with a narrow, overlong bald head, said something in his language, almost musical, humorous.  He glanced at me, his eyes covered by goggles, his mouth covered by a fabric that hugged every wrinkle of his lower face, as though it were a micron thick, and smiled.  I could see the contours of his teeth and gums behind the strange fabric.

“Battery,” Kismet said, stopping to cough, “is dead.  Three shots.  Tried two on Behemoth, didn’t work.  He likes that it was useful.”

“Damn,” I said.  If they had worked…

I didn’t waste any more time.  I handed them a length of cord, then disappeared down the hole.  My feet skidded on the smooth, almost glassy surface, but my flight pack gave me some lift.

Now that I was lower, I was free to feel out the surroundings, and mentally map out the entire complex.  It took time, but the others were slow to descend to the lower corridor.

Was there a whole undercity beneath New Delhi?  Some kind of subterranean realm of corridors and rooms, large and small?  Did the good and bad ‘cold’ capes accidentally dig into each other’s corridors at any point?  Collapse sections of each other’s undercity?

Geez, it wasn’t like the city wasn’t large enough already.

I was drawing a mental picture as my bugs spread out.  There were people here, but they weren’t doing anything special.  Sleeping, cooking, fucking, smoking some sort of pipes… no.

And in the midst of it, as Particulate adjusted his tracking device to further narrow the sensitivity, we closed in on a void.  A part of the underground chamber my bugs couldn’t touch.

Particulate said something, arching his eyebrows as he looked down at the scanner.

“A lot of energy,” Kismet translated.

“How much is a lot?” I asked.

Particulate spoke without Kismet translating for him.

“More than Behemoth has given off during his entire stay in New Delhi,” Kismet said.

I stared at the little scanner and the white bars.  “There’s no way in, as far as I can tell.”

“There wasn’t a way into this base either,” Kismet said.  “Maybe they have a way to enter and leave.”

“Okay,” I said.  “We know where Behemoth’s target is, even if we don’t know what it is.  Let’s retreat, communicate with-”

But Particulate was already moving, tampering with the gun that had created the corridor.

“Stop him!” I said.

Kismet reached over, but Particulate was already tossing the gun to the point where the floor met the wall.

It started flashing rapidly, increasingly bright, and Particulate bolted.  It was almost comical, as though he’d been taught to run by a textbook.  His hands were out flat at his sides, his arms and legs bent at rigid right angles as he sprinted away, almost robotic in the movements.  He shouted something in Punjabi.

Almost comical.  When you saw a bomb disposal team running, as the joke went, you ran to keep up.  The same applied to any tinker and a device that flashed like that.  Kismet and I ran after him.

The gun exploded, silently, without fire or light or electricity.  There was only a roughly spherical opening carved into the area.  It was wide enough to lead into the tunnel above and below us, and had sheared through the five or six feet of solid earth that separated each floor.  At the far end, I could see where it had cut into a corner of the previously inaccessible room.

We approached, and I could see a cape inside, or a parahuman, if ‘cape’ applied.  He was disheveled, with dark circles under his eyes, his skin pale, his beard and hair bedraggled.  His clothing, by contrast, was opulent, clean: a rich indigo robe, a sapphire set in a gold chain, a gold chain for a belt, and a golden sash.

And above him, the energy.  There were two golden discs, and something almost alive seemed to crackle between them.

“It’s Phir Sē,” Kismet said, backing away.

“The glowing thing in the air or the person?”  I asked.

“The person.”

“Who’s Phir See?”  I asked.

Sē.  He’s one of the reasons the American girl’s PRT can exist,” Kismet said.  “When they talk about disbanding it, the PRT only reminds them that monsters like this lurk elsewhere.”

The man slowly turned to face us.  He wasn’t an old man, but he moved like one.

“Monsters?”  I asked.  “I’ve fought monsters.  Just tell me what kind of monster he is.”

“The kind that is too smart for all of our good,” Kismet said.  He’d frozen the moment the man set eyes on him.

Phir Sē spoke, “That is compliment?  Yes?”

“Yes,” Kismet said.

“Then I thank you.  Girl?  I recognize you from American television.”

“I go by Weaver, now.”

“I do remember.  You had much power.  You turned it down.”

“It wasn’t for me,” I said.

“You are more comfortable where you are now?” he asked.

“Now as in here, in this fight, or as a hero?”

“Either.  Both,” he stated.

“Honestly?  No on both counts.  I’m still figuring it out.”

He inclined his head.  “This is to be respected.  Making hard choice.  The challenge of the young adult.  To find identity.”

“Thank you,” I said, still wary.  Everything about Kismet’s reaction was telling me this guy was to be feared, so I had to step carefully.  “Can I ask what that thing is?”

“A weapon,” he said.  “A… how do you Americans say it?  Time bomb?  Only this is joke.”

“He makes portals,” Kismet said.  “Using them, he can send things back in time.  Something goes in portal B, comes out of portal A a few minutes earlier.  Or the other way around.”

“Or, as I discover, I make loop,” Phir Sē said.  “Weaponize.  Simple light, captured in one moment, redoubled many times over.  I move gate, and that light will pour forth and clean.”

I could remember what Particulate had said.  More energy than Behemoth had created since arriving in this city.  Only this would be directed at a single target.

“Clean isn’t the word you want,” I said. “Scour?”

“Scour,” Phir Sē said, he inclined his head again.  “I thank you.”

“Behemoth wants his hands on it,” I said.  “On that energy.”

“I want this on Behemoth.  Do great harm.  Even kill.”

“Shit,” Kismet said.  He backed away a step.  “This is-”

“Stay,” Phir Sē said.  His voice was quiet, but it was clear he expected to be heeded.

Kismet glanced up at the glow, then turned to run.

He wasn’t even turned all the way around when there was a flicker.  A man appeared just in front of Kismet.  A teleporter.

And his forearm extended through Kismet’s chest.

Then he flickered, like a bad lightbulb, and he was gone, leaving only a gaping hole where the arm had been.  Kismet collapsed, dead.

A teleporter who can bypass the Manton effect.

“Stay,” Phir Sē told us, again.  He hadn’t even flinched, but the space between his bushy eyebrows furrowed as he stared down at Kismet.

My heart thudded in my throat as I glanced down at the body.

Particulate said something, spitting the word.

Phir Sē said something in Punjabi, then turned to me, “Is rude, to speak in language you cannot understand.  He call me evil, so I not speak to him further.  But you understand, do you not?  You know what form this war take?  The danger we all face, from monsters like that, from others?”

“I don’t think many top the Endbringers,” I said.

“Maybe not so.  Maybe.  But you have tried being cold.  Killing the enemy, yes?  Because ruthless is only way to win this war.”

“I met some people.  I think they were your adversaries,” I said.  “Glowing eyes?  Reflective?  Like mirrors?”

“Yes.  Enemy.  They petty evils that walk this city.  Organize crime.  Slave, prostitute, murder, mercenary.  My side, we root out corrupt.  Ruthless.  Government prefer them to us.  Paint us as evil, pay them to carry on.  But you know what this is like, yes?”

“More or less,” I said, not breaking eye contact.  “And those guys, they’re ruthless in the same way you described, I guess?”

“More, less,” he said, as if he were trying on the phrase, “Yes.”

“You want to hit Behemoth with this… time bomb,” I said.  “But… I think that’s what he wants.  He’s holding back.  My thinker friend, she said so.  He’s taking more hits than he should, and I’m just now realizing he might be doing it because he wants to be ready for when you hit him with this.  He’ll push it out into the ground, or into the air.”

“Yes.  This is likely,” Phir Sē said.  “This is what he may want.  I hoped for the Second or Third.  This will have to do.”

“They’ve tried this stuff before,” I said.  “Nukes, gigantic railguns, tricks with teleportation and portals.  It doesn’t work.  You won’t do anything except get a lot of people killed as collateral damage.”

“We time this.  Strategic,” Phir Sē said, calm, as if he were talking to a panicked animal.  “Come.  Step in.”

Right, I thought.  Approach the temporal bomb.

But I did.  No use ticking off the guy with the murder-teleporter on call.  Particulate followed me as I navigated the way to the room’s interior.

There were television screens all across the wall.  Five showed the ongoing destruction from distant cameras.  Two showed grainy camera footage.  The last showed what looked to be an Indian soap opera.

“Thirsty,” Phir Sē commented.

The teleporter flickered into existence, then disappeared.  Phir Sē had a bottle of water in his hands that he hadn’t held before.  He turned our way, bushy eyebrows raised as a faint smile touched his face.  “Might I offer you anything?”

I shook my head.  My stomach was a knot, my heart was pounding.

Particulate said something, but Phir Sē ignored him.

“We watch the First,” Phir Sē said.  “He let his guard down, I strike.”

“I’ve seen an Endbringer fool another brilliant man who thought he had a surefire way to win,” I said.  “They’re cleverer than we think.  What if Behemoth fools you?”

“Then New Delhi pay for my mistake,” Phir Sē answered me.  “I have daughter there.  She join bright heroes, popular ones.  She pay for my mistake, if she still lives.  I live, down here, spend life mourning.”

He looked genuinely upset at the idea.

“You want to win?” I asked.  “You take that thing, aim it for the sky.  Deplete it, so Behemoth’s entire goal for coming here is gone.”

“Is a chance,” Phir Sē told me.  “To strike them harder than anything yet.  You tell me, is that not worth it?”

“Worth risking this city?  Your daughter?  The lives of the heroes here?”

“Yes.  Is worth.”

“No,” I retorted.

He looked at me, and I could read the unhappiness in his expression.  Not a condemnation or even him being upset with me.  Disappointment in general.

The woman in the suit told me there were people with their own agendas.  Monsters.  This is one of them, and he thinks we’re kindred spirits.

“I tell you because you are ruthless, Weaver.  Do not stop me,” he said.  “I die, focus waver, time bomb explode.  Aimless, no direction.”

“Indiscriminate,” I supplied a better word.

“Indiscriminate,” Phir Sē echoed me.  “India gone.  You die, even down here.

I raised my head, staring up at the two golden discs and the current that seemed to run between them.  I would have thought it would be brighter.

“Hero fall.  We wait,” he said.  “When fight cannot be won, I strike.”

I tensed as I watched the fighting on the screens.  They flickered intermittently in a delayed reaction to Behemoth’s lightning strikes.

“Very soon,” he said, his eyes fixed on the monitor.  “You stay.”

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Drone 23.5

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The waiting was the worst part.

My restlessness was cranked up to eleven, cooped up in the craft with Defiant and Dragon, waiting to cross half the world.  Dragon was focused on piloting the craft, unable to speak, in any event.  Defiant was busy communicating, which translated to being inaudible as he kept the vents of his mask closed.  From the images on the monitor, he was clearly tracking who was coming, our forces, the Endbringer and the high-risk areas.

I watched for a time, saw the cape count rise.  A screen filled with lines of text, noting the hero teams who had committed to the fight, numbers beside them to tally the total numbers.

For every group that joined, I felt myself growing a touch more nervous.  More participants in the fight was a good thing, but… so many small teams.  I couldn’t read half of the names of the groups on the list, but there was nothing to suggest it was organized.

I shifted my weight, sat, stood, stretched.

Agony.

Being in a prison, I didn’t have the luxury of a full wardrobe, certainly not the bike shorts and tank top I tended to wear beneath my costume.  I had only underwear, and I needed to change into the new costume.  I could have waited, but I wanted to hit the ground running.

Worse, the boxes with my butterflies within were in one of the crafts that followed just behind us, carrying a full contingent of capes.

But Defiant was engrossed in the monitors, and that left me debating the merits of modesty over being ready.

I stripped down, pulling on my old costume.  They’d said something about painting it, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to wait for that.  I left the major armor components off.

The pack they’d given me, it was the wrong color to match with the armor.  I’d be sacrificing the ability to keep things inside my utility compartment, but I suspected this would make up for that.   There were built-in wings that folded at a juncture, like dragonfly wings with joints, and there were the ‘arms’.  The controls seemed to be worked into gloves I was supposed to wear beneath my costume.

I found that there was a hatch, but it was small, barely larger than my hand, and the space was shallow.  I sent bugs inside to explore, and found a series of fine switches.

“Redundant controls,” Defiant said.

I looked up.  He’d turned away from the monitors.

“If your glove gets damaged, you’ve got the controls built into the pack itself.  If the pack gets damaged, you have the gloves.  If both are damaged, you’re not likely to be in a state to fly.  It might take getting used to, but this will give you the ability to move faster if you need it, and it’s very possible you’ll need it this afternoon.”

“You built it so fast.  I wasn’t with Mrs. Yamada for even two hours, and you put this together?”

“It’s made using components and technology we already have.  Four antigravity panels, like those Kid Win had in his hoverboard,” Defiant said, angling his hand to indicate the general placement.  One at the very bottom, one above that, facing more back than down, and two more at angles on either side.

“Okay,” I said.

“That gives you lift, the ability to offset gravity or momentum in a given direction, but the acceleration is low.  Expect zero to thirty miles an hour over eight seconds.  It won’t carry you out of the way of trouble, understand?  It won’t stop you if you’re moving at terminal velocity, unless you’re falling a long way.”

I nodded.

“The wings are a modification of technology that was confiscated from a cape called Stinger.  Missile themed, not wasps and bees.  They’ve got a venting-exhaust system we repurposed.  It toggles between using either antigravity or propulsion.  They should give you an easier time orienting yourself, or more speed pushing yourself in a particular direction, but not both at the same time.   While the wings are intact, you should be able to manage zero to forty-five in about three and a half seconds.  That ends if the wings break, and they aren’t made to be durable.”

I nodded.  “It won’t let me flit around the battlefield, but it’ll give me some vertical movement?”

“Yes.”

He continued, indicating lines with his finger.  “We built nineteen tracks into the device, that you’ll be able to control with the bugs you direct into the interior.  One for the on-off switch, doubling as an override for the glove handling, four for antigravity panels, eight for the arms, six for the wings.  You’re sure you can handle all that?”

“Multitasking is a strength of mine,” I said.  “If it’s anything like controlling Atlas, it’ll become almost subconscious.”

“I hope so.  You’ll want to learn with both the glove and the insect control.  There’s also limitations on energy and fuel, for the antigravity and propulsion, but not so limited that you’ll run out by the end of the day.  You have time to review the documentation Dragon put together.  Pay attention to the particulars of the flight pack’s vulnerability to electromagnetic radiation.  While the wings are deployed, one good hit will scramble it and render you flightless.  While the wings are withdrawn and the casing closed, it should be shielded against all reasonable EM sources.”

“I’ll have to stay close to the ground then, in case it gets scrambled.”

“For now.”

“Can I practice?” I asked.  “Not flying, but the arms, and moving the individual components…”

“The arms aren’t done.  Keep them out of the way for now.  Until I figure out a way to approach the internal design, they’ll have about as much strength as a newborn baby.”

I nodded.  “I really appreciate this, anyways.  You two went above and beyond the call of duty.”

“It’s not customary for tinkers to design things for teammates.  If they do, it’s on a relatively small scale, simple.  Kid Win making Gallant’s armor, for example.  Any device requires a great deal of upkeep.  Time is spent tuning, calibrating, repairing and identifying problems.  Each device created is something the tinker then has to take time to maintain, and mass production means the tinker becomes tech support more than an innovator.  Dragon and I don’t sleep, or sleep very little, but even for us, it isn’t effective.  Far better to invest our time into the artificial intelligences and the ships.”

“But you’re doing this for me.”

“We, I in particular, wronged you,” Defiant said.  “I know that even now, we’re not fully on the same page, but I now believe you did start out wanting to be a hero, and I may have played a part in your drift from that path.  I’ve put myself on the line to recommend you to the Wards, and I’ll dedicate the time and equipment necessary to get you on track.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Really.  Thank you.”

“If you don’t mind,” he said.  “I-”

He paused, glancing at Dragon.  Then he continued, “I’m working on being more humble, but I think I will always have a certain measure of pride and an excess of focus, to the point that I lose sight of the periphery of things.  I’ll forgive your past transgressions if you look past mine, and if there’s any disparity in the two, I’ll make it up for you with this.”  He lowered his head to indicate the flight pack.  “And I’d ask you to spare my ego the reminder by accepting this without thanks.”

“I’ve worked with Rachel, with Bitch, I think I can do that much,” I said.

“When this is over, today, if we’re all still alive, I will maintain two of these packs for you, and you can switch to the spare if one needs repairing or recharging.  Some of it’s of Dragon’s design, but the maintenance will be left to me.  If you have questions, I’ll answer them,” he said.

And the latter half of the statement was left unsaid.  But let’s not talk of this any further, unless it’s about the technical aspects of the device.

He had already turned back to the monitor.  There were three screens filled with columns noting the various teams who were showing up.

“How long until we arrive?”  I ventured.

“Forty-five minutes.”

I nodded.  “We’re going to show up late, aren’t we?”

“Inevitable.  Dragon already has had every combat-ready craft on standby in eastern Europe for a week now.  They and the local forces will have to hold the fort until then.”

“Okay.”

“The computer opposite mine is available.  Dragon is pulling up the documentation on the flight device now, if you need something to occupy yourself.”

I glanced behind Defiant, noting the terminal and the stool that was built into the craft’s cabin.  I took a seat, resting the pack on my right thigh.

Okay, so they’d found the time to pull together a flight pack with some antigravity and propulsion systems, I could believe that.  But the documentation?  Who had time to draw out 21 pages of notes on capabilities and limitations, on top of building the thing?

Especially when it was all drawings, rather than typed out words.

I wasn’t about to complain, but it did leave me reconsidering what Dragon’s specialty might be.  I’d thought I worked it out, but the speed with which she’d pulled this together…

My bugs found the channels inside the suit, and I set about experimenting with it, working through the various steps for moving the wings and the individual limbs.  Each ‘track’ inside the pack’s interior was a narrow corridor with very sensitive switches along the interior, so that any movement of even something as diminutive as a ladybug was capable of pushing them.

The sensitivity would need to be calibrated at a later point.  As it stood, any jarring impact would briefly lock all of the inputs in place, so they wouldn’t read the impact as contact from a bug and send the wrong signal.

I had to shrug out of the upper half of my costume to get the gloves on beneath my costume, but I managed to get everything set up.  There were too many straps and no room for them to slot beneath my costume, so I connected them over the costume’s exterior, beneath the armor, and cinched every strap tight, doing up the metal clasps once everything was comfortably tight.

There were four ‘arms’, each a little longer than my arms.  The control was a little simplistic, with only two switches for each limb.  I imagined it was similar to an artificial limb.  I folded them close to my body, so they hugged my lower ribs and the space just beneath my ‘breasts’, and then left them be.

The wings were just as simplistic, but had three switches each.  Two to move and reorient the wings, with a third to switch between the antigrav vent and varying amounts of propulsion.  I didn’t dare experiment with that in an enclosed space.

I read and reread the documentation ten times over, because there was precious little else to do.

“We’re landing in a minute,” Defiant announced.  “Estimated eight minute wait before the last craft from North America arrive on site and a cape by the name of Silk Road deploys a corridor.”

I nodded.

“We picked up your old team,” he said.  “Sent a craft.”

I turned around, surprised.

“Stipulations of your membership in the Wards dictate that you aren’t to extend contact to them.”

Oh.  Right.  Shitty.

“Keeping in mind that there are likely going to be cameras and cell phones pointed at you throughout this incident,” Defiant said, glancing at Dragon, “You’re free to do as you wish.  So long as you don’t do anything troublesome on camera, I don’t expect anyone will make an issue of it.  It might even help if you allow others to record you, so it’s clear you aren’t doing anything questionable.”

I glanced at him.

“Dragon’s suggestion, not mine,” he said.  “But I don’t object.”

“Thank you,” I said, meaning it.

“Thank me by staying out of trouble,” he said, brusque.  He glanced at Dragon, then back to me.  “And you’re welcome.”

She can communicate with him, but not with anyone else.  Why?

I nodded.  “Um.  You reminded me, when you said there’d be people getting camera footage of me.  Mrs. Yamada said I should start recording myself while I’m in the field.  I know we still have to talk about my costume, and it’s too late to make any updates, but I wouldn’t mind having it, especially for the next high-intensity situation.”

“We’ll see,” he said.

I nodded.

The craft set down, the doors opening.  My mouth dropped open in surprise as I took in the scene.

The area was a flat, open field with knee-high grass.  Settled on it were twenty of Dragon’s ships, with two to sixteen capes to each.  People were stepping out, stretching, meeting others and talking.  Almost all of them were from the Protectorate and the Wards.  Others included Haven, a villain group I didn’t recognize, and one of the corporate teams I’d seen before the Leviathan fight.

And the Undersiders.  I sensed them with the bugs in the field.

I felt a measure of hesitation.

Time to test out these wings.

It wouldn’t do to faceplant in front of all of these heroes.  I was tentative, as I sent a bug down a tight corridor with innumerable tiny switches.  Only one corridor, one switch.

A panel kicked to life, gentle.  I nearly tripped as I stepped forward and was lifted an inch or two higher off the ground than normal.

I sent the bug further down the corridor, directing more power to the panel, and I was no longer having an issue, because I was being lifted into the air.

I was starting to lose my balance, though, necessitating a drop in lift and some experimental firings of the left and right panels to keep myself upright.

I touched ground and extended the wings, activating the vents for the antigrav at the wing’s tips.  It made for a sudden, lurching adjustment, nearly flipping me over to the ground.

Not wanting to waste too much time, I made a beeline for the Undersiders, experimenting as I went.  Rather than fly, I used short bursts of the antigrav with kicks of my feet to get some air, landing on the noses and limbs of various Dragon-crafts, so I didn’t have to walk around.

“There she is,” Tattletale said, “And she’s flying.”

I settled on top of a head, swaying for a second as I touched ground and found my center of balance.  “Floating, until I get more practice.”

“Close enough,” she said.  She flashed a grin.  “Fancy.”

They were all present, Parian included.  Accord, Citrine and the woman with the water powers were all present.  I couldn’t recall her name.  Ligeia?  She had a costume, now.  Or an evening dress, rather, with a conch brooch and mask.

More than Parian, I was surprised that Accord had come.

Flechette, now Foil, stood off to one side.  She’d donned a black costume, which I was pretty sure was made of one of my failed attempts at a Tattletale costume, using asymmetrical belts, boots, armor and gloves to cover the areas where I’d tried to embellish.  Her mask was an opaque pane, like Clockblocker’s, but black, with silver trim at the edges.

“You’re wearing your old costume,” Grue said, finally.

“Haven’t had a chance to make a new one,” I said.

“No kidding,” Regent said, his tone dry, “Too busy making license plates, dropping the soap…”

“I can’t believe you went and became a hero,” Imp said.  “What the fuck?  How the fuck do you off a major cape and get invited to the Wards?”

“It’s complicated,” I said.

“Are you getting by?” Grue asked.

“Not as well as I’d like,” I said.  “But surviving.  Are you guys okay, leaving your territory like this?”

“Hey now,” Regent cut in.  He stabbed a finger at me.  “Aren’t you supposed to read us our rights before questioning us?”

Imp snorted.  Grue smacked Regent across the back of the head, a little harder than necessary.

“It’s all good,” Tattletale said.  She grinned, “Booby traps, some misdirection, I figure we can afford to be gone for a day.  We can look forward to going back home to see some bruised egos.  Regent’s dad among them.”

“You’re being safe?” I asked.  “I mean, we’ve taken on some monsters, but this is Heartbreaker, and the repercussions of a lost fight are kind of, well, permanent.  There’s no undoing his power.”

“Like I said, it’s all good.”  Tattletale shrugged.

“You with a team?” Grue asked, “Or with us?”

“No idea.  As far as I know, I’m independent,” I said.  “I’m not sure what that means, yet, but way I figure it, I’m going to do whatever works best in the moment.”

“Isn’t that how you wound up with us in the first place?” Tattletale asked.

I didn’t have an answer to that, so I shrugged.  My eyes followed Foil as she walked over to talk to Jouster.  He handed her an arbalest, and a quiver of needle-like bolts.

When she took the quiver, he gripped her wrist, speaking something in a low volume.  She nodded as she replied, saying something I couldn’t make out, and he let her go.

Wordless, they parted, him rejoining his team, Foil moving to Parian’s side.

I wanted to say something about that, but what?  I didn’t get the vibe she was a double agent, but I imagined there was something more to that.

I turned my attention back to the Undersiders, and my eyes moved to Rachel.  She was sitting on the ramp at the back of a craft, her dogs clustered around her.  She was stroking Bastard, using her fingernails to get in deeper than the base layer of fur.

Finally a chance to talk, and nothing to say.  The silence hurt me more than any accusations or insults.

“I don’t know how to say this gracefully,” I said.  I paused, noting the presence of a hero nearby who’d raised a camera towards me.  Whatever, I’d say it anyways.  “But you guys mean a lot to me.  I’m sorry I didn’t say it before, but I couldn’t without letting on that something was going on.  You’re my family, in a way.  As lame as it might be, I love you guys.”

My head turned from Grue to Rachel to Tattletale as I said it.

“Gaaaaaaayyyyyyy,” Imp drew out the word.  Parian and Foil gave her an annoyed look.

I smiled a little, despite myself.  “Fuck off.”

“Are you trying to get someone killed?” Regent asked.  “That’s totally a death sentence, telling someone you love them, tying up loose ends.”

“She’d be getting herself killed, going by the rules,” Tattletale said.

“Don’t say that,” Grue said, his voice quiet.

With a touch more seriousness, Tattletale said, “No dying, okay, Skitter?”

“Weaver,” I corrected.

“Skitter,” she said.  “Here, today, you’re Skitter.  Consider it a good luck charm.  And no dying.  I’ll say it as many times as it takes, until it gets through to you.”

I shook my head a little.  “No dying.  That goes both ways.”

“Way I see it,” Imp said, “She’s gone soft.  Real quick, too, getting affectionate, lovey-dovey.”

“Alternate costume, too,” Regent said, “White, light gray, baby blue…”

“Electric blue,” I said.  I was smiling now.  I used the flight-pack to slow my descent as I hopped down from the head of the craft.  I pitched my voice lower so I wouldn’t be overheard, and poked Regent in the chest.  “Fuck you guys.  I’m as badass as ever.  Recommending drugs to kids, strangling a ten year old, forcing bugs down my allies’ throats…”

“Killing Alexandria,” Regent said.

“Mm,” I said, and I could feel my heart plummet into my stomach.  All at once, I was left wondering just how many capes here were secretly blaming me.

“Asshole,” Tattletale told Regent.

I folded my arms, feeling a chill, the summer warmth notwithstanding.  “We may pay for that today.”

“I think we’re fucked in general,” Tattletale said.  “But no sweat.  We’ll-”

She snapped her head around.  There was an uncharacteristic emotion as she swore under her breath.  “Fuck.  He’s up.”

A second later, the ships each spoke in their identical voices, out of sync not because of any flaw in Dragon’s program, but due to their positions across the field, and the delay of sound traveling, a chorus, “Behemoth has surfaced.  Return to your craft as soon as possible.  Supplies will be provided while we are en route.  Individuals on the ground may or may not be left behind.

“See you on the battlefield,” Grue said.

“See you,” I answered.  I felt a tug of worry.  I had almost hoped he’d sit this one out.  He didn’t tend to do well when it came to facing down the real monsters.

I bit my tongue and started up the flight pack.

“Don’t hold back now,” Regent said.  I could see that he was watching the guy who was still training his camera phone on me.  Regent turned back to me and extended his arms, injecting fake emotion into his voice, “You know we love you too!”

I kicked off, just barely floating out of reach as he tried to fold me into a hug.  “Jackass.”

He was back to his casual, detached attitude in an instant, showing just a touch of swagger as he stepped back to rejoin the others.  He gave me a sloppy mock salute.  I shifted my ascent and set foot on the head of the craft that had been behind me.

“Just remember,” Tattletale called out, “You’re officially Skitter today.  Don’t be a hero.  No point to all this shit if you do something brave and get yourself killed.”

“Not sure about that,” I said.  “About being Skitter, not the getting killed bit.”

Heroes were rapidly retreating to the craft.  I didn’t have long.  There was so much I wanted to say, but… shit.

“Rachel,” I said.

She glanced up at me, her eyes almost hidden behind her hair.  I could see the hurt in her expression, a raw feeling.

“The letter, it helped.  All of the letters meant a lot to me, except Imp’s.  But yours especially.”

She grunted in acknowledgement, setting Bastard on the ground, then stood.

“And I’m probably going to get crucified for saying this, but I still consider you a friend.  Someday, after all of this has settled down, when you don’t need to be a villain anymore to take care of your dogs, and I’m okay where I’m at, I want to hang out again.  Throw the balls for the dogs, clean up dog shit, go for walks.  Whatever works.”

“Saying shit like that, you’re signing death warrants!” Regent said, his hands to the side of his head.  “Stop it, you lunatic!”

I shook my head, then turned and took flight.

All around me, doors were shutting.  If it weren’t for my bug sense, I might have lost track of where Defiant was.  So many Dragon-ships, no two quite the same.

I entered, and I could see Defiant standing in front of the monitors, his arms around Dragon’s shoulders.  One of them must have acknowledged my presence, because the doors of the craft began shutting behind me as I made my way inside.

Odd as it was, I hadn’t fully parsed that they were together before now.

I approached, quiet, and watched as the drama on the monitors unfolded.  The bugs from the field followed me inside, clustering around me.

Behemoth, nearly fifty feet tall, was still standing in the midst of a collapsed building.  The structure had no doubt fallen on top of him as he emerged, and the debris was ablaze, casting his gray skin in hues of red and orange.  He didn’t seem to care about the building.

Dragon’s A.I. were already attacking him, each from the greatest distance possible.  The camera shook, out of sync with the timing of the strikes, as the vibrations took time to travel to the distant cameraman.

Heroes were fighting, contributing pitifully little to the assault.  They were too distant to make out.

“Locals?” I asked.

Defiant turned, reacting as if he were surprised I was present.  “Yes.  Don’t ask me to pronounce their names.”

Sāhasī Pān̄ca,” Dragon said.

I glanced at her in surprise.  “You can talk, all of a sudden?”

There was a pause.  “…Little.”

“She felt she needed to be able to communicate,” Defiant said.  To her, he said, “And this is the last time we make a last-minute fix.”

“I’m sort of in the dark here,” I said.

Defiant declined to fill me in, staring at the screen.  His voice was almost pained as he muttered, “They’re too close.”

One Dragon suit was unleashing what looked like a freeze ray at the Endbringer, while another of the Dragon suits was turning a laser on the ground beneath Behemoth’s broad feet.  It wasn’t enough to take away his footing.  He set one ‘claw’ -a growth of obsidian-like black shards- onto solid earth, then half-loped, half-hopped forward.  With his claws and feet now on firm ground, he leaped.  The shockwave of his departure toppled the slipshod buildings around him in his wake.

The landing as he arrived flattened another set of buildings.  The heroes started to run.  They were too slow, when compared to the length of Behemoth’s legs, the sheer power he was capable of putting into the simple act of walking.  One by one, they fell within his kill range.  Two were scorched from the inside, a brawny-looking cape seized up with smoke billowing from his corpse as he struck ground, his arms and limbs still twitching in death.

One managed to escape, taking flight.  He got a full four city blocks away before Behemoth reached out.  He was struck out of the air by a visible arc of lightning that extended from a claw’s tip.

Four A.I. were continually bombarding him now, three using what looked to be freeze-rays.  The fourth alternated between destroying his footing and blasting burning buildings flat with some sort of concussive laser-drill, stifling the spread of the fires.  Heroes here and there contributed some inaccurate ranged fire, but seemed preoccupied with fleeing.

Behemoth hardly seemed to care about any of it.

Our ship lifted off.  Outside, the surroundings were taking on a rosy tint.  I could hear the cumulative thrum of the twenty-seven Dragon-craft’s propulsion systems operating in unison.  My bugs could track them all, the late arrivals included.

There was a shudder, and the rosy tint of our surroundings intensified, filling the cabin.  We started to move, and it wasn’t the ship moving us.  Dragon stepped out of Defiant’s embrace to approach the ship controls.

An instant later, the propulsion system kicked into motion, and we were moving far faster than before.  The shuddering of the cabin was so intense I had to sit down.

“India’s capes fall into two categories,” Defiant said, not taking his eyes off the screen.  He had to raise his voice to be heard over the movement of the craft.  “They term their capes ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, with very strict rules on who falls into a category.  Walk between the two groups, you get the worst of both.  Hot, it’s about flash, color, appeal, and engaging the public.  Villain or hero, they’re cape celebrities.  Cold, it’s… bloodshed, violence, assassination and secrecy.  Capes of the underworld.  The public doesn’t see or hear about the cold capes.  The media does not speak of them.”

On the screen, Behemoth wasn’t even slowing down.  Another arc of lightning lanced across the cityscape, setting a dozen fires.  The houses looked shoddy, dirty, and were apparently very flammable.  The flames spread quickly, and plumes of smoke were streaming towards the overcast sky.

“The capes that are getting killed, they’re-”

Garama,” Dragon said.  “…Hot.”

“We need the ones with killer instinct,” Defiant said.  “The ones who fight for real, not for play.  The cold capes.”

Thanda,” Dragon supplied the translation.

“Question is whether the Thanda think it’s worth breaking the rules and emerging from the shadows,” Defiant said.

“Did last…  time,” Dragon said, her words bearing an odd cadence.  She approached me, holding an armband and a silver packet.

I accepted them, turning both over in my hands.  “Radiation pills?”

She nodded, holding up one finger.

“Take one?”

“Yes,” she said.  “Still.”

“Still?”  I asked.

But she just touched one side of my face.  One finger was under my chin, and I raised it, looking up at her, confused.

She let me go, leaving me momentarily confused.  I touched my face where she’d laid her hand and felt two bumps.

A camera?

“Dragon,” Defiant said, before I could ask any questions.  “Look.”

She approached his side, her arms wrapping around his armored left arm, metal scraping against metal.

“They’re not supposed to be here,” he commented, his voice low.

I turned my attention to the monitor.  “Who aren’t?”

“The Yàngbǎn.”

The focus was on a formation of capes.  They were lined up like musketeers, rank and file, each a set distance apart from the others.  The ones in front were kneeling, the ones behind standing.  Each wore a mask that covered their faces, flowing costumes with loose sleeves and pants, somewhere between a martial arts uniform and a military uniform, each crimson with a black design of horizontal and vertical lines at edges of the sleeves and pants.  There were nearly thirty of them.

All together, they directed lasers at him, aiming for his one red eye.  He blocked the concentrated laser-fire with one claw, and the flesh at the base of the obsidian claw began peeling away.

“Who are they?”

“The C.U.I.’s military parahumans.”

“Isn’t the C.U.I. xenophobic?”

“Yes,” Dragon said.  Her voice sounded funny.  It wasn’t emotion, but something was somehow off about it.

“Excepting diplomatic functions, this is the first time in over a decade that any of the Yàngbǎn have set foot outside of China,” Defiant said.  “We’ve tried to arrange for their aid in the past, but relations between our side and theirs are sour.  For years, they’ve alleged that the PRT and the Protectorate are fundamentally corrupt, the source of the problems currently plaguing the world.”

“They were right,”  I said.

“Yes,” Defiant said.  He didn’t sound happy about the admission.

Behemoth slammed his claws together.  The Yàngbǎn responded by creating forcefields en-masse, one for every person, overlapping with those to either side of them.  The shockwave of the clap ripped through them, shattering the first two rows of forcefields and virtually liquefying the unfortunate capes who no longer had protection.

The Yàngbǎn in the back rows were already dropping their forcefields, extending their hands forward, open palms aimed at their comrades.

The shockwave’s effects reversed in an instant, and the injured were whole, holding the positions they’d been in an instant before.  Here and there, the reaction had been a fraction too slow, and the Yàngbǎn members were only reversed to the instant the shockwave made contact.  They were thrown back and caught by the ones in the back row, blood streaming from their eyes, noses and ears.  One was saved much too late, and the process of being liquefied was only repeated, splattering the Yàngbǎn soldier who’d failed to react in time to rescue him.

Behemoth unleashed a rolling tide of flame, and the remaining twenty-eight Yàngbǎn fled, using a combination of enhanced speed and flight.  The remains of the dead member were left behind.

“I can’t tell if this is a good thing or a bad thing,” I commented.

“With luck, they’ve changed their minds and we have much-needed allies,” Defiant said.

“And if they haven’t?”

He didn’t reply.

More of Dragon’s craft were arriving, adding their attacks to those of the others.  I could recognize the wheel-dragon, using some sort of tuned electromagnetic pull to draw away the loose rubble from beneath Behemoth.  He sank nearly ten feet as the ground shifted around him.

He struck the wheel-dragon with a bolt of lightning, flaying off a few plates of armor and destroying the wheel.  It opened its mouth and launched cannon-fire at him.  The shells exploded into blobs of containment foam, fireproof, sticky, virtually impossible to remove.

But not capable of holding back something like Behemoth.

More lightning was unleashed, each doing successively more damage to the craft.  By the fourth blast, it wasn’t operational.  The fifth split it down the middle.  Insulation was little use against a dynakinetic that could redirect the natural course of electricity.

Ten craft were around him now, concentrating fire.  Cryogenic beams, containment foam and more served to slow him down.  Not stopping him.  No, that was too much to hope for.  His pace was roughly two-thirds the speed it might otherwise be, at a glance, his attention focused on the A.I.

Behemoth brought both hands together, but it wasn’t to clap.  Instead, he directed a stream of lightning at the nearest craft, easily twenty feet across.  It was splintered in an instant.

A second craft perished a second later.

Before he could turn his attention to a third, the stream of lightning shifted, curving off to one side.  Drones, the annoying little bastard spheres that had electorcuted me on multiple occasions, the same ones that had been built into the ceilings of the cells and prison hallways in the PRT headquarters, were in flight, deployed by a drone-ship like the one I’d fought in Brockton Bay, and they were channeling the lightning along a different path.

Behemoth wasn’t one to roar, but I could see the effort at work as he began to draw the lightning away from the remote drones, forcing it to take another path, beyond the route of ionized air or the electromagnetic charge that they were using to catch it and harmlessly redirect it into an area that was already rubble.  He was taking abuse from the airborne craft, unable to move without giving ground.  More containment foam and more ice built around him, tearing and melting, respectively, in response to his lesser movements.

They moved closer together, strengthening the bond, and the lightning was caught once more.

He gave up on the lightning and blasted the drones out of the air with a wave of heated wind.  An instant later, he resumed destroying the craft.  Three in as many seconds, and then a slam of one claw against a building.  The shockwave that followed leveled a whole row of buildings.

I belatedly swallowed a radiation pill and attached the armband.

The screen displayed text:  ‘Name?’

“Weaver,” I said.

The letters appeared on the screen.  I confirmed with a press of the button.

A map of my surroundings appeared, a landscape rushing by.  In one corner, the distance to Behemoth was noted, rapidly counting down.

I could see the runway an instant before the ship touched down.  The rosy glow was still present as the ship cut back on forward thrust.  The craft touched the runway belly-down, skidding to a near-stop.

The red tint that surrounded everything disappeared, and Defiant caught my arm with one hand, holding on to a beam in the ceiling with the other.

The ship activated one thruster, and the craft swung around.  The other thruster kicked to life, and we took off, still bearing some of the forward momentum from earlier.  We were moving in a near-perpendicular direction to the one we’d been traveling earlier.  Defiant let go of my arm.

When I looked back at the screen, nearly half of the city was on fire.  Black smoke choked the skies, a stark contrast to the cloudy sky of only minutes ago.

“Were they able to evacuate most?” Defiant asked.

“No,” Dragon answered.

Our craft touched ground, and I glanced out the window to see a sliver of what the monitors showed.  A sky choked by darkness, a city aflame.

The glow of his single eye cut through the smoke, and I was reminded of Lung.  Of that first night, on the rooftop, when one of Lung’s eyes had been swollen shut, the other open.  Lung, like Behemoth, had been virtually untouchable.

This was that same scenario, that same fight.  I couldn’t hope to win.  At best, I’d manage a distraction, a momentary handicap, but he’d recuperate, and given the chance, he’d murder me with a casual ease.

This wasn’t a rooftop, but there wouldn’t be an easy means of escape.  And just as I’d acted to stop Lung from hurting what I thought were innocent kids, I was acting here to save lives.

The same thing, but on a far greater scale.  The danger, the stakes, all scaled up by a thousand times, a million times.

The back of the craft opened, and Defiant led the way as we made our exit.  Spotlights cast much-needed light on the immediate surroundings.  The ships had settled in a ring formation, some posed above the others, as if providing a protective enclosure.  Weapons were directed outside, and one craft loomed overhead.  For now, we were as safe as we could hope to be.

Chevalier, Rime and the rest of his new Protectorate were all in one group, backed by their respective teams.

A nearby crash made half of the people present, myself included, nearly jump out of their skin.  It was somehow reassuring that Chevalier managed to retain his composure.

“The ships have all arrived,” Chevalier said, “I’ve received the data on the other participating teams, those not already fighting will reinforce as they’re able.  We should expect record numbers, we shouldn’t expect it’ll help.  Any news on the locals?”

“Gathering and setting up defenses at India Gate,” Rime said.  “It seems to be his destination.”

“The gate?  There’s nothing there,” Chevalier said.  “Only population.”

“If it’s not a soft target,” Revel said, “then we can play the long game, buy time for Scion to arrive.”

“Let’s assume it’s soft.  We made that mistake once, never again,” Chevalier said.  “Okay.  Listen up!”

He raised his voice, commanding the attention of everyone present.

“We’ve already notified you if we believe you have the capacity to engage Behemoth.  Anyone else is operating as search, rescue, and support.  Maintain a distance of at least a hundred feet from Behemoth at the very minimum.  Get any closer, you probably won’t have a chance of escaping if he decides to close the gap.  Be mindful of line of sight, because he can and will tag you with a lightning bolt, and it’s not something you can dodge.  Assume every structure will fall down in a heartbeat, and know that there’s no good place to hide and wait for this to be over.  Keep moving and move smart.”

The crowd of heroes was utterly silent.  I could see the Undersiders on the opposite end of the enclosure.  The spotlights behind them rendered them little more than silhouettes with glowing edges.

“There’s no sugarcoating it,” Chevalier said.  “The fact that you’re here, today, knowing the state things are in, you’re the biggest damn heroes I’ve worked with.  I’m not going to make any big speeches.  Better we get out there and save lives.  Hit him hard if you see the chance, keep an eye out for whatever his goal might be, communicate with other groups as best as you’re able.  Stay spread out so he can’t wipe too many of us out at once.  You work best with the people you know, so form your own teams, stick with the people you’ve operated with before.  Go.”

Heroes, already gathered in their groups, mobilized.

I started to approach the Undersiders.  Defiant’s hand on my shoulder stopped me.

I could see Tattletale and Accord stepping off to one side, talking.  She gave me one glance, offered me an apologetic half-frown, and then continued walking.

“Why?” I asked.

“The Chicago Wards,” he said.

“What about them?  I can function better alongside the Undersiders.”

“Dragon thinks you can contribute just as much or more with the Wards group, and they’re the team that wants you.”

I glanced at the groups that hadn’t departed yet.  Some were getting geared up, another group had a cape touching each member in turn, turning their skin to what looked like stone.  On the far end, past those other groups, I could see Tecton, Grace, and Wanton with three others I didn’t recognize.  They were looking at me.

“It’s the smart choice,” he said, “But it’s your choice.”

And, giving evidence to the statement, he departed, entering the Pendragon and freeing me to decide without his influence.

I sighed, then activated the antigrav panels to give myself some forward thrust, speeding me up as I moved to join Tecton’s group.

“Yep,” he said, to one of the newbies.

“You’re leader, I’m recon?” I asked.  “Like it was in New York?”

“No, you’re leader as long as this fight lasts,” Tecton said.

I must have looked surprised, because he said, “You’ve been in two of these fights, right?  If we count Echidna?”

I nodded.

“I’ve only been in the one, and I was never the shot-caller.  That was a partnership between Raymancer and me, and he’s gone.”

“My condolences,” I said.

He nodded, but my focus was on the other members of the team, trying to account for the resources I had available.  Grace had changed her martial arts outfit for something with more coverage, a chainmail mesh like the PRT uniforms wore.  Wanton still wore free-flowing clothes, but he wouldn’t stay in that form.

The other three… A girl with bands of metal running down each of her arms and legs, with heavy gauntlets, boots and a breastplate, a mask etched to look like a feminine face, with white lenses over the eyes.  Her platinum blond hair had three individual braids, two draped over her shoulders, with the ends bound in more bands of the blue-black metal.

There was a guy in a cowl, with another metal mask, who reminded me a bit of Shadow Stalker, but he wore white, and carried no weapon I could see.

And the last one… heavyset, with armor that seemed too generic.

“You’re a rookie?”

“All three of those guys are rookies,” Tecton said.  “They cannibalized our non-core team members to supplement other groups, and-”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.  “I guess you three are getting thrown in the deep end.  Names?”

“Cuff,” said the girl in blue-black armor.

“Annex,” the cowled one told me.

“Golem,” the last one said, his voice muffled by his helmet.

I frowned behind my mask, perplexed.  “You named yourself after the little bastard from The Lord-”

“No,” he said.  I could hear him sigh from behind his helmet.  “I’m thinking of changing it.”

If not from the trilogy, then…  I fixed the pronunciation, compensating for how his muffled voice had modified it.  Right.  Golem, from the myth.

“I get it, nevermind.  Listen, we’re going to move out, and you’re going to explain your powers en route.  You know who I am?”

There were nods all around.

“You’re still okay with following my orders?”

Again, nods.

I saw the Undersiders moving out, along with the Ambassadors.

“We’re supplementing and supporting the Undersiders for the time being.  You okay with that?”

A touch more hesitant, they nodded.

“Then let’s go,” I said.

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Drone 23.1

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“Weaver,” the voice had a slight digital twang at the edges, to the point that I thought it was Bakuda for a second, even if the two voices were entirely different.

I lowered my book.  Defiant stood in the doorway to my cell, flanked by two of the prison guards.

I swung my feet to the ground, simultaneously sitting up.  “If you’d asked me a few weeks ago, I’m not sure I would have believed that I’d actually be happy to see you.”

“You’ll be coming back,” he warned me.  “This is a temporary leave.”

“I know,” I said.  I marked the page in my book, placing it in a corner, where it joined twelve others.

“And yes, I’m not surprised you had hard feelings.  We weren’t on good terms then, and even now…”

He didn’t finish the sentence.  Even now, we aren’t friends?

“A lot of books,” he noted the stack of prison library books.  “You’ve read them all?”

“Yeah.”

“In seven days?”

“Lots of time to myself.  I don’t have classes, but I have homework and self-study, and that cuts into reading time, or I’d have read more.  But it’s kind of nice, if you ignore… pretty much everything else.  I’ve had time to think for the first time in months.”

“I know what you mean,” Defiant said.  “I remember worrying every day if that would be the day innocents were caught in a crossfire between Coil and Kaiser, or the day a member of Empire Eighty-Eight was initiated into the group, with the requisite assault of an ‘acceptable target’.”

I grimaced at that.  He extended an arm, indicating I was free to leave the cell.

He continued as we walked, flanked by the guards.  “…And then there was the team, handling the internal politics, Assault’s harassment of Battery, the Wards and their individual issues.  The countless requests for appearances, for photo shoots, interviews, and demonstrations, figuring out which have to be accepted, which can be turned down, knowing that too many refusals in a row could mean a negative article.  And then there were the threats, of course, dealing with powered criminals.  Every team member becomes a resource, and those resources have to be allocated judiciously.”

“And in the midst of all that, you’re still trying to find time for you,” I said.

“Free time is the easiest thing to sacrifice,” Defiant said.  “It costs you, to give it up, but there’s little guilt.  Time to yourself is best spent preparing.  Developing new technology, strategizing, adjusting equipment-”

“Weaving costumes, pre-preparing lines of silk,” I said.

Defiant nodded.

“I may have inadvertently screwed Miss Militia over,” I said.

Defiant shook his head.  “She’s a natural leader.  I wasn’t.”

“That might make it easier to handle,” I said, “But she’ll still be in a position where she has to worry, has to prioritize and make sacrifices, and I don’t know if she asked for it.”

“She’ll manage,” Defiant said, as if that was that.  I couldn’t tell if it was trust in his teammate or if he wasn’t particularly empathetic on that front.  Miss Militia was the one who’d supplanted him as team leader.  Were there still hard feelings?

We stopped at the end of the hallway, and the guards stopped to check in at the control station that managed which doors opened and when.  There were procedures for seeing a prisoner out, and it took some time.

I could see into cells near the gate.  Prisoners glared at me.  I was a villain to everyone who had a grudge against supervillains, a hero to everyone who had a grudge against ‘cops’.  A traitor.  A murderer.  The person who’d killed one of the strongest heroes in the world.  Who’d killed someone who had fought for decades to save the world, again and again, and who may have doomed us all.

The other prisoners were still trying to assess me, I was pretty sure.  Nobody spoke to me or approached me when we filed off to get our meals or when I visited the library.  The words printed on my uniform were probably daunting for the unpowered.

The judge had seen fit to assign me to a close security prison, a wing in a medium security facility.  It was somewhat backwards, as rulings went, everything taken into consideration.  I’d been charged as an adult, for one thing, so juvenile detention was out.  Too many crimes under my belt.  I was apparently too dangerous for a minimum security institution, but the PRT had asked for leniency, and this was the compromise they’d come to.

As far as I could figure it out, it was everything I might have expected from a medium security prison, complete with a station that controlled the opening and closing of cell doors, constant supervision, and escorts wherever we went.  The only difference was the emphasis on programs.  We were here to be rehabilitated, to find work, get an education and get therapy.  All mandated.

I’d already started studying.  Now, with Defiant here, I’d get okayed to start other projects.  I hoped.

The warden was waiting for us in the ‘hub’, the room with benches where we’d waited to be assigned to our cells.  She wasn’t what I’d expected from a person in charge of a prison.  She made me think of a stern teacher, instead.  She was old, pushing sixty if not well past it, and ramrod straight, and thin.  Her graying hair was tied back into a short braid that didn’t quite reach the bottom of her neck.  She was tough in a gnarled, craggy sort of way, like the veteran actors of cowboy movies, but female.

“Taylor Hebert,” she said.

“Ma’am.”

“Every rule in my prison applies while you’re outside.  You know this.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I know you capes are magnets for trouble.  If a fight happened to erupt while you were en route and it came down to you fighting back or getting stabbed, I expect you to get stabbed and then graciously thank your attacker, you understand?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“That said, best if you don’t get hurt.  Running would be preferrable, so long as you don’t run.  Trying to escape would be the worst thing you could do, and it wouldn’t succeed.”

“You want me to stay out of trouble.  I understand, ma’am.”

“It’s a cushy deal you have here, but one word from me, and that changes.”

“I get that, ma’am.  Really, I do.  I get that I did some sketchy things.  I get that this is a kind of penance, probably not as harsh as I deserve, and I welcome it.  I think, given a choice between walking away free right this second and continuing my sentence, I’d choose the latter.”

She studied me for long seconds.

“We have a no-tolerance policy on powers, Ms. Hebert.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“What appeared to be an emerging case of body lice in the main prison seems to have abruptly corrected itself, according to our physicians.  The roach traps in the kitchen aren’t catching anything, either.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“There’s a part of me that would like to think you’re doing us a service, cleaning things up.  Which would still be a violation of the zero-tolerance rules, but somewhat forgivable given the intent.  Another part of me has to be concerned that you’re hoarding these in the same manner another prisoner might hoard makeshift weapons.”

“No, ma’am.”

“Which is it?”

“I sort of hoped to talk about it with my therapist, on our first meeting, and figure out the best way to approach it before talking to you.”

She made a ‘continue’ gesture with her hand, arms still folded, her gaze hard.

“My power is always on.  It takes a conscious effort to block them out and let them act normally.  I feel what they feel, sense what they sense, sort of.  It’s… not fun with lice, crawling around in prisoner’s pubic hair, you know?  Being aware of that, across eighteen, nineteen prisoners, twenty-four-seven?”

“My concern, Ms. Hebert, is what you’re doing with those bugs.”

“Nothing,” I said.  “I- moved them away from the prisoners.  I’ve mostly left them where they were, let them starve.  I can’t leave them stationary like that where there are rodents, or they’ll only feed the rodent population and you’ll have a bigger problem.  I could kill the rodents, but then you’d have dead rats in your walls, and-”

“This isn’t acceptable.  You understand why this isn’t acceptable?”

“You have to protect other prisoners,” I said.

Even if it means letting them have lice?  I didn’t say that last part.

“If bugs are your weapon of choice, I can’t let you have access to them.”

“What about a bucket?” I asked.

“Hm?”

“Set up a bucket in some back room, fill it with something caustic enough to kill them on contact.  I’ll drown every bug I can reach in the bucket, and you’ll be able to see for yourself, by the volume of bugs that are in there.”

“Let’s postpone measures like that,” Defiant cut in.  “Go change.”

I nodded, happy for the escape route.  I made my way to the combination shower-and-change room area, pausing to collect my civilian clothes from the guard in the bulletproof glass enclosure that overlooked the hub.

I would have liked to shower in relative privacy, but I didn’t think anyone outside was planning on waiting.  I stripped out of the prison uniform, a lightweight, gray one-size-fits-all cotton tunic and pants that felt more like pyjamas than real clothes.  Mine weren’t as threadbare as the clothes the other prisoners wore.  For one thing, I was a ‘small’.  Sort of.  It was a choice between either wearing a medium-sized tunic and have it hang around me like a tent, or wear a small and have it barely reach my beltline.  I’d chosen the latter.

The other reason I got a uniform that hadn’t been worn a hundred times by a hundred other prisoners, was that I wore a special prison uniform with ‘Sp. Inmate’ printed across the shoulders and sleeve, informing everyone who saw me that I had powers.

After folding the garments, I donned my ‘Weaver’ costume.  I’d have to update it.  It wasn’t real, wasn’t fit for fighting.  The underlying bodysuit was something generic they kept on hand, no doubt similar to what made up Clockblocker’s costume.  Much in the same way his costume had been elaborated on with armor panels, mine had armor that Dragon had 3D-printed prior to arriving at the PRT headquarters.

It felt wrong, especially the way the straps fit into it, and I didn’t like knowing how flimsy it was.

I didn’t wear the mask or the armor panels, merely holding the bundle that contained them.  Instead, I pulled on clothes over the bodysuit, rolling up the sleeves until they were midway up my biceps.  The same short-sleeved, button-up shirt I’d changed into after we’d met with the judge, and jeans.

When I emerged, Defiant and the warden were talking.  She had enough presence that even Defiant, six feet tall and clad in armor, looked like he wanted to back down.

She tapped him in the center of his chest to punctuate her words, “…before lockdown.  And I want all paperwork, as soon as you get it.”

“You’ll have it,” he responded.

“Hand out,” the warden said, turning to me.

I extended a hand.

She strapped a device to my wrist, like a pager, but with a coarse black strap attached.  “So we know where you are.”

“Okay.”

The warden looked to the guard in the bulletproof glass enclosure.  She gave him a hand signal, and he opened the front door to the prison.

We made our exit down a corridor of double-layered fences topped with barbed wire.  We entered the parking lot, where a small crowd had gathered around Defiant’s ship, staring.

They parted to let us board, and then backed away as the jets started to thrum with life.

“We’re alike in some ways,” Defiant said, from his seat at the controls.  I sat behind him, having belted myself in.

My response was cut short as we started moving, and inertia hit me like a pressure  wave against the front of my entire body.  I managed only a “Hm?”

“We’ve both been leaders.  We’ve both made our mistakes, and we’ve faced a form of detention for it.  You with your prison, me with my retirement.”

Oh, he was back to that?  We’d been interrupted.

“Guess so,” I managed.  “And Dragon?”

“Not a leader,” Defiant answered me.  “Not unless you count the artificial intelligences that operate the other suits.  But her prison?  It remains worse than any you or I have faced.”

“Remains?”  I asked.

“Yes,” he said, but he didn’t elaborate.

How could her prison be worse than jail?  And how could she still be in it, unless… was she disabled?  Cerebral palsy, partial or total paralysis, something else?

I wasn’t sure how that factored in with her current inability to communicate.  If she relied on a computer to speak for her, maybe something in the program had broken?

The craft changed direction.  Defiant tapped a button, then let go of the controls.  Autopilot?

“Whatever happens,” he said, “You’re a member of the Wards.  That’s done, but the nature of your membership is still very much in question, understand?”

“I’m not sure I do.”

“Before, I mentioned the tasks of being in charge of a Protectorate team.”

“Allocating people.”

“Yes.  Today you’re going to meet some people who are going to play a very crucial role in deciding how you are allocated.  Best case scenario, we put you on a team in the thick of something.  Not the quiet you’ve been enjoying in your cell, but you’d be helping.  Everyone benefits.”

“And the worst case?”

“The worst case is they say it’s a mistake, and you go to jail for the foreseeable future.  I don’t see that happening.  The second-to-worst case is more likely, where there are no team leaders willing to take you on board with all of the inherent risks.”

“You just said I was a member of the Wards.”

“I did.  Miss Militia has your back, but there’s no way you could join the Brockton Bay Wards, under her.  Conflict of interests, animosity…”

“I figured.”

“Chevalier’s interests are in restoring the PRT and Protectorate programs.  We’ve committed to helping in any world-scale crisis events, which means participating in the next Endbringer program.  He respects Miss Militia’s opinion, and your appearance before the media means we’ve committed to keeping you.  That was partially intentional.”

“Intentional?”

“Because it throws a wrench in the plans of anyone who might want to maintain the status quo.  But as much as Chevalier is on your side, if the capes directly under him in the command structure deem it necessary, he could easily send you to a place where you couldn’t do any damage and bring you out of hiding for media appearances and Class-S threats.”

“A place where I couldn’t do any harm?  Like?”

“Guard duty at the quarantine area in Madison, perhaps, or a town without a cape presence, where you’d be doing little more than making appearances and talking to kids.”

“I’m… I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I’m better than that.”

“Mm hmm,” he said.  “Let’s hope they think so.”

He pressed the button and took hold of the controls.  “New York.  The central headquarters of every Protectorate team in America.”

With Defiant beside me, my civilian clothes removed, costume donned, I entered the common room of the local Protectorate team.

The interior wasn’t dissimilar from the Wards’ headquarters in Brockton Bay.  I’d visited that spot when we’d stolen the data from their server.  The layout was similar, with what seemed to be interchangeable or connecting pieces defining the interior.  The difference was in the quality of the pieces.  Gold or faux-gold trim marked pillars and short walls.  There wasn’t any brushed steel or ceramic.  It was marble.  This would be where they held the interviews and wowed the people who invested in the merchandising side of things.

Inspiring, in a way.  Intimidating.

Equally intimidating, if not more so, was the crowd that waited for me.  Eleven people, arranged across the room, most of them capes.

“In the lead, we have Prism, second in command of the New York team,” Defiant told me.

Prism’s lips flattened into a tight line as she looked at me.  We’d met, at the Mayor’s house.  She’d been one of Legend’s people.  I supposed that Chevalier would have wanted someone who knew the city and the routines as his second in command.

“Rime, team leader of Los Angeles,” Defiant said.

Taking over for Alexandria, I thought.  A cape with black hair in a blue skin-tight costume with fur.  I recognized her from the Echidna event, the cape who made ice crystals.  I remembered how she’d been following Chevalier’s orders.  His second in command?  It made sense he’d promote someone he knew to the second largest team in America.

“Revel, team leader of Chicago.”

Revel was a woman I hadn’t seen before, even in the background of the various Class-S fights.  I was pretty sure I would have recognized her.  She was clearly Japanese, with a painted mask covering her lower face, and a massive lantern on a stick that rested against one shoulder.  She wore a white skin-tight outfit with straps at the shoulders, the legs ending mid-thigh, giving her a degree of modesty that the stylized crimson kimono didn’t.  The kimono hung loose around her, held in place more by belts and what must have been wires in the fabric, elbow-length and just barely long enough to be modest.  Her shoulders were bare and narrow, her expression… one eyebrow was raised as she studied me.

“Dispatch, the second in command of Houston.”

Prism at least had an apparent reason to dislike me, but Dispatch’s expression suggested he’d come to that conclusion all on his own.  His costume was white, with steel points rising from his shoulders and either side of his brow.  The mask that covered the upper half of his face was sculpted into a perpetual frown.  I might not have given it a second thought, but his mouth… the frown left me little doubt he didn’t like me, right off the bat.

“You may recognize some of the captains of the respective Wards teams.  Jouster from New York, Vantage from Los Angeles, Tecton from Chicago and Hoyden from Austin.  You know Clockblocker.”

I nodded.  Tecton, in what looked to be a fresh outfit of bulky rust-red power armor, gave me a salute.  Jouster was playing up the medieval theme, a spear in hand, while Vantage was a black guy in forest green and silver… his costume looked a touch flamboyant, at a glance.  Hoyden looked more like a desperado than a superhero, with a costume that incorporated a kerchief with eyeholes over the upper half of her face, her blond curls tumbling behind, and a jacket and jeans in what looked like black-painted chainmail.

Clockblocker leaned against a desk, unreadable.

“Mrs. Yamada, you’ve met, if the records are right.”

I nodded at the Japanese woman in a casual dress-suit who was standing beside Revel.

“And I’m Glenn Chambers.  PRT head of Image,” a man spoke.  He approached me to offer a fat hand for me to shake.  He had a firm grip. Glenn didn’t look like someone who was particularly invested in image.  He was obese, his clothes not flattering, his hair not quite cut into a mohawk, but gelled into something resembling one.  He wore rectangle-framed glasses that made it easier to see how he seemed to perpetually squint – a result of long eyelashes.

“And I suppose I’m Weaver,” I said.  Eleven sets of eyes, all on me, judging me.  I hooked my thumbs into my pockets.

“I’m surprised Chevalier hasn’t shown up,” Defiant commented.  He glanced at Prism.

It wasn’t Prism who answered.  Dispatch, the Texan cape, spoke instead.  “I asked the same question.  He brings us all the way here, but he doesn’t show himself?”

“He’s handling a small crisis,” Prism said.

“We’re all handling crises,” Dispatch said.  “Half of us have no experience as team leaders, we’re dealing with capes in mourning, with government capes auditing our team rosters for Cauldron capes-“

“Leave it be, Dispatch,” Rime interrupted him.  “We should get down to business.  The sooner this is settled, the sooner we can get back.”

Mrs. Yamada cleared her throat.  “What are you thinking, Weaver?”

Suddenly put on the spot.  “Honestly?”

“Honesty is good,” she said.

“I’m intimidated,” I said.

“How do you usually handle something like that?”

By being more intimidating in exchange, I thought.  It wouldn’t do to say that out loud, to explain how I’d fallen back on being scary and ruthless for so long that I wasn’t sure how to approach something like this.

“I’m not so sure anymore,” I said.  It was the truth, and it wasn’t self-incriminating.

Mrs. Yamada nodded.

Defiant spoke , “Let’s ensure we’re all familiar with what’s going on. We’ve had capes with criminal backgrounds join the Protectorate and Wards teams, though that has remained largely discreet, and Weaver’s civilian identity is public knowledge.  We’ve had experienced capes join, as well, forcing us to adapt to their experience and retrain them where necessary.  Weaver is both.  She’s currently serving time in Gardener.  Under the terms of her sentence, she’ll be continuing her high school studies independently, she’ll be getting therapy as soon as we’ve settled on a schedule, and she’ll be ferried out to various teams for testing and evaluation.”

“A lot of hassle for a little girl,” Jouster said.

A little girl?  I kept my mouth shut, but it took some effort.

Clockblocker, however, was chuckling.

“What?” Jouster asked.

“She beat Alexandria,” Hoyden said, “He’s laughing because you’re putting down the girl who killed Alexandria.”

“Not a selling point,” Hoyden’s boss, Dispatch, cut in.

“She’s an absolute nightmare to fight,” Clockblocker said.  “I’ve been on the receiving end enough times to know.  So when Miss Militia told me she was in custody, I started asking questions, trying to get a sense of what was happening and when.  I don’t even have to be here, and I’m picking up extra patrols later this week to make up for it, but I wanted to come and say this:  I don’t like her, not really.  But if my word counts for anything, as someone who’s only spent half the time dealing with the shit in Brockton Bay that she has?  We want her on our side.  Somehow, in some form.  Because the alternative sucks.”

“Thank you,” I said, my voice so quiet I wasn’t sure everyone heard me.  He was standing up for me, in a way, at a point in time I wasn’t sure how to voice those sorts of things myself.

I could see Jouster’s eyes behind his helmet, as he gave me a once-over.

“She killed Alexandria,” Hoyden said.  “And, what, she was there for Leviathan, she was there for the Slaughterhouse Nine, for Echidna…”

“She went head to head with each of those,” Clockblocker said.  He looked at me.  “Right?  Like, you weren’t just there.  You were in the thick of it, exchanging blows?”

I nodded.

“Today is numbers,” Prism said.  “Power evaluation, interviews.”

“No, no,” Dispatch said, shaking his head.  “Ridiculous.  You don’t invite us here, then make us sit through that nonsense.”

“We need to evaluate her abilities,” Defiant said.

“Do it on your own time.  And skip the interview,” Dispatch said.  “Your own notes, Defiant, say she’s a manipulator and a liar.”

“I’ve retracted those statements,” Defiant said.

“And who’s to say she hasn’t manipulated you?  You and Chevalier were arguing for a cleaner, shinier Protectorate, didn’t you?  Let’s not get off on the wrong foot.  We vet her thoroughly, and if we don’t get a consensus that she’s an asset to the team, then that’s that.”

“What would you suggest, in place of testing and an interview?”

“We do what we’re doing with the Cauldron capes, run her by our thinkers,” Dispatch said.  “We can get a more concrete assessment of her now, with a field exercise, than by any amount of talking.  If I’m remembering right, a notice went out, didn’t it?  A New York group of villains is poaching Wards and Protectorate members?”

“The Adepts,” Revel said.

“Two birds with one stone,” Dispatch said.  He looked at the collected captains of the Wards.  “We want to know how she functions in a team environment, let’s put her in the thick of it.  If there’s trouble, or if the mission doesn’t look good, the rest of us can step in.”

Eyes turned my way.

“You’re serious,” I said.

“As cancer,” Dispatch told me.

“I don’t have any of my stuff, and the costume Dragon gave me isn’t my usual.  Besides, you’ll be expecting me to follow different rules.”

“You’ve read the handbook, haven’t you?”

I nodded.  But I haven’t completely thought of ways around the restrictions.  I’d picked the name Weaver based on the idea that I’d be using thread more, but I didn’t have any prepared, not here, not yet.

“I’m sure Prism will let you have access to the New York teams’ supplies.  Largest cape groups in America, they’ll have a little of everything.”

I frowned.  If I said no, it’d be a black mark in my record, and some of these people were obviously not interested in giving me any slack, unless it was to hang myself with.

“Okay,” I said.

“The Adepts don’t kill,” he said.  “If there’s a problem, it’s on you.”

There should be a rule against saying things like that, I thought.  I didn’t care that he was putting me on the spot, or blaming me for stuff that hadn’t happened yet.  He was implying this would be easy, practically ensuring this would be anything but.

“Adepts,” Jouster said.  “I assume everyone’s up to date?”

Tecton was walking in front of our group, his tank of a suit giving us enough presence that the crowd parted before us.  “Don’t be a jackass.  You know Skit- Weaver hasn’t read the files.  They’re in your city, you fill us in.”

“I know the basics,” I said.  I’d read the file in Tattletale’s office.  “They’re wizards, or they pretend to be, like Myrddin.  Led by a time traveller.”

“They’re led by Epoch,” Jouster said, without looking at me.  “Group is very organized.  Thing you gotta know about New York is it’s bigger.  Everything is.  So these guys, there’s a lot of them.  They’re organized into tiers, and they compete with one another for placement in the tiers, challenging ones in higher tiers, paying a penalty if they fail the challenge.  There’s one tier one, two tier twos, three tier threes… all the way down to the tier fives.”

“Fifteen in total,” I said.

He gave me a hard look, then fell silent.

Am I not allowed to talk?

“This city sucks to move around in,” Hoyden said.  “Crowds, traffic… how do you get anywhere?”

“We have different sub-teams for different roles,” Jouster said.  “Lancer group for fast response, those of us who can fly or move over rooftops.  Another group of heavier hitters who’re old enough to ride the bikes and licensed to travel the tracks.”

“Tracks?”  Hoyden asked.

“Subways.  You use a computer to help know which tracks you can stay on and when, so you don’t get hit by a train.”

“And the ones who aren’t old enough, or aren’t naturally mobile?”  Tecton asked.

“Foot patrol, or sidekick duty with a Protectorate member,” Jouster said.

“Loads of fun,” Hoyden said.

“Am I the only one who likes doing the ride-along thing?” Vantage asked.

“Yes,” Hoyden said.  “Definitely.”

Jouster shook his head.  “It’s the job.  They grumble, sure, but it’s a few years at most before they get to do the bike thing.”

“I’m guessing you’re one of the ‘lancers’,” I said.

Jouster gave me a dirty look, “What of it?”

“Nothing,” I said.  “Just made sense.”

“Flechette was one too,” he said.  “She was going to lead the squad when I moved up to the Protectorate, with Shelter taking over as Wards captain.”

“I believe it,” I said.

“Seem to recall that she’d defected, joined your old team.”

“I don’t know anything about that, honestly,” I said.  “Only that she had romantic interests towards one of us Undersiders, and-”

“The doll girl,” Jouster said.

Vantage punched him in the shoulder.

“I didn’t know if she was ‘out’, so I didn’t want to say,” I said, feeling lame.

“That’s right,” Vantage said.  “That’s how you’re supposed to act.”

The earbud I’d been supplied with buzzed with a woman’s voice.  Prism?  They own the building up ahead.  Cut the banter and focus on the job.”

A male voice.  Talk us through everything you’re doing, Weaver.

“Focusing on my bugs,” I said.

“Tap the earbud twice to start the feed,” Tecton said.

I tapped it twice, and it beeped faintly.  “Focusing on my bugs.  I’ve been collecting them as we moved from the headquarters to this spot, so I have quite a few.”

Lethal and venomous bugs aren’t allowed, you know that.”

Tying my hands.  It was fine.  “I didn’t plan on using them anyways.  I’m selecting the smallest and most discreet, and sending them out.  It’ll take a minute at most, but I’ll be able to track their movements.”

The Adepts?”

“Everyone.  I mean, the area’s dense, but once I have tabs on the Adepts, I’ll have an idea of where the civilians are, too.  It means we can keep them out of danger, and we’ll know if anyone runs into the line of fire.”

There was silence on the line in response.  Were they talking about me?  Discussing the particulars?  Hell, was I already breaking rules by violating people’s privacy?

I spoke, hoping that I was interrupting them if they were saying something along those lines.  “I have other bugs on the periphery, drawing out cords of silk.”

Show us.  We have a camera in Tecton’s suit.

Okay, this was getting borderline annoying.  Second guessed every step of the way.

My swarm moved in front of Tecton, swirling.

Image, Weaver,” it was a different man who spoke.  The fat one… I couldn’t remember his name.  “We need to do something about appearances, here.”

“Appearances?”

The black, amorphous swarm.  It conveys the wrong ideas.  It’s disturbing to any onlookers, and if photos of you using your power on any greater scale made the rounds, it could be fodder for some ugly articles.  You already face an uphill battle, with your reputation as an ex-supervillain.

“You’re serious,” I said.  I tapped my ear to shut off the channel, looking at the others, “Is he serious?”

“Glenn is always serious,” Clockblocker said.  “When I first picked my name, Clockblocker, and announced it in front of a live camera so they couldn’t retract it, they punished me with intensive lessons with Glenn.”

“They do that any time you screw up on the PR front, like swearing on camera,” Hoyden said.  “And in the sessions, he talks to you about your hair, about redesigning your costume…”

“How to talk so you command attention,” Vantage said, over-enunciating his words.

“How to hold yourself,” Jouster said, straightening his back, squaring his shoulders and raising his chin a touch.

We can hear you, you know,” a woman said through the earbud.  Rime?

Maybe we need lessons in decorum,” Glenn’s voice buzzed in our ears.

Hoyden made a pained expression.  She glanced at Tecton, then ducked low, avoiding the camera, while she walked around to Tecton’s back.  She pushed at his shoulder, urging him to turn around.  He rolled his eyes and sighed as he obeyed, and Hoyden prodded him forward until he was standing right in front of a wall.

“I really don’t know what you expect,” I said.  “It’s my power.”

By all reports, you’re a clever girl,” Glenn said  “Surely there’s a way to present your power in a less threatening way.

I opened my mouth, but the sheer number of protests that came to mind all jumbled together.  I looked at the Wards, trying to see if I was the butt of a joke.

“Lucky, lucky you,” Clockblocker whispered to me, covering his ear with his hand, “You get his attention right from the start, and I’m willing to bet he’s not going to leave you alone.  It almost makes me feel better about the time you crammed those bugs into my mouth and ears.”

Vantage made a face at that.

“So worth the extra shifts I’m pulling this week,” Clockblocker commented to Jouster.  “Just to see this.”

“I’m not sure what you want, Glenn,” I said, after tapping my earbud,  “I could send my bugs in one at a time.  That’s not threatening, right?”

Your sarcasm isn’t appreciated, Weaver,” Defiant informed me.

“I’m willing to play ball,” I said.  “I just want to figure out what the he- heck you want, first.  Do you want, like, ladybugs?  There’s color there, a nice red cloud.  There’s only, um, two hundred and twelve ladybugs in my range.  But I could use them.  Or… butterflies?  There’s more butterflies than ladybugs.”

I accessed the butterflies in my swarm, drawing them to me.

“Tekky,” Hoyden said, “Turn around.  They’ll love this.”

Tecton,” he mumbled, stressing the word.  “I hate ‘techy’, ‘tech geek’ and all those names.  Just like I hate being the camera guy, the guy who the PRT gets to fix the vans when they want to cut work early…”

I drew the butterflies into formation, a stream of them following after one another.

“I just want you to realize that this is what you’d be asking me to-”

Yes,” Glenn said, cutting me off.  “Excellent!  They did say you were smart.

“You’re serious,” I said.

Clockblocker was laughing silently, his shoulders shaking.

“Serious as cancer,” Hoyden mimicked her superior.  “All Glenn cares about is the image, the PR.  Up to you to figure out how to hold yourself like a ‘lady’ while you’re dealing with street thugs with guns.”

You would know, Hoyden,” Glenn said.  “I’d hoped something would sink in for you, with you having more meetings with me than anyone has in the past year.

Stick to business, please.  Where did you get all those butterflies, anyways?” I think it was Rime, on the comms.

“Rooftop gardens,” I said.  “There was a whole block with older buildings and a garden on every roof, while we were heading this way.  Lots of balcony-mounted flower troughs, too.”

We’d need to get you a steady supply,” Glenn said.  “I wonder how we arrange that.

“They’re really going to make me the butterfly girl?” I asked.

Clockblocker only laughed harder.  I was pretty sure he was faking it, at this point.  He couldn’t find it that funny.

If this is a problem,” Defiant said, the earbud’s digital sound only compounding the faint digital note of Defiant’s voice, “We can cancel the job, take a few days to discuss the tools you need to do the job effectively.”

The worst of both worlds.  I’d be backing down, they’d probably argue for this as a way to keep me ‘tame’, and I’d look disobedient.

“No,” I said.  “You want me to use butterflies, let’s do that.”

“For real?” Hoyden asked.

I nodded.  “We’re picking a fight with the Adepts?”

This is only a branch,” Prism said, over the comm, “They have three primary properties.  They don’t hold territory, so the local gangs leave them be.  The idea is to discourage them.  Fight only so long as you’re confident you’ll win.  Communicate what’s going on, and we’ll step in if need be.  With luck, this will be a setback for them, and cause to stop headhunting from our side.

“Okay,” I said.  “Who’s in charge?”

“Me,” Jouster said.

It would be weird to not be the leader, after heading the Undersiders.  “You okay with me as recon?”

“Suppose you have to be, if you’re limiting yourself to butterflies,” he said.

“I wasn’t going to limit myself to recon,” I said.

“You’ll tear them to shreds with butterfly bites,” Vantage said.  “Do butterflies bite?”

“They don’t have mouthparts that can bite,” I told him.  “They have proboscises.”

“So are you like, super smart or something?” Hoyden asked.

“No,” I answered her.

“Don’t get distracted by the new member,” Jouster said.

I noted what my bugs were telling me.  “There’s three of them inside.  Two men, one woman.  The men have groupies with them, I think.  In their bedrooms.  There might be more, but they don’t have costumes on.”

“They should have numbers on their sleeves.  Roman numerals.”

“I can’t really see through the bug’s eyes,” I said.  “One second…”

I found the woman, sitting on the couch, a laptop on a coffee table in front of her.  The bugs traced her sleeve.

“It’s not embroidered, I can’t sense anything raised, and the bug’s eyes can’t make out the letters.  Sorry.”

“Check the surroundings,” Jouster said.  “Tools?  The group’s practices involve using tools, ritual, rites, chants, and all that crap to try to achieve better control over their abilites.”

“Kind of makes sense,” I said.  “Abilities get stronger when you’re in a mental state closer to how you were thinking before your trigger event, so-”

“Wait, what?”  Clockblocker cut me off.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I triggered while I was in a locker.  I’ve been thinking, I get just a little stronger when I feel trapped, or when I despair, or when I feel betrayed.  My range extends.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jouster said.  “Three of them.  No tools?”

“Sort of a tool.  A rod, short, barely a foot long, and blunt, no barrel or anything.  Carved, I think.”

“Not sure,” Jouster said.  “Doesn’t ring any bells.”

“Um.  But if you look,” I pointed.  “There’s birds.  Usually they’ll pick off a few bugs that get too close, but they aren’t moving.”

“And there’s some inside?” Jouster asked.

“Three… five birds in cages inside the apartment,” I said.

“Felix Swoop, tier three member of the group,” Jouster said.  “Master-blaster hybrid.  Controls birds, but not as much control as you seem to have.  Thing is, he applies fire immunity and pyrokinesis to the birds, programs them with movements.  You said he’s distracted?”

I noted Swoop’s presence in the bedroom, tried not to pay too much attention to the particulars of what was happening inside.  “Definitely occupied.”

“Let’s move,” Jouster said.  He began striding across the street.  He raised his voice, “Back away from the building!”

No reaction from the men in the bedroom or the woman on the sofa.  They couldn’t hear it.

I directed my swarm.  Bugs moved through the crowd, and I organized the swarm so it was surrounded by butterflies, masking the core of the ‘disturbing’ black swarm within.

Cheating, maybe, but I’d do what I had to.  The irritating part of this was that I had to look at the swarm to make sure everything was in place.  It’d become natural sooner or later, but I really didn’t need more handicaps.

Back away from the building.  You can watch the fight, but watch from the other end of the street,” I spoke through my swarm.

So weird, to be doing this with a veneer of legitimacy.

What are you doing, Weaver,” one of the capes asked me, through the earbud.

“Warning the crowd.  I can mimic my voice by using the sounds my swarm produces, only I’m using mainly butterflies.”

A bit of a fib, but it would fit what Tecton was seeing by way of his camera.

Keep us updated on your thought process and strategies.

Jouster led the way into the building.

“I’m using the silk cords I prepared earlier to hamper the birds on the balconies,” I said.  “There’s a pigeon roost above, but I’m covering the door, so hopefully Swoop won’t have access to all of those pigeons.  And I’ve got other bugs surreptitiously gathering in the clothing that Swoop and the other male discarded.  I’m assuming I can use the scarier bugs if the public isn’t about to see?”

That goes against the spirit of what I was talking about,” Glenn told me.

“Yeah,” Hoyden said, from just behind me, “You should want to use butterflies and butterflies only.”

Tecton pushed the door open, splintering the lock and snapping the chain with just the strength of his power armor.

Tecton in last,” Prism said.  “We’ll want eyes on the scene.”

“I’m the toughest of us,” Tecton protested.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Hoyden said, patting his chest as she walked by.

“Two upstairs there, with two more that might be initiates, might be civilians,” I said, raising my voice a fraction.  I pointed in the direction of the two men.  I moved one hand to point at another point.  “One woman there.  All two floors up.”

I hung back as the heroes ascended the stairs, and got to see as Tecton placed his hands against the frame of the door.

“Let me know when,” he said.  “And brace yourselves.”

We’d gone over the powers in this particular group before we left.  I knew what Tecton and Clockblocker were capable of, obviously.  That left Vantage, Jouster and Hoyden.  I could track them as they broke into the apartment.

Jouster’s blaster-striker hybrid power involved his lance, a power that conducted along the usual channels, only the form it took varied.  He speared through the computer, then swung the blunted side of the weapon at the couch.  The woman rolled out of the way, and energy rippled away from the lance, freezing and shredding cushions.

He could choose the effect, making it fairly versatile.  Concussive blasts, fire, ice, lightning, suction and disintegration, among other things.  Trick was that he had to hit to deliver the effect.

The advantage, conversely, was that he had another power.  With a brief-lived burst of superspeed, he closed the distance to the woman, coming to an abrupt stop just in time to kick her in the midsection.

Clockblocker followed, stepping forward to touch the woman and freeze her.

Woman is Paddock,” Jouster said, through the earbud.

Caught her,” Clockblocker said.

Hoyden and Vantage were already breaking into the other rooms, interrupting the men and women at play.

Vantage had super strength, but his strength and reflexes scaled up as the number of opponents rose, with diminishing returns.  He wasn’t especially durable, but he packed short-range teleports.  Very short-range – a matter of two or three feet, at best.  He teleported to help close the gap to Swoop and slammed one hand into the man’s collarbone.  The woman scrambled for cover.

Anyone want to break the wishbone?” he quipped.

The other man raised a hand at Hoyden, and she stopped in her tracks.  He almost leisurely stood, taking the hand of the girl beside him, then reached down to collect his robe, and recoiled in horror at the bugs that festooned it.  He couldn’t get to the rod, whatever it was supposed to do.

“Heads up, Hoyden’s ensorcelled or something,” I said, communicating through the earbuds.

“Nuh uh,” I could hear her speak through the earbud.  She caught the cape from behind, then hurled him through the doorway, at Clockblocker.  He stepped on the man’s bare back, and the man was frozen.

“Cape two captured,” Clockblocker said.

Hoyden was one of the capes with a mess of powers.  Things she hit exploded, things that hit her suffered a retaliatory explosion.  She was stronger, more durable, and to top it all off, she had a peculiar resistance to damage and powers that improved as she got further from her target.

Between them, they each had the ability to apply their abilities in devastating ways.  They were team captains for a reason.

Wait, was this okay?  I’d barely done anything.  I was used to hanging back, supporting my allies, and delivering decisive strikes where necessary, but I was supposed to be proving something.  Would I be able to say I’d achieved anything definitive?

Was that intentional?

I hurried up the stairs in double time.  I reached the door frame, and I got a look from Jouster.

Definitely intentional.  He’d had his team bulldoze through the capes, leaving nothing for me.  I’d provided recon, but would that be enough?

“Securing the bystanders,” Clockblocker said, from across the room.  He approached one of the women, and she made a squeak of alarm as she jumped back from his reaching hand.  “Shhh, it’s okay.  Doesn’t hurt.  If you’ve done nothing wrong, there’s nothing to worry about.  You’ll wake up in a few minutes, visit the police, and then go home.”

She glanced at Jouster, as if looking for confirmation, and Clockblocker touched her, freezing her.

The other woman was pulling on pants, the kind of skinny jeans you pulled up inch by excruciating inch, if you were lucky enough to have actual hips.  She still wore a black bra, and way too much eye shadow.

“Last one,” Clockblocker said.  “You can call in the PRT vans.”

She buttoned up her jeans, then ran her thumb along the chain that ran from her belt loop to her pocket.

“Wait,” I said.  The chain- there were charms on it.  “Those charms.”

“My embellishment,” she said.

“Shit!” Jouster said.  “Clock!”

Clockblocker lunged, but she leaped back.  Landing on his hands and knees, Clockblocker reached out, firing the fingertips of his glove at her, each trailing cords that extended to his gauntlet.  Two of the cords looped around her limbs as they made contact.  Thick, I noted.  Not fishing lines that might cut when they were frozen in time.

He froze them, then freed his hand from the glove.  She was immobilized.

It wasn’t enough.

“It’s Standstill,” Jouster said.  He broke into a run, charging her with his lance held ready.

“Thirteenth Hour, now,” she retorted.  Her eyes flared with light, and I felt my body jolt.

Tecton!” I spoke through my bugs.

My heartbeat slowed to a glacial pace, my breathing slowing.  My outstretched hand started drifting down, the strength to hold it up slowly leaving my body.

Thirteenth Hour collapsed, going limp in the midst of Clockblocker’s suspended wires.  Jouster, mid-stride, did much the same.

My thoughts were slowing down, volition gone.  The others were the same.  My sense of time…  I was reminded of a dream I’d had, of being put under a spell by Coil.  Scopolamine.

Clockblocker’s power wore off the various Adepts, one by one.  They composed themselves, dressing.

Swoop dialed a number on his phone, approached the sleeping Thirteenth Hour while holding it to his ear.  He lifted her chin and kissed her, staying beside her to catch her as the cords were released.

“Spot of trouble,” he said, with a faint accent.  Australian?  British?  “Wouldn’t mind one of the top tiers.  They’ll have reinforcements.”

My eyelids drifted closed.  I didn’t have the will to raise them.

But I could follow my bugs as they stirred, converging, moving as if with a mind of their own.

Following my unconscious directives?

The bugs went on the offensive, biting, stinging.

No.  It wasn’t even a coherent thought.  I’d get in trouble.

No,” the bugs whispered, their droning forming crude words.

Swoop and the others startled at that.  I could sense their movements through the accumulated bugs.  He made a hand gesture, murmured a phrase, and birds took flight from the cages around the apartment.  After a moment, they ignited, winging their way through the thickest areas of the swarm.

The others would be arriving soon.  I had to do something.

That urgency, more than anything, seemed to translate into an order for my swarm.  They began moving, bearing silk threads.

That, I was okay with.

The binding they performed was carried out as if from some deep-seated, creative part of me, the part of me that would doodle absentmindedly in the margins of my notebook when I was tired in class.  Instead of aimless doodles, however, it was cords and lines of silk extending from table legs to feet, from wrists to earrings and between the loops of shoelaces, and it was all accompanied by the butterflies that I was still maintaining in formation.

Swoop’s improvised phoenixes couldn’t get close enough to burn those things without burning the individuals in question.

The other Adepts were arriving.  My sense of time, still, was obscured.  Where were the Protectorate capes?

How long would we be stunned like this?

Swoop, one hand pressed to his collarbone, moved his other arm to allow a flaming pigeon to rest on one hand, then winced in pain as he wound up nearly yanking an earring out.  “Curses!’

He really said things like ‘curses’.

I did not want to lose to these guys.

The bugs were still moving, aimless, without my active direction, but they were using the silk cords.

Butterflies, I thought.

The butterflies I’d been prepared to use moved into the formations I’d instructed, joining and complementing the swarms of bugs that were weaving webs of silk over and around the four Adepts, including the sleeping Thirteenth Hour.  I could sense her breathing.

How to break the spell?

Tecton.

He was under the effects.  I could tell, by how his arms had drooped from where he had them on the door frame.

If this was simply a kind of hypnosis…

I called bugs to me, directed them to gather on my face.

Not enough… they couldn’t get through my mask.

Without me asking it to, a cockroach started chewing through the fabric.  The fabric that wasn’t nearly as strong as spider silk.

The female Adept that Jouster and Clockblocker had attacked as they entered the apartment made her way toward the kitchen, stumbled as a silk cord around her knees failed to give her enough give.

“Annoying,” she said.

“Admirable, almost,” Swoop commented.  “This is the sort of thing we hope to train, and she’s already a fair hand at it, isn’t she?”

“Whatever,” the woman said.  She drew a kitchen knife from a wooden block on the counter, then began cutting the most obvious threads.

Seconds, minutes, hours passed.  I couldn’t say for sure.  There was fighting outside.  Capes fighting capes.  I couldn’t focus my attention on it.

With the hole in my mask now large enough, the cockroach wormed his way in.

Two ways this could go, I realized, as it dawned on me what I was doing.  What my passenger was doing?  Either this worked, or it would fail disastrously, and they’d be distracted, at the very least.

The cockroach reached the back of my throat.  I gagged and coughed.

And that disruption was enough to shake off Thirteenth Hour’s influence.  My thoughts began to coalesce into something more coherent.

Still coughing, fighting the urge to throw up into my mask, I directed bugs into the eye holes of Tecton’s mask, down to his mouth, to do much the same.

“No,” the cape with the rod said.

Another mind-affecting power.  I could see my spiders getting larger as they crawled, the apartment getting smaller, I felt vertigo…

Tecton reached out to the doorframe and made the building shudder with enough force that everyone stumbled.

Everyone woke, Thirteenth Hour included.  The hallucinations stopped.

“Again!” Swoop shouted.

Thirteenth Hour’s eyes glowed, her power flaring…

But I was ready.  A cockroach mobilized to set off my gag reflex a second time, and I was alert before the effect had even sunken in.

So gross.

Vantage and Jouster wore masks that covered their mouths.  It’d take a second to get into Tecton’s, and I didn’t want him to unwittingly wake Thirteenth Hour again…

I woke Hoyden instead.

I wasn’t making friends or allies here, I suspected.

Hoyden strode forward, coughing and wiping at her mouth.  A flaming bird soared at her face.  In the instant it made contact, it detonated in a ball of flame and unburned feathers.  She was thrown backwards.

Another homed in on me.  I wasn’t durable, like Hoyden.  I shielded my face with my arms.

The armor protected me, the cloth didn’t.  I could feel it as though something scraped against my flesh, felt the hot prickle that promised future pain.  A burn.

“Stop,” the cape with the hallucination power said.  He made a sign with his hands, extending his rod at me.

Again, I felt the sensation of things distorting.

I was free of Thirteenth Hour’s power, though, and my bugs were winding silk around his arm and face.  He clawed at it, to little effect, and the more butterflies that settled on his face, the less effective he seemed to get.

Hoyden had returned, and endured a barrage of more flaming birds.  The larger birds weren’t obliterated as they exploded, and circled around to strike her again.  I ducked below one I could sense only by the bugs it burned along its path, then backed away.

The one with the knife.  I tied some silk around the knife handle, connecting to the silk between Swoop’s leg and the table.

She tried to bring the knife down to cut something, and the cord went taut, pulling it from her hand.  She tried to bend over to pick it up, and the thread between her throat and the light fixture pulled taut.

What was her power, even?

I wasn’t interested in finding out.  I navigated the threads by using the bugs to track their placement.  The armor Dragon had fashioned didn’t have compartments inside the armor panel at the back, but I had a taser dangling from my belt.  Before she could figure out a way to break a thread, arm herself or use her power, I jabbed her with the taser.

She fell, momentarily suspended by the threads.  I had the bugs near the light fixture manually break the thread before she strangled.

That left Swoop and Mr. Hallucination, who was apparently suffering for not having removed more threads from himself earlier.  He swatted at the butterflies.

I reached Jouster, shaking him.  When he didn’t rouse, I shook him harder.

Nothing.  Not jarring enough.

I kicked his leg out from under him, and he sprawled.

“Fuck you,” he mumbled, as he began to climb to his feet.

“Wake up Clockblocker and Vantage,” I said.

“You don’t give me orders,” he said.  He approached Swoop.  The man smacked Hoyden with one more bird, whirling around to face Jouster, and then got slammed in the chest with the fattest part of the lance.  The third tier Adept flew into a wall and went limp.

Jouster wanted to clean up?  Fine.  I tazed the hallucination guy, then hurried to Clockblocker’s side.  When shaking him didn’t rouse him, I raised his head from the floor and then smacked it down hard enough to startle him.

“Jerk,” he mumbled.

Jouster had poked Vantage awake.

“Our reinforcements are fighting their reinforcements,” I said.

“Good to know.  We get Tecton and back them up.”

“You kicked their asses with butterflies,” Clockblocker said, as we made our way to the stairs.

“I cheated.  The butterflies are superficial, decorative.”

“No, no, no,” he said.  “If anyone asks, you kicked their asses with butterflies.”

Defiant and I walked back through the corridor of double-layered chain-link fence.  There was a long pause as the gates opened.

“You may have won over some of the ones with doubts, but Rime was grumbling about your attitude, and I suspected she was on your side to start with.”

“My attitude?”

“I don’t know.  Something to ask her, when the time comes.”

I sighed.

“Your arms?”

“Hurt,” I said.  I extended my arms, prodding at the bandage on my forearms.  “Nothing serious.  Will probably peel like a motherfucker.”

“Language,” he said, as we entered the hub.

The warden was there, waiting for us.

“You got injured.”

“In the line of duty,” Defiant said.  “Permitted duty.”

“I told you to keep her out of trouble.”

“Wasn’t my choice,” Defiant said.  “I can give you my superior’s number if you’d like.”

“I would like.  Taylor Hebert?  On the issue with the bug population of my facility, I feel it would be a very bad idea to provide you with a caustic substance to give your bugs, given what your file says you achieved with capsaicin.  I had a bug zapper purchased, and you should be able to access it with each and every one of your tiny soldiers.  I expect to see it used, understand?”

I nodded.

“Go change.  I’ll have a guard waiting here to escort you to your cell.”

“Okay,” I said.

I changed back into a fresh prison tunic and pants, leaving my shoes behind.  It pained me to leave everything behind, but I did.  The female guard patted me down when I’d emerged and handed the bundle of clothes to the guard at the hub’s office, then led me to my cell.

I was cognizant of my fellow prisoners, who watched me.  Prisoners who, I had little doubt, saw my injury as a sign of weakness, a reason to descend on me like wolves with wounded prey.

Being out among the Wards had shaken me, on a level.  I still needed to find out how to fight like a Ward.  A more effective Ward than the ones I’d encountered in the past, ideally.  I needed to adjust my tactics, the very way I thought.  To build a measure of self-confidence that wasn’t borne by fear and intimidation.

I settled down on the bunk with my book.

I shifted restlessly.  I still had trace amounts of adrenaline in my system.  The rush of a fight.  My arms hurt, too, despite the over-the-counter painkillers I’d tossed back.  A second degree burn, and like so many other injuries of the hands and arms, they seemed as though they had been strategically placed where they’d be most irritating and debilitating.

Tonight is going to suck, I thought.  How was I supposed to get comfortable like this?

My bugs found the bug zapper, and I began systematically eliminating every cockroach, louse, fly and ant in the building.

The spiders, I kept on hand, directing them to the burned corpses.  They could breed, in time, and I could put them somewhere where they wouldn’t encounter any people.

Breaking the rules, maybe, but it was something to occupy my thoughts.  It made me feel just a little safer, a little more like myself.

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