Cockroaches 28.5

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At least she’s stopped screaming.

The Simurgh floated in the air, remaining in a kind of stasis, much like she’d been in when we’d approached her, but there was an entire rig of devices surrounding her.  A halo, almost, studded with guns and cannons at regular intervals.  The sky behind her was overcast, clouds rolling past us with the strong winds, and mingled dust and smoke slowly shifting beneath her, brown-gray.  The juxtaposition was eerie, the clouds of the sky moving faster than the smoke and dust, and the Simurgh between the two, utterly still.

On TV, back in the days when we’d had television, there had been the various talk shows, news segments and interviews where the Endbringers would come up.  I’d listened, even though television wasn’t really my thing.  I’d heard people theorize on the Simurgh’s scream, wondering out loud about just how many of the disasters that followed in her wake were her, and how many were our own overblown paranoia.

It helped to remind myself that I wasn’t the only one who was debating the possibilities.  I’d listened for too long.  Was I tainted?  If this was all a trap, then I might already be seeded with some destructive or disastrous impulse.  Should I be hypervigilant?  Should I not stress over it?

It was a debate millions of individuals had maintained amongst themselves, in the wake of the Simurgh’s attacks.  Invariably, there wasn’t a right answer.  If she wanted to fuck with me, there wasn’t anything I could do.  Anything could and would fit into her game plan.

It wasn’t just me, either.  I was very aware of Lung’s presence, and of Shadow Stalker’s.

The Yàngbǎn were dealt with.  There were two major raiding parties, if we judged solely by the colors of their masks, and three or four other sub-groups tasked with different functions.  One raiding party was annihilated, and I could hope the Endbringer’s presence would scare off the other group.

There was an upside of sorts, in that the Yàngbǎn didn’t have access to Cauldron’s doormaking parahuman.  It meant they moved exclusively through the portals that dotted Earth Bet, the same portals the refugees had used, which some stragglers were still using.  Various factions and governments were gathering small armies at each of the remaining portals.  One Earth was already lost to us, destroyed by Scion in the first day he’d been traveling universes.  The South American refugees who had fled through there would be either eradicated or reduced to such a small population that it barely mattered.  Earth Zayin, too, was gone, subsumed by the Sleeper.

Still, a dozen Earths remained, with people scattered all over them.  The C.U.I. had claimed one, and they’d be ready for retaliation, maintaining a defensive line.

I doubted that defensive line would hold if an Endbringer decided to march through.  No, they would be gathering their forces in anticipation of a possible attack.  Good.

I took in my surroundings.  One ramshackle settlement, more than half of it obliterated by bombs.  Relatively little in the way of collateral damage on the Simurgh’s part.

Psychological damage?  Quite possible.  The Simurgh was a terror weapon, her very presence enough to rout armies, and these refugees weren’t an army.  Morale had been low to start with.

I sighed.  We’d scared people off, and they’d fled to the hills, quite literally.  In a movie, this would have been the moment that people slowly began returning, the orchestral music swelling as they overcame their fear.

Ridiculous, in context.  They’d hide for days, and they’d flee the second they saw the Simurgh again.

This wasn’t a case where we’d be able to stop the imminent threat and then recruit a select few people from among the survivors.

“Yo,” Tattletale said.  She had to run to get up the last stretch of the little hill that overlooked Tav’s primary settlement.

“Yo,” I responded.

“Total deadpan?  You can be a little excited,” she said.

“I am.  Quiet terror is a kind of excitement, isn’t it?  Pulse pounding, heart in my throat, and I’m so tense I’m getting a headache, because I’m almost afraid to think.”

“You think I’m notFuck.  There’s very few things that genuinely terrify me.  One of them is hanging out right above us, building something, and I can’t even read her, which makes her one of the few things out there that surprise me.”

Building something?  I looked up.

True enough, the Simurgh had her hands in front of her, and was manipulating debris in between her hands.

“What is she-”

‘I don’t know,” Tattletale said, interrupting me.  “What do you want me to do?  Ask her?”

I shook my head.  “How are the Pendragon’s occupants doing?”

“Ship shape, but Defiant’s wanting to be careful.  He’s demanding they get triple-checked.  Kind of funny, seeing that from him.”

I shrugged.  It would be a bigger leap for Tattletale to see the changes in him than for me to see it.  I’d been acquainted with him over the past two years, while she only saw him here and there.

“They’ll be up for it if we have a fight?” I asked.

Tattletale shrugged.  “For sure.  Scratches, bruises, but that’s about it.  We’re down to fight at a moment’s notice.  Sad thing is, the worst thing Scion could do to us is wait a month or two before he comes back.”

“True,” I agreed.

Not a pleasant thought.  If he took a leave of absence while we were trying to wrangle the Endbringers, odds were we’d get taken out by other factions or by the Endbringers themselves.

“I dunno,” Imp said.  I managed to not be startled as she appeared.  “Killing us all is pretty awful.”

“Awful, but not awful in the ‘let humanity destroy itself’ sort of way,” I pointed out.  “Let us come up with a plan for fighting back, then disappearing?  Letting that plan fester and fuck us over?”

Imp shrugged.  “So?  What do we do?”

“Handle what we can,” I said.  “Let’s go talk to the others and hash out a plan of action.”

The three of us made our way down the hill to the settlement.  In the doing, we passed through a darker patch where the Simurgh’s wingspan blocked out a portion of the sun.  What little sunlight could pass through the cloud cover, anyways.  I glanced up and saw her in shadow, the light behind her outlining her body, hair, feathers and the halo of improvised weapons.

Defiant had his helmet off.  His hair had grown in just a little, but wasn’t much more than a buzz cut, stubble on one side of his face was much the same.  But for the lack of stubble on his cheek, I might not have noticed his face was partially a prosthetic.  A gift from the Nine.

“It worked,” he said.

“More or less,” I responded.  “One civilian death and seven civilian injuries in the fighting, the death and two of the injuries were the Simurgh’s fault.”

“Only that many,” Defiant said.

“She was letting us know she could,” Tattletale said.  “Which is something we really should pay attention to, so long as we’re trying to make sense of Endbringer psychology.  I’m wondering if you could say that they’re primarily a warped super-ego, devoid of any real ego or advanced id.  Built in codes and rulesets, not human social rules, but still rules established by a creator.”

“Sigmund Freud,” Defiant said.  “I remember being back in University.  Second year psychology elective.  The professor said one word, ‘Freud‘, and the entire auditorium of students exploded in laughter.”

Tattletale smiled.  “You’re calling my analysis into question?”

“If you’re basing it on the Freudian structural model, yes.”

“Freud was big on the whole Oedipus, Electra thing.  Mommy issues, daddy issues.  I’d say if we have any understanding of the Endbringers at all, there’s definitely something going on there.  Not sexual, but you get what I mean.”

“You’re way overstating my intelligence,” Imp said.  “I don’t get what you mean at all.”

“The Endbringers have a fucked up connection with whoever made them,” I said.  “Be it Eidolon or someone else.”

“I understand that.”

“So if they’re unmoored from whatever’s anchoring them to reality,” Tattletale said, “What’s motivating them now?”

“A better question,” I said, “Is… well, who the fuck is she following?”

“Us,” Imp said.  “You guys are overthinking this.”

I sighed.  “She is following us, probably.  Leviathan was following the Azazel, Simurgh followed the Dragonfly.  Both maintained consistent speeds, matching pace, keeping a short distance.  What I’m asking is, which of us, exactly, does the Simurgh follow?”

“Who’s in control of her, for the time being?”  Tattletale summed up the question.

“There’s an easy way to check that,” Defiant murmured.  Odd, that his voice had a vaguely mechanical twang to it even with his helmet off.  “Each person that was on the Dragonfly walks in a different direction, and we see who she follows.”

I frowned, glancing skyward for a moment.  No sign of any movement or response from the Simurgh.

“What?” Tattletale asked.

“I wouldn’t say anyone’s in control of her,” I said.  “Because I don’t think anyone is in control of her except her, and-”

I stopped there.

What?” Tattletale asked, again.

“When she was first attacking the settlement and I was musing aloud at the possibility of betrayal, she very deliberately looked at me.  It was a communication, all on its lonesome.  Letting me know the whole betrayal thing was a possibility, that she had some self-volition, and letting me know she was listening.”

“We know she hears.  We know she’s aware of everything around her, present or future.  Simurgh S.O.P.,” Tattletale said.

“I know,” I said.  “But I’m not just saying she heard me.  I’m saying she was listening.  She’s hearing every word we say here and she’s paying attention to all of it, processing it, applying it, maybe.”

“You may be reading too much into a momentary eye contact,” Defiant said.  “I’m watching the video footage in question right now… yes.  I see what you’re talking about.”

“Right?” I asked.  “So you agree?”

But he shook his head.  “I suspect It’s a bad sign if you’re getting paranoid over this.  It’s counterproductive, and the moment your fear or second-guessing is detrimental enough, you need to step down and walk away.”

I took a deep breath, then sighed.  “I’m fine.”

“If there’s an issue…”

“No issue.  All I’m saying, the only reason I brought this up, is because I don’t want to get on her bad side.  I’d very much appreciate it if we treated her with due respect.  Let’s not upset her by talking about her in a negative light.  Electra complexes, talking about who’s controlling her, or experimenting on her.  I don’t think it’s that easy to understand her, and we’re only going to upset her if we keep going down that road.”

“She doesn’t get upset,” Defiant said.  “Didn’t we just spend an inordinate amount of time talking about how Endbringers don’t have conventional emotions?”

“Better safe than sorry,” I said.

“Yes,” he sighed the word.  “Yes.  Of course.  I’m mentally exhausted, I’m being stubborn.”

“We’re all mentally exhausted,” I said.  I glanced up at the Simurgh.  “Keep that in mind.”

There were nods all around.

“The Pendragon won’t fly until I fix it,” Defiant said, standing.  He pulled on his helmet, and there was an audible sound as it locked into place.  “I’ll need parts from elsewhere.  It also means leaving some people behind.  You can’t fit everyone into the Dragonfly.”

“We’ll do something low-risk in the meantime, then,” I said.  “Reduced group.”

“Sensible.  I’ll go see after the others, then.  This would be a good time to eat, stock up on supplies or use the facilities.”

Defiant wasn’t one for goodbyes or formalities.  He said he’d leave, and he left, his boots making heavy sounds with each footfall.

“Well, I’m going to go make water,” Tattletale said, jerking a thumb towards one of the outhouses.  “I’d be all girl-code and invite you with, but I actually like you guys, and I don’t want to subject you to that atmosphere.”

“Thanks,” I said.

When Tattletale had disappeared, Imp and I sort of meandered over towards the others.

Canary was closest, helmet off, her hair plastered to her head with sweat, making her feathers that much more prominent where they stuck out of her hairline.

“This is crazy,” she said.

“This is a Tuesday for us,” Imp replied, overly casual in a way that was almost forced.

I saw the dawning alarm on Canary’s features.  I hurried to reassure her, “It’s really not.  Ignore her.”

Canary nodded.

“Holding up okay?”  I asked.

“Pretty much.  There’s one thing, but it… it’s pretty trivially stupid in the grand scheme of things.”

“We’re killing time while we wait to get organized,” I said.  “Go ahead.”

“There were two people I was talking to.  Forget their names.  One’s really forgettable and the other’s obscure.”

“Foil and Parian,” I said.

“Yes.  Right, yeah.  I was talking to them, and we had a lot in common, and then they went from warm to ice cold in a flash.  Couldn’t understand why.”

I frowned.  “That doesn’t sound like either of them.”

“They didn’t really say anything.  They just talked about going somewhere, and I asked if I could come, and they looked at me like I had three heads.”

“They probably wanted to be alone,” I said.

“Yeah.  I get that,” Canary said.

Alone alone,” Imp responded.  “End of the world, making every minute count?  Nudge, nudge, wink wink?”

Imp held her mask in one hand, using it to nudge Canary twice, then tipping it to the side as she winked, keeping time with the four words.

Canary’s eyes went wide.  “Oh.  Oh!”

“Dudette, with all the hugging and reassuring they were doing, how was this even in question?”

“I don’t follow the cape scene.  I don’t know how close teammates get.  I just figured, shitty situation, life and death, maybe you cling tighter to any buoy in a storm… oh god.  I asked if I could come with them.”

Imp nodded sagely.  “I can see where you’d get confused.  We’re very close, here, after all.”

Canary was blushing, humiliated, the pink of her skin contrasting her yellow hair.

Imp continued, “After all, Skitter… Weaver and I… well…”

She tried to make bedroom eyes at me, holding her hands in front of her, twisting her arms as she drew her shoulders forward, the very picture of a lovestruck schoolgirl.

Canary’s face reddened further as Imp continued to poke fun.

Imp, for her part, gave it up after only two or three seconds.  “Fuck.  Can’t do it.  Weaver here has diddled my brother, and it just feels squick and incestuous.”

That’s the reason we haven’t ever done the relationship thing,” I said, my voice flat.  “It’d be weird in an almost incestuous way.”

Imp cackled.  One of very few people I knew who could cackle.  She was enjoying herself.  This was her medium.  One of them.  “You’d do better with Tattletale, or Rachel.”

“Thank you,” I said, and I injected a little more sarcasm into my voice, “for the mental pictures that evokes.”

She cackled again.

Eager to change the topic, I glanced at the others.  The Wards were sitting a short distance away, Kid Win, Golem, Vista and Cuff, sitting together.  Cuff was fixing up Golem’s costume.

I’d feel weird about approaching them.  Technically, I was still a Ward, though my eighteenth birthday had come and gone.  I should have moved up to the Protectorate, but I’d never been sworn in, had never filled in the paperwork.

The Slaughterhouse Nine, Scion and the mass-evacuation from Earth Bet sort of gave me an excuse, but I still didn’t want to face the questions.

I glanced at Saint, who was sitting between Narwhal and Miss Militia.  They were pretty clearly talking guns.

Lung stood alone.  He was holding a skewer with meat all along the length.  A glance around didn’t show any possible source.

A check with my swarm did.  A few hundred feet away, there was a cooking fire that had gone out in the aftermath of the Yàngbǎn attack.  Lung had apparently claimed some food as a matter of course.

“Lung,” I said, almost absently.

“You know him?” Canary asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“He was kind of notorious in the Birdcage.  A lot of people, they come in, and they do something to make a statement.  Kill someone, pick someone suitable and claim them, challenge someone suitably impressive to a fight, that sort of thing.”

“What did Lung do?” I asked.

“He marched into the women’s side of the prison, killed his underling, and then killed and maimed a bunch of others before the cell block leaders ordered people to pull back.  I got called into a meeting, too, where a bunch of people in charge of cell blocks asked me to come and tell them what I knew about him, since we arrived at the same time.”

I nodded.  “But you didn’t know anything.”

“No.  I think some of them were really worried, too.  I thought they were going to hurt me, until Lustrum, uh, my cell block leader, backed me up, gave me her protection.”

“Geez,” Imp said.  “That’s messed up.”

Canary shrugged.  “How did you put it?  A Tuesday?  A Tuesday in the Birdcage.”

“No, I’m not talking about that,” Imp said.  “I’m talking about the fact that Lustrum the feminazi was in charge of your cell block and you still didn’t pick up on the thing between Parian and Foil.  Isn’t that, like, Sappho central?”

Sappho?

Canary blushed again.  “I… uh.”

“I mean, seriously,” Imp said.

“Ease up,” I warned her.

“I… I live and let live,” Canary said.  “I just didn’t want to step on toes.”

“And you never got any?”

“I had somebody, but like I said…”

They were still going as I focused on my swarm.  I gave some commands to the Dragonfly, which I had landed a mile and a half out of town, and brought it our way.

With the relay bugs, I could sense most of the settlement, the surrounding landscape, everything above and below.  That was only using half of them.

The remainder were fertilized, bearing eggs.

I’d flipped the switches, shifted them into breeding mode, and I was working on keeping them warm and well fed.  I’d have to wait until the eggs hatched before I found out whether the young had any range extension ability.  If I had to wait until they were adult, well, the world might end before I got that far.

Defiant was returning.  I stepped away from Canary and Imp to greet him.

“Let’s go,” he said.

Smaller team, while the Pendragon was out of action, smaller job.

The ones who were grounded would be looking after the settlement, ensuring the survivors were able to make it through the next few nights.

Tattletale was with me.  Imp and Rachel had come with for much the same reason Lung had.  They were restless personalities, unwilling to relax when there was a possibility of a conflict.  I wanted to think that Rachel’s intentions were a little kinder in nature than Lung’s, that she wanted to protect her friends, but I wasn’t going to ask, nor was I going to set any hopes on it.

A pleasant idea, nothing more.

Lung was eerily quiet.  He’d acted to stop Shadow Stalker from attacking me, but he hadn’t shown a glimmer of his power.

After we’d decided who went where, before we’d left, Canary had found a moment to talk to me.  To finish what she’d been about to say when Imp had interrupted to poke fun at her.

Information about Lung.

He coasted on reputation for some time.  Didn’t use his power, didn’t fight, just intimidated.  Nobody was willing to start something because nobody really knew what he was about.  Until this guy from Brockton Bay came in.  Had some info.  Except, by then, Lung was entrenched in Marquis’ cell block, and even if someone wanted to go after him, they didn’t want to deal with Marquis in the process.

Lung hadn’t been using his power.  Why?  Was there a reason?

A deep seated concern about his passenger, maybe?  No.  What would excuse that?

I needed to ask Tattletale, now that I knew, but there hadn’t been a moment where we’d both been alone.

We had Shadow Stalker, who had no interest in rebuilding and resettling.  Defiant was with us as well, relying on remote monitoring to perform the occasional check-in on Saint.  Narwhal would manage the rest.

Miss Militia had come along, and nobody had said anything to mark it as fact, but I got the distinct impression it was for Defiant‘s sake.

And, of course, we had the Simurgh.  Following.  She’d finished building what she’d been working on as she hovered over the aftermath of the fight at the Tav settlement.

A shortsword, four feet long, without any guard to protect the hand from an enemy’s weapon, both sides of the blade serrated.  Black.

Defiant had called it a Gladius.

Defiant had the cockpit and Miss Militia’s company, and so I was left to hang out in the cabin, with Rachel sleeping beside me, Bastard and Huntress sleeping at her feet.

I admired her ability to rest in such stressful situations.  I glanced at Shadow Stalker, who seemed to be filled with nervous energy.  When we’d kidnapped her for Regent to control, Rachel had been able to sleep then, too.

I felt like I had to be responsible, somehow.  I’d taken on three very dangerous individuals, with reputations ranging from bloodthirsty vigilante to Endbringer, and I knew I’d blame myself if something went wrong on any count.  I couldn’t sleep when there was information to take in, when there were people to watch, people to watch over, and personalities to keep in check.

Threats and conflicts, within and without.

Many of the monitors were focused on Bohu, the towering Endbringer, tall enough that her heads reached the cloud cover.  Five miles tall, give or take.  Gaunt, expressionless, without legs to walk with.  No, she moved like a block of stone that someone was pushing, not with lurching movements, but a steady, grinding progression that left bulldozed terrain in her wake.  Overlapping rings marked the area she traveled as well, as she continued switching between her typical combat-mode cycles, altering the terrain, raising walls, creating traps and deadfalls, generating architecture.

The monitors abruptly changed.  One shaky image, from one cameraman at just the right vantage point.

A golden streak crossing the evening sky, appearing out of nowhere.

Just about everyone in the Dragonfly tensed.  I felt myself draw in a breath, my meager chest swelling as if I could draw in confidence as well as air, preparing to give orders, to provide the call to arms.

But the golden light disappeared as soon as it had appeared.  Like the jet stream of an aircraft passing overhead, except it was light, not smoke, and it only marked a brief period where he’d passed through our world on his way to other things.

We relaxed.

Rachel hadn’t even woken up.  She was exhausted, though we’d barely participated in any fighting.

The Dragonfly moved closer to the ground as we approached the next portal.  It was squatter, broader, allowing for more ground traffic at a moment’s notice, though it made the passage of flying vehicles more difficult.

Like Scion, exiting one world, passing through Bet on our way to the next.  It reminded me of my discussion with Panacea.  People who build and people who destroy.  We were trying to do the former, Scion the latter.

The Dragonfly passed through the portal.

Heavy rain showered down around us.  The Dragonfly faltered for an instant as it changed settings, very nearly nosediving into the ground beneath us.

Defiant pulled the craft up.

Agnes Court, I thought.  I’d studied all of the major players in anticipation of the end of the world, I knew who the Elite were, and I knew who had built this.

She fit somewhere between Labyrinth and the Yàngbǎn’s Ziggurat.  Organically grown structures.  Seeds that swelled into pillars, stairs, houses and bigger things, given enough time in proximity to their master.  The wood-like substance hardened to stone of varying colors after she terminated the growth.

In the span of two and a half days, she’d grown a walled city, one with an elaborate castle at the northmost end, with shelters and what looked like a sewer system, if I was judging the perfectly round hole in the cliff face below right.  It was gushing water.

Two days to make this.

Leviathan had taken less than an hour to demolish it.

The wall, taller than some skyscrapers, was shattered in three places, damaged enough to serve little purpose in others.  A shallow river flowed through the spots where the damage to the wall reached the ground.

Leviathan had perched himself atop the castle’s highest tower, though the tower wasn’t broad enough for him to put anything more than two clawed hands and two feet on the very top.  His tail wound around the structure, in one window and out another.

Even through the rain, his five eyes glowed.

“Oh no,” I said.  “The civilians.  The refugees.”

“Relatively few,” Tattletale said.  “That’s… yeah.  I don’t think we offed people in any substantial numbers.”

In any substantial numbers, I thought.

“I didn’t think they’d get this kind of structure up in time,” I said.

“Court grows things exponentially, given time,” Tattletale said.

She frowned.

Grew things exponentially.”

If that was the case, then we’d lost a possible asset.  Fuck this, fuck the Elite for bringing things to this point.

“There were a thousand people here,” Defiant said.  “Many who were managing supplies and resources for the rebuilding and resettlement efforts.”

“I’d explain,” Tattletale said, “But I’d rather not explain twice.”

“Twice?”  Miss Militia asked.

Tattletale pointed.

The Azazel had parked on top of a tower at the wall’s edge, almost opposite to where Leviathan was.  A crowd had gathered around it.

Too many to be just the Dragon’s Teeth.  Far too many.

I swallowed.

Cameras zoomed in on the individuals.  Hard to make out through the rain, but I could draw the appropriate conclusions.

The Dragonfly landed, far gentler in the process than I would have managed on my own.

“Time to face the music,” Tattletale said.

I took the time to restructure my costume, raising my hood to protect my head before I stepped out into the pouring rain.  Defiant was in step to my right, Tattletale to my left.

No, not pouring.  Pounding.  As heavy a rainfall as I’d ever experienced.

The other major players had arrived.  The Thanda, Faultline, the Irregulars, the Meisters, the remnants of the Suits…  Cauldron.

It took time for everyone from the Dragonfly to make their way outside.  We looked so small in comparison to the group arrayed before us.  People had disappeared here and there.  Dead or gone in the wake of the disaster on the oil rig, or the fighting that had followed.

Even after we’d arrived, after the ramp had closed, the group before us remained utterly silent.  There was only the sound of the rain, so deafening I might have been unable to hear people if they’d shouted.  I clenched my fists, tried not to shiver.  If I started, I wouldn’t stop.  Staying calm, staying confident, my attention on my bugs as a way of escaping the stresses here… it made for an almost zen moment.

It was in that same moment that the Simurgh descended.

Descended was the wrong word.  She fell.  It was as though she’d stopped lifting herself into the air, and let herself drop.  Her wings moved to control her descent, keep her facing towards the ground as she plummeted.  In the gloom of the rain and the heavy stormclouds above, her silver-white body was the easiest thing to make out.  If the assembled capes hadn’t already been keeping a wary eye on her, the movement would have turned heads anyways.

A white streak, plummeting from the sky, striking Leviathan.

The shockwave that accompanied the impact tore through the tower.  Superficial features broke away first, followed by the internal structures that had provided structural integrity.  The end result was a gradual, almost slow-motion collapse, a lingering view of the Simurgh and Leviathan as they’d been at the moment of impact.

They tilted as the tower did, but neither Endbringer moved.  The Simurgh had both feet pressed against Leviathan’s stomach, one hand reaching up to grip his face, the other hand holding the gladius she’d made, buried so deep in Leviathan’s sternum that only a little bit of the handle stuck out.

Pieces of her halo began to fall, including her fabricated guns and the other debris she’d arranged to form the ring itself.  It rained down like a localized meteor shower, striking the castle, the base of the tower, the wall, and Leviathan.

The Simurgh managed to avoid being struck, even with her vast wingspan.  She leaped up, kicking herself off of Leviathan, and found a perch on the wall, folding her wings around herself and the top of the wall, as if to ward off the worst of the rain.

Maybe six or seven seconds later, the tower finished collapsing, and Leviathan’s massive, dense body hit ground, crashing through several buildings before settling, the handle of the sword still sticking out of the wound.

He didn’t rise.  He twitched, lashed out with his tail, dashing three already tattered buildings to smithereens, then gushed with water, producing four or five times his body weight in water without even moving.

Death throes?

She’d hit his core.

Beside me, Imp wiped at the lenses of her mask, tried again, and then pulled it off entirely.  She stared at the scene with her mouth agape, then looked to Tattletale, mouthing three words in a voice too quiet to make out through the pounding rain.

Tattletale’s hair was soaked through, streaming with rivulets of water that ran down her back.  Dark makeup ran from the eye sockets of her costume.

However bedraggled she appeared, just after a minute of standing in the rain, she also looked contemplative, rubbing her chin as she hugged her other arm close for warmth.

Leviathan went utterly still.

I watched the faces of the others.  Every set of eyes was fixed on Leviathan’s body.  Nobody seemed like they were willing or able to tear their eyes away from the scene.

Slowly, almost at a glacial pace, Leviathan moved.  One hand with the disproportionately long claws was planted on the ground, then another.  His tail provided some of the support and strength to leverage himself to his feet.

That, oddly enough, seemed to surprise Tattletale.  Her hand dropped from her face to her side.  She fumbled to hook her thumb over her belt as if she needed the extra leverage.

When Leviathan had pulled himself to an upright position with both feet beneath him, his head hanging down, the tail snaked around the handle of the sword.

He wrenched it free, and tore out chunks of his own chest in the process.  There was little left but the handle and the base of the sword.  Needle-like lengths of metal speared out from the base, but the bulk of the sword’s material was gone.

Leviathan continued to move with an almost excruciating slowness as he reached out with his claws, extending each arm to his sides, like a figure crucified.

The wound was superficial, but he was acting like he’d received a more grievous wound than any of us had dealt in the past.

The wind turned, and the wall ceased to provide a curtain against the rain.  For a moment, Leviathan was only a silhouette.

I could see his shape distort.

Others reacted before I saw anything different.  The Number Man, Tattletale, Dinah, Faultline… they saw something I couldn’t make out through the curtains of torrential rain.  The Number Man said something to Doctor Mother, and I saw Dinah fall back just an instant before Faultline gave a hand signal to her crew.  They adopted fighting stances.

Did they really think we could fight, if it came down to it?  Against two Endbringers?

It was maybe twenty seconds of stillness, seeing only vague shapes through the shifting downpour, before the wind turned again.  I got a glimpse of what the Simurgh had done.

I could hear a squeak from beside me.  I expected it to be Imp, saw it was Shadow Stalker, instead.  She clutched her crossbow in both hands.

Fins.  Leviathan had fins.

They were like blades, points sweeping backwards.  A fin rooted in the side of his arm, from wrist to elbow, the point scything back.  Had it not been limp enough to trail on the ground, it might have reached his shoulder.  More at the sides of his neck and along the length of his spine, forming an almost serrated pattern where multiple fins overlapped.  Perhaps some at his legs.  The fins ran down the length of his tail, and ended in a cluster at the end, like the tuft of fur at the end of a lion’s tail, exaggerated many times over in size.

He flexed a claw, and I could see webbing between each finger, mottled in black and an iridescent green that matched his eyes.  It made me think of the bioluminescence of a jellyfish in the deep ocean.

In synchronous motions, the Simurgh unfurled her wings, stretching them to their full length, and Leviathan flexed his fins, letting them unfold in kind.  Each fin was the same as the webbing, mottled black and a eerie green, and the echo-image of water that accompanied his movement produced mist as it washed over the fins.  It obscured him almost completely, and as much as the pouring rain served to drive it away, the rainwater produced more mist as it touched the fins.

It took some time to clear, and even then, it only cleared because Leviathan had folded the fins up again.  When we could see Leviathan again, he had collapsed into a sitting position, one overlong arm draped over his legs, ‘chin’ resting on one shoulder, completely at ease.

Above him, the Simurgh slowly folded her wings closed, like a reversal of a flower blossoming.

Doctor Mother turned to face us.

“Wha-  The-” she stuttered.

Contessa, holding an umbrella to keep the both of them dry, set an arm on the Doctor’s shoulder.  The Doctor fell silent, stopping only to look at Leviathan, then turned back to Tattletale.

Tattletale managed a grin.  “I’d say there’s a silver lining in all this, but that phrase has sort of lost it’s cachet over the last decade or so.”

She gestured in the vague direction of the Simurgh before hugging her arms against her body.  “…He’s probably stronger, which helps if he’s going up against Scion, right?”

“I think,” Doctor Mother said.  She paused very deliberately.  “It would be very wise to keep the Endbringers separated from here on out.”

“We might have to fight them, before or after we take on Scion,” King of Swords, leader of one division of the Suits voiced the concerns that everyone was harboring.

Lung was the next one to speak.  “What did she do?”

“Upgraded Leviathan,” Tattletale said.  “Attuned some device to the right frequency or setting, then tapped into his core without doing too much harm to Leviathan.  Fed things into there.  Knowledge, data, nanotechnology.”

Defiant’s head turned, as if Tattletale had said something.

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “Nanotech.  Why do you think the fins were turning water to mist?”

My tech?”  Defiant asked.

“Among one or two other advancements.  If the density rules are in effect, I’d bet those fins are just as hard to cut through as Leviathan’s arm or torso.  Disintegration effect, maybe something else.”

“Mecha-Leviathan?” Imp murmured.

“That’s not- it doesn’t fit with what we know of them,” Defiant said.

Tattletale spread her arms, a massive, exaggerated ‘who knows?‘ gesture.

“It’s the fucking Simurgh,” Rachel said.

“I hope you can understand why we’re… distressed with you,” the Doctor said.

Fuck you,” Tattletale retorted.  “Cope.”

I put my hand on her shoulder.  She didn’t relent, nor did she release any of her tension.

“You wiped out two defending forces,” the Doctor said.  “We lost the Yàngbǎn’s support when you took out their infiltration squads, and the Elite are wiped out.”

I squeezed Tattletale’s shoulder.  She gave me an annoyed look, but she backed away.

I took in a deep breath.  I could see the Doctor fold her arms.  Like a mother or schoolteacher awaiting an apology from the recalcitrant student.

“Fuck you,” I said.

“You don’t want us for enemies,” the Doctor said.

“We have the fucking Simu-” Imp started.  Tattletale elbowed her.

“The Yàngbǎn were doing more harm than good,” I said.

“They were limiting their strikes to civilians.  Not something I agree with, but with Earth, with every Earth on the line, I’d forego two or three thousand lives for the help of over two hundred of the C.U.I.’s trained parahumans.”

“They’d given up,” Tattletale said.  “They were taking territory to run and hide.”

“Contessa would have changed their minds.”

Tattletale shrugged.  “Don’t blame us for not taking your plans into account, when you don’t share your plans with anyone.”

“This is common sense.  No matter.  The Elite, though?”

“They were attacking civilians.”

“They were nonviolent.  Refugees in the vicinity of the portal were evacuated.  The Elite then made contact with possible settlers who they thought would be interested in paying a premium for good shelter, for resources and supplies.  If not paying with cash, then paying with skills.  Doctors, talented artists, scholars… it was one of our best bets for re-establishing a hub of development across all of the Earths.”

“They broke the truce,” Tattletale said.

“Again, they were an asset.  They were cooperating.  The truce hardly stands in this dark hour.”

“They broke the truce,” I echoed Tattletale.  “The code has been there since the beginning.  If a bigger threat shows up, we band together.  We don’t distract each other with attacks or murder attempts, we don’t take advantage of the situation to fuck with civilians.  The truce is there for a reasonand it has weight because everyone knows that they can’t handle the trouble that gets express-delivered to their doorsteps when they’ve defied it.”

“Siding with Endbringers could be seen as a violation,” Queen of Wands said.  “I seem to recall you participated in an effort to drive out a gang that had escalated too much, too violently, too fast.”

Her eyes fell on Lung.

Were they serious?

“Don’t be fucking stupid,” Faultline said.  “If you start going after the Undersiders and Guild for trying to amass enough firepower to take down Scion, then nobody’s going to be able to put up a fight.”

“Hey,” Tattletale said.  “Faultline, sticking up for me?  This is a first.”

“So you agree with this?  Using the Endbringers?”  one of the Thanda asked.

Tattletale grinned.  “Agree?  It was her idea.”

Faultline whipped her head around.  “No.  No it wasn’t.”

“Talking to the monsters.  Well, you said talk to Scion, but this is close.  You can have partial credit.”

“I’ll have no such thing.  I don’t disagree with this, but I won’t condone it either.  This is the Undersider’s plan, they can reap the consequences if it goes wrong.”

Tattletale smiled, but it wasn’t quite a grin.  Confident, calm.  I doubted anyone but the perception thinkers on the other side could see, but Tattletale was clenching her jaw in an effort to keep her teeth from chattering.

I felt just a little warmer, owing to my hood.  I spoke so Tattletale wouldn’t have to try and risk an ill-timed chattering of teeth.  “That’s fair.  We’ll deal with the consequences, be it a stab in the back from the Endbringers or punishment that follows from any real issues that follow from this.  But we will keep going after anyone who violates the truce.”

Rachel stepped forward, her arm pressing against my shoulder and side, as if she was bolstering me with physical presence.  Through the bugs I’d planted on him, I could sense Lung folding his arms.

“You will not be taking charge of all of the Endbringers,” the Doctor said.  “Teacher emerged with a small force at his disposal.  He defeated the Protectorate squads that were deployed at one empty location…”

“The place Khonsu or Tohu were supposed to appear,” Tattletale said.

“Quite.  It was Khonsu.  The Endbringer has imprinted on Teacher’s group, and he has offered to sell that squad, along with the Endbringer, to a sufficiently wealthy buyer.  We agreed, if only to keep this from becoming a monopoly on Endbringers.”

Tattletale smiled a little, but didn’t talk.

“How good of you,” Defiant said.

“We strongly advise you leave Tohu for another party to claim,” the Doctor said.  “Focus on the three you have.”

Defiant glanced at Tattletale and I.  I looked at Tattletale, reading her expression, before coming to a conclusion.  “That’s fine.”

“Then we’re one step closer to a resolution,” the Doctor said.  “Much better than the alternative.”

Veiled threats, now?  Just how badly had we fucked her plans?

“This is more firepower than we expected to have at this juncture,” the Doctor said.  “But not enough by itself.  Without sufficient distraction, Scion will treat the Endbringers as he treated Behemoth.  We’ll step forward and unveil our own plan B and plan C at the time of battle.”

“Armies,” Tattletale said.  “You were collecting people for a reason, and you didn’t release every Case Fifty-three you made.”

“Essentially,” the Doctor said.

“Five groups,” I said, and my eyes fell on Dinah, who was standing beside Faultline.  “We should split up so we can respond the instant Scion appears.  We make sure every group has some way to maybe occupy him or pin him down, and we move to reinforce.”

Dinah, standing beside Faultline, nodded slowly.

“Four Endbringers, and then Dragon and Teacher to comprise the final group,” the Doctor said.  “If Tohu arrives, she can reinforce the weakest group.  Quite possibly Bohu.”

“Yes,” Defiant said.  He was clutching his spear so tight I thought it would break.  He looked to Miss Militia for clarification.

“I’ll run it by Chevalier,” she said, “But I don’t see a problem with this.”

There were heads nodding.

Not enough.  We don’t have enough people here.  There’s groups missing.  People still hidingPeople like the Yàngbǎn who are fighting us instead of helping.

I was all too aware of the Simurgh and Leviathan at the corner of my peripheral vision, of Lung and Shadow Stalker, who I could sense with my swarm.

Too many people ready to stab us in the back.

“I would recommend,” the Doctor said, speaking slowly, “That you take your time to visit loved ones, say goodbyes and make your peace.  I don’t think there will be another fight after this.”

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Cockroaches 28.1

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“…Man, oh man, did you ever fuck the dog, here.”

Blaming me?

I’d failed.  I’d taken on the world ending threat and come up short.  Why had I even expected to be able to do anything?  Arrogant.

But someone else responded to the accusation.  “We did no such thing, Tattletale.  Working with the knowledge we had, we put our best foot forward, as did the others.  The fault does not lie with us.”

It was the Doctor, uncharacteristically irritated.

Well, Tattletale was good at getting a rise out of people.

“Do I need to repeat myself, Doctor?  You wanted to take charge, you proposed this scenario?  Great.  Except you didn’t put your best foot forward.  It fell apart as a result, and now we’re in a worse place than ever.  The dog is fucked.  Thoroughly.  All available holes.”

“You don’t need to repeat yourself,” the Doctor said.  “Please.  Your meaning is clear.”

“Can you stop talking about fucking the dogs, now?” another young woman said.  Rachel, I suspected.

“Let’s be honest, Doctor.  This was a critical moment, maybe the most critical, and you held back your best cards.  You could have evacuated most of the people there, and you didn’t.”

“If we had tried and failed, we might have lost the ability to easily move people between worlds.  Do us both a favor, Tattletale, and stop pretending you’re a brilliant individual.  You have access to a lot of information, but that doesn’t equate intelligence.  An intelligent individual would recognize that they don’t have all of the facts.”

Oh hell.

I sat up, ready to intervene, and I felt something off.  Enough that I gave up on stepping between them.  I opened my eyes, but nobody was in my line of sight.  My hand and lower body were intact.

“We’re sinking down to base insults?  Trust me, I’m way better than you at that, Dr. Mengele.  I get that you’re upset over losing Eidolon, but let’s not cross a line and become enemies.  We can’t afford to add more conflict to the pile.”

Losing Eidolon?

Oh hell.

“I was merely stating the facts: namely that you don’t have all of the facts.”  The Doctor sighed audibly.  “I’d hoped you had something of import to share when you called me in.”

My body was intact, but it didn’t feel right.  I experimented, tapping the thumb of my ‘new’ hand against the individual fingertips, then repeated the process, mimicking the movements with my other hand.

“You’ve already shown you have one group of soldiers you’ve been holding in reserve.  I know you’ve got more.  Weapons, soldiers, tools, tricks.  You asked some of the best and brightest of humanity to go fight, as phase A in a series of plans you have in mind.  You barely care.  So you move on to plan B.  That didn’t fucking work.  So are you going to throw away more lives, to maybe stop Scion, now?  On to plan C?”

I clenched my hands, then stretched my entire body.  The sensations matched but it still felt out of sync in a way I couldn’t place.

The Doctor responded, her tone overly patient, “If we’d gone all out, an upset of some sort might have spoiled all plans at once. Then where would we stand?”

“If we’d gone all out from the outset, we might have stopped him.”

“Then answer this, Tattletale, are you telling me you didn’t have any idea about our plan B, plan C and all of the other contingencies, or are you telling me you knew, but you said nothing?”

There was a pause, Tattletale declining to respond.

I glanced around the room.  It was dark, and there were curtains at the far end, drawn shut.  There were four beds, but two of the four were empty.

A girl with banana yellow hair and feathers sticking out of her scalp sat on the bed that was to my left and across from me.  She was sitting on the bed, over top of the covers, with only a folded blanket bunched around her feet.  She wore a sky blue shirt, bright orange shorts and lime green eye shadow. Her body language wasn’t a hundredth as vibrant as her clothing.

She glanced at me, and I looked away, not wanting to look like I was staring.

I opened my mouth to speak to the yellow-haired girl, but Tattletale started speaking, and I shut my mouth to listen.  I could tell she was in the next room, by the volume and direction of her voice.  “…I had an idea, but I’d expected you to play your cards if worst came to worst.”

“A good lawyer won’t ask a question on the stand if they don’t already know the answer they’re going to receive.  You should take that under advisement.  With the information you have available, you shouldn’t ever make assumptions.  The only person you can blame when you’re proven wrong is yourself.”

“I feel pretty confident I can blame you on this one, Doctor.”

“Do what you need to in order to make peace with yourself.  At this juncture, it might be all you can do.  Buying time and making peace with things at the end.  Thank you for wasting my time.  Door.”

Tattletale didn’t respond.  I could only assume Doctor Mother had left.  I reached out for my swarm, and I found for the first time in months that there weren’t many nearby.  How long had it been since I slept and didn’t have an emergency swarm nearby for self-defense and investigation?  Since I didn’t leave hundreds of thousands of spiders spinning threads of silk?

That wasn’t to say there weren’t any.  There were bugs throughout the building, but they hadn’t moved until I woke up.  Spiders in corners, bugs in the walls.  A hospital, newly built judging by the freshness of the wood.  I could smell it.

There were tents just outside, set on grass that was just starting to die.

I hadn’t even registered it consciously when I visited New Brockton Bay, but the grass had been fresh, alive.

It had been days.

I swung my legs over the edge of the bed, sliding them out from under the sheets.  I realized I was wearing only the hospital gown.

My costume-

-Would be destroyed, I realized, belatedly.  The lower half, anyways.  No reason to expect the silk would last if the flesh and bone had been obliterated.

Which raised really strange thoughts on the particulars of having my legs rebuilt.  I’d spent years running as a matter of routine.  A part of me had been proud of the way I’d honed my body, built up my stamina.

Had they rebuilt my legs with that same strength and stamina?  With the muscles reflecting the regular exercise?  If they had, was it really my strength?  If they hadn’t, could I deal with it?  Work my way back to where I had been?

If humanity even survived that long.

I needed to go to the bathroom, which made me think of other things.  Had my private parts been reconstituted?  Had Panacea paid any particular attention to the redesign or accuracy of the architecture or plumbing?

Or had it been Bonesaw that fixed me up?

My skin crawled at the thought, heebie-jeebies from head to toe.  No bugs involved.  The sensation only served to remind me of how alien the new body parts felt, reinforcing the creeped out feeling.

Someone found a powerful regeneration-granter and healed me.  Bonesaw and Panacea had nothing to do with it, I told myself.  Nothing to do with it.

The first bugs in the hospital were starting to make their way to me.  They crawled up the sides of the bed and up onto the hospital gown I wore.  I eased my feet down to the cold tile and steadied myself against the bed.

My body was okay, but I felt out of it in the same way I might have if I’d slept in too long.

Not that I’d had that luxury in some time.

Maybe it was odd, to think about things in this sense, to be concerned about my swarm or my body or the fact that I was tired.  Part of that might have been an unconscious form of procrastination.

“Hey,” the yellow-haired girl spoke.  She was quiet, but the utterance carried across the room.

I’d been staring down at the foot of the bed.  I looked up at her.

“You okay?  If there’s pain, or if you don’t feel okay to move, I can hit the button to call someone.”

Her voice was attention grabbing, the pitch and tone shifting very deliberately.  Done badly, it might have sounded like she was over-enunciating.  She leveraged it well enough that it didn’t sound that way, nor did it detract from the sympathy she was expressing.

I was a little caught off guard by it.  Left wordless, I shook my head.

“Things are bad, but I guess you heard that much,” she said.

“Yeah,” I managed.

“I’d explain, but your friends would probably be kinder.”

I shook my head a little.  “You don’t know my friends.”

“They cared enough to sit by you.  One or two of them even held your hand during the tougher moments.”

“Tougher?”

“Panacea said your nerve endings were being reformed, and it was pretty raw.  So you had a lot of fits, like seizures.”

“Oh,” I said.  “It’s been a few days, I’m guessing?”

“I guess.  I moved in here last night, and you were still out.”

I felt my heart sink.  It was confirmation.  Scion was still active, and had been for at least one day.

“How bad is the situation?” I asked.

She glanced at the door.  “Bad.”

“That’s not telling me anything.”

Really bad?”

“Casualty numbers?  Key deaths?”

She shook her head.  “I don’t- I never followed any of the cape stuff.”

“You’re a rogue, then,” I said.  And an ex-member of the Birdcage, if I remember right.

“Yeah.  Canary.  I was a singer, until midway through twenty-ten.  Indie, but I was breaking through to mainstream, some radio stuff.”

I nodded, not really caring.  I wanted more details, and I didn’t.

“Another Earth, another time, another society,” she said, more to herself than to me.

I moved and flexed my legs, trying to judge if the old musculature was intact.  It felt more out of sync than my hands did.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t ungrateful, but…

No, not worth moaning over it, one way or the other.  I had my life, I had an intact body.

“Do you know if this is even remotely salvageable?” I asked.  “Humanity?  Civilization?”

She shook her head.  “No.”

Was that a no, it wasn’t salvageable, or no, she didn’t know?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to ask.  I saw Aisha poke her head in, glancing into the room.  She met my eyes, then disappeared.

“Well,” she said, “They’re still fighting.  Kind of.  So there has to be something to fight for, right?”

She injected a note of hope into the statement.   I almost believed her, almost bought into it.

But I shook my head.  “Kind of, but kind of not?”

“People were talking about it, asked if I’d fight, and they encouraged me and stuff, but when I said no, they started talking among themselves, and it didn’t sound so hot.”

“No.  I’m thinking it probably isn’t so hot.  You’re right.  There are reasons to fight, and saving humanity isn’t necessarily the sum of it.”

“Selfish reasons,” she concluded.

I nodded.  “Pride.  Revenge.  Sheer stubbornness.  I like stubbornness.”

She nodded, but she didn’t respond.

“Why aren’t you fighting?” I asked.  Then I raised a hand, stopping her before she could speak.  “Sorry.  That came out like an accusation.  I only… I meant it out of curiosity.”

“It’s okay.  I might deserve the accusations.  I’m not a fighter.  Like, at all.  Besides, what could I do?  Girl with a good voice.”

I shook my head.

Voices.  I thought about it.  How many capes had I run into with eerie or altered voices?  I’d had the beginnings of a thought while talking to some kids  back in my first days among the Chicago Wards.  Cricket, Rachel, Labyrinth, Night, Oni Lee, Mannequin and others I couldn’t be bothered to think of, had had their voices or their abilities to communicate either removed or altered irrevocably.  Leviathan, Scion, the other Endbringers, they didn’t speak either, but they weren’t quite human.

Me, Grue, Eidolon, Glaistig Uaine, Dragon, Defiant, Bakuda, Über, Canary… we’d all used powers or technology to manipulate our voices, had done it as a matter of habit.  A lot of us were powerful capes, others were minor capes striving to look more important.  Odds were good I fit in Über’s position, more than Eidolon’s.  I could guess that Canary was in the ‘low power’ category as well, but I didn’t know enough about her.  Bakuda was hard to place, but I suspected her power was devastating, and her lack of success was due to the chassis the power had attached to.  An unstable, unpredictable individual, too intent on terrorism to become as big as her power deserved.

Damn, we could probably have used some of her best work.

Was there something important in that jumble of stray thoughts on voices and communication problems, or was my mind wandering in vain attempts to avoid thinking about how bad things were?

Communication.  The word crossed my mind.

Tattletale entered the room through the door to Canary’s left.  Rachel and Aisha followed, with Bastard and another dog trailing behind.  Tattletale carried a pile of clothes, neatly folded and stacked.

“Tailored to your measurements.  I wasn’t sure if you’d be keen on getting straight into costume or not.  A lot of people aren’t.”

“Thank you,” I said, taking the clothes.

I didn’t dress.  Instead, I stood by the side of the bed, holding the clothing.

They waited, as if apprehensive.  Aisha wasn’t visibly upset, so I could assume Grue had gotten out.

I sighed a little.  “How bad is it?”

“We lost just about half of everyone,” Tattletale said.  “Maybe more, but communicating’s hard right now.  Don’t exactly have an infrastructure.”

“Everyone being-”

“The capes, the civilians.  Everyone.  Half of Bet’s onetime population is gone, just about.  Good news is he’s traveling between possible Earths, hitting major population centers, so the individual incidents aren’t doing so much damage on a relative level.  Bad news is he’s traveling between possible Earths.”

I tried to process that, then gave up.  “How many possible Earths are there?”

“Not as many as there should be,” Tattletale said.  “Technically, every action should create a world where that action came to pass.  Best guess is that he compartmentalized everything.  Limited how far we could roam so he could save the other Earths for… something.”

I nodded slowly.

“We’re in bad shape,” Tattletale said.  She offered me a sympathetic half-grin, as if she’d just told a joke she knew was bad.

“We’re doomed,” Aisha added.  “The dog is fucked.”

Rachel wrapped her arm around Aisha’s neck, seizing her in a headlock, wordless.  Aisha struggled and squeaked, while Rachel maintained the hold, not so tight as to choke, but tight enough to be uncomfortable.

I looked pointedly at Canary, as if to say, I told you they’d be blunt.

Tattletale followed my gaze.  “Refugees.  We’re forced to keep moving, split up and spread out because of limited resources, and to minimize the damage when any one location gets hit.  Canary was a refugee from another group.  She wanted a place to stay, I offered.”

“Canary said people are still fighting,” I ventured.

Tattletale didn’t budge an inch.  A poker face.  Aisha’s expression, by contrast, gave it away.  Pained, concerned, looking to Tattletale for validation.

“No?” I asked.

“Yes,” Tattletale said, but she didn’t look confident.  “Except it’s not Scion they’re fighting.”

I’d heard of someone’s heart skipping a beat, had read about it enough times, but this was something else.  It was more like missing a stair and hitting the ground floor a little too hard, a thud in my chest.

So many things that could mean, none of them good.

Tattletale tucked her hair behind her ear, a tell, and then pointed at the door.  “Easier to show than to tell.  Come on, Canary.”

“I don’t- I’m not sure I want to know,” Canary said.

“You’re going to find out one way or another.”

Canary didn’t budge.

“Okay.  Whatever,” Tattletale said.  She glanced at me.  “I’m gonna pull up all the relevant files, so this won’t be five seconds of explanation with thirty seconds of searching between each bit.  Come whenever you’re dressed and ready.  If you want to get her to come along, it probably wouldn’t hurt.”

I nodded.

Tattletale stepped out, and Rachel let her arm drop.  I was surprised to see Aisha there, a little flushed in the face as she fled.  She gave Rachel the middle finger on her way out, walking backwards through the door.

I almost started to close the curtain for privacy, then realized I didn’t give a damn.  I began pulling on the underwear.

“Are you going to try to convince me to fight?” Canary asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” I responded.  “No point, is there?  Unless you want me to.”

“She’s scared,” Rachel observed.

Everyone’s scared,” I responded.  Rachel hesitated, then nodded a little.

Canary spoke up, “What did she mean, it wouldn’t hurt?”

I started putting on the skinny jeans Tattletale had given me, hiking them up beneath the hospital gown.  “My guess?  Most of the people we lost were some of the best of us.  Team leaders, brilliant tinkers, people who’ve seen ten or more Endbringer fights.  People you’ve heard about in the news, people you grew up reading about in magazines or newspapers.  Heroes, villains, people who don’t apply to either category, all gone.”

I watched her expression change, studied it.  Eyebrows raising, the movements of her eyes as she mentally processed the fact that people like Eidolon weren’t around any more.

I continued.  “…They were the sort of people who’d go to the front line without hesitation.  Not sure how many we have left, but odds are good we’re down to a select few.  Major players who were lucky, clever or tough enough to walk away, capes with crappy powers or powers that don’t apply, and then rogues or new capes who aren’t experienced in fighting.”

Gently, cautiously, I added, “We need everyone we can get.”

“I… I can’t do violence.  Like, at all,” Canary protested.  I turned my back to pull off the hospital gown and do my bra.  I noted a change in the coloration of my skin where the flesh had been regrown.

“It’s easy,” Rachel said, taking over while I was distracted.  “You hurt people until they stop doing whatever it is that irritated you.  Taylor kicked me in the head the first time we met, and she was way scrawnier than you are now.  I stopped doing what she hated me doing, setting my dogs on her.”

“No.  I mean, it’s like, mentally, I couldn’t do it.  I get sick at the sight of blood.  Besides, my power wouldn’t affect Scion.”

“Probably not,” I agreed, pulling on the strapless top with the string going around the throat.  I turned around.  I thought about what Doctor Mother had said at the last big meeting.  “But the real question is, do you want to be there when the world ends, struck by the sudden realization that maybe, possibly, you could have done something to help?”

She stared down at her legs.

“Baby steps,” I said.  “I’m not asking you to fight.  Just… come.  Listen to what Tattletale has to say.  Guilt free, just to go that far.”

“And then it’s harder to refuse the next part,” she said.

“I promise I won’t ask you to do anything,” I said.  “Strictly volunteer stuff.  If nothing else, think of it as a morale thing.  I’m using my bugs to feel out the surroundings, and the building is damn empty.  I’d feel a hell of a lot better about this if we had just one more body in the room.”

“A morale thing.”

I nodded.

“Okay.”

I grabbed the heavy jacket Tattletale had included and pulled it on.  If we were going anywhere Scion had been, odds were good it’d be cold, much like Earth Bet had been on our last visit.

We made our way out of the little room with the beds.

Tattletale had set up a command center.  The bulletin boards, the notes, the files, books and more had all multiplied tenfold.  She must have moved me closer to home, so I could be watched.

Aisha was with her, sitting on the edge of the desk.

“Bitch,” Tattletale said.  “Can-”

“I’ll go patrol,” Rachel said.

Tattletale nodded.

She turned one of her computer monitors our way as we approached, so we had a clear view.  When she started the clip, the same video showed on each of the monitors on the desk.

“Video feed from a cape called Greenhorn.”

“I know him,” I said.  A new member of the Wards, having joined just before the Slaughterhouse Nine reappeared.  Untrained, he’d deigned to wear Defiant’s combat calculation suit.

The image played out.  It took me a while to realize what I was looking at.  A crowd of refugees, fleeing into a portal.

The camera panned as Greenhorn turned his head.

Faultline was there, along with Dinah, Gregor, Labyrinth and Scrub.

Tattletale waited, then paused the image.  She tapped the screen.

I glanced at the image, but I didn’t see anything out of place.  People in the crowd, tired, worn out.  A middle-aged man with a group of male teenagers and other men aged twenty to thirty.

“I don’t see it,” I said.

“You will,” she said.  She resumed the video.

I watched the man she’d pointed out.  Familiar, but not overwhelmingly so.  Nobody I knew.

The crowd flowed through the portal as a mass.  Up until the man I was watching stopped, turning around.  The men and boys from the group around him did too.  They became obstacles, standing against the stream of bodies.

“Far left,” Tattletale said.  “Recognize him?”

I looked.  A tan young man with dark hair cut close to his head.  He was perched on top of a thick wooden sign, his hand on a taller man’s shoulder for balance.

“No, I said.

“You only saw him without his mask a few times,” Tattletale said.

He was a cape?  I thought about it.  How many capes had I seen without a mask on?  Someone I’d seen while in Tattletale’s company, or who Tattletale would know I’d only seen a few times?

It clicked, but something was already happening on the image.  Greenhorn was standing on the same side of the portal as the group.  Then he wasn’t.  The image had shifted, and he was standing by other Wards and Protectorate members.

The image whirled as Greenhorn spun around.  He had been moved outside of the portal.

The man Tattletale had pointed out raised a device over his head, then hit a button.

The portal disappeared.

I watched as Labyrinth and Scrub stepped forward to try to knock open another portal.  They succeeded, but their efforts apparently didn’t allow access back into the same world.

It was Teacher.  One of the cell block leaders of the Birdcage.  He had the ability to make others into thinkers and tinkers, but it left them extremely suggestible.  He’d surrounded himself with these mooks, then, what, he’d shut himself into another world and barricaded the door?

The cape Tattletale had pointed out would be Trickster, ex-leader of the Travelers, apparently one of Teacher’s brainwashed minions.

The volume had been turned almost all the way down, but it hadn’t been muted.  I could hear the faint cries of the crowd, see Greenhorn moving to stop them from rioting.  The looks of desperation, the fear, the panic, at realizing their way out had just been denied them.

The camera moved to Faultline.  She was talking, giving orders.

Labyrinth changed the ‘channel’ on the portal, setting it to a different world.  The people began moving through again, a little faster, more forcefully.

“He betrayed us?” I asked.

“No idea.  Maybe he wanted a safe place to work on a trump card with zero distractions.  Going by his modus operandi, though, yeah, I think he betrayed us.  Not a big betrayal, but that’s one world where we moved a hell of a lot of supplies in”

I nodded, pursing my lips.

“Saint’s upset, to put it mildly.  We ran the data.  Apparently he crossed paths with Teacher at some point a few months before Teacher’s incarceration.  There have been almost no cases where Teacher’s power lasted more than a few days without a refresher, and the brainwashing wears off over a few weeks or months, so yeah.  It’s not that.”

“Saint wants something from Teacher?  A power?”

“Probably.  Anyways, Teacher had a few of those devices made.  Four portals in all that particular interest groups claimed and locked down, using these switches, wanting worlds all to themselves.  No major players in the bunch, no sign of any greater conspiracy.  Defiant was all too happy to bring Saint into custody, and we’re kind of hoping to get a response out of the man.  That’s problem number one.”

Number one, I thought.  I felt a sick feeling settling in my gut.

“Number two.”

The video played.  Not a camera anyone wore, but a steady image that panned left and then right.  A surveillance camera.  The scene was of a settled area.

Silent image, but the detonations were so vivid, so violent, I could imagine the noise of it, that crashing sound that would be followed with dead silence after the shockwave blew out eardrums.  Ten or twelve explosions at different points across the camera’s field of view.  Coordinated strikes.

“Yàngbǎn,” Tattletale said.  “Refused to let Faultline or Cauldron open up any portals in the C.U.I. territories, and then the moment things got ugly, they invaded the portals others made instead.  Striking American settlements.  Including ours, potentially.  Part of the reason for Bitch’s patrolling right now.  Wouldn’t mind you doing a double-check of the area with your bugs, when you’re up for it.”

I nodded slowly.

“Number three.  No video, so you’ll have to take my word for it.  Cauldron.”

“You said they tried something,” I said.

“You overheard.  Yes, but that’s not what this is about.  It’s the Irregulars.  They’re actively fighting Cauldron, despite Cauldron’s extensive resources, and they haven’t been wiped out or assassinated.  Arguably the strongest precog out there, arguably the strongest clairvoyant, countless other resources, and they’re actually stressing Doctor Mother out.”

“How?” I asked.

“Hard to say.  Could be that Cauldron made a mistake, let a case fifty-three with a powerful Stranger ability slip through the cracks, and Weld recruited him or her.  Could be a disgruntled customer.”

“Disgruntled?” Aisha asked.  “Fun word, makes me gruntled, but I don’t follow your meaning.  Superpowers for cash instead of powers for trauma… how is anyone not cool with that?”

“Maybe Canary could shed light on this?” Tattletale suggested.

Canary’s eyes opened wide.

“You bought Cauldron powers?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Pretty rare for a natural cape to get powers with physical changes,” Tattletale said.  “Cauldron capes?  Yeah.  You definitely see stuff like feathers.”

“I wasn’t disgruntled,” Canary said.  “I freaked, and I couldn’t exactly charge back on my credit card or sue them.  But I adjusted.  I got what I really wanted in the end.  By the time I realized I’d gotten too much of what I wanted, I was already in jail.”

“Shit sucks,” Aisha said.  “Scammed hard, grow yellow feathers on top of a shitty fashion sense, get what you want and then boom, it’s all over.  Off to jail.”

“I dress colorfully so people don’t connect me to the Simurgh so easily,” Canary said.  “Keeps me from getting cussed out or beaten by someone who lost a friend or family member.”

“Getting back to the question, with all of the issues you’ve faced, you could see where someone else would be less cool about it, yeah?” Tattletale asked.

Canary nodded.  “Um, definitely.  The stuff they give you isn’t always reliable.  You’re always gambling, whether it’s on the amount of raw power, the nature of the power, all of that crap.

“And if someone like Weld showed up, saying he has contacts in the Protectorate and the Wards, good friends, who told him they’ve got a way to break into another universe if they can find a spot where a portal was opened, and they just need you to tell them where Cauldron opened one?”

“They stepped through into my dad’s house once, so I could talk to a therapist before I took anything.  Yeah.  If things had gone differently, I could have pointed them to the right place.”

“Another possibility for how the Irregulars are managing,” Tattletale said, sounding satisfied.  “With Contessa and Cauldron’s other hit squads being too busy with more important matters to retaliate.”

I nodded.  It wasn’t sound, but there was enough there for me to acknowledge it was very possible.

“Issue number four.”

“Wait,” I said.

Tattletale paused.

“This is a thing?  There’s a pattern here?”

“Isn’t it obvious?  I mean, you can connect the dots.”

I could.

“You said it before,” Canary told me.  “Remember?  There are reasons for people to fight, reasons to keep going when all is lost.  Pride, revenge, stubbornness.”

“Fuck me,” I said.  I stepped back, leaning against the wall.  The blunt ends of tacks poked me in the back and shoulders where I leaned against a bulletin board.  “Fuck!  They’re all fighting, and they’re not fucking capable of turning this aggression towards Scion?  What the fuck?”

Tattletale shook her head.  “Scion trounced some of our strongest capes and as far as we can tell, we didn’t even slow him down.  We only gave him the bright idea of attacking other Earths, buying our world a few days at most, but we screw over a trillion other people in the process.  Might be they want to do something that isn’t futile, before humanity gets wiped out.”

I hung my head, and my hair fell forward.  I clenched my fists, and I could still feel the alien sensation in my hand.  I rubbed my fingers against the palm.

“I’m going to keep going, just so you know what’s up,” Tattletale said.  “Issue four.  Elites, Vegas Dark, less pleasant members of the Thanda.  We’ve got the businessmen and bastards of Vegas’s underworld, guys who were already gaming the system, only now they’re moving into refugee locations on the far sides of the portals and trying to elbow their way in while things are just starting up.  Hoping to make themselves a fixture like we made ourselves fixtures, so everything grows up around them, dependent on them.”

I nodded, feeling just a touch numb.  “I don’t need in depth explanations.”

“Fine.  Five?  Sleeper on Zayin.  Six?  Warlords on Bet, preying on those who decided not to leave.  There’s shit sprouting up all over, so maybe I could save issue seven is everything else put together.  We could get wiped out under the combined weight of a thousand lesser issues.”

“Not a problem,” Aisha commented, her tone ironic.  “Easy peasy.”

I stared at the screens.

Tattletale studied me, then added, “The Simurgh showed up on Bet, but there’s nothing really left for her to destroy,” Tattletale said.  “There’s refugees, people who didn’t leave, holed up here and there, but she doesn’t seem to care enough to go after them.  She’s… still.  A non-threat, at least for now.”

“It’s too early for her to show up,” I said.

“They’re attracted to conflict,” Tattletale replied.  Answer enough.

“It’s funny,” Aisha observed, “In this really sad, demented, ‘everything sucks’ way.  ‘Oh hey, here to destroy everything… oh, is everything already destroyed?  Shit, fuck.  Guess I’ll hang out, dick around over here while humanity winds down like an unwound clock that some golden asshole is stomping into little pieces’.”

“Your metaphors tend to fall apart,” Tattletale observed.

Aisha shrugged.

“People have given up, then,” I said.  “We mustered our strength, gathered some of our best, and he took us down.  He killed one of our strongest.  So now they’re focused on petty things.  Even if we could fix it all, we’ve still got the Endbringers and Scion waiting to systematically murder us all.”

“All of the great things humanity’s done,” Canary said, “Innovation, society, great works of art, the music…  I kind of hoped we go out in some noble way.”

“I don’t think humanity is noble,” I said.  “Not in the least.  It’s not just or fair on an intrinsic level.  It’s not even good.  But I kind of hoped we’d go out fighting the other guy.  Dinah said Scion would take out just about everyone, leaving anywhere from a few billion to a few hundred still alive.  Probably the people who’ve scattered far enough apart it’s not worth hunting them down.”

“Probably,” Tattletale said.

“Looking at this stuff, hearing you describe it all, I’m starting to think that maybe we’ll destroy ourselves in the end.  Infighting, stupidity, revenge, all of that.  Humanity will clean up whatever members of humanity Scion leaves alive, or leave us too screwed up to bounce back.”

“Ergo, the dog is fucked,” Aisha murmured, barely audible.

Tattletale snorted a half-laugh, despite herself.  That, in turn, made me smirk stupidly.

Tattletale saw that, and she laughed a little, which started me going.

Aisha joined in.  Not a full belly laugh, but a giggle fit, all the more infectious because of how out of place it was.

I glanced at Canary, who was looking at us like we were batshit insane, and that only started me going again.

It took us a minute or two to stop altogether.

“Where the hell did you learn a word like ergo?”  Tattletale asked.  I had to bite my tongue to keep myself from laughing any more.

Aisha shrugged, smiling a little.

“So.  Want to join in on the petty shit?  Anyone in particular you want revenge on?”  Tattletale asked.  “Aisha?  Taylor?  Canary?  Feel free to speak up.  No judgement here.”

“I’ll judge you a teeny bit,” Aisha said.

“No,” Canary said.  “Don’t want any revenge.  Like I said, I’m not big on violence or any of that.”

“I’m not one to put off revenge,” Aisha said.

“What about the bullies?”  Tattletale asked me.

“I made peace with that some time ago.  No petty shit I’m that invested in.”

Rachel had returned, tying her dogs up outside.  I followed her with the bugs that clung to her as she made her way inside and upstairs.

“Want to go get laid?”  Tattletale asked.  “Seems like something people tend to do in the movies, when the end is nigh.”

“Were you just inviting Taylor or-”

Tattletale swiveled in her chair and kicked Aisha in the shin.  “No.  I’m not interested in that kind of thing.  My power makes it way less fun than it ought to be.  Information overload during sex is squick.”

“Sure,” Aisha said.  “Sure.”

Tattletale kicked at her again.  Aisha only cackled.

“No,” I said.  “I’ve enjoyed that sort of thing, but that was more to do with who I was with than anything else.”

“Ew, ew, ew.  TMI.  Unless you’re talking about someone else.  Tell me you’re talking about someone else.”

“No.”

“Ew, ew, ew.”

Rachel entered the room.  Bastard was bigger than an ordinary dog, smaller than a pony.  He followed her, the collapsed on a pile of sheets in one corner of the room.  He heaved out a sigh.

“Welcome back,” I said.

Rachel nodded.  She surveyed the room, taking us all in.  “You’re all in a good mood.”

“Just having fun,” Tattletale said.  “End of the fucking world, people are stupid beyond belief.  It’s at the point where you can either laugh or cry, and I promised myself I wouldn’t cry a long, long time ago.”

“Mm,” Rachel grunted.  “Right.”

Never been one to keep a conversation going, I thought.  Rachel stopped at the end of the desk opposite Aisha.

I took a step to my left, and I sort of bumped my arm against her arm, smiling a little.  She bumped me back.  She didn’t smile, but she put an arm up around my shoulders and set her hand on my head, mussing with my hair, like she had earlier.

“We were talking about what we’d do,” Tattletale said.  “You got any boy toys, Bitch?  Any way to scratch that particular itch?”

Rachel shook her head.

“Where’s Grue?”  I asked, all of a sudden.

“Ew, gross.  Can you not make those obvious leaps in logic?”

“He’s gone,” Tattletale said.  “He was here while Panacea put you back together.  When, um, she was working on you, he borrowed her power and took over for a bit.  I don’t know if you’re going to see that as weird or gross or a weirdly sweet goodbye gift or deeply invasive or whatever, but yeah.  Maybe he just needed to help.  Needed to know that he could save you or help you or fix you after you’d fulfilled one of his old fears and gone and got yourself murdered in a fit of recklessness.”

“And then he left?”

“Retired, quit.  Maybe losing the fight, verifying he couldn’t do anything constructive, it took something out of him.  Seeing you like that, it took something else.  And then he ran into Bonesaw.”

“She didn’t work on me?”

“No.  We didn’t let her.  She’s paired up with Panacea for now, because Panacea is really the only way we can double check her work.  Anyways, yeah.  Grue confirmed you were on your way, he was leaving, she was walking in.  They crossed paths.  I think it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  He left without a word.  Cozen came by, asking if we had a spot they could head off to.  I sent them to a cabin we put a bit out of the way.  Generator, toilets, books, movies, insulation.  Pretty sure it’s just the two of them, taking care of each other until the world ends.”

I drew in a deep breath, then exhaled.

I couldn’t bring myself to feel envious, jealous or upset.

“Okay,” I said.  “Good.”

Tattletale nodded.

I thought about the others.  “Parian, Foil?  Are they keeping each other company too?”

“Of course,” Aisha said.

“Says our resident voyeur, a touch too knowingly,” Tattletale said.

“That was the one time!  Which wasn’t even fun voyeurism, because it was my brother.  And I didn’t say it knowingly at all.”

“The lady doth protests too much,” Tattletale said.

“I’m protesting exactly enough and fuck you!  Like you’re not privy to the sordid details of other people’s lives.”

“Privy?  Sordid?  So soon after ergo?  Have you been reading, Aisha Laborn?”

Rachel nudged me.  “They were helping with the patrols, watching for the gem-faced motherfuckers who’re probably going to cause trouble.”

Oh, she was answering my question about Parian and Foil.

“Gem-faced motherfuckers?  The Yàngbǎn?”

“Them.  So the other two are around.  They’re here for work but they don’t really hang out.  They’re better at dealing with people than I am, so they do that.  Investigate shit.  I’m the one that drags the assholes back here.”

“Sheriff of New Brockton Bay,” I said, speaking just a little louder to be heard over the others.

“…fucking words because of you.  Talking funny, trying to sound smart…”

“You said something like that,” Rachel told me.  “Before you left.”

I nodded.

“Sorry about that,” I said.  “Leaving.”

“Okay.”

No forgiveness, but then again, I probably didn’t deserve it so easily.

“I’ll be back,” I said.  “Have to go.”

Rachel nodded.

I made my way to the bathroom to relieve myself, then took a minute to wash my hair and try to comb my hair into a semblance of order.  Try being the operative word.

Two days, at least, I’d been out, probably three, if I judged by the state of my hair.  Rachel rubbing my head hadn’t helped.

I took a deep breath, then exhaled.

I made my way back to the others.  Tattletale and Imp had stopped bickering.

We settled into an easy silence.  It was a sort of quiet state I’d found with Rachel, but it was rare to have with any of the others.  Rarer still with Imp.

As memories went, for bringing everything to a close, it was alright.

It was the outsider who broke the silence.

“This is us?”  Canary asked.  “We’re whiling away the time until the world ends?  Giving up like everyone else?”

“What?”  Tattletale asked.  She gave Canary a funny look.  “No.  Fuck no.”

“No,” Aisha said.  “Wait, did anyone think that?  Because I was thinking this was more us trying to decide what the hell we need to do before we throw ourselves into one final, suicidally reckless attack.”

“Basically,” I said.  “Minus the suicidally reckless part.  There’s other stuff we can try first.  But yeah.  I think we’re mostly on the same page here.”

“Go out fighting,” Rachel said.

“Go out fighting, ” Tattletale confirmed.

“Nothing held back,” I added.  “Right.  I’ll need my stuff.”

“Put the pack and what’s left of your costume aside.  I can go get it anytime.”

I nodded.

“We’ll need help,” Tattletale said.

“Parian and Foil?  Can we get them onboard?”

“Probably, if we can come up with a convincing argument.”

I nodded, thinking.  “What about Shadow Stalker?  Any idea where she is?”

“She’s around.  You think you can convince her?”

“We’ll see,” I said.

“We need a plan, first and foremost,” Tattletale said, “If we’ve got one, we’ll be able to get others on board.”

“There are possibilities,” I said.  “Need to knock some heads, get people on board, get morale up.  Fix some of the crises that’ve come up, deal with the people who are fucking the system and making everyone else think there’s no hope.”

Tattletale glanced at me as if I’d said something that provoked a thought, and then she smiled.

I couldn’t help but feel it wasn’t a real smile.  Her poker face.

“You coming, Despairy Canary?”  Tattletale asked.

I could see the hesitation cross Canary’s face.

“Yeah.  I’ll come.  Might not be, uh, knocking heads, but maybe there’s something we can resolve with my power.  Nonviolent resolution.”

“With a song and dance number,” Aisha said.  She leaned forward and took hold of Canary’s hands.  “Like a kid’s movie!  Sing a song and fix problems!”

“Um,” Canary said.  She looked between Tattletale and me.  “How am I supposed to respond to that?”

“Just ignore me,” Aisha advised, adopting the demeanor of the veteran bestowing wisdom onto the novice.  “Everyone else does.”

“I guess I’ll try.”

We gathered ourselves together, and we began making our way downstairs in two groups, with Aisha still holding Canary’s hand, leading the way.  Tattletale, Rachel and I followed.

My body still felt weird, but the alien sensations weren’t as pronounced.  I was getting used to it.

“Thanks for looking after me,” I commented.

“Not a problem,” Tattletale said.

“Before, you were bluffing.  Can I ask?  It changes how I deal with this.  How much I give it, the risks I take.  Can you tell me honestly that this isn’t hopeless?”

“Honestly?”  Tattletale asked.  She trailed off.

Answer enough.

I glanced at Rachel.

Tattletale practically seemed to read my mind.  “She doesn’t give a damn.”

“I don’t give a damn,” Rachel echoed.

I nodded.  “You’ve been wrong before, Tattletale.  About important stuff.”

“I have.  See, this is the part where I can either lie to you or tell you the truth.”

“Truth.  If it doesn’t spoil the mood too much.  I don’t want to hear, like, Dinah said a hundred percent chance we’re wiped out.”

“Nothing like that.  But there’s evidence.  Enough for me to connect dots.”

“You’re talking about the kid that speaks funny,” Rachel said.  “The fairy whatsit.  You were watching her video.”

Tattletale sighed.

“What?”

“There’s moments I adore you, my adorable canine crusader, and there’s moments I hate you.  All too often, they’re the same moments.”

“Whatever.”

“And that there is another case in point,” Tattletale said.  She smiled, looking at me.  “So yeah.”

Weaver or Skitter would have pressed for the truth.  During the Echidna incident, I’d gone to great lengths to strive for honesty and full disclosure.  Had it worked out?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  It had meant a lot right then, but it had sort of screwed me after I’d surrendered to the PRT.

But TaylorTaylor had lived a lie, had spent some time wallowing in ignorance.  Ignorance of what Tattletale really knew, ignorance of what Coil was doing.  Ignorance of what real monsters were capable of.

And then I’d donned the mantle of Skitter, I’d become the warlord.  Later, I’d gone on to become Weaver, where I felt less like myself than ever.

The Taylor days had been some of the best days, in a way.  Not my greatest moments, but some of my most cherished ones, yes.

“Do I need to know, Tattletale?”  I asked.  “For this?  Does it provide any crucial information, for dealing with any of the stuff we’ve got to deal with?”

“Yes,” she said.  “But probably not right away.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Then I can wait.  Let me enjoy some blissful ignorance for just a little while longer, while we make our way out there, try to save the world from itself, if not from Scion.”

“Deal,” she answered.

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Scarab 25.5

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Three days.

Nearly three days and we hadn’t managed to kill him.

A new target every thirty minutes, give or take.  Ten to twenty minutes for the defending forces to get their shit together.  The remainder of that time was our capes trying to hurt him.  Chipping away at him.

Sometimes we made headway.

Sometimes he crushed the bulk of the defending forces and then stood still, drawing those rotating columns of altered time to himself.  Not covering himself, but allowing the altered time effects to graze the outer edges of his body.  He’d heal, regenerating as much as half of the damage we’d done.

He hit major cities and small ones.  Villages, even, when he needed some elbow room to regenerate.  He’d hit a weapons stockpile in Russia, and nuclear weapons had been accelerated in time, the casings wearing down in that odd entropic, eroding effect that accompanied the time accelerations.  A nuclear detonation.  Heroes were still trying to minimize the damage.

He was teleporting less often than he had at first, and there were a number of heroes who were appearing regularly on the scene.  Legend, Alexandria, Eidolon, they were stepping up, though they’d started taking breaks, shifts.  Legend would skip one, then participate in the next two.  Alexandria would do two on, then two off.

They were tired, weary.  Everyone was.  How could you rest when he could appear where you were?  Six or eight hours of sleep meant he’d be changing location twelve to sixteen times, if not more.  And at the same time, that fatigue, it made it easier to make mistakes, and he wasn’t an opponent that let mistakes slide.

Tecton approached me, setting his hands on my shoulders.

“What?” I asked.

“You need to rest.  The others have managed it.”

“I’ve napped.”

Sleep.  You’re swaying on your feet.”

I wanted to protest.  My eyes fell on the others, and I could see how affected they were.  Scared, tired, helpless.  They were arranged around the Chicago headquarters, perpetually in costume, with no idea what to do with themselves.  Thirty minutes, and then that intense period of tension, waiting, wondering as it took the media or the PRT time to grasp just where he’d gone, to report the information.  If we were lucky, we got video footage, and we didn’t have to wonder if Khonsu had caught any of the big guns.

In a way, I’d grown used to being a little different from my peers, here.  I could be blasé about things that had them freaking out, confident.  I could put myself in the bad guy’s shoes because I’d been one, once.

Except here, I was no different.  Three days in, unable to sleep for more than an hour or two at a time, feeling my heart plummet into my stomach every time Khonsu teleported, I was on the same page as the others.

“I only ever wanted to do something to help,” I said.

“I know,” Tecton said.

“Even at the beginning, even when I was undercover in the Undersiders, I wanted to stop the bad guys.  A lot of it was selfish, me wanting to escape, but I still wanted to work for the greater good.”

“Yeah,” Tecton said.  He let his gauntlets fall from my shoulders.  I turned around to look at him.  Our man of iron, his face hidden beneath his helmet.  He was standing firm, giving no indication of how affected he was.  It let him be strong, or appear to be strong, for our sakes.

“And then I decided to be a villain full-time, but my motivations were still sort of good, even if I wasn’t.  I knew the Undersiders needed help.  That there was something wrong with a lot of them, something missing in them.  And being a part of all of that, it was a way to help Coil, when I thought his plan was something good.”

“You’re not a bad person, Taylor.”

“I’m not… being good or bad was never a thing for me.  Not really.  It was all about the actions I was taking and why, instead.  I became a warlord and I took care of people.  I helped seize the city from Coil and we started implementing changes.  Again and again, I’ve escalated in terms of the kind of power I wield.”

“Do you think you’re more powerful now?  With the Wards?”  He sounded almost surprised.

“I… think so.  Yeah.  Maybe my hands are tied, I can’t be as direct or ruthless as I would otherwise be, but I can reach out to the villains and I can reach out to the heroes, and I can affect a kind of change.  I have resources.  Tools and information I might not otherwise have.”

“Makes sense,” he said, his voice soft.  “Taylor, you need to sleep.  I can hear it in your voice.”

“I just… why is it that I get more powerful over time, and yet I feel more and more helpless?”

“You ask too much of yourself,” Tecton said.  “You could have all of the power in the world, and you’d still feel like you should do more.”

“If he hits Brockton Bay-”

“Your father and friends will be okay.  Hell, our strike squad that we used against Behemoth was made up of Brockton Bay residents, wasn’t it?”

“If I have to watch people I care about getting hurt while I’m helpless to do anything, I’ll lose it.”

“It wouldn’t be constructive to lose it,” Tecton said.  “And you’re more likely to lose it if you’re tired.  Go sleep.”

I didn’t reply.  Instead, I trudged off to the quarters that had been set aside for me.  Roughly pie-shaped, with the door at the tip, it sat at the edge of the ‘hub’.  I had a bedroom upstairs, more personal, more of a home, but I didn’t want to be that far away.  I didn’t want to lapse into being Taylor Hebert, even in a moment of rest.  Better to keep thinking, keep considering options.

I lay down on the bed, pulling my mask off.  I didn’t put my glasses on.  My vision was blurry, but it didn’t do anything to block out all of the individual little lights, some blinking, that studded the interior of my quarters.  Laptops, batteries, alarm clock, the charging station with my spare flight pack inside, the television screen, the slat of light that filtered in beneath the door… so many little points of light.  If I hadn’t been so tired, I might have blocked the lights.  Using bugs wouldn’t work, as they’d wander, but a towel at the base of the door, books propped up against various devices…

I sighed and draped my arm over my eyes, my nose in the crook of my elbow.

I spent a long span of time in the twilight of near-sleep, trying not to listen to the murmurs of people’s voices in the main hub.  Idly, I wondered how much time was passing.  Where was Khonsu attacking now?

A lot of people crossed my mind, too.  Enemies, allies.  How were they dealing?  My dad had fired off emails, asked that I let him know before I joined the fight, and right after I got away safely.

For every cogent thought that crossed my mind, two or three stray thoughts followed.  The devastation, scenes burned into my mind’s eye.  People caught and left to die of dehydration in Khonsu’s fields.

Somewhere in the midst of that, I managed to drift off, the recollections becoming dreams, or something close enough to feel like it was an immediate transition.

My uneasy rest was interrupted by a touch to my shoulder.

My eyes opened, and I could see the vague shape of a woman standing over me.

Mom?

I was awake and alert in an instant, but she was already turning away.  Not my mom.  Dark haired, but too short.  Both of my parents were taller than her.

I only recognized her when I saw the doorway.  A rectangle of light, almost glaringly bright, just beside my closet.

“Hey,” I said, as I hopped up from my bed.

She didn’t respond.  She was already gone.

But the doorway remained open.

I had to cross the length of my quarters to see the interior.  A dark hallway, with only dim lighting cast by tubes recessed into the ceiling.  The woman in the suit wasn’t on the other side.

I accessed the various storage containers for the bugs I was keeping in the workshop upstairs.  Beetles navigated the trap that kept them from flying out, then made contact with various touch panels, opening the cages where the various individual species were kept.

As a mass, they flowed down the stairs and into the hub.  The Wards who were at the command center and watching the monitor stood, alarmed, as the mass of bugs made their way across the room to my quarters.

“Taylor.”  It was Tecton speaking, hurrying to the door of my room.

The bugs filtered into my quarters through the space where the walls joined, and beneath the door.

My swarm entered the hallway.  No traps.  The woman in the suit was standing off to one side.  I stood at the threshold, and glanced down at the tracking device that was strapped to my ankle.  What the hell would happen if I stepped through?

I supposed I’d find out.  I stepped through in the same moment Tecton opened the door.

The rectangular portal closed, and I was left staring at a wall.  I turned to see the woman in the suit.  She was tidy, her hair tied back in a loose ponytail with strands tracing the side of her face, and she held a fedora in one hand.  The hat was beaded with moisture.  Another excursion she’d made before reaching out to me?

I was going to speak, when I noticed another presence.  A non-presence.  It was a shift of air currents that seemed unprovoked, affecting certain bugs when it should have touched other bugs in front or behind them.

The topographical sense I got from the movements of my bugs suggested a woman’s form, nude.  It wasn’t entirely gone when another appeared across the room.  The way they moved in sync- not two people.  One person, if she could be called a person; a phantom, flowing through the space around me and the woman in the suit.

The woman in the suit extended the hand that didn’t hold her hat, directing me to a doorway.

I glanced at the woman, noting how there wasn’t a trace of the anxiety or exhaustion that everyone else seemed to show.  My swarm checked the path.

There were people I recognized on the other side.  I stepped through.

The area was dark, but there was ambient light from a series of panels.  Large panels, floor to ceiling, eighteen by five feet, had been erected in a general circle. Two accompanying panels, only two or three feet wide, were set up on either side of each larger panel, to cast light at a slightly different angle.  A bar sat at just below waist height, a semicircle, simultaneously a handrest and a way of indicating a boundary the designated parties weren’t to cross.

A different person or group of people at each station, lit from behind rather than the front.  The light from the other stations barely reached them, which meant their features weren’t well illuminated.  Distinct silhouettes, with only a few more reflective materials catching the light.

I ventured up to the panel closest to the door I’d entered.  Tattletale stood there, and I deigned to stand just behind her and to her left.  Grue, I saw, was leaning against the panel itself, his arms folded.  Tattletale glanced at me and smiled, and I could just barely make out the white of her teeth.

“Asked if they’d pick you up,” she murmured.

“Thank you,” I said.  “What is this?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked.

She turned her attention forward, and then she was taking it in.  I didn’t want to interrupt her, with the amount of information she was doubtlessly gathering.  It was obvious, considering the general presence of those who’d gathered, even if I could only recognize a handful.

Opposite us, Chevalier’s silhouette was unmistakable.  His cannonblade was too distinct.  Exalt stood to his left, and a cape I didn’t recognize stood to the right.  I wondered momentarily if it would count against me that I was standing here.  It hadn’t been by choice, exactly, but it wouldn’t look good that I was with the Undersiders.

Bugs helped me make out Dragon and Defiant at the station to Chevalier’s left.  Both wore their power armor, but apparently the presence of firepower wasn’t a concern, here.

For the most part, that was where my ability to recognize people stopped.

To my left, there was a man in power armor with his face bared.  The tattoo across his face reflected a dark blue-green in an odd way, as though he stood beneath a blacklight, flecks of light… only the fragments flowed.  No, they were traveling a circuit, instead.  Faintly blue, the glimmers traveled a circuit that marked the interior of an elaborate, stylized cross, his eyes unlit shadows in the midst of the two horizontal bars.

I could make out a station with a woman, black, accompanied by a massive shadow of a monster with an auroch’s skull for a head.  The woman’s head hung, her hair braided or bound into dreads, I couldn’t be sure.  I moved my bugs closer to check to see if she had any weapons, and her pet shadow reached out to block the swarm.  They died so quickly it was almost as though the shadow had killed before it made contact.

I decided to leave her alone.

Further down, hard to make out due to the angle of the panel that framed them, there was a small crowd.  A young girl stood at the forefront, and others were gathered around and behind her.  My bugs noted twelve people gathered in front of the panel.

Another station had only a woman and a man sitting at a table that had been set out.  The man had his hands folded neatly in front of him, and the light from neighboring panels was reflected on the large-frame glasses he wore. The woman leaned forward, elbows on the desk, hands clasped in front of her mouth.  Dark skinned, with some kind of pin in her hair.  My bugs traced their hips – the area least likely to be unclothed, and I noted the presence of ordinary clothing.  A button up shirt for him, a knee-length skirt and blouse with accompanying lab coat for her.

Three men in robes that bore a striking resemblance to Phir Sē’s were arranged to our right.

“One moment longer,” the woman in the lab coat said.

“Quite alright,” a man answered her, from the group of twelve.  “I’m really quite excited.  Been a rather long time since I’ve had a breath of fresh air.”

Hush, Marquis,” the girl at the front of that particular group spoke, and her voice was a chorus, a number of people speaking in sync, “I will not have you speaking out of turn.  Our hosts have been gracious to invite us, you will not offend them and besmirch my reputation by association.

“My sincere apologies.”

Marquis?  I had to search for the name for a moment.  Then I stopped.  That Marquis?

Another panel lit up, and the circle was complete.  My bugs found the people gathered in front, allowing me to investigate that crowd, who had silhouettes I couldn’t make out in the jumble.  A woman with a ponytail and a number of monstrous parahumans behind her…  Faultline.

The woman in the suit arrived in the room, crossing through the darkness at the center with the steady taps of her shoe heels against the hard floor.

She joined the man with the glasses and dress shirt and the woman with the lab coat.  It clicked for me.

Cauldron.  I was looking at the people behind Cauldron.  I felt a chill, despite myself.

“Ms. Alcott declined to join us,” the woman in the lab coat said.  “As did Adalid, who wanted to be ready to defend his home in case the new Endbringer arrived there.  The three blasphemies and Jack Slash were unreachable, but we would have far fewer problems if individuals like them could be reached so easily.”

Except you didn’t do anything about Jack when it counted, I thought.

“We reached out to a number of major powers and sources of information, and you are the ones who responded.  As useful as it might be to have the Yàngbǎn or Elite with us, I’m almost glad that we can have this discussion with only those who are truly committed.  Thank you for coming.  I go by Doctor Mother, and I am the founder of Cauldron.”

I could hear a growl from within Faultline’s group.  They were directly opposite Doctor Mother, as far away as they could have been.

Probably sensible, all things considered.  Cauldron was to blame for the case fifty-threes.  I suspected they could have handled themselves if anyone in Faultline’s group were to attack, but setting a distance between the two groups made sense.

“Look,” Tattletale said, abruptly, “Let’s cut past the formality bullshit.  I know a lot of you are big on that sort of thing, but we should talk nitty-gritty tactics sooner than later, especially considering the amount of squabbling that’s sure to happen.”

“Agreed,” Chevalier said, from across the room.

Mense sterf elke sekonde van elke dag. Babas sterf in die moederskoot en die kinders doodgeskiet soos honde. Vroue word verkrag en vermoor en nagmerries skeur mans uitmekaar om te fees op hul binnegoed,” the woman with the skull-headed shadow said, her voice quiet and level.  I was startled to see that it was a human skull, now.

“I gave you the ability to understand and speak English,” a man in the group of twelve said.  “It wouldn’t cost you anything to use it.”

Ek sal nie jou tong gebruik nie, vullis,” the woman replied, her voice still quiet, though it was flecked with anger, just a bit of an edge.

The man sighed, “Well, I could use my power on everyone else here, but somehow I don’t think the offer would be accepted.”

Another person in that group, a woman, spoke.  “She doesn’t believe in using English.  Her first statement was, to paraphrase, ‘People die every day’.”

“Helpful,” Tattletale commented.  “Enough with the bullshit and posturing.  We were brought here for one reason.  Well, a lot of reasons, but the main one that ties us all together is that we’ve got that monster rampaging around and we’re not making headway.  We whittle him down, he heals.  Scion attacks, he teleports, and the golden fool doesn’t follow.  So let’s be honest, let’s talk about this and introduce ourselves before we say anything so we’re not completely in the dark-”

“Some of us have identities to keep private,” the man with the cross on his face said.

“We can’t bullshit around about secrecy and all that.  We need to dust off our weapons and the schemes we’ve been keeping on the back burner and hit that motherfucker.  More than half of us have cards we’re keeping up our sleeves for a rainy day.  Someone needs to bite the bullet and play their card.  And then we need to talk about who plays the next card, when number five comes around.  Because there will be a fifth.  Or a fourth, if you count Behemoth or not.”

“Many of us are playing on a scale where a particular play would put us at a critical disadvantage,” the man with the cross on his face said.  “Acting now, at the wrong time, it wouldn’t only hurt us, but it would put bigger things at risk.  There’s doing wrongs for the greater good, and there’s doing noble deeds and dooming ourselves in the process.”

“You’re hardly so noble, Saint,” Defiant said, his voice a growl.

“I wasn’t speaking about me,” Saint retorted.

“Either way, this is why you’re here,” Doctor Mother said.  “To negotiate.  With luck, you can barter to guarantee your safety in the future, or ask favors of others, in exchange for whatever it costs you to use whatever weapons or resources you’re holding back.”

We can barter,” Faultline said.  Her voice was hard.  “Unless you’re saying the people who’ve been creating and hoarding parahumans en masse don’t have any cards to play.”

“Unfortunately, Faultline, we cannot.  Cauldron, to be specific, cannot.  I have provided this forum for discussion, we can help troubleshoot or support plans, or even provide assistance, but our cards must remain in place.  There is nothing any of you could offer us that would be worth what it costs to act.”

“Bullshit,” I said.  I could feel anger stirring.  “No way I believe that.  Even just that portal system you’ve got, that’s enough to change the tide of this fight.”

“Not an option,” Doctor Mother said.

“Because you’re afraid,” Tattletale said.  “There’s a fear that someone’s going to come after you, trace the portal back home.  But there’s another, bigger fear, isn’t there?”

“Yes,” Marquis said, from among the group of twelve.  “And I suspect I know what it is.”

“Contessa here has informed me you do,” Doctor Mother said, cutting him off.  She was gesturing towards the woman in the suit.  “Let me assure you, it would do more harm than good to reveal the details.  Especially here, especially now.”

“Shit on me,” Tattletale said.  “You bastards figured this out.  How the hell did a bunch of prisoners in a jail that’s dangling inside a mountain get to figure it out before I did?”

“Hands on experience,” Marquis answered.

“Panacea,” Tattletale said.

“Exactly,” Marquis said.  “Clever girl.  Well, I’m not looking to stir waves.  I can’t disagree with the good doctor, so I’ll keep my mouth shut.  Back to business.”

“Damn it,” Tattletale said, under her breath.  Louder, she said, “You’re sure that this doesn’t relate to our Endbringer situation?”

“It doesn’t,” Doctor Mother said. “The Endbringers are a puzzle unto themselves, independent of every other major variable.”

“That reeks of bullshit,” Tattletale said.  “I want to think you’re bullshitting or you’re absolutely wrong and they’re connected to everything, but I’m getting the feeling it’s not.  It’s bullshit because it’s true?”

“I think we’re on the same page, Tattletale,” the Doctor said.

“Can we progress this discussion?” one of the robed men asked.

“We can,” the Doctor said.  “Thank you for getting us back on track, Turanta of the Thanda.  Let’s open the floor to discussion.  Let’s start with the possibility that we might draw from the Birdcage.”

Freedom matters little to me,” the girl with the eerie voice said.  “The true end draws nearer.

“The end of the world, you mean,” I said.

The end of all things, queen administrator,” she said.

Queen administrator?  What?  “Isn’t that the same thing?  The end of the world and the end of all things?  Or do you mean the end of the universe?”

It doesn’t concern other celestial bodies.  It doesn’t matter.  This ends, one way or another.  We and ours will carry on, in some form, whether it happens today or three hundred years from now.

“How reassuring,” Tattletale quipped.  “You won’t help?”

I am safe where I am, whether it beyond the Endbringer’s reach here or deep beneath the mountain.  I will collect from among the dead, and I will keep them company until the faerie rise from the ruins.

Oh, I thought.  She’s completely out of her mind.

“There’s no way to barter for assistance from within the birdcage then?” Doctor Mother asked.  “Nothing you want, Glaistig Uaine?”

The girl, Glaistig Uaine, responded, “A hundred thousand corpses, each being one naturally gifted by the faerie.”

“We don’t have time to laugh about like this,” Turanta, the apparent spokesman of the cold capes said.

I am not joking, astrologer.  I would like to see their lights dancing in the air.  I have seen only glimmers, fragments of the performance.  To see it all at once… yes.

I heard someone in Faultline’s group swearing.  Newter, I suspected.

Honestly, I kind of agreed.  I clenched my fists, biting back the worst of my anger.  I managed to stay calm as I commented, “I’m getting a better idea of why things are as screwed up as they are.  We’ve got all of the major players here, and half of you are willing to do nothing while the world burns.”

“All of the major players who were willing to come to the table,” Doctor Mother said.

Not any better, I thought, but I held my tongue.  Doctor Mother had turned to the girl from the birdcage.  “If you participated in the fight, I can promise there would be a number of dead parahumans there.”

I fear that would not be enough.  It would need to be all together, for the greatest effect,” Glaistig Uaine said.

“We could provide that many over a period of ten years, if required, but we’d want more assistance than simply this one fight,” Doctor Mother said.  She stopped as the man with the glasses leaned close.  A moment passed, “Or we could provide that many twenty-seven years from now.”

I felt a bit of a chill.  They were so casually discussing this, as if it were possible.

I opened my mouth to cut in, but Glaistig Uaine spoke first.

No.  No, I don’t think I’ll accept.  My word is too vital to me, and you seem to want me to war with the abominations.  I don’t fear my own death, but I would rather be together with the others than be separated until the grand celebration.  I won’t fight.  I would only grant my advice, some power here and there.

Doctor Mother sat back in her seat.  The ominous silence suggested she was still considering it.

A hundred thousand lives, being mulled over so readily.

“That’s a shame,” Doctor Mother said, in the end.

“If I may?” Marquis spoke up.  “With your permission, faerie queen.”

Granted,” Glaistig Uaine said.

“There are others who wouldn’t mind being free again,” he said.  “Myself included.  We’d fight that monster if you gave us the chance.  All we’d ask is that you let a select few others out, and that you don’t create a portal that leads back to the Birdcage after the fact.”

“No,” Chevalier said, breaking his long silence.  “No, I’m sorry.”

“Some of the strongest parahumans are contained inside that building,” Marquis said.  “Glaistig Uaine is one, but there are others.  My daughter is another.”

“Your daughter was a mental wreck the last time anyone outside of the Birdcage saw her.  There are too many dangerous individuals in there.  She,” Chevalier said, pointing in the direction of the woman with the shadowy pet with the massive bird skull, “Has killed thousands of people.  That’s nothing compared to what some individuals in the birdcage have done.  We’d be letting the wolves run free again, in the hopes they deal with the lion.”

“If there is no other way to deal with the lion, and we know the wolves have been caught in our snare once before…” Saint said, trailing off.

“We know they can be dealt with.  We’re just lacking resources.  Opening the doors of the Birdcage has to be a last resort.”

“Oh, I don’t know, I could stand for it to be the first resort,” Marquis said.  He turned toward the Doctor, “I’m staying mum about what my daughter discovered.  The details we both know that must not be shared.  Surely that’s worth some goodwill.”

“It is,” the Doctor replied.

I glanced at Tattletale.  Her eyes were moving quickly, hungrily taking in details.

Chevalier sighed.  “Dragon?  Some backup.”

“I have to say no,” Dragon said.  “The prisoners must stay within the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.  If you intend to rescue them, I’ll deploy everything I have to stop you.  Neither of us can afford the losses at this juncture.”

“But if we did try,” Saint said, “And if we did free a handful of deserving individuals, you wouldn’t be unhappy, would you?”

There was a pause, telling.  It was enough of a delay for Chevalier to look from Saint to Dragon and give her a curious stare before she spoke.  “My view on who is deserving is far different from yours, Saint.”

“Those of us standing here.  Me, my daughter, Lung,” Marquis said.

“You cannot speak for all of us on that front,” a matronly woman spoke.  “One of my girls was unfairly imprisoned, another is on the verge of losing her mind, in captivity.”

“We all have people we’d see freed,” the man who’d spoken about granting the ability to speak English said.  “Let’s say two for each of us.”

“Thirty six in all,” Dragon said.  “One in five of the people currently in the Birdcage, almost.  Six more could potentially use the opportunity to slip out, through Stranger powers or other malfeasance.  Glancing over the notes my artificial intelligences have made regarding the facility, I can guess who some of the cell block leaders would choose to release.  No.  I harbor concerns about the Birdcage, but this is not the answer to that.”

“It would do more harm than good,” Chevalier said.  “And I say that with full knowledge of what we’re up against here, today.  The last three days.”

“Their opinions don’t decide this,” Marquis said.  “If it were solely up to our officers and jailer in the first place, then we’d be free already.  You, Cauldron, have the means to send us back or not.  It’s your authority that matters.”

Chevalier shifted his grip on his weapon, but he didn’t attack.  “We’ll bargain.  Marquis is offering assistance, but the PRT has influence.  We’ll deal with you, Doctor, if it means the Birdcage remains sealed.  With the ongoing inquisition against Cauldron capes, perhaps there are one or two you’d want to be ignored.  They couldn’t be promoted, that’s the PRT’s jurisdiction, and it would only draw attention to them that I couldn’t help them avoid.  Still, I could time a transfer, allow someone to slip through the cracks.”

“A few someones,” the Doctor said.  “Yes.  I’m sorry, Marquis.  Our clients must come first.”

“You’ll be twisting our arms and escorting us through the portal, then?”

“You’ll go willingly.  This place cannot sustain life.  It’s a facility in the middle of a wasteland, and your Earth is several universes away.”

“I see,” Marquis said.  “Unavoidable, I take it.  And if I were to share the particularly valuable information that you and I both know, that you don’t want me to share with others who are present?”

“I can’t believe I’m not getting in on this,” Tattletale whispered to me.

Doctor Mother didn’t reply.  She remained still, her eyes on Marquis, as the woman in the suit, who she’d called Contessa, leaned in close, whispering.

“You won’t,” the Doctor said, when Contessa had straightened and stepped back, standing guard behind the Doctor’s chair.

“I won’t?”

“You won’t.  Teacher would, hearing that, but Teacher has a secret he doesn’t want divulged, and he now knows we know.”

Marquis turned, his shadow shifting, presumably as he looked at Teacher.  He turned back, “Ah well.  I suppose I’ll just say we’re here if you need us.”

“If we need you that badly,” Chevalier said, “Then we’ve already lost.”

“Rest assured,” Marquis retorted, “I think you’re doing a very good job at getting yourselves to that juncture.”

“It’s a failure across the board,” I said, surprising myself by speaking.  “All of us, the Birdcage prisoners excepted, we’re not doing enough.  If we don’t come up with an answer or get someone to step up to bat and fight, then we’re doomed.  We’ve got the end of the world happening in twenty-thirteen, and we can’t even band together for this.”

“Complaining gets us nowhere,” Faultline said. “Besides, it’s not like this is small potatoes.”

“Okay then,” I said.  “Let’s talk resources.  If you’ve got parahumans or information, let’s hear it.  Let’s show a measure of trust and have Marquis or Cauldron share the tidbit of information they’ve gleaned.  Let’s talk options that don’t involve fighting.  Tattletale thinks these bastards are designed.  Where’s the designer?”

“Nowhere we can find,” Doctor Mother said.  “And we have the most powerful clairvoyance we know about, alongside the most powerful precognitive.”

“Does that mean there isn’t a designer?” Faultline asked.  “That Tattletale’s wrong?”

“Get fucking real,” Tattletale retorted.  “I’m confident on this count.”

“If they can’t find the designer-” Faultline started.

“There’s other possibilities.  Lots of powers confound precogs and clairvoyants.”

“Both at the same time?”

“Be constructive,” I cut in.

“We will assist,” Turanta said.  “Sifara, Bahu and I, others beneath us in our organization.  I cannot speak for my fellow brothers, but I will ask them because we all owe a debt.  Our brother died, but Weaver helped to make it not for nothing.”

“Phir Sē died?” I asked, surprised.

“At the hands of the First, very late.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“We owe you,” he said.  “As we owe some of the others.  It is your choice how you would use this.”

“You can pay me back by helping, here,” I said.  “You’d be paying us all back.”

“We have the means,” he said. “But this hurts us, because we rely on our enemies not knowing what we are truly able to do.”

“If this goes much further,” I said, “It might not matter.”

“This is true.  Of each of you but Weaver and Chevalier, we will ask a small favor, after.  Nothing dangerous or painful to give away.  Token gestures, most.”

“Favors make for a good currency,” the Doctor said.  “Granted.”

There were murmurs of assent from others.  The woman with the shadow pet didn’t respond, but Turanta didn’t press the issue with her either.

Dragon glanced at Defiant, but ultimately relented, accepting the terms.

The Doctor spoke “Moord Nag?  We could use your assistance.”

The woman and her shadow pet with its crocodile skull looked at Doctor Mother.  “Laat hulle almal sterf.  Ek is tevrede om die wêreld te sien brand en die vallende konings te spot.  Ek en my aasdier sal loop op die as van die verwoeste aarde.”

“She says no.  Let them all die,” the woman from the Birdcage said.

“Can I ask who she is?” Faultline asked.

Tattletale was the one to answer.  I think she got a measure of joy out of rubbing the fact that she knew in Faultline’s face, “Moord Nag.  Warlord based in Namibia.  As far as the current warlords in the area go, she’s had the longest lifespan at about eight years or so, and she’s gotten things to the point where most of the other bastards around there are kowtowing, asking permission to attack this city or occupy that area, to go to the bathroom or unite two groups in an alliance.”

Die badkamer?”

Us, basically,” Tattletale said, glancing at me.  She turned her head to look at Grue, “Only on a much, much bigger scale, and she did it alone.”

Ek het dit reggekry met aasdier,” Moord Nag responded.  “Nie alleen nie.

“With your pet monster, right.”

“She said she’d be willing to let the world burn, before,” the woman from the birdcage said.  “I don’t think you have an ally there.”

“From her attitude,” Saint added, “I don’t even see why she was invited.”

“I’ll ask you the same thing I asked the others,” the Doctor said.  “What would it take for you to fight, here?”

Ek kan nie krag spandeer sonder om die nag lande hulpeloos teen hul bure te los nie.”

“She can’t spend her power, not without-”

“We’ll supply what you need to replenish it,” the Doctor said.

“No,” Dragon spoke.  “No, you won’t.”

Ek sal nie-

“It would be appreciated,” the man from the Birdcage that had granted her the ability to understand English spoke.  “Reconsider.  Don’t underestimate our resources.”

Vyf duisend, lewendig, dit maak nie saak of hulle mag het of nie.  ‘N Fraksie van wat jy die gek aangebied het.

“No,” Dragon said, before the translator could speak.

“Yes,” the Doctor said, just as readily.  “I caught the number, I can figure out the rest.  You’ll get what you need.”

“I can’t stand by and watch this, not like this,” Chevalier said.

“How many more will die if we don’t act?” the Doctor said.  “The Thanda will counteract the Endbringer’s teleportation ability, at least for a time.  Moord Nag gives you much-needed clout.  Again, at least for a short time.”

“In exchange for five thousand lives?” Dragon asked.

“A small price to pay.  How many have died as we conducted this meeting?”

Jy praat asof dit saak maak. Die kontrak is verseël. Sal ons gaan nou,” Moord Nag said.

“What did she just say?” Chevalier asked.  Moord Nag was already walking away, stepping away from the panel and into the recessed passage beside it, almost completely hidden in shadow.  I could only make out the rodent’s skull, overlarge and pale in the darkness.

“The contract is settled,” Dragon said.  “She sees it as inviolable, now.”

“I like her,” Marquis commented.  “Mass murder aside, anyways.  Woman of her word.”

“We’ll find her,” Chevalier said, to the Doctor, “After the battle is done, before you deliver those people to her.”

“You promised us a favor, in exchange for our not letting Marquis and the other cell block leaders free,” the Doctor said.  “I could ask you to leave this be,” the Doctor said.

“No.  Not this.  Not five thousand people, fed to that woman’s pet.”

“Stop us, then,” the Doctor replied.  “Or try, as it may be.  That’s one Endbringer we should be able to drive away.  As Weaver said, we may have to evacuate the planet if this doesn’t work.  Faultline, your assistance would be invaluable on that front.  You’ve already created nine, I believe?”

“Three of which were supposed to be secret,” Faultline replied.

“It doesn’t matter.  We’ll pay for several more, at major locations, and we’ll arrange your transportation.”

Faultline stared at the woman.  “No, Doctor.”

“No?”

“Not your money.  Not you.”

“Shortsighted,” Saint commented.

“I think this is pretty big picture.  Money talks, and I don’t like how this money sounds.  She spends five thousand lives like someone else would spend change.  Cauldron made innocent people into monsters.  They took everything from them.  I can’t deal with that in good faith.”

She turned to Chevalier, “We’ll give you a discount.  Escape routes in major cities across America.  Leading to the world that the Brockton Bay portal goes to.”

Fuck that,” Tattletale said.

“I’ll talk to my superiors,” Chevalier said.

“Good,” Faultline said, “that’s settled, then.”

“Leaving only the Endbringer that comes next,” I said.

“We won’t know what measures need to be taken until it makes an appearance,” Defiant spoke.

“Another meeting,” the Doctor said.  “Another day.”

I could feel my heart skip a beat at that.  I wasn’t sure I liked what this was becoming.

Then again, the nature of this meeting had been suggested from the start, with the shadows concealing identities.  Everything the PRT had been fighting to assure people that parahumans weren’t doing was happening here, in this room.  Scheming, trading lives like currency, and wielding incredible amounts of power, money and influence.

“But before we get that far,” the Doctor said, “Tattletale?”

“You asked me here for a reason,” Tattletale said.  “Multiple reasons.”

“The first being to give you an opportunity to check something for our mutual benefit.”

“You brought the major players in so I could see if anyone was the designer, the creator of the Endbringers.”

“And?”

“Nobody here.”

The Doctor nodded.  “I suspected.  They remain immune to precognition, but the designer wouldn’t be, I don’t think.  It’s good to double check, regardless.  Will you be attending if we hold another meeting, Chevalier?” the Doctor asked.

Others, the Thanda, were departing, now.  Grue had stepped away from the panel to step close to Tattletale, whispering something.

Then Grue walked past me, not even glancing my way, before disappearing into the corridor I’d used to enter.

Hurt, confused, I couldn’t speak to ask Tattletale why without possibly interrupting Chevalier, as he spoke in a steady, quiet voice.

“I don’t think I have a choice.  If I don’t come, then I’m left blind to what’s occurring behind the scenes.  I wouldn’t be able to intervene if you tried something like you did with the Birdcage.”

“That’s true,” Doctor Mother said.

“And I think that’s exactly what you wanted,” he said.  “You have that Contessa there, and she sees the road to victory.  You schemed this.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”  Chevalier asked.

“It’s not time for you to know,” she said.

Fuck that,” Tattletale cut in.  Most of the other groups were gone.  Faultline and her group lingered behind.  “I think it’s damn obvious what you’re doing.”

“A new world order,” I said.  Tattletale nodded in agreement beside me.

There were a few curious glances shot our way.  I could see the Doctor shift position.  Exasperation?  Annoyance?

I leaned forward, resting my hands on the railing in front of me.  Grue’s odd departure only fueled an anger that had been simmering, “I had a hell of a lot of time to think, in prison, in my downtime and during stakeouts.  There’s only one thing that really makes sense, as far as your motivations go.  It’s not the clues or what you’re doing, it’s what you weren’t doing.  Only Legend helped against the Slaughterhouse Nine, but he wasn’t in the know, from the looks of it.  You didn’t help Coil, and you didn’t help against Coil.  You only helped against Echidna when it looked like everything might go down the toilet.  But Alexandria steps in when I leave, confronts me after I’d surrendered to the PRT.  So I had to ask myself why.”

“I can imagine,” Doctor Mother said.

“We were guinea pigs,” I said.  “For what?  So you could be in charge?”

“Not us.  Never us,” the Doctor said.  “There’s a lot you don’t understand.”

Try us,” Tattletale said, almost snarling the words.

“All of this?  It’s small scale,” the Doctor said.  “Important?  Yes.  But it’s nothing in the grand scheme of things.”

I clenched my fists.  “Five thousand lives, nothing.  Talking about a hundred thousand parahumans to be delivered after twenty-some years, nothing.  The lies you perpetuated with Alexandria, the schemes, Echidna, the human experimentation, the case fifty-threes, everyone you watched die just so your experiment with parahumans in charge of Brockton Bay wouldn’t be tainted…”

“We’ll go down in history as the villains,” Doctor Mother said.  There wasn’t a trace of doubt or hesitation in her voice.  “But it’s worth it if it means saving everyone.”

“You sound so sure,” Gregor the Snail spoke, from behind Faultline.  He had a heavy accent.  European-ish, in the same vein as Moord Nag.

“Do morals matter, if our alternative is a grim and hopeless end?”

“I would never question your morals,” Gregor said.  “I know you have none.  I merely wonder why you are so confident you will succeed in all of this, that you will save the world and you will achieve your new world order and your parahuman leadership.”

“We have a parahuman that sees the path to victory.  The alternative to traveling this path, to walking it as it grows cloudier and narrower every day, is to stand by while each and every person on this planet dies a grisly and violent death.”

“You know how the world ends,” I said, my eyes widening behind the lenses of my mask.

“Of course,” she answered, standing from her chair.  She collected papers and a tablet computer from the table in front of her.  She collected it into a neat bundle, and the man with the glasses took it from her, holding it under one arm.  Only then did she add, “We already saved it once.”

There were no responses to that.  Confusion and disbelief warred with each other as I stared at her silhouette.  The others seemed to be in similar straits.

“You had better hurry if you want transportation to the battlefield,” she said.  Then, with the man with the glasses and Contessa following, she strode from the dark chamber.

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Interlude 22 (Donation Bonus #1)

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March 2nd, 1997

“Okay,” Daiichi said.  His Japanese was easy, a lazy drawl.  He paused at the top of the flight of stairs, sneering a touch as he waited for his followers to ascend.  “If you don’t hurry, they’ll be gone by the time we get there.”

There were grumbles from the others.

“Why isn’t there an elevator?” Ren whined.  Of all of them, he was the heaviest, the black jacket of his school uniform straining across his shoulders.  He’d dyed his hair blond, but hadn’t yet found a good style to wear it.  Ren was Daiichi’s lieutenant; most thought that was because Daiichi put too much stock in Ren’s size, ignoring the fact that he was more fat than muscular.  People who knew Daiichi better speculated that it was because Daiichi wanted someone fat and ugly that could offset his own good looks.  Only those inside Daiichi’s group and the people who crossed them knew better.

“Only three floors,” Daiichi said.  “And we wouldn’t use it if they had one.  They could have someone watching.”

“With only two of them?”  Ryo asked.

“Can’t hurt to be safe,” Arata said.

Kenta was the first up the flight of stairs.  Daiichi clapped one hand on his shoulder.  Their leader asked, “Ready?”

“Ready,” Kenta answered.  His heart pounded.

For others, for his neighbors and peers, conformity was safety.  To be the same as one’s peers, it reassured the self, reassured others.  Standing out was bad.

But Kenta stood out anyways.  He looked different.  People knew his mother was Chinese.  He was oddly tall for his age, his grades poor.  He could have struggled, but there was so little point.  He was competing with classmates who were already miles ahead of him, who were fighting to keep ahead of one another by studying after school, studying at night.

This was something else.  It was both thrilling and terrifying, to recognize those lines and ignore them.  To be brazen, to stand out on purpose.  Breaking rules, breaking convention.  He imagined it was like the rush that accompanied a fall to open water or hard ground.

“This is our springtime,” Daiichi said, and he managed to say it without sounding ridiculous.  At seventeen, he was older than any of them.

Springtime, Kenta thought.  Daiichi had it all planned out.  They would earn a reputation for themselves, then submit themselves to the Yakuza.  With luck, they would be accepted as low-level members of the ‘chivalrous organization’.  The freedom would be gone, in a way.  Their ‘springtime’, in a sense, referred to the brief period where they were free to do what they wanted, between the confines of school and membership in the Yakuza.

“There’s only two Chinese?” Ren asked, as they filed out of the stairwell and into the restaurant on the third floor.  The rooms here had thick walls and a wooden door, rather than the traditional paper.  They’d wanted privacy, maybe.  It didn’t matter.

“My cousin owns the building,” Daiichi said. “He said they paid with bundles of bills, and no other Chinese came in.  Some Western gaijin, but nobody threatening.”

Kenta looked back at their group.  Nine people for two men?  And they had an unfair advantage, besides.

“Go,” Daiichi ordered.

Kenta was stronger than Ren, so he was the one to kick down the door.  He moved aside to let fat Ren advance.  He wasn’t stupid, wasn’t ignoring the possibility the foreigners had guns. 

There was no gunfire.  Instead, he could hear someone speaking in English, very calm.

The woman is upset you did not take enough precautions,” A man said, in Chinese.  He sounded more alarmed than the English speaker.

Daiichi and Ren led the advance into the back room.  Kenta followed, looking over Ren’s shoulder to take in the scene.

There were five people in the room.  Two were Chinese, sure enough.  Businessmen, they seemed to be, kneeling on one side of a squat dining table that was neatly stacked with cash and ‘bricks’ of white powder in plastic wrap, as well as various dishes laid out with vegetables and meat.  A Japanese man sat at one end of the table, hands folded in his lap, eyes wide.

But there were two more gaijin in the room, kneeling opposite the Chinese foreigners.  A black woman in a white suit jacket and a knee-length dress, and a twenty-something woman with a European cast to her features, with dark hair and a black suit.

The black woman spoke, and the Japanese man translated it to Chinese.  “The woman recommends we stand back.  Her bodyguard will take care of the situation.”

“The woman in front is a bodyguard,” Kenta told Daiichi.

This was wrong.  The two women were too confident.

Daiichi drew a gun and pointed it at the woman.  Kenta felt his heart leap at the sight of the weapon.

Then Daiichi fired, a warning shot.  Kenta flinched despite himself.  He’d never heard a gunshot before.  Loud.

The men were cowering, trying to hide beneath the table.  The women hadn’t even reacted.

“One bodyguard?” Daiichi asked, sneering.  He made the first move.  He flared a brilliant green, then jolted as a phantom replica of himself leaped forth.

The phantom Daiichi flew across the room like living lightning, a trail of neon green smoke in its wake.

The bodyguard was already moving, her hand on a plate.  She turned it upside-down and threw it in a single motion, and it caught the air like a frisbee.  It turned in mid-air and crashed into the real Daiichi’s face.

He staggered, and the phantom he’d created dissipated a fraction of a second before reaching the bodyguard.  She shut her eyes as the residual smoke carried past her.

Kenta stared.  He’d never seen Daiichi’s ability fail him like that.

Daiichi raised the gun, and the woman raised one knife from the table, turning it around so she held the blade, the metal handle extended.  She held it out with one hand, pointing it at Daiichi’s shoulder.

Daiichi fired, and the knife went flying.  It ricocheted, spinning rapidly, striking the doorframe behind the bodyguard before flying over her head in a tall arc.  She caught it in her other hand, resuming the exact same position as before, then shook her right hand for a second.

She said something, murmuring it in English.  The knife, still held in front of her, had a dent on the end.

The black woman behind her said something else.

“What are they saying?” Daiichi asked.

“The woman in the suit just got permission to kill us,” Hisoka said.  “But the black one said not to spill any blood.”

“We should run,” Kenta said.

“You scared?” Daiichi asked.  “We have muscle.”

“So does she,” Kenta retorted.

Daiichi only smirked.

Can’t run, we’re going to get hurt if we stay…

Ren rolled his shoulders, then inhaled.

Wind rushed out of the room, and small objects were drawn towards Ren.  The intensity of the suction grew as the fat boy sucked in more and more air.

The bodyguard kicked one edge of the low table, and the wind caught it, helping it rise.  Money, plates and the bricks of white powder slid to the floor, sliding and rolling towards Ren.

Daiichi opened fire again, indiscriminate, but she didn’t even react.  Her knife blocked one shot that was directed more at the black woman, flying out of her grip, and the bodyguard walked between the rest of the shots without even dodging.  She seized a table leg in one hand.  It would have been too heavy to lift, but Ren’s suction was hauling it off the ground.  Two bullets bit into the thick wood.

Daiichi unleashed his power, creating another ghostly replica of himself, incredibly fast, stronger than he was.

The woman kicked the table, and it spun through the air as it flew towards Ren, clipping the ghost.  The phantom lost an arm and a chunk of its chest, got its bearings, then charged the bodyguard.  The damage to its chest was too grave, and it crumpled into neon green dust a pace away from her.

Ren was struck by the moving table, hit with enough force that he stumbled backwards into Kenta, Hisoka, and the other mundane members of the group.

Ren blew, and the table went flying across the room.  Kenta’s heart sank as he saw the woman, crouching low to the ground.  Her hand reached up to strike the flying table, altering its course as it flew towards the Chinese men.  It came so close to hitting them that Kenta thought it would be like the cartoons, where someone was cut but didn’t start bleeding until seconds had passed.

Except it hadn’t hit them, and the woman was too close to the ground to really be affected by the wind.

“Suck!” Daiichi shouted.

“Don’t!” Kenta said, though there was little point.

It was too late.  Ren had stopped blowing, buying her a second to move.  She stepped forward, closing the distance to the group.  Daiichi created a third ghost, rushing towards her, but she avoided the first strike.

Ren started drawing air in once more.  Daiichi’s spirit opened with a flurry of attacks, moving twice as fast as she was, but failed to land a strike.  The bodyguard took a step back and used the toe of her glossy black shoes to flick a brick of powder into the air.  She threw it, and the suction only added to its velocity as it soared to Ren’s right.

Daiichi’s spirit was fast enough to avoid the brick, but Daiichi wasn’t.  It bounced off his head, and the ghost dissipated again.  She kicked the table, and again, the suction caught it.  It flew into Ren’s shins, and he fell.

Thrice, both the ghost and Ren had been countered, almost casually.

Daiichi shouted, uncharacteristically angry.  Uncharacteristic, maybe, because he’d never lost a fight before.

The others pushed forward from behind Kenta.  Had they not just seen the fight?  They really thought they’d accomplish something?

But the force of the others charging forward from behind started him moving forward, and he was driven to keep advancing by the vague, incoherent idea of what might happen to him if he, the largest, physically strongest member of Daiichi’s group, turned coward.

He knew in an instant that it was a mistake.  Daiichi’s ghost, twice as fast and twice as strong as Daiichi himself, an expendable assailant, hadn’t accomplished anything.  Why would six or seven teenaged delinquents?

She tore through them, every movement precisely calculated to disable, to crush, blind, stun and stagger.  They were driven to stumble into one another, their weapons knocked from their hands.  She wasn’t any faster than any of them, not a martial artist, though there was a degree of elegance to what she did.  No movement wasted.

Her foot caught Kenta in the diaphragm.  She planted one hand on the back of his head as he winced from the blow, then pushed him face first into the ground.

His teeth bit into a brick of powder, puncturing the plastic itself.  Kenta tried to rise, but she stepped on the back of his head, driving him facefirst into the brick a second time, hard.

Someone else fell to the ground a short distance away.  Kenta turned to look, simultaneously coughed, and loose powder exploded around his face, filling his eyes.

The powder caked his nose, thick in his mouth, to the point that he couldn’t swallow.

Drugs weren’t a ‘big’ thing in the East, even among gangs.  He didn’t know the particulars of any powder or substance.  Only that they were bad, possibly lethal if too much was ingested.  He tried to spit it out, but couldn’t help but feel like he was swallowing more than he was removing.  The weight of the woman bodyguard was on his head, holding him there, suffocating.

He felt the rush of it taking hold, intense and seemingly without a ceiling to top it off.  His face in the dirt, in the dust, he was overwhelmed by the paradoxical sense of being like the king of the world.

That rush lasted too short a time.  He could feel the rush building until it felt like his heart was going to burst or vibrate itself into pieces.  He felt nauseous, as if he was going to throw up, but couldn’t bring himself to.

Kenta’s left arm started going numb.  He knew what that meant.

With a cold feeling in his churning gut, he thought, I’m having a heart att

He found himself out of his body.  He was an observer, an outside agent, without body or mind.  He couldn’t think.  He could only exist, as a part of some sequence of events.

Two entities, communicating in increasingly short bursts as they drew together.  Two entities, each unfolding and folding through realities, through multiple worlds at the same time.  Two entities, singing ideas through mediums he could barely comprehend.  Through light and heat and space and half-lives and gravity.

And they were looking.  Looking at a planet that was broad, more gas than solid.  A world of perpetual storms.  There were lifeforms in there, lifeforms in countless possible variations of that world.  Bloated bags of gas that flowed through and in the storms, in kalleidoscopic patterns.

He could see what they were focusing on, see them examining those possible worlds, declaring something.  Ownership here.  Claim there.  Territory elsewhere.

ack.

Kenta’s thoughts were confused as he felt the high seize him.  Three things overwhelming him at once.  The things he’d just seen, fleeing from his recollection.  His own body, dying in a violent, incomprehensible way.  The world beyond-

He blinked the dust out of his eyes, felt them burn, could only see shadows, could only hear the rush of blood in his ears.

The bodyguard had stepped away from him, freeing him to raise his head.  She’d staggered, and was being supported by the black woman.

He turned away, flipping himself over.  He could see the fat shape of Ren, on his hands and knees, Daiichi prone on the ground.

The bodyguard recovered faster.  She found her stride quickly enough.

She kicked at Daiichi’s throat, hard.  Ren, she struck in the nose with one boot.

The black woman said something in English.

S-she’ll take the cost of the lost product out of the deal,” the translator said in Chinese, his voice distant.

Kenta only lay there, his chest heaving.  He felt stronger, could feel his heart returning to some form of equilibrium.

But he knew he couldn’t win.  He lay there, doing his best to emulate the dying, as the Chinese men collected both cash and drugs in a bag, handing them to the black woman.

She spoke, and the Japanese man translated it to, “She would like to discuss delivery of the product on the way out.”

Kenta lay there long after the two women and the Chinese men had left.  He wiped caked powder from his face, though the effects had receded, the tingling and the rush long since faded.  Whatever had happened to him, the drugs did almost nothing, now.

He wiped his face with his shirt, then checked on his friends.

Daiichi, dead, suffocated, eyes bulging.  Ren lay there, eyes rolled up into his skull, his nose rammed into his brain, though the blood hadn’t leaked past the aperture of his nostrils.

Hisoka, suffocated on powder, as Kenta almost had.  Arata, gasping for air he couldn’t seem to pull into his lungs.  Ryo’s head had a dent in it, and his eyes were unfocused.  Jirou’s airway had been blocked, much as Daiichi’s had.  Both Takeo and Shuji lay dead with no apparent wounds.

All dead or dying, with no blood spilled.  Technically.

Kenta waited, holding Arata’s hand as the boy slowly died, then he straightened.

Idiots, he thought, with a degree of anger.  It had been foolish to escalate the fight after seeing what the woman was capable of.  He’d be more careful of who he fought in the future.

November 2nd, 1999

Lung toyed with a flame in one of his hands as he watched the great lizard-man’s rampage.

The Sentai Elite were battling the thing, assisted by the gaijin heroes.  Once every few minutes, someone passed him, flying, carrying wounded.  Lung didn’t care.  It was about timing.  If he was going to do this, he’d do it right.

A tidal wave rocked the area, and Lung had to hold on to a nearby building to keep from falling.  Heroes were swept up in the wash of water, and buildings were leveled.

The anticipation of a fight stirred inside him.  He could feel the scales beneath his skin, just itching to be brought to the surface.  The fire, too, was warm in the core of his body.

This was a fight that was worthy of him.  The trick was orchestrating it so he wouldn’t die before he got strong enough.  It was his biggest drawback.  The fight… the heroes were stalling in their own way as well.  He could tell by the way the heroes moved.  They fought in shifts.

Eidolon was fighting now.  He hurled globes of energy the size of small houses at Leviathan, and each one was sufficient to knock the creature away, flaying away the thing’s skin and simultaneously slowing it.  The hero’s own hydrokinesis deflected the lizard’s ranged attacks, diverting them skyward or off to one side.  Leviathan couldn’t attack from range, and couldn’t get close without getting pummeled.  He attempted to run, only for Japan’s foremost team, the Sentai Elite, to step into his way, blocking his progress.

“Are you fighting?”

Lung turned to look at the speaker.  A woman in a yellow and black Sentai costume.

“Yes,” he answered, his voice a rumble.  His power had granted him additional strength, durability, regeneration and control over fire even in his ordinary form, but the changes to his body had altered his voice.

She glanced at the fight, as if unsure whether she should be participating or talking to Lung, “You’re a yankee?”

“No.”

“You’re a villain?”

“I am me.”

Another tidal wave rocked the area.  This time, the water reached Lung, sweeping up to waist level and forcing him to hold the windowsill again to avoid losing his footing.  He caught the Sentai woman’s wrist to keep her from being washed away.

He could feel the scales beneath his skin stirring, threatening to rise, eager.

“Sumimasen deshita,” she said, once the water was mostly gone.

Lung only grunted a response.

“Why are you back here?”

“I’m waiting,” he answered.  “And you should be fighting.”

“I can’t do anything.  My power hurts people, but it doesn’t hurt him.  I’m not permitted to leave.”

The heroes were winning, slowly but surely.  Slowly more than anything.  Each tidal wave was doing catastrophic damage in the meantime.

I’ll fight, he thought.

With that very thought, his power started stirring into effect.  The scales began growing, slowly but surely, bristling like a sea urchin’s spines as they arranged themselves.  The very anticipation of the fight was serving to fuel his abilities.  When he changed, it would be rapid, accelerated by the sheer threat his opponent posed.

He abandoned his handhold and began striding through the flooded streets, towards Leviathan and the others.

He’d made a promise to himself.  He wouldn’t lose again.  Victory, it didn’t matter.  But losing?  He wouldn’t accept it, not like the loss he’d faced at the hands of the unnamed woman.

And that very thought, that certainty, it stirred his power further, as though it were something alive, something other.

Another tidal wave hit.  Leviathan disappeared in the midst of it, reappearing elsewhere.  Lung could hear the destruction as the beast clawed and tore through the base of one building that heroes were perched on.  He quickened his pace, felt himself growing stronger as he got closer.

The beast was otherwise occupied… this was the time.

“You’re going to die!” the Sentai in black and yellow shouted.

I’ll never die, Lung thought.  I might fall, but I’ll come back again and again.  I might falter, but I’ll return with twice the fury.

The waves were more frequent now.  Buildings here had been built to tight specifications, to remain standing in the face of earthquakes and tsunamis, but it wasn’t enough.  Barely a minute passed between the strikes, with each wave reaching further inland than the last, and only a handful of buildings stood at their full height, where there had been a city here only an hour ago.

It was in one of those brief moments of respite that the ground shuddered.  Lung nearly lost his footing.  When he looked up at the night sky, he could see that the tallest standing buildings were swaying, like fronds bending in the wind.

Somewhere he couldn’t see in the gloom, a building swayed too far and crashed to the ground.

Eidolon backed off, and Alexandria stepped in, flying into close quarters with the beast, battering him.  He tried to duck beneath the water, but she broke off to fly beneath, using her strength and the speed of her flight to part the water, cutting off his retreat.  He slowed as he entered open air, though slow wasn’t the word.  Legend caught him square in the chest, and Leviathan slowed long enough for Alexandria to catch him by the tail.

She flew straight up, holding the monster by the tail.  Between Leviathan’s dark scales and Alexandria’s black costume, they disappeared in the gloom.

Leviathan fell, and the resulting impact was oddly out of sync with his mass.  The water in particular seemed to react, a single ripple extending outward, clearing an area around him of any and all water.

Lung braced himself, felt the water collide with him with a force like a locomotive, was summarily dragged beneath, trapped, suffocating.

Scales pierced his skin, strength surged through him, and his pyrokinesis boiled around him, disrupting the water’s flow, rendering it to steam.

Other heroes were pushed back a hundred meters, but Lung was already standing, burning himself dry, advancing on the fight, where Eidolon was again engaging with Leviathan.

Another tidal wave struck, barely giving the defending forces time to recover from the last assault.  Lung lost his footing, lost another dozen feet of headway.

More scales were sprouting, they were growing en masse now.  His blood coursed through his veins at twice the usual speed.  Fire burned around him perpetually now.  He was naked, the burned rags of his clothes swept away by water, and he didn’t care.  He was in freefall, of a sort, but it wasn’t the ground waiting for him.  It was Leviathan.

His flame blasted out to pelt the Endbringer.  It didn’t do any substantial damage.

Lung ran, and it took him an instant to get used to his newfound strength, to find a stride and a rhythm.

The ground was shaking almost constantly, now.  The lasers, Eidolon’s strikes, the very impacts of the blows Alexandria delivered, the Sentai’s attacks, the barrages from assisting heroes.  A cacaphony of noise, light and violence.

He struck Leviathan, and was struck in turn, his bones broken, internal organs smashed.

He very nearly blacked out, but his rage won out.  He struggled to his feet, found one femur in two distinct pieces.  He knelt instead, resting his weight on one knee, the other foot planted on the ground, taloned toes biting into asphalt, and he directed a constant stream of fire at the Endbringer.

A flick of Leviathan’s tail sent him sprawling.

But Lung knew he’d reached a critical point.  His leg was already healing, the changes speeding up.  He stopped to hold his leg, pull the bones into what was more or less the right position, so they could bond.

Anyone who crosses me will pay twice over, he thought.

A Sentai in purple and green offered him a hand.  Lung ignored the man, standing on his own.  Again, a stream of fire, but the color was more blue than red.

The Sentai joined him, adding their ranged fire to his.  They had a man who mass produced their armor and weapons, each with wrist-mounted laser guns, rifles at their hips.  Sixteen or seventeen of them opened fire with both weapons at the same time.

Leviathan turned, struck.  Some Sentai used powers to soften or deflect the incoming scythe of water.

Leviathan charged, and Lung stepped forward to meet the brute, roared in defiance.

He wasn’t strong enough.  Leviathan knocked him aside, and Lung rolled, putting taloned hands and feet beneath him before rushing forward, shallow leaps that carried him over the water that was knee-high to the humans.  Barely halfway up Lung’s own calves.

He found handholds in the shallow wounds on Leviathan’s back and shoulders.  The abomination moved, and the watery echo that followed its movements crashed into Lung.  Not enough to unseat him.

The tidal wave that struck wasn’t enough either, nor Leviathan’s speed as the creature swam.  Lung dug deeper, clawed flesh away.  Deeper in Leviathan’s body, the flesh was only harder, the ichor making it slick.

Lung roared, burned head to toe as he clawed deeper still.  If Leviathan’s muscle was as hard as steel, Lung would burn hot enough to melt steel.

Leviathan surfaced, and Lung found his way up to the monster’s neck.  He tried to reach around, and his arm shifted, reconfiguring to be a fraction longer.  Lung’s legs, arms, and talons were growing as well.

Stronger, larger.  Another man might have been afraid of what he was becoming, but this was only continuing the freefall.  Freedom.

Leviathan shook him free, and Lung found no trouble in putting his feet under him.  His mouth strained, opened wider than it should have, four individual mouthparts flexing, bristling with teeth, his own lips buried somewhere deep inside, altered.

Water steamed and boiled around Lung’s calves as he stood as straight as he was able.  He’d changed more, his shoulders broadening, his chest heavy with muscle.  He had to rest his taloned hands on the ground to maintain his balance.  His senses focused on Leviathan like a laser, taking in everything, even the faint creaking of the monster’s movements and the Sentai’s muscles, and the infintesmally small burbles of ichor bubbling forth from Leviathan’s wounds.

The ground was rumbling constantly, to the point that the local heroes were starting to seem more concerned about the landscape than about Leviathan.

There was a crack, and Lung was put in mind of the gun Daiichi had fired, more than two years ago.  A loud sound, a wrong sound.

The ground shifted underfoot.  Heroes scrambled for cover, scrambled to run or save their friends, and water rushed forth.  Lung merely set his taloned toes in the ground, ignoring the water, the debris, and the people that flowed past him.

Leviathan charged him.

He can’t ignore me now, Lung thought.  He was only half the height of the Endbringer, but it was enough.  Fire against water, claw against claw.  Leviathan hit harder, but Lung healed faster.  Every second he fought without Leviathan tearing him in half was a second that was to his advantage.

The ground parted, and Lung could hear the water rushing in to fill the void.  The landmass had parted, and ocean water was streaming in from miles away.

Leviathan tried to drag him closer to the chasm, no doubt wanting to fight in that churning abyss.  Lung planted toes in the ground and resisted.

Alexandria was there in a heartbeat, helping, keeping Leviathan from finding his way inside.  She drove the monster back, bought Lung purchase.

She said something in English, but Lung didn’t know the language.  The only others who spoke Japanese or Chinese were gone, now.  They’d evacuated who they could, and the remainder were left to drown.  The only ones left were the indomitable, and for now, Lung was among them.  They fought to keep Leviathan from continuing his rampage, to keep him from carrying on until he’d wiped away all of Japan.  Lung just fought.

Fought for minutes, hours.  Fought until four wings extended from his back, and he burned so hot that the steel-like flesh just beneath Leviathan’s skin was blackening and charring to ash by proximity alone.  Until he was larger than Leviathan, until even Alexandria hesitated to get too close.

For that indeterminate period of time, Lung was king of the world.

But he began to weaken.  The lesser heroes were gone, washed away or helping others to evacuate, the greater heroes a distance away.

And Lung had nothing to fuel his power.  He was engaged in a fight of ten times the scale he’d been in before, and his power was leaving him.

The landmass disappeared beneath the pair of them, the shards of land drawn beneath the waves, and Lung was now fighting Leviathan in the monster’s home ground.

For an instant, he thought he would die.  But Leviathan, wounded, broke away and fled into the depths.

Lung only sank, too dense to float, growing wearier by the second as his power left him, the fight over.

He’d expected a feeling of satisfaction, but he knew he hadn’t delivered a killing blow, that he had been a long, long way from it, though he’d done more damage than anyone had in years.

His enemy couldn’t be killed.  Lung had become something more terrifying than the Endbringer, but there had been nobody to see.  None of the public to recognize him, to respect and fear him.

He sank, feeling a kind of despair.  Too tired to move, he touched bottom.

Alexandria found him in the depths and brought him to the surface.

August 13th, 2002

The walls of the C.U.I. prison loomed around him.

Lung fumed, but his power was denied him.  He paced, punched walls, burned the concrete with his power.  All around him, the area was pockmarked with the wounds that marked his periodic struggles.

They’d had him in regular cells before.  It had been a learning process for them.  He’d found that surviving in a prison like this involved being a true monster, so he’d bowed his head to one boss.  When this boss had discovered what he was capable of, he’d attacked another leader in the prison.  The ensuing war had ended with Lung being placed in higher security, until he fought the man who’d brought him food, very nearly escaping before Tōng Líng Tǎ, who never showed herself, encased him in a mountain of stone.

All in all, three years since he’d fought Leviathan.  Two years since he and his mother had come here to Chaohu.  A year and eight months since he’d been arrested by the Yàngbǎn.

A year and four months since Tōng Líng Tǎ had buried him here at the base of this pit, with the same routine.  Twice a day, he would get two packages with food.  Every day, he would pace, trying to tap into his abilities, finding them beyond his reach.  He would struggle, fume, scream, and wonder if he was going mad with the solitude.  Sometimes it rained, and he found himself knee deep in water.  Sometimes it was cold enough he couldn’t sleep.  Always, he was here, in a pit so deep that the hole at the top looked no larger than his handspan when he held his hand overhead.

Every seven days, Tōng Líng Tǎ used her powers on the walls.  The floor, she left alone, but the walls were wiped clean, her power to manipulate stone turning the four impossibly tall walls of Lung’s cell into flawlessly smooth surfaces.  She would absorb any and all of the trash that remained from his meals, any of the wildlife that had accidentally found their way into the pit, and all of Lung’s leavings, which he customarily left in one corner of his cell.

Every fourteen days, like clockwork, the Yàngbǎn opened communications.

Lung was waiting, waiting for Tōng Líng Tǎ to use her power.  Like a ripple traveling over the surface of water, he could see her power extend down the walls of his cell.  It touched the base of the wall and traveled along the floor.

Lung didn’t resist as the ground swept over his legs, trapping him from the knee down.

They appeared, descending from above, floating.  Two of them this time.  They made no mention of his lack of clothes or his shaggy hair.  Both wore identical uniforms, red jackets and pants, their red masks turning their faces into overlarge, featureless gemstones with coverings over their ears

At each of their shoulders, there was a number.  One-six and two-seven.  Not ones he’d met before.  No names.  No identities.

Will you join us?

Always, the same questions, always in Chinese.  He didn’t answer.

The American heroes approached you.  What deals did you strike?

Again, he didn’t answer.  He’d tried to tell them the truth, that he’d told the heroes to go away.  The Endbringers couldn’t die.  There was no point to fighting them.  Twice they had approached him with better deals, promising him the world, but he’d turned them down twice in turn.  He’d considered the idea of taking the third offer, but then he’d followed his mother to the C.U.I. states and lost touch with the Americans.

Not a real concern.

You will stay here until you answer our questions.”

I will join,” he told them.

They exchanged a glance between them.

He moved one hand and saw them flinch.  They wouldn’t burn any more than the other Yàngbǎn members had, but they still feared him.

It made him feel better than anything in the past long months.

The Yàngbǎn is the solution,” the taller of the two said.  “You agree this is truth?”

No,” Lung said.

That is a shame.”

I want out of here,” Lung told them.  “That is all.  If I must kneel, I will.”

We need to hear the right answers before we can go any further.  We will come again in two weeks time and we will ask you again.  If you give us the answer we require, we can move on to the next step.”

And, Lung thought, carry down the chain of questions, steps, and procedures until I fail.  You will break me and brainwash me until I am one of you.

Worst of all, they would take his powers, most of them, and give him others in turn.  This was the reason they imprisoned him, the reason they sought to break him.

He would risk it, and accept the offer.  He would do whatever they required of him, and then he would kill whoever he needed to and escape.

March 23rd, 2011

With every defeat, a matching ascent.

“The ‘Azn Bad Boys’ is a shit name,” Bakuda said.

Lung didn’t react, staring at her.

“Just saying.”

“It was the name of the group I joined when I came to America.”

“See, that’s what I don’t get.  You’re a badass, fine.  You tested the waters, took on a whole team of local heroes, and you walked away.  Right?”

“I fought Armsmaster, Dauntless, Miss Militia, Velocity, Challenger, Assault and Battery,” he said.  “Yes.”

“Except you’re small time.  You’ve got all this power, and what do you have to show for it?”

“Fear,” he said.

“I don’t fear you,” Bakuda said.  Her pale blue eyes stared at Lung, unflinching.

“You will,” he answered her.

She shrugged.  She paced, looking around the building.  Two of Lung’s whores sat on a couch, looking distinctly uncomfortable, as if they didn’t know how to hold themselves, the pose to take.

“There are two kinds of fear, Bakuda,” Lung said.  “The first is common.  Fear of the unknown.  A questioning fear.”

“Uh huh,” she said.  He could tell he had her attention.

“This is fear of unanswered questions.  If I fought him, would I win?  How is he going to hurt me?  Who or what is he?”

“And the other kind?”

“A fear of knowing.  Of realities.  If I fight him, I lose.  I know him, and I quiver to be in his presence.  I know he will hurt me and I know it will be the worst pain imaginable.”

Bakuda didn’t reply.

“I have found that the first is a weak fear.  It breaks.  It ends when you have answers, when others give you their support.  The other?  It is a fear that breeds itself.  It is a disease, and it only gets stronger when you fight it and fail.  I have situated myself here to engender that kind of fear.  The residents know me.  Those I want for my gang, I take.  My influence grows, and my enemies know not to cross me, because I always have my vengeance.”

“But the ‘Azn Bad Boys’?”

“A reminder, to my enemies, of what I’ve done before, what I could do again.”

Bakuda frowned.

“I defeated many gangs, many groups.  Some had powered members, others did not.  I recruited some.  Oni Lee was one.  The rest I killed.”

“And the heroes didn’t stop you?”

“The heroes see me as a double-edged sword.  They fear me.  They know what I am capable of when the situation calls for it, they know I am too strong to defeat as a group.  For now, I wait.  They leave me be because the only aggression they can see is that I inflict on other criminals, and I amass power, swelling in reputation.”

“And the fact that you, a halfbreed, recruited me, a halfbreed, and built a gang of a bajillion different races, it’s totally not a freudian thing, tying back to some childhood issues.”

“No,” Lung growled.

Bakuda only smiled.  “And what happens down the road?”

“I have enemies,” Lung thought.  “Those who have slighted me, those who have won.”

“Like Leviathan?”

Lung shook his head.  “Leviathan, I beat, if you can even call it an enemy.  It is a force of nature.  No, I speak of other enemies, insults old and new.  I will defeat each of them in turn, and then I will rule.”

The woman in the suit, the Yàngbǎn.

“So petty.  And you want me to help?”

“You will help,” Lung said.  “Because you think like I do.  In terms of power and fear.”

Bakuda took a seat at the end of the couch.  The two whores inched away from her.

She smiled at that.  “Alright.  You got me.”

July 14th, 2011

“…and that’s the gist of it,” Amelia said.

Lung watched Teacher’s expression change as he considered the idea.  The man seemed so ordinary, so unassuming.  To hear the man talk about it, he’d been one of the foremost criminal masterminds until the heroes trumped up charges against him.

“I might not be explaining it right,” Amelia said, “How my power works, hard to interpret.  But I think I’ve worked it out.”

“I can see where it makes sense to you,” Teacher said.  “But for those of us with no conception of these power granting entities, we don’t have enough solid ground to found the idea on.”

Amelia frowned.

Teacher shook his head.  “There’s holes in your logic.  The Endbringers?”

“I don’t see how they fit in,” she admitted.

“A developmental step forward?”

“No,” Amelia said.

“A step backwards, then?”

“No.  At least, I don’t think so.  Something else entirely.”

“To be frank,” Teacher said, “I don’t know whether to hope you’re right or wrong.”

“It’s both,” Amelia said.  “It’s bad, but at least we know how bad.”

“With nothing we can do about it until someone lets us out,” Teacher said.

Amelia frowned.  She rested her elbows on her knees, as she sat on the edge of Marquis’ bed.  Plastic crinkled with the movement.  The tattoo artist who was working on her arms had scrounged up plastic sheets from the meals that came down the shafts, sterilizing them and then taping them in place.  The freshest tattoos and the irritated flesh around the markings were blurry just beneath.

Panacea had complained about how idiotic it was, because she couldn’t get sick, but any artist had their rules and peculiarities, and Marquis had told her to accept them.

“Well,” Marquis said.  “It’s food for thought.  I’d suggest a breakout attempt, given how grave this all seems, but we know how that tends to go.”

“Yes,” Teacher agreed.  “Our deal stands?  You won’t replace my dentists or doctors?”

“That wasn’t the deal,” Marquis chided.  “We’ll price match.  A little competition will keep your employees honest.”

Teacher frowned.

“It’s the best deal I’m willing to-”

Marquis stopped short.  Lung turned to see Spruce at the entryway into the cell.

“Hey, boss,” Spruce said.

“What is it?” Marquis asked.

Spruce gave him a curious look before turning back to Marquis, “Big news. TV.”

Lung took his time walking down to the televisions.  Marquis, Spruce and Amelia made their way down, where a crowd had gathered to watch.  It was rare, that the same thing would be on all of the working televisions.

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

“What’s this?” Amelia asked.  She gave Lung a nervous glance as he approached.

“Alexandria bit it,” Cinderhands said.

With that, each of the new arrivals turned their attention to the screen.

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

“No shitting way,” Panacea said.

Lung remained quiet.

“She’s the one who arrested you, isn’t she?” Cinderhands asked, looking over his shoulder at Lung.

“No,” Lung said.  “We fought twice, I was arrested by others.”

“But she beat you?”  Cinderhands asked.

“Shush, C.H.,” Marquis said.

It marks change, and it marks a step forward.  A chance to fight Endbringers and other threats without sabotage, without worrying who stands beside us, or whether our leadership is compromised.

“Anyone else thinking that we really should get a chance to appeal our cases?”  someone in the crowd asked.  “If the organization is this fucked up, the arrests can’t count.”

“Yes,” Marquis said, his tone condescending, “I’m quite sure the Protectorate will be apologizing to the public, then they’ll throw open the Birdcage’s doors and let us all loose.”

“…hope.  We’ve investigated the portal to another world, and confirmed that there are resources and even shelter, a possibility of escape in a time of emergency…

And new allies, as unlikely as they might be.

Panacea stared as the girl on the television stepped forward at Chevalier’s bidding, She removed the black sweatshirt and pants the PRT had issued her, revealing a costume of white and gray beneath.

Amelia’s hands went to her mouth.

Marquis glanced at Amelia.  Lung took that glance in all it’s import.  The two girls were opposite sides of the same coin.

Lung’s eyes fixed on the new heroine, then narrowed.

I admitted to reprehensible things.  I won’t challenge that, or pretend I didn’t say or do those things.  By all rights, I should go to jail.  I may serve a sentence, if the courts will it.  I won’t challenge that.

“is it reassuring?” Teacher murmured.

Lung turned, realizing that Teacher was talking to him.  “Why would it be?”

“You lost to her, but she’s strong enough to defeat Alexandria.  Less of a wound to your ego?”

“I lost once,” Lung said.  “An underhanded trick, but a loss.  I’ll credit her that.”

“Mm hmm,” Teacher replied, wordlessly.

The girl continued, “I seized a territory in Brockton Bay.  I led the local villains, and we defeated all comers.  I was secure in my position.  I had wealth, friendship, love and respect.  People depended on me.  It was everything I’d ever wanted, if not quite the way I’d initially imagined it.  I could have stayed and been comfortable. Except there are bigger things.  More important things.

“She was stronger before,” Lung spoke his thoughts aloud.

“More powerful?  Likely,” Teacher said.  “Stronger?  I wonder.”

Lung shook his head.

I believe in the idea of a new PRT that Chevalier is talking about.  I believe in it enough that I was willing to turn myself in and take action to bring it to fruition.  That I was willing to leave everything I had behind.  If I have to serve time in jail first, then so be it.  If I face the Birdcage… I hope I don’t.  But at least I could tell myself that seeing the supervillain step up might convince others to come back.  Change the minds of heroes who gave up on the PRT for one reason or another.

“Noble,” Marquis said.  “Foolish at the same time, but the line between the noble and the fool is a thin one, or even a matter of perspective.”

“On this, we may agree,” Lung rumbled.

“I’ll endeavor to see that as something other than a veiled insult,” Marquis said.

This is what I want to do, above all else.  Given the chance, I’ll serve the people.  As I fought Leviathan, the Slaughterhouse Nine and other evils, I’ll fight to the last gasp to protect all of you.  When-  …When and if I do take up the job, you can call me Weaver.

The broadcast ended, with news reporters discussing the fallout, reiterating details.

The noise of it was broken down by singing, echoing through the Birdcage.  A dirge.

The yellow feathered girl who was in the truck, Lung thought to himself.

“That’s for Alexandria, I imagine,” Marquis said aloud.  “Undeserved, I think, but I imagine Lustrum gave her cell block a very good reason to honor the woman.”

“I wouldn’t have imagined you’d care,” Teacher commented.

“I don’t, really,” Marquis answered.  “But I have a lot of respect for people who keep to a particular code, whatever that code might be, and very little for traitors and wafflers.

“Like this new ‘Weaver’?” Teacher asked.

“I would defer to my daughter’s opinion on that.  She knew Weaver.”

Amelia frowned.  “She’s… both?  She’s stuck to her own personal code, even when it made her a traitor.”

“I see,” Marquis mused, rubbing his chin.

Lung frowned.  All nonsense, and none of it mattered.  That was out there, this was here.

“A word, Lung?” Teacher asked.

Lung nodded.  Anything to get away from this intolerable talk of morality and this singing.  His cell wouldn’t afford much relief, but it would be a touch quieter.

They departed, but Teacher led the way out of Marquis’ cell block, rather than to Lung’s cell.

“I believe I can be useful to you,” Teacher said.

“You have nothing to give me,” Lung said.  He bristled at the implication.

“You know how my power works, yes?”

“You make others smarter.”

“I turn others into lesser Thinkers, into Tinkers.”

“At the cost of their independence.”

“Yes.”

“Not something I want,” Lung said.

“You have strength, good instincts on a primal level, and all the potential in the world.  Yet you’ve failed here and there.  You’re here, after all.”

“And so are you,” Lung said.

Teacher nodded.  “Exactly my point.  Think on that for a moment.  We’re almost to my cell block, now.”

“You were captured because you lacked muscle,” Lung said, “I was captured because…”

Lung didn’t like the implication.  Of a lack of brains?

“Because of your incompetent underlings,” Teacher finished for him.  “Who escalated the feud with the heroes into a war while you were incarcerated, leaving you to sustain what they had started.  And, more apropos to our conversation, because your power has a drawback.  It requires a certain mental state.”

“Yes.”

“Amelia, Marquis’ girl, she won’t fix that.”

“I wouldn’t let her,” Lung said.

“Because it involves tampering with your brain,” Teacher said.  “My offer is… less invasive.  We can break down that barrier, give you the ability to control when you change.”

“At the cost of my identity,” Lung said.  “No.”

“A temporary cost to your willpower,” Teacher said.  He extended a hand, welcoming Lung into his cell block.

There was no conversation in Teacher’s cell block.  The residents were neat, tidy, and well groomed.  Some seemed functional, reading on their own or watching television.  Others were more disabled.  Lung could see one individual rocking in place, tapping something out on a table.  Another was walking in small, tight circles.

“My groupthink,” Teacher said.  “Rest assured, I wouldn’t subject you to something this grave.  We would dig deep enough to discover the true nature of your power, fast enough that you didn’t feel the side effects at their worst.  Then we would use what is effectively a hypnotic state to unlock your power as it truly should be, effectively a second trigger event.  If Amelia is right, the entity that grants you your power will resist… but we can get around that.”

Lung frowned.  “There is no point.”

“There is every point!  Come.  I’ll show you.  But first you need to tell me, are you and Marquis friends?”

Lung shook his head.

“Peers, then.”

Lung considered the word.  There were some that came up in English that he still wasn’t quite familiar with.  “Yes.”

“Then you’ll keep a secret?” Teacher asked.

“I will keep a secret,” Lung answered.

“Good, good.”  Teacher led Lung to one TV in the row.  “Trickster?”

Lung arched an eyebrow.  Trickster… the name rung a bell.  It didn’t matter.

“Connect,” Teacher said.

Trickster reached up to the power button on the television, then began a sequence of turning it on and off, with very specific pauses.  A code.

The sequence was still going on when Teacher said, “Stop.  Leave it on.”

The screen showed a face, the image grainy, flickering.  The face had a tattoo of a cross on it.

“Lung, meet Saint,” Teacher said.

Lung didn’t answer.

“He speaks when we give him something to say,” Teacher said.  “But I may have been too eager to find a way of contacting the outside world, and I’ve irritated him.  Saint explained what happened.  The PRT showed him Dragon’s equipment, asked if he could commandeer it, and Saint found an opportunity to insert a discreet backdoor.  He has a channel in, a way to observe, but our channel out is poor at best.”

“This matters nothing to me.”

“It matters a great deal,” Teacher said.  “Saint can see what Dragon sees, even if he’s blocked off from the Birdcage itself, while Dragon is occupied elsewhere.  It buys us a window of opportunity to communicate something, a message in code.  The program that Dragon has observing us with every moment tracks the activity of our televisions.  Turn it on, turn it off, and do it in a systematic enough way, and patterns emerge in a way that Saint can observe.  This allows us to coordinate.  He can’t rescue us, or empty the Birdcage, but, we could do something.  We could communicate with the outside world, and with the hypothesis that Amelia has posed… well, that’s a world changing set of information, don’t you imagine?”

Lung didn’t speak.

“The alternative, Lung, is that we unlock your power, and we use other information that Saint has collected through his backdoor.  We use it to leave the Birdcage.”

“To escape?”

Teacher shook his head.  “We wait, and we let things devolve to the point that they are willing to open the door and let us go, for the assistance we can give.  Dragon has files dictating scenarios in that vein.”

“They will not let us go free,” Lung said.  “Not the true monsters.”

“Most likely not.  It’s a question: do we gamble, or do we take a modicum of comfort in knowing we’ve perhaps saved the world a great deal of grief and maintained the status quo?  The way things are, if you’re not familiar with that particular phrase.”

Lung folded his arms.  “I have no attachment to the current state of things.”

“Then you agree?  I should tell Saint to bury the information, maybe push events here and there, if it means we could go free?”

Lung nodded.

“And your power?  If I-”

“My power will be left alone,” Lung said.  “It is enough.  If you want a bodyguard for a time after we’ve walked free, you will have it.  I will keep your secret about this Saint for now.”

“Alas,” Teacher said.  “But I’ll take the offer.  By the time this comes through, I’ll have a small army of parahumans at my disposal.  Some will be… under my sway, but I’d rather have your feral instincts to offset my own wit than have you as a slave.”

“I would kill you for trying,” Lung replied.  “You use your power on me, I will see you dead for it.”

“Very well,” Teacher answered.  He smiled.  “I’ll have Trickster pass on a message to Saint, then.  We’ll scrub Dragon’s records of this conversation, and any cases Amelia has talked of the power-granting entities, and we’ll leave a request, perhaps.  I have large sums of money stashed away.  That should be enough to convince Saint to perhaps set some events in motion, in the hopes that things sour just enough that they might open the Birdcage’s doors.”

Lung nodded.  “Do what you must.  I only care for our deal.  I walk free, I will assist you for a time thereafter.  The other things do not matter to me.”

“Very well.”  Teacher extended a hand, and Lung shook it.

Lung turned to leave.

As with the Yàngbǎn, he would stay with Teacher until he had what he needed: freedom.  Then the man would die.

The woman in the black suit, the Yàngbǎn, Skitter, and now Teacher.  People he would have his revenge on, at a later date.  People who had looked down on him, who had tried to manipulate him.

He could feel his power rippling under his skin.  Against Leviathan, he’d waited hours before engaging the beast, had fought longer than he ever had.  Now that he knew he might leave… this would be a two year buildup.

The scale of the event Teacher had spoken of?  That Amelia had alluded to?  Fear and power beyond anything he’d ever experienced, freedom without limits.  That very idea gave Lung a taste of that exhiliration he hadn’t experienced for so long.

Lung returned to Marquis’ cell block.  Marquis and Amelia were sitting at one table, drinking green tea and conversing with one another.

Marquis glanced at Lung, then poured out another mug of green tea without asking.  He gestured to the bench opposite, slid the mug in Lung’s direction.

Acceptance, the idea caught Lung by surprise.  He had a place here, odd as it was, as different as he and Marquis were.

Bakuda had taunted him over how he’d sought a kind of connection to others, how he’d recruited his gang to fill a void.  At the same time he found himself thinking of the restrictions he’d faced in school as a youth, the joys of rebellion, the Yàngbǎn and everything they’d threatened to take from him.

If there was a middle ground between acceptance and conformity, was this it?

“Marquis,” Lung spoke, carefully.

“Hm?” Marquis quirked an eyebrow.

Teacher is working to undermine everything you and your daughter are striving for, Lung thought.

“The tea is good.  Thank you.”

“Quite welcome,” Marquis replied, absently.

And Lung fell silent.

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Interlude 21 (Donation Bonus #1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He hadn’t always been this bland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which he had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No reply, of course.

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

Again, no reply.

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

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

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

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

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

No, this was a threat from within.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They learned after the first time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He extended his left hand, “Or no?”

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

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

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

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

“Damn,” he said, meaning it.

It was on the fourth floor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He paused, concentrating.

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

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

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

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

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

That said, he pushed the door open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He chanced one glance backwards.  The attack had left a hole in the wall, the shape matching the impression that one might have made with an outstretched hand, fingers grasping, except it was fifty-two point seven six times the man’s handspan.

More notation, more numbers to work with.  He could extrapolate, get an estimation of his opponent’s weapon.  He’d need a point of reference…

He hesitated, as though he were catching his balance, glanced briefly at the nearest cell, while keeping the test subject in his peripheral vision.

Another attack, baited so it would fall in a particular direction, not striking anything vital to Cauldron’s operations.  If this test subject got the idea of repeatedly striking in a downward direction, or striking up, then it opened up a whole mess of problems.  There were test subjects on upper floors, and below… well… it was best to leave everything below to the Doctor.

He evaded the attack as he had the first, but allowed it to fall closer.  Even without looking back, he knew he had the numbers right.  The attack with the left arm was the same size each time.  The strike passed within an inch of the Number Man.

Probability, time, he thought.  He was expending less energy on evading the attacks, now.  He focused instead on the possible attacks, the range of motion.  The notation that sprung forth put him in mind of the Vitruvian Man, expanded to encompass every possible strike that might occur.

Not seeing the future, but rather the possible consequences that might unfold.

Now the Number Man was free to evade even before the attacks occurred.  As a tennis player might move to cover the open court as the opponent’s racket was drawn back in anticipation of a strike, he was bolting for the safe zone, the area where incoming attacks weren’t as likely to fall, where his opponent would have to take time to adjust his orientation to effectively strike.

Which would be a fatal mistake on his opponent’s part.

No.  Test subject three-zero-one-six didn’t use his left arm.  He kicked out with the one leg that had only the foot attached.

The Number Man ducked under the strike, throwing himself forward, rolling, found his feet in the same motion.  The kick demolished whole tracts of flooring, tearing into the bottom of the stairwell.

The distance between himself and his foe was now a mere fifty-seven feet and eight inches.

Two more strikes, sweeping attacks with a fist that could gouge floor and ceiling both at the same time, and each time, the Number Man slipped by unscathed, closing the distance at the same time.

He could see the fear on the man’s face.

Deimos, the Number Man thought.  It was an old thought, a familiar thought in the same way someone might find their mother’s cooking familiar, and it wasn’t his voice he heard it in.

Another strike, this one coming dangerously close to two-nine-nine-zero’s cell, followed by another strike in the reverse direction.

Phobos, the Number Man thought.  First terror, then mindless panic.

The attacks were more frantic now, but that was to be expected.  The Number Man had conserved his strength, had the stamina to move more quickly.

Twice, his opponent tried to feint, to change directions mid-strike.  He caught on quickly enough to take advantage, closing the distance to thirty feet and seven inches away, then twenty feet, two inches.

Subject three-zero-one-six had two options.  One was to be clever, to claw at the ground between them and create a divide, a moat.

The other was to strike.

The Number Man forced the decision.  He calculated his movements, let one foot skid on the dusty ground, sprawled, rolling with his own momentum.

He could hear the rasp as it tore through a section of ceiling, the attack incoming, saw the probable strike zones unfolding before his eyes.  Rolled until he had his feet under him, then sprung.

The attack missed by as narrow a margin as he’d permitted for the others.

He straightened, studied the confusion and fear on his opponent’s face.  Every action on his part was measured, performed for effect.  To dust his clothes off, walking forward at a measured, unhurried pace.

To not even flinch as his opponent drew his hand back.  He was still able to dodge.  Barely.

“Stop,” he said.  “There’s no point.”

The test subject backed away a step instead.  He tensed, readying to kick out with that nonexistent leg of his.

“You’ll miss,” the Number Man said.  “And I’ll close in and strike you, using my pen and my hand.  I can see the stress points of your body, clear as day.  I can shatter your skull like a glass, and it would be an exceptionally painful way to die.”

Slowly, he saw the fight go out of the test subject.

“Why?”

“Return to your cell, and we can talk.”

“I can’t.  I’m going mad,” the test subject sounded almost morose, defeated.

“There’s only one alternative, three-zero-one-six.”

“My name is Reyner!”

“You lost that name when you came here.”

“Why!?”

“Reyner died.  Maybe it was war, maybe it was plague.  But we sent our people to collect you before you passed.  Some of the collectors were like me, others more like you, made to think the way we needed them to think.”

The test subject’s eyes widened.  “You’re mad.”

“Reyner died.  This… it’s a purgatory.”

“I do not know the word.”

Not in his lexicon?

“Purgatory?  A limbo.  A place between,” the Number man said.  He advanced, and the test subject retreated.

“Between what?”

“Hell and paradise.  The mortal coil and the world beyond.  This is a neutral ground.”

“Neutral?  Can you even understand what you’re doing to us?  I… I’m a child’s toy, pieces missing.”

The Number Man studied three-zero-one-six.  He couldn’t imagine any toy like that.  Another cultural distinction, hailing to the man’s universe?

“I understand a great deal about what we’re doing to you.  I could explain the experiments, the effects on your body, as we understand them, inform you-”

Morally.”

“Ah,” the Number Man replied.  “Morals.”

Another delusion perpetuated by society.  Useful, valuable, much like commerce, but still a delusion.  It only served its purpose so long as it was more constructive than not adhering to those beliefs, but people often lost sight of the fact, made it out to be something it wasn’t.

He’d suddenly lost a great deal of interest in this conversation.

“I have a family.  A wife and children.”

“I told you.  You died when you came here.  You left them some time ago.”

“I… no.”

“Yes.  But what you’re doing here, helping us, it’s going to make a difference.  It will help save your wife and kids.  When you die, we will autopsy you.  We will use what we learn to find stronger powers.  Those powers will expand our influence and help us against the true threats.”

“Threats?  To my family?”

“Yes.  To everyone.”

“You’ll save them?”

“We’ll try.”

Three-zero-one-six slumped, “I can’t go back to my cell.”

“I could kill you, if you wished.”

“If I’m going to die, I’ll die fighting.’

“You’ll only make it violent, painful.  It will be drawn out.”

He could see the man’s expression shifting, the dawning realization that there was no way out.

“Did… was there a chance I could have won?”

“Yes.  Luck.  A little more cleverness.  If you were in better shape, perhaps.”  My power is better at range.  Better still as I get further away, attack from other angles, in more subtle ways.

“Then I could have escaped?  A chance I might have returned home?”

“No.  There was never a chance you might escape.”

The door slid open.  He made his way to the chair, a  laptop tucked under one arm.

The Doctor was present.  She looked weary, but her hair was immaculate, pinned into a bun.  She stared out the window at this world’s landscape, so different from his own view.

“That’s two escape attempts in two weeks.  We had three in the last four years before that, only one successful,” he said.

“I’m aware.”

“We’ll need to change our approach.”

She turned around.  “How?”

“We need Contessa closer to home.”

“She’s required for damage control.  Too many capes who were present for the Echidna incident think they can destroy us by spreading the word about Cauldron.”

“Perhaps we stop performing damage control.  Let the pieces finish falling where they will.”

“We’d fall further behind in our agenda.”

“Undoubtedly.  But as it stands, it’s only a matter of time before we’re destroyed from within.  Our operation is too big and too delicate to manage like this.”

The Doctor frowned.  “It would mean less voluntary subjects.”

“Very likely.”

The Doctor frowned.  “And we’re behind schedule, even if we ignore that.  I’d hoped to use Shatterbird or Siberian.”

“Unlikely anything would have come of it.”

“But if it had?”

The Number Man had no reply to that.  He set his laptop on the desk and booted it up.  If they had been able to leverage either of them to defeat an Endbringer, or to find why they had wound up so powerful, compared to the typical parahuman…

“It seems we may have just lost Brockton Bay.”

The Number Man’s eyebrows rose, though his expression remained placid, his gaze fixed on the computer.

“Skitter turned herself in.”

With that, he did look up, meeting her gaze.  He saw the truth in her statement and closed his eyes.  Mourning one more lost possibility.

They’d lost Coil, had lost Hero, and the Triumvirate had dissolved.  They were in the process of losing the Protectorate.  Everything they’d put together, falling apart over time.

“Is it settled?”  He asked.

“No,” the Doctor said.  “But she turned herself in, and as far as I’m aware, there is no mischief at work.”

“Then it’s not necessarily over.”

“We can’t interfere.”

“I’m aware.”

“We have to take more risks,” the Doctor said.  “If we’re going to recover from these last few setbacks.”

“What risks?”

“If we’re to decipher the formula, find the strongest effects, we can’t keep tempering the mixture with the ‘balance’ concoction.”

“Creating more deviations.”

“Far more,” the Doctor said.  “But we found the strongest powers before we were diluting the doses.”

“We’d lose up to twenty-three percent of our potential client base.”

“We lower the price.  It’s almost trivial at this point.  The only reason we set a price in the first place was to wean out anyone who wasn’t fully committed.  We’ve supplemented virtually every other part of our operations with parahuman powers.”

“That only returns us to the issue of how we control our interests.  We can’t have deviations running around, or we’ll bring disaster down on our own heads.”

“I was thinking we use you in the field, Number Man.”

The Number Man leaned back in his chair.  “Me.”

“You’d perform.  You have performed in the past.”

“I suppose,” he mused.  He rubbed his chin.  He needed to shave.  “A long time ago.”

“I know you wanted to get away from that business, but-”

He shook his head.  “No.  This is bigger than things I want.  If I can participate in this, I can get my hands dirty.  We’ll be looking for the Slaughterhouse Nine, I take it?”

“No.  The heroes are already looking, I’m not sure what we could contribute.  There are other matters to consider, and we’re giving up a great deal of control behind the scenes by having you in the field, rather than working elsewhere.”

“I take it this is another risk we’re taking?”

“Yes.  Increasing the volatility of the formulas, deploying you while we reserve Contessa for the more severe situations, allowing the public to discover more of Cauldron’s role in things…”

“Hopefully not too much,” he said.

The Doctor shook her head.  “Not too much.  When will you be prepared to relieve her?”

“A day or two.  Let me get prepared.”  He stood.  “I left the data on the laptop.  Funding, the movements of key groups.”

“Thank you.”

He left the room.  His power alerted him about the Custodian’s presence as he entered the hallway.  The sum of a million infinitesimal details.

It also informed him of the seam in the hallway, marking the nearly invisible Doormaker portal.  He stepped from the Doctor’s headquarters to the hallway leading to his own office.

Doormaker had changed the landscape beyond his window.  An Earth of black magma and brilliant sunsets in the middle of the day, apparently.

He moved his Dali picture, sliding it to one side, and stepped into the doorway beyond.

Barring incidents like earlier in the day, it had been a long time since he had exercised his power in any serious way.

The costume, neatly folded on a shelf at the end of the closet, seemed so very small as he unfolded it.

Even the smell, it brought back memories.

1987

The pair of them were breathing heavily.

They exchanged glances.  Two faces, spattered with flecks of blood.

Jacob carefully stepped around the expanding pool of blood.  He crouched by the body, then grinned.

The other face wasn’t smiling at all.  It was grim, a stark opposite, just as their hair colors were nearly opposites.

We’re nearly opposites in more than hair color.

“He can die after all,” Jacob mused.

“Yes.”

“Wasn’t all that,” Jacob mused.  He looked almost disappointed.

“Maybe not.”

“Bastard!”  Jacob kicked the body.  “Prick!”

I’m worried he’ll get up all of a sudden, even with his guts hanging out and half his blood on the ground.

Jacob stretched, and wet blood ran down his arm as he raised it over his head.  He still held the murder weapon.  One of the murder weapons.  It had been a shared effort.

“This doesn’t end it.  They’ll come after us.”

“We could lie,” Jacob said.  “Tell them he used mind control.”

“They won’t believe us.”

“Then we run with it.  Everyone will have an idea who we are, after this, we can make a name for ourselves.”

“We have names.”

“A reputation.  Don’t tell me you don’t feel like there is something bigger, something better.  You call yourself Harbinger.  That’s all about the things to come.”

“His name for me, not mine,” Harbinger said.

“But the idea…  There’s something bigger than this, something at the end of the road,” Jacob said.

“I don’t see the point.”

“But you feel it, don’t you?  The rush?”

“Yes,” Harbinger said.

“Forget the stupid names and spandex.  Tell me your heart isn’t pounding, that you’ve never felt more alive than this.”

Harbinger shook his head.

“We can live this.  Together.  Every waking second…”

“Jacob.”

“Jack,” Jacob said.  He kicked King’s body again.  “Fuck it.  He always called me Jacob, practically purring.  His little killer in training.  As if I could match up to his Gray Boy.  I want to be more than that.  Get out from under his shadow.”

“Okay… Jack.”

“If it’s a farce, a joke, let’s run with it.  We take simple names, dumb names, and we make people quake in their shoes at the sound.  Jack… Slash.”

“I’m… no.  I won’t.”

Jack wheeled on him, knife in hand.

“You want to fight?” Jack asked.  The smile had dropped from his face.

The look in his eyes… hungry.

“No.  That’s just it.  I don’t want to keep doing this.”

“You said it yourself.  You feel the rush, like you’re on the cusp of something greater.”

“I do feel it, but I think I can get there by walking a different road,” Harbinger said.

He could see the disappointment on Jack’s face.  See the way Jack’s knuckles whitened as he tightened his grip on the blade.  His power blossomed around the boy, showing possible attack vectors.  Too many.  Harbinger wasn’t sure he’d survive.

He might have to throw himself in the way of the attack and kill his friend before a more serious attack could be delivered.

Or…

“I’ll play, though,” he said.

“Play?”

“Make a name for myself.”

Jack smiled.

Present

The Number Man set the costume down.  He picked up the knife.  The same one he’d used to stab King in the back, buying Jack time to open the man’s stomach.

He wouldn’t wear a costume.  Wouldn’t do anything particularly fancy.  He’d even keep this name.  A measure of respect to an old friend.  Something to challenge convention.

Jack was his other number, his inverse.  The Number Man was working to save lives, and he killed as a matter of kindness.  Jack considered killing a matter of fact, and any life he spared was only for his own twisted ends.

The Number Man still considered the man a friend, as much as he knew that friendship was one of those ephemeral constructs.  One of the delusions people subjected themselves to, to make the world make sense.

Or maybe Jack was family.  They’d started out on the same path, after all.

Did Jack know that there was another parallel?  That the numbers and the research with Cauldron were illustrating something else entirely?

The Number Man had been gifted with powers of perception.  To see the underpinnings of the world.  In a roundabout way, he used his power for killing, for destruction.  Jack had been gifted with a power that was good only for killing, but the Number Man harbored a suspicion that Jack was more than that.

Research within Cauldron had included tinkers, drawing many conclusions about how tinkers operated.  Some were well vested in mechanical details, drawing a great deal from it to fabricate their work.  Others had little idea about the technical aspects of what they created, relying more on instinct and creativity, relying more on their agents to draw up an idea of how their work would function.  It was quite possible that other capes were doing the same thing.

There was no way Jack should have made it this far on luck and instinct alone.  Not dealing with the monsters he interacted with on a daily basis.  The idea had started as a theory, but had taken on a life of its own: was it possible that Jack was drawing on the same agent that granted him his powers?  Wittingly or unwittingly?

Did he have a second set of eyes watching out for him?  Sharpening his instincts?  Giving him a sense of imminent danger or his vulnerable targets?

And more to the point: why?

Was Jack, perhaps, in particular sync with his agent in mindset?

And if he was, did that suggest something about their motives?

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Interlude 15 (Donation Bonus #3)

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August 20th, 1986

She was being poisoned by people with smiles on their faces.

She hated those smiles.  Fake.  Pretending to be happy, pretending to be cheerful.  But she’d spent enough time here to know that her friends and family would be crying the second they thought they were out of earshot.  The strangers had a weariness that spoke to the inevitable.  The older they were, the more reality seemed to weigh on them.

Somewhere along the line, they had stopped telling her that the chemotherapy would make her better.  The smiles had become even more strained.  There was more emphasis on making her comfortable.  Less explanation of what was going on.

So when her mother came in to check on her, bringing the mug of heated chicken broth, she pretended to be asleep.  She hated herself for it, but she couldn’t stand the lies, the fakeness.

If it wouldn’t have given her away, she would have winced as her mother sat down by her bedside.  It meant she might be staying a while.

“Becca,” her mother murmured from behind her.  “You awake?”

She didn’t respond, keeping her breathing steady.  She tried to breathe through her nose, so the sores that filled her mouth wouldn’t sing with pain at the contact with the air.

Her mother ran one hand over her head.  Her hair was mostly gone, and the contact was uncomfortable to the point that it was almost painful.

“You’ve been so brave,” her mom whispered, so quiet she was barely audible.

I’m not brave.  Not at all.  I’m terrified.  I’m so frustrated I could scream.  But she couldn’t.  Everyone had painted her as being so courageous, so noble and peaceful in the face of the months of treatment.  But it was a facade, and she’d passed the point of no return.  It was too late to break composure, too late to stop making bad jokes, faking smiles of her own.  She couldn’t complain or use her mother’s shoulder to cry on because everyone would fall apart if she did.

She was their support.

“My little superhero,” her mother said.  Rebecca could feel her mother’s hand on her bare scalp once more.  She wanted to slap that hand away, yell at her mother.  Don’t you know that hurts?  Everything hurts.

“You’ve been trying so hard.  You deserve better.”

And just like that, from the tone and the word choice, Rebecca knew she was dying.

She felt a mixture of emotions.  Relief, in a way.  It would mean the chemotherapy could stop; she could stop hurting.  There was anger too.  Always some anger.  Why couldn’t her mother just tell her?  When would they get up the courage to deliver that news?

Apparently not tonight.  Rebecca heard the scrape of the chair moving as her mother stood, the muffled footsteps as she retreated down the hall.

Tears had been harder to come by since the chemo had started.  Most days, her eyes were red and itchy, her vision blurry, too dry to cry.  But it seemed this occasion deserved them.  For a long time, she lay on her side, staring out the window at the cityscape of Los Angeles, tears running sideways down her face, across the bridge of her nose and down to her ear, soaking her pillow.

There was a sign that caught her eye, because it was so bright a yellow against its immediate background of blues and dusky purples.  The classic logo of a fast food restaurant.

It struck her that she would probably never get to eat there again, never get a special kids meal with the dinky plastic toy that was meant for kids ten years younger than her.  She’d never forget about the toy afterward, letting it clutter the top of her dresser along with the other colorful trinkets and keepsakes.

She’d never get to read the third book of the Maggie Holt series, or see the movie they were making of the first book.

She’d never have a real boyfriend.

It was dumb, but those stupid trivial things hit her harder than the idea that she’d never see her family, her friends or her cats again.  The steady tears became sobs, and her breath hitched, making her entire chest seize in pain.  The involuntary clenching of her empty stomach was twice as bad, and she started to think she might need to throw up.  Or dry heave.  Experience told her that would be worst of all.

She’d started moaning without realizing it, quiet and drawn out, trying to replace those painful lurching sobs with something else.

“Do you need morphine?”

The gentle voice startled her, interrupting both the moans and the sobs.  Morphine wouldn’t help the most basic, terrifying, inevitable reality she faced.  She shook her head.

There was a whispering.

“I’m going to increase the drip just a little, Rebecca Costa-Brown.”

“Who?”  Rebecca stirred, turning around to see who was speaking.  A black woman with long hair in a doctor’s get-up was messing with the IV bag.  But… no name tag.  And there was a teenage girl with pale skin and dark hair standing behind her, wearing knee-high socks, a black pleated skirt and white dress shirt.  “You’re not one of my doctors.”

“No, Rebecca.  Not yet,” the woman replied.

Quietly, Rebecca asked, “Are you one of the doctors that takes care of people that are dying?”

The woman walked around to the end of the bed.  The teenager stayed where she was.  Rebecca gave the girl a nervous look.  She was staring, her expression placid, hands at her side.

“Who are you, then?”

“Shh.  Lower your voice.  It would be a shame if the nurses happened to come by and eject me.”

“So…” Rebecca started, making a conscious effort to speak more quietly, “You’re not supposed to be here.”

“No,” the woman replied.

Rebecca closed her mouth.  She could feel the effect of the morphine.  If nothing else, it was helping ease the uncomfortable sensation where her stomach had been cramping, her skin feeling raw against the stiff hospital sheets.  She didn’t know what to say, so she fell silent instead.

“To answer your question, I’m a doctor, but not one that works in this hospital.  I’m more of a researcher and scholar than anything else.  And I came to make you an offer.”

“Shouldn’t my mom be here for this?”  My mother makes all of the decisions.

“Normally yes, when dealing with a minor.  But this is a private deal.  Just for you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You’ve heard about the superheroes?  On the television?”

“Yeah.  There’s, like, a bunch.  Twenty or something?”

“No less than fifty, now.  They’re appearing all over the world, with thousands upon thousands estimated to appear by the turn of the millennium.  I confess I have something of a hand in that.  Which is why I’m here.”

“You… make superheroes appear?”  Rebecca could feel herself getting foggy with the morphine.

“I make superheroes, but it’s not easy.  The risks are high.  The files?”

The teenager on the other side of the bed stepped forward, pulling off her backpack.  She reached in and withdrew a file folder.

The woman moved the wheeled, adjustable bed-desk that still held the chicken broth Rebecca’s mother had brought.  She moved the plastic container and put the file folder down.  Opening it, she spread out the glossy photographs that were contained within, until six images sat side by side.

A man with gnarled skin like the wood of a tree.  A woman with tentacles everywhere.  A beetle-man.  A boy with skin that seemed to be melting like wax.  A burned husk of a body. A little girl without eyes, only flat expanses of skin where they should be.

“Right now, in the early stages of my project, only one in seven succeed.  Two of those seven die.”  The woman tapped the pictures of the burned body and the boy with melted skin.  “Four experience unfortunate physical changes.”

“They’re monsters.”

“Yes.  Yes they are.  But of those seven, statistically there’s one who experiences no major physical changes, who gains powers.  All anyone has to do is drink one of my formulas.”

Rebecca nodded.  Her eyes flickered over the photographs.

“And I’ve stumbled on a little side-benefit, Rebecca.  I mix those potions a certain way, and it not only helps reduce the severity of any physical changes, but it also has a restorative effect.  The body heals.  Sometimes just a little.  Sometimes a great deal.  I think we could heal you.”

“Heal me?”

“I’m not asking for money.  Only that you take this leap of faith with me and help me build something.  I know the risks are great, I wouldn’t normally ask someone to face them, but I suspect you don’t have much left to lose.”

Rebecca extended a hand to touch the photos, but it was herself she looked at.  Her fingers so bony, her skin mottled yellow with bruising around the knuckles.  I’m already a monster.

She tapped the photo.  “If… if it was just this?  If you were offering to save my life and make me one of those monsters?  I’d still accept.”

August 21st, 1986

“I think we can mark this as a success,” the Doctor spoke.

Rebecca opened her eyes.  She’d seen something fragmented but profound, but it slipped away as fast as she could think to recollect it.  She staggered to her feet, wobbled.  The girl in the school uniform caught her before she could fall.

“I’m not a monster?”

“No.  In fact, I don’t know if it could have gone better.”

Rebecca extended one arm.  Her skin was a healthy pink, her hand thin but not so emaciated as it had been.

“I’m better?”

“I would guess so.  In truth, I’m not sure how the regeneration affected the cancer, it might even have exacerbated the symptoms.  For the time being, however, you seem to be well.”

“I feel really light.”

“That’s promising.”

Rebecca allowed herself a smile, letting go of the girl’s hand.  She could stand under her own power.  Everything around her appeared sharp.  She hadn’t realized how bad her vision had become.

Even her mind seemed to be operating like a well oiled machine.  Had the drugs and poison made her stupid?

No.  She’d never been like this.  It was like her brain had been a bicycle and now it was a Ferarri.  Even as her eyes flicked over the interior of the warehouse, she could tell she was processing faster, taking in details and sorting them better, as if her thoughts were no longer limited to the confines of her skull.

“What can I do?”

“I’ve yet to start categorizing the results.  For the time being, I’m playing a game of battleship, creating what I can and logging the results.  I hope to find the patterns and the factors at play, given time.”

“You’re going to keep doing what you did with me?”  Rebecca bounced in place.  It took so little effort to move so high.  She was better.  She was alive, like she hadn’t been for months and months.

“I’m going to find an alternative as soon as possible.  The risks are too high, at present.  You can understand that what I have is valuable, and every time I approach a potential patient, I face the possibility that I’m going to be exposed.”

“They’ll stop you?”

“They’ll try.  I have her to guard me,” the Doctor nodded in the direction of the dark-haired girl.  “But I’d rather work without interference.”

“So what do we do now?  What do I do?”

“I have ideas.  Would you object to accompanying me for some time?  I could use another bodyguard.”

“I don’t even know what I do.”

“Nor do I.  But I think it would be a bad idea for you to return home.”

Rebecca stared down at her hands, clenched and unclenched them.  What would her parents say?  What would the doctors and nurses say?

She walked across the empty building.  By the time she reached the other end, she was floating, her feet not even touching the ground.  She set her hands on the wall, dragged her fingertips through the concrete, then crushed it in her hands.  It should have ruined her skin, left scrapes or torn her fingernails, short as they were, but it hadn’t.

I used to be a shadow of a person, barely there.  Now I’m something more in every way.

When she turned around, the girl in the school uniform was whispering in the Doctor’s ear.

The Doctor spoke, “Two years, then you decide if you want to stay.”

Rebecca looked down at the concrete dust that had settled in the lines and folds of her hands, met the Doctor’s eyes and nodded.

May 1st, 1988

“Alexandria,” the Doctor called.

Alexandria waited patiently as Contessa adjusted her cape, then strode through the door.  The Doctor was there, of course.  Professor Manton, too.  The boy with the math powers was there, standing next to a boy who was staring off into space.

“She’s young,” Legend said, sizing her up.

“She’s also one of my best yet,” the Doctor said.

“I’ve heard of her,” Hero said.  “Los Angeles?”

Alexandria nodded.

“You took down Strongarm and Mongler.  It was impressive,” he said.

“Thank you.”

The Doctor spoke, “She’s as strong as any parahuman we’ve recorded.  Flies at speeds that match your own, Legend.  Near-perfect memory retention, accelerated processing and learning.”

Legend gave her another serious look.  She wore a black costume with a skirt, knee-high boots and elbow-length gloves.  A heavy cape flowed behind her back.  Her black hair was held back out of her face by the metal visor that covered the upper half of her face.

“It’s more typical for heroes to wear brighter colors,”  he said.  “It conveys a more positive image.”  His own costume was a testament to that philosophy, blue with flames and lightning stencils in white.

“Black’s more utilitarian,” the Doctor said.  “Harder to see in the dark.”

“And it’s easier to get the blood out,” Alexandria added.

Legend frowned.  “Do you get a lot of blood on your costume?”

“I hit really hard,” she said, deadpan.

He didn’t seem to appreciate the humor.  It didn’t matter.

“Okay,” Hero said, folding his arms.  “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Alexandria.  But I’m not sure I see the point of this, Doctor.”

“You each committed to assisting my enterprise, in exchange for the powers I could grant.”

“Yeah,” Hero said.

“Now I have two things I’d like you to consider.  The first is… well, you could consider it a new arrangement.”

“Alright.  I can keep an open ear,” Legend said.  Eidolon and Hero nodded in agreement.  “What’s your proposal?”

“It’s not my proposal.  Alexandria?”

Alexandria felt her heart skip a beat as the three heroes turned their attention to her, but she kept her emotions from her face.

“This room, I would argue, contains the most powerful parahumans in the world, Scion excepted.  The good you accomplish is undeniable.  Even if villains outnumber the heroes, powers have come to benefit the world in the long run.  A golden age, if you will.”

Legend nodded.

“But we know that trigger events tend to produce damaged, disturbed and unbalanced individuals.  Any traumatic event will do that, and a trauma punctuated by the acquisition of superpowers is going to leave a lasting impression.  Trigger events produce more villains. We know this.”

The Doctor cut in, “And I’m producing more heroes than villains.  For now, the proportion favors us, and you’ve been able to keep the criminal element in line.  For the most part.   But even as I expand my operations, I have come to the realization that I can only produce so much.  And the rate of parahuman growth is expanding.  The next twenty years are projected to produce a total number of six hundred and fifty thousand people with powers, worldwide.”

Alexandria spoke, “I’ve looked at the numbers, at the growth, the trends, checked and double checked them.  Even if the rate decreases, we’re going to get outpaced and we’re going to get outpaced hard.  The people with trigger events will outnumber the Doctor’s clients, and we’ll wind up with three to ten villains for every hero that steps forward.”

Legend, Eidolon and Hero were paying attention.

The Doctor spoke, “Alexandria and I have discussed this at length.  A recurring worry is that as much as I’ve been able to gift you three, you four with exemplary abilities, we could see other threats of comparable power.”

“Is there any evidence of this?”  Hero asked.  “You haven’t explained how you create the powers, but what you’ve said leads me to believe you’re producing something purer than what everyone else gets.”

“Purer?  Perhaps.  But the purer something is, the more fragile it becomes.  The process seems to be influenced heavily by psychological strain and stress.  Almost an inverse of the trigger event phenomenon.  You know there’s a possibility that the formula can become tainted, giving inhuman characteristics to the unfortunate subjects.  This is despite the most sterile conditions.  I’m improving the results over time, with Professor Manton’s help, but there are no guarantees.”

“The point we’re getting around to,” Alexandria spoke, “Is that even if the Doctor can get better results with time and effort, the explosion in the natural parahuman population is inevitably going to produce an individual with powers that outstrip our own.”

“So we lose in the long run?” Eidolon asked.  “We’re doomed?”

“No.  Because I’d like to propose a solution.  A way to assert control.  I want to band together.  Form a team.”

Legend leaned against the wall.  “There are teams forming already.  Yes, we’d be powerful, influential, but I don’t see how that addresses the problems.”

“Simple.  We do what the government’s been pushing for.  We regulate.  We bend to the government’s yoke, all four of us together.  We follow their stipulations and regulations.”

“That sounds like a horrendously bad idea,” Eidolon spoke.  “Why?”

“Because if it was us four, together?  We could afford to push back if they pushed too hard, and they’d know that.  And just by being there, we could make the project attractive enough to bring others in.”

Legend turned, “And how does this benefit you, Doctor?”

“It doesn’t.  Not directly.  That’s why this is Alexandria’s proposal.”

“But,” Manton spoke, his voice gravelly for his relatively young age, “We could send some of our clients to you.  Happier clients are better for business.”

Legend folded his arms.  “And you’d want to be in charge, Alexandria?”

“No.  I think you or Hero would be a better choice, to portray a kind face and a positive image.  You two wear the colorful costumes.”

“Not Eidolon?” Hero asked.

“He’s too powerful.  Not saying either of you aren’t, but we wouldn’t be able to convey the impression that it’s the government in control of the heroes if it was Eidolon front and center.”

Legend nodded.  “You’ve given this a lot of consideration.”

“More than a little,”  Alexandria admitted.  “I have an eight stage plan to incorporate parahumans into society, I’ve also researched and developed plans for marketing and monetizing capes.  America is the most powerful country in the world, and it’s a capitalist nation, first and foremost.  We’ll use that.”

“Seems to be getting away from the idea of doing good deeds for the sake of doing good deeds,” Eidolon said.

“It is, but that’s inevitable.  The post-baby boomer generation is growing up.  Couple that with the explosion in parahuman numbers, and this situation threatens to get well out of control.  We need structure and organization if we’re going to keep things intact.”

“There’s no guarantee your plan will survive contact with government,” Legend said.

“There’s one guarantee.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m estimating that it will take at least five years to establish this plan nationwide.  In that span, we’ll start with only a few groups in the largest cities, we’ll gradually and gratefully accept involvement and oversight from government and law enforcement.  We’ll also create a sub-group for minors with powers, so we can strictly structure their environment and development.  Those are the key points.  That gives me time to address your doubts.”

“Again, how?”

“I expect we’ll be able to employ the remainder of the plan, the eight-stage integration of parahumans with the public, because I will be in a position of power in the government.  I, my civilian self, can be in charge of the government-sponsored superhero teams within eight years.”

“There’s too many holes in that plan.  People will wonder why Alexandria and your secret identity aren’t in the same place at once.”

“There’s more than one solution to that.  For one thing, I can work faster and better than my unpowered peers.  For another, the Doctor thinks she can find a suitable body double with similar powers before the deadline.  I designed this costume to be elegant without being attention-getting.  No color, as you pointed out.  And I don’t seek leadership of the team.  Instead, I will content myself with working to guide legislation to where we need it.”

“It seems so manipulative.  Everything people feared we’d be doing,” Hero said.

“I have booklets of paperwork you can look over.  All of the math, all of the projected issues for the future, and all of my proposals and plans.  You don’t have to give me an answer right away.  Just consider it.”

“Okay,” Hero said.

“And,” the Doctor said, “I think it goes without saying that everything said in this room stays in this room?”

There were nods all around.

“Good.  Thank you.  There’s one more thing I would like to show you.  If you’ll accompany me?”

She turned to the girl in the suit and the young man with the thousand-yard stare.

“You know where to take us.”

The girl in the suit placed her hands on his shoulders, tapping one twice.  In response, the boy raised his hands, bidding the back wall of the room to fold out into an area that shouldn’t have been there.  Bright sunlight streamed down around them, a salt-scented wind blowing in their faces.

“My god,” Legend said.

“He gained a very valuable set of powers, but there was an unfortunate effect on his perceptions.  He sees too much at once.  He’s effectively blind and deaf.  He agreed to work for me in exchange for care and comfort.”

Eidolon and Hero advanced to the edge of the window, staring out at a landscape of tidy concrete buildings and overlarge trees.  There was a coast there, too.

“I will be locating my operations there in the future.  Doormaker will shuttle you to and from my base in the future.”

“Where is it?”

“Another Earth.”

“Like Earth Aleph?  The one Haywire opened the portal to?”

“In some respects, yes.”  The Doctor gestured, and Contessa squeezed the boy’s shoulders again.  The portal shut.  “My assistant will hand you the booklets Alexandria prepared for her project.  Doormaker will then take each of you home in turn.  Thank you.”

One by one, the others departed.  Legend was first through the doorway Doormaker created, taken to New York.  Both Eidolon and Hero made their way to Chicago.  Professor Manton and the others left.

Only Alexandria and the Doctor remained.

“You didn’t tell them about our long-term goals,” Alexandria spoke.

“No.  There’s issues that have to be addressed first.  We’ve already discussed several.”

“Anything I can do?”

“You have your end of the project.  I feel they’ll come around.  Focus on that.  I’ll handle the projected issues on my side of things.  Just need to find the right individual.  Someone I can groom, perhaps.  Between you and I, one of us is bound to succeed.”

Alexandria nodded.

“Your two years are up in three months.  Will you be returning to your family?”

“I nearly forgot.  I’ve been so busy.”  Alexandria frowned.

“It might do you good to see them.”

“Maybe.”  Why did she have her doubts?  Why didn’t she want to go home?

“Good.  I do expect you’ll return?”

“Of course.”

Maybe, she realized, it was because every memory of her family was tinged with the feelings of despair, of loss.  With the Doctor, she had hope.

December 13th, 1992

Big.

The clawed hand speared toward the sky, followed by an arm the size of an oak tree.  When it turned to slam against the ground, bracing for leverage, she could feel the impact rippling through the air.  The dry ground shifted, bulged and cracked as he shouldered his way up and out from underground.

Really big.

Forty-five feet tall at the very least, he climbed forth from underground.  His skin was crusted with black stone that might have been obsidian, layers of what might have been cooled magma sloughing off of him as he planted his feet on the ground and stood straight.

‘Straight’ might have been too generous.  He was built like a caricature of a bodybuilder, or a bear-human hybrid.  He rippled with muscle, his skin gray, thick and leathery like the hide of a rhinoceros or elephant.  His black obsidian horns were so heavy his head hung down.  They weren’t rooted in his forehead, but in the middle of his face, a half-dozen curved shafts of black crystal twisting their way out of his face and back over the top of his head, some ten feet long.  A single red eye glowed from between the gap in two horns, positioned too low.  His mouth was a jagged gap in his lower face, twisting up to a point near his temple, lined by jagged horn-like growths that were too irregular to be called teeth.

His claws were the same, not hands in the conventional sense, but mangled growths of the same material that made up his horns, many of the growths as large as Alexandria herself.  He could flex them, move them, but they were clearly weapons and nothing else.

The rest of the Protectorate was present, and the local heroes, the Mythics.  Rostam, Jamshid, Kaveh, Arash.

It somehow didn’t feel like enough.  They’d come anticipating earthquake relief.  Not this.

The creature roared, and as invulnerable as she was, it almost hurt.  A whirlwind blast of sand ripped past them.  Kaveh stumbled back, collapsed, blood pouring from his ears, one of his eyeballs obliterated.

The fight hadn’t even started, and they’d lost someone.

“Hero,” Legend spoke with the smallest tremor in his voice, “Call for help, as much as you can get.”

The creature, the Behemoth, stepped closer, raising one claw and pointed at Kaveh.  Kaveh the Smith, the builder, the forger.

The man ignited from the inside out, flame and smoke pouring from every orifice as he was turned into a burned-out husk in a matter of seconds.  His skeleton disintegrated into fine dust and ash as it crashed to the ground.

He can bypass the Manton effect.  She thought, stunned.  She flew forward, trying to draw his attention, interjecting herself between the Behemoth and the others.

He pointed his claw once more, and she braced herself, gritting her teeth.  Time to see how invincible I am.

But it wasn’t fire.  A lightning bolt flashed from the tip of Behemoth’s claw, arcing around her and striking one of her subordinates in a single heartbeat, before leaving only the smell of ozone.  She flew in close, slamming her hands into his face, driving him back, throwing him off-balance.

He struck her and drove her into the ground.  His flame burned through her, the sand was turning to glass around her, burning her costume, but it didn’t burn her.

But she couldn’t breathe.  She flew back and out of the way until she had air again.  She stared at the scene that was unfolding, the heroes beating a hasty retreat as that thing advanced, slow and implacable.

Shit,” Hero’s voice came over the communications channel.

“What?” she responded.  Legend was pelting the thing with lasers that could have burned buildings to the ground, and he was barely leaving a mark.  Eidolon was manipulating the sand, creating barriers while simultaneously drawing sand out from beneath their enemy, while pelting it with laser blasts that he spat from his mouth.

At least he’s too slow to dodge or get out of the way of trouble.

Guys back home say we’re close to some major oil fields.

She shook herself free of glass and dirt and threw herself back into the fray.  A bad situation was suddenly critical.  The creature roared again, and the force of the noise threw her flight off course.  Eidolon’s makeshift walls collapsed and more heroes fell, bleeding from heavy internal damage.

They’d been right after all.  Dumb luck had created a parahuman as dangerous as what the Doctor could create by design.

Fire, sonic, lightning.  And he hit me harder than he should have, even being as big as he is.  Kinetic energy, too.  

Her eyes widened.  Not individual powers.  Those were all the same power.  She pressed one hand to her ear, opening communications to the rest of her team.  “He’s a dynakinetic!  He manipulates energy!  No Manton limitation!”

How do we even fight something like that?

But she knew they didn’t have a choice.  She threw herself back into the thick of the fight.

January 18th, 1993

“I, Alexandria, do solemnly affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the director appointed over me, according to the regulations of the PRTCJ.”

Applause swelled around her.  As far as the eye could see, there were crowds and flashing cameras.  President Griffin extended a hand and she shook it.

He leaned close, “You do us proud.”

“Thank you, James.  I’ll give my all.”

He squeezed her hand and moved on.

“I, Eidolon, do solemnly affirm…”

She gazed over the crowd, saw her mother standing there with eyes glistening.  The lesser members of the Protectorate were in the front row as well, her subordinates among them.

Turning further right, she saw Hero looking at her, almost accusatory.  She turned and faced the crowd.  Regal, unflinching, dressed in an updated costume.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the Vice President spoke into the microphone, “Let me introduce the founding members of the Protectorate of the United States of America!”

Invincible as she might be, she thought her heart might burst as it swelled with pride, the crowd cheering with such force that the stage shook.

September 15th, 2000

Alexandria and Hero were last to arrive on the scene, entering through the window.  Legend pressed one finger to his lips.

“We’ve got her cornered?” Hero whispered.

“Think so,” Legend replied, his voice as quiet.  ”We’ve got teams covering the drainage and plumbing below the building, and the entire place is surrounded.“

“She hasn’t tried to leave?”  Hero asked.  ”Why not?“

Legend couldn’t maintain eye contact.  ”She has a victim.“

Alexandria spoke, stabbing one finger in Legend’s direction, “You had better be fucking kidding me, or I swear-“

“Stop, Alexandria.  It was the only way to guarantee she’d stay put.  If we moved too soon, she’d run, and it would be a matter of time before she racked up a body count elsewhere.“

I’m in this to save lives.  Sacrificing someone for the sake of the plan?  She knew it made sense, that it was even necessary, but it left her shaken, a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.

“Then let’s move,” she responded, “The sooner the better.“

“We’re trying an experimental measure,” Legend spoke, “It’s meant to contain, not kill.  Drive her towards main street.  We have more trucks over there.“

They operated with a practiced ease.  Legend blasted down the door and Alexandria was the first through.

Siberian was there, kneeling on the bed, her body marked with stripes of jet black and alabaster white, her arms slick with blood up to the elbows.  The man who lay on the bed – there would be no saving him, even if Eidolon manifested healing abilities.

She looks familiar, Alexandria thought, even as she soared across the room.

They’d underestimated their opponent.  Alexandria’s fists collided with Siberian and didn’t budge a hair.  She flew out of the way before Siberian could claw at her with long fingernails.

Legend fired beam after beam at Siberian, but the striped woman didn’t even flinch.  She was invincible on a level that surpassed even Alexandria.

Eidolon cast out a cluster of crystal that exploded into a formation around Siberian on impact, encasing her.

Siberian shrugged it off like it was nothing, lunged forward, going after Hero.

Alexandria dove to intervene, to guard her teammate, but Siberian was faster.  She reached Hero first, her hands plunging through his chest cavity.  When she pulled her arms free, she nearly bisected him.

Eidolon screamed, flying close to scoop up the two pieces of Hero, carrying them outside.

Siberian leaped after them, missed only because Legend shot his comrades with a laser to alter their trajectory.

Their enemy plunged to the street, landing on both feet as though she were light as a feather.

The ensuing moments were frantic, filled with screamed orders and raw terror.  Alexandria chased Siberian to try to scoop bystanders out of the way, to catch the PRT vehicles that Siberian flung like wiffle balls.

And they were losing.  Eidolon was trying to heal Hero, to teleport people out of danger when Alexandria and Legend proved unable, and changing up his abilities every few seconds to throw something new at Siberian in the hopes that something would affect her.  She waded through zones of altered time, through lightning storms and force fields, tore through barricades of living wood and slapped aside a projectile so hyperdense that its gravitational field pulled cars behind it.

Alexandria moved in close, hoping to stop Siberian, to catch her and slow her down, saw Siberian swing, pulled back out of the way.

Her visor fell free, clattering to the ground.  Then she felt the blood.

Saw, in her one remaining good eye, the chunks of her own face that were falling to the ground around her, bouncing off her right breast, the spray of blood.

It had been so long since she’d felt pain.

Legend called out the order and buried her in containment foam, hiding her from sight.

September 16th, 2000

Alexandria sat in the hospital.  Eidolon’s healing had only been able to do so much.  She held a glass eye in one hand, the remains of her other eye in the other.

She looked up at the Doctor.  “William Manton?”

The Doctor nodded.

“How?  Why?”

“I don’t know what predicated it.  His daughter’s in our custody.  One of our failures.”

“He gave his daughter the formula?  Without the usual preparations and procedures?”

“I suppose he thought he was qualified to oversee all that.  Despite my strict instructions that staff weren’t to partake.  Or he had other motivations.  It could have been a gift from a father trying to buy his daughter’s affections.”

“Or her forgiveness,” Alexandria looked down at the glass eye, then back up to the Doctor.

The Doctor’s eyebrows were raised in uncharacteristic surprise.  “Did you see anything suspect?”

“No.  I only met his daughter twice, and it was brief, her father wasn’t around.  But I know the divorce between Professor Manton and his wife was pretty bad, as those things go.  He was angry, maybe did some things he regretted?”

The Doctor sighed.

“So that was him?

“Almost certainly.  He gave his daughter one of our higher quality formulas, and she couldn’t handle it.  When he realized what he’d done, realized that he couldn’t hide it from us, he took one formula for himself and fled.  I didn’t know what it had done for him until tonight.  The resemblance between Siberian and Manton’s daughter is subtle, but it’s there, and the footage from Hero’s helmet-camera has been run through every facial recognition program I could find.”

“What did Legend, Eidolon and…”  Alexandria stopped when she realized that she’d been about to say Hero.  “What did they say?  About Manton?”

“They don’t know.  I suppose we should tell Eidolon.  He reacted badly when his powers informed him of our other plans and projects.”

Alexandria hung her head.  “How do we stop him?  Manton?  If he’s transformed into that…”

“The sample he took, F-one-six-one-one, it tends to give projection powers.  I suspect his real body is unchanged.  But I’m wondering if we shouldn’t leave him be.”

Alexandria stared at the doctor, wide-eyed.  “Why?

“So long as he’s active, people will be flocking to join the Protectorate-”

Alexandria slammed her hand on the stainless steel table beside her cot.

Silence rang between them in the wake of the destruction.

“I will not condone the loss of life for your ulterior motives.  I will not let monsters walk free, to profit from the fear they spread.”

“You’re right,” the Doctor said.  “I… must be more shaken by Manton’s betrayal than I’d thought.  Forget I said anything.”

If Alexandria saw a hint of falsehood in the Doctor’s body language, she convinced herself it was the strain of one eye compensating for the job she’d used to perform with two.

“You realize what this means, don’t you?” The Doctor asked.

“That we’re no longer doing more good than evil?” Alexandria replied, bitter.

“No.  I still feel we’re working for the forces of good.  Manton was a selfish man, unhinged. The exception to the rule.”

Alexandria couldn’t quite bring her to believe it.

“No, this means we simply need to step up our plans.  If we’re going to go forward with the  Terminus project, we need to advance the overall efforts with Cauldron.  And we need the Protectorate effort to succeed on every count.”

“Or we need your project to work out,” Alexandria replied.

The Doctor frowned.  “Or that.  We still have to find the right individual.  Or make him.”

April 10th, 2008

Mortars, bombs and air-to-ground missiles rained down around her. It had been a decade and a half since she had really felt pain, and she still couldn’t help but flinch as they struck ground in her immediate vicinity.  Still, she continued walking, her cape and hair fluttering behind her.

Two people lay face-down on the edge of the street, a teenage boy and girl holding hands.  She knelt and checked their pulses.  Dead.

But she could see others.  She quickly strode over and kneeled by a young man.  His stomach was a bloody mess, and he was gasping for every breath.

“To gustaria livir?” She asked, in the local’s anglo-spanish pidgin.  Do you want to live?

His eyes widened as he seemed to realize she was there.  “Eres an gwarra engel?”

“No,” she replied.  She brushed his hair out of his face with one hand.  “No an engel.”  Not an angel.

Livir,” he breathed the word before slumping over.

She swept him up in her arms, quickly and carefully.  Keeping an eye out for any falling mortars, she quickly ascended into the air.

She was at the cloud-level when the door opened.  She stepped into the brightly lit corridors of Cauldron’s testing laboratory and strode down to the cells.

Thirty cells, filled with subjects.  Thirty-one now.  The cells didn’t appear to have doors, but  the individuals within were all too aware of the dangers of stepping beyond the perimeters of their cells, or of trying to harass Alexandria as she strode by.

Only two-thirds of them were monstrous, affected by the formulas.  Others would go free with alterations to their memories.  Some would have fatal weaknesses inserted into their psyches, reason to hesitate at a crucial moment against a certain foe.

But they would be alive.  That was the most important thing.  They had been destined to die, in places where the wars never stopped, or where plague was rampant, rescued from the brink of death.

Entering one cell, she brushed the hair from the young man’s face once more, then propped him up while she administered the sample the Doctor had left for her.

She stepped back while he convulsed, his wounds filling in, his breathing growing steady enough for him to scream.

His eyes opened, and he stared at her, wide-eyed, still screaming as sensations returned to him and pain overwhelmed every sense.

“Eres okay,” she said, in his language.  “Eres livo.”

It’s okay.  You’re alive.  She forced herself to smile as reassuringly as she could.

So long as they lived, they could have hope.  Living was the most important thing.

And here I am, administering poison with a smile on my face.

She turned and walked away.

June 18th, 2011

“…I guess we have another unanswered question on our hands,” Eidolon said.

Legend sighed, “More than one.  William Manton and his link to Siberian, the tattoo on his right hand, our end of the world scenario and the role Jack plays as the catalyst.  Too many to count.”

“None of this has to be addressed today,” Alexandria said.  ”Why don’t you go home?  We’ll consider the situation and come up with a plan and some likely explanations.”

Legend nodded.  A small smile touched his lips.

The Doctor turned to Eidolon, “You want another booster shot?”

“Probably another Endbringer attack coming up, it’s best if I’m in top form.”

“A month or two, either Simurgh or Behemoth if they stick to pattern,” Alexandria said.  She watched as Legend strode out of the room.  Eidolon paused, then gave the hand signal.  No bugs, and Legend wasn’t listening in.

The Doctor already had the booster shot ready.  Eidolon extended one arm, clutching his bicep to help make the vein more pronounced.  The doctor injected.

“The boosters aren’t cutting it anymore,” Eidolon said.  “I’m getting weaker.  Powers are taking longer to reach their peak, and their maximum strength isn’t what it used to be.  If this keeps up, then I won’t be able to offer anything during this end-of-the-world scenario.”

“We’ll find a solution,” the Doctor said.

“You were too calm,” Eidolon spoke.  “I was worried you’d miss my warning.”

“Very clever, burning the words into the paper in front of me.  Thank you.  Was I convincing?”

“You managed to feign skepticism over this apocalypse scenario,” Alexandria spoke.

“Well, that’s the most important thing,” the Doctor spoke.

“He’s suspicious.  He knows or suspects we’ve been lying to him,” Alexandria said.

“Unfortunate.  Will he expose us?”

Alexandria shook her head.  “No.  I don’t think he will.  But he may distance himself from us to lower the number of opportunities we have to see his doubt for what it is.”

“We’ll manage,” the Doctor replied.  “In the worst case scenario, we’ll explain the circumstances, explain our plan.”

“He won’t like it,” Eidolon spoke.

“But he’ll understand,” the Doctor said.  “If the Terminus project is a success, the end of the world isn’t a concern.  And I believe we will succeed.”

“Provided we come up with a solution to the bigger, more basic problems we’re facing,” Eidolon said.  “Or we’ll simply find ourselves in the same circumstances after we’ve gone to all this trouble.”

Alexandria nodded.  “The Protectorate is proving to be a failure on that front.  Recent events haven’t given me much hope in that regard.”

“So that leaves only my end of things,” the Doctor said.

“Coil,” Eidolon said.  “And if he fails?”

“Ever the pessimist,” Alexandria said.

“This revelation about the possible end of the world has decimated our projected timeline.  We don’t have time to prepare or pursue anything further,” the Doctor said.

“If we assist him-”

“No,” the Doctor spoke.  “If we assist him, there’s no point.”

“In short?” Alexandria leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table.  “He doesn’t even know it, but everything rests on his shoulders.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 14.5 (Bonus Interlude)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“It’s just going to be another minute or two.  The data has to compile and upload.  It’s not my work, so I played it safe and went for the slowest, heaviest compression method that I could.  It’s going to take a bit.”

“That’s fine.  Thank you.”

Kid Win shifted position uncomfortably, falling silent.

You don’t have to be intimidated.  I’m just a man.

Legend stared out the window.  He wouldn’t miss this city.  There weren’t happy memories here, and there was little he was proud about.  Most of the time, he was able to feel that he’d made an impact, that the world was a better place for his being there.  That wasn’t the case here.

“How long have you been in the Wards?” he asked, to make conversation.

“Two years.”

“I’ve seen your records.”

Kid Win cringed.

“No, don’t act like I’m going to say something bad.  The Deputy Director in charge of the Wards, I can’t quite remember his name, he had some glowing praise for your ability to engage with the public.”

“Engage with the public?  I don’t remember doing much of that.”

“Something about speeches to other youths at school?”

“Oh.  That wasn’t a big deal.”

“The guy who’s rating your performance seems to think it was.  Can’t quite place his name, the suits sort of start to blur in with one another-”

“Deputy Director Renick,” Kid Win supplied.

“Yes.  Thank you.  He seemed to think you connected with the crowd, and you did it better than any of your teammates. You were frank, open, honest, and you stood out because of how you handled yourself when the students started getting rambunctious and heckling you.”

“Director Piggot yelled at me for drawing the gun.”

“It was something that could have backfired very easily, but you struck the right tone and you defused the situation with humor.  I think that’s a good thing, and so did the staff at the school.  The teachers sent emails a few days after the event, commenting on the overall positive impact you had on the students, the hecklers included.  And when I say you, I mean you specifically.”

Kid Win shrugged, tapping a few keys on the laptop to rotate through a series of progress bars and graphs.  “Nobody told me about that.”

“That’s a shame,” Legend said, turning his gaze to the window to relieve some of the pressure his very presence seemed to put on Kid Win.  “The ability to manage yourself with the public is crucial if you intend to go on to make a career out of working with the Protectorate.”

“It’s kind of weird, that someone as important as you are is making such a big deal out of an event I barely remember.”

“I study the records of everyone I intend to work with, and I studied yours.  I try to make a note of individual strengths.  That event stuck in my mind when I was reading through your files.  It was a very easy mental picture to put together, especially the part with the gun.”

Kid Win smiled a little.

“You remind me of Hero.”

The smile fell from Kid Win’s face.  He looked startled.  “Really?”

“I imagine he was very much like you when he was younger.”

Kid Win looked uncomfortable.

“You can talk about it,” Legend assured him.  “It’s okay.  It was a long time ago that he passed.”

“I sort of modeled myself after him.”

Legend studied the boy.  Red and gold body armor and a red-tinted visor.  There were additions that seemed to be more recent, judging by the lack of wear and tear, but if he looked past those, if he imagined the boy with a helmet covering that brown wavy hair, replaced the red with blue chain mesh, he could see the resemblance.

“I can see that.”

“I didn’t mean to copy him, or to ride off his fame or anything.  I was younger when I started, I totally meant it to be respectful-”  Kid Win stopped as Legend raised a hand.

“It’s okay.  I think he would be flattered.”

Kid Win nodded, a little too quickly.

“He was the first real tinker, you know.”

“Before we knew tinkers have specializations,” Kid Win added.

“I’ve thought about it.  The disintegration gun, the jetpack, the sonic weapons, the power sources and explosives that were surprisingly effective for their size.  I suspect his specialty tied into manipulating and enhancing wavelengths and frequencies.”

Kid Win’s eyes went wide.  He glanced at the laptop.

“I know enough other tinkers to know that look.  You just had a stroke of inspiration?”

“Sort of.  More like a bunch of half-assed ideas all at once.”

“Don’t let me distract you.  If you want to take a minute to make some notes on whatever came to mind, I won’t be offended in the slightest.”

“It’s okay.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.  I-” Kid Win paused.  “I guess I’d rather keep talking to you than write down ideas that probably won’t work out.”

“Thank you.  I’d say you shouldn’t worry too much about trying to emulate Hero.  It’s heartening, if I had to put a word to the feeling, that you look up to him and carry on his legacy.  But you have your own specialization and your own strengths.”

Kid Win nodded.  “I’m figuring that out.  I spent a long time trying to be like other tinkers and struggling.  Ninety percent of my projects just stopped before I finished it.  The stuff I finished, I finished it because it was simple.  Guns, the floating hoverboard… well, I used to have a floating hoverboard.  I sort of copied Hero’s approach.  ‘Board instead of jetpack, but I made the guns, tried a few disintegration rays.  Maybe part of the reason I finished that stuff was because I felt like I’d be insulting Hero by trying to copy his style and making a mess of it.”

“Makes sense,” Legend spoke, primarily to show he was listening.

“But lately I’ve started to relax about that.  Maybe it helps that we’ve been working as hard as we have.  I’ve been too tired to keep to the rules I thought I was supposed to follow.  Still have to spend time in the workshop, I think I’d go crazy if I didn’t, but I’m winging it more.  I’m trusting my instincts and spending less time using the computers to get the exact numbers and measurements.”

“To help compensate for your dyscalculia?”

“I didn’t know you knew about that.  I didn’t know the PRT knew about that.”

“Dragon’s talents make for very comprehensive records, sorry.”

Kid Win frowned, his expression changing fractionally as he stared down at the keyboard in front of him.  He seemed to come to terms with the idea, because he moved on. “Anyways, I think it’s working for me.  I’m getting the feeling that I do have a specialization, but it’s more of an approach than a particular field.  Equipment with multiple settings and uses, modular weapons, gear that’s adaptable to different situations, I guess?”

“That’s fantastic.  The fact that you’ve struggled and then found your strengths the hard way could be an asset.”

“An asset?”

“If you wind up leading the Wards or a team in the Protectorate, it means you’ll be better equipped to help out teammates who are having their own problems.”

“I’d be horrible in a leadership position.”

“Hero said the same thing, and I think we’ll both agree that he was wrong.”

That seemed to give Kid Win pause.

“Think about it.”

“Okay,” Kid Win replied.  “Not that I’m not majorly grateful that you’re giving me the pep talk, but you said you were in a bit of a hurry and I think we’re done here.”

“The compiling is done?”

“I could refine it further, try to give you some additional features, but the coding and the hardware I’m working with here is so tightly structured that I think I’d do more harm than good.  It’s like the techie equivalent of trying to put toothpaste back in the tube after you’ve squeezed it out… you can’t, so maybe you try to make more tube that sticks out of one side, but you keep doing it and you wind up with this kludgy mess that you can’t even use for its original purpose.  For getting toothpaste.”

“I think I understand what you mean.  Thank you for this.  It’s already uploaded?”

“Yeah, and it was my pleasure, really.” Kid Win smiled.

Legend stood and stretched a little.

The goodbyes had already been made and he’d had his meeting with Emily.  Business was wrapped up here.  He’d called home to let Arthur know he wouldn’t make it to dinner but that he hoped to be back before midnight.

A light smile touched his face.  He even felt a little giddy at the thought of getting home, wrapping Arthur in a hug.  Growing up, he’d never thought that he’d feel giddy about his husband after six years of marriage.

But he had something to take care of first.  The notion put a damper on his pleasant mood.

“I’m going to go, then.  You and I,” he promised Kid Win, “Should talk again sometime.  You can tell me if you’ve figured out your specialty, and if you’re leading a team.”

“Maybe the next time you’re in Brockton Bay?”

“Maybe.”  Legend smiled, but he was thinking, does he know?  This whole region might be condemned.

Maybe Kid Win was being optimistic.

Legend turned and opened a window, then let himself float through.  He took a second to get his bearings, to inform himself of which direction was up, down, north, east, south and west, then he took off.

Powers were classified into categories, and the ‘breaker’ classification was used to mark those powers which were limited to one’s own body and their immediate vicinity.  Though it had initially been used to cover individuals who could make themselves stronger, denser, larger or change the materials they were made of, it was slowly expanding to include others.  There was a theory that was gaining traction, suggesting that the breaker classification was one of the most common powersets, if not always the most pronounced.  Innumerable people with powers had also adapted innate defenses that kept their own powers from harming themselves.  Pyrokinetics tended to be resistant to flame. There were automatic shutoffs, biological and mental, for various other powers.  Even beyond that, there were other adaptations that were so subtle as to be almost undetectable.  His weren’t.

Legend’s flight powers let him accelerate to a speed that exceeded sound and continue accelerating, to no hard limit.  The soft limit was that he had breaker powers that kept the acceleration from tearing him to shreds, altering his body into something else entirely as he gained speed.  The drawback to this was that his brain also shut down on a cognitive level as the transformation occurred.  He had never let himself go so fast that he lost the ability to consciously control his movements.

There were other benefits too.  He was better at registering and processing light waves, regardless of which state he was in.  He could see with perfect clarity up until the point that an obstactle intervened or the atmosphere occluded his vision.

If an opponent attacked and struck him, he instinctively transitioned into his energy form for a split second.  In that state, he absorbed energy of a variety of kinds, including the kinetic energy that was transferred with a punch or with a bullet.  His opponents were forced to whittle him down, each attack only a fraction as effective as it might otherwise be.  Even then, a share of that small amount of damage was healed a second later as he used the absorbed energy to mend his body.  Conversely, his enemies could try to hit him with enough speed and force that even a hundredth of a second of contact was sufficient to take him out of the fight.  Leviathan and Behemoth had managed to land blows of that magnitude.

Siberian has as well.  He set his jaw and increased his speed a notch.

He traveled over the Atlantic Ocean, moving so fast that the water appeared to be one flat plane.  His thoughts became a blur, and he was forced to focus on his destination, letting all other thoughts and doubts fall by the wayside.

It was refreshing, in a way, cleansing himself of the responsibilities and the thousands of problems he was forced to handle as the leader of the Protectorate.  Still, it always scared him just a little.

It took him only an instant to reach a complete stop.  He let himself settle down into his real body once more.

He’d wondered sometimes if his ability to fly was meant for travel on an interstellar level.  What if he kept accelerating?  His breaker power would let him weather the void of space, his ability to see would be that much more powerful if there was no atmosphere to occlude his vision over miles… even the boredom of traveling for years was nothing if his conscious mind shifted into a rest state.

Not that he’d ever test it.

He’d absorbed light, heat and ambient radiation while he flew, and he felt restored.  Even the mildest wear and tear had been tended to, his body restored to peak condition.

His mind was another matter, his emotions.  It was like waking up in a warm bed, the man he loved beside him, only to experience a sinking feeling as he came to dread the coming day.

He drifted closer to the oil rig, and settled down on a fence, using a touch of his flight ability to stay balanced.  In every direction, as far as the eye could see, there was only water.

“Any time now,” he said.

It began as a pale square in mid-air, then unfolded rapidly, three-dimensional.  When it opened up further, the interior of a building loomed in mid-air, the exterior absent.

He floated forward and set foot on the white tile of the hallway.  He felt the distortion as the space shifted, felt the rush of wind as air pressure adjusted.  It took only a couple of seconds.  When he glanced over his shoulder, the oil rig was gone.  There was only more hallway behind him.

He walked onward, confident in his ability to navigate the maze of rooms and corridors.

When he pushed open the double doors and stepped into the conference room, there were a few looks of surprise.

“Legend,” the Doctor spoke, “I thought you were occupied in Brockton Bay.”

“Jack escaped.”

“That’s… really unfortunate,” Alexandria said.

“Quite,” the Doctor replied.

Legend glanced around the room.  Alexandria leaned back in her chair, her helmet on the table in front of her, a star-shaped scar at the corner of one eye.  Beautiful, Legend was sure, but more in the way a lioness was beautiful.  In her black and gray costume, she was intimidating, her expression regal.

Eidolon was the opposite.  He had lowered his hood and removed his glowing mask, revealing a middle-aged man with thick eyebrows, thinning hair and heavy cheeks.  He looked more like an average family man who was getting dressed up as Eidolon for a costume party than he looked like Eidolon himself.

There were others around the table.  The Doctor: dark-skinned, hair tied into a prim bun with chopsticks stuck through it, wearing a short white dress beneath a white lab coat.  The Number Man, with his laptop set in front of him, looking more like a businessman than one of the most influential and lesser-known parahumans on the planet.  There was also the woman in the black suit, who had never introduced herself or been introduced by name.  Whenever Legend came here with the others, the woman was there with the Doctor.

Insurance, he thought.  The Doctor thinks that woman can face us if we turn on her.

Would she win?  Legend harbored doubts.  He’d met a lot of powerful individuals over the course of his career, and he’d learned how to measure them.  This woman didn’t relax for an instant, where someone who was assured of victory would be more willing to let down her guard.  More likely that she’s supposed to stall or stop us if there’s a problem, buying the doctor time to escape.

“Jack escaped.  What about the other Nine?” the Doctor asked.

“We suspect that Bonesaw and Siberian also escaped, with Hookwolf as a new member of their group.”

“I see.”

“It’s unusual for you to show any interest in what’s going on outside the realm of your business and research.  Any reason for the curiosity?”

The Doctor smiled. “Hard to keep track of what goes on beyond these walls, sometimes.”

Legend nodded.  He took a seat to Alexandria’s right.  He considered for a moment, then spoke.  “There are some things that concern me.”

“Is this tied to why you came here today?”

“Yes.  Let me begin by saying that there’s apparently a precog in Brockton Bay that’s pretty damn certain that the world’s going to end shortly.”

“Precogs are notoriously unreliable.  I tell many of my customers that when they express interest in seeing the future.  I think I even told you.  Or was it Alexandria that I discussed it with?”

“It was,” Alexandria replied.

“You’re right,” Legend said, “Most precogs are vague.  They have to be, because the future is vague.  But all reports point to this precog being very specific.  Jack Slash was mentioned as the catalyst for an event that occurs in two years.  More specifically, she said this occurs if Jack escaped Brockton Bay alive, which he did.”

There were nods around the table.

“What do you mean when you say the world ends?” Eidolon asked.

“Thirty-three to ninety-six percent of the population dies in a very short span of time.  I assume the aftermath of this scenario leads to more deaths in the long run.”

The Number Man spoke.  “Depending on the circumstances of death, the demise of even one in three individuals would lead to further casualties.  Lack of staff for essential services and key areas, health, atmospheric and ecological effects of decomposition on a massive scale, destabilized societal infrastructure… The best case scenario is that Earth’s population drops steeply over twenty years, until it settles to forty-eight point six percent of where it currently stands.  Three billion, three hundred and ninety-one million, eight hundred and three thousand, five hundred and four.  Give or take.”

“That’s the best case scenario?” Alexandria asked.

The man shrugged.  “It’s unlikely it will occur.  The bare minimum of people would have to die, there couldn’t be any bodies, and there wouldn’t be anything left unattended that could cause uncontrolled fires or nuclear incidents.  If I were to ballpark a number, talking about events that could kill one-third to nearly all of the world’s population, I’d say roughly seventy-two percent of the earth’s population are likely to die.  That leaves one billion, nine hundred and fifty million alive.  More than half of those individuals would die over the following twenty years, and more than half of those who remain would die in the ten years following that.  Keeping in mind these are estimates, of course.”

“Of course,” The Doctor said, “Precogs are unreliable.  I’m surmising this girl doesn’t know exactly how this occurs?”

“No.  Her employer didn’t say anything on the subject.”

“We’ll take measures,” Eidolon said.  “Evacuation, we’ll also push for automatic shutdown controls on power grids and nuclear facilities.  With the Endbringers out there, it would be sensible to do it anyways.  We can reduce the potential damage.”

“Unless,” Alexandria said, “The numbers the precog provided are already accounting for us having this conversation and taking the extra measures.  If she does view the future, it’s very possible she saw this very meeting and everything that followed, in a manner of speaking.”

That was sobering.

“We’ll do it anyways, of course,” Eidolon said.

Legend and Alexandria nodded.

“Let’s remember,” the Doctor said, “The numbers already pointed to an endgame situation at the twenty-three year mark.  If the Endbringers continue doing the damage they’ve been doing at the current rate, things won’t be sustainable.  We’ll be forced to withdraw from damaged and dangerous areas, populations will condense, the Endbringers attack those pockets…  and that’s without considering the possibility that they achieve something big in the interim.  We’ve talked about the crisis scenarios: Behemoth triggering a nuclear winter, Leviathan obliterating or tainting the world’s renewable water supply.”

“You’re saying we’re already facing an end of the world situation,” Alexandria said, “And this is just accelerating the timetable.”

“Yes.  Any measures we take are still vital.  They’ll help here, with this scenario, but if it never occurs, it will still help against the Endbringers.”

“Are we assuming the Endbringers are at the core of this end-of-the-world scenario?” Eidolon asked.

“Likely,” Alexandria said, “But let’s not rule anything out.”

“Provided this is really occurring,” the Doctor spoke.

“We can’t afford to say it’s not,” Legend said.  “You have precogs among your staff and customers?”

“Some,” The Doctor answered.  “I can ask them about this end of the world scenario.”

Legend nodded.  “Good.  Eidolon, you want to try your hand at it?”

“If my power lets me.  It only gives me what it thinks I need, not what I want.”

“We need all the help we can get.  Let’s see if we can’t figure out how this happens, so we can stop it or mitigate the damage.  There’s a lot of capes out there with the thinker classification.  Get the word out, call in favors, offer favors.  Anything to get more information on this.”

There were nods and noises of agreement from his fellow Protectorate members and the Doctor.

Legend quietly cleared his throat, glancing around the table.  “Speaking of great minds… there was another point I wanted to address, that came up during my stay in Brockton Bay.”

He had their attention.

“Alexandria, I expect you read the reports already.  You didn’t seem that surprised when I talked about the precog and her end-of-the-world scenario, you’ve probably read up on my notes here.”

Alexandria had originally named herself after the Library of Alexandria, though she’d ceased mentioning that, choosing to leave enemies in the dark instead.  As strong as she was on a physical level, her mind was equally formidable.  She never forgot a detail, absorbed information quickly, reading two pages of a book with a glance, and she learned quickly, retaining everything she picked up.  She knew most commonly spoken languages, no less than ten styles of martial arts and she could match some of the best non-tinkers in the world when it came to computers.  Not only was she rated well in the brute classification, but she held high scores in the mover and thinker categories.

“I read what you provided, though I’m not sure what you’re referring to specifically.”

“Siberian.”

He saw a change in her expression, saw Eidolon flinch as if he’d been slapped.

“I’ll explain for those of you who lack access to the PRT records or the time to peruse them.  Siberian is not a brute-class cape.  Siberian is a ‘master’, and the striped woman is a projection.  I caught a glimpse of the man who is creating the projection before they retreated.”

“And?”

“And he had Cauldron’s mark tattooed on the back of his left hand, a swan on his right.”

With the exception of himself, the Number Man and the woman in the suit, everyone present reacted with surprise.

“You don’t think that was William Manton?”  Alexandria asked.  “But why the mark on his right hand?”

“I don’t know.  It doesn’t fit on a lot of levels.  A top parahuman researcher becoming one of the Nine?”

“It happened to Alan.  To Mannequin,” Eidolon said, his voice quiet.

“There’s nothing in the records,” Alexandria said, “Nothing saying he was present at any of the places the quarantine protocol was put in effect.”

She would know.  She read every record, could call them to mind with perfect accuracy.

“He could have stolen someone’s identity.”

Alexandria nodded, “True.”

“We have confirmation he’s alive,” Eidolon said, his voice quiet.  “We suspected, but-”

“We made assumptions, and we were way off base.  That’s what concerns me.”  Legend leveled a hard look at the Doctor.  “See, we’ve been going by the assumption that William Manton, from the time he left Cauldron to the present day, has been continuing his work.  We’ve been assuming he’s traveling across the world, experimenting on human subjects, giving them powers with physical mutations as a side effect, then releasing the victims back into society with Cauldron’s symbol tattooed on their bodies.  Or at least, that’s what you told us.”

“You’re implying I lied?” the Doctor asked.  She didn’t look bothered in the slightest.

“I’ve looked at the timelines.  It’s not likely that William Manton could be conducting experiments to give some poor girl tentacles in Illinois at the same time Siberian’s busy attacking people in Miami.  Not to mention he barely looked capable of taking care of himself, let alone conducting research.”

He glanced at the others.  Eidolon’s brow was creased in concern, while Alexandria looked pensive.

“The pattern doesn’t fit,” he said, to drive the point home.  He looked at the Doctor, “Which leaves me to wonder just who is conducting experiments on human subjects.”

“We have no need for human experimentation.  The Number Man can calculate the odds of success for a given formula.”

“Maybe that’s the case.  But just who is conducting experiments on human subjects, who knows enough about Cauldron to tattoo or brand them with the mark while simultaneously having access to these kinds of resources?”

“It’s not us,” the Doctor spoke.

Legend stared at her, studying her.  “And you don’t know anything about how William Manton is connected to all this?”

“I’m as mystified as you are.  If it would assuage your suspicions, you can examine this complex,” the Doctor suggested.

“You and I both know this place is far too large to explore in one lifetime,” he answered.

“True.”

“And if we were to surmise that you’re the culprit here, there’s nothing saying you couldn’t have your doormaker maintain a path to another alternate reality where you have captives stashed away.  It would even explain why there haven’t been any real missing persons cases that we can link to the case-fifty-threes, if you’re simply snatching them from another reality and depositing them in our reality when you’re done.”

She spread her arms wide.  “I don’t know what I can say to convince you.”

“You trust me, don’t you?” Alexandria asked.

“Yes,” Legend said.

“I’ve trained myself in kinesics.  I can look at a person’s face and body language and know if they’re lying.  And I can tell you the Doctor is telling the truth.”

Legend sighed.  “Right.”

“We’re okay, then?” the Doctor asked.

Legend nodded.  “I’m sorry to accuse you.”

“It’s understandable.  This situation doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“I can’t add anything here, and my power’s not volunteering anything that could help to solve this particular mystery,” Eidolon spoke.  “I guess we have yet another unanswered question on our hands.”

Legend sighed, “More than one.  William Manton and his link to Siberian, the tattoo on his right hand, our end of the world scenario and the role Jack plays as the catalyst.  Too many to count.”

“None of this has to be addressed today,” Alexandria said.  “Why don’t you go home?  We’ll consider the situation and come up with a plan and some likely explanations.”

Legend nodded.  The thought of holding Arthur and Keith in his arms energized him.

The Doctor turned to Eidolon, “You want another booster shot?”

“Probably another Endbringer attack coming up, it’s best if I’m in top form.”

While the others talked and planned, Legend stood and left without a farewell.

An opening between realities unfolded before he was half of the way down the alabaster white hallway.  He stepped through the opening to the oil rig, and then began his flight back to New York City.

But he didn’t go home.

Instead, Legend descended on the rooftop of the NYC Protectorate offices.  A tinker-made scanner verified who he was and opened the doors for him in time for him to walk through.

He nodded a greeting to everyone he passed.  When people asked him how things had gone, he offered them a response that was polite but short enough that it was clear he wasn’t looking for further conversation.

He reached his office and closed the door.

He was careful to start up a virtual operating system preloaded with the standard PRT databases and software.  Nothing that would leave a trace on his regular OS.  He unplugged the fiber-optic cables and disabled the wireless.

The precautions were little use if he was already being watched, but it made him feel better.

Once his computer was isolated from outside influences, he withdrew a USB cable from one drawer, plugging one end into the keyboard.  He reached up to one ear and withdrew an earbud.  The other end of the USB cable connected to it.

ASCII art of Kid Win’s face popped up as the earbud connected to the computer, along with the text, ‘thank you’.

He couldn’t bring himself to smile.

Problems of self-confidence aside, Kid Win had produced an interface that was easy to use.  Legend clicked on the yellow button and waited.  Voices played from the computer’s speakers.  He adjusted the volume and listened.

“We suspect that Bonesaw and Siberian also escaped, with Hookwolf as a new member of their group.”

“I see.”

“Any reason for the curiosity?”

“Hard to keep track of what goes on beyond these walls, sometimes.”

Text appeared, transcribing what was being said.  The program paused, the image of the yellow button popping back out.  A red word appeared below the last statement: LIE.

A vague lie, but not a damning one.  His pulse was pounding as he hit the waiting yellow button to resume the record.

“We have no need for human experimentation.  The Number Man can calculate the odds of success for a given formula.”

LIE.

He clicked again.

“…Who knows enough about Cauldron to tattoo or brand them with the mark while simultaneously having access to these kinds of resources?”  His own voice was the one playing from the speakers.

“It’s not us,” the Doctor’s voice answered his.

LIE.

He sat staring at the screen, horrified.

Cauldron had given him his powers, had given him what he needed to be at the very top, to lead the largest collection of superheroes in the world.  They hadn’t wanted much in exchange.  He kept an eye out to make sure nobody got too curious about Cauldron, diverted them if they did.  He’d greased the wheels for some of Cauldron’s top customers.  He was also ready to defend Cauldron if and when it became public knowledge.  It was for the greater good, he told himself.  There was no way for Cauldron to operate otherwise, lest the world’s governments fight over the ability to create whole armies of people with powers and interfere with the organization’s ability to operate.

It would operate, he knew, it obviously wasn’t in a location where it could be raided or seized by military forces, but it wouldn’t be able to reach nearly as many people, and capes would come under scrutiny with the possibility that they’d purchased their powers.

He’d committed to this because Cauldron was essential.  With the rise of the Endbringers and threats like the Slaughterhouse Nine, the world was in need of heroes.  Cauldron produced more heroes than villains, because there was none of the trauma of a trigger event to throw them off.  Even for those individuals who turned to crime, Cauldron was able to leverage the favors that were part of the contract in order to guide their path.  More superheroes meant better chances for everyone when it came to fighting the Endbringers and dealing with the big threats.

It struck him that this wasn’t necessarily true.  If the Doctor had lied about human experimentation, she could have lied about those details as well, too.

Human experimentation on a large scale.  Unwitting, or perhaps unwilling to connect the dots, he’d helped it happen in a way.

His hand shook as he reached for the mouse.  He clicked the button once more, hoping there would be something he could use to convince himself that this was a mistake.  A false positive, a clue that Cauldron was really a force for good after all.  Hadn’t Armsmaster said that his lie detection system was imperfect?  Or maybe Kid Win had generated errors in the code.  The alterations had been minor but comprehensive:  Legend hadn’t wanted to be informed in real-time about the lies, lest he give something away.

“And you don’t know anything about how William Manton is connected to all this?”

“I’m as mystified as you are.”

LIE.

He knew what came next, with the conversation fresh in his memory.  He didn’t want to press the button again, but there was little choice.

“I’ve trained myself in kinesics.  I can look at a person’s face and body language and know if they’re lying.  And I can tell you the Doctor is telling the truth.”

The red text popped up as the last four and a half words appeared.  LIE.

Alexandria knew.  Of course she had.  Her ability to read people, her vast troves of knowledge, her ability to see patterns.  And she was the most willing of their group to take the hard, ugly road.  Had been since Siberian had hospitalized her.

Click.

His own voice.  “I’m sorry to accuse you.”

LIE.

Had he been lying?  He supposed he had.  He didn’t like the Doctor, and he hadn’t truly felt sorry for his suspicions.  Ever since he’d seen William Manton with the Slaughterhouse Nine, he’d harbored doubts about what was going on.

Those doubts had become quiet conviction after he’d gone to see Battery in the hospital.  One of Bonesaw’s mechanical spiders had cut her suit.  He knew exactly the kind of disorientation, hallucination and waves of paranoia she would have experienced as the gas took hold.  While she reeled and tried to get a grip on reality, she’d likely left herself open for further attacks.  Whatever the case, one of the spiders had injected her with a poison Bonesaw had devised.

Her death had been slow, painful and inevitable.  It had been engineered to strike those notes in a way that millions of years of evolution had yet to refine a plant’s toxin or an animal’s venom.  Lying in the hospital bed, still delirious, Battery had used halting sentences to tell him about Cauldon, about buying her powers, and about Cauldron asking her to help Siberian and Shatterbird escape.  She’d planned to pursue the Nine, to offer assistance and then kill one or both of the villains.  Battery had begged him for affirmation that she’d tried to do the right thing, that he would find the answers she didn’t.  He’d reassured her the best he could.

She’d died not long after.

He almost couldn’t bring himself to click the yellow button again.  Alexandria had been lying to him.  And that only left…

Click.

Eidolon’s voice came from the speakers.  “I can’t add anything here, and my power’s not volunteering anything that could help to solve this particular mystery.  I guess we have yet another unanswered question on our hands.”

The word was in red letters on the screen.  It could have been his own pulse behind his retinas, but the letters seemed to throb with a heartbeat of their own.  LIE.

“All lies,” Legend whispered the words to himself.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 12½ (Donation Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

She couldn’t shake the idea that it was a hoax.  Three times, she almost turned around and headed back home.

Twenty eight miles west from New York City, down the 202, to where there were more trees than houses and the roads hadn’t been maintained for too many years.  It hadn’t rained recently, but there were murky puddles in the road where the water had settled into broad depressions.

Water sprayed as she deliberately aimed for one puddle.  Forty five minutes of driving, trying to convince herself this was real, not seeing anyone on the road for the last ten minutes, she’d started to feel lost.  The concrete action of steering into the puddle and getting the expected result seemed to ground her.

Every action had an equal and opposite reaction.  It was the way things were supposed to work.  Action and consequence.

Driving to the middle of nowhere was the action.  But what was the consequence?  Wasting two hours of her time on one of the last weekends of freedom she had before she was due to start school?  For a mere chance she might get what she needed?

She had to stop and reverse to reread a number on a mailbox.  2062.  She steered into the long dirt driveway.  A farm sat in the distance, with a rotted-out grain silo and a barn nearby.

What if this wasn’t just meant to waste her time?  What if it was more sinister?  If there was a gang of men waiting for her, ready to drag her off somewhere…

She shook her head.  She knew how to defend herself.  Her father had taught her, and she’d taken classes.  They didn’t necessarily know she was a woman from her email address. She’d left a note with her roommate, sealed with instructions not to open it or read the details unless she failed to return home.  Topping it off, the necklace she wore had a built-in GPS.  A gift from her sixteenth birthday from her dad.  If there was trouble, the note she’d left with her roommate had instructions to contact her dad and track her down using the necklace.

She stopped by the barn and sat in the car for a minute, peering around to try to see if anyone was near, the engine idling.  A minute passed before she felt secure enough that she wouldn’t be ambushed and shifted the car into park.  She held the key like a weapon as she stepped out of the car.  She didn’t hold the individual keys between her fingers, like an amateur would be inclined to do, but held it like a knife instead.

The barn was the final destination of the route the email had outlined for her.  Empty.  It smelled of stale manure, rotting hay and mold.  The exterior was covered in peeling red paint.

She checked her watch.  She was eight minutes early.

There were no other cars on the property.  That meant there were eight minutes for someone to come down that road with the cracks, potholes and puddles, pull down the long driveway and come meet her at the barn.

Her weight shifted from foot to foot, as her impatience manifested in restlessness.  Eight minutes before she found out if she’d been played for a fool.

She used her shoes to kick a few loose stones from the dirt driveway, smoothed it out, and then kicked them off.  Barefoot, she planted her feet a shoulder width apart, then bent her knees as though she were sitting down in a chair, her arms outstretched in front of her for balance.  She bent low, straightened, then repeated the process several more times.

Deep breaths.

Centering herself, she began on the next form, placing her feet perpendicular to one another, and transferring her weight from one foot to the other, from toe to heel to the heel of the other foot.

Her digital watch interrupted her exercises with a steady beeping.  She’d set an alarm for the meeting deadline.  Right this minute, she was supposed to be meeting someone.

And there was no car in sight.

Sighing, humiliated, she donned her shoes, opened her car door and prepared to leave.  She wouldn’t speak of this to anyone.

“Leaving?  After coming all this way?”  The voice was female, rich with hints of a French accent, but the English was probably better than her own.

She turned, then stepped a few feet in front of her car to look inside the barn.

A woman stood there, dark-skinned, with her hair cut into a short style that was more utilitarian than stylish.  She wore a doctor’s lab coat and held a white plastic clipboard with both hands.

That wasn’t the startling thing.

At a point halfway inside the barn, there ceased to be any barn at all.  White tiled floor and white-painted walls stretched a distance behind the woman, and the ceiling was all glass, hiding a smooth distribution of flourescent lights that made it all glow evenly.

“Who are you?”

“Some call me Mother, but that is meant to be tongue-in-cheek.  Those with a more professional attitude know me as Doctor.”

“I’m-”

“No names.  We’ve already investigated you, we know much of what we need to know, but I think there is a great deal of symbolic value in having you maintain some anonymity.  Pick a name, and I will use it for the duration of this meeting.  It doesn’t need to be permanent or long-term.”

“Okay.  Is it supposed to be a fake regular name or a codename or…?”

“Anything.”

“Jamie.”  It was the name her parents had been planning to give her baby sister.  They’d broken up before that happened.

“Jamie it is.  Come.  I have an employee that is relocating this section of my offices to this spot, but it taxes him, and there’ll be less wait for the return trip if we don’t strain him.”

Jamie looked over her shoulder at her car.  The GPS wouldn’t do her much good here, she suspected.  It would take a leap of faith.

She hurried over and stepped close to the Doctor, crossing that border from packed dirt and moldy hay to clean tiled floor.

There was a rush of wind, and the surroundings swam violently for two or three seconds.  When the image had resolved again, they stood in the middle section of a long hallway.  It looked like a hospital, sterile, white, clean, but it was empty.  There were no people, and there was no equipment.

“Welcome to Cauldron,” the Doctor said.

“How did you find me?  I just got an email.”

“I’d have to check my notes.  We have ways of finding interested parties.  If I remember right, you were browsing websites, researching ways to acquire tinker-made armor and weapons?”

Jamie nodded.  “I was.  So many were fakes or scams that I wasn’t willing to trust the ones that did look legit.”

“We own several of those sites.  All are fakes.  That might have been where we first noticed your activity.”

“That’s a little creepy.”

“Creepiness is an unfortunate reality when you’re forced to operate covertly, without a steady customer base.”

“Why?  Why not go public?”

“Countries would go to war over what we have at our disposal.  A way to grant powers to anyone who wants them.  They would want armies of parahuman soldiers.  Even if we did manage to establish ourselves as a neutral party without government interference, Cauldron would be infiltrated by those looking to steal our secrets.  Spies, thieves.”

“And people who wanted to establish a rival business?”

They were reaching the end of the hallway.  The Doctor smiled lightly.  “And that.  Please, through this door.”

Jamie prided herself on her ability to identify evasions and untruths.  The Doctor was humoring her when she replied to the question about rival businesses.  The idea didn’t seem to worry her.  Why?

Jamie stepped through the open door and entered a large room.  As with the hallway, the decor was predominantly white.  There was a desk of white marble with a white leather chair, and two plastic chairs facing the desk.  A modestly sized monitor sat at one corner of the desk, with a compact keyboard placed in front of it, and no mouse.  The space was spartan.

I’d go crazy in here.  There’s no personality to this place.

Stranger still was the lack of dust.  Since her arrival, Jamie hadn’t seen anyone but the Doctor.  How did the Doctor keep everything so clean?

“Have a seat.”

Jamie sat in one of the plastic chairs.

“I like to talk and establish expectations before we begin.  You should know that almost every aspect of this experience can be tailored to your tastes.  Cauldron’s usual routine, however, is to arrange one face to face meeting.  We’ll discuss your budget, your situation and goals, and then we’ll peruse a catalog to find something that fits your budget and will hopefully give you the results you desire.  There is a two month waiting period, during which time I will assign you some testing, some regarding your physical condition, other tests for psychological reasons.”

“Psychological?  Is that to make sure I won’t flip out and go villain when I get powers?”

“That is not a concern.  Though your question seems to indicate that you hope to be a hero?”  The Doctor made it a half-question, half-statement.

Jamie’s brow furrowed.  “Wait, so you give powers to people who want to be villains?”

“We give powers to anyone who pays.  Rest assured, if you wish to end this meeting now because of a pang of conscience, we can see you returned to the barn shortly.”

Jamie hesitated, then shook her head.  “It’s fine.”

“The testing will include blood tests, stress tests, MRI, CAT scan, radiographic scans and a Torsten DNA sequencing.  These scans are primarily for our purposes, and if you’d prefer, you can have your family doctor arrange or conduct these tests instead for a small fee.  A larger fee will allow you to skip the tests entirely.”

Fees and additional expenses.  No.  The testing wasn’t so important that she’d spend her money on it.

“You can conduct the tests however you want,” Jamie said.

“Good.  You’ll need to forgive me, but I must be blunt.  Cauldron operates on a strict policy of secrecy.  It is crass of me to do this, but know that if you pass on any knowledge of what transpired here, we have ways to find out, and we’ll be forced to employ countermeasures.  This is in effect even if you decide you do not wish to sign anything.”

“Countermeasures?”

“Our response will reflect the gravity of the offense.  We have clients who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the products and services we offer.  It is our obligation to protect them.”

“What kind of countermeasures?  Would you kill me?”

“We try to avoid murder in the course of doing business, not just because of the moral issues, but because it draws attention.  For leaks, our usual procedure is to discredit the individual in question and deploy our in-house division of parahumans to drive them into hiding, remove their powers or both.”

Try to avoid murder.  The phrasing implied the Doctor or Cauldron had gone that far before. She didn’t like that, and she especially didn’t like the fact that the Doctor was phrasing things so she’d miss that detail if she wasn’t listening carefully.

“It’s fine.  I don’t intend to break the rules.”

“Few do.  Still, I’ve done my duty and informed you.  Tell me about yourself, Jamie.  I know your father is in law enforcement.”

“He’s a detective, yeah.”

“Does that have anything to do with why you’re here?”

Jamie frowned and looked away.  “Yeah.”

“Tell me.”

“A year ago… well, it all started two years ago.  There were two criminals called Ramrod and Fleece.  The local heroes brought them into custody, partially because of my dad’s work in tracking the pair down.  Three strikes act applied to Fleece, and Ramrod was in for murder with intent.  They put them in special cells, got them a court date, and everything was normal.  My dad worked to gather the evidence, made some deals with informants to testify anonymously, and everything.  The court process takes a lot longer than it does on TV.”

“Too true.”

“Finally, after about a year of court appearances and one minor appeal they managed to squeeze in there, it was decided.  The pair was supposed to go to the Birdcage.  Except someone broke them out.”

“I think I’m beginning to understand.”

Jamie gnawed on her lip for a second.  Just thinking about it pissed her off.  “His name is Madcap, and he’s a mercenary that specializes in breaking people out of jail.  Sometimes even when they’re in the convoy on the way to the Birdcage.  And it’s just… wrong.  It’s not the way things should work.  Months or years of investigation, good police and good heroes risking their lives to finally catch someone and arrest them, a year of trial, and all it takes is one fucking asshole with powers to free them?”

“And so you’ve spent the last year trying to find a way to purchase powers, with the intent of righting that wrong?”

“I want to stop him.  And not just him.  I want to help things make sense again, even if it means playing unfair because they’re playing unfair.  Crime should have consequences.”

The Doctor typed something onto the keyboard, paused, and then typed something else. “Madcap.  Well, the good news is that he isn’t one of ours, so there’s no conflict of interest. The bad news is that the PRT rated him as a striker seven.”

Jamie’s face settled into a grim expression.  “I know.  My dad has resources.  I took the time to look up Madcap’s records.”

“Having looked into your finances-”

“I’ve got a place in the city that was left to me.  My dad doesn’t know about it, so it’d be easy to sell it and not have anyone close to me get curious where they money went.  Current housing market says I could sell it for three-quarters of a million dollars.  I just have to sell it.”

“We can expedite this.  Cauldron is prepared to buy the property from you for seven hundred and thirty thousand dollars, renting it out to you in the meantime if you require it.  We will sell it at our leisure rather than wait for you to find a buyer.”

“I don’t need you to rent it to me.  No, that works,” Jamie said.  She was secretly relieved to have one of the biggest hurdles handled so easily.

“Good.”

“And I have another five thousand that my relatives set aside for my school.  It’d be harder to use that without people getting curious, but it’s there.”

“We’ll see.  In terms of cost, Cauldron requires that the client pay two-thirds of the total amount in advance, and pay the rest over a six year period or default.”

“Meaning you employ those countermeasures you talked about.”

“Revoking your powers in the worst case scenario, yes.”

“Is that revoking of powers a part of the process of however you give people the powers, or is it something that one of your in-house capes does?”

The Doctor was typing on the computer.  Without taking her eyes from the screen, she said, “The latter.  You don’t need to worry about someone using a loophole or flaw in the process to take away your abilities.”

The Doctor frowned at the image on the computer screen.

“What?”

The Doctor turned the monitor around.  It showed graphs and charts that made little sense to Jamie.  Clearing her throat, the Doctor leaned forward over the desk and extended one manicured nail to point at a series of labels on a three-dimensional graph.  “This is the ‘P’ value as related to the cost of the power, with the expected range of powers.  The amount of money you have, even assuming an additional thirty-three percent in payment made at a future date, is probably not going to provide you with the power you’d need to take on a striker-seven.”

Jamie’s face fell.  Shaking her head in confusion, she asked, “‘P’?  And what do you mean by probably?”

The Doctor opened a drawer and retrieved a binder.  She slid it across the desk.

Every page was laminated, labeled with a serial number.  Each page had a picture of a vial with a different colored metallic liquid inside, sitting beside a list of powers.  The bottom half of the page or a second page, depending on the number of powers listed, had a grid with a number assigned to an arrangement of letters.

“No sample provides the exact same powers every time.  The bullet points note examples of the powers gained when the sample was tried on a human subject or a client.  There’s typically a common thread or theme connecting powers from a given sample.  One sample might have a tendency to work with the production of acids and a tendency for physical manifestation.  This might allow an individual to turn into a living pool of acid, to secrete acid from his pores or to spit streams of corrosive venom.”

“I don’t want a power like that.”

“No.  For one thing, the ‘R’ value of sample J-zero-zero-ninety is very low.  Note the letters on the grid.  The most important ones are the ‘O’, ‘P’ and ‘R’.  These, on their own, determine roughly ninety-percent of a sample’s cost.  O refers to a power’s uniqueness.  It’s largely subjective, and liable to change through factors entirely out of Cauldron’s control, but it is easier to stand out as a hero or villain if nobody else can do what you do.”

“You’ve already mentioned the other two letters in passing.”

“The ‘P’ value is the raw effect of the granted abilities.  An estimation of the rating the PRT would assign to the powers.  Higher ‘P’, more effective and versatile abilities.”

Jamie nodded.  “And ‘R’?”

“Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned, there are no guarantees.  A given sample does not provide the same effects every time it is tested.  There are admittedly some dangers involved in the use of our product.  Sometimes there are physical changes that cannot be masked.  You have seen the heroes or villains with glowing eyes or less human features.”

That was sobering.

“The ‘R’ value refers to how predictable a given sample is.  There are some that produce very simple, reliable results.  In sixty-three tests of sample T-six-zero-zero-one, it has only failed to grant a form of flight on two occasions.  Contrast that with sample B-zero-zero-thirty.  It has, in four tests, granted an individual the ability to make things implode, it has created a powerful vacuum in someone’s mouth, that draws everything into a portal where it is promptly annihilated.  Sample B-zero-zero-thirty killed the other two test subjects.”

Killed.  There was an outside possibility she could die, if she took the wrong one, or if she got especially unlucky.

“How do you test this?  You’re talking about a lot of tests, sixty for just one sample, but there’s no way people wouldn’t notice or that word wouldn’t get out if you were doing something like that.”

“As you’ve seen, Cauldron has resources.”

“That doesn’t really answer my question.”

“It does.  Just not as clearly as you want it to.”

Something in the Doctor’s tone suggested the woman wasn’t going to elaborate further.  Jamie shut her mouth, frowning slightly.

“As you can see here, this graph shows the relationship between cost and the rising ‘P’, ‘O’ and ‘R’ values.”

It was a cube broken into a multitude of smaller cubes, with P as the X axis, O as the Y and R as the Z.  They ranged from white to sky blue to darker blue, purple, red, and finally crimson.  The key at the bottom of the graph suggested that anything beyond dark blue would cost several million dollars.  By the time it hit crimson, it was ranging into the hundreds of millions.

“This… is what you can afford.”  The Doctor hit a key and the graph was reduced to the white and light blue cubes.  “You could theoretically push into the seven range of ‘P’ values, to put yourself at this Madcap’s level in terms of raw power, but you would be forfeiting a great deal in the other two departments.  Your powers would be relatively simple, defaulting to the sort of abilities that countless other heroes already have… and with the low ‘R’ score, you would be risking getting something you do not want.  Physical changes, perhaps, or powers outside of the area you wanted.  Super strength when you desired telekinesis, for a crude example.”

“I… I’m not fixated on anything particular, powerwise.  Flying would be cool, but I’ll take anything that works.”

The Doctor tapped a key, and the graph shifted so there were only three rows.  She’d removed the samples with higher uniqueness values.

“Then the question is…” the Doctor said, “How much are you willing to gamble?  A hero can beat a superior foe with strategy, tactics and forethought, and I get the impression you’re focused enough to put your mind to the task.  Perhaps you’d want to emphasize reliability in a sample over the power it could offer you?”

“Can you zoom in?”

The Doctor did.

“So… how unreliable is a five, if we’re talking about ‘R’?”

“If you decided on a sample with an ‘R’ score of five, I would tell you I could make no promises.  There would be perhaps a three or four percent chance you would experience some unwanted physical changes.  Zero-point-five percent chance that you’d experience changes of a degree that you wouldn’t be able to go out in public without drawing notice, even with heavy clothing.  You would, I’d venture, not be buying a particular power, but the broader category of that power.  To use our earlier example, you would not be buying acid spit, specifically, but an acid power.

Jamie looked at the other lines on the graph, “And I’d be getting something like an ‘O’ of three and a ‘P’ of five.”

“Something in that neighborhood, yes.”

“A power rating of five to Madcap’s seven,”  Jamie put her elbows on the edge of the desk and her head in her hands.

“There’s a chance you could get lucky and achieve a power with a greater ‘P’ value than expected.”

Again, that misdirection.  Jamie shook her head.  “And a roughly equal chance that I could get unlucky, since it’s an average.”

“Admittedly true.”

“Is there anything else I could do?  A way to get better results?”

“We have options, but I don’t know that they apply to your case.  I mentioned the psychological testing earlier.  You should know that an individual’s personality, mental state and background do seem to have a great deal of effect on the resulting power. I would even say it’s one of the primary factors, outside of the sample itself.”

Jamie wondered momentarily how her own mental state would influence her powers.

The Doctor went on, “We have a package we call ‘Shaping’, and another we call ‘Morpheus’.  Both are intended to make the most of the two month waiting period and help a client reach an ideal mental and emotional state.  It’s often purchased by our high-end customers, to refine the powers they want and help ensure there are no untoward effects. For a low-end customer such as yourself, I don’t know that it would suit your needs.  You would be buying a lower quality sample to pay for the package… perhaps if you were someone who wanted powers for recreational purposes.  If you wanted to help guarantee that you got the ability to fly, for example.”

Jamie nodded.

“There’s the Nemesis program, but you already have an opponent in mind, and I expect you’re more interested in a fair fight than having an opponent you’re guaranteed to succeed against when it counts.”

“Yeah.”  This Nemesis program… how many prominent heroes or villains were out there that had faked or staged confrontations like that?

“Hmm.  Nothing else springs to mind as our packages go.  When we design an additional feature or program, we tend to aim it at our more wealthy customers.”

“You guys are doing lots of testing.  Could I do something like help with that?  Or something outside of these packages and programs?”

“Perhaps.”

“I’m serious, I’m hard-working, and I stick to my guns.”

“It’s our tendency to require that any client be prepared to perform one unspecified favor for us at a later date.  Usually a simple task or a week of service.  It serves as a way to cover our bases without revealing too much in respect to our operations.”

“Very Godfather.  Do these favors mean doing anything illegal?”

“Sometimes.  But no, often it is a request to meet someone, to pass on a message, or help manage an information leak, a show of force to scare someone who is poking too deep.”

Jamie’s leg bounced nervously as she looked at the screen.  “And?”

“If you agree to perform three favors at a future date, and I suspect we could extend something of a discount.”

The Doctor hit several keys, and the graph extended a little in every direction.  Where it had been white and light blue, it now showed cubes of dark blue.

“What would you ask me to do?”

“I don’t know yet.  I prefer to leave that option open.”

Everything in Jamie’s gut told her there was some small lie or misdirection in there.  Either the Doctor did know what she wanted to ask for, or she knew her customer wouldn’t like what she heard.

Whatever these favors were, all she could do was hope she could do enough good to counterbalance any wrongs she’d have to commit.

“Alright,” Jamie said.  “Sounds like a deal.”

Jamie’s fourth visit to Cauldron was less out of her way than her first.  She entered the same way as before, but this time the hallway from Cauldron’s location was transplanted into the middle of her apartment.  She wasted no time in stepping through.

The Doctor was not waiting for her, but she knew where she was going.  She strode down the empty, spotless hallways, past innumerable matching doors.  There were no windows in this place.  Nothing peeking into the outside.

Still, she knew where she was.  She’d checked the GPS data on her necklace.  The Ivory Coast.  The west coast of Africa.  It was dangerous information to have.

If I tried to open one of those doors, would it be locked?  What would be inside?  Or would alarms go off, my chance here spoiled?

She’d been here twice since her first meeting.  Both times, she’d had her psychological testing.  She’d also had a full workup done.  The psychiatrist had been a young-looking white man, the doctor a heavyset Greek.  They’d said little beyond what they needed to for the testing, and had volunteered nothing about Cauldron.

She made her way to the room where she’d done her stress test.  Here, she’d run back and forth with steadily increasing speeds until she couldn’t run anymore.  She’d rested, then run again, then again, until she couldn’t even stand.

The Doctor was waiting for her.  A metal canister sat on a table, and there was a sturdily built, cushioned chair sitting close by.

“You’re ready?” the Doctor asked.

Jamie nodded.

“If you’ll change into this, we can preserve your clothes for the return trip home.”

Jamie took the offered clothing, a plain gray bodysuit that would cover everything from the neck down.  A word in blocky black letters on the front read ‘Jamie’ while one on the back read ‘Client’.

There was no indicated change room, and the Doctor was focused on the canister and the stack of papers she was setting down on the table.  Jamie changed where she stood, folding her clothes and setting them on the edge of the table.

“Sit.”

Jamie sat in the chair.  Comfortable.

“Sample T-one-one-seven-seven, with the agreed upon addition of Sample C-zero-zero-seventy-two.  This is correct?”

“Yes.  It’s what I paid for.”

“Read and sign here.  And there are stipulations on, let me see… pages twenty-six and twenty-nine that you need to sign as well.”

Jamie leaned forward and read through the contract.  It was every term they’d agreed upon, legalese and politely worded warnings about the hell Cauldron would try to bring down on her head if she broke the terms of the contract.  There were pages of receipts covering the financial transactions, and pages more of details about her own medical and psychological evaluations.

There were two stipulations to agree to.  One for the three favors she’d agreed to perform.  Another on the psychological testing.

Nine years ago, she had been kidnapped for use as leverage against her father.  She had been held in their custody for three days.  No food, six water bottles to drink and no bathroom.  She’d gone to the washroom in the corner, had removed one sock to keep the pee from making its way across the sloped hardwood floor.

She’d assured the psychiatrist that she had gotten over any of the trauma and any fear of the dark that had stemmed from that incident.  It was her father that’d had a hard time dealing with the event.

She’d been young then, and the event hadn’t really stuck in her memory.  But she couldn’t shake the idea that the kidnapping might have left some lingering effect on her that would taint the process.

“You haven’t eaten?”

“Nothing since this time yesterday.”

“You don’t have any colds, no aches and pains?”

“No.”

“That’s too bad.  The sample we use to moderate and control the effects of the finished products has a short-lived regenerative effect.  This is one of the selling points we offer to the clients we find in hospitals and the like.  Some have even recovered or partially recovered from life-long disabilities.  We’ve had reports from people who were mildly ill when they gained their powers, who found they never got sick again.  It would be nice to verify this.”

“You couldn’t have told me that before?”

“It could easily be a placebo effect.  Not worth a rescheduling.  You’re comfortable?”

“Sure.”

The Doctor unscrewed the canister and withdrew a vial.  It was no longer than a pen and no thicker than one of the Doctor’s fingers.  “The faster you drink it all, the quicker and cleaner the transition is.”

“You said something about a dream quest?”

“Some experience it.  Some don’t.  Don’t be concerned if you don’t.  Simply relax to the best of your ability and stay focused.  The higher and more pronounced the physical reactions like your heart rate, sweating, adrenals, and emotional response, the greater the chance of a physiological change.  I recommend that you keep from dwelling on any stressful thoughts or memories.  Just stay calm and try to relax as much as you’re able.”

“Isn’t that like asking someone to not think of a blue elephant?  They’re going to think about a blue elephant.”

“I stress, only a small percentage of people experience enough stress that they undergo any physical change.”  The Doctor removed the stopper from the top of the vial and carefully handed it over, not letting go until she was sure Jamie had a firm grip.

Jamie held the vial for several long moments.  “Now?”

“When you’re ready.”

Jamie tossed it back like she’d seen people throw back shots of hard liquor.  She coughed as it coated the inside of her throat, her saliva doing little to nothing to help it down.  The Doctor reached out, and Jamie handed her the vial.

It began to burn, the intensity increasing second by second, until she was convinced it couldn’t get any worse.  It did.

“Hurts,” she groaned, trying to push herself to a standing position.

“It’ll get more severe before it gets better.  Stay in the chair.”

“Didn’t tell me,” she could barely speak with the way her chest felt like it was caving in on itself.

“I didn’t want to alarm you before we began.  It’s normal, and it does get better.  A minute, maybe two, and you’ll be surprised at how fast the pain goes away.”

She clutched the arms of the chair.  As unfathomably bad as it had been just moments ago, it kept getting worse.  She had to endure another two minutes of this?  It felt like the burning inside of her was melting through the walls of her throat and stomach.  She could imagine the tissue blistering and dissolving, expanding outward until it touched on her lungs and her heart.

As it seemed to consume her lungs, her breathing began to dissolve into breaths too quick and small to bring enough oxygen into her lungs.  Darkness began to creep in at the edges of her vision.

“Relax.”  The Doctor’s voice sounded far away.

She was panicking, and the idea that she was panicking made it worse, because it could mean she’d change.  She might look different.  Scales, spines, metallic skin or something else.

The darkness swallowed her field of vision and she felt as though it were creeping over her skin.

What had she been thinking, doing this?

Have to calm down.

She’d taken up Tai Chi when she was thirteen, something one of her therapists had encouraged to deal with stress.  She couldn’t move here, and it was impossible to stand, let alone do her exercises, but she could try to reach that mental state.  She attempted to take deep breaths, but she couldn’t even tell if she had air in her lungs or if she was breathing in or out.  She tensed the muscles in her fingers and toes, then forced herself to relax them.  She did the same with the muscles of her hands and feet.  She worked her way up through the entirety of her body, focusing on that simple action of tension, relaxation.

The pain didn’t stop, but she felt disconnected from it, now.  She was calmer, focused.  She felt as though she were adrift in a vast, empty space, aware of every part of her body, the wholeness of it, and nothing else.

An incoherent image flickered across her mind.  A landscape of twisted biological shapes that seemed to alter with every passing second, changing into something completely different.  An archway of bony growths disconnected and became a bridge over a crevasse.  Then a hill.  Yet it all seemed to change with logic.  It was just a logic she couldn’t comprehend.

The ground split.  Chasms tore into the surface, dividing it, and-

Another image.  Earth.  It was as though she was looking at everyone’s face and every object and every living thing on the planet at once, from every angle, but then she was looking at a different everyone and everything, then another.  It dawned on her that it wasn’t her doing the looking.  She was a bystander.  Before she could realize what this other was looking for, the scene changed again.

Utter blackness and silence.  It was only in this stillness and quiet that Jamie realized there was an undercurrent.  An impression.  She hesitated to call it an emotion.

Reaching.  It was the only word she could use to place it, and it didn’t quite fit.  It was an action that was simultaneously frustrated and frustrating.

The pain cleared away so quickly she thought she might have imagined it.

She was on the ground, she realized.  On her hands and knees.  Tears ran down her cheeks.  Not all were from the pain.  Some were sympathetic.

“What was that?  What did I just see?  It wasn’t a dream.  It wasn’t what you described.”

“Roughly half of my customers ask questions similar to yours after they’ve transitioned.  I always say the same thing.  I don’t know.”

Even in the daze she was in, Jamie’s instincts told her the Doctor was lying.

“I expect you’ll retain the memory better if you don’t try too hard to hold onto it.”

The strange things she had seen didn’t seem to matter anymore.  “Did I… change?  Is my body different?”

“You glowed briefly, but that passed.  You look the same as you did.”

Jamie nodded, too worn out to feel relieved.

“I’m going to leave, now, for my own safety.  I recommend sitting and resting before anything else.  When you’re prepared, stand and see what you can do to exercise your new abilities.”

The doctor was halfway to the door when Jamie shifted her position and prepared to climb into the chair.  Relief was surging through her.  She hadn’t become a monster.  She hadn’t lost her mind.  This was for real.  What she had seen, it was too profound to mean anything else.  Even a hit of LSD wouldn’t have given her visions as clear as that.  Not that she’d done LSD.

Though she didn’t feel dizzy, she found she lacked the sense of balance to stand, and tipped forward.  Between one heartbeat and the next, everything seemed to click.  She felt as though she were floating in slow motion rather than falling, her body thrumming.  She extended one arm toward the arm of the chair to catch herself, but she underestimated the speed and strength of the movement in the midst of this slow motion world.  The chair was sent flying, skidding across the floor.  She fell hard, the moment over, her fall no longer slow motion.

On the other side of the room, the chair hit the wall and shattered.

“Seems you have something.  Congratulations,” the Doctor said.

Madcap hit one of the armored PRT vans hard enough to make it roll.  The driver of the second tried to steer clear, but Madcap stepped into the path of the incoming vehicle.  It struck him and the vehicle virtually bounced off of him, the hood crumpling as though it had hit a telephone pole.

He rolled his shoulders, and then kicked the vehicle.  It skidded along the road and collided with the third truck, which had already pulled to a stop.

Which left only the task of freeing his clients.

“Stop!”

Madcap turned.  Jamie stood in the middle of the street, opposing him.  Her low-budget costume consisted of a black bodysuit and a domino mask.

“You’re cute.  Nice body, and the costume is a nice mix of pathetic and adorable in a three-legged-puppy kind of way.   But you don’t want to try to stop me.  I hit pretty damn hard.”

The mention of her costume embarrassed her.  She hadn’t had the money after buying her powers.  Still, three legged puppy?

Madcap, by contrast, was wearing a customized costume that had cost no small amount of money.  A faceguard covered the lower half of his face, and was imprinted with the image of a wide grin.  Black facepaint surrounded his dark eyes, accentuating the whites, and a pointed black leather cap connected to the mask and his costume.  His armor was more aesthetic than functional, and featured broad, spike-studded pads.

“I hit pretty hard myself,” Jamie replied.  A glance over her shoulder revealed that the two men who’d been driving the containment van nearest her were running.  She knew it was empty, a decoy.

She wrested the bumper free with a tug and then swung it at Madcap like an oversized bat.

He blocked it with one hand, and the scrap of metal slipped from her hand and went sailing into the nearby cornfield.

Then he slid forward and tapped the flat of one hand against her chest.  She bounced off of the ground and fell in a heap.  It took her one attempt at standing before she realized it was futile.

Two PRT soldiers stepped forward to try to spray him with foam, but he dispatched both with a throw of something that looked like a thick frisbee.  With nobody left to stop him, Madcap proceeded to tear doors off the containment vans until he found the prisoners.

Jamie tried to move again.  Everything hurt too much.

“No,” Madcap said.  “Leave her be.”

She opened her eyes to see two villains, a male and a female standing nearby, with Madcap standing between her and them..

“She looks like a right morsel,” the man commented.

“Not saying she doesn’t,” Madcap said, “But hands off.  You paid me to free you, and I can’t do that if you’re fucking around.”

“Spoilsport,” the woman said, teasing.  “Come on.”

Then they were gone, and Jamie let her head rest on the pavement.

“My power didn’t work.  I was strong, and then I wasn’t.”

“There are going to be nuances,” the Doctor said.  “We could help you investigate the intricacies of your ability.  But that would cost you.”

“Everything costs something, here.”

“I have another idea in mind.”

“Another idea?”

“Consider this your first favor to us.  Cauldron would be much obliged if you could join the ranks of the Wards, and then graduate to the Protectorate as soon as possible.”

“The Protectorate?  Why?  To sabotage it from within?  Steal information?  I don’t want to do anything like that.”

“Just join.  That’s all I ask.  If nothing else, it would mean you had resources and training to develop your powers and achieve your own goals.”

Jamie frowned, looking at her gloved hand.  She had been contemplating joining anyways.  It meant one favor out of the way, relatively harmless, which was good, but there was little doubt that Cauldron wanted her in place for a reason.

“Round eight, puppy?”  Madcap said, “Maybe you can finally win one!”

Jamie charged him, and the rest of her team followed soon after.

Madcap leapt to one side as Legend fired a series of beams at him.  The villain plunged into and through the concrete wall of the jail, and Jamie was only steps behind him.  She saw him rounding a corner and gave chase.

He wasn’t in the hallway.  There wasn’t even debris from where he’d torn his way through yet another wall.

She activated her power.  Time seemed to slow down as she sped up.  She snapped her head to look up and saw him in the middle of a leap over her head.  He’d timed it perfectly, so he would be above her when she rounded the corner.

Except she was faster, and she could hit harder than he could.  Given a chance.

Her elbow caught him while he was still airborne, and unable to dodge.  She slammed him into a wall, and followed up with a leaping kick while the effects of her power still coursed through her.

Madcap rebounded off of the wall as though he were made of rubber and ducked beneath her incoming kick.  Twisting around as he rose back to a standing position, he got a grip on her from behind in the same moment her foot hit the wall.  Heaving, he hurled her down the length of the hallway.

Calm.  She had to be calm, concentrate.  Even as she flew through the air, she let her power build up inside her, then released it.  With the half second of effect it gave her, she contorted herself to touch the wall with one foot, then lightly kicked it to turn herself toward the ground.  She landed in a crouch, sliding from the inertia, and began charging up for another go.

Legend’s lasers tore into the spot where Madcap had been a half second ago.  The villain sprinted toward Jamie, moving faster with each step.

“Battery!” Legend called out, “Stop him!”

She held on, concentrating.  She let a deep breath pass through her lips.

Sticking one foot out in front of him, Madcap changed directions, heading straight through the wall.  Plaster exploded around him.

She released her power, and for just seconds, she was strong, she was almost invincible, and above all else, she was fast.  She ran forward, plunging through two walls in her pursuit.  Emerging from the second wall, she came within a few feet of Madcap.

He turned on the spot, reaching out to block her strike or grab her.

But she didn’t give him the opportunity to do either.  Instead, she spent the rest of her accumulated power in a single burst, pulling at the metal of a nearby chair.  It fell over, sliding into Madcap’s path.  The metal legs caught on his own legs, one sliding just beneath his descending foot.  He stumbled.  He exerted his power, causing the chair to crumple and explode before he stumbled any further and fell. 

She heard a brief chuckle from the man as he turned to make his escape.

Legend had taken advantage of that momentary delay to get in position.  He caught the villain with a laser blast.  Madcap tumbled, got his feet under him and darted for cover.  A laser blast turned the corner to follow and smash the villain into the ground.  Legend shot him again while he was down, and the man was unconscious.

“Good job, Battery.” Legend spoke with a smile.  “Finally, huh?”

“Finally,” she said.

“I really don’t want to go to the Birdcage,” Madcap said.  He was covered in containment foam from shoulder to toe.

“You’ve committed somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred felonies,” Legend answered him.  “I don’t think you have many options.”

“Felonies, sure, but I haven’t killed anyone, and that’s got to be worth something.  Now, this is just a suggestion, but what if I switched sides?”

“Get real,” Battery replied.

“I’m serious, puppy.  You guys need more bodies on the field, I don’t want to go to the Birdcage, it’s win-win.  I’m strong.”

“You’ve spent nearly six years perverting the course of justice for others,” she replied.

“And now I can make amends!” They had removed his mask, but his real smile was almost more mocking than the one that had been styled into the mask.

“You spent the last five and a half years getting people out of the Birdcage, claiming to be against it and everything it stood for, but now you’re willing to work to put people in there?”

“Maybe you’ve changed me.  Your good looks, your winning personality, and your diehard persistence in the face of so many defeats at my hand.”

Battery looked at Legend, “Don’t suppose we can gag him?”

“Sadly, no.  And he raises an interesting idea.”

“He’s going to run the second he gets a chance.”

“There are options.  Tracking devices, or perhaps Myrddin can put some countermeasure in place.”

“I’m down for any of that stuff,” Madcap said, casting a sidelong glance at Battery.  He grinned, “But I want some concessions.”

“Concessions?  You asshole.  You should be glad that we’re even entertaining this asinine idea.”

“I think you’ll find them pretty reasonable,” Madcap said, more to Legend than Battery.

“Let’s hear it.”

“I think this would work best if I took on a new identity.  New costume.  My powers are versatile enough that I doubt anyone’s going to draw a connection.  It also means I don’t have any enemies or any paranoid customers from my shady past coming after me.”

“That could be arranged.”

“And I want to be on her team,” Madcap said, pointing at Battery.  He smiled.  “Puppy changes to a new city, I go with.”

“Hell no,” Battery said.

Why?” Legend asked.

“It’s funny,” Madcap said.  “It’s going to irritate the piss out of her, and I’ve got just a little bit of a sadistic streak in me.  If I don’t channel it somehow, this just isn’t going to work out.  Just give me this, and I’ll be a boy scout.”

“Boy scout?  You’ll be on your best behavior?”  Legend asked.  “This would be more than even regular probation.”

No.” Battery said.

Yes.”  Madcap answered the man.

No,” Battery said, stabbing a finger at Legend.  “I’ve been a damn good hero for you guys.  My record is spotless, I’ve put in the hours, I’ve put in the overtime hours.  I’ve done the jobs nobody else wants to do, the unpaid volunteer crap, the patrols at the dead of night when nothing happens.  This is a punishment.”

“You’re right,” Legend sighed, “It would be a heavy burden for a good heroine.  So it’s up to you.  You decide if Madcap joins the Protectorate or not.  I won’t judge you if you say no.”

“But you think I should say yes.”

“I do, if it makes us stronger in the long run.”

Battery looked down at Madcap, and the villain offered her an exaggerated pout, his eyes large, his lower lip sticking out.

“Fuck me,” she said.  “You’re going on paper as the one making the call, Legend, and you’re taking the hit if this backfires.”

“That’s fair.”

“Yes!” Madcap grinned.

“I’ve died and gone to hell,” Battery muttered.  It was everything she’d become a hero to prevent.  A villain evading his rightful justice.  But she knew it was for the greater good.  They did need more heroes out there.

“I already have a name in mind for my goodie-two-shoes costumed self,” Madcap grinned.  “You’re going to like this one, puppy.”

“You’re going to have to stop calling me that,” Battery warned him, “Or your identity as Madcap is going to become public knowledge, fast.”

Madcap rubbed his chin.  “Maybe.  I’ll agree to stop if you accept my name.”

She sighed.  “I already know I’m going to hate this.”

“You’ll love it.  Assault.  Get it?”

It took her a second to process.  “No!”

“No?  But it’s perfect.  We’ll be a pair!  People will know from the second they hear it.”

“The connotations are horrible!  No!  You’re not allowed to change the intent of my name like that!”

“Fine, fine.  Point taken.  Puppy.”

Battery looked at Legend, “Can I maybe get a raise, for putting up with this?”

The leader of the Protectorate folded his arms.  “Something can be arranged.”

“It can be a coffee,” Assault told her.  “Or a beer after a night of patrols.  Nothing fancy, low stress.”

Low stress?  You’re forgetting the part where I’d be spending more time in your company than I have to.”

“Hon, you need to unwind.  Relax.  You’re too rigid, and I know for a fact that you haven’t had a boyfriend or a girlfriend in the two years I’ve worked with you.”

“Stop implying I’m into women, Ass.”

“Well, you know, you keep turning me down, so it kind of makes a man wonder.”

“I’ve been too busy, and even if I did want to date, rest assured, you would be my last pick for company.”

“So hurtful!”  He pressed one hand to his chest.  “Look at me, I’m like a knight in shining armor, now.”

“A wolf in sheep’s clothing, more like.”

“Arooo.”

Miss Militia stopped in the doorway.  “Need rescuing?”

“If you could put a bullet between his eyes, I’d owe you one.”

“No can do.”  Miss Militia offered her an apologetic grimace.  “You okay, though?”

“I’m okay, thanks.”

Miss Militia headed on her way, and Assault smiled, “Listening to her, you’d think every second in my company was torture.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Battery retorted.  She turned and topped off her cup of coffee, finishing the pot.  Assault stepped in and began preparing the next pot.  It would have been a nice gesture if it weren’t for the smug look on his face.

“Come on.  Give me a chance.  Let me know what it takes to get one night of your company.  Tell me to bring you a star in the palm of my hand, or slay a dreaded Endbringer, and I’ll get it done.”

“You’d just find some loophole and bring me a plastic star or kill an Endbringer in a video game, which would only give you an excuse to harass me further.”

“Then think of something else.  Anything.”

Battery sipped on her coffee.  “Anything?  Armsmaster was looking for volunteers for some unpaid work at one of the primary schools.  I already said I’d do it.”

“You do all of that crap,” Assault rolled his eyes.  “It’d be admirable if you weren’t trying so ridiculously hard at it.  It’s like you’re trying to make up for some wrong you think you’ve committed.”

Battery frowned a little.

The grin dropped from Assault’s face.  “Hey, seriously?”

She shook her head.  “No.  No wrong committed, real or imagined.”

“But the way you looked just now-”

She interrupted him.  “If you come on this errand with me and do part of the speech for the kids, I’ll maybe consider possibly going out with you for lunch someday.”

“Excellent!”  Assault grinned.

He strode off, looking like he’d just won the lottery.

She smiled.  If he only knew this was her shot at some clean, innocent payback.  The squealing, screaming grade schoolers, all fighting and pulling on your costume and demanding demonstrations of powers and constantly asking questions.

And he’d have to put up with it.

She would relish this.

“…And caught out little suck-a-thumb.
Snip!  Snap!  Snip!  The scissors go;
And Conrad cries out – Oh! Oh! Oh!…”

Assault read from the book of poems, and every one of the ninety kids that sat around him were leaning forward, eyes wide.

“He’s so good with kids,” the librarian murmured.

“Of course he is,” Battery said.  Maybe there was a hint of bitterness in her voice, because the librarian gave her a funny look.

She plastered a fake smile on her face to assuage the woman’s doubts.

“…both his thumbs are off at last!”  Assault finished.

The kids squealed in delighted horror.

Pain in the ass, she thought.  If I were reading that one they’d all be crying.

Battery’s phone vibrated.  She excused herself from the librarian’s company and checked the display.

Customer wants product hand delivered by known parahuman.  Package waiting in your apartment.  Second task.  -c

Cauldron had sent it to the phone the Protectorate gave her?  To a number that only the Protectorate had?  Did that mean something?

She deleted the message.  It would be easy enough to handle.  If the recipient wound up being a villain at a future date, she’d stop them, put them away.  This would just be a delivery.

Assault caught her eye and a slow smile spread across his face, as the little girl in his lap read some of the next poem.  The look was smug, sly.  He knew exactly how much this was irritating her.

“Jackass,” she muttered.

But she couldn’t stop a smile of her own from spreading across her face.

The glass in the little window of her front door was shattered.  It fell on her feet as she pushed the door open.

“Ethan!”  Battery called out.

“You’re okay,” Ethan said, as he came down the stairs.  He was still in costume.  Only a single cut marked his cheek.

“I didn’t know where to find you, and since the cell phones don’t work anymore, and you weren’t at headquarters, I thought I’d come here.”

“I know.  I thought much the same thing, but I came here first.”

“You’re okay?”

“I’m okay, puppy.”

She punched him lightly in the arm.  She didn’t resist as he swept her up in a painfully tight hug.

“We should go on patrol,” he said.  “This is going to be bad.  They’re kicking us while we’re down.”

“Right.  Patrol together or apart?”

“Together at first, assess the situation.”

“Okay.”

“A courier dropped this off for you,” he pointed at a small envelope on the hall table.

She saw the undercase ‘c’ on the front and felt her heart sink.

“Puppy?”

She picked up the envelope and checked the contents.  A slip of paper, blank on both sides.

A joke?  A reminder?  The last one had been two years ago.

“Let’s go,” she said, crumpling it in her fist.  She charged up and ran, and Assault crossed a similar amount of distance with his long and powerful leaps.

She covered more distance with the start-stop motion of charging and running than she did just running, but it made for a halting progress where Assault simply continued forward.  He made some headway on her.  She knew he’d stop at some vantage point to wait for her.

As she stopped to charge, she felt a tingle from her hand.

The note?

She spent the energy of a charge, but she didn’t run.  Again, that tingle.  She used her ability to manipulate electromagnetic energy and focused it on the note as she smoothed it out.

A pattern emerged: simple black lettering.  A second after they’d appeared, the paper started to smoke.

She had only a few seconds to read and process the message before the paper ignited.

Siberian and Shatterbird are to escape the city, and our business with you will be done. Thank you.  – c.

The burning scraps drifted to the road around her, but she only felt cold.

Every action had its consequence.

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