Interlude 23

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Lightning ripped across the landscape, following its own path, independent, breaking every rule that electricity was supposed to follow.  It danced over the outside surfaces of houses, running across concrete and leaving glassy scorch marks in its wake.  It touched objects that should have grounded it, channeling it into the earth, but leaped for another target instead.

The Yàngbǎn raised their hands, already reacting.

Twenty-third path, fifth benefit.  Reflexes.

Thirteenth path, third formForcefield constructions, barrier.

The forcefields absorbed the worst of the energy.

Cody was already moving to use the thirty-sixth path to rescue anyone who’d absorbed the remnants of the shock.  None.  It hadn’t touched them.  He was among the last of them to dismiss his forcefield.  The forcefields drained their reserves of energy, and weren’t to stay up for too long.  They’d been drilled on this.

Qiān chū.”  Three ordered.

They mobilized.

Fourth path.  Shallow flight.

Ninth path.  Short range electromagnetism.  They skated off of the little exposed metal that was available around them, car hoods and pipes, gaining speed to augment their flight.

There were forty-two paths in all.  Forty-two powers.  No, he corrected himself, there were forty-one now that Seventeen was dead.  More would die by the day’s end.

The hope, the plan, was to demonstrate the Yàngbǎn’s strength, to show that they had the answer, a way to defeat the Endbringers.  It wouldn’t happen today, but a solid demonstration would serve to bring others on board.

They hadn’t been asked.  The expectation was that they would give their lives for this.  He would have refused.  He’d dealt with an Endbringer before, and he still hadn’t recovered from that chance meeting.  He’d lost everything, been stripped of friends and family both.

Yàngbǎn qiáng!”  Five called out.

Yàngbǎn qiáng!”  The group responded in chorus.  Cody’s voice joined theirs, quieter.  His pronunciation wasn’t good.  In all this time with the group, he hadn’t even managed to grasp the fundamentals of the language.  Mispronunciation was punished, not by any reprimand, but in a subtle way.  They would speak to him even less than they were now, he would get less food.  Maybe for a few hours, maybe for a few days.  The thought bothered him, and the degree to which it unsettled him was more disturbing still.

Something so minor as that shouldn’t have mattered so much to him, but it was all he had, now.

There was a crash of lightning, and a building collapsed, directly in their path.  Flames and smoke barred their path.

Shèntòu!”  Three ordered, his voice nearly drowned out in the noise of the building settling.  They were still moving forward, not even slowing.

The forward group hit the barrier with localized vacuums.  Individually, they were weak, but with twelve all together, flames were quenched, smaller objects levitated into the air.

Cody joined the middle group in shearing through the remaining wreckage.  Thirty-first path.  The cutting lasers.  The first group was slowing a fraction, and Cody slowed his flight to hold formation.

The twelve members of the Yàngbǎn only accelerated, flying around the group members they had been following.  They turned solid, space distorting around them as they rendered themselves invincible and incapable of any action but their pre-existing momentum, effectively human bullets.  They tore through the wreckage, clearing a path for the rest.

He felt a rush, just being part of the unit.  Being a part of a maneuver that let them cut through a burning ruin of a building with the ease they had.

Some of that rush, he knew, was the second path.  Magnification of powers.  Two wasn’t present, she was too valuable to risk losing, but they still shared her power between them.  Each of them had a sliver of her ability to enhance the powers of those nearby.  It was the reason their powers worked to the degree that they did, a feedback loop in power augmentation across their whole unit.

There were more things feeding into his consciousness, other senses he wasn’t actively tapping into.  The twenty-third path, it enhanced his perception, particularly his awareness of others, the threat an individual person posed, and enhanced his reflexes, particularly when dealing with people who wanted to hurt him.  It was of minimal use against Behemoth, but it made him cognizant of the other members of the Yàngbǎn, aware of their breathing, the noises they made as they ran.

In this way, the group subsumed him, rendered him a part of something overwhelming.  For now, in the midst of this, the deep loneliness and isolation was gone.  Language was almost unnecessary, beyond the one- or two-word commands he needed to know for particular maneuvers and directives.

Zig-zagging down the streets, they naturally settled back into their established rank and file.  With every member of the group having access to the same pool of powers, placement in the formation was a question of experience and how expendable they were.  Cody was an essential defensive asset, no use if he was taken out of action, so he rested in the middle of the group, surrounded by people who could protect him in a pinch.

Rumbles marked the collapses of taller buildings as Behemoth advanced, somewhere a quarter-mile behind them.

The heat was oppressive.  Even as they got further away from the monster, the fire only seemed to get worse.  The smoke was the worst part of it, preventing them from seeing or tracking their enemy.  It meant they couldn’t see more than a hundred or so feet around them, and they didn’t have any idea whether they were going to walk straight into the monster’s path or wind up encircled by burning buildings.  Their flight depended on proximity to a solid surface.  It involved hovering five to ten feet off the ground while moving at fifty or sixty miles an hour.  They had another means of flight, but less controlled, one that risked putting them above the skyline, obvious targets for a lightning strike.

Was the Behemoth smarter than he looked?  Was the destruction seeded in a way that would spread?  Fires started where buildings were closely packed?

Cody could feel his skin prickling.  His mask was filtering out the smoke, but the heat, it was getting unbearable.

Zhàn wěn,” Ten said.

Zhàn wěn,” the group echoed her, their voices strong.  It was an encouragement, an affirmation.  Cody didn’t know what it meant.  He’d been with them for an indeterminate length of time, what felt like years, but he didn’t feel any closer to grasping the language than he had been on the first day.  He’d had help, briefly, but that had been stopped.

Every member of the group was permitted to speak freely, but virtually every utterance was vetted by the group as a whole.  If, like Ten, someone were to speak, and others were in agreement, deeming the phrase acceptable, then the response was clear.  If the statement was poorly timed, or out of tune with the group’s line of thinking, then it was ignored, followed only by a crushing silence.

Cody had never experienced the adrenaline rush that Ten was no doubt experiencing over the simple act of getting a response from the squadron.  The group had never deemed his statements acceptable, because his pronunciation was poor.  He was a member of a tight-knit crowd, yet utterly, completely alone.

Tíng!” one of the members in the rear called out.

They dropped to the ground, their landings practiced, wheeling around a hundred and eighty degrees by planting one foot on the ground and sweeping the other out.

His forcefield was up before he even knew what the threat was.  Individually weak, strong in formation: a makeshift bubble of overlapping forcefields twenty feet over their heads.

The glowing projectile swiftly grew in his perspective, giving him only a second to brace himself before it crashed down on the wall of forcefields.

The wave of heat was intense, even on the other side of the barrier.  It seemed almost liquid as it spilled out over the edges.  In seconds, they were surrounded in flame.  The forcefields sealed it off, prevented superheated air from burning them alive, but the viscosity meant it was resting against the forcefield.

Magma?

They’d drilled on abstracts, on possible situations.  Attacks from any direction.  Attacks in various forms.  He’d never really considered the ideas behind dealing with magma, but he had the tools.  Being a member of the Yàngbǎn meant being constantly drilled.  They took your power, all but a fraction of it, but every member of the group had that same fraction.  Every member was expected to know how to use every power, to know when and to do it in unison with the rest of the squad.

A small handful of individuals in the C.U.I. hadn’t been brought onto the group.  Null, the cape who made the Yàngbǎn possible, was independent.  He couldn’t be a part of the whole.  Others included Tōng Líng Tǎ, who had a power that was too slow to use, not worth the fractional decrease in power that came with including her in the network, Shén yù, the strategist, and Jiǎ, the tinker that supplied the C.U.I. with its devices, including the simulations for the drills.

It was those drills and simulations that allowed him to react a precious fraction of a second faster as he responded.  It kept him in sync with the others in the group as he joined half of them in letting his forcefield dissipate, simultaneously reaching out to apply another power.

Thirty-second path.  Nullification waves.

The effect was short ranged, and he could see the shifting in the air as it extended, passed through the gaps in the forcefield where the magma and heated air were only just beginning to leak through miniscule gaps.

The waves generated by thirty-two served to stabilize.  It stalled things in motion, warmed up cold things, cooled warm things.  It silenced, stilled.

The magma cooled with surprising rapidity, but then, the power was affecting the inside at the same time it affected the outside, rather than trying to cool the outside to a degree that would extend inward.

Path thirty-two.  It made him think of Thirty-two, the member.  The source of that particular power.  He snuck a glance at her.

She was one of four outsiders, four people not native to China.  She’d been his closest ally.  Something more.

Dǎpò,” Seven ordered.

Like the others, the maneuver was a practiced one.  The last forcefields dropped, and the group mobilized.  Odd-numbered members of the squad crouched, legs flexing, while even-numbered members, Cody included, reached out.

Path fourteen.  Vacuum spheres.

The odd-numbered members of the group pierced the barrier of cooled magma, and the vacuum spheres scattered the shards.

Another sphere was already in the air, aimed close to them, if not at the exact same spot.

Without even thinking about it, he trained a laser on it.  Others were doing the same, or following suit.  The glob of magma, still mid-air, was separated into loose pieces, no longer as aerodynamic as it had been.  It expanded, fell short, disappeared into the cityscape between them and Behemoth.

Each action Cody performed as a part of the unit was validating, affirming.  It was a series of small payoffs for the drills he’d gone through for over a year, with smaller groups and the Yàngbǎn as a whole.  The drills had been intense, with one new situation every one or two minutes, like flash cards, only they were holograms, color coded polygons and shapes with just enough mass that they could be felt.  If they failed the scenario, the offending members of the squad would be named out loud, the scenario shuffled back into the list of possibilities, so it might repeat in five minutes, or two hours.

Cody was well aware of what they were really doing, between the six hours of drills and the twelve hours of schooling that combined lectures on the C.U.I. with traditional education.  He knew why they only got forty-five minutes in total to eat for their two daily meals, only five hours of rest a night, why every minute of the day was scheduled.

He’d always told himself that he wouldn’t be a victim, that when the time came and he was indoctrinated into a cult, he’d recognize the targeted isolation, the practice of tiring him out so he’d be more amenable to suggestion, more likely to conform.  He’d told himself that he would rebel and maintain his individuality.

So stupid, to pretend he had that degree of willpower, in the face of crushing social pressure and exhaustion.  It had taken him nearly five days after he left the basic training and joined the official team before he realized what was going on.  The saddest part of it was that he was fully aware they were brainwashing him, indoctrinating him, and there was nothing he could do about it.  Despite himself, despite the pride he’d once had as a person, he wanted acceptance.

They were a poor surrogate, a surrogate he hated, in a way, but he had nothing else.  His family was a universe away, his friends had turned on him, gone mad.

There was a crash, and a shockwave ripped through the area, momentarily clearing the smoke.  Cody instinctively raised his forcefield.

Behemoth was there, standing amid leveled buildings, fighting some flying capes who strafed around him.  He had built up some steam, and lightning coursed over his gray flesh, illuminating him.  Only one or two of the metal ships were still fighting.  Other craft, airborne, seemed focused on evacuating, but it was a gamble at best, as shockwaves and lightning struck them down.

The smoke filled the sky once more, obscuring Cody’s vision too much for him to see any further.

Behemoth clapped again, then again, each collision of claw against claw serving to extend the damage one step further, clearing obstructions out of the way for the next.

The Yàngbǎn backed away, spreading out inadvertently.  Cody could feel the benefit of the second path fading, the enhanced powers the others granted slipping from his grasp.

“Tā shì fúshè kuòsàn,” Three said.  He said something else that Cody couldn’t make out.  Something about leaving.

The group moved out, flying low to the ground, and Cody was a fraction of a second behind, pushed himself to make sure he was in formation.

“Radiation,” Thirty-two said, her English perfect, unaccented.  It was for Cody’s benefit, and the benefit of the other two English-speaking members of the group, who might not understand the more complicated words.  She got glances from the other members of their squad, but continued speaking.  “He’s using the shockwaves to spread irradiated material across the city.  We’re retreating, okay?”

Cody nodded, but couldn’t bring himself to speak as the group took flight.  It was unnecessary, wasn’t worth it when he accounted for how the others would react and respond if he used English.  Thirty-two would be shunned for doing so, there was no need for him to join her.

An explosion of smoke bloomed out in front of them.

Not smoke.  Darkness.

The Yàngbǎn collectively dropped into fighting stances, ready to use any power the instant it was called for.

Villains stepped out of the smoke, and it was only then that the benefits of the twenty-third path belatedly granted the Yàngbǎn their ability to sense these people.  The power had been blocked by someone or something in the group.

They were Westerners, by the looks of them.  Cody’s eyes narrowed as he studied them.  A guy with a demon mask, surrounded by the same eerie darkness that formed a wall between the group and Behemoth, a young girl with a horned mask, a stocky guy or girl with a thick fur ruff on their hood, and a girl in black with an opaque pane over her face and a crossbow in her hands.

The other group was also mounted, but clearly distinct in style, even if they’d shuffled together with the other group.  The boy in medieval clothes with a silver crown, the girl in a frock, two grown women in evening gowns.

They were all mounted on mutants.  He had to reach for the name.  The guy from Boston, Blasty?  Blasto.  He was supposed to make horrific mutants.  Maybe he was here.

The Yàngbǎn edged around the group, wary.

“Jesus,” the man with darkness shrouding him said.  His power was billowing out around him, more darkness.  “What the hell are you doing?”

He’s getting the benefit of the power boost, Cody thought, but he didn’t speak.

The others were shifting uncomfortably, but the one with the white mask and silver crown, and the two in the evening gowns… they seemed to take it more in stride.

Something about them, it tugged at a memory.  Not a strong memory, but a brief encounter at some point… it gave him an ugly, twisting feeling in his gut.

He blinked, and the girl with the gray, horned mask was right in front of him. He resisted the urge to react.  His teammates, he knew, were raising their hands in anticipation of a fight.  They were distrustful.  They’d been taught that foreign heroes were dangerous, unpredictable.

Thing was, they were right.  As a rule, capes were fucked up.  People were fucked up.  The Yàngbǎn, Cody mused, resolved the situation by stripping capes of their humanity.

She turned around, as if she hadn’t just appeared in front of him.  “Shit, you weren’t kidding.  It gets stronger as you get closer to more of them.  I can do practically anything, and they don’t react.”

“No idea,” the man in black said.

“They’re Chinese capes,” a woman in a yellow evening gown said.  “They probably don’t speak enough English to answer.”

Something nagged at him.  Cody searched his memories.  Between the crossbow and the boy in the renaissance era clothes, he couldn’t help but think of the game he’d played with his friends before everything went horribly wrong.  But the evening gowns, those masks…

Accord.  The bastard who had taken him, who had traded him to the Yàngbǎn for money.

The anger was refreshing, startling, and unexpected.  A splash of scalding water to the face, as if waking him from a dream.

“Thirty-six!”  It was Thirty-two calling.

“Thirty-six?” the girl with the horns asked.  “What?”

It was Cody’s name.  His new name, rather, but he’d never quite identified by it.  He turned and realized he’d dropped out of formation.

“Let’s go,” she said.

He glanced back at the woman in yellow.

“I can guess what you’re thinking, but it’s not worth it,” she said.

Every step of the way, I got fucked.  Fucked by Krouse, fucked by the Simurgh, fucked by Noelle, fucked by Accord, fucked by the fucking Yàngbǎn.

The woman in yellow spoke.  “Whether it’s answers, or revenge, or something else entirely, you won’t find any of it here.”

Others in her group were looking at her in surprise, or as much as one could, when wearing masks.

“Do you know how easy it would be to kill you?” Cody asked.

Three gave an order in Chinese.  Incomprehensible, but Cody could guess.

“If you killed me,” the woman in yellow said, “He’d barely care, and you’d spend the rest of your life in a hole that Ziggurat made, if they didn’t just paralyze you from the neck down and leave you alive to borrow your power.”

Ziggurat?  Oh.  Tōng Líng Tǎ, the earth mover.

She’d said she didn’t have answers, but this-

The ground shook violently.  Behemoth was still active.  Lightning was arcing through and around the dark clouds of smoke that were rising at the edges of the city.

“If it’s alright, we should go,” the darkness man said.  “Things get much worse, I’m not sure how much we can help, and I’m losing my mind waiting like this.”

There was a whistle from someone in the group, and they were gone, the mutant quadrupeds breaking into a run.

And Cody was left standing there, staring.

Three snapped something, and Thirty-two translated, “He’s saying we can send you back, if-”

“No.  It’s fine,” Cody said.  He turned and fell into formation.  The disapproval was like a weight on him from all sides.  He withered a little.  How many weeks, months or years would it be before he was allowed to hold a conversation with his comrades?

More heroes were running by, now.  A group of young heroes, a cluster of religious capes with halos and crosses worked into their costumes, and a fresh wave of mechanical ships.  The reinforcements had arrived.

Eight said something, but the accent was too thick for Cody to make it out.

He’d been stirred from a delirium, a state where the days had blended into one another, where the sole defining moment of his week might be if he were acknowledged by the other members or rebuked.  It wasn’t Behemoth who’d shaken him from that point.  It was the woman in yellow.

Anger twisted in his gut, and it wasn’t going away.  He found himself holding onto it, embracing it.

As if it reflected the violence within Cody, the city was burning, shattered and gripped in chaos.  Thousands were in the streets, running between flimsy looking buildings crusted with signage, or lying dead, struck down by shockwaves created by a monster half a mile away.  Women, children.

They passed injured, and didn’t spare a second glance.  A family of five were caught in a ring of burning structures, and the Yàngbǎn didn’t even spare a second glance.

We’re military, not heroes.

The goal was to fight the monster, to support the Yàngbǎn and support the C.U.I. in any way possible.

Three changed course, and the rest flew after him, setting down.  Their destination was a flattened building, with a group of dead, maimed and dying Indian capes lying in the debris.

Cody exercised the twenty-third path to find out what Three surely knew already.  There was nobody nearby.

Three reached down, and others around him joined in, making contact with one of the dying.

It took nearly a minute, to attune everything the right way.  But the effect took hold, and the injured hero disappeared.

Five looked to Cody and pointed at the next one.

Lowest rung on the totem pole.  If I didn’t think Null would rescind my powers, I’d kill you here and now.

Reluctantly, still stewing with anger, he obeyed, kneeling by the body.

The forty-second path.  Teleportation.  He could see the destination in his mind’s eye, like an annoying spot of light in the center of his vision, gradually getting more detailed and focused.  Each person that joined his side to assist sped the process along.

The wounded hero flickered and disappeared.

By the time they were done, all three bodies had been removed.

Qiān chū.”  Three ordered.

They moved out.

As they traveled, he could see the streets choked with evacuees, a virtual tide of people, rickshaws, bicycles and cars.  They’d reached bottlenecks, points where they couldn’t advance, and the evacuation wasn’t proceeding.

Was this an extension of Behemoth’s strategy?  The major streets were unused, either because the Endbringer could see them, unleashing waves of electricity and shockwaves to strike down anyone who tried those routes, or because buildings had been felled and they were impassable.

The heroes who weren’t helping with the evacuation were establishing perimeters, staggered lines of defense.  Here, Indian capes were setting up turrets on high ground, guns the size of cars, drilling them into the roads and rooftops.  Another block over, there were civilians who weren’t running.  They’d gathered, and were talking in low voices.  They radiated a different degree of power, on par with the capes on the rooftops.

The Yàngbǎn squadron slowed down as the cluster of capes grew denser, the buildings more solid and further apart.  There were trees here, but the heroes were cutting them down.  Each squad seemed to be executing a different plan, a different setup.  What appeared to be force-field fences were being erected in between each group and Behemoth’s estimated point of approach.

There was one group with heavy ranged weapons.  An area was being cleared, set up with devices.  Another area had been marked off with chalk, but it wasn’t clear what they intended to do.  Tinkers everywhere were setting up.  A kid with red armor and lenses had two odd-looking cannons set up on one rooftop, each the size of a city bus.

It painted a picture, formed a script of sorts, for the story that had yet to take place.  The idea that Behemoth would change direction from where he’d initially started off wasn’t even a consideration.  They weren’t consolidating forces, gathering together for one good strike, but were arranging it so one would follow after the other.  The capes he’d already seen were the ones that had gone forward to support, to find the injured, trusting to mobility or evasion to slip away.

And here, this far in, a dozen countermeasures were being set up, if not two dozen.  This would be the staging ground, without the crush of flammable buildings all around them.  Each countermeasure would occupy Behemoth for just long enough that the heroes could manage a barrage of attacks.

The Yàngbǎn reached the center of the network, landing on the rooftop with the most capes.  The makeshift command center.

He only had to take one look, and he knew.  Something vital was missing.  They had any number of ways to stall, and each one would cost them a little.  But for all of that, he couldn’t make out anything that looked like it would end the fight.

Cody could see the heroes react as the Yàngbǎn landed, and he could see the way others looked to one small set of people for cues.  The top-level guys, the leadership of the Protectorate.

A a man in gleaming armor extended a hand to Three, who’d stepped away from the group.  “We didn’t expect the Yàngbǎn.”

Three looked over his shoulder, and Thirty-two stepped forward.  Three murmured something, and she translated.  “Your PRT was very persuasive, Chevalier.”

“I suppose we can count that as a good thing.  You read the briefings and plans we sent out?”

Thirty-two continued to translate, “We did.  With your permission, we’ll return to the fight with Behemoth shortly.  But we’d like to make a proposal.”

“I know what you’re going to propose,” Chevalier said.  “I’m sorry, it-”

“It’s somewhat counter to our usual offer,” Thirty-two spoke quickly to match Three’s attempted interruption.

Chevalier fell silent.

“Your heroes here are scared.  They want to help, they are good people.  We’re offering another way.  They can help without risking their lives.”

“I think I understand.  You have to understand why I’m saying no,” Chevalier said.

“Our group shares powers.  Time and time again, the West has refused them.  We would rehabilitate your criminals, and share their powers among us.  They are divided in strength, but we have the ability to magnify powers.  You can feel it now, being close.”

“Yes,” Chevalier said.

In the distance, a column of lightning cut through the wall of smoke above the city, as big around as an apartment building.  Cody could feel the vibrations shudder through the building, as sturdy as it was, though the lightning was miles away.

“We might each have only a share of a power, reduced effect, range or duration, but we regain as much as a third of that power back with this magnification, depending on how many are together.  A full third of forty powers at once.  If any would volunteer, we would teleport them to a safe place, where we would borrow their power for this fight only.  We would send them home when the fight was over.”

Cody could see the reactions of the capes on the rooftop.  People were exchanging glances.  Considering it.

A part of him wanted to scream, to warn them, whatever the cost to him might be.

“I see,” Chevalier said.

“For years, we have boasted of the strength the Yàngbǎn offers the world.  But we are small, and too many citizens with powers flee or fight rather than cooperate.  Today, we hope to show our strength.  We have extended our support, and we ask for trust in exchange.”

“Your support is welcome, and that’s why we couldn’t ever ask you to make this leap of faith,” Chevalier said.  “I understand your motives are pure, but if some accident transpired, and a good cape didn’t make it back, it would mean war.”

Cody hadn’t missed the way the hero had stressed the words.  A warning for his people, more than a statement for Three.

“We would be exceedingly careful,” Thirty-two translated for Three.  “Rest assured.”

Cody was watching the negotiations continue, Chevalier looking more and more uncomfortable, when he saw him.

Accord.  He was accompanied by a girl in a lavender and black costume, and a dark-skinned man in a suit.

Cody had to hold himself back to keep from striking the man.  It would be suicide, and no matter which power he used, Cody couldn’t be sure he could guarantee a kill.

He could see the moment where Accord saw the Yàngbǎn.  Cody could see the reaction, as if the man had been slapped in the face.  Accord’s shifting mask gave away his reaction, and then his expression set, his body language neutral, as if nothing had happened and nothing was wrong.

The girl beside him smiled, and brilliant green eyes settled on Cody, stark contrasts to her pale purple costume.

He hated not knowing anything, being cut off by language barriers and the rules of the Yàngbǎn.  Who was the girl in lavender?  Where were Alexandria, Eidolon and Legend?

Every question left him more uneasy, increasingly angry, and Accord was the person who had put him in this situation.

I’m a slave, and he’s the one who put me in chains.

“May I interrupt?” Accord asked.

“If the Yàngbǎn will excuse me?” Chevalier asked Three.

Three nodded.  “As you will.  We can wait.”

Cody suspected Chevalier had been hoping to end the conversation, rather than postpone it.  He stared at Accord.  Do they know what you do?  What you are? 

There was a crash, a clap of thunder, and a rush of hot wind.  The cloud of smoke around Behemoth’s battlefield was growing, and it wasn’t just a matter of perspective, of Behemoth getting closer.

Capes flew off, joining the fray.  The Yàngbǎn remained.

“What can you tell us?  Do you have a plan?” Chevalier asked Accord.

I’ll kill him.  I’ll kill him.  Somehow.  I just need a chance.

It was too much, like being asleep for months and finally waking up, only to discover that the only thing inside him was rage.

“…optimal timing,” Accord was saying.  “I’m still working out the particulars.”

Krouse thought he was smart too.  When I’m done with you, I’ll find him and kill him. 

“What do you need?”

“Contact information for your various squads.”

Cody virtually twitched with a need to move, a craving to fulfill some deep-seated desire for revenge, but the group around him wouldn’t afford him the chance.  Each member of the Yàngbǎn was simultaneously a prisoner and a guard, some more of one than the other.

Chevalier nodded.  “You’ll have it.  Rime?”

A woman in blue limped forward, “I’ll handle it.”

The girl in lavender glanced at Cody before falling in step with Rime and Accord.

Had she sensed his emotion?  She hadn’t said a thing.

“He just reached the first perimeter,” someone reported.  “Tore through our skirmishers.  Some teenagers were killed.  Eidolon and Legend are fighting, but they’re not in good shape.  We didn’t expect him to move this fast.”

“The Triumvirate’s missing a key member,” Chevalier said.  “Our more mobile capes should move out now.  Meet him at the first perimeter if you’re fast enough, hold at the second if you aren’t.  Maintain cover where possible.”

Qiān chū.”  Three ordered.

The negotiations were over, it seemed.

But he could feel the tickle of new powers taking hold.  The three they’d collected from the shattered building were joining them, like it or not.

The first power was an easy one to grasp.  He could feel his body surging with some added strength, and that strength swelled a step further as the power-enhancing auras took hold.

The second was a tinker power, he was almost positive, or it was a thinker power with a focus on guns.  Nothing useful.

The third… another thinker power.  His vision clarified a step.  The ability to see through smoke?

No.  The ability to see through surfaces.

He was disappointed, and he couldn’t be sure why.  What had he wanted?  What did he want, in general?

Even now, he was alone.  The Yàngbǎn wanted to collect capes, to prove themselves.  The heroes wanted to stop Behemoth.

Cody didn’t care about either.

He entertained the notion that helping Behemoth go loose would almost be better.  It could mean the end of the Yàngbǎn, Accord’s death.  Even Trickster’s death, if they had decided to show up.

Except there was no reasonable way he could do that.  Not for a lack of wanting to, but because he couldn’t hope to oppose the Yàngbǎn and the heroes at the same time.

Needed an opportunity.

The Yàngbǎn passed through the worst of the smoke, into the blasted, shattered ruins of the city.  In the moment they joined the fight, Cody held back.

They sensed he was gone, but they couldn’t disengage, not as Behemoth gathered up a ruined section of building and melted it down, hurled massive globs of melted plastic, metal and stone at them.

The process took a minute at the best of times, with help.  His destination couldn’t be a distant one, and he couldn’t hope to behead the Yàngbǎn on his own, not with the members they’d kept in reserve, the precious ones, with powers they couldn’t afford to lose, like Two’s.

He nearly lost his concentration as a massive crash knocked him off his feet.

The fight’s only beginning, Cody thought.

The teleportation took hold, and he found himself back at the building the Yàngbǎn had just left, three stories down.

The command center.

Accord, the lavender girl, and Chevalier were leaning over a table with computers arranged along it, papers strewn out across the surface.

It brought back memories of the moment everything had turned upside down, the computers, the interrupted tournament.  Finding themselves in another world…

If he needed a push to act, that was it.  The biggest one first.

The laser didn’t cut the armor.  It was capable of cutting granite like a hot knife through butter, but it didn’t cut the armor.  Chevalier turned, drawing his sword, a six-foot long beast of a weapon.  The armor glowed orange as the laser concentrated on his belly.

“You lunatic!” he shouted, charging.

Cody switched tactics.  A forcefield-

The sword shattered it with one swing.

He flew out of the way as another swing came within an inch of decapitating him.

A laser with one hand, a vacuum sphere with another, pulling Chevalier off balance.

Again, it didn’t work.  The man barely reacted as the vacuum sphere caught his legs.  He aimed his weapon, and a combination of danger sense and a nullification wave stopped the shot in the chamber, disabling the gun.

The x-ray vision was barely penetrating the sword or armor.  Cody had to duck, back up and rely on his enhanced reflexes to avoid Chevalier’s attacks.  He had forty-four powers and not one was letting him beat, what, a swordsman in a suit of armor?

It was the lack of the power boost.  The Yàngbǎn were only strong as a group, granting the aura to one another.  Here, now, he was feeble.  Forty powers, and not one of them sufficient.

Always second best.  Always alone, Cody thought.  No.

Keeping the laser trained on Chevalier, he used his own power.  Perdition’s power.  The thirty-sixth path.

Chevalier was moved back to where he was seconds ago.  Cody backed out of the way, kept the laser trained on the hero, and the instant his opponent got too close, he used his power again.  It barely set Chevalier back two seconds, but it was enough.

Slow, steady, inevitable progress.  Time was one of the fundamental forces of the universe, undeniable.

Accord and the girl in lavender made a sudden attempt to run to the door.  Cody created a forcefield to bar their way.

They reached for phones.  He used a vacuum sphere to pull them away.

It took nearly a minute to cut through Chevalier’s armor, using the time reversals to effectively put the man on hold while he put some distance between them, and the laser to cut.  The man folded over the second the laser pierced flesh, cutting straight from the front of his stomach to his back.

Obstacle gone.

“Reckless,” Accord said, sounding more sad than afraid.  “Lunacy.”

“I don’t care what you think.”

“I’d hoped your placement with the Yàngbǎn would temper you.”

Cody lashed out with the laser.  Accord’s right arm was lopped off.

Another cut, for the right leg.  Accord screamed as he fell.

The girl in lavender hadn’t reacted, only stared down at the two dying men.  She clicked her tongue, “Tsk.”

“He’s asymmetrical in death,” Cody mused.  “There’s a justice in that, isn’t there?”

“If there’s irony here, it’s the fact that his desire for order led to this,” the girl commented.  “We just lost our strategist and our field commander, so there’s going to be more chaos than ever.”

The windows briefly rattled with the shockwave of one of Behemoth’s attacks, halfway across the city.

“Tsk.”  the girl said, again.

The anger still burned inside him, not sated in the slightest.  Did I end it too quickly?  Maybe I should have drawn it out more.

He glanced at her.  She was staring at him.  “Can you use that computer to find someone?  If they’re here, or somewhere else?”

“I can,” she said.

“Trickster.”

She raised an eyebrow.  “Oh, I can tell you that without looking.  He bit it.  Some freaky monster calling herself Noelle freaked out, made clones of him.  They ate him alive.  Literally.”

He blinked.  “When?”

“A month ago, Brockton Bay.”

The details fit.  Cody nodded slowly.  He wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

“Sorry, if he was your friend.”

“He wasn’t,” Cody snapped.  He felt off balance.  This was so unexpected.  How was he even supposed to react to that?  How long had it been since he’d really made a call on his own?

Slowly, he spoke, as if sounding out the ideas as they came to him, “No.  I suppose that’s good.  Thank you.  I’d tell you I’ll make it quick, but… you worked for him.  You probably deserve it.”

“Nuh uh,” she said.  She’d backed away, gripped the edge of a table.  Her entire body was rigid.  “I’ll give you my phone, you can call any one of my buddies, tell them it’s Tattletale.  They’ll tell you we were constantly fighting. Only reason we haven’t offed each other is that it’d be mutually assured destruction.”

“Trickery.  No, knowing him, knowing the kind of people he associates with,” like Trickster“there’s probably contingency plans.  I won’t fall for that.”

“Spare me, maybe I can salvage this mess.  I mean, you’ve still got to live on this planet, right?  We can’t let Behemoth win.  Not today.”

“I’m dead anyways.”

“Because of the Yàngbǎn.  I could help.  I’ll figure out a way for you to escape.  Hopeless as this feels, there’s a way out.”

“No,” Cody shook his head.  He felt so lost, so tired, so unsatisfied.  There was one major enemy left to eliminate, one more group who’d wronged him.  The Yàngbǎn.  He already knew he wouldn’t get any more satisfaction from it.  He knew he’d likely die in the attempt.  “No, no point.”

“Fuck,” she said.  “There’s definitely a point.  Just… give me a second, I’ll think of it.  Shit.  Sucks I don’t know much about you.  Don’t suppose you’d give me a hint?”

He raised a hand, pointing at her.  “No.”

“Think about her,” the girl who’d called herself Tattletale blurted out the words.  “What would she think?”

He hesitated.

Her?  The first person that popped into mind was Thirty-two.  The Yàngbǎn member who’d tried to teach him Chinese.  They’d been close, had been friends, before the group segregated them, because they were more malleable as individuals than as a group.  Members of the same team, but never given a chance to talk with one another.  Always in arm’s reach, never together.

The second person he thought of was Noelle.  His first love, the betrayer, the monster.

He shook his head, which only intensified the ringing in his ears.  When had that started?  With the shockwaves?  During the fight with Chevalier?

Or before all that?  Before the Yàngbǎn.  Had it ever stopped?

He thought of the Simurgh, thought of all of this in the context of him being just one of her pawns.

His head hung.

Always a pawn.  Always the expendable one.  Kicked off the team, traded away to Accord for the team’s safety.

“There’s…” he started to speak, then trailed off.  She didn’t interrupt him.  “Who?  Which her are you talking about?  Which her?  Be clear.”

He approached Tattletale, gripping her throat, feeling the added strength of the newest additions to the Yàngbǎn.

Tattletale’s voice was strained, “Honestly?  I figured I’d toss it out there.  There’s bound to be someone important, and saying her gives me a fifty-fifty chance.”

“I hate smartasses,” he said, and he squeezed, feeling her windpipe collapse in his grip.

She fell to the ground, and he watched as she struggled for air that didn’t come.

The faint screaming rang through his head as he watched her struggle to climb a chair, taking ten, fifteen seconds to just get her upper body onto the seat.

She found a plastic pen, collapsed to the ground with it in her hand.  When she flopped over onto her back, it was broken.  She’d caught it between her body and the ground.

This’ll have to do as a surrogate for Trickster, Cody mused, watching.  Had Noelle felt anything like this when she’d killed and devoured innocent people?  A kind of despair, mingled with helplessness?

Anger was all he had left, the drive for revenge the sole thing keeping him moving.  Feeble and misdirected as this was, it wasn’t it.

Tattletale drew a knife from her belt, used the edge to remove the nib and the ink reservoir from the plastic case of the pen.

When that was done, she stabbed herself in the base of the throat.

She’s giving herself a tracheotomy, Cody thought, watching in fascination, even as he reached out and took hold of the plastic pen case.

He watched her expression as he crushed the plastic in one hand.

And he felt nothing.  Even the paradoxical grin that appeared on her face, in contrast to the frustrated slam of one hand against the floor, it reminded him of Trickster in an odd way.  Yet it added nothing to this.

Think about her.  What would she think?  Tattletale’s words struck him.

He thought of Thirty-two, and without even deciding to, he used his own power on the pen case, returning it to the state it had been in seconds ago.

He handed it back to Tattletale, then stood, his back to her, as he concentrated.

As goals went, it wasn’t much of one.  He’d barely talked to her.  As far as kindnesses went, hers had been minor at best.  But he’d save Thirty-two.

It took two minutes to carry out the teleport.  He didn’t have much time before the Yàngbǎn found a free moment to contact Null and rescind his powers.  Maybe they were calling already.  Maybe the electromagnetic radiation in the area would block the call.

He’d find a way, regardless.

He felt his power take hold and teleported.  Back to the battlefield, back to Thirty-two.

Chest heaving as she greedily sucked in air through the plastic tube she’d jammed into the hole in her throat, Tattletale feebly crawled over to Chevalier.  Her strength was depleted before she got halfway.

She stared across the room at Accord and Chevalier’s bodies, straining to see if either were breathing.

She managed the only utterance she could, without the ability to bring air from her lungs to her mouth:  A click of her tongue.  “Tsk.”

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Drone 23.5

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The waiting was the worst part.

My restlessness was cranked up to eleven, cooped up in the craft with Defiant and Dragon, waiting to cross half the world.  Dragon was focused on piloting the craft, unable to speak, in any event.  Defiant was busy communicating, which translated to being inaudible as he kept the vents of his mask closed.  From the images on the monitor, he was clearly tracking who was coming, our forces, the Endbringer and the high-risk areas.

I watched for a time, saw the cape count rise.  A screen filled with lines of text, noting the hero teams who had committed to the fight, numbers beside them to tally the total numbers.

For every group that joined, I felt myself growing a touch more nervous.  More participants in the fight was a good thing, but… so many small teams.  I couldn’t read half of the names of the groups on the list, but there was nothing to suggest it was organized.

I shifted my weight, sat, stood, stretched.

Agony.

Being in a prison, I didn’t have the luxury of a full wardrobe, certainly not the bike shorts and tank top I tended to wear beneath my costume.  I had only underwear, and I needed to change into the new costume.  I could have waited, but I wanted to hit the ground running.

Worse, the boxes with my butterflies within were in one of the crafts that followed just behind us, carrying a full contingent of capes.

But Defiant was engrossed in the monitors, and that left me debating the merits of modesty over being ready.

I stripped down, pulling on my old costume.  They’d said something about painting it, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to wait for that.  I left the major armor components off.

The pack they’d given me, it was the wrong color to match with the armor.  I’d be sacrificing the ability to keep things inside my utility compartment, but I suspected this would make up for that.   There were built-in wings that folded at a juncture, like dragonfly wings with joints, and there were the ‘arms’.  The controls seemed to be worked into gloves I was supposed to wear beneath my costume.

I found that there was a hatch, but it was small, barely larger than my hand, and the space was shallow.  I sent bugs inside to explore, and found a series of fine switches.

“Redundant controls,” Defiant said.

I looked up.  He’d turned away from the monitors.

“If your glove gets damaged, you’ve got the controls built into the pack itself.  If the pack gets damaged, you have the gloves.  If both are damaged, you’re not likely to be in a state to fly.  It might take getting used to, but this will give you the ability to move faster if you need it, and it’s very possible you’ll need it this afternoon.”

“You built it so fast.  I wasn’t with Mrs. Yamada for even two hours, and you put this together?”

“It’s made using components and technology we already have.  Four antigravity panels, like those Kid Win had in his hoverboard,” Defiant said, angling his hand to indicate the general placement.  One at the very bottom, one above that, facing more back than down, and two more at angles on either side.

“Okay,” I said.

“That gives you lift, the ability to offset gravity or momentum in a given direction, but the acceleration is low.  Expect zero to thirty miles an hour over eight seconds.  It won’t carry you out of the way of trouble, understand?  It won’t stop you if you’re moving at terminal velocity, unless you’re falling a long way.”

I nodded.

“The wings are a modification of technology that was confiscated from a cape called Stinger.  Missile themed, not wasps and bees.  They’ve got a venting-exhaust system we repurposed.  It toggles between using either antigravity or propulsion.  They should give you an easier time orienting yourself, or more speed pushing yourself in a particular direction, but not both at the same time.   While the wings are intact, you should be able to manage zero to forty-five in about three and a half seconds.  That ends if the wings break, and they aren’t made to be durable.”

I nodded.  “It won’t let me flit around the battlefield, but it’ll give me some vertical movement?”

“Yes.”

He continued, indicating lines with his finger.  “We built nineteen tracks into the device, that you’ll be able to control with the bugs you direct into the interior.  One for the on-off switch, doubling as an override for the glove handling, four for antigravity panels, eight for the arms, six for the wings.  You’re sure you can handle all that?”

“Multitasking is a strength of mine,” I said.  “If it’s anything like controlling Atlas, it’ll become almost subconscious.”

“I hope so.  You’ll want to learn with both the glove and the insect control.  There’s also limitations on energy and fuel, for the antigravity and propulsion, but not so limited that you’ll run out by the end of the day.  You have time to review the documentation Dragon put together.  Pay attention to the particulars of the flight pack’s vulnerability to electromagnetic radiation.  While the wings are deployed, one good hit will scramble it and render you flightless.  While the wings are withdrawn and the casing closed, it should be shielded against all reasonable EM sources.”

“I’ll have to stay close to the ground then, in case it gets scrambled.”

“For now.”

“Can I practice?” I asked.  “Not flying, but the arms, and moving the individual components…”

“The arms aren’t done.  Keep them out of the way for now.  Until I figure out a way to approach the internal design, they’ll have about as much strength as a newborn baby.”

I nodded.  “I really appreciate this, anyways.  You two went above and beyond the call of duty.”

“It’s not customary for tinkers to design things for teammates.  If they do, it’s on a relatively small scale, simple.  Kid Win making Gallant’s armor, for example.  Any device requires a great deal of upkeep.  Time is spent tuning, calibrating, repairing and identifying problems.  Each device created is something the tinker then has to take time to maintain, and mass production means the tinker becomes tech support more than an innovator.  Dragon and I don’t sleep, or sleep very little, but even for us, it isn’t effective.  Far better to invest our time into the artificial intelligences and the ships.”

“But you’re doing this for me.”

“We, I in particular, wronged you,” Defiant said.  “I know that even now, we’re not fully on the same page, but I now believe you did start out wanting to be a hero, and I may have played a part in your drift from that path.  I’ve put myself on the line to recommend you to the Wards, and I’ll dedicate the time and equipment necessary to get you on track.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Really.  Thank you.”

“If you don’t mind,” he said.  “I-”

He paused, glancing at Dragon.  Then he continued, “I’m working on being more humble, but I think I will always have a certain measure of pride and an excess of focus, to the point that I lose sight of the periphery of things.  I’ll forgive your past transgressions if you look past mine, and if there’s any disparity in the two, I’ll make it up for you with this.”  He lowered his head to indicate the flight pack.  “And I’d ask you to spare my ego the reminder by accepting this without thanks.”

“I’ve worked with Rachel, with Bitch, I think I can do that much,” I said.

“When this is over, today, if we’re all still alive, I will maintain two of these packs for you, and you can switch to the spare if one needs repairing or recharging.  Some of it’s of Dragon’s design, but the maintenance will be left to me.  If you have questions, I’ll answer them,” he said.

And the latter half of the statement was left unsaid.  But let’s not talk of this any further, unless it’s about the technical aspects of the device.

He had already turned back to the monitor.  There were three screens filled with columns noting the various teams who were showing up.

“How long until we arrive?”  I ventured.

“Forty-five minutes.”

I nodded.  “We’re going to show up late, aren’t we?”

“Inevitable.  Dragon already has had every combat-ready craft on standby in eastern Europe for a week now.  They and the local forces will have to hold the fort until then.”

“Okay.”

“The computer opposite mine is available.  Dragon is pulling up the documentation on the flight device now, if you need something to occupy yourself.”

I glanced behind Defiant, noting the terminal and the stool that was built into the craft’s cabin.  I took a seat, resting the pack on my right thigh.

Okay, so they’d found the time to pull together a flight pack with some antigravity and propulsion systems, I could believe that.  But the documentation?  Who had time to draw out 21 pages of notes on capabilities and limitations, on top of building the thing?

Especially when it was all drawings, rather than typed out words.

I wasn’t about to complain, but it did leave me reconsidering what Dragon’s specialty might be.  I’d thought I worked it out, but the speed with which she’d pulled this together…

My bugs found the channels inside the suit, and I set about experimenting with it, working through the various steps for moving the wings and the individual limbs.  Each ‘track’ inside the pack’s interior was a narrow corridor with very sensitive switches along the interior, so that any movement of even something as diminutive as a ladybug was capable of pushing them.

The sensitivity would need to be calibrated at a later point.  As it stood, any jarring impact would briefly lock all of the inputs in place, so they wouldn’t read the impact as contact from a bug and send the wrong signal.

I had to shrug out of the upper half of my costume to get the gloves on beneath my costume, but I managed to get everything set up.  There were too many straps and no room for them to slot beneath my costume, so I connected them over the costume’s exterior, beneath the armor, and cinched every strap tight, doing up the metal clasps once everything was comfortably tight.

There were four ‘arms’, each a little longer than my arms.  The control was a little simplistic, with only two switches for each limb.  I imagined it was similar to an artificial limb.  I folded them close to my body, so they hugged my lower ribs and the space just beneath my ‘breasts’, and then left them be.

The wings were just as simplistic, but had three switches each.  Two to move and reorient the wings, with a third to switch between the antigrav vent and varying amounts of propulsion.  I didn’t dare experiment with that in an enclosed space.

I read and reread the documentation ten times over, because there was precious little else to do.

“We’re landing in a minute,” Defiant announced.  “Estimated eight minute wait before the last craft from North America arrive on site and a cape by the name of Silk Road deploys a corridor.”

I nodded.

“We picked up your old team,” he said.  “Sent a craft.”

I turned around, surprised.

“Stipulations of your membership in the Wards dictate that you aren’t to extend contact to them.”

Oh.  Right.  Shitty.

“Keeping in mind that there are likely going to be cameras and cell phones pointed at you throughout this incident,” Defiant said, glancing at Dragon, “You’re free to do as you wish.  So long as you don’t do anything troublesome on camera, I don’t expect anyone will make an issue of it.  It might even help if you allow others to record you, so it’s clear you aren’t doing anything questionable.”

I glanced at him.

“Dragon’s suggestion, not mine,” he said.  “But I don’t object.”

“Thank you,” I said, meaning it.

“Thank me by staying out of trouble,” he said, brusque.  He glanced at Dragon, then back to me.  “And you’re welcome.”

She can communicate with him, but not with anyone else.  Why?

I nodded.  “Um.  You reminded me, when you said there’d be people getting camera footage of me.  Mrs. Yamada said I should start recording myself while I’m in the field.  I know we still have to talk about my costume, and it’s too late to make any updates, but I wouldn’t mind having it, especially for the next high-intensity situation.”

“We’ll see,” he said.

I nodded.

The craft set down, the doors opening.  My mouth dropped open in surprise as I took in the scene.

The area was a flat, open field with knee-high grass.  Settled on it were twenty of Dragon’s ships, with two to sixteen capes to each.  People were stepping out, stretching, meeting others and talking.  Almost all of them were from the Protectorate and the Wards.  Others included Haven, a villain group I didn’t recognize, and one of the corporate teams I’d seen before the Leviathan fight.

And the Undersiders.  I sensed them with the bugs in the field.

I felt a measure of hesitation.

Time to test out these wings.

It wouldn’t do to faceplant in front of all of these heroes.  I was tentative, as I sent a bug down a tight corridor with innumerable tiny switches.  Only one corridor, one switch.

A panel kicked to life, gentle.  I nearly tripped as I stepped forward and was lifted an inch or two higher off the ground than normal.

I sent the bug further down the corridor, directing more power to the panel, and I was no longer having an issue, because I was being lifted into the air.

I was starting to lose my balance, though, necessitating a drop in lift and some experimental firings of the left and right panels to keep myself upright.

I touched ground and extended the wings, activating the vents for the antigrav at the wing’s tips.  It made for a sudden, lurching adjustment, nearly flipping me over to the ground.

Not wanting to waste too much time, I made a beeline for the Undersiders, experimenting as I went.  Rather than fly, I used short bursts of the antigrav with kicks of my feet to get some air, landing on the noses and limbs of various Dragon-crafts, so I didn’t have to walk around.

“There she is,” Tattletale said, “And she’s flying.”

I settled on top of a head, swaying for a second as I touched ground and found my center of balance.  “Floating, until I get more practice.”

“Close enough,” she said.  She flashed a grin.  “Fancy.”

They were all present, Parian included.  Accord, Citrine and the woman with the water powers were all present.  I couldn’t recall her name.  Ligeia?  She had a costume, now.  Or an evening dress, rather, with a conch brooch and mask.

More than Parian, I was surprised that Accord had come.

Flechette, now Foil, stood off to one side.  She’d donned a black costume, which I was pretty sure was made of one of my failed attempts at a Tattletale costume, using asymmetrical belts, boots, armor and gloves to cover the areas where I’d tried to embellish.  Her mask was an opaque pane, like Clockblocker’s, but black, with silver trim at the edges.

“You’re wearing your old costume,” Grue said, finally.

“Haven’t had a chance to make a new one,” I said.

“No kidding,” Regent said, his tone dry, “Too busy making license plates, dropping the soap…”

“I can’t believe you went and became a hero,” Imp said.  “What the fuck?  How the fuck do you off a major cape and get invited to the Wards?”

“It’s complicated,” I said.

“Are you getting by?” Grue asked.

“Not as well as I’d like,” I said.  “But surviving.  Are you guys okay, leaving your territory like this?”

“Hey now,” Regent cut in.  He stabbed a finger at me.  “Aren’t you supposed to read us our rights before questioning us?”

Imp snorted.  Grue smacked Regent across the back of the head, a little harder than necessary.

“It’s all good,” Tattletale said.  She grinned, “Booby traps, some misdirection, I figure we can afford to be gone for a day.  We can look forward to going back home to see some bruised egos.  Regent’s dad among them.”

“You’re being safe?” I asked.  “I mean, we’ve taken on some monsters, but this is Heartbreaker, and the repercussions of a lost fight are kind of, well, permanent.  There’s no undoing his power.”

“Like I said, it’s all good.”  Tattletale shrugged.

“You with a team?” Grue asked, “Or with us?”

“No idea.  As far as I know, I’m independent,” I said.  “I’m not sure what that means, yet, but way I figure it, I’m going to do whatever works best in the moment.”

“Isn’t that how you wound up with us in the first place?” Tattletale asked.

I didn’t have an answer to that, so I shrugged.  My eyes followed Foil as she walked over to talk to Jouster.  He handed her an arbalest, and a quiver of needle-like bolts.

When she took the quiver, he gripped her wrist, speaking something in a low volume.  She nodded as she replied, saying something I couldn’t make out, and he let her go.

Wordless, they parted, him rejoining his team, Foil moving to Parian’s side.

I wanted to say something about that, but what?  I didn’t get the vibe she was a double agent, but I imagined there was something more to that.

I turned my attention back to the Undersiders, and my eyes moved to Rachel.  She was sitting on the ramp at the back of a craft, her dogs clustered around her.  She was stroking Bastard, using her fingernails to get in deeper than the base layer of fur.

Finally a chance to talk, and nothing to say.  The silence hurt me more than any accusations or insults.

“I don’t know how to say this gracefully,” I said.  I paused, noting the presence of a hero nearby who’d raised a camera towards me.  Whatever, I’d say it anyways.  “But you guys mean a lot to me.  I’m sorry I didn’t say it before, but I couldn’t without letting on that something was going on.  You’re my family, in a way.  As lame as it might be, I love you guys.”

My head turned from Grue to Rachel to Tattletale as I said it.

“Gaaaaaaayyyyyyy,” Imp drew out the word.  Parian and Foil gave her an annoyed look.

I smiled a little, despite myself.  “Fuck off.”

“Are you trying to get someone killed?” Regent asked.  “That’s totally a death sentence, telling someone you love them, tying up loose ends.”

“She’d be getting herself killed, going by the rules,” Tattletale said.

“Don’t say that,” Grue said, his voice quiet.

With a touch more seriousness, Tattletale said, “No dying, okay, Skitter?”

“Weaver,” I corrected.

“Skitter,” she said.  “Here, today, you’re Skitter.  Consider it a good luck charm.  And no dying.  I’ll say it as many times as it takes, until it gets through to you.”

I shook my head a little.  “No dying.  That goes both ways.”

“Way I see it,” Imp said, “She’s gone soft.  Real quick, too, getting affectionate, lovey-dovey.”

“Alternate costume, too,” Regent said, “White, light gray, baby blue…”

“Electric blue,” I said.  I was smiling now.  I used the flight-pack to slow my descent as I hopped down from the head of the craft.  I pitched my voice lower so I wouldn’t be overheard, and poked Regent in the chest.  “Fuck you guys.  I’m as badass as ever.  Recommending drugs to kids, strangling a ten year old, forcing bugs down my allies’ throats…”

“Killing Alexandria,” Regent said.

“Mm,” I said, and I could feel my heart plummet into my stomach.  All at once, I was left wondering just how many capes here were secretly blaming me.

“Asshole,” Tattletale told Regent.

I folded my arms, feeling a chill, the summer warmth notwithstanding.  “We may pay for that today.”

“I think we’re fucked in general,” Tattletale said.  “But no sweat.  We’ll-”

She snapped her head around.  There was an uncharacteristic emotion as she swore under her breath.  “Fuck.  He’s up.”

A second later, the ships each spoke in their identical voices, out of sync not because of any flaw in Dragon’s program, but due to their positions across the field, and the delay of sound traveling, a chorus, “Behemoth has surfaced.  Return to your craft as soon as possible.  Supplies will be provided while we are en route.  Individuals on the ground may or may not be left behind.

“See you on the battlefield,” Grue said.

“See you,” I answered.  I felt a tug of worry.  I had almost hoped he’d sit this one out.  He didn’t tend to do well when it came to facing down the real monsters.

I bit my tongue and started up the flight pack.

“Don’t hold back now,” Regent said.  I could see that he was watching the guy who was still training his camera phone on me.  Regent turned back to me and extended his arms, injecting fake emotion into his voice, “You know we love you too!”

I kicked off, just barely floating out of reach as he tried to fold me into a hug.  “Jackass.”

He was back to his casual, detached attitude in an instant, showing just a touch of swagger as he stepped back to rejoin the others.  He gave me a sloppy mock salute.  I shifted my ascent and set foot on the head of the craft that had been behind me.

“Just remember,” Tattletale called out, “You’re officially Skitter today.  Don’t be a hero.  No point to all this shit if you do something brave and get yourself killed.”

“Not sure about that,” I said.  “About being Skitter, not the getting killed bit.”

Heroes were rapidly retreating to the craft.  I didn’t have long.  There was so much I wanted to say, but… shit.

“Rachel,” I said.

She glanced up at me, her eyes almost hidden behind her hair.  I could see the hurt in her expression, a raw feeling.

“The letter, it helped.  All of the letters meant a lot to me, except Imp’s.  But yours especially.”

She grunted in acknowledgement, setting Bastard on the ground, then stood.

“And I’m probably going to get crucified for saying this, but I still consider you a friend.  Someday, after all of this has settled down, when you don’t need to be a villain anymore to take care of your dogs, and I’m okay where I’m at, I want to hang out again.  Throw the balls for the dogs, clean up dog shit, go for walks.  Whatever works.”

“Saying shit like that, you’re signing death warrants!” Regent said, his hands to the side of his head.  “Stop it, you lunatic!”

I shook my head, then turned and took flight.

All around me, doors were shutting.  If it weren’t for my bug sense, I might have lost track of where Defiant was.  So many Dragon-ships, no two quite the same.

I entered, and I could see Defiant standing in front of the monitors, his arms around Dragon’s shoulders.  One of them must have acknowledged my presence, because the doors of the craft began shutting behind me as I made my way inside.

Odd as it was, I hadn’t fully parsed that they were together before now.

I approached, quiet, and watched as the drama on the monitors unfolded.  The bugs from the field followed me inside, clustering around me.

Behemoth, nearly fifty feet tall, was still standing in the midst of a collapsed building.  The structure had no doubt fallen on top of him as he emerged, and the debris was ablaze, casting his gray skin in hues of red and orange.  He didn’t seem to care about the building.

Dragon’s A.I. were already attacking him, each from the greatest distance possible.  The camera shook, out of sync with the timing of the strikes, as the vibrations took time to travel to the distant cameraman.

Heroes were fighting, contributing pitifully little to the assault.  They were too distant to make out.

“Locals?” I asked.

Defiant turned, reacting as if he were surprised I was present.  “Yes.  Don’t ask me to pronounce their names.”

Sāhasī Pān̄ca,” Dragon said.

I glanced at her in surprise.  “You can talk, all of a sudden?”

There was a pause.  “…Little.”

“She felt she needed to be able to communicate,” Defiant said.  To her, he said, “And this is the last time we make a last-minute fix.”

“I’m sort of in the dark here,” I said.

Defiant declined to fill me in, staring at the screen.  His voice was almost pained as he muttered, “They’re too close.”

One Dragon suit was unleashing what looked like a freeze ray at the Endbringer, while another of the Dragon suits was turning a laser on the ground beneath Behemoth’s broad feet.  It wasn’t enough to take away his footing.  He set one ‘claw’ -a growth of obsidian-like black shards- onto solid earth, then half-loped, half-hopped forward.  With his claws and feet now on firm ground, he leaped.  The shockwave of his departure toppled the slipshod buildings around him in his wake.

The landing as he arrived flattened another set of buildings.  The heroes started to run.  They were too slow, when compared to the length of Behemoth’s legs, the sheer power he was capable of putting into the simple act of walking.  One by one, they fell within his kill range.  Two were scorched from the inside, a brawny-looking cape seized up with smoke billowing from his corpse as he struck ground, his arms and limbs still twitching in death.

One managed to escape, taking flight.  He got a full four city blocks away before Behemoth reached out.  He was struck out of the air by a visible arc of lightning that extended from a claw’s tip.

Four A.I. were continually bombarding him now, three using what looked to be freeze-rays.  The fourth alternated between destroying his footing and blasting burning buildings flat with some sort of concussive laser-drill, stifling the spread of the fires.  Heroes here and there contributed some inaccurate ranged fire, but seemed preoccupied with fleeing.

Behemoth hardly seemed to care about any of it.

Our ship lifted off.  Outside, the surroundings were taking on a rosy tint.  I could hear the cumulative thrum of the twenty-seven Dragon-craft’s propulsion systems operating in unison.  My bugs could track them all, the late arrivals included.

There was a shudder, and the rosy tint of our surroundings intensified, filling the cabin.  We started to move, and it wasn’t the ship moving us.  Dragon stepped out of Defiant’s embrace to approach the ship controls.

An instant later, the propulsion system kicked into motion, and we were moving far faster than before.  The shuddering of the cabin was so intense I had to sit down.

“India’s capes fall into two categories,” Defiant said, not taking his eyes off the screen.  He had to raise his voice to be heard over the movement of the craft.  “They term their capes ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, with very strict rules on who falls into a category.  Walk between the two groups, you get the worst of both.  Hot, it’s about flash, color, appeal, and engaging the public.  Villain or hero, they’re cape celebrities.  Cold, it’s… bloodshed, violence, assassination and secrecy.  Capes of the underworld.  The public doesn’t see or hear about the cold capes.  The media does not speak of them.”

On the screen, Behemoth wasn’t even slowing down.  Another arc of lightning lanced across the cityscape, setting a dozen fires.  The houses looked shoddy, dirty, and were apparently very flammable.  The flames spread quickly, and plumes of smoke were streaming towards the overcast sky.

“The capes that are getting killed, they’re-”

Garama,” Dragon said.  “…Hot.”

“We need the ones with killer instinct,” Defiant said.  “The ones who fight for real, not for play.  The cold capes.”

Thanda,” Dragon supplied the translation.

“Question is whether the Thanda think it’s worth breaking the rules and emerging from the shadows,” Defiant said.

“Did last…  time,” Dragon said, her words bearing an odd cadence.  She approached me, holding an armband and a silver packet.

I accepted them, turning both over in my hands.  “Radiation pills?”

She nodded, holding up one finger.

“Take one?”

“Yes,” she said.  “Still.”

“Still?”  I asked.

But she just touched one side of my face.  One finger was under my chin, and I raised it, looking up at her, confused.

She let me go, leaving me momentarily confused.  I touched my face where she’d laid her hand and felt two bumps.

A camera?

“Dragon,” Defiant said, before I could ask any questions.  “Look.”

She approached his side, her arms wrapping around his armored left arm, metal scraping against metal.

“They’re not supposed to be here,” he commented, his voice low.

I turned my attention to the monitor.  “Who aren’t?”

“The Yàngbǎn.”

The focus was on a formation of capes.  They were lined up like musketeers, rank and file, each a set distance apart from the others.  The ones in front were kneeling, the ones behind standing.  Each wore a mask that covered their faces, flowing costumes with loose sleeves and pants, somewhere between a martial arts uniform and a military uniform, each crimson with a black design of horizontal and vertical lines at edges of the sleeves and pants.  There were nearly thirty of them.

All together, they directed lasers at him, aiming for his one red eye.  He blocked the concentrated laser-fire with one claw, and the flesh at the base of the obsidian claw began peeling away.

“Who are they?”

“The C.U.I.’s military parahumans.”

“Isn’t the C.U.I. xenophobic?”

“Yes,” Dragon said.  Her voice sounded funny.  It wasn’t emotion, but something was somehow off about it.

“Excepting diplomatic functions, this is the first time in over a decade that any of the Yàngbǎn have set foot outside of China,” Defiant said.  “We’ve tried to arrange for their aid in the past, but relations between our side and theirs are sour.  For years, they’ve alleged that the PRT and the Protectorate are fundamentally corrupt, the source of the problems currently plaguing the world.”

“They were right,”  I said.

“Yes,” Defiant said.  He didn’t sound happy about the admission.

Behemoth slammed his claws together.  The Yàngbǎn responded by creating forcefields en-masse, one for every person, overlapping with those to either side of them.  The shockwave of the clap ripped through them, shattering the first two rows of forcefields and virtually liquefying the unfortunate capes who no longer had protection.

The Yàngbǎn in the back rows were already dropping their forcefields, extending their hands forward, open palms aimed at their comrades.

The shockwave’s effects reversed in an instant, and the injured were whole, holding the positions they’d been in an instant before.  Here and there, the reaction had been a fraction too slow, and the Yàngbǎn members were only reversed to the instant the shockwave made contact.  They were thrown back and caught by the ones in the back row, blood streaming from their eyes, noses and ears.  One was saved much too late, and the process of being liquefied was only repeated, splattering the Yàngbǎn soldier who’d failed to react in time to rescue him.

Behemoth unleashed a rolling tide of flame, and the remaining twenty-eight Yàngbǎn fled, using a combination of enhanced speed and flight.  The remains of the dead member were left behind.

“I can’t tell if this is a good thing or a bad thing,” I commented.

“With luck, they’ve changed their minds and we have much-needed allies,” Defiant said.

“And if they haven’t?”

He didn’t reply.

More of Dragon’s craft were arriving, adding their attacks to those of the others.  I could recognize the wheel-dragon, using some sort of tuned electromagnetic pull to draw away the loose rubble from beneath Behemoth.  He sank nearly ten feet as the ground shifted around him.

He struck the wheel-dragon with a bolt of lightning, flaying off a few plates of armor and destroying the wheel.  It opened its mouth and launched cannon-fire at him.  The shells exploded into blobs of containment foam, fireproof, sticky, virtually impossible to remove.

But not capable of holding back something like Behemoth.

More lightning was unleashed, each doing successively more damage to the craft.  By the fourth blast, it wasn’t operational.  The fifth split it down the middle.  Insulation was little use against a dynakinetic that could redirect the natural course of electricity.

Ten craft were around him now, concentrating fire.  Cryogenic beams, containment foam and more served to slow him down.  Not stopping him.  No, that was too much to hope for.  His pace was roughly two-thirds the speed it might otherwise be, at a glance, his attention focused on the A.I.

Behemoth brought both hands together, but it wasn’t to clap.  Instead, he directed a stream of lightning at the nearest craft, easily twenty feet across.  It was splintered in an instant.

A second craft perished a second later.

Before he could turn his attention to a third, the stream of lightning shifted, curving off to one side.  Drones, the annoying little bastard spheres that had electorcuted me on multiple occasions, the same ones that had been built into the ceilings of the cells and prison hallways in the PRT headquarters, were in flight, deployed by a drone-ship like the one I’d fought in Brockton Bay, and they were channeling the lightning along a different path.

Behemoth wasn’t one to roar, but I could see the effort at work as he began to draw the lightning away from the remote drones, forcing it to take another path, beyond the route of ionized air or the electromagnetic charge that they were using to catch it and harmlessly redirect it into an area that was already rubble.  He was taking abuse from the airborne craft, unable to move without giving ground.  More containment foam and more ice built around him, tearing and melting, respectively, in response to his lesser movements.

They moved closer together, strengthening the bond, and the lightning was caught once more.

He gave up on the lightning and blasted the drones out of the air with a wave of heated wind.  An instant later, he resumed destroying the craft.  Three in as many seconds, and then a slam of one claw against a building.  The shockwave that followed leveled a whole row of buildings.

I belatedly swallowed a radiation pill and attached the armband.

The screen displayed text:  ‘Name?’

“Weaver,” I said.

The letters appeared on the screen.  I confirmed with a press of the button.

A map of my surroundings appeared, a landscape rushing by.  In one corner, the distance to Behemoth was noted, rapidly counting down.

I could see the runway an instant before the ship touched down.  The rosy glow was still present as the ship cut back on forward thrust.  The craft touched the runway belly-down, skidding to a near-stop.

The red tint that surrounded everything disappeared, and Defiant caught my arm with one hand, holding on to a beam in the ceiling with the other.

The ship activated one thruster, and the craft swung around.  The other thruster kicked to life, and we took off, still bearing some of the forward momentum from earlier.  We were moving in a near-perpendicular direction to the one we’d been traveling earlier.  Defiant let go of my arm.

When I looked back at the screen, nearly half of the city was on fire.  Black smoke choked the skies, a stark contrast to the cloudy sky of only minutes ago.

“Were they able to evacuate most?” Defiant asked.

“No,” Dragon answered.

Our craft touched ground, and I glanced out the window to see a sliver of what the monitors showed.  A sky choked by darkness, a city aflame.

The glow of his single eye cut through the smoke, and I was reminded of Lung.  Of that first night, on the rooftop, when one of Lung’s eyes had been swollen shut, the other open.  Lung, like Behemoth, had been virtually untouchable.

This was that same scenario, that same fight.  I couldn’t hope to win.  At best, I’d manage a distraction, a momentary handicap, but he’d recuperate, and given the chance, he’d murder me with a casual ease.

This wasn’t a rooftop, but there wouldn’t be an easy means of escape.  And just as I’d acted to stop Lung from hurting what I thought were innocent kids, I was acting here to save lives.

The same thing, but on a far greater scale.  The danger, the stakes, all scaled up by a thousand times, a million times.

The back of the craft opened, and Defiant led the way as we made our exit.  Spotlights cast much-needed light on the immediate surroundings.  The ships had settled in a ring formation, some posed above the others, as if providing a protective enclosure.  Weapons were directed outside, and one craft loomed overhead.  For now, we were as safe as we could hope to be.

Chevalier, Rime and the rest of his new Protectorate were all in one group, backed by their respective teams.

A nearby crash made half of the people present, myself included, nearly jump out of their skin.  It was somehow reassuring that Chevalier managed to retain his composure.

“The ships have all arrived,” Chevalier said, “I’ve received the data on the other participating teams, those not already fighting will reinforce as they’re able.  We should expect record numbers, we shouldn’t expect it’ll help.  Any news on the locals?”

“Gathering and setting up defenses at India Gate,” Rime said.  “It seems to be his destination.”

“The gate?  There’s nothing there,” Chevalier said.  “Only population.”

“If it’s not a soft target,” Revel said, “then we can play the long game, buy time for Scion to arrive.”

“Let’s assume it’s soft.  We made that mistake once, never again,” Chevalier said.  “Okay.  Listen up!”

He raised his voice, commanding the attention of everyone present.

“We’ve already notified you if we believe you have the capacity to engage Behemoth.  Anyone else is operating as search, rescue, and support.  Maintain a distance of at least a hundred feet from Behemoth at the very minimum.  Get any closer, you probably won’t have a chance of escaping if he decides to close the gap.  Be mindful of line of sight, because he can and will tag you with a lightning bolt, and it’s not something you can dodge.  Assume every structure will fall down in a heartbeat, and know that there’s no good place to hide and wait for this to be over.  Keep moving and move smart.”

The crowd of heroes was utterly silent.  I could see the Undersiders on the opposite end of the enclosure.  The spotlights behind them rendered them little more than silhouettes with glowing edges.

“There’s no sugarcoating it,” Chevalier said.  “The fact that you’re here, today, knowing the state things are in, you’re the biggest damn heroes I’ve worked with.  I’m not going to make any big speeches.  Better we get out there and save lives.  Hit him hard if you see the chance, keep an eye out for whatever his goal might be, communicate with other groups as best as you’re able.  Stay spread out so he can’t wipe too many of us out at once.  You work best with the people you know, so form your own teams, stick with the people you’ve operated with before.  Go.”

Heroes, already gathered in their groups, mobilized.

I started to approach the Undersiders.  Defiant’s hand on my shoulder stopped me.

I could see Tattletale and Accord stepping off to one side, talking.  She gave me one glance, offered me an apologetic half-frown, and then continued walking.

“Why?” I asked.

“The Chicago Wards,” he said.

“What about them?  I can function better alongside the Undersiders.”

“Dragon thinks you can contribute just as much or more with the Wards group, and they’re the team that wants you.”

I glanced at the groups that hadn’t departed yet.  Some were getting geared up, another group had a cape touching each member in turn, turning their skin to what looked like stone.  On the far end, past those other groups, I could see Tecton, Grace, and Wanton with three others I didn’t recognize.  They were looking at me.

“It’s the smart choice,” he said, “But it’s your choice.”

And, giving evidence to the statement, he departed, entering the Pendragon and freeing me to decide without his influence.

I sighed, then activated the antigrav panels to give myself some forward thrust, speeding me up as I moved to join Tecton’s group.

“Yep,” he said, to one of the newbies.

“You’re leader, I’m recon?” I asked.  “Like it was in New York?”

“No, you’re leader as long as this fight lasts,” Tecton said.

I must have looked surprised, because he said, “You’ve been in two of these fights, right?  If we count Echidna?”

I nodded.

“I’ve only been in the one, and I was never the shot-caller.  That was a partnership between Raymancer and me, and he’s gone.”

“My condolences,” I said.

He nodded, but my focus was on the other members of the team, trying to account for the resources I had available.  Grace had changed her martial arts outfit for something with more coverage, a chainmail mesh like the PRT uniforms wore.  Wanton still wore free-flowing clothes, but he wouldn’t stay in that form.

The other three… A girl with bands of metal running down each of her arms and legs, with heavy gauntlets, boots and a breastplate, a mask etched to look like a feminine face, with white lenses over the eyes.  Her platinum blond hair had three individual braids, two draped over her shoulders, with the ends bound in more bands of the blue-black metal.

There was a guy in a cowl, with another metal mask, who reminded me a bit of Shadow Stalker, but he wore white, and carried no weapon I could see.

And the last one… heavyset, with armor that seemed too generic.

“You’re a rookie?”

“All three of those guys are rookies,” Tecton said.  “They cannibalized our non-core team members to supplement other groups, and-”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.  “I guess you three are getting thrown in the deep end.  Names?”

“Cuff,” said the girl in blue-black armor.

“Annex,” the cowled one told me.

“Golem,” the last one said, his voice muffled by his helmet.

I frowned behind my mask, perplexed.  “You named yourself after the little bastard from The Lord-”

“No,” he said.  I could hear him sigh from behind his helmet.  “I’m thinking of changing it.”

If not from the trilogy, then…  I fixed the pronunciation, compensating for how his muffled voice had modified it.  Right.  Golem, from the myth.

“I get it, nevermind.  Listen, we’re going to move out, and you’re going to explain your powers en route.  You know who I am?”

There were nods all around.

“You’re still okay with following my orders?”

Again, nods.

I saw the Undersiders moving out, along with the Ambassadors.

“We’re supplementing and supporting the Undersiders for the time being.  You okay with that?”

A touch more hesitant, they nodded.

“Then let’s go,” I said.

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Drone 23.4

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“I’m so sorry I’m late.  I never do this,” Mrs. Yamada said.  She entered the office, a raincoat, boots and a messenger bag in her arms, her hair a touch damp, clearly flustered.  “What a way to start us off.  I’m so embarrassed.”

“It’s okay,” I said.  “It’s not like I’m going anywhere.”

I knew right away that it wasn’t her office.  It just didn’t fit her, in any sense.  She was average in height for a woman, which put her a little taller than most Japanese women, her hair cut short in what I took to be a utilitarian choice, but was styled enough to show a degree of effort.  Her clothes and shoes were much the same.

The room, by contrast, clashed with her demeanor.  There was a level of care that went into it.  Like, I couldn’t help but feel that the desk in the corner and the chairs were antiques, or at least very expensive.  There were model airplanes on the shelves and pictures of airplanes on the walls, and Mrs. Yamada didn’t give me the impression of an airplane afficionado.  The sheer heft of the chair and desk seemed out of proportion with Mrs. Yamada as a person.

Was she borrowing a colleague’s office?  For the last while, I’d been ferried here and there.  Dragon and Defiant were my custodians, and between them, they were traveling all over America, making it relatively easy to schedule a pick-up and drop-off.  It was almost easier for me to go to Yamada’s office than for her to come to me, but we’d come here instead.

“It’s a matter of professional courtesy,” she said, more like she was talking to herself than to me.  She was still getting herself sorted out, her raincoat hung up, rain boots replaced with slippers she’d been holding beneath the coat.  “Being prompt, it indicates that I respect and value your time.  You can’t confide in me if I don’t respect you.”

Respect me?

I looked down at the floor for a moment.  She was looking at me when I raised my eyes to her.  “With all sincerity, it was due to forces entirely out of my control, with complications at every turn.”

“Bureaucracy,” I said.

“You’re not wrong,” she said, “But it was something else.  A patient of mine, institutionalized, she’s reacted badly to certain events in the last month.  Someone she idolized left the Wards, and-”

I could see her stop, composing herself, the stress and preoccupied attitude melting away.

“-And this isn’t about that.  This session is about you.”

“About me.  This could be a long session,” I said.

“My instinct,” Mrs. Yamada said, as she settled uncomfortably into the large, somewhat ostentatious chair, “Would be to ask about the little details you’ve seeded into the conversation already.”

“Details?”

“How you seized the idea that it’s bureaucracy that would be holding me back,” she said.  “Or your facial expression when I said I want to approach this meeting with respect.  But there’s other points I think we should cover first.  We’ll get back to that, if you’re interested.”

I shrugged.

“FIrst off, let’s start off with the basics.  How are you?”

Pretty basic.  “Fine.”

“You’re in prison, and will be for at least two years, maybe longer.  By all reports, you’re chafing under the new restrictions you face as a member of the Wards.  That’s without touching on the fact that, two weeks ago, you murdered Alexandria and Director James Tagg out of fear for your safety and the safety of your friends and teammates.  In this room, or wherever we go to talk, it’s okay to answer ‘how are you’ with an admission that you’re not okay.”

“I’m- I feel better, after talking to Glenn and Chevalier.”

“How did you feel before?”

“Restless.  I still am, really.  Very restless.  If one feeling is taking hold of me, it’s that.”

“How so?”

“Before I was in jail, I ran every other morning.  I can’t run now, but my body still wants me to, at the usual time and the usual pace.”

She nodded, making a note.  “When did you start?”

“About a month after I got my powers.  February.”

She nodded.

I went on, “And there’s the other stuff.  You might not believe me, but I was helping people.  Hurting people from time to time, but mostly helping.  I was getting food out to people who were hungry, checking everyone had what they needed, laying long-term plans for the future, so that people who’ve never had a chance in their lives would finally get one.  I’m helping people less now that I’m going out with the Wards.”

“Do you think that maybe you’re hurting people less?”

“But the sum total is worse.  It’s like, if you go back to the very fundamentals of right and wrong, you have to ask, ‘if most people acted the same way I’m acting right now, would society be better off?'”

“Okay,” she said.  “And you think society would be better off if everyone acted like you?”

“Sort of,” I said.  “Yes, I hurt people, but I hurt people who deserved it.  When I had the resources to do it, I helped a lot of people.”

“In this hypothetical reality where most people think like you, correct me if I’m wrong, transgressions would be punished?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Guess so.”

“Would it be fair to say they’re punished harshly?”

She was thinking of Alexandria and Tagg, no doubt.  Maybe Valefor.  “Yeah.”

“Kind of medieval, isn’t it?”

It reminded me of my dad, that idea.  “Guess it is.  But capes are naturally violent.”

“And what about the Wards?  I wasn’t there at the time, but one of my colleagues started seeing the Brockton Bay Wards a short time after Leviathan attacked the city.  Did they commit a transgression that warranted the pain they suffered at your hands?  The ones that aren’t Shadow Stalker?”

I didn’t have a ready answer to that.  She waited in silence for long seconds before I shrugged.  “There was stuff, the fact that they tolerated people like Shadow Stalker, but I’m not sure I could explain it now.  Feels like a long time ago.”

“A lot’s happened all at once.  It might contribute to the restlessness you feel now that things are quieter.  You said you felt better after you talked to Glenn and Chevalier.  Why?”

“I got a chance to talk stuff through.  More of a sense of why they were putting obstacles in my way.  And on my way over here, I gave Dragon some notes on an updated costume and gear.  She’ll probably email it out, they’ll discuss the options and tear the proposal to shreds.  If they accept any of it, though, I’ll bring me a step closer to being me, to being more comfortable with what I’m doing.”

“That’s a good lead-in to the next big question I had in mind.  Who are ‘you’?  I make a point of asking all of my clients this, but what should I call you?  Weaver?  Taylor?  Skitter?”

“All of the above?  Maybe call me Weaver.  I’m still trying to get used to the name.”

“Okay, Weaver, and my next easy question is whether I can get you anything?  Water?  I remember you had a coffee cup in front of you in the interrogation room in Brockton Bay.”

“It was tea,” I said, “And not right now, thanks.”

“Okay,” she said, making another note.

“Writing down some profound insights?” I asked, gesturing towards the pad of paper she had in her lap.

“Details about you, your tastes and priorities.  Maybe I’ll have tea ready the next time we meet.  Black, green, herbal?”

“Black.”

“Okay,” she said.  Another brief note.  “This is the first date, Weaver, if you’ll excuse the metaphor.  This is when I get a sense of who you are as a person, the fundamentals of who you are.  I then use that to help you and inform you.  You aren’t obligated to take my feedback without question, or to take my advice as orders, but if we wind up being a good team, then hopefully you’ll want to, because you find it genuinely helpful.”

I nodded.

“I know only a little about you from context, but I don’t want to be one of the people who jumps to conclusions about you, so I’m second guessing every detail that you don’t personally share with me.  I drew up a timeline, which was why I asked when you started running, trying to get a sense of what was happening for you and when.”

“Any insights?”

“Some, but we can talk about that another time.  Later today, maybe.  My point is, I’m trying to figure you out.  So please forgive me if any of my questions seem too simple, or if I’m asking about things I should already know.  The next set of questions are a little more serious.  Do you want therapy?

“It’s kind of obligatory,” I said.

“I’d change my approach depending on whether you hated this but were playing along, if you really did want help figuring things out, or if you wanted therapy but didn’t want it with me.

She let that last bit hang in the air.

When I didn’t respond, Mrs. Yamada said, “I would understand if you felt like you had to be on guard against me.  When you were dealing with the Protectorate and PRT in Brockton Bay, it might have looked like I was one of the enemies.”

“You were pretty decent to me, all things considered.”

“Good,” she said.  She smiled a little.  “Thank you.  Let me pose the question another way.  You’ve said you’re able to tolerate my presence?”

I nodded.

“Okay.  Given that you’ve accepted me, I’m wondering what you think my goal is.”

“You’re going to report back to the guys in charge of the PRT and the Protectorate and tell them whether or not I’m of sound mind, whether I can join the Wards team without snapping and murdering someone.”

“That’s not it,” she said.  “In fact, I may well do the opposite, depending on how this meeting goes, and avoid commenting altogether.  My only goal is to help you.”

“Help me?”  I asked.

“There’s two very different paths we could take.  The first is simple.  I’d act as your therapist.  I would be an objective ear, and I could equip you with tools to handle things like stress, anger, or anything else that concerned you.  Anything you said would be entirely confidential, and I would decline to comment when the time came for your placement in the Wards, so as to preserve that confidentiality.”

“Isn’t that damning?” I asked.  “If you don’t have anything good to say, they’ll naturally assume you know bad things.”

“I don’t think so,” she said.  “I’ve had upstanding heroes choose to exercise their right to confidentiality.  If we started off by establishing this as therapy right off the bat, there would be enough forewarning that it wouldn’t reflect badly on you.”

“Okay,” I said.

“The second route would involve me not being your therapist, but your advocate.  We’d set you up with someone else as a therapist, and I’d focus on serving as a middleman, in working with the PRT, Protectorate, the Wards and the warden at Gardener.  I could, for example, talk to the warden about you getting a chance to run in the mornings, testifying that it’d be a good, healthy release.  When the time came for you to be placed with the Wards, I’d testify with all of the good and the bad, from what we’ve talked about here.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” I said.

“There’s a middle ground between the two options,” she said, “I could certainly be an advocate for you if you were coming to me for therapy, or offer you a listening ear if you were coming to me for advocacy.”

“With the knowledge that anything I said could be used against me, in that case.”

She nodded.  “So long as you know.”

“I could really use an advocate,” I sighed.

I thought of how she’d composed herself, pulling herself together.  It struck a chord.

“But I think I’d rather have you for a therapist.”

“Thank you,” she said.  “And I respect that you’re willing to ask for help.  That takes a kind of strength.”

I shrugged.

“Is there any particular place you’d like to start?”  she asked.  “We already touched on bureaucracy, you seemed a touch bewildered that I would respect you.”

She paused, as if waiting for me to chime in.

“There’s other things, but it’s hard to articulate them.”

“Give it a try.  It’s sometimes easiest if you start with the underlying emotion.  I feel, followed by the emotion, then talk about why.”

I nodded.  “I feel… anxious, because I’m worried I’m not a very good hero.”

“Assuming it isn’t inexperience, is that so terrible?  Being less than stellar?”

“Doesn’t it say something ugly about me, if I make a pretty excellent villain and a crappy hero?”

“Maybe it says something about your power, or it’s simply past experience.  I stress, you are new at this.”

“When I was new at being a villain I took on established heroes and robbed a bank, walking away with a small fortune.”

“You had a team with you.”

“I felt a hell of a lot more effective, when I count everything that’s happened without teammates at my back.  I dunno.”

“So you’re restless and anxious-”

“And genuinely afraid,” I said.  I sighed.  “I feel… afraid, because I’m starting to think that maybe my power isn’t entirely under my control.  There’s a monster taking up real estate in my brain, deciding to use my power when I don’t want to, and I’m pretty sure it’s been getting more effective over time.”

“Is this monster metaphorical?”

“That’s a very good question,” I said.  I leaned on my knees and stared at my hands.  “Is it just me?  Or is it my ‘passenger’, some inscrutable life form from a parallel universe that decided to give me powers, currently helping me manage those powers so my brain doesn’t overheat?  Or is there even a distinction?  Did my trigger event fuse us to the point that the line is blurred beyond recognition?”

“I can see where the idea would be frightening,” she said.  “I’ve heard of some of these things, though the particulars and names differed.  We don’t know enough about them, about powers, even, and the unknown is daunting, especially when it affects you as deeply as your power seems to affect you.  This lack of control, it-”

“If I tell you I’m dangerous, that I’m going to hurt someone, intentionally or by accident, are you obligated to report it?”

“Yes, if the risk is grave.  Forgive me for asking, but are you going to hurt someone?  Accidentally or otherwise?”

I shook my head.  “No.  But it makes me wonder if something like that is a possibility.”

“I’ve worked with a lot of young parahumans who had uncontrollable powers.  There are options.”

“Like?”

“It depends on the form this lack of control takes.  Is it perpetual?  Does it hinge on you losing focus?  On your being tired?  Illness?  Anger?”

“I’m not entirely sure.  Sometimes when I’ve been knocked out, I’ve found that my power keeps going without my instruction.  It’s not brilliant, it makes mistakes, and the logic isn’t always there, but I’ve had my power keep working when I was unconscious, after a concussion, and when a cape used their power to wipe away my volition.  When I was tranquilized, after setting my bugs on Director Tagg, they apparently kept going after him.”

“Let’s start with the fundamentals, then.  I almost always recommend relaxation exercises and meditation to my patients with control issues.  There’s almost always a degree of improvement.  The next trick is to find a way to track this.”

“I’m getting a new costume.  Maybe a camera?  The most recent time I noticed it was when I was with Glenn Chambers, he showed me a video, and I saw myself using tricks I’d never taught myself.”

“Perhaps a camera, then.  Is it reassuring, to know that there are answers?”

“I’ll be reassured when I see improvement,” I said.  “No offense.”

“None taken.  But you raised two problems.  Your lack of confidence about being a hero.  That’s more immediate, if less ominous?”

“It’s pretty ominous, honestly,” I said.  “I staked a lot on this.”

“You have options in mind, am I right?  You said that you were suggesting a new costume and new equipment.”

“But that doesn’t fix things if I’m a round peg in a square hole.  I’ve thought about compromises, stuff beyond the gear and costumes, but I feel like I’m almost betraying myself.  The me that spent three months after getting powers, with the idea that I’d be a hero.  I had all of this idealism, all of these ideas of how I’d help, big and small, and I wind up doing more good as a notorious villain than as a hero.”

Jessica Yamada made a note on her pad of paper, then set it on the small table to her right.  She glanced at the window, then at me, “Are you still restless?”

All the time,” I said.

“Want to go for a walk?”

“Hell yeah.  Am I allowed?”

“I’ll need to make a few phone calls.”

Middle schoolers swarmed around a very unhappy looking team of Wards, pushing, jostling, calling out, reaching to touch armor and costumes.  The overcast sky was only just clearing up, causing the colors in the park to be all the more vivid.

Why?” I asked.

“Why are we here, or why is this happening?” Mrs. Yamada asked me.

“Yes.”

“This is happening because of you, in a roundabout way,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “When your secret identity was revealed, it didn’t take the media very long to discover that you’d been bullied in high school.”

“Oh hell no,” I muttered.

“People asked why more hadn’t been done to reach out to you and individuals like you.  This was the response.”

“I’m not sure this is a good thing,” I said.  “These assemblies and events were always atrocious, with really bad speeches.”

“I saw enough of them when I was in high school, I know.  But superheroes have the ‘wow’ factor, at least.”

I looked at the very uncomfortable Boston Wards.  They had enthralled the kids, but they couldn’t do anything with them, with the crush of bodies.  The teachers seemed to be enjoying the break, sitting on the far end of the field, in the shade.

“Want to wow them, too?”

I glanced at her.

“Not a fight, but a chance to be heroic.  The PR that’s been forced on your head won’t be a handicap here,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “And maybe it will help you feel a little more human, at a time when you’re worried about the monster inside you.”

“A little heavy-handed,” I commented.

“A lot heavy-handed,” she said, smiling.  “But it’s a chance to be outside, instead of cooped up in yet another room, without worrying your life’s at risk.”

“I’ll take it,” I said.  “Thanks.”

I ventured into the fray.

A hundred kids, all probably from one school.  I almost would have rather been up against Bambina.

I called on every butterfly in the area, across the whole park.  It took nearly a minute before they were gathered.  I sent them into the crowd, flying over and around the mass of kids.  Some of them screamed, others ducked, covering their heads.

Not quite the delight I’d hoped for.

Was this another point where I was underestimating what the effect of the swarm was, or were the kids just overreacting?  It was only five or six hundred butterflies.

“Whoever catches the most wins!” I called out.  “Go!”

The kids stared at me.  Some were still reacting from the rush of butterflies.

“Go!” I said.  “There’s a prize!  A good one!”

They scattered.

Butterflies wove in around one another, around trees, out of reach and over heads, between legs and under tables.  I watched the crowd, got the kids to bump into one another, gathered them into clusters where I had ten or twenty students running after one group of butterflies, conserving effort and increasing the confusion when two groups ran into one another.

When the mass of kids had burned off their initial energy, I joined the Wards, still controlling the butterflies.

“Thanks,” said one heroine in pale blue.

“A bit much?”  I asked.

A guy with a fox mask said, “You can’t really interact with them when there’s this many.  There’s no point.”

“Good memories,” I said.  “Better than nothing.”

“But not great,” fox-mask said.  “Good memories aren’t exactly why we’re here.  Somewhere in that group, there’s kids who could be the next wave of capes.”

I watched the kids run.  They’d succeeded in surrounding one group of butterflies, and some had taken off rain jackets to form improvised butterfly nets.

That kind of organization deserved a reward.  On the flip side of things, they were liable to murder one another over a handful of butterflies.  Competition trumped reason.

Making the butterflies simply rise into the air was too easy, and there were some kids who were sitting on each other’s shoulders, to get more height in anticipation of the tactic.

I swept up butterflies with dragonflies, carrying them out of reach, through the crowd.

Some of the kids rushed up to me, red in the face with exertion.

“You’re cheating!”

“Not fair!”

“I used to be a supervillain,” I said.  “I’m allowed to be a jerk.  Go!  You two are in second place, but you’re falling behind while you complain.”

They gave me death glares, then ran off.

I focused on my power.  The power I wasn’t entirely sure I could trust anymore, and I identified the stragglers.  The ones without a group.  The ones who weren’t participating, or who weren’t able to maneuver around the crowd, solitary in the midst of groups of friends.

“Can you guys do me a favor?” I glanced at fox-mask.

He nodded.

A few quick instructions, and the Boston Wards were mobilized, tapping on shoulders, saying hi to each of the ones I’d identified.

We gathered at the picnic tables.

“What’s the point of this?” one kid asked, a twelve or thirteen year old with hair draped over half his face.  Never understood that hairstyle.

“A break can be nice,” I said.  “Whether it’s from school or saving the world.”

“Inviting us here, I mean.”

“You want the cheesy answer or the real one?”

“Cheesy,” one heavyset girl said, with just a touch of snark.

“Cheesy answer is you didn’t seem interested in going squee over these guys, you didn’t feel like chasing butterflies, so I figured I’d invite you to hang.”

“It’s so fake, ridiculous,” she said.

“It is,” I said.  “Fake can be good.  Reality sucks sometimes.”

“What’s the real answer?” the guy with hair over his face asked me.

“The real answer is that this whole thing is a ploy by the good guys,” I said.

He rolled his eyes.

“They want to get on your good side, just in case you get powers,” I said.

He rolled his eyes again.

“Powers?” another kid asked.  He was shorter than all the others, and his eyes were disproportionately large for his face.

“Powers,” I said.  “And you guys, I’m thinking, are among the most likely to get them.”

I was getting funny looks.

“Do you know what trigger events are?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“Um,” one of the boy heroes said, “Not sure this is approved.”

I cocked my head, turning to the kid with the hair in his face, “See?  It’s a ploy.  Big secrets.”

“Not that big,” Fox-mask said.

“I didn’t find out about trigger events until months after I’d had mine,” I said.  “It’s how you get superpowers.”

Okay, that had their attention.  Twelve or thirteen pairs of eyes were fixed on me.

“It takes something pretty lousy to happen to you,” I said.  “You get attacked, or you get hurt, or someone attacks someone or something you really care about, and you have nowhere else to turn, and you get powers.”

“It doesn’t work if you force it,” Mrs. Yamada said, approaching the table, “so don’t try.”

“Right,” I said, though I was digesting a tidbit of information I hadn’t had.

“Why are we going to get powers when they won’t?” another kid in our cluster asked me.

“Because you were alone.  It’s a bit of a trend, I think, one I’ve noticed.  I’ve seen a lot of powers, and I’ve seen a lot of people with powers who had similar things wrong with them.  Labyrinth, Bakuda, Night, Fog, Mannequin, Siberian, Lung, August Prince… again and again, it’s their ability to communicate that’s missing, either because of their powers or because they chose to hide or mask their voices.  I was thinking about it, and I think we parahumans tend to be loners by nature.”

Which might explain why we struggle so much as a community.

“So you’re here to make nice, just in case?” the boy with hair in his face asked me.

“That’s the gist of it.  I think the PRT’s cunning plan is to get you on board before you get powers.”

“As if,” the boy retorted.

“Hey,” fox-mask said, “Not cool.  We’re trying to be nice here.”

I could see a scowl, the glance away on the kid’s face.  I was put in mind of Regent for an instant.  A similar personality?

“No, let’s be fair,” I said.  “Being a villain’s an option.”

“You did not say that,” Fox-mask said, incredulous, “It’s not an option at all.”

The girl in blue looked at Mrs. Yamada, “Ex-villain’s corrupting the kids, and you’re not stopping her?”

Mrs. Yamada was frowning at me.

“I’m going somewhere with this, honest,” I said.

“If you’re sure,” she said.  “I can stop you at any time.”

“You can.”

I looked at the gathered kids.  A few of the less successful butterfly catchers had drifted away and approached.

“I always hated the speeches when I was in school, the preaching in auditoriums, the one-note message.  Stuff like saying drugs are bad.  It’s wrong.  Drugs are fantastic.”

“Um,” Fox-mask said.

Mrs. Yamada was glaring at me, but she hadn’t interrupted.

“People wouldn’t do them if they weren’t.  They make you feel good, make your day brighter, give you energy-”

“Weaver,” Mrs. Yamada cut in.

“-until they don’t,” I said.  “People hear the message that drugs are bad, that they’ll ruin your life if you do them once.  And then you find out that isn’t exactly true because your friends did it and turned out okay, or you wind up trying something and you’re fine.  So you try them, try them again.  It isn’t a mind-shattering moment of horrible when you try that first drug.  Or so I hear.  It’s subtle, it creeps up on you, and you never really get a good, convincing reason to stop before it ruins your life beyond comprehension.  I never went down that road, but I knew a fair number of people who did.  People who worked for me, when I was a supervillain.”

I had their attention now, at least.

This was probably going to hit the news as something like, ‘Ex-supervillain Wards member recommends drugs to kids’.  Whatever.

Maybe I’d get a shit placement in the Wards, but I felt more like the Weaver I wanted to be.

“It’s the same, being a villain.  I went there, I did that for a few months.  Risked my life, hurt people, made an incredible amount of money, but I look back, and it wasn’t worth it.  I value the people I got to know and love far more than I do the money, the power, the fame.  They’re the only thing I regret leaving behind.”

“How much money?” the heavy little girl asked, grinning.

“You’re missing the point,” Fox-mask said.

“Fifteen or twenty million,” I said, ignoring him.

“Shhh-ugar,” one of the heroes muttered, just behind me, deciding on a new word midway through.

“That’s so worth it,” a kid said.

“I think this is bordering on counterintuitive,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“Do you have a piece of paper?” I asked.

She only frowned at me.

One of the young heroes, a boy with goggles, handed me a pad of paper.

“Pen?”

He handed me a pen.

“What’s your name?” I asked the boy with hair in his face.

“Ned.”

I wrote it down.  “Ned.  And you?”

I got the names of all of the kids I’d picked out.  The stragglers.  Maggie, Bowden, Ryan, Lucas, Jacob, Sophie… the list went on.  Fifteen kids in all.

I ripped off the sheet, then tore another sheet into squares.  “More pens?”

The goggle-guy handed me a handful of pens.

“Each of you write down the most horrible thing you can think of, that you can reasonably expect to happen to you in the next few years.  No need to get too complicated.  Think of something horrible that would give you a trigger event.  Write it down.”

I waited while each of the kids wrote something down.  Other kids were gathering now, but they’d be bystanders.  It was the stragglers who were the focus now.

“Hand your sheet to the person to your left.  Boston Wards, help me on this score.  We’re going to make up powers that sort of fit the trigger events, in a vague way.  No need to be specific.”

“If it helps,” Mrs. Yamada said, “More mental powers for mental stress, physical powers for physical stress.”

“She’s the expert,” I said.  “Let’s go.”

“I want to pick my own power,” Ned said.

“Too bad.  You don’t get to in real life,” I said.  “You think I wanted bug powers?”

By the time we’d finished, more of the butterfly catchers had come back.  They were watching, now.

“Ned gets the ability to fly.”  I’d left him for last. “And some sort of ranged attack.  Kind of like Legend.”

“Sweet.”

“But no power is really that simple.  So… you fly by blowing.  Like a balloon with the end untied, only with more control.  You attack by blowing too.”

“No!  That sucks!”

“Too bad,” I said.  “It’s not all fun and games.  What was your trigger event, Maggie?”

The heavyset girl frowned, blushing a little.  “Um.  Someone chopped my wiener off.  How does that-”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.  Someone hurt you badly, and you got a more physical power?”

“Reynard said I got super strength, and regeneration.”

She looked at Fox-mask.  I had his name now.

A little boring, whatever.  “Okay.  Now, on the back of the sheet, write down whether you’re a hero or a villain.  Your choice.”

“This has got to be a trap,” she said, “So hero.”

“Okay,” I said.  “And do you join the Wards, or no?”

“Join us,” Reynard whispered, urging her.

“Kind of seems like a pain.”

Reynard groaned.  “I’m wounded!”

“So you’re on your own, or you join another group?”

“Another group.”

“Okay.  And… Bowden?”

The kid smirked.  “Screw that.  I want fifteen million dollars.  Villain.”

“Okay.  Ryan?”

We went around the circle, until everyone had their affiliation.

“I don’t suppose you’d have any dice?” I asked the Wards.

The goggle-hero handed me a handful of dice.

“Oh shit,” Ned said, “You conned us into playing dungeons and dragons!”

“Nothing so complicated,” I said.  “Roll, Ned.  A three is bad luck about your powers, a two is bad luck about your life as a cape, and a one is really bad luck.”

He rolled.  A three.

“Aw, what?  No!”

“Okay,” I said.  “Your powers came with a drawback.”

“I blow air!  I already got screwed.”

“Your power came with the ability to understand air currents, which you need to fly,” I said.  “But they erased something else.  Your sense of direction is gone, unless you’re using it to fly.  Wherever you go, you get lost.  It’s bad enough that you can’t do anything on your own.  Unless someone here asks you to join their team, your life is ruined.”

What?”  He asked.  He glowered.  “Fuck you.”

“Language,” Fox-mask warned.

“It happens,” I told the kid.  “Let’s hope others have more luck.”

We went around the table, there were a few more with bad luck.  I found it interesting when the Boston Wards volunteered penalties.  One involved a trigger event so public that a kid had to abandon the idea of a secret identity.  Another was traumatized by theirs, and wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep for ten years.

“Now let’s talk about what you do with your careers,” I said.  “Ned?  You found a team, and your power’s pretty good, so let’s say you win a fight against the heroes on a two or better.”

He rolled, “Six!”

“Now you fight other villains, who want to steal the money you just got.  Roll.”

“I’m a bad guy, I’m not fighting them!”

“Bad guys fight villains and heroes,” I said.  “But you can give up the money if you want to run.”

He scowled, shaking his hand in anticipation of rolling, dragging it on far too long.

“And because bad guys don’t always play fair, these guys kill you if you roll a one, and they win on a two,” I added.

He rolled.  A two.

“Money gone, you’re hurt, embarrassed, but still alive.  Maggie, your turn.”

The exercise continued.  Once we had a general system in place, crude rules or no, the Boston heroes took up the job, until each of us had three ‘capes’ and a small crowd of spectators.

“I’m not sure I get the point,” Maggie said, after a few rounds.  She looked a little nervous with a crowd looking over her shoulder.

“Okay,” I said, clapping my hands.  “Villains, raise your hands.”

They did.

“If you’re dead, maimed or in jail, lower your hands.”

More than half of them did.

“Heroes, raise your hands if you’re okay.”

Most of the other kids raised their hands.

“Sophie chose to be a rogue,” Fox-mask said, “She’s been in one fight, but she came out okay.”

“You’re screwing the villains,” Ned said.  “It’s not really one fight after another.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but was interrupted.

“Being a villain is hard,” Mrs. Yamada said.  Odd as it was, she seemed to have a measure of authority I didn’t, here.  Weird, that the kids would listen to her because she was an adult, and not someone who’d actually been in the thick of it.

Weird and frustrating.

“One in twenty might make it in the long run,” I said.  “If they’re lucky, if they’re good, if they have friends they can count on.”

“Pat yourself on the back a little more,” Reynard said, a little sarcastic.  The girl in blue elbowed him.

I made sure to look each of the participants in the eye as I spoke, “I wasn’t satisfied doing what I was doing, as a villain.  I switched sides by choice.  Think about that.  Even after all of that, after everything I had, even though I felt pretty good, spending all of that money on helping people in my neighborhood, being front page news, I gave it up.”

I knew it wasn’t time for it, that I should let that sink in, but people were talking more in the back of the crowd, jostling or getting restless.

“So let’s say there’s an endbringer attack,” I said.  “Time to decide.  Do you volunteer?”

Nobody moved.

“We need volunteers, or it’s over,” I said.  “Hero or villain.”

Maggie put her hand up.

“One,” I said.  “Not enough.”

Others raised their hands in turn.  Five volunteers out of the eight who were still in the game.  Ned was among them.

“Roll,” I said.  I handed over the dice, “One in four chance you die.”

The kids rolled, one by one.

Three dead.

“You rigged the system,” Ned said, a little petulant.

“I’m being a little harsh,” I said, “But this is it.  It sounds dumb, but being a cape means beating the odds, again and again.  If you’re a villain?  The reward is pretty damn good, but the risk is bigger.  You saw how few villains actually survived intact.  Even then, a lot of them lost their money, or got hurt.”

I glanced around the group.  “That’s my pitch.  Take it from someone who’s been on both sides.  Being on the side of good?  It’s safer, a hell of a lot smarter.  Know that there’s always going to be someone out there that’s stronger, and-”

The ringing of phones interrupted me.  Multiple phones, all at once, both the Wards and Mrs. Yamada.

A sick feeling welled in my gut.  The Wards looked at their phones.  Mrs. Yamada was the only one to raise hers to her ear.  I closed my eyes.

“Yes,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “You’re coming here?  Okay.  Yes.  Of course.  The Boston Wards are here.  Yes.”

I felt like my chest was clenching around my heart.  The kids had fallen silent.

“Weaver,” Mrs. Yamada said.

My voice was quiet, “I’m not ready.  My new stuff, it’s not prepared.”

“Defiant says he has your old costume, he can spray it white, if you want, swap out the lenses.  It won’t be pretty, but it’ll be better than what they gave you.”

I opened my eyes.  The kids were wide eyed.

“Which one is it?”  I asked her.

“Behemoth.  Seismic activity building in New Delhi.  He hasn’t appeared yet.”

I nodded.

“You don’t have to go,” she said.

I shook my head.  I thought of the Undersiders.  “I’ll go.  Have to.”

“Can I hitch a ride?” Reynard asked.  “At least to the HQ?”

I nodded, glad for the solidarity.  I wasn’t in this alone.  “Probably.”

I looked at the Wards, could see how some were standing taller, grim, fatalistic, but confident in their own way.  Others averted their eyes.  Shame, that they weren’t coming.

“Hey,” Ned said.

I glanced at him.

“Is it really a one in four chance?” he asked.

“Those are the numbers they gave me when I fought Leviathan,” I said.  “They probably won’t be so generous this time around.”

“They call him the herokiller,” Reynard added.

That thought hadn’t even crossed my mind.  We’re not ready.  None of us.  We’re still reeling from Echidna, from Alexandria.

The kids who were still in the field fled as three Dragon suits set down, crossing the park to rejoin the teachers who’d been sitting in the shade.  Doors opened and ramps lowered to welcome us into the dark interiors.

Defiant and Dragon were inside the Pendragon, waiting for me, Defiant carrying my Skitter costume, Dragon holding a new back compartment, wings extended, two mechanical limbs sticking out each side.

It wasn’t everything I’d asked for, but it was something.

I glanced back at the kids. The ones who hadn’t cleared the way for the crafts to land in the park were still at the tables, along with one or two Wards who apparently weren’t coming.

“Still owe you that prize,” I said.  My voice sounded funny.  “Was going to con Defiant here into giving you a ride.”

“Doesn’t matter,” a girl said.  She had the most butterflies.  “Really.”

I nodded.

It had meant something to me after all, getting the chance to do this.  I met Mrs. Yamada’s eyes, nodded.

She nodded back.

Gathering the Skitter costume and the lightweight jetpack into my arms, I watched the kids as the doors slid closed.

None of them wished us luck.

Maybe we didn’t need any further reminders about our chances.

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Drone 23.2

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Every part of the Las Vegas team’s reaction to our arrival screamed dissatisfaction.  Folded arms, the way none of them would meet our eyes, the very way they were positioned, so they were just enough in our way to make it clear they didn’t agree with what was going on, but not so close as to be with us.

Except it wasn’t me that was the problem, this time.

Satyrical, Satyr for short, wore a helmet sculpted to look like a goat’s head, the mouth in a perpetual smile.  On a good day, I imagined his eyes were bright with mischief, his shaped eyebrows quirked behind the large eye-holes of the helmet.  This wasn’t a good day.  There were circles under his eyes, and he glowered.  With the smile on his helmet, it made him look… I didn’t want to say deranged, but it was the word that sprung to mind.

His bare chest was muscular, waxed hairless, the belt and leggings of his costume slung low enough that I could see the lines of his lower stomach that pointed to his… yeah.  It was admittedly distracting.  It was meant to be distracting.

Nix, Blowout, Leonid and Floret joined Satyrical in their anger.  Heroes in more flamboyant and colorful costumes than normal, their moods a contrast in how dark they were.  Spur and Ravine seemed more lost than angry, but the way they retreated into their group as we passed told me that they would side with their team over us.

If there was something to be said, words of encouragement or apology, nobody I was with seemed ready or able to come up with them.

We approached the elevator and made our way down, and none of the local heroes joined us.

“Thoughts?” Vantage asked me.

“For a city like Las Vegas, I’m surprised the building is so…” I trailed off.

“Dull?  Like a giant tombstone?”

“No windows,” I said.  “Just the front door, walls all around it, no decoration except for the PRT logo on the face of the building, no lights except for spotlights.”

“Stands out,” Vantage said.  “There’s contrast.”

“And it’s required.  Vegas is one of the worst cities for sheer number of villains,” Rime said.  Her entire demeanor was rigid, which maybe fit in a way with her ice powers.  “Vegas employs a group of unsponsored thinkers and tinkers to monitor the venues, much like the PRT does with the economy, ensuring that everything is above-board, that everything is being conducted fairly and that the numbers add up.  Vegas changed as a result, developed a different cape dynamic.  In Los Angeles or New York, it’s the people who can blow down buildings that are seen as true ‘heavy hitters’.  Here, they’re trying to game the system, and the heroes are trying to game them.  In Vegas, it’s thinkers, tinkers and strangers who rule the underworld.”

“A different sort of cops and robbers,” I said.

“Cops and robbers?”  Vantage asked.

“A way my teammate once explained it to me.  The, for lack of a better word, healthy way for heroes and villains to be, is for all of this to be a game of sorts.  Trading blows, counting coup, but ultimately leaving the other side without any permanent damage.”

“Counting coup?” Leister asked.  He was the sole subordinate that Vantage had brought along.  Rime, by contrast, had brought Usher and Arbiter from her team.  Prefab from San Diego had shown up as well.

I explained, “The term came from the Native Americans’ style of warfare.  In a fight, one person makes a risky, successful play against the other side showing their prowess.  They gain reputation, the other side loses some.  All it is, though, is a game.  A way to train and make sure you’re up to snuff against the real threats without losing anything.”

“Except,” Rime said, “Things escalate.  One side loses too many times in a row, they push things too far.  And there’s always collateral damage.  I notice civilians don’t factor into that explanation.”

“I’m not saying I agree with it a hundred percent,” I said.  “I didn’t, even from the beginning.  But it sounds like what you’re describing.”

Rime shook her head.  “No.  The strip is dying.  Every successful job the villains pull causes catastrophic damage, sees venues shutting down.  More villains arrive, hearing of the last group’s success, or because there’s room for them, and they settle in the more desolate areas.  The problem feeds itself, gets worse.  This building is a fortress and a prison because that’s what the city needs, that’s how bad things have gotten.”

“And the heroes?”

“Flamboyant, as brilliant and attention-grabbing in the open as the villains are discreet and hidden in plain sight.  The Vegas team is largely made up of strategists, charlatans and borderline scoundrels.  Individuals who can foil cheats and frauds, or throw a wrench in the works of the local masterminds, who think like they do.  Which is why this is such a problem.”

The last sentence had a note of finality to it.  I decided not to push my luck with further questions.

We made our way out into the corridor with the cells.  It was deeper, more developed than Brockton Bay’s.  There were two tiers, with one set of cells above the other.

Rime moved her phone next to a television screen, then tapped it.  There was a pause as a row of black squares with white outlines gradually lit up.  She leaned forward a little, her hand resting against the wall beside the television.

The screen came alive.  I saw a man in a cape uniform within, without a mask.  He had albinism, to the point that the velvet purple of his costume overwhelmed the little of his skin that was showing.  The irises of his eyes were a dark pink.

“Pretender,” Rime said.  Her voice had a harder note than before.  “What have you done?”

“Don’t place all of the blame on me.  You forced my hand.”

“No,” she said, “There had to be another way.  You could have admitted-”

“A death sentence,” he said.  “You’re an upper-echelon cape now, and you have the clearance.  You know about her.  The bogeyman that comes after anyone who tries to release information they want to keep secret.”

I glanced at Vantage, who only shrugged.

“We could have protected you,” Rime said.

Pretender only chuckled.  “No.  No you couldn’t.  I’m dead anyways, one way or another.  I surrender, it’s the end of my career, and that’s all I have.  I talk, I die.  This was the best option.”

The hand that Rime was using to lean against the wall clenched into a fist.  Her voice was tight as she asked, “Killing a government thinker was the best option?”

“Yes.”

Rime straightened, but it was more of a defeated gesture than anything, her hand dropping from the wall.  “You were one of the good ones, Pretender.”

“Still am,” he said.  He crossed the length of his cell, sitting on the corner of the bed.  “I’d explain, but it would only get us all killed.”

“We’re going to have to take you to a more secure facility,” Rime said.

“Well, I didn’t expect you’d let me go.  Do what you have to.  I made a deal with the devil, you caught me, for better or worse,” Pretender said.  In a quieter voice, he said, “About time I pay the price.”

Rime turned off the television.  She looked at Arbiter.

“My riot sense was going off like crazy as he talked,” Arbiter said.  “There’s something at work here.”

“Describe it.”

Arbiter touched her middle fingers and thumbs together, forming a circle, “Orange.”

She moved her hands further apart, “Red.”

Then further apart again, until the implied ‘circle’ was as big as a large pizza.  “Yellow.”

“That bad?”  Rime asked.

“Bad.”

“Then we move now,” Rime said.  She raised her hand to her ear.  “Dragon?  Cancel your errands.  We’re in for some trouble, almost guaranteed, and I’m thinking we want to clear out before it descends.”

There was a short pause.

The digital voice of Dragon’s A.I., the same one I’d heard through her drones and the armbands, informed us, “Kulshedra model en route to Las Vegas Protectorate Headquarters.  ETA two minutes.  Tiamat to join in t-minus eight minutes.”

“Okay,” Rime said.  “It’ll be here before we’re on the roof.  Let’s get Pretender packed up.  Standard stranger protocols in effect.  Usher and Arbiter, you handle it.  Everyone else with me.”

Once we were all in the elevator, I figured I was clear to ask without sounding too much like a newbie.  “What was Arbiter talking about?  Riot sense?”

Rime explained.  “She’s a social thinker, in addition to her minor blaster and shaker powers.  Her danger sense is mild at best, not something she can react to immediately, but it makes her aware of associated individuals and the threat they pose.  She wouldn’t be able to see much from Pretender alone, but she knows that there’s a moderate to high danger posed by those closest to him-”

“His team, probably,” Prefab said.

“She’s predicting a massive risk from people who have an intimate but less immediate association or those who have a recent but less familiar association with him…”

“Old teammates or family that he doesn’t see regularly,” Prefab said, “Or people he’s hired for help that he isn’t as familiar with.”

Rime finished, “…And a moderate risk from people or things on the periphery of his real-life social network.”

“The bogeyman?” I asked.

Rime didn’t answer.  Instead, she looked at the digital display above the door of the elevator.  “Prefab, look after our Wards.  I’m going to have words with Satyr.  See if we can’t work out what the angle is.  Wait on the roof for our ride.”

“Stranger protocols mean you don’t go anywhere alone,” Prefab said.

“Of course.  I’m thinking…  Vantage,” she said, beckoning.

Vantage nodded, stepping forward.

The elevator doors opened for Rime to exit, then shut.  The three of us continued up to the roof.  Prefab was large, and his armor made him look larger, with shoulderpads that looked like the tower-tops of a castle, each probably weighing twice as much as my entire outfit, equipment included.  He carried a heavy cannon, obviously tinker made.

Leister was a teenager in lightweight silver armor with the edges molded into wave-like forms.  Beneath the armor was blue cloth with a similar wave-like design embroidered on it.  He held a trident, as ornate as his armor.  As lightweight and sprightly as Prefab was a veritable tank.

“This bogeyman-” Leister started.

“Based on what we know,” Prefab said, “Arbiter giving us a yellow that possibly includes her is more worrying than a red alert involving just about anyone else.”

“You don’t know anything about her?”

“We mainly see her censoring information,” Prefab said.  “Silencing and disappearing people who are talking about sensitive stuff, and doing the same with everyone they talked to.  Only details are slipping through the net, now.  About Cauldron, about Alexandria, the formulas.”

“Too much for one person to handle?” I suggested.

“Speculation from the top is they’ve probably stopped caring,” Prefab said.  “Thinkers believe she’s letting things leak, because it doesn’t make sense that they’d keep things this tight and then slip up like they have been.”

“What’s her classification?”

“Thinker.  Don’t worry about the number.  Just run.”

I frowned.

“Exactly how many capes are like that?” Leister asked.

“A handful.  Enough.”

“I’m beginning to feel like I’m out of my depth,” Leister said.

“You get used to that,” I said.  “With the sheer luck involved in powers and the crap we wind up facing on a daily or weekly basis, it’s only a matter of time before you wind up going up against someone you don’t have a chance against.”

“Yeah, but Fab’s talking-”

Prefab,” Prefab growled.

“Sorry.  I mean, Prefab was talking about opponents we couldn’t hope to fight, and I’ve only had two real fights so far.  One of them wasn’t even a real fight.”

“You’re new?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.

“I’ve only been a Ward for a month.”

Only two fights in a month.  I felt a pang of envy.

“Let’s hope there isn’t a fight today,” Prefab said.  “But let’s be ready if there is one.

We ascended to the rooftop.  Dragon’s suit had already landed.  A bulky craft, twice the size of a helicopter, with what looked to be a cargo bay.  Letters stenciled on the edge of the wing read ‘Kulshedra v0.895’.

Inside, in boxes, there were butterflies.  Innumerable varieties.  Sadly, quite a few had died due to a lack of food or being crushed under the weight of the others.  The idea was clear.  The PRT wanted me to change how I operated.  Dragon, at least, was willing to give me the means.

It was still stupid.  Ridiculous.

The back of the craft opened, giving me access to the hatches.  I stepped up onto the ramp and found the buttons to open the boxes.

“Go, my pretties,” I said, monotone.  “Go, seek out my enemies and smother them.”

They took off, moving in colorful formations, organized by type, drawing fractal shapes in the air as they spread out.

I stepped down off the ramp to see Leister staring at me.

“I know you were joking,” Prefab said, “But no smothering.”

“No smothering,” I said, sighing.  I looked up.  The sky was darkening.  “If there’s a fight, it’s going to be at night.  It’d be pretty stupid to use butterflies at night, when half of my tricks are subtle.”

“You’d have to ask Rime.”

Was I supposed to use non-butterflies to scout for trouble?

I considered asking, but I was suspicious I already knew the answer.

Best not to ask, and beg for forgiveness later.

Insects and flies moved out over the surrounding cityscape.  There were too many buildings here, too many that were sealed off, but I could check rooftops and balconies, and I could investigate the ground.  Tens of thousands of people, all in all.

“Sniper rifle,” I said, in the same instant the thought came together.

“Wha?” Leister asked, incoherent and confused.

Prefab’s head snapped my way.  “You sure?”

“I’d point,” I said, “But he’d notice.  Our masks and helmets cover our faces, or I’d be worried about lip-reading.”

“Don’t panic, don’t give away that you’re afraid.  Into the craft.  Go,” Prefab said.

I nodded, wishing I had my real costume, though I knew it might not be tough enough to withstand a bullet from a sniper rifle.

Prefab was the last to step inside, slowing down as he approached the ramp.  I could see light glittering around the edges of the roof, growing more intense over the course of seconds.  Ten, fifteen seconds passed, until there was more of the light than there were spaces in between.  The light was most intense near the edges.

In a clap of thunder, a rush of wind and a flare of… anti-sparks, crenellated walls appeared, extending fifteen feet up from the lip of the roof’s edge.  The sparks, such as they were, were black at their core, surrounded by shadow.  They spun in the air before drifting to the ground, where they flickered out of existence.

“Does that block his line of sight?  I can make them taller,” Prefab said.

“I don’t think he has the right angle to shoot over the wall,” I said.

“No weapons?  Costume?”

I used my subtler bugs, but he was already packing away the rifle in record time, then swiftly moving away from the roof’s edge.  He brushed away my bugs as they converged, kicked a hatch open with his foot, then climbed inside with a speed that almost made me think he’d fallen.  Only the fact that the hatch closed firmly after him convinced me otherwise.

The only way he’d have evaded the swarm like that was if he’d known what I was doing.

“No costume,” I said.  “He brushed away the bugs before I could get anything substantial, but I think… glasses?  And a dress shirt.  I think he noticed what my bugs are doing.  That’s rare.”

“We’ve got trouble,” Prefab said.  I realized he was using his phone.  “Sniper on a rooftop nearby.  Possible Thinker.  Barricades should make for safe elevator exit.”

We’re on our way up,” Rime said, through the speaker.  “Four capes and the containment box.  Hold position, play safe.  If Pretender arranged a jailbreak, he won’t have just one person working under him.  Arriving in eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one…

The elevators opened.  Rime, Arbiter, Vantage and Usher made their way out, wheeling a box along with them.

“Password?” Prefab asked.

“Twenty-three-aleph-pater-newfoundland-washington-vikare,” Rime said.  “Arbiter’s group is already confirmed, they haven’t left my sight.  First half of your first password?”

“Eight-nine-three-scion,” he responded.  “And the other two are clear.”

“Good.  Let’s move. A hand?”

Prefab gave Rime a hand in moving the box.  It couldn’t have been comfortable: four feet by six feet by four feet.  Enough to stand in, but not enough to lie down.  The thing had four wheels, and was dense enough that it took some muscle to get it up the ramp.  I would have joined in, if I didn’t fear I would get in the way more than I’d help.  I wasn’t the strongest person around.  Fit, yes, but not strong.

Instead, I focused on bringing my butterflies back.  I couldn’t get them all back in time, but a loss of a hundred or so wasn’t a tragedy.

A loss of all of the butterflies wouldn’t be a tragedy.  I’d feel bad, if only because of the trouble Dragon likely went through in acquiring them, but yeah.

Gosh, if they all just happened to die or get left behind, maybe I’d have to use something else.  Tragic.

They finally managed to settle the box at the center of the cargo bay, pulling a switch to close clasps at the base of it, lowering a solid metal pillar from the roof to the top of the box.

I doubted it would budge if someone crashed a bus into it.

I called back some of the butterflies closest to me, keeping others around the building with the sniper.  He hadn’t set up again.

“I’m worried about that sniper,” I said.  “If he was coming after us, why is he giving up so easily?  If he wasn’t coming after us, who was he after?  A civilian?”

“Identify the building as we get airborne.”

“Through a window?” I asked, looking forward, to the ‘head’ of the craft, that looked out onto the city.

“Bulletproof glass or no, let’s stay away from the windows for now,” Rime said.  “Kulshedra, show Weaver what your cameras see.”

Monitors changed from red text on a black background to high-resolution images of the surrounding walls and rooftop, a different image for each one.

A second later, the ramp closed, and we took to the air, the craft vibrating softly.

I studied the monitors, watching, getting a sense of the surroundings and of which buildings corresponded with what I was looking at.

“Kulshedra,” I said, pretty sure I was mangling the name, “The leftmost monitor on your left side.  Zoom in, a little up and left.  There.  Building to the left of the one in the dead center.”

I tapped the screen as the ship highlighted the building in question.

“Good job, Weaver,” Rime said, peering at the monitor.

“Was on the roof, moved below through hatch when I used my bugs.  Hasn’t left the building,” I said.

Rime touched her earbud.  “Vegas teams, be advised, armed individual in a building at… 125 West Sahara.”

“It’s port,” Leister murmured to me.

“Huh?”

“You said ‘left side of the ship.  It’s port.”

“Isn’t that boats?” I asked.

“Can be aircraft.”

“Best leave it,” Vantage said.  “Leister’s a little stubborn.”

“So am I,” I said.

“Maybe ‘tenacious’ is the word you want,” Vantage offered.  “There aren’t a lot of people who get knocked out and still manage to win a fight.”

“Are you all this pedantic?”  I asked.

Vantage only laughed, though I saw Rime glancing at me, and she didn’t look pleased.

“Alexandria was always hard on us,” Arbiter said.  Her voice had a strange tone to it, oddly melodic, “Getting us to focus on grades, extracurricular stuff, on top of what we did as a part of the team.”

“We were challenged to be better than the other teams in everything, academics included,” Vantage said.  “But we were the only team with a leader who cared about it.”

“Except the capes in Fresno,” Arbiter said.  “I was still a Ward, then.”

Vantage smiled, “Oh yeah.  The bastards in Fresno.  They caught on, probably because we were complaining so much.  Small team, but they started studying like crazy, just so we’d be in second place, academically.  Didn’t matter why we were second, Alexandria was still annoyed at us.”

“All those sermons on being top-notch, on acting like the people we wanted to be, and… she turned out to be a monster,” Arbiter said.

“A monster slain by Weaver, here,” Usher spoke.

All at once, I felt very on the spot.  Each of the capes here, Rime and Prefab excluded, had worked with Alexandria in some capacity.  Except Rime and Prefab were team leaders, and Defiant had commented on how every cape in a position of power had some experience working under the Triumvirate, so even they knew her to some extent.

“Weaver did what had to be done,” Rime said.  “Not pretty, not kind, but sometimes you have to use a knife to cut out a cancer.”

All eyes were on me.  Nobody was speaking.

“I asked you to come along on this job for a reason, Weaver,” Rime said.  “I’ve read the incident reports that involved your interactions with the PRT and the groups under the PRT’s umbrella.  The bank robbery, the fundraiser, the theft of the database with the Shadow Stalker kidnapping, and your ultimate surrender, a little over a week ago.”

I nodded, not sure where she was going, not wanting to interrupt.

“On the latter two occasions, you and your team perverted the natural course of justice.  You pretended to be defeated by Shadow Stalker in order to ambush the Wards, and you later surrendered, only to get off rather lightly for your crimes.”

“I think I follow,” I said.  I glanced at the others, but they were all busy trying not to look like they were listening to our conversation.

Rime nodded, “It’s about-”

The ship lurched, and Rime broke off mid-sentence to catch herself before she fell to the floor.  Usher fell and nearly slid across the floor, but Vantage caught him.

“Kulshedra!” Rime shouted, “Report!”

Incoming fire.  Taking evasive maneuvers.”

“The sniper,” I said.

Not likely,” the ship reported.  “Unless the sniper is capable of moving great distances, he is approximately point seven three five miles away.  The missile came from a perpendicular direction.

Missile?” Leister asked, sounding very alarmed.

Projectile,” the ship corrected.  “Humanoid in shape.”

I saw Leister relax a fraction at that, which I found oddly charming.  He was relieved it was just a person.  Experience told me that small-to-medium sized explosives were less daunting than the prospect of fighting an unknown parahuman.

“Let me out, Kulshedra,” Rime said, “Before they attack again.  Follow my orders on comm channel two.”

The back of the ship cracked open, and wind rushed into the cabin.  Several of my butterflies were torn free of their roosts.

“Prefab’s in charge,” Rime said.

“Got it,” Prefab answered.

“Usher?” Rime asked.  “Hit me.”

Usher didn’t respond, still struggling a bit with his precarious position, holding on to Vantage’s hand.  He did close his eyes, and Rime began to glow, a sheen radiating over her hair, skin and costume.

With that, she was gone, pushing her way out of her seat, leaping and taking flight, flying out of the open hatch.

An instant later, the ship swayed again.  Prefab used his power to create a short half-dome over Usher.  The back hatch closed, and Usher was finally able to relax, with solid ground and something to hold on to.

Projectile was rotating rapidly, along both horizontal and vertical axes.  Rendering composite image from video footage.

The monitors showed a gray expanse, but it began to rapidly take shape in what was first a distorted sphere, then a crude face, and finally a face complete with details.

Arbiter, Vantage, Leister and Prefab all groaned in unison.  I suspected Usher might have joined in if he had a better angle..

“Fuck you, Pretender,” Vantage muttered.  “Fuck you.  You had to hire the worst mercenaries possible, didn’t you?  You asshole.”

I looked at the image.  Not a face I knew, but one I recognized from TV, from the internet, and one very brief encounter.

“That’s B-”

The ship swerved, but it didn’t manage to avoid the hit this time around.  This time, the shifting center of gravity was compounded by a sudden impact, heavy enough to cave in the front of the craft.  Each and every one of us were thrown out of our seats.

From there, things went south quickly.  No longer flightworthy, the ship struggled to maintain altitude.  Bugs that had collected on the outside of the ship made me aware of how the jets that had been driving the craft forward were now angling towards the ground.  They worked double time to keep the Kulshedra from spinning as it fell and to give downward thrust to counteract the pull of gravity.

Rime’s power froze the Kulshedra in mid-descent, catching it between two buildings, suspended in the midst of a bridge of ice.

The projectile struck us again, from directly above.  The ice to our left, our port side, shattered.

“Seatbelts on!”  Prefab bellowed.  “Hold on tight if you can’t get to one!  Deep breath, don’t tense with the impact!”

I climbed up to a point where there were benches, and belted myself in.  One over each shoulder, one over my lap.  The headrest- it wasn’t there.  There was only metal.  My butterflies found the real headrest above me.  I reached up and found the clasps to lower the softer bundle until it sat at the right height to cushion any impacts.

The ice on our starboard side cracked, an agonizing, gradual break.  My heart leaped into my chest as we plunged towards the street below.

The Kulshedra hit ground, and the impact was so heavy my thoughts were jarred out of my head.  For long seconds, I couldn’t think, but could only experience, could only feel every part of my body hurt, aches and pains I didn’t know I had magnified by the jolt.

It was a small relief that my passenger didn’t take the opportunity to act without my consent.  I was bewildered enough without any added complications, stunned, sore where the straps had pulled against my shoulders and gut.

“Kulshedra!” Prefab shouted.  “Lights on!”

Auxilary offline.  Emergency lighting failed in six attempts carried out in two seconds.”

“Uhhhh,” he said, drawing out the sound, “Damage report?”

A.I. bank one offline.  Aux offline.  Propulsion offline.  Weapons offline.  Helm offline.

“Why are you speaking strangely?”  I called out.

A.I. bank one offline.  Advanced linguistics, memory, geography-

“Enough,” Prefab said, cutting it off.

I almost told him to let it continue, just so we had an idea, but he was the boss.

“Protectorate, Wards, sound off!”  Prefab shouted.

“Arbiter.  Fine.”

“Vantage, mildly injured,” Vantage said.  “My hand.”

“Usher, bleeding from a bad scrape, but otherwise okay.”

“Weaver,” I said, “I’m fine.”

There was a pause.

“Leister?”  Prefab asked.

“Mostly okay,” Leister said, but his voice sounded strained.  “Took a hit to the gut.”

“Let’s get ourselves sorted out,” Prefab said.  “If you can reach your phones, use them for light.  There’s an exec on the second page, if you haven’t mucked with them to add ten pages of games.”

“Don’t-” Leister said, still sounding odd, “Don’t diss the games, when you make us sit around waiting for stuff all the time.”

I didn’t get a phone yet, I thought.  But hey, I’ve got the damn butterflies.

At my order, the butterflies that had been clustered on the outside of their cage took flight, spreading out over the ship’s interior.

I spoke, “Kulshedra.  Roof got crushed, lights with them, am I right?”

Yes.

“No lights in floor?”

Not at present.  Standard floor fixtures in Kulshedra model precursor were removed for containment box fixtures. Lights included.”

“Any power to monitors?”

Yes.”

“Video footage of exterior, stat,” Prefab ordered, cutting in.

Monitors flickered to life.  One in three showed only the ground beneath us, and another third were broken.

“Change the focus of any monitor displaying only asphalt,” I said.

A.I. bank one is offline.  Discrimination no longer possible.

“Monitors with video from any camera on the ship’s upper half.”

Restate, please,” the A.I. said.

“Nevermind,” I said.  “Um.  Nine working cameras, four on port side, five on starboard, am I right?”

Yes.

I worked on unbelting myself, ensuring my legs were fixed in the bars beneath the bench, so I wouldn’t fall.  “Label monitors with numbers from one to nine.”

One by one, the monitors displayed numbers instead of the video feed.

“Weaver-” Prefab said.  “This isn’t helpful.  We need information on our surroundings.”

“No immediate threats nearby, according to my swarm,” I told him, checking with my bugs.  “Ship, monitors one, three and seven weren’t displaying a usable feed.  Restore a feed to each other monitor.”

The videos reappeared.

“Monitors two, six and eight are broken and are not displaying anything coherent.  Display white instead, maximum brightness, on those screens and any ones not displaying any video.”

Monitors lit up.  It wasn’t much, but it was marginally better than what the Protectorate-issue phones were granting.

“How the hell do you know your way around this thing?”  Vantage asked.  I could see him below me, one hand outstretched, the other held behind his back.

“Defiant and Dragon have been ferrying me between the PRT and court, and between prison and these little field exercises, so I’ve gotten a sense of them,” I said.  “And I fought a bunch of others back in Brockton Bay.  You figure them out, kind of.”

“I saw that bit about Dragon’s visit to Brockton Bay in the news,” Vantage said.  “Here, fall.”

I twisted myself around until I hung by my hands, then let myself drop from the bench.  Vantage caught me with the one hand.

The others were getting themselves sorted out.  A few minor injuries, but it wasn’t as bad as it could be.

My head snapped around as our opponent landed just outside the ship.  She let go of her companions, setting them down on the ground beside her.

Hellooooo,” a girl’s voice sounded over the system.  I had to turn around, checking all of the cameras, before I found the one where she was displayed, upside down.

“Ship, flip monitor, um, monitor four, one-eighty-degrees vertical,” I said.

It flipped the right way around.  I could see a young girl on the opposite side.  She was flanked by two other small children, one a male with a widow’s peak and a severe expression for his age, ten or so, the other a girl of about twelve, in overalls that ended at the knee, a star at the chest, and far too much makeup.

“Fuck me,” Vantage muttered.  “Bambina brought her team.”

Come out and plaaaaay,” Bambina called out.  A second later, she leaped.  The small detonation that followed in her wake was quenched by the appearance of Rime’s ice crystals.

Sniper’s active,” Rime’s voice came through the earbuds.  She was panting.  “Deliberate, accurate shooter.  I’ve taken three bullets, ice armor took most of the force out of the shots.  Bambina is accompanied by Starlet and August Prince, um.  Shooter’s shots ricochet.  Can’t dodge.  There’s wounded just outside craft.  Traffic caught underneath when you fell.

“Stop talking and get inside,” Prefab said.

 “Can’t close the gap to the Kulshedra without getting shot again.  He’s cutting me off.”

“Use crystals to form a wall, get inside, damn it,” Prefab said.

Ricochets,” Rime stressed.  “I- shit!”

I found her with my bugs, setting them on her costume.  “She’s okay, just fleeing from Bambina and Starlet.  The shooter doesn’t seem to be targeting the kids.”

“My power makes her immune to Bambina,” Usher said.

“Maybe to the explosions,” I said, “But the impact?  Or something else?”

He frowned.

“They’re not on the same side,” Arbiter said, “The shooter and the child villains.”

“Good,” Prefab said.  “Let’s-“

Bambina collided with the Kulshedra again.  It rocked, nearly tipping over onto one side.

“Kulshedra,” Prefab said, “Open ramp!”

The ramp opened, and I sent the butterflies out.  Nothing substantial, but it was something.

Okay, not really.  But it was an opportunity to lay out some silk.  I emptied the reserves I had contained in my costume.

Prefab began working on a structure, forming it out of the same flashes of light and sparks of darkness he’d used before.  It took time to pull together, and the way it joined with the wall next to it, it didn’t seem like he was designing it on the fly.

Similar to Labyrinth, but it was only natural that powers might run in parallel.

The shooter wasn’t in my reach.  Bambina was horrifically mobile, bouncing off of walls and the street, creating explosions with most of the impacts.  Her teammates were along for the ride, apparently unscathed by her power.  Going on the offensive would be hard, even if I was using my full complement of bugs.

I was having a really hard time justifying Glenn’s rule on pretty bugs only.

Prefab’s wall appeared around the craft.  “Priority one is the wounded!”

We made our way out of the craft.  Odd as it was, I felt a mixture of relief and… an emotion I couldn’t place, at the realization that I didn’t have to fight to convince my teammates that we had to help other people.

Three cars had been caught beneath the wings of Dragon’s craft, another smashed by a chunk of ice.  The passengers of one car had fled, another two cars had people trapped inside, and the people in the fourth were unconscious.

I helped Arbiter with the unconscious ones.

“I alerted Dragon,” Prefab said.  “The Vegas teams know too.  This is a waiting game.  We help Rime, and we keep the prisoner contained.  If he gets loose, or if Bambina destroys the containment vessel, this gets a lot more complicated.”

The prisoner, I noted the word choice, not Pretender.

“If I can get closer to the shooter, I can disable him,” I said.

“Too dangerous.”

An explosion against the exterior of the wall Prefab had pulled together marked another attack from Bambina.

“I can do dangerous.  Let me take the kid-gloves off, and-“

No,” Rime’s voice came through my earbud.  “No.  Stay.

I grit my teeth.  “You’re underestimating me.”

We’re well aware of what you’re capable of.  I’m doing you a favor,” she said, and her voice was strained.  “Stay, follow Prefab’s orders.

I considered running, then stopped.  “Okay.  I’m giving you some backup, Rime.  Best I can do.”

With that, I sent butterflies her way, clustering them into human-shaped groups.  When one group reached her, they surrounded her.  Decoys.

“Hard to see,” she said.  I didn’t even need the earbud to understand, with the butterflies near her.

I kept the bugs away from her face.  I wasn’t sure that was ideal, but it was her call.

Arbiter and Prefab had enough medical training to check the civilians over before we moved them or moved them further.  With my power, I tracked Bambina as she ricocheted through the area, causing innumerable explosions across the landscape.  Rime struggled to evade both Bambina and the detonation, while maintaining some degree of cover against the gunman.

“Last one,” Prefab said.  “Weaver, help.”

I helped him get the older woman to her feet, and keep her standing as we led her into the back of Dragon’s ship.

I stopped abruptly, as Bambina’s trajectory swiftly changed.

“Trouble!” I called out.

Bambina landed atop the wall.  Her teammates landed beside her, each holding one hand.  They looked a little worse for wear.  Starlet was firing darts of light at Rime, the darts exploding mid-way through the air to block Rime’s path when she tried to advance.  Between Starlet and the sniper, she wasn’t able to advance.

 “You were there for the Leviathan fight,” I spoke to Bambina.

“Can’t really bounce on water, it turns out,” she said.  “Wasn’t worth the trouble.  Ducked out.”

Prefab let go of the older woman, leaving me with the burden as he faced Bambina square-on.  “Lots of attention on Pretender all of a sudden.”

“Paying pretty well,” Bambina said, “And he promised a favor, too.  He set some rules, but considering how we’re going above and beyond the call of duty, I’m hoping he’ll bend them.  You know how fucking awesome it is to have a favor from a body snatcher?  He zaps himself into some hunky celeb that’d never touch me otherwise, then…”

Bambina launched into a lewd explanation of what she’d have him do to her, and vice versa.  I averted my eyes and did my best to turn off my ears.  I’d started out spending months suppressing my powers to varying degrees, and I’d learned to ignore some sensations from my bugs.  I wasn’t so lucky when it came to my hearing.

“…with my feet,” Bambina finished.

Starlet, still firing on Rime, glanced over her shoulder to look at us, cackling at Bambina’s audacity, while August Prince didn’t seem to react.

I’d backed away, helping the older woman hobble forward on her bad ankle, and we were close enough to the ramp for her to make her own way up.  I stepped forward, my eyes still on Bambina.

“Worst thing ever,” Vantage murmured from behind me.  “Fighting kids?  You win, you get zero credit, no matter how good their powers are.  They’re children, after all.  But if you lose, well, they’re kids, your reputation is fucked.”

“Focus,” Prefab said.  “We know who these three are.  We’ve got a Mover-shaker six, a blaster-shaker four, and a master-stranger three.”

“Hey, Weaver,” Bambina called out.  “You’re that supervillain-turned hero, right?  Offed Alexandria?”

“Yeah,” I said.

Odd, how I felt more at home in this situation than I had fifteen minutes ago.  Or even helping the civilians.  I’d liked helping civilians, but this was where I felt most able to reach into myself and be strangely calm.

“You fucked up my rankings for a straight week, worst fucking time, too.  I’d planned an escapade, was supposed to rise to number thirty, but your news took the front page instead, and I dropped to forty-five instead.  I haven’t been that low in a year!”

“Rankings?” I asked.

“Rankings!  Don’t you even pay attention?  It was embarrassing.  My mom’s still giving me a hard time over it, and it’s like, that’s less money from our sponsors.  So I’m going to make you deepthroat my fist, okay?  Break your arms and legs and make you suckle it.”

She stamped, and fire rippled around her.  Both August and Starlet flinched.

Worse, it destroyed the silk I’d been tying around her leg.

She leaped down, holding August Prince’s hand, and Arbiter took action.  The heroine directed a sonic blast at Bambina with one hand, but Bambina kicked the wall, changing the direction she was moving.  Arbiter blocked her with a forcefield, then raised a hand to shoot again-

And stopped, standing still instead.  A look of consternation appeared across her forehead, above her mask.

Bambina ricocheted off of Dragon’s craft, hitting it hard enough that it shifted, then flew at Prefab.  One hit, and he was out of action.  The explosion hadn’t even been that large.

Prefab, who had his cannon raised and hadn’t even pulled the trigger once.

Bambina whipped around, rotating crazily before touching ground, her feet skidding on the ground.  She set the Prince down.  Starlet, up on the wall, laughed.

“Can’t touch the Prince, can you?” Bambina asked.  “Go, August.”

The little boy advanced.  He held a scepter, different from Regent’s.  More of a mace.

Arbiter was backing up rapidly as he advanced, and I-

I thought briefly about what the heroes had said about Alexandria, about how she’d wanted them to act like the person they wanted to be.

I’d done that, in a way.  It reminded me of how I’d formed my identity as Skitter.  I’d acted fearsome, acted as if I expected people to be afraid, expected them to listen, and they had.  Even Dragon had, at one point.

But maybe I didn’t need to be feared here.  I could do something as Weaver.  Confidence.  I didn’t back down as the August Prince approached.  I sent butterflies his way.  No problem.

Tried to move them so he would be blinded… and found they didn’t listen.

Tried to bite and sting with the nastier insects I’d hidden inside the butterfly swarm, and again, no response.

He closed the distance to me, swinging at my knee with the mace.  I ducked back out of the way.

His fighting style was graceless, without any particular fluidity.  He held the mace with two hands and swung it, and then took seconds to recover.  An opening to strike, and my body refused to follow up on it.

That would be his power then.  Something in the same department as Imp’s ability.

My bugs continued past him, and I sent them straight for Bambina.

She only laughed as the butterflies landed on her, stomped hard to kill most of them.  “No way.  You offed Alexandria.  I’m not-  Ow!”

Bees, wasps and hornets stung simultaneously, targeting her eyes, mouth and earholes.

She stomped, and soared up to the top of the wall.  “My face, fuck you!  This is going to swell!  This fucking…”

I didn’t hear the rest.  I was more focused on the little kid who was striving to cave in something vital.

The Prince swung at me, and I caught the mace.

It was a mistake.  He let go and tackled me, gripping my leg, hauling on it to put me off-balance.

I couldn’t fight to pull him off, couldn’t use my bugs.

This was annoying.

Then I saw Bambina point, saw Starlet stop taking potshots at Rime and turn my way, reaching.

If the Prince was the master-stranger hybrid, and Bambina the mover-shaker, then that left the blaster power to Starlet.

“Arbiter!”

Arbiter threw a forcefield between us.  It didn’t matter.  The dart of light she fired exploded against the forcefield, and the ensuing implosion pulled me off the ground.  August Prince held on as I tumbled, then climbed up me before reaching around my throat.

I tucked my chin against my collarbone, preventing him from getting a decent hold, and he started clawing at me, struggling to get fingers, a hand, between my chin and my neck.

If this goes any further, Clockblocker’s never going to let me live this down.

The second thought was a little more grave.

If this little bastard kills me, the Undersiders will never forgive me.

The others were helpless to assist me, due to the peculiarities of the Prince’s power, but they could direct their focus to Bambina and Starlet.  Leister thrust out his trident, and it distorted, stretching the distance between himself and the two kid villains on the wall.  He struck Starlet in the face with the shaft of the trident.

Bambina kicked him, and he went flying to a point on the other side of the wall.  His spear distorted and brought him to the ground, but the kick- it hit too hard.  He didn’t rise.

Seeing one of her Wards get taken out of action, Rime made a break for us, my decoys moving parallel to her.

The sniper fired, and she went down.  One guess, and it was accurate.

Tumbling through the air, she used her power in one singular burst, and was encased in a two-story high tower of ice.

Vantage leaped onto the top of the craft, then onto the top of the wall.  Starlet’s blast nearly moved him.  Bambina leapt, bouncing off a nearby building, then flying towards Vantage.  He teleported out of her way, then threw a bola, catching her.  She fell from the wall, landing hard.

One down.  Two to go.

I’m better than this.

The rules about interacting with the Prince were strictly defined.  I could hold him, but I couldn’t hurt him.  Which category did silk fall under?  I had some on my person.  Twenty feet in all.  Twenty feet disappeared fast when it was wound around something.

I chose his neck.  Not hurting him, not directly.  His power allowed it.

One of Starlet’s implosions sent Prince and I tumbling.  Too far from anything I could hold.  He found the opportunity to seize me by the neck.

“Someone!”  I said, “Come closer!”

Usher approached, and Starlet blasted the ground behind him, pulling him off his feet.  He was mere handspans from where I needed him.

“Rime’s out of commission!” I said, my voice strangled as Prince did his best to choke me.  “Your power isn’t affecting her.  Give it to me!”

Usher focused his power on me.  I felt it ripple through me, felt something, but it didn’t break the spell.  I still couldn’t turn the slightest amount of aggression towards the kid.

“No,” I said.

Usher focused his power on Vantage instead, and Vantage flared with light.

Starlet’s power hit him, and it didn’t do a thing.  He punched her in the gut, then caught her as she went limp.

And Prince… was harder to deal with.  Usher approached, and I tied thread around his leg.

I tried to tell Usher to run, knowing what would happen with the thread around Prince’s neck.  My voice wouldn’t come out, and it wasn’t due to the feeble but persistent attempt at strangulation.

So many heroes around me, and they couldn’t touch this little bastard.

Move, I thought.  Move, move, move.

“Your power immunity isn’t making me immune to the kid,” Vantage said, helplessly.

Don’t talk, move.

In the midst of the Kulshedra, I could sense moving air currents.  A woman emerged from thin air, from a place cooler than the interior of the ship.  The civilians we’d rescued shrieked and backed away from her.  She didn’t respond, barely reacted.  Someone with long, dark hair and a suit.  She fixed her cuffs, then moved with purpose.

But I found myself less fixated on her than on her surroundings.  Oddly enough, I could feel a different structure behind the woman, a hallway.

I tried to speak, but couldn’t find the air.  Damn this little bastard.  Damn Usher for not doing something.

“What a mess,” Satyr called out.

Heads turned.

The Vegas Wards had arrived, perched on top of the nearest wall.  They didn’t move to help, didn’t leap to intervene.  Satyr glanced at Bambina, who was struggling to free herself from the bola.  There was something in his eyes.

Were they in on it?

“Help us!” Vantage called out.  “Rime’s out, and we can’t save Weaver!”

Satyr didn’t speak.  He glanced at the ship.  He couldn’t see from the angle he’d approached, but the woman inside had pulled the lever, and the door at the back was slowly closing.

I drew out words on the side.

Pretender in danger

The heroes turned, eyes going wide.  Satyr, Blowout and Leonid rushed forward, joined by Vantage.

Then Usher stepped forward to help, and the August Prince choked, giving me a little slack.  I sucked in a gasp for air.

Arbiter heard, whipping around, and threw a forcefield between us.  I pulled away.

She managed to sandwich the little bastard between her forcefield and the ground.  I rolled away, sitting up.

The ramp was nearly closed by the time they arrived.  Vantage slammed one hand against the door, but it was too heavily armored to give.

“Kul-,” I gasped out.

The woman turned and walked up to the ruined nose of the craft, and began threading wires together.  She didn’t even flinch as sparks flared between them.  She was measured, even patient, as she worked at fixing the panel.  When she was done, she tapped something out on the broken, unlit touch panel.

“Kulshedra, shut down,” I managed.

Restate request.”

The pillar rose from the top of the box, freeing the upper part of the box’s door.

“Kulshedra, contact Dragon,” I tried.

Dragon is currently unable to reply.

“Contact Chevalier.”

Calling.

The woman tapped out another code, and the clamps on the bottom came open, freeing the bottom.

Yet another code typed out, and the system spoke, “Type two safety override accepted.

The woman in the ship struck a single button.  The A.I. spoke, “Call ended.

“Kulshedra, call Chevalier,” I repeated.

Nothing.

The woman inside typed out a final code, and the door of the box opened, releasing Pretender.

And then she spoke, and I could hear through the bugs that surrounded her.  “The Doctor will see you now.”

“Right-o,” Pretender said.  “Gotta be better than the Birdcage.”

They stepped through the gateway that led to the cool, air-conditioned hallway, and then they were gone, the butterflies in the hallway no longer in my reach.

I felt my blood pumping, roaring in my ears.  “They got him.  They collected Pretender.”

“Who?”

“Her.  The shooter’s partner.  Cauldron.”  I clenched my fist.  “Rime’s down.  We have to help her.”

“The shooter-” Vantage started.

“He’s gone,” Arbiter said.  “Not sensing a threat.  You guys go.  I’ll look after Prefab and Leister, and make sure Weaver’s okay.”

Usher nodded.

Satyrical gestured, and most of his team joined the L.A. team members.  I was left kneeling, still catching my breath.  Satyr and Nix hung back, arms folded, exchanging surreptitious glances.

Arbiter didn’t look at them as she spoke, “You hired them.  Bambina’s crew.  You wanted to break him out.”

Satyr didn’t respond.

“You were going to leave the Protectorate?  You had to have been.”

“Yeah.”  It was Nix who spoke, not Satyr.

“Just like that?”

Nix shook her head.  “It’s gone.  Doomed.  We lost Alexandria, we lost Legend and Eidolon.  The new team doesn’t hit half as hard.  Look at Rime.  Taken out of action like that.  Protectorate’s a shadow of what it was.”

“She was beaten by monsters the Protectorate refuses to even classify,” I said.  I coughed a little.

“Alexandria would have managed.”

“Alexandria worked for them,” I said.

Nix shrugged.

Arbiter looked up at Satyr and Nix, “If you leave, the Endbringers-”

Nix interrupted, “We’ll still fight Endbringers.  But the Protectorate was going to take Pretender from us because of how he got his powers.  It’s ridiculous.”

“He was still going to be on the team,” Arbiter said.  “Just… we can’t let him be leader if he’s beholden to a group like that.”

“It shouldn’t matter.”

“Cauldron’s evil,” Arbiter said.  “They experimented on people to get the powers Pretender has.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Satyr said.  His voice was rough.  “Pretender’s gone, and so are we.  We’ll get our teammates and we’ll go.”

He nudged Nix, and they turned to go.

One Protectorate team gone.

Arbiter dialed her phone, shifted restlessly.  “Chevalier.  It’s an emergency.”

There was a long pause.

“The Vegas team,” she said, finally.  “They’ve broken ranks.  There’s more, but if we’re going to arrest them, Dragon needs-”

A pause.

“No,” she said.  “They aren’t.  No.  Yes.  Yes, sir.”

There was a defeated tone to her body language as she let her arm fall to one side, disconnecting the call.

Arbiter looked from her phone to Prefab.  “Dragon collapsed just before this began.  She was meeting a Las Vegas Rogue.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I thought of the woman who’d been so handy with the computer.  The censor, the bogeyman.  They’d taken out Rime, no doubt because she could have sealed the box behind a wall of ice.

Yet they hadn’t taken out Prefab, who could have done much the same thing.

Every step of the way, every action perfect.

“The Vegas heroes?”  I asked.

“He said to let them go,” she said, her voice small.  “That we need them, even if they aren’t Protectorate.  He’ll send people to talk to them and arrange something later.”

I nodded, mixed emotions stewing in my midsection.  It was bad, it was disappointing, to see a failure on this level, after I’d given so much up to help the Protectorate out.

“We lost on every count,” I said.

“Rime’s alive,” Arbiter said, looking at her phone.

“Every other count, then,” I said.

“There’ll be better days,” she said.

Not like this, I thought, and it wasn’t a good thought.  As nice as the feeling of rescuing civilians had been, this was an ugly idea, a pit in the depths of my stomach.

The person I wanted to be, the person I was, reconciling them wasn’t so easy.  The hero on one side, Skitter on the other.

This has to change.

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Cell 22.6

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Dragon’s craft closed the distance to the rooftop’s edge, using precise adjustments to almost freeze in mid-air as it hovered.  It was gentle and graceful in comparison to Defiant’s squat, durable tank.  I wondered how intentional that was.  Just looking at it, I had little doubt that it was even longer range than any of the other models I’d crossed paths with.  I was put in mind of a sniper rifle, long, narrow, sleek and focused in its almost singular design.  The stability it had fit with the idea.  A stark contrast to Defiant’s craft, which seemed more like the type to be in the thick of a fight, fighting alongside him and complementing his fighting style.

Not that the aesthetics of Dragon’s work was really a priority right this moment.

“A mistake,” I said.

“We know how she operates,” Defiant said.  “Dragon, Miss Militia and I have each worked directly under Alexandria at some point.  It’s something of an unofficial policy to have anyone that’s being considered for a leadership position working under each member of the triumvirate for a time.”

“Must have been real fun for you guys when you found out what they’re really like, last month.”

“Not fun at all,” Miss Militia said.  She had to stoop to exit the ship and step onto the roof’s edge.

“We’ve seen how Alexandria handles interrogations,” Defiant said.  “She reads microexpressions.  Shapes every statement and action to get the responses she wants.”

“And she wanted this?” I asked.

Defiant shook his head.  “Knowing her, this was a gambit.  It wouldn’t do to have one workable outcome.  She pushes you, and if you attack, she has cause to finish you off or send you straight to the birdcage without a trial.  If you don’t attack, she knows she has leverage against you and the Undersiders.  She’d see which way you were leaning, then refine her approach further.”

“And here I was,” Miss Militia mused, “Thinking you didn’t have a head for this sort of thing, Defiant.”

“I’ve had help,” he said, glancing at Dragon.

“But she didn’t get either of those results,” I said.  “At least, not like she wanted.  For all her brains, for all this apparent ability to read me, she… didn’t understand what my friends mean to me.”

“I think she understood well enough,” Defiant said.  “But the mistake, the tragedy in all of this, was that she didn’t get an accurate read on you.  Much, I expect, for the same reason my lie detector could never seem to.  She was working with bad information, and she pushed you too far, too fast.”

An eerie parallel to mistakes Tattletale had made in the past.  And I killed Alexandria and Tagg because of it.

“And… my friends?  Just to make sure.  They’re okay?”

“Alexandria didn’t touch them.  The ones she brought into the building were body doubles, and the real Undersiders are poised to attack in-”  Miss Militia reached for her phone.

“Fifteen minutes,” Defiant said.

“Fifteen minutes,” Miss Militia said.  “In the meantime, we’re trying to deal with your lawyer, who got his hands on the footage of the interrogation and is threatening to bring hell down on our heads-”

Earning his pay, I thought.

She continued without pause.  “-And we still have to find a way to handle this without a complete PR catastrophe.  Once the media gets hold of this, we lose the ability to control the situation.”

“Dragon is managing the details as we speak,” Defiant said.  “She can isolate and track digital communication, but she can’t stop the spread of word of mouth.  Chevalier’s doing what he can on his end, but the PRT agents that confirmed Alexandria’s death won’t be able to keep their mouths shut forever, not with something as grave as this.”

“Fifteen minutes,” Miss Militia said.

“Fourteen,” Defiant cut in, correcting her.

Fourteen minutes,” she said, “That’s our working timeline.  Even if Skitter were to call off the Undersiders, we have information leaks.”

“Then what if we let it leak?” I asked.  “We say ‘fuck it, the PRT is fucked, Alexandria is a monster, let people figure it out for themselves.'”

“You don’t really want that,” Miss Militia said.

“The system is fucked,” I said.  “Everything that’s happened, it’s taught me a few things.  People are fucked up, for one thing.  And any organization that has people in control is going to be fucked on an exponential level.  But for all that, people are a hell of a lot tougher than we give them credit for.  We survive.  We innovate.  So yeah, I’m seriously thinking along those lines.  I wouldn’t mind seeing the PRT burn, damn it, because I think we’ll make it regardless.”

“Why?”  Miss Militia asked.  “What changed your mind from the moment you decided to surrender?  Your friends weren’t at risk, you already knew something about Tagg and Alexandria.”

“You,” I told her.  “You were part of it.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

Exactly.”

“You can’t blame me for standing out of the way.  You had a plan, Alexandria told me she had a plan, and nobody shared anything substantial with me.  I couldn’t take a step without risking that I’d get in someone’s way.”

I frowned.

“You’re hurt, you’re angry, you’re still reeling from what you thought happened,” Miss Militia said.  “Fine.  That’s fair.  But we don’t have time to work through that.  You said you wanted to work together, to compromise.  Do you stand by that?  Are you willing to at least try a workable solution?  Or are you going to keep fighting us?”

I glanced at Defiant.  “I’ll hear you out.”

“We need you to call your team and get them to stand down.  We can’t have bloodshed, and we can’t have Tattletale divulging critical information.”

I folded my arms.  “Meet me halfway.”

“Twelve minutes,” Defiant said.  “This isn’t the time to be hard-nosed.  You don’t want this fight any more than we do.  If this happens, your team will be at a very real risk of death or arrest.  Three of the A.I. models, Dragon’s, mine, the Brockton Bay heroes and no less than ten visiting heroes.”

“This is exactly the time to be hard-nosed.  The Undersiders get left alone.  Those are my terms.  Figure it the fuck out.”

There was a pause, an exchange of looks between Defiant and Dragon.

“We’re talking to Chevalier and the Chief Director,” Defiant said.

“Good,” I answered him.

A few seconds passed.  I glanced at the sun, dipping beneath the mountains to the west.

Miss Militia will fill in as an interim PRT director,” a male voice sounded from the speaker at Dragon’s shoulder.  Chevalier.  “I’ll arrange it.  We have leverage, with the current state of emergency and the issues that are liable to come up with the announcement that we can make use of the portal.

“And I’ll remain hands off, unless I’m replaced or I have no other choice?” Miss Militia said.

We’ll keep you in position for as long as we can, postpone any changes or replacements until people get more comfortable with the idea.  With luck, we can segue into keeping you in position on a permanent basis. Failing that, we tap someone sympathetic to our aims.

“Damn it,” Miss Militia muttered.  “I feel like my lifespan just got cut short.  Double the work, too.”

“We’ll figure out a way to make it work,” Defiant said.  He looked at me.  “Satisfactory?”

“Yes.  Phone?”

Miss Militia tapped out a password, then handed me hers.

I dialed Tattletale’s number.

When Tattletale didn’t pick up on the first ring, I felt my heart jump into my throat.  She’d never done that.

“‘Lo,” Tattletale said.  I let myself breathe a sigh of relief.  She continued, “Call display says PRT Phone server.  Who am I talking to?

“It’s me,” I said.

You!  You wouldn’t believe how worried I’ve been.  Or the headache I have.  You know they gave you bad info?

“I know,” I said.

The stuff you were writing, it didn’t match up.  Tried to tell you, but you couldn’t understand me.

“I know,” I said.  “Just tell me… everyone’s safe?”

Everyone’s accounted for.  Shit, what did they do?

“Tattletale-”

They tried something.  What happened?”

“Tattletale,” I said, raising my voice a notch.  “Time’s short.  Call off the hounds, literal or otherwise.  Delay.”

Delay?”

“They’re making temporary offers,” I said, eyeing the heroes, “We can make some temporary concessions.”

Okay.  But I can’t hold back some of the bastards we put into play.  I can stop them, but that’s it.  They’ll leave, and we’re that much weaker.

“That’s fine,” I told her.  “These guys are at a bit of a disadvantage too.”

Okay… let’s see… alright.  Holding off for… half an hour?  Adding fifteen minutes to the clock?” Tattletale asked.

“Longer?” I asked.

Any longer and more mercenaries start walking away, deciding to take the half we paid up front.

“That’ll do, then, I guess.”  I said, giving the heroes a thumbs up.

You said they’re weaker, huh?  So it’s true.  I didn’t want to use my power to verify… but the rumor mill is right?  Alexandria bit it?

“Yes.  I-” I stopped.

You?  You did it?”  Tattletale asked.  “Guys-

Her voice faded as she turned away from the phone.

“Don’t tell them,” I said, once I realized what she was saying.

It was too late.  I could hear jeers and whooping from Regent and Imp in the background.  I couldn’t make out everything Grue was saying, but I caught something along the lines of ‘Jesus H. Fucking Christ.

It’s too late to matter, honey bear,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t have much juice powerwise, but I don’t need any to know this much.  Word’s already out about Alexandria.

“Word’s out about Alexandria,” I said, for the benefit of the heroes.

Defiant folded his arms.

Anything else I can do?” she asked.

“Stay near a phone.  Thank you,” I said.  And keep the jailbreak specialists on hand, I thought.  Not that I could say that with the Protectorate members around me.

“One disaster averted,” Miss Militia said.

“Held at bay,” Defiant said.  “The word’s spreading.  It’s starting to pop up on isolated channels.”

“We’ll need to get our official word out first,” Miss Militia said.

“What do you even say?” I asked.  “She’s dead.”

“And that will make a lot of people lose hope,” Miss Militia said.  “We have other ideas, but we need something bigger, more concrete.”

“But she’s dead,” I said.  “The only way to change the reaction is to convince everyone we have a winning game plan anyways.  That the PRT isn’t fucked, which it is.”

“The A.I. craft,” Defiant said, turning to look at the Pendragon.  “Expendable, versatile, devastating in their own right, and there’s image attached to them.  They’ll get the public’s imagination fired up.”

Miss Militia shook her head.  “There’ll be doubts, it’s not enough.  Behemoth can generate electromagnetic waves that wipe out electronics.  Even many reinforced electronics, if he’s close enough.  The Simurgh can scramble coding.  We don’t just have to convince the public.  We need to convince the heroes, and they know these things.”

“And they know what the difference is going to be, without Alexandria on the front lines,” Defiant said.  He sighed audibly.  “Four times now, she’s been the deciding factor in beating the Simurgh back early.  Once with Leviathan, when I was new to the Protectorate.”

“We can reduce the impact of the loss with careful word choice and a good speech,” Miss Militia said.  “If Skitter is willing to call off her other dogs.”

I glanced at the phone in my hand.  “Okay.”

“No demands this time?”

“Believe it or not, I want to fix things,” I said, as I dialed Mr. Calle’s number.  “We’re on the same side here.  The difference is I consider my friends to be a part of a workable scenario.  I have my issues with you guys, but I’m extending the benefit of a doubt again, and I’m hoping it doesn’t come back to bite me in the ass.  Again.”

The phone rang.  Mr. Calle answered.  “Quinn Calle speaking.

“It’s Taylor Hebert.”

Ah, excellent.  I’d feared they’d executed you or sent you to be incarcerated.

“I’m sorry for, um, that,” I said.

They had one of your good friends in a body bag, or they led you to believe they did.  You reacted as many would, with anger and pain.  You were simply, how to put it… better equipped than the rest of us mere mortals to express that anger and pain.

“I wouldn’t have blamed you if you’d left.”

Rest assured, Ms. Hebert, I’ve dealt with worse.

“Okay,” I said.  “I need you to back off on whatever threats you’re directing at the PRT.”

No can do, I’m afraid.

“Why the hell not?”

Because, right at this moment, you’re in the custody of the heroes.  They’ve given you a phone, no doubt, and they’ve caught you at an emotionally vulnerable moment.  For your benefit, I can’t assume you’re of sound mind or that you aren’t being coerced.

“How do we change your mind?”

I wouldn’t mind an invitation to the discussion.

“We’re sending a vehicle your way,” I said.  “Where are you?”

The lovely little shop with the donuts I visited this morning.

“Okay,” I said, putting my hand over the mouthpiece, “He says-”

I stopped.  The armored suit Miss Militia had left was already moving, heading directly for my territory.  She’d been listening in.

“Never mind.”

“Let’s talk about our game plan,” Miss Militia said.  “We’ve got the peripheral stuff in the works.  You’re bringing the suits in?”

“Yes,” Defiant said.  “She is.  Chevalier is on the way as well, and we’ve contacted the media.”

Miss Militia nodded.  “The two major crises are being held at bay, thanks to Skitter’s cooperation.  We can’t keep the word from spreading through other channels, so let’s cover every base we can.  We only get one shot at this.”

“Key points being Skitter’s role in this, and addressing how we deal with Alexandria’s demise,” Defiant said.

“My role?” I asked.  “I thought you wanted me to call off the attack?”

“No,” Miss Militia said.  “There’s more.”

I narrowed my eyes, very conscious of the fact that there were three rather powerful capes and one mechanized suit in my immediate vicinity.  “What more?”

She glanced at Defiant, then back to me.  “We’d like you to be there for the conference with the media.  Dragon’s going over footage, and so long as your lawyer doesn’t release the unedited content, we can hide the worst of the details from the media.  Shape the narrative.”

“You’re lying,” I said.

“We’re revising the truth,” she said.  She paused.  “Yes.  We’re lying.”

“And you want me to participate in that?”

“Yes.  Your presence will lend a degree of legitimacy to what we’re saying.  We’re on opposite sides, in the public eye, making it all the more meaningful if we agree on what happened.”

“Are you fighting to keep the PRT going, or are you working to rebuild it?” I asked.

“Rebuild it,” she said.  No hesitation.

“And you’re doing it by starting with a lie.  Just like they did.”

“Yes,” she said.  Again, there was no hesitation.  “There’s no pretty, perfect answers, and concessions have to be made.  Questions and issues on a greater scale mean more repercussions for failure, and they call for bigger concessions if we want to ensure success.”

“And this is a big event, a lot of power,” I said.  “Big concessions?”

“Yes,” she said.  She looked ten times as tired as she said it.

I folded my arms.  I couldn’t disagree.  I didn’t like it.  But I’d been a leader.  I’d made shady calls.  I’d hurt people.  Had lied, cheated, stolen, killed.

The sun was gone, hidden by the mountains, and the clouds were changing from purple to black.  How long until the new deadline?  Twenty minutes?

I could see Defiant, saw him conversing with Dragon and Miss Militia.

I saw how he folded his arms, still holding his spear, so it rested against his shoulder.  How he planted his feet further apart.  A warrior’s stance.

It inspired a memory, of my first night out in costume.  The bad guy lying defeated on the street below, the city quiet around us, the dark sky overhead, with only meager light illuminating us.  Framing the situation, talking about options and priorities.

Not so different from the scene here.  The villain wasn’t here.  Alexandria had fallen a distance away.  But the city was quiet, the area still blockaded, the sky was dark, and the topic of discussion…

I thought of something, one moment in that night’s discussion when I’d thought that maybe Armsmaster could live up to the reputation, that he could really truly be someone who I could look up to.

“Hey,” I said.

Heads turned my way.

“As far as Alexandria goes, what if we turn it around?”

“Turn it around?”

“Way back, when I first started out in costume, I had a talk with Armsmaster.  He told me that I should be happy I was mistaken for a villain, because it meant I didn’t have to fight the Undersiders.  This was before I joined them.  It reminded me of how I’d been trying to deal with the shit I was going through back then, turning negatives into positives.  I think we can do that here.”

“How?” Miss Militia asked.  She glanced at Dragon’s craft, just now arriving to bring my lawyer to us.

“So long as we’re lying,” I said, “Let’s go wholesale.  We present Alexandria as the villain she was.”

“That’ll make the situation worse,” Miss Militia said.

“It depends on how we present the idea,” I said.

Dragon’s suit once again came to a stop at the edge of the roof, as it had when it had delivered Miss Militia.  It turned sideways, and the body opened, revealing my lawyer, looking more stressed than I’d seen him, in the midst of a rather compact cockpit.

Mr. Calle accepted Miss Militia’s offered hand in stepping down to the rooftop, and seemed to relax the instant his feet touched solid ground.

“Whoo,” he said.  “Never let it be said that my job isn’t an adventure.  You’re well, Ms. Hebert?”

“I am.”

“You haven’t made any deals?”

“Nothing permanent.”

“Good.”

Dragon touched my shoulder.  When I turned her way, she set her fingers in my hand, pulling me after her with the light contact of two of her fingertips.  Gentle, easy to avoid, but clear enough.

I followed as she led me to her hovering Dragon-craft, Mr. Calle a step behind me.  Mr. Calle had longer legs than I did, but he was the one who hesitated at the gap before stepping into the open cockpit.

Once I was on board, Dragon reached over to the wall and opened a shallow drawer, no more than three inches deep.  The drawer opened with a noise like something from a science fiction movie.

I stared at the contents.

“How?” I asked, and all of the confidence was gone from my voice.  “Wait, nevermind. You’re fu- you’re tinkers, damn it.”

Mr. Calle stepped up beside me, placing one hand on my shoulder in an uncharacteristic need for some support.  He looked down.  “I take it we’ve reached something of a consensus here?”

“I have no idea,” I said.

“Yes,” Defiant said, from the rooftop.

“Then it seems I need to draw up some paperwork,” Mr. Calle said.  “For formality’s sake, if nothing else.”

“Do it in five minutes,” Miss Militia said, from Defiant’s side.  “We’re out of time.  The media’s here.”

“Five?”  Mr. Calle seemed momentarily pained.  “Paper, fast.”

Dragon handed him a sleek keyboard, pointing to a screen.  He started typing.

“I’ll credit you this, Ms. Hebert,” my lawyer said, as he typed away, tabbing to different windows to draw up pages he could copy-paste from.  “You manage a great deal of grief and chaos in very short spans of time.”

Chevalier had arrived, and stepped into the cockpit.  Gold and silver armor, his cannonblade resting against one shoulder.  He briefly clasped hands with Defiant.

I stopped tidying my hair long enough to take the stylus from Dragon, scribbling my signature on the offered pad.  Others were already present – Miss Militia’s and Defiant’s.  The Chief Director’s signature appeared as the document was signed from a remote location.

“You’re ready?” Chevalier asked me.

I shook my head.  “No.”

“But you’re willing?”

“Yeah,” I said.  I rubbed my arms, then  zipped up my prison-issue sweatshirt.  “Has to be done, doesn’t it?”

“It’s not pretty,” he said.  “There’s a lot of ugliness in this.  But yes.  This gives us the best chance.”

I nodded.  I still had Miss Militia’s phone.  I dialed Tattletale.

Yo?

“Turn on the TV,” I said.  “And call them off.  Unless something goes horribly wrong, this is it.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah,” I said.  No, I thought.

I hung up.

All together, we stepped out of the cockpit and walked around the craft.

The Wards were here.  Clockblocker, Vista, Kid Win and Crucible, standing on guard.

Rounding the corner, we approached the open street where the crowd of reporters waited.  Television cameras shifted to focus on the reporters announcing our arrival, or to follow us as we walked.  Tripod-mounted lights cast shafts of light across the road, all converging on one point, the makeshift stage – the flat ledge of the Dragon-suit’s wing, five feet off the ground.  Voices bubbled around us, a million questions, almost a singular noise.

Chevalier stepped forward, and they simultaneously drew quiet.  He had a presence, a kind of nobility that garnered respect.

“Today, not two hours ago, Alexandria was killed.”

I could barely see the reporters past the massive lights that were shedding light on the stage, on us.  They were solemn, focused on every single word.  They didn’t even flinch at the news.  They’d already known.

“Alexandria was a veteran among capes.  She was one of the first capes, one who was present for almost every major catastrophe in the last twenty years.  With every challenge she surmounted, she reaffirmed our belief in her, showed us how strong she was, how impervious and noble she was.”

He lowered his head.  I resisted the urge to fidget.  This was showing live, to homes across America.

On a rooftop nearby, capes teleported in.  Other capes, flying, were touching down on top of a news car.  Dovetail, with Sere beside her.

“If that was it, this would be hard enough,” he spoke.  “But she was a mythic figure in her own way.  She was a living symbol, recognized across the world.  She was a leader among us.  She was a friend to some of us.”

I sensed rather than saw Eidolon, hovering well above the reach of the lights.  Legend was close too, though less intent on hiding.

I steeled myself for what came next, willing myself to stay calm, to not give anything away.

“And she was a traitor.”

That garnered a response from the news reporters.  Shouted questions pierced the silence that loomed in the wake of Chevalier’s words.

He continued.  “When Alexandria was slain, earlier today, it was done by individuals standing on this stage.”

Every word carefully chosen, so it was technically or at least partially true.  Alexandria was a traitor, with her involvement with Cauldron, she had been slain at the hands of someone on the stage.

“There are individuals out there right now, who have kept quiet about recent events.  Only last month, there was an event in this city, a threat that was theorized to be a nascent Endbringer.  In the wake of that event, Alexandria was revealed to be partially responsible.”

The reporters, I noted, were deathly still.  Deer in the headlights.

Good capes,” Chevalier said, “Burdened by conscience, walked away from the PRT.  Without them to serve as our backbone, we were left gutted.  There has been rampant speculation on what has been going on within the PRT, on what might have caused so many capes to abandon it.  We –they– couldn’t speak because Alexandria held a position of power, because she was purportedly invincible, unassailable.  Because of the threat she posed, and the resources she had at her disposal.”

Others were joining the crowd of reporters.  Civilians, returning now that the blockades had been taken down, maybe going home, only to see the scene, the heroes in the spotlight.  They clustered, or parked at the periphery of the crowd, getting out of their cars.

How many millions were tuning in right this moment?

“Some of us left, because their consciences couldn’t bear serving a corrupt power.  Others, many of us on the stage included, stayed, because we felt the PRT, the Protectorate, the Wards program and the teams that draw on us for resources were too important.  I’m not here to say one decision was better than the other, or to lay blame with those who sided with her.  In coming weeks and months, our capes, accountants and lawyers will be meeting with anyone and everyone in a position of power within the Protectorate program or the PRT, ensuring nothing of this scale occurs again.”

Something moved into my range.  An insect.  Large.

Atlas.

I moved him experimentally, and felt how incredibly weary he was.  His reserves of energy were drained, his body dying.  His forelegs touched the walls around him.  He’d been placed in the back of a van.

And the occupants of that van – bugs entered open windows to make contact with the others.  Lisa, Brian, Alec and Aisha.  I could hear the echo, time delayed by five seconds, as they watched Chevalier speak on a tablet PC.

 “Alexandria betrayed us on a fundamental level, and the whole cape community has felt that.  The public has felt that.  I urge people not to blame her.  She had no less than eighteen fights against the Simurgh.  We had been led to believe her powers rendered her immune, but she was clever enough to hide and alter the evidence.  She was a victim, and it’s a testament to her character that she fought off the Simurgh’s influence for as long as she did.”

And there’s the first egregious lie, I thought.

With luck, nobody would believe anyone that was callous enough to point it out.  Nobody would want to believe them.  It was an ugly thought, that Alexandria could be twisted to act against our interests just because of who she was.  She’d worked with Cauldron, had experimented on humans, all in the interest of… what?  Creating powers?  Selling them?

I swallowed hard.  I knew what came next.

“It was due to a concerted effort this evening that we were able to stop Alexandria before more damage could be done.”

Chevalier reached out, put a hand on my shoulder.  He drew me closer to him, until I stood in front of him and he had both hands resting on my shoulders.

“Many 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.”

And now half the world hates me, I thought, staring forward.  The glare was so intense I thought my eyes might start crossing.  And the other half… I don’t know what the other half thinks.

I’d agreed to share ‘credit’ for the kill, but only because there had been a consensus that people wouldn’t believe it if I took sole responsibility.

Chevalier wasn’t speaking.  I saw a red light go on at the corner of my collar.  The microphone Dragon had clipped there was live.  The signals would be received by all equipped, official cameras.  Something the PRT had arranged for convenience’s sake some time ago.

I had a chance to speak in my own defense, in front of countless tens or hundreds of millions of eyes, and the words were dying in my throat.

My thoughts were grinding to a standstill.  What was I supposed to say?  We’d barely had any time to prepare.  We hadn’t had time to prepare.

There were whole lines I was supposed to give.  Ideas I was supposed to express, striking the right tone, and I’d gone blank.

I couldn’t defend myself like this, even with rehearsed lines.

Chevalier rescued me.  He spoke, his voice clear.  “This isn’t a happy day.”

It was a reminder of what my line was supposed to be.  I’m not proud, I’m not happy that it came to this…

“It’s not a happy day, but it’s a good day,” he said, skipping ahead two or so minutes.  “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.”

Dragon’s ships descended from the sky above.  My hair and the hood of my sweatshirt flapped as the vessels landed to either side of us.  Eleven vessels.  The ones we’d destroyed had been rebuilt, updated.  Others, old Dragon suits, had apparently been set up with A.I. to fly on their own.  They gleamed, various shades of chrome and gunmetal, with trim in different metals and colors for decoration and highlighting.

She had more made, I thought.

“A chance to fight Endbringers without as many casualties,” Chevalier said.  “And 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.”

I stared at the van where the Undersiders were.

“And new allies, as unlikely as they might be.”

His hands dropped from my shoulders.

I reached up to the zipper of my sweatshirt.  I pulled it down, then shrugged out of it.  Chevalier took the piece of clothing in one hand.

I bent over and stepped out of the loose-fitting prison sweats as well.

Defiant handed me my new mask, and I pulled it on.  Electric blue lenses, the opposite of the yellow I’d worn before.  They helped with the glare, though they weren’t so good against it as my old lenses.

Light gray fabric where I’d had black.  Armor panels in the same dark gray as before, albeit with cleaner lines, less bulk, and less in the way of edges.  I had no points at the tips of my gloves, and both the mantle around my shoulders and the cloth that hung around my belt were marked with an electric blue border, with my gang emblem in miniature at each corner, flipped upside down so they faced skyward, altered to match my new color scheme.

“I admitted to reprehensible things,” I said.  “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.”

I paused.  For a terrifying moment, I thought I’d forget what to say again.  Then I fixed my eyes on the windshield of the van, at the far end of the crowd.

It struck me that I hadn’t suffered stage fright.  It had been something else entirely.  I hadn’t wanted to speak, because there would be no going back.

When I finally spoke, I didn’t follow the cues I’d been given.  My eyes didn’t leave the spot where the Undersiders were watching from.

“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.”

The eyes and cameras on me made me feel like I was deep in the ocean, a crushing weight pressing down on me.

“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.”

A lump welled in my throat.  I knew I didn’t have many more words left before I wouldn’t be able to speak.

“This is what I want to do, above all else,” I said, and I said it to the Undersiders.  “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-“

A howling in the distance interrupted me.

Moments later, others took up the cry.  Ten dogs, then twenty.  Others took up the cry around the city, from various shelters and homes.  A hundred, two hundred dogs, and the wolf cub that had started them off.

“-When and if I do take up the job,” I finished, speaking around the growing lump in my throat, “You can call me Weaver.”

Chevalier set a hand on my shoulder.

“That’ll be all,” the hero said.  “We’ll have another statement and a conference to answer questions early tomorrow, when we know more for sure.”

The reporters were already calling out questions.  Is this the first time you’ve recruited a villain?  How did Alexandria die?  What crimes did she commit, exactly?

More questions, until it was a jumble.

He led me away, one hand steady and firm on my shoulder, and Miss Militia, Defiant, Dragon and my lawyer fell into step behind us.

I cast one last glance at the van, then entered Dragon’s ship.

“You stumbled,” Defiant said.  “Improvised.  But that was good.”

I didn’t respond.

“You know you can’t stay here.  There’s a conflict of-“

Dragon reached out and pressed an index finger against the ‘mouth’ of his mask.

Then she folded her arms around me.  She was cold to the touch, hard and unyielding, but she still managed a motherly embrace.

My face pressed against her shoulder, I found myself glad that my mask hid my face from view.

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Cell 22.5

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Abandoned.

The word hit me before I was fully conscious, as though my brain had grasped the idea before I even had half of a brain functioning.

My father, gone.  My lawyer was gone as well.  Not such a big surprise.  I’d gone all out, held little back, and I’d given no apparent justification.  To them, to my dad especially, I would have looked like a monster.

Fitting, because I’d been one.  I was one.  Was that a label that was affixed to me permanently, now?

My mind was wandering more than it should have.  My head hurt.  I tried to focus, turning to my bugs.

Except my swarm was nearly gone.  Only a small fraction remained.  Hundreds, if that.  My bugs had carried out the last order I’d given them, to attack, before I was knocked out.  I knew that.  What confused me were the other behaviors my bugs had performed.

They’d spread out and searched my surroundings, and they’d been gunned down en masse by Kid Win’s drones. I could sort of understand that, especially if they were actively searching for the last targets I’d given them. That, and I could picture myself unconsciously wanting to check for incoming threats and assess the battlefield before the tranquilizer took hold.  Odd, fucking inconvenient, but understandable.

But the fact that bugs had spent the time I was out to weave lengths of silk cord?  That was unusual, something out of place.  It was something I’d taken to having my bugs handle in the background at any given moment, but why would I carry it out in my sleep?  I was pretty sure I hadn’t given that order, which left only three real possibilities.  Either my unconscious mind had willed it while I slept, or my passenger had.  Unnerving.

More unnerving was the third possibility – that there wasn’t a real distinction between my unconscious mind and the passenger.

I sat up, contorted in pain as I felt bruises and cuts making themselves known, and then groaned as my expression shifted and I felt the damage above and around my eye.  There was a wound: my skin had split, and the tightness coupled with the crusty wet sensation suggested drying blood.

My glasses were screwed up too.  Tagg had knocked one lens out of the frame when he’d slammed my face into the table.  My vision was oddly dreamlike, blurry through my right eye, too crisp through my left.  I moved my hands to move the glasses, and felt the heavy-duty cuffs encasing them.  The sort of handcuffs reserved for low-level Brutes, that covered my hands entirely, each hand welded to the other.

I was in the PRT offices.  I was back in my cell.

As far as I could tell, the building was empty.  My power reached five blocks, and… nothing.  There were no people. Computers were active, television screens were glowing with shifting images, and cars sat in the middle of the road outside, but the people were gone.

Evacuation?  When my power hadn’t stopped, the PRT would have ordered people to clear out of the area.

Maybe they weren’t sure if my power would keep going if they shot me.

I stood and rolled my shoulders, feeling things pop, grind and sing with pain in response to the movement.  I’d had my hands fixed in front of me for the better part of the day, with only a brief respite in my cell while I’d showered.

Showering… it made me think of being in my lair after the first night I’d been with Brian.

I pushed it out of my mind, and Rachel appeared instead, stepping to fill the blank in my mind’s eye.

As if I were suddenly channeling her, I struck at the door with the restraints that encased my hands.  Metal struck metal, the strike barely denting the brushed stainless steel of the door’s surface.

A rapid, high-pitched beeping sounded from above me.  I looked up at the orb just in time to see it lighting up.  I threw myself to the ground, felt the shock jolt through me.

If I’d been sore before, the jolt cranked it up to ten.  I felt my mind go white, heat coiling through the interior of my body, as though it were dancing around my internal organs and bones.  The strength went out of me; my cuffs were too heavy, and I didn’t have the ability to hold them up.  I fell, as though the restraints were an anchor pulling me down.

I could feel my muscles twitching in a way that seemed like it was intentionally making the sorest parts of me move.

Do not disturb the peace of your cell.  This deterrence measure was calculated at twenty percent of your overall capacity.  The next response will be at twice the strength.  Thank you,” the automated voice informed me.

For long minutes, I lay there, spasming and searching the building with surviving bugs, because doing anything else was impossible or futile.

Needed out.

How had they unlocked my cell and the interrogation room?  They’d had phones.  PRT issue, probably, and had tapped the phone against the wall.

Phones… there were no PRT officers in the building.

In the morgue… there was a body bag.  Bugs clung to it.

Brian?  Rachel?  Someone else?

I sent bugs over to explore it.  One centipede to latch the zipper, other bugs to haul it back.

It was Tagg, dead.

I’d killed a man, and I had done it with my power, which somehow felt more intimate than the gun that killed Coil.  My power made the bugs an extension of myself, and I’d used them to murder the man.  It was little different from wrapping my hands around his throat and squeezing, or biting him in the throat and tearing deep enough that he couldn’t survive.

I couldn’t bring myself to feel anything meaningful about it.  I wanted to.  I wanted to think of his daughters, apparently college students overseas, and his apparently loving wife, and the fact that I’d just taken a member of their family from them, much as my mom had been taken from me.  I wanted to feel terrible, to cry, but I couldn’t bring myself to.  I felt bad, but not as bad as I should have.

No.  I could only see the bully, the monster, the threat he posed to the city or the world.  To my team.

Or was that the threat he had posed?  Was it too late to save them?

I couldn’t check the time without sacrificing bugs to the patrolling drones.  However long I’d been out, the remainder of the Undersiders could be embroiled in an all-out war.

Tagg,  I thought.  Have to focus.

His phone was in his jacket pocket, his key ring in his pants pocket.  Getting the items to me would be harder.  There were closed doors, vents, the elevator and the blocked elevator shaft.  The morgue was in a separate building, joined to the PRT office at one corner.

Worse, the numerous skirmishes in, outside and around the building had led to there being a great deal of renovation and rebuilding.  New things were that much harder to get bugs through.  There were no open grates, no gaps in air conditioning ducts or anything in that vein.

There had to be a way.  I was down to a few hundred bugs.  Barely enough to matter.  I wasn’t about to brute force my way through anything.

I thought of the hole Alexandria had put in the roof during her hurried exit.  It was the most indirect way, getting bugs from the basement of one building outside, to the roof, and back down to the basement of the next building… but it was a path.  If there were barriers I wasn’t sensing, I’d handle them.

Working together, bugs began dragging the keys and smart phone down the hall to the mortician’s office.  Windows, squat, looked out at the parking lot, no doubt intended more to bring natural light into the office than for the sake of the view.  I knew before approaching them that the windows were open – there was fresh air flowing into the hallway, and my bugs could sense the shifting air currents.

A screen blocked the way.  Not a serious issue.  The bugs started chewing through the individual wires, while the bugs with the phone and key ring began binding the items in silk, connecting them to a line.

Minutes passed while the bugs made their way up to the hole in the roof, down the shaft to the Wards headquarters one floor below me, and to the elevator.

The stairwell was blocked off, the elevator… the buttons.

I had the largest bug ram it.

Nothing.  Feeble at best.

The wiring.  Could I hotwire it like someone hotwired a car?

Getting into the walls wasn’t as hard as it should have been.  Rachel had done a little damage when she’d attacked with the dogs a week ago.  Even though they’d shored it up and sealed the exterior from the interior, there were gaps that I could use to get inside from the building’s interior, much as I’d done when disconnecting the outlet for Kid Win’s drone recharging station.

The actual connection… the damn thing seemed to be reinforced, with thick wires and a button mechanism that was too heavy to move from within.  The bugs themselves couldn’t form a live connection between the button and the contact.

A workaround.  I used cockroaches to carefully strip away insulation, two centipedes positioning themselves so their mandibles were above two respective pieces of wire, their tail ends entwined with one another.  Then they let themselves drop.  Their bodies bridged the gap between the wire behind the contact and the wiring by the button.

The centipedes died in an instant, and the door opened.

I dragged the smart phone and keys in, being careful to use bugs to bridge the gap so the phone and the keys wouldn’t fall through, and then let the elevator carry the bugs to the floor above.  The doors opened automatically as the elevator arrived, and I brought the items out the same way.

The bugs began the slow process of bringing the phone to a point high enough on the wall.  I spent the time recovering, flexing my muscles until I was sure they moved right.  I had to draw out more silk to have a line strong enough, and set to reeling it in, anchoring end at the corner of the door frame, pushing up with the bugs and looping any slack around the corner of metal.

It wasn’t halfway up when the heroes arrived to collect their prisoner.  A vibration through the building as a heavy vehicle landed on the helicopter pad on the roof.  Four legged, with turbines in the place of wings, and a neckless head.  A man stepped out.  Defiant.

Dragon arrived as Defiant reached the elevator door on the rooftop.  My bugs inside continued the glacial process of raising the phone to the necessary height, while the ones outside clustered on Defiant and Dragon.  They knew I was here.  There was no reason to be subtle.  The only thing I had to be careful of was keeping Defiant from killing the swarm with one of his bug zapping tricks.

His focus was on his phone and the door, instead.  He was typing something.  A password?

If one was required to access the phone, I was screwed.  If it was access specific…

I memorized the sequence.  Now I had the problem of using it on the touch screen of the smart phone.

If it was pressure sensitive, then I could use it.

If it was heat-sensitive…

Bugs approached the fluorescent lightbulbs in the hallway outside, warming themselves until their wings and legs threatened to burn up.

The pair of heroes was halfway to the elevator on the top floor when the phone reached the correct height.  Bugs I’d warmed on the bulbs moved to the keyboard, copying the same sequence of movements I’d tracked with the bugs on Defiant’s glove and phone.

The door slid open.

I dropped to my hands and knees to get the phone in my teeth, stooped down so the bugs with the keys could latch on to my gauntlet-restraints, then speed-hobbled for the elevator, chains at my ankles clanking.

I hit the button a second before Defiant hit the one on the top floor.  The doors opened immediately.

They hadn’t reacted yet.  The delay before the elevator moved hadn’t registered with them.  Once they saw the elevator moving… they would expect me to run, cut me off.

Fuck that.

Had to second guess them, which was harder than it sounded, because they weren’t dumb.  If they expected me to make a break for the ground floor, I’d have to do something else.

I leaned back against the wall and used my bare toe to hit the button for the first and third floors.  That done, I turned my attention to the keys.  The phone went into one pocket, moved by a swarm of bugs and the slope of my arm.  When that was done, smaller bugs searched the keyhole at the base of my restraints to gauge the width.  Other bugs marked the keys that fit the same size, yet others holding the ring against my restraints so I could use my teeth to pick through them, sliding them around the ring when they weren’t appropriate.  Cockroaches wedged themselves in between keys to speed the process along.

Defiant and Dragon were moving.  Dragon opened a window and moved outside, while Defiant headed into the stairwell.  They wanted to cut me off on the ground floor.

They could communicate without talking.  Some kind of system built into their masks.  It made this harder.  I couldn’t listen in and anticipate what they were saying.

By the time I passed the first floor, they were turning around.  I hurried to the stairwell, and took the stairs two at a time in a hurry to get up to the second floor.

Just inside the door, I used my toes to ease it closed, then crouched to stay out of sight as Dragon patrolled outside, peeking in the windows.

I tried a key, sliding it into the hole before successfully turning it with my teeth.  My lips came in contact with the cockroaches I was using to guide the metal into place.  I didn’t care.

Disease, filth, disgust, they all came in a distant second to other priorities.  I felt numb, and it wasn’t the electrocution.  They’d taken away someone important to me, pushed me.  My dad was gone, my lawyer, my team… my team wasn’t here.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to know why they hadn’t come to the rescue, or why the mercenaries we’d hired hadn’t been called in.

I had an ugly feeling in my gut that something was wrong.  Something beyond what had just happened here, beyond the possibility that someone I loved, romantically or platonically, was gone.

I got the cuffs off, set them down on a computer chair and slid it neatly under the desk so the cuffs wouldn’t be immediately apparent.

My hands were free.  I needed tools and I needed weapons.

I scooped up silk cords from the floor, where they’d been abandoned by the bugs that had been working on them.  Not much.  Most were short, but it was something.  I set my bugs to splicing them together.  One twenty-foot rope was more use to me than ten cords that were each two or three feet long.

Other priorities.  Those fucking drones.  I could see them, footballs with one end sawn off, carried aloft by antigravity panels like the ones from Kid Win’s skateboard.  I could see one switch modes, unfolding and reconfiguring to an entirely different setup, from white to red.

I used my body to block its line of sight to my swarm, trusting that it wouldn’t do any serious damage if there was a human in its line of sight, then grabbed the thing out of the air and shoved it into a desk drawer.  I shut the drawer firmly before blocking it with a box of paperwork.

I’d slipped out of the pair’s grasp for just a moment.  I had little doubt they’d pull some other solution out of their tinker caps before long.  I crossed the room to get to a second drone, picking up a trash can from beside one desk, catching it like I might a large butterfly in a net, and then planting it on the ground, moving a monitor from someone’s desk to sit on top.

Once the way was clear, my swarm worked to catch up.  Tagg’s phone wasn’t good for anything more than access until I figured out his password.  A check of the phones failed to give me a dial tone.  Dragon’s work?

This floor was where the PRT officers worked.  It was where they got briefed and debriefed, and where they typed up their paperwork.  I’d observed them at work with my bugs, had seen the patterns and figured it out in advance.  I’d also seen where they kept their stuff.

Tagg’s phone and the code Defiant had used served to open the supply room.  In the same moment the lock opened, Dragon turned around and made a beeline for the stairwell, using her jetpack to pick up speed.  Defiant changed direction only a moment later.

She’d tapped into the security system, no doubt.  Defiant would know the building’s layout if he had any of his old technology.  I couldn’t give them any advantages, and if she had eyes on the security system, it would eliminate any possibility of me evading them.  I set bugs to chewing on the lines that fed into the building from outside.

The boxes were locked, but I had Tagg’s keys and nothing to lose.  Fully aware of Dragon and Defiant’s approach, I worked my way through the keys in much the same way I had with the keys for the cuffs.

The lights abruptly went out.  After a moment, the lights came back on, with a dim red glow.  The backup generator.  I started to work on that as well.  I could fight in darkness.  I wasn’t sure they could.

I could hear them walking by the time I got the box open.

Grenade launchers, with special shells.  I turned a grenade launcher over in my hands before figuring out how to open it and load the cartridges.  Each was color coded, with a symbol and two-letter code stenciled on it.  A green cartridge with a face, eyes squinting, mouth open with tongue extended, T.G. beneath.  A red cartridge with the letters I.G. and a flame.  A blue cartridge with a stick-man stuck in goop, C.F. no doubt standing for containment foam.  A yellow cartridge with a lightning bolt and E.M. beneath.

I loaded the last, aiming out the open door of the storage area, and pulled the trigger.

Nothing.

A bar of black on the back of the grip lit up with letters, running vertically from above my thumb to the bottom of the grip.  ‘NONCONFIRMED’.

They’d either learned since we attacked the fundraiser, or they took stricter measures with their more dangerous weaponry.

I investigated, but there didn’t seem to be a place to input any code.

The footsteps drew closer, heavy.  I could sense Defiant with my swarm, only a short distance away, looking into the briefing room to see if he could spot me.

Fingerprints, I thought.  Except there wasn’t a flat panel to press the finger against.  The grip was textured, and nothing about the barrel suggested it was meant to read anything.

The gloves.

I used the same key that had opened the box to access the locker with the armor the PRT officers wore.  I found a glove and began pulling it on.

Defiant appeared in the doorway.  He aimed the butt of his spear at me, and the display on the gun dissipated.

He lunged, and the butt of his spear caught me just below the collarbone.  With that alone, he pushed me into the lockers with enough force that they rocked against my back, rendering me pinned.

I let the grenade launcher fall to the ground.

Dragon appeared behind him, setting one hand on his arm as she passed through the door.  He eased back on the pressure.

I glared at them, but they didn’t speak, and Defiant didn’t move to release me.  Were they talking with one another?

“Fine,” I said.  “You got me.  I had to-”

Defiant was shaking his head.  He tapped his mask.

Bugs flowed over the outside of his armor, and he didn’t seem to mind.  There were no openings, no apertures, no air holes or gaps I could work a bug into.  He was playing the same game Mannequin had, to counteract my power.  Fuck it.  I wouldn’t be able to sting him.  Dragon either, apparently.

He couldn’t talk.  I wasn’t positive he could even hear.

He shifted his grip, then grabbed my upper left arm.  Dragon took hold of the right.  They half-walked, half-carried me towards the stairwells and elevator.  I walked more to keep them from putting more strain on my already sore shoulders than out of any need.  Their grip left me little doubt they could have held me off the ground if they wanted.

Defiant stopped mid-stride, then glanced at Dragon and me.

Without letting go of me he charged the very air with a current from his spear, frying each and every one of the bugs I had in the area.  It included, unfortunately, the two groups of bugs that were following me, each group discreetly escorting specialized canisters from the grenade launcher.  I could feel my hair shift in reaction to the strike, the little hairs on my arms and the nape of my neck standing to attention.

I wasn’t sure if it would have worked, but my hope had been to possibly drop the grenades from overhead after we’d reached the roof.  No such luck.  I hung my head as we entered the stairwell, making our way up to the roof and the waiting vehicle.

This was my escort, apparently.  Heroes with the tools to disable and defeat my most common methods, sealed in suits that my bugs couldn’t touch, overloaded with firepower, while I had none.

Unfair.  All of it.  On so many levels.  Too many situations, all together, with no perfect, right answers.  Over and over, being faced with lose-lose situations.  Cutting ties with the Undersiders versus helping Dinah.  Leaving my dad versus abandoning the people in my territory.  Leaving the city versus letting the world blow up in some unknown, undefined end of the world scenario.

And maybe I could have lived with that, could have accepted that things weren’t fair and the world was biased, but I wasn’t the one paying the price.  All too often, it was others around me who paid the price.  My dad had suffered for my decisions before.  And now?  This.

Emotion was starting to creep back in.  Anger, frustration, despair, heartbreak.

I blinked rapidly, to keep my eyes as dry as possible.

The anger, of all things, was comforting.  It was something that pushed me to act, to move, when I wanted nothing more than to give up.  I hurt everywhere, I had nobody left to rely on, and I felt drained.  The fear, the hopelessness, it was seductive.  It was urging me to give up.

The lights in the stairwell died as the bugs severed the output from the generator.  I tried to use the surprise to pull free, but Defiant and Dragon didn’t even slow down.  Their grips were firm.

I gave up when the struggling became too much of a chore with the pain in my shoulders.  I still had the silk cord, if nothing else.  Escape wasn’t a good option.  Offense, then.

When we stepped out of the stairwell and onto the rooftop, the light momentarily blinded me.  Defiant’s vessel was a mechanized dragon painted in black and green, glossy, with gold framing the shield at the dragon’s forehead, at the ‘wings’ and shoulders.  The sleek form focused the light cast by the reddening sun at the horizon’s edge.  It felt like the design had all been engineered to direct a hundred gleaming daggers of light right into my eyes.

To the people out there, barring those within a third of a mile who had been evacuated, this was a diversion.  It was little more than something to discuss at the dinner table, or watch on the late night news.  The area being evacuated, the fighting, the destruction.  Even the demise of the PRT director wouldn’t have a huge impact on the average citizen of Brockton Bay.  Spotting Dragon’s heavy vehicle-suit circling overhead would barely warrant twenty words in small talk.  It wasn’t so noteworthy to the people down there, probably wouldn’t change the course of their weeks or evenings.

To me, this was everything.  It was the rest of my life, my friends, my father.  I’d lost someone.  Brian or Rachel.  The only people who would fit the bag.  I was doing what I could to avoid dwelling on it, glad that I hadn’t yet confirmed it either way, because it let me feel like it was Rachel when I was thinking about Brian, or vice versa.

It couldn’t end like this.  I didn’t want to get taken in.  I had to find a way.  My plan, as minor and feeble as it was, was easy enough to put into action, with him holding me like he was.  My bugs moved down the length of his arm, then traveled around his midsection, twice, with the cord following them.  There were only two people to tie Defiant to.  Doing it to myself would be nearly useless.  That left only Dragon.

I bound the other end around her left foot.  The slack trailed several feet behind us.  A cord as thick around as two of my fingers put together, as strong as steel.

“Before you take me in,” I said, “Could I have a word?”

Dragon turned to look at me, but didn’t speak.

“A word with Defiant,” I said.  “I’m not going to try anything.  He doesn’t even have to say anything.  It’s sort of a last request.”

Defiant’s mask opened with a barely perceptible noise.

“A last request,” he made it a statement rather than a question.  “We can talk in the Pendragon.  There’s no need.”

“I spent the day in a cell, I wanted some fresh air.  Sue me for thinking you actually meant something when you apologized, that you were sorry for not being fair to me back then,”  I sounded more petulant and bitter than I liked.

He glanced at Dragon, and the silence suggested there was a dialogue happening.

“It’s rude to whisper,” I said.  Again, more petty than I wanted to be.

“She can’t speak out loud,” Defiant said.  “It’s complicated to explain.  She’s under certain restrictions, many related to the PRT, and we’d agreed we didn’t want to win like that, back at the school.  The only way for Dragon to stop was if I stepped in and made her stop, and she was hurt in the process.  The recovery is slow.”

Only if he made her stop?  Because the PRT would be harsher with her, with whatever leverage they had over her?  I thought.  Was that something I could use?  What did they have on her that they didn’t have on the hero-on-probation?

“Thank you,” I said, to Dragon.  “For doing that.”

She gave me a curt nod in response.

“I’ve been trying to grow as a person, with Dragon’s help,” Defiant said.  “I’m willing to listen, but it’ll have to be fast.”

“Okay,” I said.  I glanced at Dragon.  I almost hated to do this, but I’d already started, and I couldn’t go to jail.  Not with things as they stood.  “Can I talk to him in private?”

Defiant and Dragon exchanged a look.  He nodded once, and she took flight, heading towards her airborne vehicle-suit.

The cord went taut, and Defiant’s grip on my arm was wrenched away as he was dragged back.  Heavy as he was, Dragon’s jet was powerful, and he wasn’t on his guard.  It took him seconds to realize what was happening, to get his footing and shift his center of balance lower to the ground.

I was already moving, chasing him.  There was no point to trying to escape if they were right on my heels.

He came to a stop at the edge of the roof, but I was already arriving, taking advantage of his lack of balance to throw myself into his upper body.

Not the first time I’ve fought a dragon-man on a rooftop, I thought, as I felt Defiant move in response, all of his sturdiness and armor nothing with a strong push at the right moment.  One to mark the start of my career in costume, the other to mark the end?

If he’d had a mind to, he could have grabbed me and taken me down with him.  Maybe Armsmaster would have.

But Defiant twisted as he tilted backwards, drawing his folded-up spear and striking out in the same motion.  It bit into the concrete of the rooftop’s edge, the head expanding for a more secure grip.

I kicked the spear, as if I could dislodge it, but only succeeded in hurting my foot.

Dragon caught me a moment later, pushing me away.  She offered Defiant a hand, and he used both her grip and the spear to right himself, pulling himself back from the edge.

He stepped forward and gripped me by the front of my oversized prison-uniform t-shirt.  “Stop that.”

I only glared.

Stop trying things,” he repeated, as if he thought repetition would get through more than articulation.

“Fuck you,” I said.  I didn’t like how I sounded.  The guise of confidence I was so used to wearing was slipping away.  “Fuck you and the people you work for.”

“I don’t know why I-” he said, then he stopped abruptly.  Was Dragon interrupting?

“You bastards,” I said.  I could feel the veneer starting to crack.  The tears that had threatened earlier were now promising to overflow.

“You don’t have any conception of what you did, do you?” he asked.

“I have some,” I said.  “But no, you assholes knocked me out.  I don’t know anything that’s been going on.  I attacked Tagg and Alexandria-”

“They’re dead,” Defiant said.

Dead.  I hadn’t believed Alexandria would die like that.  She’d flown away.  Surely there were methods.

“A family man-”

“A bully,” I said.  “Twisted by the Simurgh, probably-”

“He was vetted,” Defiant said.  “But he’s not important.  You killed one of the strongest recognized heroes in the world, at a time we needed her most.  Her image, her courage, her help.  Do you know what’s going to happen, now?”

“I do,” I said.  “It’s going to crush the morale of our defending forces, and it’s going to break the hearts of billions of people around the world.  I knew it when I made the call, but I did it anyways.”

“And you doomed us all.”

She doomed us all.  She was the one who did it, her and Tagg.”

“Maybe.  Probably.  They forced your hand.  I understand that, and I’ve been trying to be lenient.  Gentle, even, though it’s not familiar to me.”  His tone changed, “You’re making it hard, you keep trying things.  Trying to kill me.”

“You would have survived,” I said.  “A six-story fall in armor like yours?  I could have run while Dragon looked after you.  Gotten my hands on another weapon or something.”

He didn’t answer right away, but there was nothing indicating an exchange between him and Dragon.  His voice was tight with restrained anger when he said, “You could make this easier.”

“I don’t want to make this easy,” I said.  “As long as you work for them, I’m going to fight you.  You want to know what Alexandria did?  She and Tagg convinced me that the PRT is more trouble than it’s worth.  If we have to rely on them to win this, then we don’t deserve to win.”

“That’s a choice you just made for a whole planet of people,” Defiant said.

“A choice I’m making for me.  I think we can find a way past the end of the world, it can’t be impossible to survive the meantime without the PRT.”

This isn’t going to work.”

The voice was female, and it came from Dragon’s direction.

“I’m having my doubts as well,” Defiant said.

We’re low on options,” the voice sounded.  It wasn’t Dragon, but someone communicating through a speaker on her shoulder.  I recognized the voice.  Miss Militia.

“Where is she?” I asked.

Defiant pointed at Dragon’s airborne craft.

“You’re not just here to arrest me?” I asked.

“No,” Defiant said.  “Or we weren’t, until you decided to try to push me off a building.  Now I’m reconsidering.”

Tell her the plan,” Miss Militia said, through the speaker,  “We don’t have any more time, for reconsidering or anything else.

Time?

I glanced over my shoulder at the sun on the horizon.  It was still twenty or thirty minutes from sunset.  I must have been out for an hour or so.

But… the deadline didn’t matter anymore, did it?  The Undersiders should be attacking already, after being attacked, it was almost inevitable, if Grue or Rachel…

I shook my head.  “No.  No, no, no.  No.

“Skitter-”

Too many things that hadn’t made sense.

The fact that the Undersiders hadn’t gone on the offensive, or rescued me here after the PRT left me in my cell.

Alexandria keeping to her schedule, the little clues she’d given, like reminding me she could be drowned.  The baiting, the pressure, even from the moment Tagg was introduced.

Even the way she’d avoided stopping Coil, avoided stopping us.  The way she hadn’t stepped in against the Nine, or against Echidna, at first.  There had been something bigger going on.

“Why?  For what?” I asked.  “A ruse?  Playing me?”

“Yes.  With one tragic mistake that we’re all about to pay for.”

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Interlude 20 (Donation Bonus #1)

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“Park there,” Stan said, pointing to a space off the side of the road.

“We’ll be facing uphill, and we still have to unload the equipment,” Nipper piped up, from the back seat.

“There’s a method to my madness.  Park, Marshall.  I’ll even deign to help unload and carry this time.”

He got a glimpse of Marshall rolling his eyes, but the boy steered the van to a parking spot.

True to his word, Stan was out the door, rolling up his sleeves.  Didn’t hurt: the humidity was brutal outside the air-conditioned van.  His dress shirt was already sticking to his back.

They were on a hill, and the vantage point afforded them a view of the city.  Cranes dotted the skyline, and the buildings themselves were gleaming, the whites and colors brightened by the ambient moisture in the air.  It might have looked attractive, but there were spots where buildings were missing, whole areas where the construction was only just beginning.

He could see the white building, not too far away, which was taller than even the skyscrapers immediately around it.  He’d investigated it just a few days ago.  They’d erected a tall white tent, holding it up with a crane, they’d reinforced it with plexiglass panels and iron reinforcement, and now a more solid construction was going up around it.  Slow, painstaking, careful work, filled with redundancies.  The workers would be glad to be free of the hazmat suits in this heat.

Brockton Bay wasn’t lacking in stories to tell.  The quarantine building alone was one.

“Need a hand,” Nipper said.

He hurried around to the back of the truck.  The van had been parked at the side of the road, emergency brake cranked, wheels turned so it would ride up onto the sidewalk if the brake failed, but the steep incline was making it hard to unload the equipment.  Much of it was set up to be slid out of the back of the van at a moment’s notice, but that same convenience was an obstacle, here.  The stuff was expensive, and if it slid to the road…

He found a space beside her and reached to get a grip on the far end of the camera.  It might not have been a problem, but Nipper was short, petite, built more like a thirteen year old than a twenty-three year old college graduate.

She wasn’t suited for the job.  She knew the equipment, she was capable with a computer, she had good eyesight, and the tattoos and array of piercings on her right ear were as good an indicator of her creative edge as anything else.

But this wasn’t the job she’d been working towards.  She wasn’t one to complain, but she didn’t have stamina, she didn’t have strength, and this, all of this, it was too fast paced for her.  She’d have been better, maybe even happier in the newsroom, managing the feeds, maintaining the systems and working on post production.

Marshall hefted the bag out of the back of the van.  All the wires, the tripod, the lighting, packed into a dense case.  The boy didn’t look like a professional, hadn’t quite adapted to the job he’d been pulled into: from intern to a jack of all trades, filling in the gaps in Stan’s team.  Set up, interviewing, driving, gopher… anything and everything.  He was drawing in a paycheck, but he was definitely working for it, facing all of the hassles, the intense stresses and dangers of the job, for eleven dollars an hour.

Dangers, Stan thought.  Images flickered through his mind.  Everyone at the station had seen the feeds, had watched them several times over.  Purity taking the camera from Manzaneres, a guy from channel four, then setting her monsters on the man.  A man with a wife and a newborn had been murdered, just to make a point.

There was a reason for the shortage of field reporters.  It wasn’t limited to Manzaneres, either.  The problem was a chronic one.  This was a job that put ordinary people on the fringes of events that were dangerous for capes.

“Set?”

Marshall closed the back of the van and locked it.  “Set.”

Stan set off, with Nipper and Marshall following, Nipper almost jogging to keep up with his long strides.  “Reason we’re parked here is that the school’s on top of the hill.  We don’t know how much parking there’ll be, with students possibly taking up spaces, and if we have to drive by, searching for a spot, then someone’s liable to spot us and take measures.”

“Measures?” Nipper asked, a touch breathlessly.

Right.  She didn’t have the experience to know.  “You’ll see what I mean.”

There were students gathered outside the walls that bordered the school.  Police cars were parked at the front, along with PRT vans, but it was the uniformed guards with ‘Arcadia High School’ stenciled on their sleeves that caught his attention.

Guards?  It conjured up an image of a prison, rather than a school.

“Nip, get some footage of the uniforms,” Stan said.

She hefted the camera and trained it on the nearest of the uniformed guards.  She had to slow her pace to keep the shot steady, but she kept following him.  When a group of students obstructed her vision, she shut off the feed and hurried to catch up.

They reached the gate, where a woman with a colorful scarf was talking to a PRT uniform.  He signaled Nipper, and the young woman raised the camera.

“Damn it,” the woman with the scarf groaned, as she saw them.  The police officer took the opportunity to step away.

“Don’t jump to conclusions,” Stan said, “We’re not the enemy.”

“You’re here to bog down an overcomplicated situation,” she said.  “I have enough problems without vultures descending.”

“We’re here for the story, that’s all.  You’re in charge here?”

“I’m in charge of the school.  Principal Howell.”

He made a mental note.  Howell, Howell, Howell.  She wasn’t the prettiest woman, with old acne scars riddled across her cheeks, a short stature and a nose that didn’t quite fit her face.

“Stan Vickery, channel twelve news,” he flashed her his best smile and extended a hand.  She didn’t take it.

“You’re not allowed on school property.”

“I would be if you gave me permission,” he said, dropping his hand.  The job was politics as much as it was investigation, creativity and presentation.  What did she want?  Peace and quiet.  “Give us fifteen minutes to talk to your students and shoot a few takes in front of the doors, and I’ll get the word out that we got the story first.  Other stations are playing it safer, these days, less crew, less willing to act on sloppy seconds.”

The principal made a face.

Stan smiled, “Sorry.  You get what I mean.  Give us fifteen minutes, and we’re one less thing you have to worry about today.  With luck, I’ll be the only local reporter you see today.”

“With all due respect, Mr…”

“Vickery,” he said, already told you my name.  “But you can call me Stan, Mrs. Howell.  Fact of the matter is, you let me in the school, and I owe you one.  I pull strings or emphasize certain aspects of a story.  Not just this one either.  Who knows?  The next incident could be worse, or more sensitive.”

“Mr. Vickers,” she said.  “I’m fully aware that you’re trying to bait me into giving you a sound bite.  I won’t comment on this situation, and I won’t be letting you onto school grounds.  I don’t want you talking to any of my students.”

“Fine,” he said.  “Come on, guys.  Let’s go talk to the cops.”

“Seriously?  We’re giving up?” Nipper asked.

“Yes,” he said, he took long strides away from the front gate of the school, until he was sure the principal wasn’t in immediate earshot.  “No.  She’s liable to get on our case if we don’t pretend to play along.  Howell has no authority outside of the school walls, so we interview students there.  Marshall, head back in the direction of the van.  Talk to students, see if they want to be on TV.  Look for the talkative ones and the emotional ones, and point them my way.”

“What about the cops?” Marshall asked.

“They’ll be around later, and cops have better memories than civilians.  It’s the students who were at the scene.  Go.  We don’t know how long we have before other crews show.”

It was a shame the principal hadn’t let him into the school, Stan mused.  Silly of her, too.  That favor he’d offered her was gold, all things considered.  Something she could use to bail a superior out of an awkward position and advance her own.

Your guanxi could be better, Mrs. Howell, he thought.  He loved the idea behind the Chinese concept of guanxi.  It fit in the same general category as the concepts of friends, family, acquaintances, but it was more based in business and politics.  Guanxi was about being able to call up a person one hadn’t seen in years and ask for a favor.  To have enough people in one’s debt that there was more implied leverage to use when seeking favors from others.

He’d been introduced to the idea a few years ago, and he attributed much of his recent career advancement to it.  It was something to be aware of at all times, and it changed his perspective on things.

He approached a group of teenage girls who were gathered in a group, observing the police and PRT officers.  He flashed one of his best smiles at them.  He could see one of them glance him over, her body language changing subtly.  He directed the smile at her, “I bet you’re dying to talk about what happened here.  Exciting stuff.”

“Sure,” the girl replied.  “Supervillain doesn’t attack the school every day.”

“Wasn’t an attack.  She showed up, and they came after her in her civilian ID.”

“I know it wasn’t an attack,” the first girl replied.  “I was just… It’s what others have been saying.”

“Skitter, wasn’t it?”  Stan chimed in.  He snapped his fingers, and Nipper pointed the camera at the girls.

“Yeah.  The bug girl,” another girl spoke up.  “I guess she goes to Arcadia.”

“No way.  I heard she was a student at Winslow, before Leviathan came.  Geeky kid, was having a hard time with some jerks, apparently.  I think her name was Taylor, but you’d have to ask someone from Winslow.”

He prodded, “What happened?  Was there a fight?”

“Dragon and this new guy Defiant showed up, along with the two new heroes.  Don’t know their names.”

He’d memorized the names.  “Adamant?  Clasp?  Dovetail?  Halo?  Crucible? Rosary? Sere?”

“Sere and Adamant,” one girl replied.

“Sere and Adamant,” he said, making a mental note.

“And two of the Wards.  Clockblocker was one of them.  Anyways, she got away.”

“She didn’t do anything to provoke them?”

“Didn’t hear about anything.”

“And they mobilized on the school?”

“Sure.”

He started to ask for more details, then stopped.  Marshall was approaching, with a kid in tow.

“Cell phone video,” Marshall said.  “Long conversation between Defiant, Dragon and Skitter in the cafeteria.

Stan raised his eyebrows, looking at the girl with the phone, “Pay you twenty bucks to let us copy it.”

“A hundred,” she said.

“Twenty.  If you got it on camera, others did too, and someone‘s going to take the twenty.”

She glanced at Marshall, then back to Stan.  “Fine.”

“You have the equipment?” Stan asked Marshall.

“Laptop and a cord.  Give me a minute.”

“We’ll watch it later,” Stan said, absently.  He turned his attention back to the girls.

This wasn’t the first time he’d walked into a situation almost blind.  The job was a stressful one, but he thrived on stress.  Racing against the clock, to be the first to the scene, the first to report on the situation.  But even reporting was a kind of challenge unto itself.  The scene had to be investigated, the story teased out, details verified.  To top it off, it had to be presentable.

He’d been the producer, before Coil had blown up the camera crew and reporter that had been covering the mayoral debate.  He had an eye for this.  Had to, because there was nobody back at the studio that would be able to cover this base for him.  Sad and ironic, really.  There weren’t enough people in the bay, resources weren’t consistent.  So they’d reduced the size of the staff, cut back on hours.  Then six people had died, including their lead reporter.

Nevermind the rumors that the PRT was, on Miss Militia’s behalf, investigating ties between Coil and the killed reporters and camera crews.  He’d itched to look into that more, but it didn’t fit with his philosophy.

“Were you there, in the cafeteria?” he asked the girls.

“No.”

“Right.  Alright.  Any thoughts?  Were you scared, knowing there were so many capes in the school?”

Twenty more seconds, to grab more details and reaction clips, and then he was moving, searching for others to talk to.

Two more groups questioned, and he didn’t have much else.  He knew Skitter’s name, and Channel four had arrived, and the race was on.

“Got the video!” Marshall called out.

Stan took the offered laptop.  To watch now, it would mean delaying interviews.  Memories would fade.

But he needed the narrative.  How had things unfolded?  What were the key, crucial points at the heart of this?  That the school was unsafe?  It would work, grab attention and viewers, but it felt cheap.  No, the public knew that the Protectorate was imploding.  There had to be a connection, tying this to something greater.

“Thank you,” he said.  He’d decided.  “Now, I need you to find me someone who knew Skitter in her civilian guise.”

Marshall nodded.

“He or she will be one of the students who attended Winslow.”

“On it.”

Stan retreated to the van with the laptop.  He took the extra time to open the video in an editing suite before playing it.

Without being asked, Nipper hooked it into the van’s computers.  A little icon notified him that he was connected to the studio.

…There for the S-class threat downtown.  I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I think maybe I deserve to, a little.  I’ve done my share.  You don’t turn around and reveal my identity in front of a crowd.”

On a notepad of lined paper, he penned down ’20th’ followed by a question mark.  The video continued playing, and he noted down times and key phrases, along with questions.  When a critical comment was shown, he was sure to copy the clip.  There were a few times where the volume was too quiet, the voices too low or things were drowned out by background noise.  Nipper worked to tune the sound so they could make it out, raising the volume or filtering out the noise.

D&D picked fight?  Pushed by authorities?Drag past convo with Skitter.  When?
Putting children at risk
Violation of truce

“…And you seriously expect me to keep my mouth shut about all the dirty little secrets I’ve picked up on over the last few months…”

What does Skitter know?  App’tly important.

“…the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Either you’ve abandoned that chase, or you’re about to tell me that there’s something more important than stopping them…”

S9?  D-check events post-Boston.

Hospital?  Skitter & Defiant?

D&D negotiating with villains?  Possible cooperation?  Corruption?

“…Stand if you side with me!

Both video and audio were distorted by the movements of students, rising from tables, pushing away from the jumble of bodies.

Stan smiled.  There.

He cut out the scene in question, the students siding with Skitter over the heroes, and gave the clip a title.  ‘The heart of this story?’

A second later, a note appeared on the side of the window.  The crew at the studio had a R.A.T. connecting them to the laptop, and freedom to make changes or add their own details.

Yes – Ed

He had it.  The editors at the station were on board.

Now to cobble it together into a story.

He opened a file and began sketching out the script.  At the very top, he put up notes, clips he’d need from the station.

There was a knock on the door of the van.  Stan opened it to see Marshall with an awkward looking young man.  Fifteen or sixteen.  He looked despondent.  Hangdog.

“He says he was her friend, once.”

“No,” the boy said.  “Not exactly.  But we sort of knew each other.  Had classes together, did group work.  And I owe her.”

Stan smiled.

…take you now to reporter Stan Vickery.”

Thank you, Nick.  One thousand and two hundred students made their way to Arcadia High for their first day back at school, earlier on this sunny day.  They hoped to readjust and get a taste of normal life after weeks spent away from home, or enduring the long series of incidents to afflict Brockton Bay.  Less than halfway through their day, those hopes were dashed.

A video clip replaced the blond man with the mustache and a face lined by years of stress.  A massive metal suit, looming at the far end of the school’s parking lot, a mechanized dragon.

The school became the site of a confrontation between Dragon, a heroine known across the world, and local warlord and leader of the Undersiders, Skitter.  Within moments of their meeting on school grounds, Dragon revealed Skitter’s identity as Taylor Hebert, a sixteen year old student.  With this revelation came a dozen more questions…

“Change the channel,” a boy in prison sweats said.  “News is boring shit.”

“No,” Sophia said.

Skitter was Taylor.  A dozen things fell into place.

Anger boiled within her.  Outrage.  That cringing, whiny, pathetic little scarecrow was the ruler of Brockton Bay’s underworld?  It didn’t fit.  It demanded an answer of some sort.

But she couldn’t.  As the voice droned on, Sophia turned her attention to the bracelets she wore.  There was a live current running through them, and they could be joined together to fashion handcuffs, but even like this, they were bondage.  She couldn’t enter her shadow state without passing through the insulated sheath that protected her.

She couldn’t leave, as much as she wanted to, right this moment.

Glowering, a confused, impotent frustration building within her, she fixed her eyes on the television.  It swelled within her until she could barely think.  She clenched her hands, but she couldn’t squeeze hard enough to release any of the building emotion.  She unclenched her fists, extended her fingers, as if reaching for something, but there was nothing she could grab.

There was no release valve for this, no way to vent.

Taylor’s face appeared on the screen in the same moment she hit her limit.  She rose from her seat, aware of the guards advancing on her, and kicked the television screen, shattering it, amid the protests and swearing of her fellow inmates.

A second later, they were tackling her.  Two guards at once, forcing her to the ground.

She screamed something so incoherent that even she would have been hard pressed to interpret it.

Who was she?  And what motivated these professed heroes to mobilize on a school, risking the lives of students and staff?  Skitter herself wondered aloud about their willingness to put hostages within her reach…

A clip appeared on the screen.  Taylor, sitting on the edge of a counter.  She spoke, filled with confidence, almost nonchalant.  “You put me in a room with three hundred people I could theoretically take hostage.  Why?  You can’t be that confident I wouldn’t hurt someone…

A student abruptly shrieked, thrashing and falling to the ground in her haste to get away.

“Danny,” Kurt said, settling a hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “You don’t need to watch this.”

Danny shook his head.  Kurt looked down the man.  He hadn’t even spoken, from the moment he’d opened the door and Lacey had wrapped her arms around him.

This is bait, isn’t it?” Taylor’s voice, oddly out of place coming from the television.

The tone of the conversation even implied there were unspoken secrets that Skitter was aware of, that the Protectorate sought to silence,” Stan Vickery spoke, reappearing, with Arcadia High behind him as a backdrop.  “Raising questions about what those secrets might be.

…You seriously expect me to keep my mouth shut about all the dirty little secrets I’ve picked up on over the last few months?”  Taylor’s voice, again.

Danny put his face into his hands, pushing his glasses up to his forehead in the process.  Kurt rubbed his back, while Lacey looked on, sympathetic.

What did Skitter know, and does it relate to the event  on the twentieth of June?  Why were Defiant and Dragon willing to abandon their pursuit of the Slaughterhouse Nine?

“Is…” Danny started to speak, but his voice cracked.  He paused, then spoke again.  “Is this on me?”

“No!” Lacey said.  “No, honey.”

“Those aren’t questions I’d hope to pose any answers to today,” the news reporter said.  “The real question is bigger than that, and smaller at the same time.  What forces drive a child from this…

A teenage boy, his eyes downcast.  “She was nice, quiet.  I know people won’t believe me when I say it, but she was a genuinely good person.  Is.  Is a good person.  At heart.  I’m sorry, Taylor.

To this?

It switched to Taylor’s voice, calm, unruffled, accompanied by the same long-distance, low resolution footage of her sitting on the counter in the school cafeteria.  “You’d be surprised what I’m capable of.  I’ve mutilated people.  Carved out a man’s eyes, emasculated him.  I’ve chopped off a woman’s toes.  Flayed people alive with the bites of thousands of insects.  Hell, what I did to Triumph… he nearly died, choking on insects, the venom of-

Kurt turned off the television.  Danny was frozen, unmoving, staring down at his hands.

“It was context,” Lacey said, quiet.  “She was acting.  I’m sure-“

She broke off as Kurt shook his head.  Doing more damage than good.

“We’re going to stick by you, okay, Dan?” Kurt spoke.  “Let’s have you come by our place.  Better you aren’t alone right now, yeah?  And it’ll get you away from those reporters.”

Danny didn’t respond.  He stayed hunched over the kitchen table.

“Unless you want to wait here for her, in case?” Lacey asked.

“She already said goodbye,” Danny replied, pushing against the table to help himself rise to a standing position.  “I think that’s it.”

You’d be surprised what I’m capable of.  I’ve mutilated people.  Carved out a man’s eyes, emasculated him.  I’ve chopped off a woman’s toes.  Flayed people alive with the bites of thousands of insects.  Hell, what I did to Triumph… he nearly died, choking on insects, the venom of a hundred bee stings making his throat close up.

And what drives dozens of students to reject the heroes of this city in favor of the villain in charge?”  Stan asked.

The widescreen television showed the students rising from the tables, joining Skitter.  Another clip followed, showing students actively wrestling with the heroes.

“Christ,” the Director spoke.

Beside her successor, Piggot was watching in silence, elbows on the table, hands folded in front of her mouth.

“This could have been avoided,” the Director said.  “On multiple levels.”

“Most likely,” Defiant replied.  He stood at one end of the long table, Dragon beside him.

“If you would have cut off the feed, deleted the footage from phones, we would have had time to do damage control.”

“We won’t ignore people’s first amendment rights,” Defiant said.

…The PRT and the Protectorate have refused to comment, and the silence is damning, in light of what occurred today,” the reporting continued in the background.  “Brockton Bay has become the latest, greatest representation of the troubles the world faces in this new age, and perhaps a representation of the world’s hopes…

“You’re better than this, Dragon,” Piggot spoke.  “To the point that I’m left wondering… did you steer all of this in this direction?”

“If you try to place the blame on us,” Defiant replied, “I think you’ll be unpleasantly surprised.”

This event,” the reporter spoke, “Points to something else entirely, a fatal flaw in the system, the latest and greatest representation of the Protectorate’s steady collapse.

Director Tagg, Piggot’s latest successor, picked up the remote and muted the television.

Defiant shifted his weight, clasping his hands behind his back.  The body language was smug, somehow.

Piggot glanced at each of the people who were seated at the table.  Mr. Tagg, the Director of Brockton Bay’s PRT, Director Armstrong from Boston, and Director Wilkins from New York were all present.  Mr. Keene sat opposite her.  A camera mounted on the table gave the Chief Director of the PRT eyes on the meeting, where she watched from Washington.

Nobody else seemed willing to answer Defiant, some simply staring at him, others watching the segment on the wall-mounted television.  She spoke, “I would remind you that you are on a strict probation, with terms you agreed to.”

“I am,” Defiant said.  “Would you arrest me for being insubordinate?  Or would it take something more substantial?”

“Test us and you’ll find out,” Director Tagg responded.

“And what would happen then?  Would you send me to the Birdcage?” Defiant asked.

The question was heavy with the reminder that it was Dragon who maintained and managed the Birdcage.

Emily Piggot was caught between a desire to feel smug and quiet fear.  She’d warned them.  She’d communicated her concerns at every opportunity, through channels that Dragon wouldn’t be able to track.  She’d been dismissed, shrugged off, when she raised the question of what might happen if Dragon was killed in battle, or if Dragon turned against them.

“I’d like to hear a response from Dragon,” Piggot said.

Dragon turned her head to look at her, face hidden behind an expressionless mask and unblinking, opaque lenses.  There was something about the movement that seemed off.  Both the movement and the silence that followed was oddly disturbing.

“No?  No response?”

“A consequence of our recent visit to Brockton Bay,” Defiant said.  “I’m hoping she’ll be better in a few days.”

Curious, Piggot observed, the note of emotion in his voice, at that simple statement.

As if eager to change the subject, Director Armstrong said, “Mr. Keene.  Thoughts?  How does this affect your department?”

Piggot turned her attention to the man.  She’d only had limited interactions with him, but the man had earned her respect quickly enough.  He wasn’t a Director, but rather the liaison between the Protectorate and various other superhero teams worldwide, organizing deals, ensuring that everyone held to the same code of conduct, and ensuring that the groups could all coordinate in times of emergency.

“It’s catastrophic,” Keene said.  “I can manage some damage control, offer further aid, manipulate the grants available, but I can’t build on a foundation that isn’t there.”

“Where do our biggest problems lie?”

“The C.U.I. is first to mind.  The Suits and the King’s Men will cooperate, because they have to.  For the American teams, it varies from case to case.  But we’re in the middle of negotiations with the C.U.I., and this won’t reflect well on us.  That is, it won’t if we can’t get our footing here and make a strong showing at the next major event.”

The next major event.  The idea seemed to give everyone pause.

“Something needs to change,” Defiant said.

“Somehow, Colin,” Piggot replied, “I think our ideas on what needs to change are very different.”

“Very likely,” he said, his voice hard.  “But this was a last straw for us, in many ways.  We have a few stipulations for our continued assistance.”

“Defiant,” Tagg interrupted him.  “You’re not in a position to make demands.”

He’s a hard man, Piggot thought.  Army, PRT squad leader, a general, not a politician.  Ironic, that they’d butt heads.  “Director Tagg, you asked me here as a consultant, so allow me to consult.”

Tagg turned his attention to her.

She continued, “I don’t like this scenario any more than you do.  But let’s hear Defiant’s demands before you reject him out of hand.”

Director Tagg didn’t reply, but he turned his attention back to Defiant and he didn’t speak.

“Dragon and I have discussed this in-depth.  We need the present Directors to admit culpability for the incident, and we need to clean house, with in-depth background checks and investigations into any prominent member of the PRT.  We can’t maintain things as they are with the spectre of Cauldron looming over us.”

“You’d have us fire any number of PRT employees at a time when we’re struggling to retain members?”  Tagg asked, almost aghast.

“And relieving capes from duty at the same time,” Defiant said.  “With so few employees, it’s ridiculous to continue working to shut down leaks and control the flow of information.  Dragon has expressed concerns over having to do this in the past, and between the two of us, we’ve agreed that the censorship stops tonight, at midnight.”

Tagg rose from his seat, opening his mouth to speak-

“I agree,” Piggot spoke before her successor could.

Heads turned.

“It’s a misuse of resources,” she said, “And we do need to clean house.”

“You don’t have a position to lose,” Tagg replied.

“I wouldn’t lose it anyways,” she retorted, “I’ve had no contact with Cauldron.”

Keene clapped his hands together once, then smiled, “Well said.  We have nothing to fear if we aren’t connected to them.”

“You realize what they’re doing, don’t you?” Tagg asked.  “How does this investigation happen?  Dragon has her A.I. rifle through all known records and databases.  We defeat the sole purpose of the PRT, by putting the parahumans themselves in a position of power!”

“That ship has long sailed,” Keene commented, “With the revelations about Chief Director Costa-Brown, if you’ll pardon my saying.”

“You’re pardoned,” the Chief Director’s voice sounded over the speaker, crystal clear.  “I think this would pose more problems than it solves.  We’ll have to turn you down, Defiant.”

“Then I don’t see much of a reason for us to stay,” Defiant replied.

“And if you leave, the assumption is that we’ll be left without Dragon’s ability to maintain every system and device she’s created for us.  The PRT without a Birdcage, without our computer systems or database, without the specialized grenade loadouts or the containment foam dispensers.”

“An unfortunate consequence,” Defiant said.

“Not a concern at all,” the Chief Director replied.

There was a pause.  Dragon glanced at Defiant.

“No?” Defiant asked.

“No.  We’ve been in contact with an individual who has a proven track record with Dragon’s technology.  He feels equipped, eager, almost, to step into Dragon’s shoes should she take a leave of absence.”

“Saint,” Defiant said.  “You’re talking about the leader of the Dragonslayers.  Criminal mercenaries.”

“My first priority is and always has been protecting people.  If it’s a question between abandoning the security the Birdcage offers the world at large or requesting the assistance of a scoundrel-”

“A known murderer,” Defiant said.

“I wouldn’t throw stones,” Tagg replied, his voice a growl.

“-A known murderer, even,” the Chief Director continued, as if she hadn’t been interrupted.  “I will take security without question.”

Defiant looked at Dragon.

“The second dilemma I have to pose to you two,” the Chief Director continued, “Is simple.  What do you expect will happen when the next Endbringer arrives?  Between Dragon’s brilliant mind and Defiant’s analysis technologies, I’m sure you’ve given the matter some consideration.  Without the Protectorate, how does the event tend to unfold?”

Piggot studied the pair, trying to read their reactions.  They were so hard to gauge, even if she ignored the armor.

“It doesn’t go well,” Defiant said.  “It doesn’t go well even if we assume the present Protectorate is coordinated and in peak fighting condition.”

“We can’t afford a loss,” the Chief Director said.  “You know it as well as I do.  Now, tell me there isn’t room for a middle ground.”

Dragon turned to Defiant, and moved with a careful slowness as she set one hand on his arm.

“We get through the next fight,” Defiant said.  “Then we clean house.”

“I think that’s an acceptable compromise.”

This event,” the reporter spoke, “Points to something else entirely, a fatal flaw in the system, the latest and greatest representation of the Protectorate’s steady collapse.

“Too rich,” Jack commented, smirking.  “Across the board, I love it.  Fantastic.”

Hookwolf, pacing on the opposite side of the television, grunted a response.

Bonesaw was crouched by the side of a machine.  She watched with hands on hips as Blasto ratcheted in a bolt at the base of a tall, black-handled lever, his movements jerky with the internal and external mechanisms that forced them.

The Protectorate declined to comment, and in light of recent events and allegations of deep-seated secrets, their silence is damning.

“Almost ready,” Bonesaw said, her voice sing-song.  “You’re next, Hooksie.”

Hookwolf glanced at her, and then at the contraption.

“Don’t tell me you’re scared,” she said, her tone a taunt.

“Not of… this.  I’m questioning if this is the path we should take.”

“I’m expected to bring about the end of the world,” Jack said, still watching the television.  “But this is rather tepid for my tastes.  I’d like to hurry it along, inject some more drama into the affair.”

“…event at Arcadia High School is sure to draw attention from aross America.  We, the public, want answers.  The death of Vikare marked the end of the golden age, the end of an era where becoming a superhero was the expectation for anyone and everyone with powers, and even those who decided to work in business or public affairs with their abilities were termed ‘rogues’…

Bonesaw took ahold of Hookwolf’s hand and led him to his seat.  She stepped back, glancing over the contraption.  The only light was cast by a small desk lamp and the glow of a computer monitor, an island of light in the middle of an expansive, wide-reaching darkness.  Desk, engine, and tinker-designed seats, surrounded by an absolute, oppressive darkness.

“It doesn’t sit well,” Hookwolf said.  “I can’t articulate why.  My thoughts are still cloudy.”

Bonesaw hit a button, and the lights began to flicker, the engine beside her starting to hum with a progressively higher pitch.  With the flickering of the lights came glimpses of the things beyond.  Light on glass and wires.

“I’d rather a Ragnarök than-“

Bonesaw hauled on a white-handled lever, and Hookwolf’s voice cut off.  The flickering of the lights ceased, and the room returned to darkness.

Jack sighed.

…threatens to mark a similar occasion…

Bonesaw stepped over the body of a dead tinker in a lab coat, stopping in front of Jack.  “Strip.”

Jack shucked off his shirt, and then pulled off his pants and boxer briefs.  The blades that hung heavy on his belt made an ugly metal sound as they dropped to the tiled floor.

“…and cover yourself up,” Bonesaw said, averting her eyes.  “Shameful!  You’re in the company of a child, and a girl, no less.”

“Terribly sorry,” Jack said, his voice thick with irony, as he cupped his nether regions in both hands.  He stepped back and took a seat, leaning back against the diagonal surface behind the short bench.  Cold.

“...The reality is clear.  The repercussions of what happened today will change the relationship between hero, villain and civilian.  It remains up to them to decide whether it will be a change for the better, or a change for the worse.”

The segment ended, and the television turned back to the news anchors at their desks.

“Pretentious, isn’t he?” Jack asked.

“Likes to hear himself talk,” Bonesaw replied.  “Which do you think it’ll be?  Change for the better or change for the worse?”

Jack smiled.

“It’s a given?” she asked.  She pressed the button, and the lights started to flicker again.

“I think so,” Jack commented.  “But I almost hope things do turn out well.”

The lights were flickering more violently now, to the point that periods of light matched the periods of darkness.  Between the spots in his vision, Jack could see more and more of their surroundings.

Row upon row of glass case lined the underground chamber, each large enough to house a full-grown man, though there were only fetal shapes within at present.  Each was labeled.  One row had cases marked ‘Crawler’, ‘Crawler’, ‘Crawler’… ten iterations in total.  The next row had ten cases labeled with the word ‘Siberian’.  The one after with ten repetitions of ‘Chuckles’.

One column of cases dedicated to each member of the Nine, past and present, with the exception of Jack and one other.

“Makes for a greater fall?” Bonesaw asked.

“Exactly,” Jack replied.  He glanced at the one isolated case, felt his pulse quicken a notch.  It was the only one that was standalone.  ‘Gray Boy.’

“I guess we find out soon!” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the whine of the engine.

Bonesaw only laughed.  She hauled on the switch with both hands, and the room was plunged into silence and darkness.

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Chrysalis 20.5

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The appearance of the heroine in gleaming power armor had brought the room to a hush.  The silence only allowed Dragon’s words to carry, bouncing off the hard floor, reaching the assembled students and staff of Arcadia High.

A low murmur ran through the room like an almost imperceptible aftershock, informing anyone and everyone who hadn’t been in earshot.

I could see Emma too, or I could see glimpses of her, between the students that were backing away from the front of the room.  Already pale in complexion, she was white, now, staring.

I exhaled slowly, though my heart was pounding as if I’d just finished a hard run.

Defiant advanced a step, with the door to the kitchens behind him, while I took a few steps back toward the rest of the cafeteria, putting both Dragon and Defiant in front of me.  Some of my bugs flowed in through the gaps around the door he’d rammed through.  He’d slammed it shut behind him, but the metal had twisted around the lock, giving smaller bugs a path.

He slammed his spear against the ground.  The entire cafeteria flinched at the crackle of electricity that ripped through the air around him, flowing along exposed pipe and the heating ducts in a path to the door.  Every bug in the hallway died.

No use bringing bugs in that way.

I looked around me.  This wasn’t an optimal battlefield.  There were counters all around me, limiting my mobility, while barely impacting theirs.  Someone had signaled Kid Win, Clockblocker and Adamant.  The three heroes were heading our way.  Sere remained tied up outside.

Five capes against me.  With the bugs that had flowed into the building with Kid Win, I had maybe a thousand flying insects and some spiders.  Not nearly enough to mount an offensive.  I had neither a weapon nor swarm to give me an edge.  I didn’t have my costume, either, but that wasn’t liable to matter.

Once upon a time, I’d had trouble getting my head around what Grue had been saying about reputation, about image and conveying the right impressions.  Now it was all I had.

I let out another slow breath.  Calm down.  I rolled my shoulders, letting the kinks out.  There was something almost relieving about the idea that things couldn’t get much worse than they were right now.  Let the tension drain out.  If they decided to drag me off to jail or the Birdcage, there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

They weren’t attacking.  Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought.  Were they not here to arrest me, or were they covering major routes my bugs might travel, to minimize my offensive strength?

Or did I have leverage I wasn’t accounting for?

I backed up until I’d reached a counter, then hopped up onto the edge, tucking one leg under me.  It was a vantage point that gave me the ability to look directly at Dragon, with Defiant at the far left of my field of vision and many of the students to my right, Emma included.

“Low blow, Dragon,” I said, finally.  “Outing me?  I thought you were better than that.”

Another murmur ran through the room, at what was essentially an admission.  Emma was frozen.  Her expression wasn’t changing; eyes wide, lips pressed together.

“I try to be,” Dragon replied.  “I’m only following instructions.”

“I guess your bosses are a little annoyed at the armored suits my team trashed?  Are they demanding that you make up for it by dragging me into custody?”

Dragon shook her head.  “Putting the armored suits up against you Undersiders was a beta test, and identifying major flaws is par for the course.  I do wish you hadn’t melted down the Azazel… It was expensive.  But that’s not why we’re here.”

“There are rules, Dragon,” I said.  “Expectations.  I fought Leviathan, I fought the Nine.  I was there for the fight against the Class-S threat downtown.  I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I think maybe I deserve to, a little.  I’ve done my share.  You don’t turn around and reveal my identity in front of a crowd.”

“It wasn’t by choice.”

“You choose to follow them.  It’s not like twenty or thirty heroes haven’t walked away from the Protectorate, recently.”

“It’s not that simple, Skitter,” Defiant said.

“It’s never simple.  But sometimes you have to take the hard road.  Sometimes you have to recognize that the people calling the shots don’t know what they’re doing.  Because this?  Picking a fight in a school?  There’s no way this makes sense.”

“The Protectorate is doing what they can to pick up the pieces,” Dragon said.  “Things are a little disorganized.  The best of us are working twice as hard, with half of the information, or incorrect information.  If there are any errors in judgement on that front, I’d hope they’re somewhat excusable, given circumstances.”

“Sure, but it’s the rest of us who pay the price.  The last time we really talked, you were lecturing me about priorities.  Do you really want to have this conversation?  Where I have words with you about your priorities, in light of everything that’s happening with the Protectorate?”

I left the threat hang in the air.

“You won’t,” Dragon said.  She stepped closer, and I raised a hand, gesturing for her to stop.  I didn’t really think about it.  She stopped where she was.

Why?  Why was she actually listening when I told her to stop?  If she’d advanced on me, grabbed me, there wasn’t much I could do besides kick and scream.

When I didn’t say anything, she added, “It’s not in you, Skitter.”

“You’d be surprised what I’m capable of,” I said.  “I’ve mutilated people.  Carved out a man’s eyes, emasculated him.  I’ve chopped off a woman’s toes.  Flayed people alive with the bites of thousands of insects.  Hell, what I did to Triumph… he nearly died, choking on insects, the venom of a hundred bee stings making his throat close up.  Even Sere, outside at this very moment.  He’s not very happy.”

Defiant and Dragon exchanged a glance.

“Your swarm shouldn’t be able to get near him,” Defiant said.

I shrugged.  Image, confidence, reputation.  I hated myself for doing it, but I was thinking of Jack Slash.  He didn’t wear a mask or a costume.  His power didn’t make people shit their pants.  What he had was his presence, an atmosphere of confidence.

Weeks or months ago, I might have had a hard time wearing that confidence the way Jack did.  The history, the long sequence of events and conflicts where we’d come out ahead in our respective teams, it could just as easily be a burden, the accumulated weight of the various precedents we’d set, but we’d made it into our armor, something to make our enemies hesitate at a critical juncture.

“I’m guessing you’re trying to contact Sere somehow,” I said.  “And it’s not working.”

“Is he hurt?” Dragon asked.

I didn’t have to give a response.  Fear was a tool I could use, here, and I could achieve that through uncertainty and the unknown.

I’d been thinking of Jack Slash before, but now I was thinking of Bakuda.  She’d been the first one to introduce me to that concept.

“You’ve got me thinking,” I said, ignoring the question, “Why set me up like this?  You two are too smart to put me in a desperate situation with this many hostages in arm’s reach.”

“Is Sere hurt?” Defiant growled the words.

“You put me in a room with three hundred people I could theoretically take hostage.  Why?  You can’t be that confident I wouldn’t hurt someone…”

Emma was sitting to my right.  She hadn’t budged from her position, safe in the midst of several of the school’s staff.  I directed a centipede to crawl across her hand, and she shrieked.  In her haste to get up from the bench, she fell.  She scrambled to put distance between us.  Both Dragon and Defiant tensed.

I raised my hands in a placating gesture, assuring the heroes I wasn’t taking it any further. “…or you wouldn’t be worrying about Sere right now.  You wouldn’t have reacted like you just did.  Sere’s fine, by the way, though I’m not saying he’ll stay that way.”

Defiant relaxed a fraction.  I could see Adamant, Kid Win and Clockblocker entering the room behind Dragon.  She turned to say something I didn’t catch, and both Adamant and Kid Win retreated.  They’d be going to find Sere, I could only assume.

I met Clockblocker’s eyes, then looked to Dragon.  “This is bait, isn’t it?  You or the people who are calling the shots want me to take hostages.  Because you have an answer handy, something that will stop me before they’re put in any serious danger.  I take hostages to try to secure my release.  You… I don’t even know.  You gas us, or use some kind of controlled charge, like Defiant’s bug zapper, and every bug in the room dies.  You get to be the heroes, I go into custody, and word gets around that the Undersiders aren’t so benevolent.  The villains who own the city lose both their leader and the trust of the public, all at once.”

“It wasn’t our plan,” Dragon said.  Her voice had a faint accent, just barely filtering through the sound filter of her mask.  “I’ve studied your record.  I suspected it wouldn’t work based on the decisions you’ve made to date.  Defiant agreed, though he based his judgement on your powers and versatility.”

“But you went ahead with it.”

“Orders,” Dragon said, again.  “And because we discussed the matter, and neither of us really believe you’ll do any serious harm to any hostages.”

“You seem to be giving me a lot of credit, assuming I’ll play nice.  And you seriously expect me to keep my mouth shut about all the dirty little secrets I’ve picked up on over the last few months, after you’ve played your last card and revealed my identity?  An identity you found out because I helped?”

“That wasn’t how I discovered it,” Dragon said.  “And you will keep quiet, because you know how important it is.”

“Maybe,” I answered her.  “Maybe not.  If I’m going to die or going to jail anyways, why shouldn’t I scream what I know to our audience, here?”

“Because you won’t,” Dragon said, “And you can’t.”

“Why don’t we move this conversation somewhere else?” Defiant asked.  He shifted his hold on his spear to a two-handed grip, threatening without being threatening.

“Out of earshot of all of these people?” I asked, extending an arm in the direction of the gathered students.  “I don’t think so.  If nothing else, I’m entitled to a jury consisting of my peers.  I’ll settle for you two taking a hit to your reputation if and when you attack or kill me.”

Which was why I was sitting on the counter.  I was less mobile, less able to get out of the way if they attacked, and that was a good thing.  A detail that our audience wouldn’t consciously register, but they’d take something away from the fact that my opponents were being aggressive while I was so defenseless.

“We’re not going to kill you,” Dragon said.  “We’ve been instructed to take you into custody.  I’m sorry we have to do it this way.  I’d hoped… we’d hoped to simply talk to you.”

“The both of you?  I wouldn’t have thought Arm- Defiant had anything to say to me.”

“We entered Brockton Bay’s airspace, and I was informed that there’s a major quarantine in effect here, relating to the portal downtown, and that the airspace is being strictly controlled.  We were forced to announce our reason for coming to Brockton Bay, and PRT members with higher clearance co-opted our mission.  We were ordered to confront you directly, here, and to bring you into custody.”

“Why?” I asked.  “Those suits you deployed against my team were supposed to be used to hunt the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Either you’ve abandoned that chase, or you’re about to tell me that there’s something more important than stopping them.”

“That is something we can discuss while we are in transit,” Defiant told me.

“Defiant-” Dragon said, her tone a warning.

“I could say more here,” he added, “But there are too many prying ears.  If you were willing to move to a room nearby, I could explain.”

“No thanks,” I said.

“You’d still have your power, and I know you can communicate with that power,” Defiant said.  “You’re just as capable of communicating any secrets to them from elsewhere in the school.”

“If I moved somewhere out of sight and out of earshot,” I said, “My words wouldn’t have the same dramatic effect.  Besides, I suspect our audience is the only thing that’s ensuring that you play fair.  They have cameras, and you have reputations to uphold.”

“My reputation isn’t a priority,” he said.  Dragon nodded, but I wasn’t sure if it was approval or agreement.

“You have your organization’s reputation to uphold.  For those of us who stuck around in Brockton Bay, we had reasons.  Something kept us here.  There was something to protect, or people to support.  Some were just scared, because actually leaving was scarier than staying.  Others didn’t have any place to go.  With the Protectorate slowly folding in on itself like a house of cards, I’m thinking you had a reason to stay, a reason you’re following orders you don’t want to.  You’re not about to rough up an unarmed, uncostumed girl and make them look bad on camera.  Not when you have that big a stake in things.”

Defiant glanced in the direction of the crowd.  A handful of students had cell phones out, watching the scene.

“Remind you of the hospital?” I asked.  “Similar scenario.”

“Yes,” he replied.  He didn’t elaborate.

“We could grab you,” Clockblocker chimed in.  “I can, or he can just walk up to you.  No violence necessary.”

“No,” Defiant said.  Again, there was no elaboration.

It dawned on me.  Defiant and Dragon were playing it safe because they thought I might have a trick up my sleeve, like I had at the fundraiser.  I’d disabled Sere, despite the fact that he was supposed to counter my power, and I hadn’t even made a big deal of it.  They knew what I’d done to Echidna, and several other events besides.

They were worried I’d pull something.

Defiant had a grasp on my powers, Dragon had a grasp on me as a person, and they’d gauged that I wasn’t a risk to the others in the room.  Which, if I was being honest with myself, I wasn’t.  They had the upper hand, they lost nothing by letting this play out, and so they weren’t making a move.  They’d talk me down, so to speak, and if I did something, they’d use one of their gadgets or tricks to counter my play.

One of the worst possible things had just happened to me, with my secret identity becoming public knowledge, and here I was, unarmed without a single idea on how to get out of this… and the good guys were playing it safe.  I smiled; I couldn’t help it.

“Fuck me,” Clockblocker muttered to Dragon.  I might not have made out his words if it weren’t for the bugs I’d planted on the heroine.  “It just sunk in.  It’s really her.”

Why only just now?

Adamant had distorted his metal armor to create a completely form-fitting metal suit, with only the thinnest possible slits for his eyes, before venturing outside.  He’d waded through my swarm, mostly blind, and he’d only just found Sere beyond the wall at the school’s perimeter.  He reshaped an armor panel into a weapon to start cutting Sere free.

Could I have caught Adamant  too?  Probably.  But it wasn’t worth the effort, not when he could reshape metal, with enhanced strength and durability on top of that.

Now that I understood what was going on, I felt like I had something of an edge.  Now, how could I leverage it?

“I’m sorry,” Defiant said.

That threw my thoughts off track.  I tensed, but he wasn’t apologizing for an imminent attack.  “What?”

“In the past, when we’ve crossed paths, I should have made efforts to meet you halfway.  I didn’t.  I’ve had time to reflect, I’ve had another person to talk to and give me some objectivity, and I’ve come to regret how things played out between us.  I could say more, but it would come out like excuses, and I doubt either of us want to hear those.”

That’s what you came here to say?”

“In large part,” Defiant said.

“We’d hoped to talk to you, one cape to another,” Dragon elaborated, “About the immediate future, with the Undersiders running this city, and your expectations in particular, Skitter.  But both Defiant and I thought he needed to say something to you along those lines, and perhaps you needed to hear it.  If anything pushed us to come here, it was that.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  It was easier when the opposition were assholes.  Expressing remorse?  How was I supposed to parse that?

Except, they’d done one thing that was assholish.  One incongruent element in all of this.

“One last question, then,” I said.  “Why?  Why out me in front of everyone?  It doesn’t fit with the idea of Defiant being remorseful, it flies in the face of the unwritten rules, and I know my team has played fast and loose with those rules, but I wouldn’t expect you to break them like this, Dragon.  Not Defiant, either, if he’s reinventing himself.”

Defiant and Dragon exchanged a look.

“What?” I asked.

“It’s better you don’t know,” Dragon said.

“What is?  And better for who?”

“Better for everyone involved,” she said.

“Tell me.”

She glanced at Defiant, but he didn’t turn her way.  “A precog told us it was our best option for bringing you into custody.”

A precog?  The incongruous elements fit together.  A plan of action that was riddled with little flaws and contradictions when seen from an outside perspective, that made sense when seen through the lens of someone who’d seen the future and worked out what criteria needed to be met to get the desired end result.  This, mobilizing on the school, it was the same kind of setup I might expect from a plan that Coil would have hashed together after a long question and answer session with Dinah, his ‘pet’ precog.

Dinah.

“Who was this precog?” I asked, the question abrupt.

“Skitter-”  Dragon started.

Who?”

“You know who,” Defiant told me.

It knocked the wind out of me in a way that I hadn’t experienced with the revealing of my secret identity.  My blood ran cold, and all of my confidence just plummeted, as though it had fallen into a pit so deep I couldn’t even see the bottom.

It was.  All of the lengths I’d gone to, the lines I’d crossed, to get Dinah away from Coil, to get her home to her family, and… this?

I was acutely aware of the crowd to my right.  They’d backed away from the front tables, and were clustered at the far end of the cafeteria.  Still, they’d be hanging on every word they could make out.  They were watching my every movement, every facet of this conversation.  There were cell phone cameras turned my way, and every second of footage would no doubt wind up on Parahumans Online or some video site.

I barely cared.  I felt a little numb as I swung my legs around to the far side of the counter and hopped down.  I wasn’t standing as straight, and some of my hair had fallen down around my face, obscuring it.

“Did they force her to give up the information?” I asked.  My voice sounded funny.  I couldn’t pin down whether I felt angry, sad or any of that.  I had only the external clues, the way my voice had the faintest of tremors, and a strange hollow feeling inside.

I stepped away from the counter, away from Dragon and Defiant.  My foot had started to fall asleep where I’d been sitting on it, and I felt a touch unsteady anyways.

“You don’t want to hear the answer to that question, either,” Defiant spoke, behind me.

Dragon and Defiant had flown in, apparently to say hi, and so that Defiant could make something resembling an apology as part of his twelve step assholes anonymous process.  With the chaos the PRT had been facing as of late, and their own preoccupation with their mission, they hadn’t been notified of the quarantine procedures.  They’d been questioned, they’d divulged that I was here, and the bigwigs giving the orders used Dinah to plot out a means of attack that would be likely to get me into custody.

Each idea seemed so much worse than the other, if I considered it for even a moment: either the PRT was using Dinah just like Coil had, or that Dinah had volunteered the information of her own free will.

I was willing to take Defiant at his word.  I didn’t want to hear the answer.

“What are the odds?” I asked.  “Do you know?”

“I can ask,” Dragon said.

“Please.”

She paused.  “Ninety-six point eight percent chance we bring you into custody,” Dragon said.  “We have the numbers on general paths you might take to escape.  You understand if I don’t give you the chance of success on those numbers, but you should know that violence won’t work.  Less than one percent chance of success.”

“Ah.”  It was all I could bring myself to say.

It explains why they’re playing it safe.  It’s not just that I have a penchant for problem solving.  Dinah told them to watch out for it.

I glanced at the crowd.  They were still listening.  Emma was there, hugging her arms to her body, eyes wide and uncomprehending.

Not even a factor.  On the list of things I had to deal with, she wasn’t even in the top ten, not even in the top one-hundred.  I felt irrationally offended that she was here, as if she was only doing it out of some kind of self-importance.  As if she’d had a choice.

A part of me, bigger than I’d expected it to be, wanted to lash out.  To hurt her just because I could, to answer that outrage I was experiencing, in regards to something she had no control over.

It wasn’t like I had much to lose.

“Skitter,” Dragon said.  She made it a warning, almost like she had with Defiant.  I couldn’t be sure what she was warning me about.  Was my line of thinking that obvious?

“I never liked that name,” I said.  “Skitter.  Never quite fit.”

“If there’s something else you’d like us to call you…” she trailed off, inviting an answer.  Her voice was gentle, as if she were talking to someone on a ledge.  I noticed Clockblocker was standing beside her, his glove pointed at me, fingers outstretched.

Was I on a ledge, in a matter of speaking?  I could hardly tell.

“No idea,” I said, as I walked around a table to put students between myself and Clockblocker. “Felt like commenting on the subject.”

“You know how capable the precog is,” Defiant said.  “Come quietly, and we can all talk to the authorities together.  If it would help, I can admit some culpability in your current circumstance.  All of us together might be able to get you a more lenient sentence.”

I was aware of the eyes of the other students.  There was the cluster at the back of the room, the ones who were backing away from me, cringing, cowering.  Others hadn’t left their seats, and were arrayed around me, their heads turning to watch me as I walked down the aisle.  The ones who’d stayed, less afraid, or more willing to face their fear.

He was admitting it, loud enough for everyone to hear.  He was partially to blame for me being… this.  A crime lord.  A villain.  Partially.  Much of the fault was mine.

Strange, to be confronted with the realization here, at school.  Not the place where it all started, but close enough.

“Okay,” I said, more to myself than anyone else.

“Yes?” he asked, taking a step forward.

“No,” I told him.  He stopped in his tracks.  “That was more of an okay, I’ve decided what I’m doing.”

I could see him tense.

“Students!” I called out, raising my voice.

“She’s taking hostages,” Dragon said, her jetpack kicking to life.

“…a clear shot,” Clockblocker said.  He was walking briskly to his left, his glove still trained on me.

“I’m not taking you hostage,” I said.  “It’s really your choice how this plays out.  I’m not sure if you heard me say it before, but I described you as a jury.  Now it’s time for you to vote.”

“That’s not how it works, Skitter!” Defiant shouted.  He stepped forward, then whipped around to kill the swarm that was flowing in through the doorway behind him.  I could divert some to the air ducts, but it didn’t amount to much.  He was stuck near the door, unless he wanted to let the bugs stream in.

“Stand if you side with me,” I called out.  “I won’t make any big speeches here.  That’s not who I am.  I won’t feed you lies or guilt you into this.  It’s your call.”

What had I expected?  A handful of people, Charlotte included?  A slow, gathering buildup?

Of the three hundred or so students in the auditorium, nearly a third stood from the benches where they’d sat.  As a mass, they migrated my way, gathering behind me.  Charlotte stood just to my left, staring forward without making eye contact with me.

Since I’d entered the school, I’d been acutely aware of the distinctions, the difference between then and now.  The sense of the Undersider’s presence in the school had followed me, nagging at me.

What use were followers if we couldn’t use them?

I heard movement, and glanced over my shoulder to see Charlotte’s friend, Fern, breaking away from the mass of students at the very back of the room.  Nineteen out of twenty of them were the clean, pristine, bright-eyed kids who’d left the city when the trouble started.  As Fern advanced, eyes to the ground, others broke away from the crowd to join my group.  Not many.  Ten or twelve.  It was still something.

A hundred students and change, a small handful of bugs.  I could see Emma, standing on the sidelines, her fists clenched.  She was saying something, repeating it over and over, under her breath.  I couldn’t spare the bugs to listen in.  I wasn’t sure I cared.

“This is reckless,” Defiant said.  His voice had a strange tone to it, and it wasn’t just the digital twang that I was hearing at the edges of the words.

“Probably,” I replied, raising my voice enough that it could carry across the room.  “But not as much as you’d think.  We’re not fighting.  I stress, we’re not engaging you.”

“What are you doing, if you’re not fighting us?” Clockblocker asked.

“Defiant and Dragon wanted to use the hostages against me, putting me in a lose-lose situation where I was caught between them and having to hurt people to try to escape.  I think I’m turning the tables, now.  We’re going to walk out of this school as a group.  If you want to stop us, you’re going to have to hurt us, and you aren’t capable of doing that to people any more than I am.”

“Skitter!” Dragon raised her voice.

“Taylor,” I answered her.  “I’m just Taylor, for just a little while longer.  I suppose I’ll be retiring my civilian name, one way or another, by the end of the night.  Fuck you for that, by the way.  I won’t forget it.”

“… wasn’t me,” she said, and I doubted even Clockblocker heard her, from where he stood beside her.

“It wasn’t your choice,” I said, “But as long as you choose to follow them, you’re as culpable as they are.”

I hadn’t even finished my sentence when I raised a hand and pointed.  There was a moment’s hesitation, and then the group advanced.  I waited a few seconds, and then joined them, falling in step.

Clockblocker used his glove, and the fingertips shot out with explosive force, with what looked like gleaming white fishing line stretching between the digits and the glove.  The tips punched into a wall.  A fence of thin lines, not much different from my spider silk.

Dragon put her hand on the glove, and the tips retracted just as fast.  My bugs could hear her speaking.  “…’ll hurt … civilians.”

A few members of the group broke away before getting too close to the capes.  Others joined in.  The group marched forward, reaching the front of the room.

Someone pushed a piece of clothing into my hands.  A sweatshirt.  I pulled it on and flipped the hood up.  I took my glasses off, sliding them into a pocket.

Clockblocker was pressing through the group.  He’d used his power, but the press of bodies was actually causing some damage, as people unwittingly pushed others into the frozen individuals.  He was fighting to reach me.

“Link elbows,” I said, my voice low, “Surround him.  He’s only about as strong as you are.”

It took a second for people to get organized.  He passed perilously close to me, but his eyes moved straight past me.  A few heartbeats later, the members of the group who had managed to get themselves linked together had him surrounded.

“Everyone to my right, head for the front door.  Everyone to my left, to the kitchen.  Straight past Defiant.”

The man barred the door.  We were only a dozen feet away when he slammed the butt of his spear into the ground.  Electricity and hot air ripped through the serving area of the cafeteria, with visible arcs dancing along the edges of sinks and the metal rails meant for the trays at the front.

“Steady forward,” I said.  “First ones to reach him, grab him.  You don’t need to do anything except hold on.  Dogpile him, and he won’t be able to move for fear of hurting you.”

I saw some people hesitating.  The group almost lost its forward momentum.

“He might not be a good guy,” I murmured.  “But he’s a hero.  Trust in that.”

Or is it the other way around?  That apology sat oddly with me.

He held his spear out horizontally, barring our path.  It was Charlotte that quickened her step, reaching out to fold her arms around the spear and his left hand.

Others soon did the same.  He stood tall in his armor, nearly seven feet, and people almost had to climb on top of him to find a place to hold on.

I almost wondered if I’d had a second trigger event, if I was controlling them, the image was so bizarre.

Then I took a better look at them, at how some weren’t listening to me at all, retreating.  Others were being far less consistent, showing a wide variety of emotions.  Sheila, the girl with the side of her head shaved, was among them.  Her face was etched in anger, of all things, as she clung to Defiant.

A hundred students had joined me, and a hundred students had their individual stories.  Their sleepless nights, their individual tragedies and moments of terror.  That was all this was.

I wasn’t sure if that was a relief or if it was scarier.

Dragon flew over us, her jetpack carrying her into the air, over the crowd.  Students were following beneath her, running.  One or two leaped onto tables and jumped to try to catch ahold of Dragon’s foot, but she veered easily to one side.

With Defiant occupied, I was free to bring bugs in through the back door, not having to worry about them being bug-zapped to oblivion.  I directed them straight into the vents on the jetpack that were sucking in huge quantities of air.  One second it was like a vacuum, drawing in air, the next it was clogged.  She lost lift, floating to the ground, and deftly batted aside the reaching hands of the students who were getting in her way.

Her jetpack expanded with an almost explosive motion, fanning out to have four times the number of intake vents, four times the number of output charges, and two laser turrets that curved over her shoulders.

There was no way she could pack that much machinery in that much space.  Either it was all crammed into her torso, which was impossible, or Armsmaster-Defiant had tweaked it.

She had liftoff, and she was faster.

And I’d already slipped past Defiant, stepping into the kitchen, and into the narrow hallway.  She didn’t have room to navigate, with the other students who were crammed into the entryway.

She turned herself around a hundred-and-eighty degrees and flew out the entrance of the cafeteria, heading outside.

Only twenty or so students were with me, now.  Dragon was stopping beside Adamant and Sere.  Adamant took her hand, and she lifted off, carrying the pair of them.

Still had to deal with three heroes…

And the massive armored suits that the two had ridden in to arrive.  Two.

“No,” Defiant said.

“You were supposed to protect us!” a girl shouted.  Sheila, the one who’d been angry, who’d brought a weapon to school and had left the school rather than relinquish it.

“I won’t,” he said.

He was talking to someone else.  The vents on his mask were open, hot air flowing out.  Was he trying to disperse heat so he wouldn’t burn any students?

“It’s still crude,” he said, “… do more harm than good.”

There was a pause.

“…r freedom isn’t worth possibly losing you.”

Defiant, still at the serving area of the cafeteria, moved.  With nine students clinging to him, he was glacially slow, careful to a degree that I might have called agonizing, if it weren’t so much to my benefit.

He needed two hands on his spear to remove the panel in the middle of the shaft.  I filled it with my bugs, and he shook it, to try to get them loose.  When that failed, he disconnected his glove, letting it strike a student that clung to his leg, before falling to the floor.

I tried to use my bugs to bite his hand, but I found it was a smooth texture, not flesh.  Metal or plastic, or something combining the two.  He found three buttons in the mechanisms inside the spear and typed in a sequence.

Dragon veered toward the ground, depositing the two capes there before staggering forward in four or five rapid footsteps, dispersing the rest of her forward momentum.  She fell into a crouching position.

We made our way outside.  The armored suit that Defiant had piloted to the school loomed before us, a four legged mechanical dragon perched on the athletics field, replete with panels of knightly armor.  This thing… this wasn’t a fight I could win.  Simple A.I. or no, Dragon would have shored up any weakness in logic.

It didn’t move.

We walked between its legs on our way to the parking lot.  There wasn’t really another route.

Dragon stood, abrupt, and I flinched.

She turned her head our way, but she didn’t pursue, as we walked through the parking lot to the main road.  Adamant and Sere were too far away, Kid Win hadn’t been willing to venture outside a second time, after the faceful of bugs I’d given him before.

Stray bugs drew out an arrow, pointing him to his things.  No use letting some stupid kid get their hands on it and blow their faces off or something.

I watched Dragon with my swarm, for as long as she was in my range.  I was well out of sight by the time she finally moved.  The students had released Defiant, and he approached her side.

She extended a hand, and it tremored, the movement stuttering, palsied.

Defiant seized it in his right hand and pulled her close, wrapping his gloveless arm around her shoulders.  He set his chin on top of her head.

My escort and I walked as a group until we were three blocks away from the school.

“Stop,” I said.

They did.  The remaining members of the group backed away, turning towards me.

What was I even supposed to say?  ‘Thank you’ seemed so trite.  They were all so different.  There was Fern, and a boy who didn’t look like one of the ones who’d stayed in the city.  Some looked nervous, others showed no expression at all.  There was no response that encapsulated all of them.

I tried to think of something to say, but the harder I tried, the less anything seemed to fit.

“You saved my dad,” Fern said, as if answering a question I hadn’t asked.

Saved her dad?  When?

It didn’t really matter.

“Imp found the bastard who was threatening to do shit to my little sisters,” one guy said. “Tied him to a traffic post.  And you work with her, right?”

“You fought the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“…those bastard ABB guys…”

“Fed…”

“…when Shatterbird…”

“…Mannequin…”

“…Leviathan showed up at the shelter, I heard you were…”

“…Empire…”

A collection of voices, a jumble, to the point that I couldn’t take it all in.

I didn’t have a group with me as I walked down Lord street.  I turned right, onto familiar territory, my heart heavy.

It wasn’t long before I was close enough.  My range was longer, now.  Odd.  It was supposed to get longer when I felt more trapped, but ‘trapped’ wasn’t the word I would have chosen.

My bugs rose at my command, tracing over the area.  It wasn’t so unusual, that there were flies, bumblebees and ants about: the heat of summer, the humidity, the imbalanced ecosystem…  Nobody paid them any heed.

A small butterfly found its way into the house.  It traced over the glossy smooth armor and helmets of PRT officers, touched the badge on the chest of a police officer.

It touched my dad’s shoulder, moved down his bare arm to his hand.  He was sitting at the kitchen table, his head in his hands.

An officer swatted at the bug, missing.  The action drew someone else’s attention.

“It could be her,” the woman in the PRT uniform said.

“Fan out!” someone else ordered.

They spilled out of the house.  Orders were shouted, and people climbed into cars, peeling out.

Still at the kitchen table, my dad reached out for the butterfly.  I had it settle on his finger.  Cliche?  Overdramatic?  Probably.  But I couldn’t bear for my possible last contact with my dad to be through anything ugly.

“Taylor,” he said.

Six and a half city blocks away, I replied, “I’m sorry.”

The butterfly and I took off at the same time.

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Chrysalis 20.4

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From the moment Charlotte had sent her text, I’d been bracing myself for the worst case scenario.  I’d resolved the situation with Greg, and I’d had just enough time to let my guard down before things started falling apart for real.

A guard stopped me in my tracks before I was three steps out of the office, arresting me mid-stride by setting his hands on my shoulders.

I resisted the urge to fight him.  I wasn’t sure I could, without a weapon, my armor or powers, and it threatened to make the situation worse.  He peered down at me, but I averted my eyes, staring down at the ground so he couldn’t get a straight look at my face.

“No running, kid,” he said.

He let me go, and I resisted the urge to breathe a sigh of relief.

My thoughts were a mess, a jumble of half-finished thoughts, ten times worse than it had been earlier in the day.  Somehow, in the midst of it, I managed to establish a few priorities.  Slip out, get rid of evidence, assess the threat, and then address it.

I walked slower.  I had the papers I’d removed from the clipboard, and I started tearing them up as soon as the guard had disappeared through the doors of the office.

On a more strategic level, I drew on a share of the handful of bugs in the school to get a sense of my surroundings.  I’d be letting people know Skitter was present, if they noticed the odd movements of the flies and ants, but I had good reason to believe someone already knew.

Either the people after me were the good guys, and it didn’t matter if I clued them in, or it was one of my other enemies, and the heroes showing up could be a good thing.

Arcadia High consisted of two longer buildings joined by a third, joining them to form something like a capital ‘H’.  The main office, where I was, and all the other administrative and staff-related facilities seemed to be located around the center.  The only exits from this immediate area would open into an open space where I would be surrounded by walls lined with windows, all looking down at me.  Worse, the doors all had the heavy horizontal bars that suggested they were emergency exits, and an alarm would sound if I used them.

Assuming I had someone after me, I couldn’t afford to put myself in that position.

That left me two options.  I could head into the building to my left, which featured four stories of classrooms, the cafeteria and a gymnasium, with a door that led to the student parking lot at the front of the school, or I could head right, into a building that was much the same, though longer, with an auditorium and the front doors of the school in close proximity to one another, and quite a few more classrooms.

I headed for the front door, to my right, depositing the scraps of paper in a trashcan on my way.  I moved as fast as I could without drawing undue attention, discreetly placing bugs on all of the guards I could find.

I stopped in my tracks as my bugs made contact with two other individuals.  Adamant and Sere were in the company of two guards, moving from the front door to the intersection immediately in front of me.

Making a sharp right, I headed for the stairwell, ducking away before they could advance far enough ahead to get a glimpse of me.  I’d worried they were making a beeline straight for me, but they stopped at the junction where the two hallways met.  I was already reaching the hallway below.  The guidance counselor’s office and staff meeting rooms sat behind floor-to-ceiling windows with the same glass that the exterior windows had: hexagon-shaped cells blending near-seamlessly into one another.  Looking straight at it, I couldn’t tell the difference, but the light caught each cell differently if I viewed it at certain angles, making them stand out.  Measures against Shatterbird?

Behind one of the windows, I could see two guidance counsellors sitting in a circle with a dozen students.  Nobody, not even the guard who was standing on the other side of the glass door, gave me more than a glance.

The exterior windows of the building were all securely closed.  The building was cool despite being a greenhouse of sorts, but it made getting my bugs into the building a difficult matter, and that left me with a relatively small swarm.  I gauged the number of bugs I could spare, and situated the less mobile bugs on doors and at the points where the walls met the floor or ceiling.  I might have preferred a denser collection, to map out my surroundings, but it gave me a sketchy mental picture of how the hallways were laid out.

A small cloud of flies was only now reaching the front office, slipping inside as a student opened the door, navigating between legs and feet to make their way to the principal’s office.

Listening in required conscious thought, but I’d been working on training my brain to follow human speech with the insects’ alien hearing.  It was easier, the more I had nearby, but I’d have to make do.

“…fight on my campus…” she spoke into the phone.

I had some information now, for as long as she was on the phone.  Not much, and it required me to divert some focus to translating, but it was something.

“…of my students are …ly sensitive … to … them feel unsafe…”

It was an unfamiliar school, and while I had a basic sense of the layout, particularly on the exterior, the interior was something of a hurdle.  The hallway I was on ended in short staircases at either end, each of which led up to the main hallways of the larger buildings.  I made my way towards the one furthest from Sere and Adamant.

“…if that’s an order… yes… fine…”

The principal hung up the phone, placing it on her desk.  She didn’t act right away.  I quickened my pace.

The bugs I had on her pant legs informed me that she was swiveling around.  I had to think about the layout of her office before it clicked.  The computer.

I was at the top of the stairs, the door that led to the parking lot at my left, when the signal went through.  Every single guard in the building reacted in the same moment, as did Adamant and Sere.  Some withdrew things from their pockets -phones, I could guess-, while others were already kicking into action.

It wasn’t just the guards.  The bugs I had on classroom doors informed me of some students slipping out of class.  Two students, both boys.

My enemy was the Protectorate, or someone with strong connections in the Protectorate.  Nobody else would be able to pull this.

Guards stepped into the building and shut the doors behind them.  The heavy, mechanical sound of the doors locking echoed down the hall around me; the doors leading outside were all being sealed shut.

The gate at the front of the school was closed, and a guard was heading for the chain-link barrier at the edge of the parking lot as well.

Could I run?  Maybe.  Fight my way past the guards?  It was possible.  I could cloak myself in bugs, use my limited repertoire to disguise myself, to disable and/or distract them while fighting my way outside.  Could I get to the end of the parking lot in time?  That, too, wasn’t impossible.

All together?  With barely a hundred bugs available?  I wasn’t so sure.  Any fight took time, it involved a risk to myself, and I wasn’t wearing my costume.  If any of the guards had a weapon they’d confiscated or if one of the capes in the area caught up with me, I’d be more than screwed.

I didn’t have any bugs on my person.  I’d been concerned about a pat-down at the gate, and I didn’t want to have bugs crawling throughout the inside of my pant leg or in my pockets when a guard searched me for weapons.  I wasn’t wearing my costume for much the same reason.  Stupid of me.

I was stuck.

May I have your attention please?”  Principal Howell’s voice sounded from speakers throughout the school.  “The school is now being locked down.  For your own safety, please remain in your classrooms.  Students not in an assigned classroom should proceed in a calm and orderly fashion to the nearest seating area.  Students in the north wing of the school will need to make their way to the auditorium.  Students in the south wing should gather in the cafeteria.  Remain calm and rest assured: there is no immediate danger.

The noose was constricting around me.  The students would be contained in select areas, and classrooms would be cleared one by one.  If the Protectorate was involved, I wasn’t even sure I could find a proper hiding spot.  Didn’t Kid Win have some ability to see through walls or detect heat signatures with his goggles?

The two boys had reached a room on the bottom floor, near the gymnasium, and were quickly changing into their costumes.  Clockblocker and Kid Win.

What did the good guys know?  They’d been alerted that I was in the school.  I’d been in the office only minutes ago, and the principal had put my name into the computer.  That was probably the catalyst, given how fast things had proceeded in the minutes since.  The principal got the phone call, and had ordered the lockdown as a consequence.  The fact that she’d warned me, it didn’t jibe with the lockdown: she probably hadn’t wanted to do it.

It struck me that they didn’t know that I was in the school now.

Inside of the building, I was largely defenseless.  Outside, I did have my bugs.  I doubted I could get out without drawing attention, but I could theoretically get them to call off the lockdown.

My bugs moved from the surrounding blocks and collected near one of the fire doors I’d noted earlier.  They formed into a decoy, a rough copy of my general silhouette, covered in bugs, and then began moving toward the school gates.

One of the guards standing by the auditorium saw and shouted for Sere.  The white-shrouded hero hurried for the door.

Sere was a long ranged cape, probably capable of killing my swarm with little difficulty.  I split my swarm off into further copies, maintaining their movement towards the gate and the walls.

Another announcement was broadcast throughout the school.  “A supervillain is currently near the school entrance.  Students in the central areas of the school should relocate to the cafeteria.  Anyone already in a secure place should please remain where they are.

The office was emptying, now, and guards were breaking away from their groups to ensure that every student that had been sitting around in the hallways was moving to the appropriate areas.  Emma was among the forty or fifty students heading toward the cafeteria, nestled in the midst of the group, while the principal followed at the rear with two guards in her company.

Behind me, the guidance office was evacuating as well.  The glass door opened, and the soundproof seal broke.  I could hear one of the counselors speaking to the twelve or so teenagers around him.  “Let’s go to the cafeteria.  If this takes a while, we’ll at least be able to eat.”

He spotted me and gestured for me to join the group.

I could have argued and asked to go to the auditorium instead.  There were any number of excuses that could have worked, including ‘I have an issue with one of the students who’s in the cafeteria’.

But I was more interested in being invisible.  Better to play along, to think of a plan and execute it, while doing as little as possible to draw attention to myself.  Here, at least, I’d be hidden among others.  I joined the crowd moving in the direction of the cafeteria.

More guards were directing other students to the cafeteria, the groups merging into a single mass, with the cafeteria doors as the bottleneck.  Inside, everyone was spreading out to find tables.  Again, I noted the distinction between the two varieties of student.  The bright and cheerful ones were collecting together, filling up every space at the tables closest to the door and to the front of the cafeteria, where all of the food was available.  Others were spreading out, alone or in groups of two to five.

The principal and other staff members were standing by the door, seeing that everyone filed peacefully into the room.  Emma was sitting at one table with all of the secretaries and a few of the teachers who I supposed hadn’t had a class to teach.  She glared at me as I walked into the room.

I found Charlotte, too, identifying her by the cube of paper with the ladybug inside that I had my more prominent minions carrying these days.

“Taylor!” she hissed, as I made my way towards a table at the back of the room.

I was dimly aware of Sere striking down one of the decoys.  The moisture in the air zipped to his hand, and nearly half of the decoy was ruined, the bugs dazed or unable to move.

The spiders, I noted, suffered worse than most.  They used a kind of biological hydraulic system to move.  Shit.  I liked my spiders.  They were particularly useful.

I reached Charlotte and murmured, “Best if you don’t know me.”

“Hey, Taylor,” she hissed the words, twisting around in her seat.  When I didn’t reply, she repeated herself, “Hey.  Is this about you?”

“I think so,” I muttered.

I took a seat at a table near the back, folding my arms in front of me and resting my chin on the back of my hands.  Staying out of sight, while keeping an eye on everything.  It also allowed me to focus on my swarm.

My bugs were discreetly tracing back routes and other options.  Was there a place where the cafeteria staff unloaded the day’s food?  Some back way leading from, say, a gym or custodial entrance?  A way onto the roof, even?  I didn’t have enough bugs to spare that I could leave them on walls.  I was forced to personally memorize every corridor and feature of the building that might be important.

Outside, Sere was working at destroying my decoys.  I split off more copies, and then moved one group to him to see if I could blind him.

The bugs were being sucked dry of moisture as they got too close to Sere; I wouldn’t be able to disable him with just my swarm.  He drew more water from a cloud of bugs, desiccating and killing hundreds.

The number that died was indicative of something, though.  As devastating as the attack was, the effect didn’t cover a massive area.  It was a roughly cone-shaped area, with a long reach, but narrow breadth.

If he was surrounded by moisture, maybe I could use that against him?  My flying bugs started doing bombing runs.  They picked up small stones and dirt, using the fine tarsals that helped them cling to walls.  There wasn’t the suction, but it served to allow them to pick up specks at a time.  They flew in tight loops, staying high over Sere as they dropped the fragments, touched ground to collect more dirt, and repeated the process.  I was careful to spread them out and collect the fragments from multiple places so he couldn’t kill too many at a time.

Dense moisture and dirt could become a thin mud, and it might serve to blind him or distract him where my bugs couldn’t.

In the cafeteria, another group of students was filing inside.  Fifty or sixty in all, they each bore telltale signs of the kids who’d stayed.  Many were drenched in sweat, and the teacher with them held a basketball.  Had they been in the gym, burning off nervous energy, working on building social bonds and all that?

There were maybe three or four hundred people in the cafeteria, now, as students from all over the school streamed in, including most of the ones from the auditorium.  With the increasing number of students, it was impossible for anyone to have a table to themselves.  A group of three boys claimed the far end of Charlotte’s table, and she stood up.

She had issues around unfamiliar men.  It might have served as a push for her to do what she’d been debating doing anyways.  She joined me at my table, sitting close enough that our shoulders touched.

“What’s going on?” she whispered.

“You know when Tattletale vetted everybody?”  I whispered back.

Charlotte nodded.

“She made a list of names, some vetted people along with some others who were safe.  Mixing it up.  She gave the list to the principal, with the idea that maybe she could cut us some slack and we’d help keep the peace in the school in exchange.  So she had an idea that I was related to the Undersiders, she told me to run and hinted someone might be after me,” I said.

Charlotte nodded again, mute.

“I tried,” I whispered, “but I couldn’t cover enough ground in time.  Someone forced her hand and ordered her to put the school on lockdown.  I can’t slip out without drawing attention to myself, I’m not in a position to fight, and it’s only a matter of time before they find me.”

Shit,” she said.

“Exactly,” I said.  “I won’t blame you if you want to move somewhere else.”

“I’ll stay,” she said.

“Char-”

“I’ll stay,” she repeated.

I relented.  I couldn’t afford to focus on this, when I needed to control my bugs and memorize any possible escape routes or hiding places.  “If anything happens, get clear.  You don’t know me.  Your ‘little brother’ is counting on you, and he should be your priority.”

“Little brother?” she asked.  I saw the realization as she remembered our code word.  ‘Little brother’ referred to all the kids in her charge.

“Oh.  Right,” she said.

Kid Win was making a beeline for the front door.  I clustered bugs on the surface of the door, blocking his line of sight as much as I was able.

It didn’t work.  The thermal gogglesWhich means he can tell there’s no body inside any of the decoys.  He pushed the door open and shouted, “Sere!”

That was about as far as he got before my bugs descended on him, filling his open mouth.

“What are you going to do?” Charlotte asked.  With the degree of attention that I was devoting to what was going on, she sounded almost distant.

Even with the murmuring of hundreds or so students conversing, the cafeteria was eerily still and quiet compared to what was going on outside.  Adamant was standing at the doorway to the auditorium, simultaneously trying to keep an eye on the stray students from the north building and the fighting outside.  Clockblocker was making his way to the front.  He was slightly different; he wore what seemed to be a gauntlet, out of proportion with the rest of his body.

“I have a few options,” I whispered my response.  “I could be aggressive, take on the people at the door.  I think I could slip away.”

“Why didn’t you do that already?”

“They were too guarded, and they were anticipating trouble from within the building.  My bugs are causing some chaos outside, now, and they’ll have their backs turned.  I’ll have time to improvise a mask, which I didn’t, before.”

“You have to get out of the cafeteria first.”

“I’m not too worried about that,” I said.  “There’s two or three possible escape routes I’ve been able to find, if I can get my hands on a set of keys or create a big enough distraction to get away with making some noise.  The principal has my back, and she might make it easier.  I’d ask her for a key, but I’m not sure she would be willing to risk it, and there’s too many people around her.”

Including Emma, I noted.  One person I could count on to pay attention to me.

“What if she’s the one who made the call to these people who are after you?”

The principal?  I shook my head.  “Her priority is keeping this school and its students safe.  Besides, I overheard her communicating with someone on the phone.  If she was playing both sides, there’d be no reason for her to maintain the ruse when I wasn’t anywhere nearby.”

“Unless she knew you could hear through your bugs,” Charlotte added.

“Unless she knows,” I echoed her.  “I don’t think she does.”

Kid Win was suffering at the hands of my swarm.  He drew a weapon, but my swarm was already prepared with lengths of silk.  They constricted the weapon and prevented it from unfolding.  Sere, for his part, had his hands full trying to take down the decoys.  A large part of what I was concentrating on was the decoys, getting enough details right, and splitting them off in a way that suggested I could be any of them, while simultaneously keeping them far enough apart that he couldn’t attack more than one at once.

“Taylor,” Charlotte whispered.  “If they know who you are, they know.  They could find you again, or put your face on the news.”

“If they did, it would be breaking a good few unwritten rules.  Especially if they only knew who I was because I helped with the Echidna situation.  They can’t afford to punish villains for helping against the big threats.  It would mean fewer people showed, and they need all the help they can get.  Here, at least, they could say I was intruding on neutral ground.”

The explanation felt feeble.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Charlotte whispered, echoing my line of thinking.  “Doing it here, at a school, with so many potential hostages around.  Breaking the code?”

“I’m thinking…” I replied, “I’m thinking everyone knows the Protectorate is falling apart.  Legend’s gone, Eidolon’s announced he’s leaving as soon as things get quieter, the head of the PRT stepped down, a whole bunch of rank and file members left, and so did Weld and a lot of the more monstrous capes.  Maybe there’s pressure from the top to put one in the win column, remind people why the Protectorate exists.”

And who better to take down than the creepy teenage supervillain who’s leading the team that took over a city?

“But in a school?”

I didn’t have any guesses to offer on that count.  I focused on the fighting outside instead of responding.

Getting too close to Sere was killing my bugs just as easily as his long ranged absorption attack.  I had to attack him from range, and the rain of dirt and small stones wasn’t doing anything, as far as I could tell.

I turned to a tactic that had crossed my mind while fighting Echidna.  She, like Sere, had been tricky to get close to.  Unlike Sere, she’d been too big to really tie up.

Spiders drew out lines of silk and formed them into cords, weaving them into one another to form extended lines, fifty or so feet long.  With the combined efforts of dozens of flying insects, half gripping one end and half gripping the other, the lines were flown in Sere’s direction, so he was caught by the middle.

The bugs holding the ends then continued onward, keeping the cord taut as they circled him, one group flying clockwise, the other flying in the opposite direction.  In this manner, they orbited him, winding him up in a single length of cord.

With five cords being wound around him in that fashion, I soon had him hampered, his arms and legs restricted in movement.

He kept moving forward, attacking my decoys.  As he passed a signpost, I hurried to have my bugs wind the remaining lengths of cord around it.  Lines went taut, cords constricted around him, and he fell.  He struggled, but it didn’t seem he would be on his feet anytime soon.

With Kid Win on the ground, thrashing, that was two down.

The other two, I was pretty sure I could deal with them if it came down to it.  I wasn’t sure what Clockblocker’s glove did, but I had a suspicion.  Adamant’s armor was just begging to have silk cords wind through the chain links and armor plates.

My bugs rifled through Kid Win’s pouches and armor compartments.  Masses of bugs and teams of the larger, stronger bugs working to pull silk cords helped to divest him of various tinker tools and components.  His smart phone, a cylinder with a trigger on the front and a button on top, a sphere with a hole through the center, with screw-like rifling and electrical connectors in the interior.  There were two devices like tuning forks, too, with tines that wound around one another without touching, and wires beneath the handles.  Bugs in his ears helped to work an ear bud out of position and carry it off.

Once he was denied as many of his tools as I could move, I dragged them away.  It was only when I was sure that he wouldn’t be able to use them against the swarm or against me that I eased up on him.  I let my bugs drift in the general direction my decoys had gone, as though I were leaving or gone.

He stood, gagging and choking.  Sere wasn’t in sight, and I’d taken Kid Win’s phone.  There was only one place for him to go if he wanted to communicate with the others and touch base.  He headed back into the school.

I was ready.  Bugs flowed out of his pockets, gaps in his armor and from where they’d clustered at the small of his back.  I tied his wrist to the door handle.

It took him a long few seconds to realize the door wouldn’t swing shut until he moved.  That bought the remainder of my swarm time to turn around and flow through the open entryway.  They headed straight for the guards, and swept into their pockets the same way they had with Kid Win’s pouches.

Keys?  Yes.

While Kid Win and the guards were blinded, my bugs fetched the keys.

I stood from the bench of the lunch table.  “I think I’m set.”

“Just like that?” Charlotte asked.

I looked at the front of the room, where other students were feeling hunger and teenage appetites overcoming their fear of what was going on elsewhere in the school.  Only a dozen or so.  Maybe they don’t have a steady supply of food where they are, I mused.  There were areas of town which weren’t in good shape.

There’re pizza slices, I noted.  It was a reminder of how the day wasn’t going as I’d planned.

“It shouldn’t be a problem,” I said.  Get out, then see what Tattletale can manage as far as damage control.  “Wish me luck.  I’ll send you a message and meet you at the lair after school if everything goes according to plan.”

I crossed the cafeteria, heading for the buffet tables and sneezeguard-protected counters with empty trays waiting to be filled by staff.  Emma was at her table, I noted, surrounded by secretaries and teachers.  I was joined by other hungry students, eager for their free food, and their bodies helped to block me from the sight of both Emma and the staff.

Confidence, I thought.  I stepped around the counter and through the doors that led into the kitchen.  Confidence made it look like I knew what I was doing; being furtive would only arouse suspicion.  My bugs were still carrying the keys, bringing them along an air vent.  I’d need to find a way to open a vent cover and retrieve them, but it was among the smallest of the problems I’d face today.

I found a door to the outside.  My bugs clustered on the other side, my hand pressing against my own, separated by an inch and a half of door.  I glanced over my shoulder to make sure I hadn’t been followed, then started looking for a way into the air conditioning duct.

The smallest of the problems I’d face today.

There was an impact, heavy enough that the lights flickered.  Even the bugs I’d gathered on the door were knocked loose, both by the force of the landing and the flying dust and debris.

Right outside the door.

I didn’t need to move my bugs to search out the identity of this antagonist.

A figure strode through the swarm of bugs.   He tapped the door with the end of his weapon, and the breath was knocked out of me.  Every bug within thirty feet of the door died, including the ones in the air conditioning duct.

I was still reeling as he pushed against the door.  It was deadbolted, but the metal of the door’s surface buckled, and it tore free of the frame.

He was wearing armor, forest green and gold, with the stylings of a lizard’s frills or bat wings on the trim, and a faint etching of scales to the green portions.  His spear, too, bore a distinctive design, with an etching like a lizard’s skull worked into the heavy spearhead.

He advanced, his spear point leveled at my chest, and I backed up, maintaining a distance between us.  To do otherwise would mean letting him drive the weapon into my chest.

On the other side of the campus, another heavy armored suit touched ground, somewhat more gently.

He stopped when we were at the front of the cafeteria.  I kept backing up, knowing it was futile.  Dragon had exited the other suit, and was using a jetpack to navigate the hallway, flying towards us with an accuracy and ease of movement that belied how fast she was moving.

I didn’t have an escape route.  The woman stopped directly behind me, at the entrance to the cafeteria.

“Dragon,” I said.  “And Armsmaster.”

“The name is Defiant,” Armsmaster corrected me.  His voice had a funny sound to it.

“Skitter,” Dragon answered me, loud enough for everyone to hear.  Her voice was almost gentle.  “I’m sorry it worked out this way.  My hand was forced.”

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Interlude 19 (Donation Bonus #1)

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Rey hesitated at the door.  He cast a wary glance over his shoulder, but life elsewhere in the city continued as normal.

If he touched the doorknob, any number of things could happen.  A pit underfoot, a guillotine blade from overhead.

It took a measure of courage to raise the door knocker and slam it against the front door of the old Victorian-styled house.

The door opened right away.

“Blasto,” Accord greeted him.  “We finally meet.”

“Uh huh,” Rey replied.  He glanced around.  The inside of the house was nice.  Must be nice to not have to reinvest ninety percent of your earnings on tech.

“No mask?”  Accord asked.

“Yes,”  Rey replied.  He folded one corner of his face back.  “It’s a fungus.  Same texture as human flesh.”

Accord’s own intricate mechanical face shifted in response to his underlying expression.  “Lovely.”

“I’m still not sure about this, given our history,” Rey said.  He accepted the invitation into the front hallway of the house, carefully removed his shoes and set them on the tray to the right of the door.

“I’ve given you my word that you’ll be safe, provided you cooperate.”

“Damn Nazis,” Rey said.  “My whole lab, gone.”

Accord didn’t offer any sympathy.  “Come.”

Rey followed.  Peering into the rooms he passed, he saw libraries and sitting rooms, old furniture.  Everything was finely made, nothing cheap or throwaway.  Knowing Accord, it was all too possible that the man had hand-crafted everything in this house.

And in each room were people in costume.  Other teams had themes, natural or otherwise.  Their costumes matched, or they unconsciously mirrored one another in style of dress or quality.  Accord’s people were much the same, but it was very deliberate.  Each wore fine clothing, elegant dresses and suits, and each had their hair neatly combed into place, oiled to the point that it looked wet.  The ‘costumes’ were in the color of their chosen formal wear and badges or brooches they wore, as well as the finely crafted masks that hid any trace of their real expressions.

“You’re not expecting me to dress like them, are you?”

“No,” Accord said.  “Truth be told, I fear you could never meet my standards, and I’m going to do my level best to ignore the fact that you exist.  You’ll want to keep to the areas I designate and use the back ways out of the building, so that I never see you.”

“You’re not going to imprison me, are you?”

“No.  This is a business transaction.  I will give you the opportunity to get back on your feet, you will do what you can to eliminate our mutual enemies, being careful to avoid any damage or criminal activity within my territory, and in exchange, you will give me half your territory when all of this is over.  Following such an event, I hope we can avoid any further aggression between us for the future.”

“Sure,” Rey said.

“The individuals in question are Menja, Stormtiger, Cricket, Rune, Othala, Niflheim and Muspelheim.  I’ll see you have all available records.  Best to enter any confrontation with your eyes wide open.”

“Okay.”

“My people will not be available to you, understand.  Our bargain presumes you are working alone.”

“I get it.”

“You’re quiet.  You don’t have questions?  Requests?”

“Wouldn’t mind some grass.”

“Turf?”

Rey smirked, “In the slang sense.  I meant-”

“Say no more.  I understand what you meant.  Provided you stay out of my way, you can do whatever you wish in the assigned area.  That said, I and my people will not provide intoxicants, and if you are inebriated in any way in my company-”

“It’s fine,” Rey cut in.  “I get it.”

“Here.  Into the basement,” Accord said.

Accord led the way, and Rey hesitantly followed.

The basement was expansive.  There were no walls – only pillars.  The floor was concrete covered in a no-slip perforated rubber mat, the various desks were stainless steel, each on wheels that could be locked in place.  Each desk, in turn, had glass cabinets or drawers.  As far as Rey could see, they were fully stocked.

But it was more than that.  Rey was used to the usual labs, which held years of old material.  Tools that had long since fallen into disrepair.  Trays of solutions that nobody had touched in years, too old to use but too expensive to throw away in good conscience.  There were slides that were stained, tools that didn’t always work.  Even when he’d started his lab, it had been with tools stolen from his old University, things bought on the cheap.

This?  This was a dream.  He stepped over to a glass case, large enough to fit a person inside.  There was a case attached to one side with room for a solution to be poured in, and what he took to be an attached tank of distilled water, with a control panel to select the rate and degree of mixture.  Another tube would vent the contents into a biohazard case.

A glance told him that everything would be here.  There were neatly ordered bins of chemicals, tools laid out in neat rows.  Everything was pristine.  The cages on the other end of the room with the captive animals, even, were clean, with none of the animal scent or vague smell of waste that accompanied such.  There were troughs filled with rich smelling earth, thoroughly mixed and free of clumps.

Rey Andino could create life from raw materials, fashion a homunculus from the most basic ingredients and elements.  He could make monsters, loyal beings that would do as he wished, with only time and things he’d picked up from a drug store.  Faced with this laboratory, he felt small, insignificant.  He knew he would soil it, that things would break as he used them.  It was wrong.

“Satisfactory?” Accord asked.

“It’ll have to do,” Rey replied, trying to sound casual.

“It will.  Now, I’d like you to know that I recently acquired some samples and records.  I’d intended to hold on to them as a bargaining chip at a critical moment, or something I might offer you as incentive to leave this city.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’ll find them in the far corner of the room.  The computer contains the database and the attached machine arm will withdraw any samples on request.”

“Sure,” Rey said.

“My ambassadors will be taking turns observing you.  Short of a critical emergency, they won’t be reporting anything to me.  Citrine will be first.”

Rey nodded.  He was already heading to the computers, to find what Accord would feel was so powerful or valuable that Rey would leave the city to get his hands on it.

The computer was fast.  Rey started to empty his pockets and smooth out the papers with the few blueprints he’d been able to salvage when the white supremacists had come storming through his old lab, and the computer was already idling at the desktop screen by the time he’d finished.

A black window with text in bold white letters showed a menu.  Two options:

A:  View Database
B:  View Samples

He took the first option, typing the letter in the keyboard and striking the enter key.

It was names.  Cape names.  They kept appearing, so fast he could barely read them, and the window kept scrolling until he hit the enter key again to interrupt it.

He scrolled up until he found one name.  He clicked it.

Blasto, Real Name Unknown
Classification:  Tinker 6 (sub: master 5, blaster 2, shifter 2, brute 2); plants.
Disposition: Villain (B)
Last Known Location:  Boston (Allston area, east).

Crime lord of East Allston since est. date of April 2009.  No subordinates.  No past history as a subordinate.  Criminal history indicates cap of second degree murder, tendency to mass damage to property and persons.  Produces uncontrolled lifeforms that are incapable of replication.  Adversarial relationship with Accord (#13151), Spree (#14755) and Chain Man (#14114).

Note:  High risk of Class-S classification.  Should creations self-propagate, kill orders are pre-authorized.

A: More information/History
B: More information/Powers
C: More information/Contact & Network
D: Back

There were signs of degraded data, but it was there.  Accord had somehow acquired the PRT’s system data and records on all parahumans they’d encountered.

No big surprises on the possible kill order.  He’d been made aware of it some time ago, and had grumbled, groaned and grudgingly avoided making any lifeforms that could breed in the years since.

“How the hell did you get this?” he asked.  He turned around.

It wasn’t Accord behind him.  It was a young woman in a formal, silk dress, yellow trimmed with gold, and a mask in matching colors.  A gemstone stood out on her forehead, with matching earrings dangling from her ears like chandeliers.  Her hands were clasped in front of her.

“I didn’t,” she said.

“You’re one of his… what did he call you?”

“His ambassadors.”

“That’s right.  Do you have a name?”

“Citrine.”

“Ok.  How did he get this?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Because you don’t know or because you won’t say?”

“Yes.”

He sighed, turning back to the system.  He selected the last option in the menu at the bottom of the page, then reloaded the master list, stopping when it had progressed far enough.

Eidolon.  There was a full set of details.

More information?  Nothing.  Data not found.

Powers?  Nothing.  Data not found.

Legend was the same.

Maybe someone less prominent.  He selected Chevalier and got the standard information.  More details.

Powers?  He selected the option, and received pages upon pages of testing data.  Rey’s eyes pored over the results, soaking them in.  It was like reading Shakespeare.  One could listen to a line, and be momentarily baffled, but skimming it or assuming a general foundation of knowledge, it was possible to pick up the gist of the message;  The underlying meanings, if not the exact definitions of the individual elements.

The work of a tinker wasn’t typical science.  Refining it was science, but the blunt, raw use of the power?  It was almost the opposite.

Good science meant starting with the conditions, forming a hypothesis, making a prediction, and then testing it.  Repeat, repeat, repeat, until there was a solid base of knowledge.  That knowledge let one establish further conditions, refine hypotheses.

But tinkers started with the end result.  A moment of inspiration, glimpses of the major steps one would need to take to get there.  It involved working backwards, up until that moment the means came into view.  Rey could see it at work, could see Chevalier’s power as raw data, something he could replicate by traveling an entirely different path.  He would need a sturdier frame.  Something big.  This wouldn’t be a hybrid of a stray dog and a plant.  This would need to be something closer to a bear.

Or, he realized, a human.

He backed out of Chevalier’s data until he was at the original screen.  He checked the samples Accord had provided him with.

Select sub-database:
A)  PRT (Protectorate, Wards) samples
B) Non-PRT (evidence database) samples
C) Misc samples

Further investigation revealed the full truth.  Accord had gotten his hands on a database of DNA from countless members of the Protectorate and the Wards, as well as scraps of material from certain powers, where traces remained behind.

He selected C, expecting little.  His eyes widened.

Many were samples from lifeforms that various tinkers and masters had created.  His own were in there.  That wasn’t the surprising fact.

He selected the last option on the list.  To the right of the computer, in a hermetically sealed case, a robotic arm extended and deposited a microscopic sample on a slide.

A fragment, so small as to be nearly impossible to see, of one of the Simurgh’s feathers.

“You keep making these little oohs and ahhs,” Citrine commented.  “It sounds like you’re pleasuring yourself.”

“I am, believe me,” Rey replied, not looking her way.  “Where did he get this stuff?  Does he even comprehend what he gave me?”

“I’m sure he does.”

He’d considered replicating Chevalier’s power, with a solid enough frame.  Maybe a bear, maybe a human.  Small potatoes.

He went through the contents he’d unloaded from his pockets until he found a piece of paper he’d folded into an envelope.  He tore it open and tapped out the contents.

Each seed was about the size of a pea, tapered at each end, a mottled white-brown.  He hurried over to one of the large glass tubes and fiddled with the controls until it started flooding with water.

“Are you one of the talkative ones?” Citrine asked.

“What?”

“I mean, maybe it’s a dumb question, because you’ve stuck pretty much to monosyllabic grunts since this whole thing started, but I’m wondering if you’re one of the capes that likes to rant or one of the quiet ones.”

“Quiet.  Why?”

“Honestly?  I’m bored.  Not like I can go on Facebook with my smartphone or anything.  That sort of thing gets you killed, when you work for Accord.”

“You want me to entertain you?”

“I doubt you’re capable.  But you could distract me, help while away the minutes.”

He eyed the woman.  Rey wasn’t one of the quiet ones by choice.  He’d just fallen into the habit of being alone because it was easier to stay in the lab than it was to be out in the larger world.  People in the larger world sucked.  Up until the Nazis from Brockton Bay had  turned up and claimed the building at the other end of the street from his lab, it had been a place he could retreat.  A place where his work and his art could occupy his thoughts and distract him from reality.

Art.  It was a good starting point for an explanation, and she was probably the most attractive person he’d spent more than one minute around in the last few months…

He forced a smile.  He was a little rusty on that front.  “What we do, what tinkers do, it’s more art than science.  Every step we take is made with an end goal in mind.  Just now, looking over these samples, I think I decided on an end goal.”

“What’s that?”

“My usual methods, well, you know them.  You’ve fought my creations before.”

“Yes.”

“These seeds,” he raised one hand, a seed pinched between index finger and thumb, “Are like stem cells.  They harbor the potential to become virtually anything.  Wherever information is missing, they fill in the gaps.”

“Like using frog DNA for dinosaurs.”

“Like using frog DNA for dinosaurs, right.  The way I worked it, they’ll decode the information in a very brute force way.  The seed starts by forming two bodies, attached by a central hub.  I kill the least viable one, it buds and splits again, with copies that are derivatives of the survivor.  Usually two to four.  Kill all but one, repeat.”

“Until you have something viable.”

“Exactly!  Takes anywhere from a few hours to a few days.  Then I have what’s essentially a plant-animal hybrid, and I nudge it in the direction of my enemies.  Or give it simple programming that I can use.  Training half-plant rodents to fetch shiny objects, for example.”

“How?”

“Trade secret,” Rey said.  “I’m not dumb.  I won’t give away the essentials.”

“Okay.  So what’s today’s project?”

“Oh, I’ll have a dozen projects in the work before I let myself go to sleep.  But the big one is that I want to replicate an Endbringer.”

He glanced at Citrine, saw that she’d gone still.

“I may need to go talk to Accord,” she said.

“No need,” Rey said.  “I suspect he already knows.  He gave me these samples, no doubt with the idea that I’d use it.”

“And you can’t even control it?  Or he can’t control it?  It doesn’t sound like him,” Citrine said.

Rey paused.  It didn’t sound like Accord.  Was there another explanation?

Accord might be planning on killing him after the project was done.  Rey kept his creations in line with pheromones, spraying them liberally around his lab and the surrounding neighborhood.  They would move to the nearest unaffected location as soon as they were free.  Once he did that to Accord’s home, the place would be rendered immune to his own attacks, at least for a little while.

But it still seemed too reckless for the perfectionist.  Was Accord that eager to kill the white supremacists?  Or was there another plan in the works?

“You’ve gone quiet,” Citrine said.

“Thinking,” he said.  “No, I need things quiet for a minute.  There’s a TV in the corner.  Watch that.”

“I can’t.  Accord would be upset,” the woman in yellow replied.

Rey sighed.  He crossed the room to the television, turned it on, set it to mute and turned on the closed captions.  “He won’t be upset if I turn it on, will he?”

“No.”

“There.”

He returned to the computer and started working with the Simurgh’s tissue.  It was hard to cut, and harder still to slice to the point that he could look at it under a microscope.

“Crystalline,” he murmured, as he focused on it.  The feathers were like snowflakes when viewed at 40x magnification.  He scaled all the way up to 800x magnification before realizing that there were no individual cells.

Was it just the feather?  Was it dead tissue, on par with the keratin of fingernails or hair?  He used the computer to access a sample of Leviathan’s ‘blood’, and let the hands handle the arrangement of preparing the slide.  Being liquid, the blood was easier than the feather.

He wasn’t sure he wanted to use Leviathan’s tissue.  Growing a miniature Leviathan in a vat would be a bad idea if that vat was filled with fluid.

Using Behemoth’s tissues would be just as problematic.  The Herokiller could ignore the Manton effect at a range of up to thirty-two feet.  Even semi-conscious inside a glass case, it was too risky.

Had to be smart about this.

Leviathan’s blood was the same as the feather.  Crystals, dense and so opaque that light wouldn’t pass through them.

There were more tissues.  Flesh.  More blood.  Hair.  Damaged tissues and intact ones.  He went through each.

All of it, the same.  Crystals.  No individual cells.  Even the crystals barely differentiated from one another.  Truth was, there was more difference in crystals collected from deeper inside the Endbringer than there was in crystals that had come from different parts of the Endbringer’s body; hair as opposed to blood.

He scraped off a bit of his seed, then added water and the catalysts to splice it with some of the Simurgh’s feather.  Sure enough, it started to grow.  Each end of the scraping formed into buds, and the buds started to form into basic, foetal shapes, one quadruped, one vaguely humanoid.

But neither lived.

The weaker tissue was easier to work with.  Assuming it was deriving patterns from the crystals, insofar as the crystals could create or support life, he could use that to work out the peculiarities of how the Endbringers were able to sustain themselves.

No vascular system, no sign of emergent organs.

Of course the emerging lifeform wasn’t viable.  It wasn’t capable of life in the first place.

He’d have to take another route.  He withdrew a sample of Myrddin’s tissue, then started splicing it with one seed and the ruined fragments of the Simurgh’s feather.

It was lunacy, tampering with Endbringer-related materials, but he couldn’t shake the idea that he was on to something.  He’d sustain the Endbringer tissues with other living tissue that could feed it energy or nutrients.  His seeds would bridge the gap.  It would take ten or fifteen minutes before he saw any real results.  There was other work to do in the meantime.

A sedated monkey plus a sample of his own tissue and one seed, and he had a homunculus in the works.  It would be roughly as intelligent as a very stupid person in most respects, but it would share his own understanding of chemistry, biology, science and botany.  It would serve as a lab assistant, and he would need one for a lab this big.

The rest of the seeds went into another vat to replicate.  He’d need more.

He walked over to the glass tube where the Simurgh-Myrddin-plant hybrid was in the works.  One had wings rather than legs.  He directed a laser to kill it.  The other had four arms, but two resembled wings.  It would work.  He conducted a charge through the fluid to reset the life cycle.  It would split in two or three, and he’d kill the remainder.

Accord must have based this equipment off of the stuff he’d had in his last lab, the one Accord had forcibly ejected him from.  The lasers being built into the glass tube were a nice touch, kept everything hermetically sealed.

In a fit of whimsy, he directed the lasers to a pure light form, then had them fire into the glass case itself.  Letters lit up, labeling the projects.  Regrowth for the plant that was growing and budding with more seeds.  Homunculus for the monkey that was gestating in the second tube.

And for his real project?  It would have to be something fitting.

Morrígan.

Beautiful.  He studied the three foetal forms that were developing inside, killed two, narrowing down the results he wanted.  Like pruning branches.

The TV started making noise.  Rey wheeled around to see Citrine and one of her fellow ‘ambassadors’ standing in front of the TV.  The man in the suit with a green dress shirt and a copper lizard mask was the one turning up the volume.

“I’m trying to work here,” Rey said.

“Something’s going on.  Look,” the man spoke.

Rey impatiently left his work behind.  If he waited too long, a bad growth could be carried on to the young.  Wouldn’t do.

The TV showed a reporter talking.  Why was he supposed to care?

Then it changed to a camera view of an ongoing conflict.  Three gigantic armored suits were in open conflict with a small group of people.

The Slaughterhouse Nine.  Here, in Boston.

One of the suits was deploying swarms of drones, but they were getting cut out of the air as fast as they appeared.  Another member of the Nine had a loose-fitting coat of human flesh draped over him.  He stretched it out to grab surrounding buildings and anchor himself in place as a mechanical lizard with a giant wheel on its back tried to haul him in with what looked to be an immense suction.

The Siberian had made contact with and was tearing apart a third suit.

A suit high in the air fired off a laser beam, and the Siberian jumped to put herself in the line of fire.

Whatever happened next, the camera didn’t catch it.  The concussive force of the laser hitting was enough to knock the cameraman over, and the image shorted out.

Rey sniffed.  He’d like to see more of Dragon’s work, not because it had anything in common with his own, but because it was good work.  But for now, his focus was on his projects.

With a quick glance, he assessed and executed two homunculus-offshoots and one derivative of the Morrígan.  Electrical charges restarted the gestation process.

The thing was starting to resemble the Simurgh, though both feathers and hair were brown-black in color, it was hermaphroditic and the flesh was more translucent than white.  Veins stood out.

Rey studied it while the thing cracked in the middle, the individual halves separating with a thread of flesh between them.  Each of the halves began dissolving and forming anew.

If it was even half as powerful as the real Simurgh… well, this would be a game-changer.

And Accord had to know that.  Had to be aware that Rey would be working with the Endbringer tissues on this level.

It wasn’t as though the method of control was that difficult to master.  One set of pheromones would make the creation feel fond of something, the other would have an negative effect, drive them away from a person or area.  Still another would provoke feelings of anger or hatred, useful if he wanted to bid them to attack.

If Accord found the pheromones, he could be rid of Rey, and he’d have whatever creations Rey had put together in the meantime.

It would be at least a day before the Morrígan was fully grown.  He had that long to think of an answer.

The door slammed shut.  Citrine had gone upstairs.  The lizard-masked man watched the television.

Time passed, and he watched the results with interest. The Morrígan was now forming with two arms, two legs, and vestigal wings.  He let it develop to the point that it was roughly two months old, then killed the offshoots.  He started running x-ray scans and doing biopsies, picking through the results to fine tune the internal changes and monitor how much of the lifeform was Simurgh, versus being Myrddin or plant-based.  He was judicious and merciless in executing the offshoots, keeping them from growing to a point where there was even a chance of them being sentient.

The lifeform did, he noted with some pleasure, have a Corona Pollentia; a lobe in the brain that would allow for powers if it developed fully.

While the man watched the unfolding news, Rey took the opportunity to brew and spray himself with a set of pheromones.  His creations would be more favorably inclined towards him now.

The door at the top of the stairs closed.  He turned to see that the lizard-man was being relieved.  Had that much time passed already?

“You being good?” the woman asked.  She wore a black evening gown with a slit all the way up to her hip.  It would have been alluring, but her mask was black, with black lenses and spikes radiating from the edges.  Her brooch was of a black star.

“Making headway,” Rey responded.

“One of your fucked up creations broke my leg last year.  Please give me an excuse to hurt you.  Please.”

“I’ll pass,” Rey said, turning his attention to the homunculus.  He calibrated the signal, pressing two electrodes to his own forehead, then sent the readings out to his creation.

When it was done, he drained the fluid and vented the chamber.  The glass sank into the floor, and the homunculus crawled out, using its knuckles to walk.  Its skin was peeling, more like loose bark crossed with scar tissue than flesh.  

“You retain any English?”  He asked.

The homunculus nodded.

“Spanish?”

Another nod.

“Go dispose of the slides.  Consider everything a top priority biohazard.”

The homunculus found a pair of rubber gloves and began cleaning up the mess from the early experiments.

Rey studied the Morrígan.  Alarms were set to go off if it approached one month of age.  With Myrddin’s brain tissues and the current state of growth in Simurgh-derived parts, there was little to no chance that it would achieve any degree of self awareness.

A glance out the window that overlooked the street showed that it was getting dark.  He’d been here all day.

The door slammed at the top of the stairs.  He sighed in irritation.  Time was passing too quickly.  Would this one threaten his life too?

There was a crash, and he nearly jumped out of his skin.  He wheeled around.

The woman with the black dress had slammed into the television set.  She had holes in her as though she were a piece of Swiss cheese, and more of her had been torn to shreds.

A body fell down the stairs.  The man with the lizard mask.  Dead, though not so mutilated.

The woman who came down the stairs had an unusual body type accented by her style of dress.  She was almost like a boy, she was so thin, and her strapless dress hugged her upper body, but the lower half billowed around her.  Her hair was long and white, her eyes wide with irises and pupils small.  Her lips had been painted black.

Her arms though… machinery had been crammed into the arms, and they’d been extended to nearly twice the length, the fingers drawn out long.  Sparks flew as the woman moved one arm, and she winced.

The second individual skipped down the stairs, stopping at the bottom to admire the laboratory.

Her eyes fell on Rey.

“I know you!” she said.

“I know you too, Bonesaw,” he said.  Without breaking eye contact, he tapped a key on the computer, prompting a flood of nutrients into the Morrígan’s solution.

“Nice lab.”

“It’s not mine.”

“Man, it’s… this is nice stuff.  Being constantly on the move, you miss out on stuff like this.”

“My old lab wasn’t this good,” he said.  Make small talk.  “Who’s that?”

“Damsel of Distress, with some modifications by yours truly.  Damsel for short.  Better at controlling her power now.”

“Hi Damsel.”

Damsel looked at him, spoke in a whisper he couldn’t make out.

“And who’s this?” Bonesaw asked.  She approached the glass case with the Morrígan inside.

“Morrígan.”

“Looks like the Simurgh.”

“She is.  In part.  The other half of the genetic base is from Myrddin’s tissue.  Everything that bridges the gap is a really complex fungus.”

“Cripes.  How do you even manage something like that?”

“Trade secret,” he said.  He watched as Damsel approached the widescreen TV, picked it up where it had fallen to the ground, and held it in front of her, staring at the image, no doubt some mention of what the other members of the Slaughterhouse Nine were up to in Boston.

“I’ll get the answer out of you, you know.”

“I know,” Rey admitted.  “But I wouldn’t be a self-respecting tinker if I didn’t at least pretend to protect my work.”

“True.”

Bonesaw turned her attention to the homunculus.  She poked it in the stomach and it growled at her in response.

If he let the Morrígan out now… Bonesaw was staring at the homunculus, and Damsel was focused on the TV…

But it would die if he let it go now.  It was too young.  Every two or three seconds it sat in the high-nutrient solution would be a week of growth.  He’d need it at least at four or five years of age before it was capable of moving and acting, and he’d still be depending on it having powers rather than a defunct corona pollentia.

He’d never experienced a stronger emotion than he did when he saw another set of feet appear at the top of the stairs.  They made their way down, and each step brought more of the figure into view.  If it was another member of the Slaughterhouse Nine, he’d die.  If it was one of Accord’s ambassadors…

He’d probably still die.  But there’d be a chance.

It was neither.

The man reached the bottom of the stairs, turned his head to survey the scene.  He wore a visor that combined the movable visor of a knight’s helm with a high-tech equivalent, and the points where they met his helmet were shaped like a lizard’s frill or a dragon’s wing.  He held out a rod in one hand, and it unfolded into a spear of ridiculous length.

The lizard theme… if the machines Rey had seen fighting the Slaughterhouse Nine were Dragon’s, was this one of her assistants?  Someone working under her?

Or her?

Damsel wheeled around, extended one hand, but the man in armor was quick to step around a pillar for cover.  Damsel’s power ripped into the pillar, warping and tearing space in a chaotic storm.

The man in armor ducked and rolled to reach the next piece of cover, one of the stainless steel desks.  He arrested his momentum with one outstretched arm, then kicked the desk with both feet.  It slammed into Damsel.

He hopped onto his feet in a single movement, slashing with the spear’s point.  The tip struck Damsel across the eyes, blinding her.  He reversed the spear and swung it, and the spear-butt caught her in the side of the head.  She was knocked down onto all fours before she could direct her power at him again.

The man dug the spear’s point into the ground to help propel himself towards her.  His leg flared with a gray blur as he reached her, and be brought it down onto her back from above.

It sheared through her as though she weren’t even there, cutting her in half.  He kicked out to obliterate her head and one of her shoulders in a single movement, disabled the gray blur, and set his foot down with a thud that rang through the underground laboratory.

Bonesaw didn’t seem disturbed by the loss of her teammate.  “Don’t think I don’t recognize you.  You were Mannequin’s pick.  Armsman?  Armsmaster?”

The man in armor pointed his spear at her.  “Defiant now.”

“You know I loaded myself with a mess of epidemics, Defiant,” Bonesaw said.  “You kill me like that and I’ll explode into a cloud of a bajillion plagues.  It can’t be easy.”

“It is,” Defiant’s voice was distorted by his helmet, vaguely computerized.  There was a processor at work somewhere there, Rey observed.

“What, you’ll unleash a thousand plagues on this world to finish me off?  Me?  A little girl?”  Bonesaw smiled wide.

“Yes.”

“You’ll get sick.”

“Biohazard safe,” Defiant said.  His spear shaft tapped against his armor.

He’ll die in a hundred horrible ways,” Bonesaw said, pointing at Rey.

“Villain.  Acceptable loss.”

“And the people in this neighborhood?”

“I scanned the area.  There is zero air flow in or out of this lab.  It’s quarantine-safe.”

“So you’ve got all this figured out, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

Bonesaw glanced over her shoulder at Rey, “You-”

Defiant moved so fast that Rey couldn’t follow the movement.  The spear impaled the girl in the chest.  The heart.

“Ugh, fuck me,” Bonesaw grunted.

Defiant swung the spear to one side and slammed her into the wall, knocking chemicals and vials off of every shelf unit she hit on the way.

“Why-” Bonesaw started.

Defiant raised the spear and her sentence was interrupted as her head cracked against the ceiling.  He drove the spear toward the ground with just as much force.

“Why…” Bonesaw spat blood onto the ground.  Being impaled in the heart hadn’t put her down.  “Ow.  Bit my tongue.  Why don’t you come closer, big man?  Too scared to come here and finish me off?”

Defiant didn’t respond.  Instead, he struck her against the wall again, then shoved the spear point into a set of stainless steel shelves.  Pieces of the empty glass beakers rained onto the ground beneath her dangling feet.

“Coward!” she taunted him.

Rey glanced nervously toward the door.  Would it be better to run or to stay?

The girl reached forward, clutching the shaft of the spear.  She began pulling herself forward, hauling the spear’s shaft through the hole in her chest as she closed the distance inches at a time.

She smiled as she did it.

Blades sprung from the length of the shaft, and began spinning like propellers   One caught her from behind, and she slid forward, only to find herself sandwiched between two such sets.

“That’s Mannequin’s trick!  That’s so cute, that you’re copying-”

Defiant moved the spear, and Bonesaw was thrown back, her hair and back caught against the blades.  She used her hands to pull herself forward so she was clear, maintaining a grip even as he swept the spear to one side again, keeping herself fixed at the same point on the pole’s length.

“Hey, plant geek!” Bonesaw had to raise her voice to be heard, “He kills me, you die!  Think about that!”

Rey glanced at Defiant.  There wasn’t an opening or anything that suggested at the man inside.  Only armor, implacable, unrelenting, driven.

Then he looked at the girl, half-hidden behind the blur of the spinning blades.

“Okay,” Rey said.

He wanted to live.  Wanted nothing more than to go on to do his research, maybe one day find greatness, find a woman who could appreciate him.  Have kids.

But he wanted her to live even less than he wanted any of that.  Because he could well and truly believe that she would do more harm in her life than any good he could do in his.

“Okay,” he repeated.  I can live with that.

There was a crunching sound, and Defiant snapped his head over to look at Bonesaw.

She spat, and smoke billowed where the spit came in contact with the blades.

One flew off and sailed across the room to strike a cage with animals inside.  The mechanism that was keeping the blades in motion ceased.

With nothing impeding her line of sight to Defiant, Bonesaw crunched again.  Smoke billowed from her mouth as acid ate away at her flesh, she leaned back as if she were preparing to spit a loogie-

And Defiant disabled the propeller behind her, swinging the weapon and flinging her free of the end.

She touched ground and spat out a mouthful of acid onto the floor.  It smoked on contact with the concrete.

“No,” Defiant said.  He took two steps forward and swiped with the spear, cutting her in half.

Almost in half.  Something like chainmail was wrapped around her spine, but the spear had cut through the matching mesh that had protected her abdominal organs.

Defiant turned to catch a mechanical spider that was making its way down the stairs.  He impaled it and dashed it to pieces.  Another thrust killed one that was hiding inside an air vent.

Bonesaw crawled forward, dragging her spine and ruined midsection apart from her legs.  There wasn’t as much blood as there should have been.  “Not… done.”

She clawed into her apron for vials, threw them across the room.  Defiant backed away as they exploded into clouds of white.  As they spread, Defiant was reduced to a mere silhouette.

You’re in an augmented biohazard suit, Rey thought.  He eyed Bonesaw as she clawed her way in his general direction.  Come through!

But Defiant had other ideas.  Maybe he had a degree of familiarity with the white powder, knew what it was and that it had to be avoided.

Maybe there was something else at play.  Another member of the Slaughterhouse Nine in the area?

Bonesaw was getting closer.  Rey backed away.

She looked up at him.  Dark circles were already spreading around her eyes, her face paling.  She looked gaunt.  And she held a vial.  She tried to claw the cork off and failed.

If he stepped closer, she’d do something to him, but if he didn’t try to stop her-

On the second try, the cork came free.  She pushed it in Rey’s direction, and he was quick to kick it into the cloud of white to his right.

But the fluid that had trailed out as it rolled was smoking, just under his feet.  He had nowhere to go.

He lunged, leaping onto one of the shelving units to keep from passing anywhere near Bonesaw.

Something snagged on his foot.  He toppled to the ground.

Looking back, he could see her spine was prehensile, and that it had caught his foot, winding around the bridge of it.  The sheath is hiding more machinery.

The white smoke was congealing into strands of gunk that cut off the end of the room closest to the stairwell.  Defiant was caught in the midst of it, and was slowly tearing himself free.

No.  No.

Rey tried to kick her off, but that only served to let her get a grip on his other foot.  She began clawing her way up his legs.

He reached for the keyboard, pulled it down from the shelf it sat on.  It dangled above his head, and he pressed it against the wall, tapped the keys to open the tube that held the Morrígan.

He hadn’t drained the water, and the fluid began to flow onto the ground as the glass sank into the floor.

Bonesaw had climbed up to his chest, and it was only his struggles that kept her from reaching any higher.  He clawed at her hands, and she wasn’t that strong, but she was tenacious, and she used her prehensile spine to secure any progress she made.

Three limbs against his two.  He tried to stand, failed.  Too much weight in the wrong places, and he couldn’t use his hands.

The water finished pouring out, and the Morrígan took its first steps.  Five or six years old in apparent age, a vague replica of the Simurgh.  It would have some blend of her powers and Myrddin’s.

Too busy looking at his creation, he was caught off guard as Bonesaw got hold of his throat with one hand.  She hauled herself up until her entire upper body was resting on his chest.  The sheath that had been around her spine pressed up against his face as the bone and attached machinery passed into his open mouth and down his throat.  His throat was scraped raw by the edges of it.

He choked, fought for breath, found none.

The Morrígan flopped to the ground.  Dead.  Dumb.  Not viable.

Just as the crystalline feather and Leviathan’s blood had been, it wasn’t capable of sustaining life.  A failed experiment.

Needles punched their way out of Bonesaw’s spine, found his own.  In one instant, he lost all sensation below his neck.

In the next, she was making him move, pulling him to his feet.  His head craned toward the ceiling, mouth forced open, blood trickling onto his face as the full weight of her upper body came to rest on his head.

Just got a fresh pair of hands, and this happens,” she muttered.  “Do you know how long it’s going to take to find and transplant a good pair of legs?”

She bid his hands to move as though they were her own.  At her will, he typed on the computer.  At her bidding, he turned his body to give her a better look at Defiant’s progress, threw another vial at the man.

Back to the computer.

“Samples.  Evidence,” Bonesaw murmured.  He could feel the vibrations of her voice against his face.  The air that was flowing from a tube by her spine and into his lungs was stagnant and foul, but she bid him to breathe and he breathed.

“Crawler,” she said.  There was a whir.  She used his hand to shatter the glass case that held the samples, and he groaned in pain as the shards cut it.  She made him grab the sample from the robotic claw’s grip.  “Mannequin.”

She gathered the samples in her own hands while she used his hands to type and select the options.

“Burnscar, Shatterbird… surprising how much DNA we’ve left on crime scenes.  Winter… Chuckles…”

Defiant roared.  He growled words, as if speaking to himself.

“Nice Guy, Murder Rat, Hatchet Face.  We’ve gone through a lot of members,” she said, while depositing each sample in a plastic case.  “Screamer, Harbinger, King.”

Rey choked, tried to choke.  He could control his head, his mouth.  If he passed out, would his body fail?  Would she fail?

“Pity I can’t use this lab,” Bonesaw said.  “Make the cloning process that much easier.  But I’ve seen your work.  I think I can replicate it.  Helps if I have this…”

She had him tap a key, and he could hear the water flowing as another of the glass cases started to move.  The Regrowth tube.  The seeds.

“Didn’t think we’d get this lucky,” she said.  “Jack said that since the world isn’t ending like it was supposed to, he wants to hurry it along.  We did our research, and decided to track down some decent tinkers, and you were closest.  Only problem with entering any metropolis like this is security cameras… Oooh!  Gray Boy!  He was one of Jack’s first teammates!  You wouldn’t believe the stories Jack tells about him.”

Another sample was collected and deposited in the box.

She stopped, and turned toward the Morrígan.  He could feel his blood run cold.

“Nah,” Bonesaw said.  “Even I’m not that crazy.”

She had him tap keys on the keyboard, and a laser fired from the top of the case that had held the Morrígan.  He couldn’t see, but he could smell the burning flesh.

The box of samples tucked under one arm, she walked Rey to the door that led out of the back of the basement.  The one Rey had been ordered to use when coming and going, out of Accord’s sight.

He couldn’t lose hope.  Defiant would have come on an armored suit.  If that suit was positioned to survey the area, if Defiant had contacted Dragon, ordered an airstrike or even just reinforcements-

No.  There was a ladder on the other side of the doorway, leading down into a pitch darkness.

She turned in Defiant’s direction, and Rey caught a glimpse of the hero.  He was still caught, and though the blur around his leg was cutting him free, goop was streaming down from the ceiling to connect to his upper body, and he couldn’t destroy that with a ready kick.

She had Rey grip the rungs of the ladder, and they slid down into the pitch black.

“I failed,” Defiant said.

“You hurt her.  If anyone failed, it was me,” Dragon replied.  “I couldn’t break away from the fight.”

Mist emanated from her robotic body, dissolving the strings of slime that had congealed around him.  Her hand settled on the side of his face.

“Did we gain anything?”

“I’ll show you in a minute.  Are you okay?”

“Need more tech.  Nanomolecular thorns for my arms.  It would have made the difference.”

“We can figure something out.  But are you okay?”

“I suppose so.  Where do we stand?”

“Two suits destroyed.  And we don’t yet know what Bonesaw took with her.  Jack escaped with some of his team.  But we killed four of them, all together.”

“Four,” he said.  “We should mobilize now.  There’s a limit to how fast and how far they can move, especially with the wounded.  Bonesaw went into the subway system, and it will take time for her to get free, but if she gets in contact with their new teleporter-“

“We’ll mobilize as soon as I’ve freed you, Colin.  If I don’t use this body, you’ll be left behind, and neither of us want that.”

“Better that you give chase.”

“We’re doing okay.  We’re closing the gap.  They showed up on camera, and we were ready to move on them within minutes.  We’ll do it again.”

Colin nodded, but he didn’t respond.

She settled her arms around his shoulders, letting the spray do its work.  The metal of her forehead touched his mask.  “Take it for what it is.  A little lost, a lot gained.”

It took thirty more seconds for the foam to dissolve.  She broke the hug and he tore himself free of the scraps.  They were out of the basement and walking through the ruined interior of Accord’s household in moments.

They stepped outside into the evening air.  Colin let the vents in his costume open so the cool air could flow through.  Dragon luxuriated in the feel of the air against her exterior body.

Her hand caught his as they walked to where the Uther and her own suit were waiting.

Colin stopped in his tracks.  Dragon’s suit was posed with its head pointing toward the sky.  The suit’s metal jaws were clamped around a body.

Manton.

“The Siberian is dead?”

Gone would be a more appropriate word,” she said.  “Manton is dead.”

Colin nodded and exhaled slowly.  “Good work.”

“The job’s not over yet.”

The Uther’s cabin doors opened to invite him in.

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