Migration 17.4

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They took a path that kept the fence to their right.  It meant they stayed on the fringe of the Simurgh’s power, the volume of the keening song as low as they could hope to keep it, and it meant there was one less cardinal direction that any creatures could approach them from.  There were soldiers stationed at the far end of any roads, a ways back from fences, but they weren’t taking shots at them.  If the soldiers happened to shout at them through a loudspeaker, he considered it a bonus, something to draw others closer.

He cursed the heavy clouds of fog and dust that were resulting from the ongoing fighting and the snow that had evaporated or scattered on a massive scale.  It wasn’t bad enough that there were monsters prowling around the city, but his key senses were being obscured.  He couldn’t see more than one or two hundred feet ahead of him, and the noise… there was no absolute quiet.  The screaming in their heads continued without end, low in volume and apparently low in effect, but there.  Always there.  Just as distracting and nerve-wracking were the rumbles and the sounds of gunfire, of distant explosions, of buildings collapsing, and of city streets being blasted to shreds.

It was during one of the quiet moments, one of the periodic breaks in the distant chaos where there was only the song in their heads, that they heard a shrill scream.

Krouse, Cody and Marissa stopped in their tracks.

“Was that in my head?” Krouse asked.

“No.  Definitely a person.  Or people.  We should help them,” Marissa said.

“We’d be putting ourselves in danger,” Cody replied.

“No,” Krouse said.  “We should go.”

“I feel like you contradict me to be irritating,” Cody growled.

“We should go because there’s barely anyone around,” Krouse said, “And we’ve got to find a doctor.  One person with the right skills in an area with very few people.”

“And since someone’s screaming, we know there’s at least one person there.”

Krouse nodded.  He didn’t wait for further argument from Cody, sprinting ahead instead.

His path took him to the foot of a set of tall buildings with stores on the lowest level.  He was somewhat relieved that most of the fast food chains seemed familiar.  Somehow it implied that home wasn’t so far away.

Tables and benches were bolted into the ground in a broad patio or plaza between the buildings.  The fixtures that weren’t exposed to the winds and shockwaves that were rippling across the city in all the fighting were piled high with layers of snow and ice.

Krouse could hear the crunch in the snow as Marissa and Cody caught up behind him.  He glanced back to verify it was really them, then gripped his spear tighter.

Screams, again.  To his left.

He hurried toward the sound.  He knew the singing in his head was making him more impulsive, rounding off the edges of his sense of caution and pushing him to act rather than plan.  It didn’t matter.  He had one goal in mind.

Eight people were gathered in a burger joint with the lights off.  More daunting were the three monsters that were in the room.  One of the monsters was holding a ninth person off the ground.  The windows had been shattered and curls of snow flowed into the fast food place.

Krouse dropped low, crouching behind a snow-covered patio.  He gestured for Cody and Marissa to stop.

The monsters included a man with a neck three times the usual length and a gnarled hump on his back that was plated in armor.   His arms split in two at the elbow, with one set of hands and one set of limbs that ended in built-in scythes.  He was perched on a table, cackling.  His jacket was clearly borrowed, ill-fitting around his hump, and he kept having to push the sleeves up so they wouldn’t cover his hands or weapons.

His partner held their victim, the ninth person in the room.  She was big, maybe seven feet tall, and heavy in a way that met some middle ground between being muscular and being fat.  Big boned might have been the most apt way to describe her, in a literal sense.  Her skin was thick, her features blunt: she had a porcine nose and cauliflower ears, her fingers were stubby and her lips so fat that they curled away from her comparatively tiny teeth.  She might have weighed four hundred pounds, and the way she was easily holding her victim in the air suggested she was strong enough to kill someone with one good punch.  She wore only a set of grays that looked like a prisoner uniform.  He could make out the first half of the word that was printed across her shoulders: GWER-.

Rounding out the group was a young woman.  Something was off about her, besides the obvious physical changes.  Thick black horizontal lines striped her body, crossing her eyes like a blindfold, extending from the corners of her mouth, lining her chin and tracing down her neck.  By the time they reached her fingers, her skin was more black than white.  She wore the same prison grays, but had donned a jacket and boots.  Her blond hair was straight, her bangs cut severely across her forehead.

She was off because there was a rigidity to her.  She stood too straight, and every part of her except her clothing seemed to be drawn in horizontal and vertical lines.

Scythe-arms finished laughing, took a second to compose himself, and then snarled with a viciousness that seemed to be in stark contrast to his previous humor,  “Ontige hie, Matryoshka.

The massive woman turned to shove her captured victim towards the girl with the lines.  Krouse could make out the rest of the word.  Gwerrus.  Her voice was deeper than any Krouse had ever heard. “Egesa riika se-ji.”

The line girl spoke in a thick accent.  “Speak the anglo?  This skin too far from myself for me to remember.”

“Mirzuty,” the large woman swore.  “Egesa say you take her, Matryoshka.”

“I can not.  Too far.  I will lose myself.  Begging you, Gwerrus.”

Gwerrus slammed her hand down on the counter next to her, demolishing it.  The soft drink dispenser exploded in a spray of fizz and foam.  Gwerrus looked momentarily surprised, and the scythe-armed one started cackling.  Was that the Egesa that Gwerrus had mentioned?

Gwerrus growled, “There are guards, frail one.  Many.  There are fences and the… what you call them?  Transportation.”

“Trucks,” Matryoshka said.

“Trucks.  They hunt us.  They have craft.  Burn you by looking at you.  Fly,” Gwerrus’s deep voice took an almost reverent tone.  “We must escape.  We use your craft to do it.  Fold us.  Fold them.”

Matroyshka glanced at the crowd of people that were huddled by the front counter.  Her face was etched with anxiety.  A distant rumble shook the city, and her head snapped to one side in alarm.

Ofstede,” Egesa growled.

“Egesa says now,” Gwerrus translated.

“I guess that already,” Matryoshka said.

“Clever, clever,” Gwerrus said, with a cruel note to her voice, “Should use that clever mind to think.  Longer we wait, longer we have to listen to this dwimor wail.  More time for men hunting us to find us.”

Cody and Marissa crept closer until they were beside Krouse.  Krouse winced as their feet crunched in the snow, but the monstrous people didn’t seem to notice.

Matryoshka reached out and bent down in the direction of the woman Gwerrus had thrown to the ground.  Krouse couldn’t quite make out the view, but saw a flurry of black and flesh tone ribbons.

When she stood, she had a different face, her hair was darker, and the lines on her face and hands were thinner.

“How long?” Gwerrus asked.  “To… what is word?”

“Digest,” Matryoshka said.  Her accent wasn’t so thick as it had been.  “Hours?  Two or three.  Can’t really remember.”

“Fold into me next,” Gwerrus said.  “Then Egesa.  Then them.”

Both Matryoshka and Gwerrus looked at the huddled captives.

“But if I take more than two or three hours to escape, I’ll digest you.”

“I’m a soldier,” Gwerrus spoke.  “Tough.  Hard to eat?”

“Digest,” Matryoshka said.  “I don’t know.  Not sure you can be tough against this.”

Efeste,” Egesa growled.

“He says-”

“I get it.  Fine.  Kneel.  Easier if I don’t have to climb.”

Krouse tightened his grip on the spear, waited until he saw the ribbons.

Then Krouse charged forward.  Couldn’t afford to wait until that Matryoshka woman ate someone with the know-how Noelle needed.  The window of opportunity here was small, anyways.  Had to strike while two of the enemies were occupied.

His boots crunched over snow, and Egesa turned his way, raising one scythe before he even saw Krouse.

Krouse drove the makeshift spear into Egesa’s side.  The shape of the head didn’t allow for much penetration, but it did bury itself in the monster’s stomach.

Krouse had never been in a fight.  He’d been punched, but he’d never hit back.  Wasn’t in him, he’d thought.  How much of this was him, and how much was the song in his head?  Was the Simurgh’s song pushing him to violence where he might have tried to find another way in other circumstances?  Or was this what it felt like, doing what had to be done to help Noelle?

Egesa nearly fell from the table he was sitting on, managed to brace himself, and then swung one scythe-arm at Krouse.  Krouse threw himself backward, tugging on his curtain-rod spear.

It twisted as it came free, doing more damage on the way out than it had with the initial thrust.

Egesa fell to the ground, landing with his knees, two scythes and one hand on the ground. His other hand pressed to the injury, where blood was spilling onto the ground.

The hump of a hunchback protected the man’s head, as he crouched before Krouse.  Krouse looked at Egesa’s arched back, his legs and arms under him.  He could have gone for the stomach again, but there were no guarantees.  He jabbed for the armpit, instead.  Limit his range of attack.

His body hummed with adrenaline, and he felt far, far too calm for what he was doing, as he thrust the heavy metal spear into the base of Egesa’s arm.  This time he twisted it on purpose before pulling it free.

There was more blood than he thought there’d be, with that one.  Egesa fell over, no longer able to prop himself up.

Changing his grip, Krouse brought the spear down like a bludgeon, cracking Egesa across the head.

When Egesa didn’t immediately slump over, Krouse hit him twice more.

Ende,” Egesa growled.

Krouse swung to hit him one more time.  Egesa disappeared in a cloud of black smoke that quickly dissipated and the spear hit tile.

Krouse glanced around to see if Egesa had changed locations.  The scythe-armed freak wasn’t around.  He did see Cody and Marissa looking at him wide eyed.

This next part wasn’t going to change that much.  “Run!” he shouted at the bystanders.  They scrambled to their feet and ran for cover.

He advanced on Gwerrus and Matryoshka, saw how Gwerrus was entangled by Matryoshka, wearing the ribbons like a second skin.  Her left arm, completely encased, was compressed to only half the size, almost normal.

Gwerrus looked too tough to hurt, but Matryoshka…  He slashed the end of his makeshift spear into her, and the ribbons of flesh cut and tore.  Matryoshka began to pull together, unwinding from Gwerrus, and he clubbed her over the head.

Gwerrus was a bigger problem.  The way her skin seemed to be three times as thick as normal, at least, and her massive frame, he suspected he wouldn’t be able to hurt her with his weapon.  If he-

No, Krouse made himself stop, took an account of what he was doing.  He was getting carried away.  He turned to run.

A hand gripped the back of his coat, and a scythe blade extended around Krouse’s throat.

He felt another scythe tap against his spear, tapping again shortly after.  He let the spear clatter to the tiled floor.

Matryoshka condensed the ribbons into onion-like layers. The cuts and tears he’d made weren’t continuous once she was put together.  Rather, it was divided into a series of short cuts placed around her face and hands, with more probably hidden beneath her clothes.

“Brave,” Gwerrus growled.  “Stupid brave.”

“Sculan abretoan cnapa,” Egesa muttered, just beside Krouse’s ear.

Gwerrus shook her head.  “Na.  Wac thurfan cnapa with huntians ferranan, Matryoshka cunnan fealdan cnapa.”

Egesa shoved Krouse so that he stumbled forward, finding himself in the middle of the three.

“English?  Anglo?”  Matryoska asked.

“We need the boy,” Gwerrus said.  “You fold him.”

“Uh huh,” Matryoshka said.  “We’ll need more.”

“We’ll find more.”

“Soon?  Women I just took will be all dissolved.”

“Soon,” Gwerrus said.

Krouse couldn’t help but notice how even her dialect had changed since she’d absorbed the woman into her.  “You don’t have to do this.”

Egesa kicked him from behind, and Krouse fell to his hands and knees.

“Don’t hurt him,” Matryoshka said.

“They are enemies,” Gwerrus growled.  “They hunt us.”

“We’re not hunting you,” Krouse said.

Egesa kicked him again for his trouble, driving a heel into Krouse’s kidney.  Krouse grunted and writhed at the pain.  The screaming in his head was bad, now, almost drowning everything out.  It was almost affecting his vision.  He couldn’t help but think about the pressure of being deep underwater, being so deep he was barely able to function, except this wasn’t imagined.  It was real, despite being all in his head.  That same pressure dimmed everything around the edges of his vision, made shadows darker and lights brighter.  When spots appeared in his vision, he could almost imagine they were images.

Egesa pressed the tip of one scythe to Krouse’s eyelid.  “Abysgian in eage?  Yeh?”

Krouse slipped, so to speak.  He hadn’t even realized he was resisting the song, but in the pain, in his momentary fear, he let himself listen, looked at the shapes that were filling the dark places he could see.

Am I giving up?  This easily?  The others need me.  The others…

“Noelle,” he mumbled.

“Francis?”

He winced.  “Call me Krouse.  Everyone but my mom does.”

“Krouse,” Noelle tried the word.  “Okay.  You want something?”

“Just wanted to talk.  When we were marking each other’s papers in class, I got yours.  I just wanted to say I like the way you think.”

He could see her expression change, as though the whole paradigm of the conversation had shifted.  What did I say?

“Thanks,” she said.  Her eyes dropped to her lunch tray, and she speared a piece of lettuce on her fork.  She popped it into her mouth and chewed, slowly, methodically, then glanced up at Krouse.  The meaning was clear.  With body language alone, she was asking, why are you still here?

“Comparing the way you write an essay to how you’d design a game, plotting things both on a mechanical and general level.  It was interesting to read.  Nerdy in all the best ways.  That’s a compliment, in case you’re left wondering.”

“Alright.  Thanks.”

He was turning to leave when he saw Marissa Newland approach and sit down next to Noelle.  They weren’t people he’d expected to see together.  It wasn’t that Noelle was unattractive, only that Marissa was a swan, one of the better looking girls in the school, and Noelle was maybe best described as a sparrow.  Small, nervous, plain.  He hadn’t imagined they had any shared interest, social circles or friends.

Marissa moved a small plate with a square of pizza on it to Noelle’s tray, before looking up at Krouse.  “Krouse?  You need something?”

“Nah, said what I wanted to say.”

“Don’t pester her, ‘kay?”

“I”m not doing anything more annoying than distracting her from lunch, and I was already leaving.”

“You two know each other?” Noelle asked.

Krouse answered before Marissa could.  “Our moms both do a lot of volunteer stuff for the school.  Bake sales and crap.  Been a couple of times where we both got dragged in to help and wound up working together.”

“So I know exactly what to watch out for with you,” Marissa said.  “At any given point in time, you’re pulling some nefarious prank, you’re manipulating others to get what you want, you’re making someone else look bad-”

“Stop.  All this praise is going to make me blush.”

“Sixth grade,” Marissa said, turning to Noelle, “He tells his teacher-”

“Aaand I’m out of here,” Krouse said, making sure to interrupt her, “I forgot Marissa knew about the more embarrassing stories.”

“Good riddance to you, then,” Marissa said, smiling lightly.

He wasn’t two steps away when he heard her saying, “The Ransack qualifiers-”

He turned, interest piqued.

“What?” Marissa said.  “Do I need to get back to the story to scare you off?  Or are you going to make some crack about girls and video games?”

“No, I’m not.  You said qualifiers?  As in competitive level?”

“Yeah.  We have a club we organized through the school, to manage it.  It was the only way I could get access to a computer without my mom looking over my shoulder.”

“No kidding.  That’s the same one Luke’s in?  You know Luke Brito?”

“Yeah.  He’s in the group.”

“Ah,” he said.  He floundered.  “I’m sort of lost for words.  The bar for that sort of thing is higher than a lot of people think.  Even getting to the point where you’re in the qualifiers is pretty respectable.  Kudos.”

“Thanks,” Marissa said.

“I won’t subject you to my presence any longer.  Good luck tonight.  Really.”

“You play?” Noelle asked, the question abrupt.  She tore off a bit of pizza crust and popped it into her mouth.

It took Krouse a second to mentally shift gears.  “Some.  Casually.”

Marissa looked at Noelle to double check, then gestured towards the empty seat across from them.

Krouse sat, winced as a plastic tray clattered to the ground.

Marissa screamed, the sound abruptly cutting off as she was tossed from the counter where the plastic trays were stacked to the ruined counter where the soft drink dispensers had been.  She gasped for breath, struggled to climb to her feet and fell.  She was too dazed, and the ruined counter didn’t offer much in the way of solid traction.  Gwerrus advanced on her.

Krouse forced himself back to reality, hurried to climb to his feet, only to feel the scythe’s blade press hard to his neck, only his scarf keeping it from severing flesh.

The screaming in his head was back, worse than ever.  After the peace of the memory, the tranquility of being free of the screaming, still experiencing the warm buzz that surged through him, this wasn’t where he wanted to be.

“Began’na weorc,” Egesa hissed in his ear.

“Don’t understand a fucking thing you’re saying,” Krouse responded.  In a strange way, he was pissed.  Pissed in the way he might be if he’d been woken abruptly from a good dream.  He knew it wasn’t rational, knew it wasn’t even healthy to think that way when the Simurgh was this dangerous, this insidious, but he was still upset.

So maybe, in the smallest way, it gave him the push he needed to reach beneath his coat, to where he’d stashed the sheathed kitchen knife.  With his other hand, he found and dug his gloved fingers into the wound the spear had made, simultaneously twisting, putting his less vulnerable shoulder in the way of Egesa’s scythe-hand.

It didn’t matter.  Egesa’s knees folded as Krouse twisted his fingers in the wound, dug deep.  The knife’s sheath clattered to the ground, and Krouse dragged the blade across Egesa’s long neck.

Egesa pushed him away, blood fountaining down the front of his body.  Krouse’s fingers were plucked free of the wet, sucking wound as the freak backed away.  Egesa disappeared into wisps of dark smoke.

“Stupid brave boy,” Gwerrus said.

Krouse glanced around the room as the massive bear of a woman turned to face him.  Marissa was only just managing to stand, while Cody had backed up to the opposite end of the room, crowbar in hand.  Matryoshka was on her hands and knees, not far from Cody.

“Run!” he shouted.  “Scatter!”

He was only turning to run away from the brutish Gwerrus when he realized the others might not be in a state to run.  Marissa had been thrown hard, and he wasn’t sure what kind of condition Cody was in.

Not that it mattered.  Gwerrus picked Krouse for her target.

She wasn’t fast.  There was some small blessing in that.  But he quickly realized that she was keeping up with him, and she didn’t have half the trouble he did in wading through the deeper patches of snow.  Slipping on ice, too, didn’t prove to be a problem for her when she weighed enough that the ice shattered with each footfall.

She caught up to him before he was clear of the plaza, grabbed him by the seat of his pants and the back of his coat.

He stabbed at her hand with the knife, and felt a fierce agony tear through his own hand.

Blood welled out from his palm, warm as it ran down his arm to his elbow.  Krouse screamed.

“No,” Gwerrus growled in her deep voice.  “Stupid boy.”

“Begone,” a man intoned.

Krouse felt himself slip from her grasp.  He dropped to the ground.

“Do it quickly,” another man said.

Krouse turned to look, but he saw everything through a monochrome haze.  His own hand seemed smoky, faint.

I’m a ghost?

“Any insights, Myrddin?” a man in armor spoke.  Gwerrus backed away as he advanced.  A giantess and a man in a suit of gleaming armor.  The man twirled a halberd in one hand.

“A protective power.  I just got a glimpse of the idea behind it.  Retribution,” the first man said.  He was behind the man in armor, wearing a robe.  “Her power’s based around retribution for damage done.”

“Damage reflection?” the man in armor asked.  “Or does she get more durable as you attack her?”

“More likely to be the former than the latter.”

Krouse stood as the man in armor walked up to him.  Walked past him as though he weren’t even there.

“I am stronger than you,” Gwerrus snarled.

The armored man didn’t reply.

“Why do this?  Why hunt us?”  Gwerrus asked, backing away.

The armored man slammed his halberd down against the ground, and smoke billowed around him.  A moment later, there was a sound like a gunshot.  Gwerrus dropped to one knee, one meaty hand pressed to her chest.

There was a tink and she was set on fire, head to toe.

The flames were hot enough and close enough to Krouse that they could have burned him, should have burned him.  But he barely felt the warmth of them.  Barely felt anything.  The Simurgh’s scream had faded, and his own wounded hand was little more than a dull throb.

“Hey,” Krouse said, turning to the man in armor.  There was no response.  “Hey, my friend needs-”

“That was reckless,” Myrddin said, speaking over Krouse.  “Attacking when we didn’t know the particulars of her power.”

“Two most likely vectors for it,” the armored man said, talking as though he couldn’t hear Krouse.  He raised his voice a little to be heard over Gwerrus’ screams.  “Either she needed to see me, or there needed to be some correlation between me and the damage done.  Smoke plus a nonlethal bullet works as a test for the first case.  Besides, priority one is minimizing interactions, right?”

“Yes.  But it was still reckless.”

Krouse turned to Myrddin.  “My friend’s dying.  Can you help her?”

Myrddin walked ahead, dismissing the smoke with a wave of the craggy wooden stick he carried.

“Dragon?” the armored man said.

I’m here,” the woman’s voice came from the armbands that they’d fixed around their wrists.

“Myrddin just shunted some kid out to minimize contact.  I saw some blood.  If I mark the location, can we get emergency services here for when he pops back in?”

We’re overloaded.  Was it a severe injury?”

“Bad, but not severe.”

We don’t have the vehicles or personnel to spare, and quarantine will still be in effect.

“Right.  Where did our target land?”

Two hundred feet away, down your four o’clock, Armsmaster.

“How are we for exposure?”

You two are good for another seventeen minutes at the exposure you’re facing.  Twenty if we push it.  I can have a flight unit to you shortly.

Krouse hurried to follow them as they changed direction and began briskly walking toward the end of the street..

Myrddin spoke up, “How’s the fight going?”

It goes well.  But we can’t let our guards down.

“No,” Myrddin agreed.  “This is a bad one.  Too many possible avenues to cover, too much exposure time across the board.”

We’re doubling down quarantine, and we’ll have a processing center in place shortly.  The President is pushing the D.D.I.D measure.

“It’s going to backfire,” Myrddin said.  “I’ve said it before, I’ll say it now, and I’ll remind you all I said it with every chance I get, from now until the day I die.  It’s going to backfire.”

I don’t disagree,” Dragon said.

“But you’re helping to enforce it.”

I’m following orders.”

“No offense, I like you, Dragon, but that’s the oldest excuse in the book.”

I’m merely picking my battles.

“If you’re not going to fight this battle, then what will push you to make a stand?”

“Myrddin,” Armsmaster cut in, “Ease up.  And pay attention.  This is it.”

Krouse stared.  It was a section of building.  White tile and white walls, a desk, and a metal cabinet with a shattered glass pane.  File folders were strewn over the floor and desk.  In the midst of it all was a man in a white lab coat.  His body had been shattered by the impact.

“Damnation.  If we could only look into this…” Armsmaster said.

“Priority one.  Minimize exposure.”

“I know.  But this stands to answer a great many questions.  If we can find where she opened that portal to-”

“If she’s answering questions for us, we don’t want to know,” Myrddin said.

Armsmaster sighed.  “I know.  Can you shift this into one of your pocket dimensions?”

“I get bad interactions if I transition something in of one of my dimensions and back, or if I take things out of one dimension and put them into another.  It doesn’t compartmentalize into the dimension properly if it’s been elsewhere too recently.  Whether these people and objects came from somewhere halfway across the globe or some pocket dimension, I don’t think we want to test our luck and risk something disastrous.”

Krouse startled at that.  Is that what happened to me?  Some bad interaction of interdimensional crap?

“I’m thinking white phosphor?”  Armsmaster suggested.  Myrddin nodded.

Dragon chimed in, her voice sounding from the armbands on their wrists, “Can’t call in a strike until fifteen minutes after the Simurgh is gone.  Mark the area.  I’ve got another danger site a quarter-mile to your six o’clock.  Then we’re getting you clear.

“Got it,” Armsmaster said.

Armsmaster tossed a small canister into the middle of the section of laboratory, they cordoned off the area with red tape, and then they left.  Armsmaster used a grappling hook to fly to a nearby rooftop while Myrddin took to the air.  

With no way to follow, Krouse was left standing there.  He prodded at a piece of rubble, but his hand passed through.

Yet he was able to walk on the hard ground?  He couldn’t process it.

“I don’t understand,” he muttered to himself.

“It’s not you, it’s me.”

He folded his arms.  That’s not something I ever expected to hear.  “You can’t blame me at least a little?”

“No,” Noelle said, shaking her head.  She looked miserable, and he felt a knot forming in the pit of his stomach as he saw just how unhappy she was.  It wasn’t something he was familiar with, on a lot of levels.  Quiet, she said, “You’ve been great.”

He spread his arms, “I don’t get it.  I thought we were doing fine.”

“We aren’t!  This is… it’s not working.”

“I’m okay with it.  I enjoy spending time with you, and I didn’t get any impression you were having that bad of a time, either.”

“But we don’t- we aren’t-”  She stared down at her feet.  “We’re stalled.  It isn’t fair to you.”

That’s what you’re worried about?”

“Don’t dismiss my concerns,” she said, managing to sound a little angry.

“No’, it’s fine.  It’s cool.  I get that there’s stuff you’ve got going on that you don’t want to tell me about.  I can be a bit of a jerk sometimes, but I’m not an idiot.  And I’m not going to twist your arm to get you to share, either.  That’s your stuff, and I figure you’ll tell me in time.  Or you won’t.”

“It’s not fair to you,” she repeated.

“I’m not saying things have to be equitable or balanced or fair or any of that.  So who cares if things aren’t fair?”

“Don’t do that!”

He spread his arms for the second time in a minute, helpless.  Don’t do what?  Don’t make sense?

Long seconds passed.  He studied her, saw how dejected she was.  Only minutes ago they’d been having a good time talking.  Then things had fallen apart without warning, and it sounded like she wanted to break up.

It’s like karma for all the times I’ve pulled shit on others.  Only I did it in fun, and this isn’t fun in the slightest.

“Someone said, a little while ago,” Noelle spoke without looking at Krouse, “That I can’t really forge a good relationship with others until I have a good relationship with myself.

“You don’t?”

Noelle didn’t say anything.

I think you’re fantastic, if that counts for anything.”

“You don’t know me.”

“I’ve been getting to know you some.  And I have yet to see anything that’s going to scare me away.”

She stared down at her feet.  “…I don’t think we should date.”

“Okay.  If you think that’s for the best.  But I just need you to do one thing.  Look me in the eye as you tell me that.”

She glanced up at him, then looked down.  She didn’t say a word.

“Because,” he went on, “I think you’ve seemed happier than I’ve ever seen you since we started going out.  Marissa said so, too.”

Noelle glanced at him.

He continued, “If you really feel like us dating is making things worse in the long run, then I’m perfectly okay with breaking it off.  I can leave the club if that makes things easier on your end.  It was your thing before it was mine, and you’ve got enough on your plate with being team captain.”

“I don’t want you to leave the club.”

“Okay,” he said.  He waited for her to speak, but she didn’t.  “Listen, I get the feeling today is a bad day.  Don’t know why it is, but it is.  And that happens.  Fine.  But I’m not willing to end this if it’s because the stars aligned wrong.  So I’m asking you to tell me that you’re worse off because we’re together.  Not asking for an explanation, just-”

“Never mind,” she said.

“Never mind?”

“I’m- just never mind.  Can we forget this conversation happened?”

“Sure,” he said.  He saw how dejected she looked.  “Want me to walk you home?”

She nodded.

It was odd.  He’d been punched before, had failed a grade, he’d lost his uncle, and yet it was here, beside his girlfriend, that he was unhappier than he’d ever been.  He was helpless, confused, frustrated.  All he wanted to do was to help her, but he wasn’t sure how.

He fought the urge to sigh, and drew in a deep breath instead.  The air in his nostrils was so cold he choked on it.  All of his senses were plunged into high gear; a keening song so high pitched it made his ears hurt, cold throughout his body, the smell and taste of dust thick in the air, and pain lancing through his right hand.

Coughing, bewildered, he stared at the pile of rubble and the laboratory.  Whatever effect had encompassed him, it was gone.

Noelle.

He scrambled up the pile of rubble.  He remembered how they’d said they wouldn’t bomb this site until after the Endbringer was gone, so he still had some time.

He needed a first aid kit.  He went through the cabinets and a set of drawers.  Nothing.  Empty test tubes, glass vials without any contents, canisters without contents, and paperwork.  Lots of paperwork.

His eyes settled on a metal briefcase beneath the desk, within a few feet of the dead man’s hand.

His fingers crossed for a portable case of medical supplies, he set it down on the desk and popped it open.  Disappointment overwhelmed him.

Six metal canisters recessed in black foam with slots cut out to hold them, paperwork was set in a flap in the lid.

He swore.

…newly purchased superpowers…

He winced.  He’d turned his head too fast, and the movement had almost made the song in his head worse, like the pain prompted by moving a broken limb.

As had been the case with the birdcage and the newspaper, Krouse’s eye had caught on something.  He’d always been a fast reader, was used to skimming through books, picking up the necessary words.  As his glance had passed over the case, he’d read something in the text without even registering that he’d done it.

He reread the first line, underneath the header.

Congratulations on your newly purchased superpowers.

His eyes moved down to the vials.

He slammed the case shut and turned to leave.  There was nothing here he could use for first aid, and certainly no doctors.  He could only hope that Cody or Marissa had caught up with some of the people who they’d rescued from the three monsters.  If there was any justice in the world, there would have been a doctor among them, and Cody or Marissa would have brought them to the house.

He ran.  He had to get back, rendezvous with the others, and get to someone who knew him.  If he didn’t hurry, he was worried he would slip into another memory and fail to find his way out again.

The cold air burned in his lungs as he ran, the metal case swinging from his good hand, banging irregularly against his leg.

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Interlude 16 (Donation Bonus #2)

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Heavy footsteps carried him through a crowd of people who were having the worst days of their lives.  There were doctors and nurses who might never be able to return to the careers they had worked so long to achieve. He saw new parents, almost all in their twenties and thirties, huddled close and openly weeping or staring into space with puffy red eyes.  There were family members trying to give them support, not knowing how.  Not that the extended family would be suffering any less.  Police officers and detectives were trying to gather statements, well aware that the families wouldn’t know anything pertinent.  Some were standing by, notepads in hand, unwilling or unable to proceed with their witnesses.

He’d known this feeling, once.  To be the bystander, watching the aftermath, agonized as much by the inability to help, the lack of knowledge about what he should do as by the tragedy itself.  To have it happen again and again.  He banished the memories before they could take hold.  It was easier to distract himself and think about the work.  If there was no work to be done, he would let himself slip into that other state of mind, seeing the world coming apart, ways things could fit together.

But right now, he would focus on the job.

He glanced at the window.  Four or five hours ago, these same parents might have been standing outside the window, watching their new babies sleeping.  Now there was only a sheet taped up to block the view, marked for what it was by a yellow ‘x’ of police tape.

Keep walking.  Something nagged at him as he set his right foot down, like a pebble in his boot, except not.  He reached out, as if he were trying to move a finger, but the artificial nerves were hooked into his suit, and the impulse didn’t go anywhere in his body.  He felt the air shift as the openings in his mask sealed shut.  He sent out another command and the microphone came online.

When he spoke, only his ears and the microphone heard his voice.  “Note to self.  Prosthetics in right leg feel alien.  I should check the treads on my old boots, see if one of my legs was longer than the other, maybe try to dig up recordings of myself to match my new gait to my old one.  Should time adjustments to coincide with next procedure.”

Note made, he shut off the microphone, opened the vents.  He saw two women embracing one another, eyes red, staring at him as he passed through the last of the gathered crowd.  They were hoping for the impossible, willing it.  But bringing their child back wasn’t in his hands.  The best he could manage would be revenge.  Or justice.  The line between the two got pretty damned thin at times like this.

The local sheriff was waiting for him as he approached the waiting room.

“Defiant?” the sheriff asked.  She looked small, mid-sixties, gray-haired.  He suspected she was someone who had gleaned some experience in Boston or Brockton Bay and then ‘retired’ out to a smaller town in the middle of nowhere.  She wouldn’t have expected to face a situation like this in her retirement, nobody would, but she was holding herself together in a way that suggested she had some experience to fall back on.  She’d lost officers, and the town was small enough that people she knew would have been among the casualties, but she was all business, her chin set, her small dark eyes hard with determination.

He liked her right away.

“Yes ma’am,”  He shifted his spear to his left hand, extended his right hand to shake hers.

“Miranda Goering.  Sheriff.  No need for that kind of formality here.”  She sounded like she said something similar on a routine basis.  She frowned.  “I… would have a hard time expressing just how much I appreciate your being here.”

How was he supposed to respond to that?  He couldn’t think of a response.

She was studying him.  Her eyes settled on his weapon, the fourteen foot long spear. “How on Earth do you carry that spear indoors?”

“It folds, and it can contract to be half the length,” he said.

“I see,” she said. She shook her head, as if stirring herself from idle thoughts.  Back to the nightmare.  “Do you want to start in the nursery?”

He shook his head.  “No.  I can guess what happened, and I doubt there’ll be anything I can use there.  Show me the other scenes.”

Wordlessly, she turned and led him to the stairwell.  He noted the gouges on the walls.  Two or three inches deep, with blood spatters following each.  Plastic had been taped down over each individual mark and spatter.  Evidence cards were stuck next to each. He could guess the culprit.  Jack.

Another impulse sent to his hardware, and his spear broke down into three loosely connected sections as they made their way down to the next floor.  A practiced motion let him catch the weapon under his arm.  “You have any local parahumans?”

“Three.  Nothing notable.  Edict and Licit, a low-rated master and a low-rated shaker.  We also have one villainess who occasionally tries to make it in one of the big cities and then retreats back home when she can’t cut it.  Calls herself Damsel of Distress.”

He reconnected his spear as they passed through the door.  “I know her.  Mover and shaker.  Storms of unevenly altered gravity, time and space.  Edict and Licit keep her in check?”

“They manage with our help.  Why do you ask?”

“The Slaughterhouse Nine are recruiting.  Their numbers are down, and they’ll be looking for a quantity of new members more than they’re looking for quality.  At least until they’re stable enough that they can afford to be picky.  Once they can, they’ll replace the weakest recruits with better ones.  I don’t want them to get that far.”

“I understand.  But would they want her?  Damsel of Distress?  Her lack of control over her power holds her back.  I won’t say she isn’t a problem, but she’s never been a priority threat to anyone.”

“She’s a heavy hitter.  They can give her control, or they can use that lack of control.  Let’s not forget that they might be looking at Edict and Licit.  I’ll need you to send me their files as well, please.”

“Of course.”

He didn’t really need the files.  The PRT had provided access to everything except the highest level secured files.  He suspected that Dragon would be able to gain access to those if the need arose.  Still, asking the sheriff had let him gauge whether she was really as cooperative as she seemed, and her level of connection to the hometown heroes.  There had been no resistance, which was reassuring.

She led the way to the area at the front of the ground floor.  They stopped at the perimeter of the scene.  He could see the path that Hookwolf had traveled, the bodies and body parts that littered the area, each covered by sheets or squares of cloth.  There was little to be done about the blood.  Every officer present was from out of town, and everyone was staying to the edges of the area.  There was more evidence than there was ground to tread on.

Defiant examined the area.  “They hit the nursery first, Jack and Siberian moving elsewhere in the building.  Your officers got the call, but didn’t have enough details to know what they were getting into.  They came in through the emergency room here, and Hookwolf was waiting for them.  Am I correct?”

“Yes,” Sheriff Goering said, staring down at the sheet in front of her.  Her composure was slipping, emotion seeping into her posture and expression, softening that hardness.

Again, he wasn’t sure what to say.  He needed her in control, but any reassurance threatened to make things worse.  He didn’t want to upset her, but everything about this was upsetting.  There was no denying that.  She would regret it if she broke down in tears here, and it would waste his time when he needed to be in pursuit.

Tell her it’s not her fault,” Dragon spoke in his ear.

“It’s not your fault,” he told the sheriff.  “They planned it this way.  I would guess they controlled the information that was reported to your station to keep you in the dark, then would have had Hookwolf sitting in the lobby in his human state, indistinguishable from anyone else that was waiting for a turn.”

“That fits what we know,” she replied.  She looked up at him.

“They have years of practice in this, and this is what they’re doing, ninety-nine percent of the time.  Hit isolated areas, terrorize.  Sometimes it gets reported in the media, because it’s sensationalist, and sometimes it goes unreported-”

Back on track.  Cut the digression.

“-There was nothing you could have done differently, knowing what you did,” he finished, feeling like he was leaving his explanation incomplete.  If it were him on the other side of things, he’d want the full picture, but he would take Dragon’s advice.

“You’re right.  But that doesn’t make it much easier.”

“No,” he agreed.  “I don’t expect it would.”

The lens of his right eye clicked through multiple frequencies and resolutions, until the scene stood out in high detail.  The blood shone ultraviolet, and even particles of dust were highlighted.  The entire area stood out with fingerprints, footprints and frost-like patterns where air currents had layered dust over walls and windows.  He began to pick his way through the scene, setting his feet down only where there wasn’t any evidence to be damaged.

“You’re hunting them?” she asked him.

“Yes.”

“Will you do me a favor?”

“If I can.”

“Talk to me?  Give me some assurance that some good will come of this?  That you’ll be able to track them down, because of what happened here, and that you’ll be able to stop them?”

He stared at the landscape around him, all white, gray and the brown-red of drying blood.  It was washed out, stark.  The magazines and brochures had been covered by arterial spray and clothing was hidden beneath sheets.

Give it to her straight,” Dragon urged him.

“He was waiting here,” he pointed to a chair.  “The blood and the way the bodies fell, Hookwolf wasn’t holding anything back from the moment he made his move.  A walking chainsaw massacre.  I’m trying to look at how it played out, so I can read something into how they’re operating and where their priorities are.”

“How?” Goering asked.

He saved the settings of the lens and then switched to a radiograph-ultrasound reading.  The world was cast in monochrome, now, and he could see the vague shapes of the bodies under the sheets, light and dark painting a picture of densities rather than light.  He closed his mask so the sheriff wouldn’t overhear and spoke into the microphone, “Count the skulls.”

Twenty two.”

“Twenty two bodies,” he spoke aloud, “In the waiting area alone.  It seems like too many for a town this size, this time of night.”

“We’re the only real hospital for this part of the county.  We get people from neighboring towns flying in by ambulance or helicopter.”

“I see.  Even so, it’s more than I would have guessed.  I suspect there was some announcement across the hospital, as the attacks started.  The way people were clustered here, they were probably ordered to stay put and stay calm.  Your officers enter and Hookwolf attacks.  There’s hesitation from the bystanders.  People are caught between perfectly rational self-preservation and the authority of the hospital staff who didn’t have the full picture.”

Don’t assign blame,” Dragon whispered.  “The Slaughterhouse Nine are the ones in the wrong here.

“He lunges across the waiting area to the doors, cutting off retreat and tearing through anyone in his way.  This is new to him.  He’s used to fighting people who resist, people with powers and law enforcement officers with the technology to fight him.  This gives me the impression of a fox in the henhouse.  The crowd turns to flee for the hallways, and he cuts them off there, herds them towards the center of the room, finishes them off.”

He could see the pain on the Sheriff’s face, but she was holding up.  “And that’s useful?”

Defiant nodded.  “Hookwolf was largely content doing what he was doing in Brockton Bay.  He viewed himself as a warrior, a general, and there was a degree of honor in what he did.  He wasn’t honorable, but he followed a code.  The person who nominated him for the group, Shatterbird, is no longer a member.  So why did he join?  Our working assumption was that there were threats on some level, extortion.  But he’s shifting focus too quickly.  Adopting a new mindset.  It’s possible Jack Slash convinced him in another way.”

Or he’s under their control,” Dragon said, communicating over their personal channel.

“…Or he’s being coerced,” Defiant said, for the sheriff’s benefit.  “An implant, something that’s turned him into a puppet.”

He looked over his shoulder at the Sheriff, but she wasn’t venturing a response.

Back to the job.  He pointed with his spear, where Hookwolf had been seated, then traced the path the villain had taken.  Front door, then one hallway, then the other.  A loose ‘z’.  People had clustered around the middle of the room, and he’d leaped into the midst of them to finish them off.

Defiant’s eyes shifted to the front desk.  There was blood spatter there, but it was the furthest point from the path Hookwolf have traveled.  It would have been his last destination before he moved elsewhere.

Defiant used the lens setting to watch for blood spatter and footprints as he made his way behind the desk.

There were more bodies.  One was propped up against the wall, and the stains that were soaking through the sheet were more brown than red.  He’d had his lower abdomen opened.  The last to die.

With his spear’s point, Defiant lifted the sheet away from the man’s head.  Young, head shaved, a tan collared shirt with a star on the shoulder and a kevlar vest.  His arms and hands were mangled beyond repair.  Defiant studied the area, noting the presence of footprints, then replaced the sheet.

His progress out of the area was slow, and not entirely because he was trying to preserve evidence.  He needed to think, to draw the entire picture together and confirm what he was saying before he addressed the sheriff.

“Find anything?” she asked.

“Your deputy went down fighting,” he said.  “Tooth and nail.”

Her jaw clenched, and he could see her eyes glisten.  She stared hard at the wall.

“He couldn’t have won.  Not against Hookwolf.  But I think he gave us what we needed.”

“Did he?”

“The aftermath of the fight suggests Hookwolf was in control of his actions.  What’s more, I think Jack Slash is grooming him.  The general and the cutthroat, playing off one another, educating each other in their respective disciplines, so to speak.  Jack’s going to want to keep this interplay going, maintain Hookwolf’s interest and keep him from getting restless.  What’s the nearest town?”

“Prescott.”

“Second nearest?”

“Enfield.”

“Thank you,” he said.  “I’m going to talk to my partner, join her in paying a visit to Damsel of Distress if she hasn’t already wrapped that up, then we’ll be leaving.  With luck, we’ll be right on their heels.”

“Execute the motherfuckers.”

“I’ll damn well try.”

He extended a hand, and she shook it.  He turned to leave, sending nervous impulses to the computer system in his suit, drawing up a map of the hospital and overlaying it with the image he was seeing on his visor.  He made his way to the exit and briskly walked toward the field where he’d parked the Uther suit.

Talk to me, Colin?  What’s the thought process?

“Hookwolf gutted the deputy and then stood by while he died a slow, painful death.  Footprints on the other side of the room are probably Jack’s, if you look through the feed.  His back would have been to the filing cabinet.”

I see it.  Hookwolf doesn’t have a reason to inflict a slow, painful death if he’s just a puppet under Bonesaw’s control.

“That’s my line of thinking.  From the looks of it, he was standing there longer than Jack.  If Jack moved upstairs, which matches with the gouges in the stairwell, then he was leaving Hookwolf there to watch the man die over the course of minutes.  The deputy was someone strong, ferocious, a warrior, which is how Hookwolf identified himself.  This wasn’t just killing, but rejoicing in the cruelty of it, the feeling of superiority over the fallen.  I think what Jack was trying to instill in Hookwolf, challenging him to alter his code and be something darker.”

I don’t like it when you try to get into their heads like that.

“We have to be proactive.  Predict.  Get ahead of them, so we can stop them before they attack the next hospital, the next neighborhood or school.  That means figuring out what they’re thinking.”

I know.  I just don’t like it.  Not with the way Mannequin approached you.

“Mannequin’s dead.”

And he approached you for a reason.

He signaled for the Uther’s cabin to open, then made his way inside.  It was half the size of a commercial plane, outfitted with basic living quarters, and outfitted with long-range weaponry.  The moment he was inside, the systems kicked into life, the pilot’s chair turning to be in position for him to sit, monitors lighting up.  He had only to think, and the images changed, the cursor flying across the screen with a thought to click on icons.

“…You’re not responding.

“Sorry.  Still getting used to this setup.  I feel like a baby, still figuring out how to move my arms and legs.”

I hope it’s a little more intuitive than that if you’re airborne.

“Exaggeration for effect.  I’m like a toddler, then.  I can walk, but I could fall if I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing during the more complicated bits.”

He settled into the pilot’s seat, and his senses opened up with vague ‘tactile’ responses from the Uther.  He felt it lift into the air.  Monitors in front of him let him note Dragon’s location.

You didn’t respond to my question, Colin.  I was asking if you think I need to keep a closer eye on you.

I don’t think so,” he replied.  “I don’t know how you could be closer.  But it helps, having you there.  I appreciated the tips with the sheriff.  I would have fucked that up.”

It’s not a problem.

“Any notice on Damsel?”

Seems like we’re too late.  They got her.

His heart sank.  “Got her in the sense that she’s dead, or got her in the literal sense?”

The latter.

“Fuck!”  One more to contend with.  He remembered who he was talking to.  “Sorry.”

I swore when I found out.  Don’t worry.  I’m thinking Enfield.  You?

“We’re on the same page.  It’s close enough, but not so close it’s the next place we’d look.”  He shifted the Uther into motion and plotted a course for the Nine’s next likely destination.  He could see Dragon doing the same with her own suit.

They wouldn’t be able to do this for long.  They were only able to track the Nine like this because their quarry was unaware.  It would only get harder, with Jack obfuscating the group’s movements, with traps and misdirection, a contest of second guessing, trying to think more steps ahead.

He thought aloud, “We should have fought them sooner.  In Brockton Bay.”

We weren’t ready, on a lot of levels.  You hadn’t recuperated, and I didn’t have anything that worked as standalone firepower.  Better to wait, confront them with six suits at once.

He opened his mouth to respond, then stopped.

Damn,” she said, “I was hoping you weren’t paying enough attention.

“I’m always going to listen when you talk.  What happened to the other three suits?”

Melusine is out of commission until I can build some replacement limbs.  Azazel and the Astaroth-Nidhug were melted down.

He frowned.  “The Undersiders?”

And the Travelers.  I pulled the remaining suits out of the city.  Can’t excuse the losses.  Not with bigger fish to fry.”

“That’s… irritating.”

What part?  That they get to keep doing what they’re doing?  Or that I didn’t mention it?

“I’m still officially a prisoner.  I’m just a prisoner on a manhunt, now.  If you want to control what info I get, I’ll live.”

I can’t tell if you mean that.

“I can’t either.  But right this minute, I’m more focused on the fact that the Undersiders and Travelers could hold their own against the full flight of seven.  If they can get that far, couldn’t the Slaughterhouse Nine be able to defeat the suits as well?  And us with them?”

It’s the A.I.  Substandard.  They followed directions without an issue, but they aren’t creative.  The A.I. can’t think outside the box, they don’t plan or get creative.  They just do the tasks they were assigned: sequester, fight, detain.

“It’s your work.  I know you’re capable of designing outside of the box.”

I’m working with my hands tied, Colin.  There’s too many redundancies in my code, the rules against me making A.I.?  They’re still there.  You gave me some detours, some workarounds, ways to get around them, but I’m still stumbling over them.

He tapped his fingers on his armrest, thinking.  “I’ll see what I can do.”

Please.

“I don’t want to spoil your code.  This isn’t my field of study.  It’s not even something I’ve dabbled in.  As a rule, anything I do to change it is going to make things less elegant.”

In that one department.

“And I’m legitimately afraid I’ll do permanent damage if something runs out of control.”

I have backups.  Weekly.”

“Which means we’d have to bring you up to speed on the mission here.  I’m saying it’s dangerous.  I like the you of right now more than the you of a week ago.”

That sounds almost romantic.

He smiled a little.

Saw that.

He smiled wider.  “You’re bordering on the obsessive now.”

I can dial it back.  How are the prostheses?

“Holding up.  Eye’s working great.”

I saw,” she replied.

He smirked.

She sounded legitimately embarrassed as she said, “Whoops.

“Don’t worry.  I knew you were watching.  It’s fine, good to have an extra set of eyes on the scene.  Um.  The other parts are fine.  I made a note to fix my leg.  I think it’s a little too perfect.  Feels uncanny.  But I suppose you heard that.”

I don’t listen in on any personal notes, just like I won’t pry into any journals you keep or personal mail.  The deal we struck with the PRT was that I would make sure you followed the rules.  That’s what I’ll do.  But your thoughts are your own.

“Alright.”

You don’t sound overly concerned either way.”

“I’m not, really.”

You let me know if you do start feeling uncomfortable.

“I can do that.  Listen, there’s no use in me getting deep into your code when we’re going to get there in a matter of minutes.  I’m going to look at my knees in the meantime, then maybe I’ll refresh myself on your code if I have time before we land.”

Alright.

He glanced at one monitor, and windows opened to show images of the leg.  He was able to draw the crude shapes that represented individual devices even when he wasn’t looking at the screen.  A triangle here, a circle there.  Another window opened up with a line connecting it to the triangle, and he drew an identical triangle, began filling it with more shapes.  By the time he had a fourth subwindow open, he was drawing from previous notes to copy over other schematics of older work, seeing where things could go.  Everything could fit together.  The waste energy of one system could help power another.  Even on a molecular level, there were ways to harness the ambient radiation that was emitted by everything in the known universe.  Some was infinitesimally small, but it was usable.  That energy could be heterodyned, or redirected into loops long enough that they were near-infinite.  Hyperefficient, dense energy generation that could benefit from being hooked up to more devices.  It was the fundamental basis of his work: efficiency.

Which suited him well.  Efficiency, intensity, focus were all the same thing in a sense, and they were his strengths.  The flip side was that they weren’t strengths when they were applied to relationships.  Or to human relationships.

It seemed to be working for him with Dragon so far.  Someone else might have bucked at the closeness of their partnership, the intimacy of it, her unending presence and watching eye.  He understood that she thought faster, that she didn’t sleep, didn’t stop.  She was fond of him and she was programmed to emulate people.  Maybe she came across as intense at times, but that was simply a poor translation, normal behavior overclocked and given no chance to pause.  He would watch for any problems just as she was keeping an eye out for the part of him that had drawn Mannequin’s attention.

For now, his own obsessiveness, arrogance, and goal-oriented mindset would keep him focused on the Nine, push other concerns to the periphery of his attention.  He could adjust to any of Dragon’s peculiarities in the meantime.  He could even enjoy them.

His lips quirked with another smile.  She was amusing.

“Okay.  I’m done for now.  Want to look it over while I get into the code?”

Sure.  You have eight minutes before you should get your stuff together.

He’d had to make a program just to get a handle on the code.  It wasn’t working with a fixed structure, but was instead a torrential waterfall of data, a river of lightning, a trillion eels weaving through one another in a singular mass.  Deciphering it required that he think in an entirely different way.  To actually change it was something else entirely.  The rules Dragon was obligated to follow were a fundamental part of her self, and everything she remembered filtered through that.

He isolated a part of the program and set it to run in a loop so he could study what it was doing.

Your design doesn’t work,” Dragon informed him.

“Does too.”

You inserted the nanomachine thorn generator into your leg, but your power source vents straight into your calf.  You’d gradually roast your flesh from your bones.

“I’m inserting more of the same into my calf.  Daisy chain.”

More self-alterations?  Colin-

“We’ve been over this.”

I was going to suggest we take some time tonight, play another round of ten by ten.  At the rate you’re going, there won’t be a point.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

Not by much.

He could have responded, but he held back, stayed quiet.  No use starting a fight now, not when they might be fighting the Nine shortly.

Ten by ten.  The ‘game’ involved some interplay between him and her android self, physical contact, and rating the sensitivity of the contact on two scales of ten.  It had started out as a means of calibrating the various sensations her ‘body’ experienced and ensuring his own prostheses weren’t causing any damage to his nervous system, but things had progressed to inevitable, intentional conclusions.

Not the obvious conclusion.  There was more to be done in refining her body and expanding her capabilities before they could take things that far.

Would he be more machine than she was by the time they got there?

On the other side of the coin, he had to wonder: could he afford to hold back?  They were engaged in a battle of attrition against the Nine.  In the grand scheme of things, there were also the Endbringers to consider.  He’d gone too far in Brockton Bay, but the fundamental principle was right.  They had to be stopped, if it was even possible, and he wouldn’t complain if it was him who did the deed.  If it was a question of going all out, holding nothing back, showing no compunctions and finally stopping the abominations, well, he’d do it all over again.  He wouldn’t trust the nano-thorns to the same extent; they apparently couldn’t cut through the entirety of an Endbringer, but he’d do the same thing again.

And he’d feel the same regret he did now.

You’ve gone quiet.

“Thinking.”

Three minutes before you take the thinking cap off and we get battle ready.

“That’s fine.  I’m thinking in circles anyways.  In the interest of being useful, I’m trying to isolate your ‘higher brain’ code from the rest.  You want to take a minute, maybe turn your attention to my leg’s prosthesis again?”

On it.”

He began to select the outliers from the two distinct strains of code.

“Think about nothing in particular,” he told her.

Harder than it sounds.

“Think white.  Or stare off into space.”

He could see the code shift.  He began to gradually narrow down the outliers.

Nothing too pertinent.  It would help him to keep any changes from damaging the most essential parts of her, but nothing too useful.

Conversationally, he asked her, “The Undersiders are still holding the territory they did, then?”

They kidnapped the Director long enough to get her to order the A.I. to stand down, got away from one altercation, then used some combination of Tattletale’s power and the Director’s knowledge to figure out that they could slow me down by knocking out cell towers.  As far as I know, they’re in a better position than they were.

“Damnation.”

How are you feeling about that?  The Undersiders?

“Psychoanalyzing me?  I’m itching to stop them.  If you asked me what I’d change, I don’t know that I could name a thing I’d do different.  I’d do everything over again, but do it better.”

You wouldn’t get caught.

“There’s that,” he said, sighing.  “And maybe I was too harsh in my judgement of Skitter.  I was angry at her, I was tired, maybe that led me to label her with some malice she didn’t have.  In retrospect, yes, she made the decisions she did, but she had reasons for doing what she did.”

In the same way you did.

“I wouldn’t put it like that.”

Dragon didn’t respond.  He swore under his breath, knew she could hear it.

“They took down our Azazel?” he asked, aiming to change the subject.

Yes.

“Fuck,” he muttered.  It would have been useful to have, here.

He could see a blip in the code, well beyond the outliers he’d marked out.

“What were you just thinking?”

Flight plan, battle strategy, and fixes to the Azazel hardware.  I have the black box data.

“Think back through each of those things.”

We’re going to be at our destination in less than a minute.

“Please?

There was a long pause, then again, the flare of data being altered well outside of the boundaries he’d noted.  He opened up the full stream in the view window, spreading it across every screen in front of him.

“Keep going,” he told her.  The cursor flew between the seven screens, marking out areas in color to see where code was changing most radically.  It was like the work he did with his own power, the smallest elements impacting everything else.

Like his own power…

He leaned back in his seat.

What is it?

“Either Andrew Richter was far better at designing A.I. than I suspected, or there’s something else at play.  You have any notes on your code from a few years ago?”

We just reached Enfield, Colin.

“I’m only barely wrapping my head around this code as is.  I’m worried that I’ll lose track and this will all be gibberish to me if I look away.  Notes on your code?”

How far back?

“Let’s say in intervals of four years.”

Loading them onto the Uther’s system.  This isn’t like you, Colin.  Getting distracted?  Making the Slaughterhouse Nine a lower priority?

“Four years ago, I think it’s the same.  Hard to find flares like that and not think I’m cherry picking data.”

Colin.  I admit I’m a little unnerved.  Way you’re talking, it sounds like Richter put some safeguard in place and I could fall apart any second.

“It’s not that.  Can you load up the earliest archive of data you have?”

I’ll have to clear away one of the other files.

“Do it.  They’re useless.  They’re the same thing as the most recent set.”

He watched as the flow of data appeared.  It was odd how he could look at it and she almost felt younger, like a musician might read music and hear it in his head.  Only here, it was like looking at a video image of a girlfriend as a child.

And… more constrained.  Certainly more advanced than anything else in existence on the planet, but things flowed.  A led to B led to C.  He sped through volumes of the data to hunt for a flare, glanced at the time markers.  A year ahead.  Two years.

No, he couldn’t afford to pore through Dragon’s entire lifetime.  He closed the image, leaned forward and stared at the screen, the recent image of Dragon’s code, caught in a three second loop in the midst of her plotting her design.

What is it?

“You’re a tinker.”

This isn’t a revelation, Colin.

“No.  I mean, not just as far as the classification applies to you.  You’re a parahuman.  I don’t have time to hunt for it now, but at some point between now and a few years after your creation, you had a trigger event.”

How can I be a parahuman if I’m not human to begin with?

“I don’t know.”

I’m not even close to human.  I might be trying to emulate one, but a sea cucumber’s closer to being a human than I am.  That doesn’t make sense.

“I don’t know either.”

What does this mean?

Yet again, I don’t know.  But it’s now my turn to remind you that we’ve got to carry on with our mission, see if we can’t track down our targets.  The four A.I. suits are close?”

They’ll be here within the minute.

“Good.  But this thing with the data and your nature, it’s important.  A clue.  I’m only mortal, I might not come out of this alive-”

Don’t say that.

“But it’s true.  I want to leave nothing to chance.  So I’m going to leave a note, just in case the worst happens and we both die somehow.  Instructions.”

To look at the code.

“To look at the code.  The fact that you haven’t noticed this yourself suggests there may be a mental block in place.”

I don’t have a mind to put any mental block inside.  I’m data.

“And the same limitations still apply.  Just in case, we’re going to make sure someone can look over the code if we don’t make it back.  Whatever happens, someone’s going to page through your memory, get our first hard data on a trigger event.  Ideal world, it’ll be us.  You can’t remember it happening?”

No.

“Well, we’ll see just how well that data was erased.  Or if it even was erased.  Could be a block keeping you from accessing a very real memory.  With luck, maybe a bit of a loophole like the one I created around your ability to create child A.I., we can unlock that memory, decrypt it or find a snapshot of it as it’s in progress.”

To what ends?

It was a good question.  It took him a moment to conceptualize it into a complete thought.

“…Since the day I got my powers, I’ve seen myself as a soldier in a greater war.  Good against evil, order against chaos, mankind against the likes of the Slaughterhouse Nine and the Endbringers.  It’s a war on every front.  And sometimes that’s called for ugly choices.  When we talked about unlocking the restrictions in your code, breaking down the barriers Andrew Richter was so careful to put in place, we talked about the idea that you and I could work together, give our side the upper hand in sheer firepower.  And I think we can with a little more time, a little more work.  With this?  This snapshot, this recording of a trigger event in progress?  Maybe we can get the upper hand in knowledge, too.”

I know what you’re thinking.  Reproducing trigger events, deciphering or even controlling the source of powers.  This is the type of radical thinking I’m supposed to rein in while I’m working with you.

“Are you saying I’m wrong?  That we shouldn’t investigate?”

No.  We should.  I’m worried about the can of worms this opens up, but we should.

“I don’t see why you’re so reluctant.”  He was already typing up the note to check the code, marking out the dates and times to investigate, the things to look out for.  It was painfully abstract, but the right tinker or the right genius could find it.  He opened the channels to deposit the files on the primary PRT server.

His computer froze.

“Dragon?”

Do you trust me?

“Yes,” he said.

The speakers produced the sound of a sigh.  “We won’t put the note on anything the PRT can get at.

“Why?” he asked.

That,” she said, “Is a long story, and it’s where I’m asking you to trust me and leave this for later discussion.  Our priority right this moment is the Slaughterhouse Nine.  I doubt we’ll stop them outright, but we’ll try.  Six powered suits in all.  I can’t disobey the directive, and you can’t let yourself lose track of the mission, or you’ll never get back on it.  I’ll explain this after.

“You said you couldn’t put the files on anything the PRT can get at?”

I’m almost certain they already know whatever we stand to find out.  I suppose it’s unavoidable, given how close we are on so many levels, but you’re getting drawn into another fight, with an enemy that may be on the same level as the Nine or even the Endbringers.  An enemy I can’t afford to fight face to face.”

“Who?

I’m obligated to follow the laws of the land.  To obey the local government, no matter who they are.  When we’re done here, whether we stop the Nine outright, see them escape yet again or lose the fight, you should ask me about Cauldron.

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Monarch 16.5

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If I was remembering right, the Slaughterhouse Nine had introduced themselves to their prospective members roughly two weeks ago.  I couldn’t be sure what had happened, but Piggot had alluded to the idea that Armsmaster had banded together with Dragon.

Two weeks, and they’d built this.

The other dragon suits had the general stylings of dragons, with claws, armor plating that resembled scales and heads or faces that resembled a reptile.  In the end, though, they were still machines, and the theme was just that.  A theme.

Rather than armor plates, the scales were fine, intricately detailed and arranged with a kind of natural sense to it, with denser scaling in the areas which saw the most movement, creasing and folding and heavier scales around the elbows, talons and face.  There were wings, batlike, with openings at the base of each ‘finger’ that the membrane stretched between.  The actual body was more like a lizard, but the angle of the forelimbs and shoulders resembled those of a human.  When Azazel moved, its scaled exterior rippled with the shifting movements of the mechanisms underneath.

My bugs found their way inside, and I discovered it was very different from the machine we’d just fought.  It wasn’t sturdily built, nor was it solid.  The wires and internal mechanisms weren’t heavy-duty, reinforced or covered in chain mesh.  They were so numerous and dense that I couldn’t hope to make any headway with every bug in the city committed to the task.

It was, just going by what I could tell from my swarm-sense, a machine as intricate and multilayered as a living, organic being.

But how?  It didn’t make sense in terms of the timeframe.  It would have taken time to make each individual, unique part with their condensed and intricate design, but he’d only had two weeks.

A thought dawned on me.  It was a half-formed thought up until the moment I devoted some attention to it.  Then it clicked.  Tinkers had a knack, a specialty, be it a particular field of work or something they could do with their designs that nobody else could, and I knew Dragon’s.  She could intuit and appropriate the designs of other tinkers.

It put everything in perspective.  The machines she was using, half of them drew on ideas I’d seen other tinkers put to work.  The drone model had used Kid Win’s antigravity generators and Armsmaster’s ambient taser, the wheel-dragon might have used the same theories as the electromagnetic harness Kid Win had been packing when we attacked the PRT headquarters.

It also served to explain how she could invest the time to make the suits.  If her power afforded her the brainpower and raw thinking power to understand and apply the work of other tinkers, then she could put all of her resources towards manufacturing.  Armsmaster made the base design, she appropriated it and then turned artificial intelligence or her own power to creating the necessary variations.

I could imagine how she had worked herself into the Protectorate and the Guild for just this reason.  It would get her the funding and raw materials she needed.  Being a member of the team would give her access to the work of the various tinker heroes, in the name of oversight and security.  Add the confiscated material from criminals like Bakuda, and she had unparalleled access to other tinkers’ work.

There were realizations that were kind of a ‘eureka’ moment, except not so much an inspiration borne of creativity or creation as being about finding that weak point, finding that way out of a corner.  This wasn’t one of those.  This was one of the realizations I wish I hadn’t had, because I could feel my own morale plummeting.  If I was even close to being right, then Dragon was the incarnation of why tinkers were so dangerous.

Which didn’t change the fact that we had to find a way to stop her or everything we’d worked for would be for nothing.

I used the relay bugs to extend my search out further, and ran into a snag.  My swarm died in droves, bugs being obliterated or having half their bodies sheared off as they approached too close to what the suit was building.

It slammed one claw down, and my bugs could sense a thin rod skimming along the surface of the ground, tracing bumps and depressions.   The telescoping rod extended several hundred feet, crossing from the corner of one building to the base of a wall on the other side of the street.  It stopped, and there was a pause as the suit moved on.  Then the rod bloomed.

There wasn’t a better way to put it.  It expanded, unfolded, the rod of metal peeling open like a stick of bamboo, leaves and shoots unfolding over miliseconds.  The final stage, what I might call the ‘flowering’ was familiar enough.  If I could see it, I’d describe it as a vague blur.  Armsmaster had used the effect for the weapon he’d used to hack away at Leviathan, and Mannequin had been in possession of a knife with the same effect.  Except these blurs were five or six feet around.

I watched as the suit scanned the area, its head sweeping right to left to survey the area before it planted two more.  One extended for what must have been a tenth of a mile before it met another wall and stopped.  Since I’d been watching, four streets had been rendered impassable.

What did the Undersiders and the Slaughterhouse Nine have in common?  Besides our general intimidating natures and disturbing powers, we were both elusive, favoring hit and run tactics with a degree of shock and awe to keep our enemies off-balance.

Dragon and Armsmaster had decided on this as their means of attack.  They would seal off our movements by erecting barriers that were the high-tech equivalent of barbed wire.  Barbed wire that would turn steel into vapor.

That wouldn’t stop Siberian though.  What technologies had I seen that they might use against her?  Or was it a technology I hadn’t seen before?  There were some ugly possibilities there.  Something long ranged that could take him out before he could get to cover?  A microscopic form of attack that could fill the air and debilitate him if he wasn’t in an airtight container?

“What’s wrong?” Bitch asked.

“Found it.  Trying to find the others but I’m running into a bit of a snag.  The suit’s setting up barriers.”

“The forcefield thing they sent against Sundancer?”  Regent asked.

I shook my head.  “I think it’s the Azazel suit the Director mentioned.  It’s using that blurry stuff that cuts through anything, I told you about it.”

“I don’t remember that,” Imp said.

“Just don’t touch it,” I told her.  “Not even in a joking way.  You’re likely to lose your finger or your hand before you realize something’s wrong.”

“Uh huh.”

“I thought these things were supposed to be packing nonlethal hardware,” Regent said.  “Blue fire and now this?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “The Director said these suits were supposed to go up against the Nine.  You want to be as lethal as you can get.  I- I’m pretty sure they’re holding back, though.  They could have hit us a few times and didn’t.  We might be able to use that, but that’s testing our luck.”

“What?  You’re thinking about a kamikaze attack?”  Regent asked.

“Probably not.  We don’t know everything that suit could be packing in terms of devices or hardware.  Especially with Armsmaster helping out.  It’s definitely going to have something they think can counteract Siberian, so let’s rule out a brute force attack.  The hedge maze it’s building would hold off Hookwolf or Bonesaw’s creations, and the sturdiness of the design would protect it against Jack.  In terms of other tactics the Slaughterhouse Nine might use… hostages.  I’d bet it’s packing containment foam.”

“So what do we do?”

“It’s still a machine, a well made machine, but it’s a machine.  We can break it, given an opportunity.  But our number one goal is going to be keeping it from catching us out of position and walling us in.”

“We could move up to the rooftops,” Regent said.

“I have a bit of a policy against doing that,” I replied.  “It leaves you with a shortage of escape routes.”

“Doesn’t sound like we’ll have many anyways.”

“No.  But we’ll worry about that when it comes up.  Worst case scenario, we climb for the rooftops when it happens.  The dogs are mobile, and I assume Shatterbird can lift one or two people at a time?”  I asked.  Regent nodded confirmation.  I continued, “For now, we’ll take the long way, keep our distance from it, see if we can’t find the others.”

I looked around, saw some nods.  I glanced at Bitch.  Would she see it as cowardly?

“Okay,” Bitch said.

“Good.  Let’s leave your people behind?  No use bringing them into a fight.”

She nodded.  I looked over my shoulder at the vet trainee and the guy, and they took that as their cue to climb down.

The remainder of us rode.  Me on Bentley, Bitch on the wolf cub’s back, Barker and Biter riding in tandem on one door just behind Regent and Imp on the other.

The machine was gradually taking over an area near Ballistic’s territory with the disintegration ‘hedges’.  Going counter-clockwise around Azazel would have meant running face first into the crater Leviathan had made.  Traveling the edge threatened to put us dangerously close to the suit, and with the water on one side we’d have denied ourselves one of the cardinal directions as far as escape routes went.  That meant we were left with only one viable route to travel if we wanted to head further into the downtown areas; turning left and giving the suit as wide a berth as possible.

I kept one metaphorical eye on the suit as we traveled, while sweeping out with my swarm to scan for the others.  Azazel was laying down more of the ‘hedges’, not connecting them but placing one and then winging past intersections and streets to place another two or three blocks away.  I couldn’t be sure what the point was.  Our teammates were nowhere nearby, as far as I could tell, and the openings were wide enough that the barriers wouldn’t really hamper us even if we were running straight through the area.  Maybe a bit if my power wasn’t informing me of where we needed to go, but even Bitch would be able to get by without too much trouble.

I couldn’t shake the notion that I was missing something.  Was there something about those rods that I wasn’t aware of?  None of the rods were any thicker around than my pinky fingers, so they didn’t leave room for any real traps to be hidden inside, Armsmaster’s special talent or no.

It had been too long since I rode one of the dogs.  They weren’t well suited for riding, and that was doubly the case with Bentley, with his broad shoulders and barrel-like chest.  It forced my legs apart, and that made for an uncomfortable ride when coupled with the bouncing motion as he ran and the lingering soreness of my shoulder from the battlefield surgery Brooks had provided.

I thought about calling for a break when I noticed movement.  Not Azazel.  It was coming from the other direction.  My heart sank.

The drone-dragon.

“Incoming!”  I called out, using my bad arm to point in the general direction of the approaching suit.  It was approaching at a right angle, accurately enough that I feared it had a way of tracking us.

This was one of those moments where I had to make a clutch decision as leader, but it seemed like a choice of a half-dozen equally awful options.  Splitting up, moving closer to Azazel, trying to confront the drone deployer, hiding and risking getting cornered?

Damn.

I wondered if I was maybe better at improvising than I was at spur-of-the-moment strategy.   There was a distinction there.

“This way!”  I shouted.

Running straight down the road left us dangerously exposed.  I led the group down a diagonal route, zig-zagging between alleyways and the main streets.  Away from the drone-deployer and slightly towards Azazel.

When Azazel shifted positions and took flight, heading straight for us, I was left to wonder if that had been their plan all along.

“We’re being herded!”  I called out.  “Reverse directions!”

I hauled hard on Bentley’s chain, getting him to turn, then goading him to start running the way we’d come.  Regent, Imp, Barker and Biter had a harder time.  The ‘sleds’ were too dependent on momentum, and they didn’t have built-in traction.  Bitch and I pulled ahead on our respective mounts while the others tried to get turned around and build up speed again.  We couldn’t afford to stop and wait for them.

The drone suit flanked us on our right, drones spilling out of its ports to trail behind it like my bugs trailed behind me.  Other drones were moving to cut us off in front.  Azazel was behind us and to our left.  The herding was still underway – the sole route left to us, if we didn’t want to run straight into a mess of drones or one of the suits, would be going left.

Left took us into the area Azazel had employed the rods and the ‘hedges’.  Fuck that.  I could see what Azazel wanted to do, now.  The moment we were in there, it would take flight, setting down rods to close the gaps and trapping us inside.

My swarm and my eyes scanned the area.  In a matter of seconds this decision would be made for us.

I saw what I was looking for.  A third option.  If I was eyeballing this wrong, or if Bentley didn’t have a hard enough head… well, one of us would get hurt.

“Go!” I urged the mutant bulldog on, steering him for the nearest building.  He pulled away, and I steered him back on course, ducking low so I was hugging his neck as I drove him forward into the already ruined display window of a minimall.  I could feel the top of the display window scraping against the armor on my back as we passed through.

We stampeded past a store that had already been looted, headed for the glass window that faced the mall interior.  If I could find a shortcut through here, exit on the far side of the drone-dragon, we would be able to make a break for it.  Shatterbird could drag the two sleds faster than the dogs could run.  She wasn’t that fast: I could remember how she’d fallen behind the rest of the Nine in the fight where we’d taken her captive.  Still, they could fend for themselves for just a little while, while Bitch and I got some breathing room to prepare a counterattack.

The drone-deployer could see what I was doing.  Drones were moving down to cut me off.  Cut us off, as Bitch had followed.  Bentley and I crashed through the store entryway and into the mall proper.  It wasn’t a big place, and the interior was riddled with tents where some people had holed up.  Store owners wanting to protect their goods?  The area was empty now.  Had Azazel evacuated it?

I could sense two drones orienting themselves to bar our way, and steered Bentley between them.  Twenty or twenty-five feet of distance would be enough, if there wasn’t anything to conduct the ambient electric charge.

There was.  Bentley and I were rocked as both drones fired off at once.  The dog took it harder than I did, and we sprawled.

Bitch slowed as she approached.  She started to head my way, maybe to rescue me, maybe to help Bentley, but I could sense a drone moving straight for me.

“Go!”  I shouted.

She turned and ran, the third drone turning to pursue her.  It was too slow.  She, at least, would get away.

I couldn’t say why the electricity had reached me.  I’d thought I’d figured out their basic range when I’d first fought them, but maybe the simultaneous effect had extended the charge between them?  Or there was something nearby that had helped carry the charge, something in the tents or the mall’s design?

Through the plexiglass that framed the mall entrance, I caught a glimpse of Azazel.  The scales that covered it were small and dark, glossy, and the spaces between them glowed like hot coals, red and orange.  Its head paused as it glanced through the window, and a red eye fixed on me.  It stamped one claw down on the ground, in a movement my swarm had felt too many times.

No.

The rod extended beneath me before I could climb to my feet.  In one second, smaller branches had extended under, over and around me.  One more second passed, and they bloomed into the blurry effect.  Bright red, orange and purple, as if to signify the danger it posed in the most basic, primal sense, like the yellow of hornets or the bright red of poisonous berries.

I froze, afraid to even breathe.  I was still in one piece.

Tentatively, I commanded some of the bugs out from beneath my costume.  The insulation had protected some, luck and sheer durability had saved a scant few others.  They died the second they moved more than an inch away from my body, vaporized.

My heart was pounding from the recent exertion, adrenaline still flowing through my veins.  As I realized the situation I was in, my body was shifting into fight or flight mode, but humans weren’t engineered to go into the same ‘deer in the headlights’ state like conventional prey animals.  And that was what I needed to do.  I needed to freeze, not to fight, struggle or run.

My lungs screamed for oxygen, and I let out a small breath.  It came out as a half-whimper.  I watched as one lock of hair shifted from where it was draped over my shoulderpad, slipped down to touch the blurry growth that surrounded me.  It turned to dust, and I held my breath yet again, afraid I’d inhale the vaporized hair and cough.

Azazel was taking the long way around the building, heading into the same storefront I’d ridden Bentley through.  It wasn’t huge, but it was big, and its progress was agonizingly slow.

I’d been on my hands and knees for ten seconds, maybe twenty, but already my body was feeling the strain, screaming at me to change position.  A crease on the inside of one of my kneepads was digging against the bone of my kneecap.  The branches that extended around me might hold me, but they might not, either.

And there was nobody even close by.  If this was the movies, it would have been an opportune time for Tattletale to make her move, but we’d already been that fortunate once, with Imp forcing Piggot to order a standby.  I couldn’t hope for a second lucky save.

Azazel was moving through the store now.  It was a minute away, as it carefully planted its feet to avoid crushing store merchandise.  I wanted to scream at it to move faster, that I was afraid my hand would lose traction on the dusty tile and slip into the disintegration effect.  I could lose a limb like that, or belly-flop onto the blur beneath me, bisecting myself.

Why hadn’t it cut me when it grew?  Because whatever guided the growth kept it from tearing up the surrounding material.  It was why the Halberd and dagger hadn’t been destroyed by the growth of the disintegration cloud around them, why the growing ‘hedges’ of the stuff hadn’t cut out sections of building.

I wasn’t in immediate danger, besides the obvious, so I decided to try something.

“I’m going to fall!” I screamed.

I could sense Azazel lunging forward, crushing a store display as it hurried to the opening, its mouth opening.  It directed a blast of superheated air at the ground, so it cut through the lowest portion of the disintegration hedge, clearing the area beneath and around me.  I winced at the heat of it, but took it for what it was.

You may lie down but do not try to move from your current location, Skitter,” the machine spoke.  It was the same voice as the armbands and drones, but deeper.  “Do not stand or make dramatic movements or you may be harmed.”

The message delivered, Azazel began spraying Bentley down with containment foam.

I checked with my remaining bugs.  A bubble with a four-foot radius had been cleared around me, but the larger branches still existed and a rough dome loomed over me.  The area where the hot air had been vented in made for an area I might have been able to fit an arm or leg through if I felt brave, but I wouldn’t be able to crawl through, not with the branches being where they were.

“You assholes aren’t holding back,” I muttered.  When the suit didn’t respond, I glanced up.  It was standing stationary above me, apparently content to have me and me alone.

My allies were still making a run for it.  The drone ship pursued Shatterbird, Regent, Imp, Barker and Biter, and some stray drones were chasing Bitch but falling behind.  I positioned the relay bugs to keep in touch, but didn’t know what to communicate.  That I was captured, but they shouldn’t come back for me without a plan or reinforcements?  Bitch would let them know.

No, I was stuck here, in custody.

“So, she design you to talk?”  I asked.

Silence.

“This statement is false,” I told it.

I’ll go with true.  There, that was easy,” Azazel replied.

Damn.  Wouldn’t be able to shut it down with paradox.  Dragon apparently had a sense of humor.  The reply sounded canned, a recitation.  Or she had a liking for popular culture I wasn’t aware of.

Think, Taylor, think!  What were my options?  I had bugs, but they wouldn’t be able to do anything.  I drew them closer, wary of the two drones that were picking themselves off the ground.  Bentley was down.  My weapons wouldn’t cut me free, and I was leery of trying to use my weapons on the larger branches, in case I brought something down on my head.

Armsmaster had called it nanotechnology.  It cut through anything, everything.  If some dropped free and fell to the ground, would it keep falling, cutting out a bottomless pit?

No, I needed to find and exploit weaknesses.  If my costumed career had taught me two things, it was that things could always get worse, and there was always a solution.  It was, in a way, why I wasn’t freaking out over the end of the world.  I’d already accepted that things could get bad, and I held out hope that we could find a way out.

I could find a way out here.

The suit had used a heat gun.  Was the nanotech vulnerable to heat?  To fire?  It would be ironic in a way.  The growth around me resembled fire with its hues and blurry, transparent nature.  Fire frozen in time.  The entire scene made for a strange picture.  Azazel and its ‘fire’ weren’t moving in the slightest, and the only things that were moving were the two drones that were rotating lazily around Azazel and the clouds of dust that had been stirred by the blast of hot air.

With my swarm, I felt around my utility compartment.  Yes, I had a box of matches.  I’d packed tissues in there to keep them from rattling around, like I did with my changepurse, so I’d have to use my hands to withdraw them, probably.  The suit wouldn’t let me once it saw what I was doing.  I wasn’t sure what the response would be, but it could range from blasting me with containment foam the second the fire ate at the nanotech to hitting me with that superheated air to blow me into the side of the dome, vaporizing me.

Had to deal with Azazel first.  I looked up at the reptilian face with glowing red eyes.  I could see the snakelike neck, the human-ish shoulders and arms.  It looked more like a demon than a dragon, from this perspective.

The only weapons I had were my bugs.  There weren’t enough in my range, even with the relay bugs, to do anything to the suit.  The model we’d just fought in Bitch’s territory had been able to bend steel, would have been able to tear my spider’s silk.  I couldn’t hope to tie Azazel up.  It was bigger and I was willing to bet it had more raw strength.  Maybe it was better to say that I was confident enough it had more raw strength that I wasn’t willing to take the risk.

No, my bugs wouldn’t serve.  I sent some cockroaches in to see if they could nibble through the insulation of some wires, but it felt futile.  Even in what stood to be the more vital areas, like the neck, I doubted my ability to do any real damage.

What other tools did I have?

My voice.

Dragon was smart.  Smart enough to write an A.I. that wouldn’t crumble to a simple issue with paradox.  But the A.I. wasn’t necessarily brilliant.  It had leaped to my defense when I’d said I was in danger.  Either it wasn’t smart enough to discern truth from a lie, or it wasn’t allowed to when a life was potentially in danger.

I’d wondered if the machines were obligated to preserve our lives.  Now I had a better sense of it.  Now how to use it?

Regent and Imp were still fleeing the area on one of Shatterbird’s sleds.  They had outpaced the drone ship, which was moving too slowly to pursue even Shatterbird.  It was better suited, it seemed, for seizing and protecting an area than for pursuit.  Good.

I drew out a message on Regent’s back.  ‘Hide’.  Imp was directly behind him, and bugs on a white shirt would be clear as day to her.  I hoped.  They were almost out of my range, relay bugs or no.

“You’re Azazel, correct?”

Correct.

“What’s the other ship called?”

The Glaurung Zero is an old model, designed to deploy drones of varying loadouts.

“Thank you for the information.”

You’re welcome.”

“Don’t suppose you’ll tell me how to defeat you?”

No.

“Or your self destruct code?”

No.”

“What if I told you that you were putting a human life in grave danger?”

I have no reasonable cause to believe that.

Damn.

But if it wasn’t designed to tell truth from a falsehood, maybe…

“Imp had a second trigger event.  She should be invisible to your sensors.”

I have no reasonable cause to believe that.

“Doesn’t matter.  Imp may be in this room.  If you move a foot, you could be stepping on her.”

“Imp could not be in this room.  As of two minutes ago she was recorded at a distance of .4 miles away from this location.  She could not return here in that span of time unobserved.”

The suits were communicating.  That was good to know, but it wasn’t exactly good.  It made this harder.

“She could if Trickster leapfrogged her here,” I said.  If Trickster was currently engaged in a fight with one of the other models, this could blow up in my face.

But the suit didn’t refute me.  It didn’t speak at all.

“I used my power to signal Imp and Trickster and ask them to help.  They’re nearby, and it’s very possible Imp is here.  She could be crawling on top of you, for all you know.  If you open your mouth, move your head or move a wing, you might be causing her to fall.  With your head being where it is, it’s not impossible she could fall and roll into this nanotech hedge you’ve made, right?”

I waited for a response, for the canned reply saying Azazel had no reasonable cause ot believe it.  Nothing.

Had it worked?

“Maybe I should be more specific,” I said.  “I told them to help in general.  They might not be helping me, so it’s very possible that any other suit might be in immediate proximity to Imp.  Be careful you don’t accidentally crush her.”

No reply.  Hopefully that would help the others somehow.  It wouldn’t stop any of the ones in the air like that Glaurung drone suit, but it could stall others.

“Now,” I said, picking my words carefully, my pulse pounding, “I’m going to light a match and try to burn this thing away.”

I drew the matchbook from behind my back, grabbed a match from the box.

Hesitated.

If the hedge burned quickly enough to matter, what would happen?  Azazel could easily spray me down in containment foam.

I began organizing my bugs, placing them on the ceiling, drawing out lines of silk cord.

The PRT could be entering my range any second, ready to take me into custody.  I needed to be fast, but I couldn’t rush this.  I was replicating the natural design of a spiderweb, three times over, but I was making each strand fifty or sixty times as thick, braiding other threads into cords and braiding cords into thicker strands.

It took a minute before I was satisfied.  I was aware of the drone that hovered some distance over my head.  I adopted a general runner’s pose, then lit the match.  With my bugs, I was able to sense the safe distance I could raise my hand, match held high.

It burned faster than I would have thought.  With a whoosh like I might expect from lighting a barbecue, it was gone.

A series of things happened in that instant.  I pulled free of the branches that hadn’t burned away, sprinting for the exit,  Azazel opened its mouth and began spewing containment foam, and the drone began speaking, “Attention Citizen…

I maneuvered the spiderweb-nets into place in the stream.  Two were far enough away to catch only a little, but the burden was heavy, growing more awkward for my bugs as the expanding foam captured some and rendered them unable to fly.

I still managed to drag the foam-nets into place, covering one drone’s eye-lens and the other’s gravity panel.  They spiraled out of control, one striking a column, the other plummeting for the ground.

The other net was fixed just in front of Azazel’s mouth, strands already wound around the scales of its face.  It tore free on one side, but the foam expanded, forming a beard, then covering its mouth.

The makeshift barrier had kept the worst of the foam from reaching me.  I scrambled out of the way of the rest, narrowly avoiding getting the damned stuff on my costume.

Azazel’s chest opened, and a grappling hook speared out.  Still trying to recover from dodging the foam, I couldn’t dodge it.  It seized me, and I hurried to climb over the railing that surrounded the now-empty fountain to keep Azazel from drawing me up into its chest.  Or into the foam that wreathed its head.

I climbed under the railing, to see if I could wind it up any further, then jerked to a stop.  The hook was frozen in midair, still clutching the armor at my chest and shoulder.

Right.  So this was how they’d planned to counteract Siberian.

I couldn’t free myself, and I couldn’t fight back, so I waited.

Armsmaster had said this technology drained his batteries, but Azazel could have a major power source in its chest.

It took only a minute before the hook went limp.  I managed to pry myself free.

Other than opening its mouth to spray the foam and turning its head, Azazel hadn’t budged from its position.

With my swarm, I signaled Regent and Imp:  ‘Good job.  Come back fast.’

Without Bentley, I couldn’t cover enough ground.  Couldn’t run.  I found a hiding spot by the mall entrance instead.  From the spot, I used my swarm to covertly keep an eye on Azazel, praying that whatever Dragon was doing was consuming her attention.  Praying that she wasn’t about to override the simple head game I’d pulled on her hyperadvanced mecha-suit.

A very satisfying crunching noise rang through the minimall.  I stood there, watching in approval with my arms folded as Grue, Sundancer, Ballistic and Genesis approached.  I’d signaled Trickster to tell him to stay back.  No use giving the suit a way to rationalize its way out of my lie.

“Is that the Azazel?”  Grue asked.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“It’s not moving.”

“Because I told it that it might crush Imp if it did.”

“Ah,” Grue answered.  He didn’t ask for clarification.

“How’d it go?”  Regent asked.  Azazel had started venting the mist to clear away the containment foam, freeing its head and front claws where it had been covered in its own foam, but I’d already formed a mesh of spiderwebs to keep it from opening fire with any of its weapons.  The mist had also exposed enough of Bentley for us to save him.  Working together, we’d already cut the real Bentley free of the desiccated flesh of his larger self that contained him.  The bulldog and Bastard were happily sitting between Bitch and I.  Shatterbird was hammering at Azazel, smashing it repeatedly with a massive wrecking ball of condensed glass.

Sundancer spoke up, “We took down the hybrid model.  Giant gun, was sitting in the stratosphere, shooting down Genesis every time she sent a body out into the open.”

“Our group took down two,” Bitch said.

“Where are the others?  Shouldn’t more reinforcements be arriving?”  Grue asked.

I shrugged, “If they come, I’ll know, and we can react.  We’ve gotten this far.”

A minute passed, punctuated by the thud of the glass sphere against Azazel’s outer body. Only a little damage was done with each hit, but it was adding up.  That, and it felt good, in a way.

Sundancer created an orb of flame and drove it into Azazel.  I watched as the metal melted and the wiring burned in clouds of acrid black smoke.  In the span of a minute, the suit was slag.  I signaled Imp and Trickster to tell them it was okay to approach.

We watched the suit burn.  Trickster and Imp joined us from the outskirts of the mall.

“I feel bad about this,” I said.

“Why the fuck would you feel bad?” Bitch asked.

“They must have put millions into manufacturing this.  That was supposed to stop the Nine, and It was powerful enough that it might have, if it’d had Dragon’s brain backing it up.”

“They can build more,” Grue said.

“Scary thought,” Sundancer commented.

“We got lucky,” I said.  “What with Imp being able to force Piggot to shut them down, and the way I could exploit it’s A.I. to lock down its movements.  Maybe you can make a program versatile and leave yourself open to the program using loopholes to work around any safeties you put in place.  Or you can make it heavily restricted and leave it open to vulnerabilities like what I exploited there.  I guess we’re a ways off from an A.I. being smart enough to work around those limitations.”

“It’s a matter of time,” Regent said.

“You’re such a pessimist,” Imp retorted.

“And I’m so right.”

The suit continued to burn.  Containment foam billowed out of a container within Azazel’s body, putting out the worst of the flames and leaving us with an assurance that Azazel wouldn’t be lurching back to life the second we turned our backs.

“Let’s go,” Grue said.  “Four more suits to take down, and we don’t have long before it gets dark.”

I nodded.

We were half a block away from the minimall when a phone rang, startling the living daylights out of us.  It was my satellite phone.

Dragon?  

Tattletale: “Phones are back on.”

“Why?  Is she baiting us?  Trying to get us to reveal our positions?”

“She’s gone,” Tattletale replied.  “Suits leaving the city, satellite phones are working.  Few factors at play, there.  I got word back from the Dragonslayers.  Paid them a few million bucks to tell me how they keep getting the upper hand on Dragon, tell me how she’s relaying commands to her suits.  With that, I had some squads plant C-4 and knock down cell towers.  That slowed her down, cut her bandwidth, so to speak, and limited her ability to reprogram them on the fly.  I’m guessing you guys took out one or more suits?”

“Three,” Bitch said.

“Two or three,” I clarified.

“That cost the Protectorate a good chunk of cash, and it’s detracting from Dragon’s primary mission, which is the Nine.  My guess is she’s zeroing in on them.  Better to have a few suits closer to where she thinks they are than to leave them here in the city for you guys to keep breaking.  So she thinks, anyways, and the bigwigs that are footing the bill seem to agree.”

“I can live with that,” I said.

“I think we all can.  It doesn’t mean there won’t be more coming down the road.  But whatever else she does, she won’t be able to sell the local government on the idea that victory is a hundred percent assured, and she’ll have to justify the costs to the PRT.  That means we’re getting a reprieve.  When she does come back, it’ll only be because she’s certain she can win.”

I glanced around at the others.  “That’s good to know, kind of.”

“What’s important is it won’t be in the next little while.  If they intend to send someone like Eidolon or Alexandria here, even, it won’t be anytime soon.  So I can give you the official announcement.  We won.  Job complete.  The Pure have hauled ass out of town, Faultline’s apparently decided it’s safer to be out of the city, and you’ve humiliated the heroes enough that they can’t honestly contest your claim.  There’s nobody left.”

“The city is ours?” Grue asked.

“The city is ours.  And here’s the thing.  Order from the one in charge,” Lisa paused, and her meaning was clear.  An order from Coil.  “You’re done.  Good job.  Your final order for the time being is to take a few days off.  No costumed tomfoolery.  Go back to your territories, make sure things are okay, but no getting into fights.  If I see you out in costume, you’re fired.  Hell, I’ll shoot you.”

It sounded like a joke, the way Tattletale put it, but the deeper meaning was clear.  Coil was telling us to stand down.  No matter what.

“Just like that?” Grue asked.

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.

“I was going to go out,” I said, “Uncostumed, don’t worry, but um-“

Didn’t want to say where I was going on a line the heroes might be listening in on.

“I get it,” Tattletale said.  “I know where.  One sec.”

A pause.  No doubt while she checked with Coil.

“Okay.  Cool,” she said.

“I can go?  It won’t cause issues?”

“No issues.  So long as you-“

“I know,” I cut her off.  So long as I left the costume at home.

“We’ll talk later,” she said.  “Gonna go see if I can get more details on what happened.  Betting someone blew their top when they realized you guys demolished two of those suits.”

“Three,” Bitch said.

“Sure, three,” Tattletale clarified.  “Ta ta.”

She hung up.

Our group paused, each of us looking to the others, as if we couldn’t believe it, or we were measuring each other’s reactions.

We’d won.  We’d cost the PRT too much in resources, pride and money, and they’d apparently decided it wasn’t worth their time to uproot us.  I hated the bureaucracy, the fucked up mindset of the institutions, but it was clearly working in our favor here, at least.

Coil had his city.  There was nothing more I could do.  The only thing stopping Coil from following through on his end of the deal and releasing Dinah was, well, Coil.

I exhaled slowly, letting out a deep breath that I felt like I’d been holding in for a month.

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Monarch 16.4

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I was turning to leave when I was struck with a thought.  “Did Bitch move to her new territory yet?  I know we planned for her to relocate to the city outskirts.”

“Not yet,” Tattletale answered.  She was tying the gag back in place.  Piggot was screwing her eyes closed in disgust.

“So she’s somewhere near the Trainyard.”

“Yeah,” Tattletale replied.

“We’re going to need transportation if we’re going to get there without losing too much time.”

“Brooks can hotwire a car for you, show you how to start it up again when you’re ready to head back,” Tattletale suggested.

“No.  I’m not sure it’ll be able to navigate all the fenced off areas and debris that’ll be in the Trainyard.  Bitch hasn’t been clearing the mess, as far as I know, and it wasn’t easy to navigate to begin with.”

“If we use the car to get there…” Grue started.

I finished his sentence for him, “We run the risk that it’ll break down, run out of gas or get wrecked somewhere, stranding us and forcing us to hike across half the city to get to Ballistic’s territory.  Let’s minimize the opportunities for stuff to go wrong.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Tattletale said.

I glanced at Piggot.  “We’re capes, not beggars.  I was thinking about Sundancer and something like a hot air balloon, but I’m not sure how much forward acceleration you could pick up that way.  But something like that.  A lot of our powers operate off virtually limitless power sources.  I’ve used my power all day, every day and I haven’t been any worse for wear.  Can we use that for some extra mobility while we don’t have Bitch on the team?”

“You could try a James and the Giant Peach thing with us,” Imp said, “Only it’d be backwards: bugs on strings and the ‘bird along for the ride.”

I shook my head.  “My bugs would get tired.  That leaves Shatterbird.”

“I can only fly with one person, maybe two,” Regent and Shatterbird spoke in unison.

“What if you aren’t flying?”  I asked.

Maybe not my best idea in retrospect.

We were putting our lives in Shatterbird’s hands.  Or in Regent’s hands, depending on how I interpreted it.  Which wasn’t to say we weren’t getting where we needed to be in record time.

Shatterbird had pressed and embedded glass into the wood of a door we’d taken off the hinges, and Regent, Imp and I were standing on the surface while Shatterbird flew above us, using her power to pull on the glass.  With our weight resting more towards the back than the front, the door was angled upward, skimming on the surface of the road or through the shallow water of streets that were still flooded.

We had to be pushing forty or fifty miles an hour, and any time we were forced to make a turn, we inevitably went wide, sometimes bouncing off of a wall.  That was without getting into the cars and debris that still covered the roads or our total lack of solid hand-holds, seats, seatbelts or brakes.  I’d parceled out silk cord to grip, but they also served to emphasize how momentum swung us out to one side or another when we turned.  It was easy to underestimate how fast even a lower cruising speed was when safe inside the interior of a vehicle, removed from the road by two to four feet of solid material..

Either way, we headed into the thick of the Docks.  Our makeshift vehicle sped towards a chain link fence.

“Regent, fence,” I warned, leaning forward to speak into his ear and make sure he could hear me.

We continued forward without slowing.  Half a block away, seventy feet away…

“Fence!” I raised my voice.

Thirty feet away…

Shatterbird hit the fence with a wave of glass, knocking it down to a forty-five degree angle.  Our makeshift craft lifted up fractionally and we hit the makeshift ramp, remaining airborne for only a second or two before hitting the ground and continuing forward.

“You dick,” I swore.

Regent and Imp laughed and cackled.

What had I been thinking, inflicting this pair on myself?

We made our way into the Trainyard, and the ride became much bumpier as we navigated areas with overgrown grass, train tracks and piles of trash.  A crash and howl informed us of our destination before my bugs did.  I signaled Regent when we were close enough so he could bring the craft to a stop.

Bitch and the dogs were fighting, and there were signs the fighting had been going on for a while.

There were six dogs in the area, including Bastard, Bentley and Sirius, but only Bastard and Bentley were still fighting.  Bitch, Barker and Biter had stepped up to fight, as well, with Bitch’s civilian henchpersons were hiding nearby.  The vet-girl was taking care of a smaller dog.

Looking at the situation, I couldn’t figure out why they’d be having trouble with their opponent.  Dragon’s suit wasn’t that large, didn’t seem to have that much in the way of weapons or gear.  She stood maybe eight feet tall, eight feet wide, with each arm forming roughly a third of its mass, ending in disproportionately large, squat claws.

Barker screamed, then slammed his teeth together with a clack my bugs could hear.  His power turned the noise into a concussive force, erupting around the armored suit.  The suit reeled, staggering back from where it stood on top of a derelict train, nearly falling.  One of the dogs charged and tackled it, tearing into it with claws and teeth.

The suit hauled the dog off it, climbing to its feet in an instant.  It leaped forward to close the distance to its human opponents, and Biter stepped forward to meet it, his fist swelling to five times the normal size, along with the spikes and blades he’d worked into the fabric of his glove.  The suit went flying, gathering itself into a rough ball shape as it careened backwards into the side of a train.

Had we stepped in just as the fight was wrapping up?

The suit stood.  That didn’t surprise me.  It brought its claws to either side and clawed at the side of the train, crumpling metal in its massive claws.  My bugs gave me a sense of what was going on as the suit drew the metal into itself with crushing mechanisms and gears.  Its torso expanded slightly as it made room for the new material, armor plates reshaped by internal mechanisms and shifted into place to patch up the worst of the damage.

I arrived on the scene, Imp and Regent only a short distance behind me.  A glance showed me that Bitch, her underlings and her dogs were injured, beaten to the point that they were dirty, bruised and scraped.  Her eyes widened as I approached.

“It won’t,” she growled the words between pants for breath, “Fucking die!”

I wouldn’t have picked a brute-type machine to go up against Bitch, if I’d been in Dragon’s shoes, but she’d apparently decided this would be a good matchup.  Or was this Armsmaster’s idea?  I was put in mind of the fight at the fundraiser, him trying to not just defeat Bitch, but to beat her into submission.

Not that he was really fighting for a crowd, here.

Or was it something else?  The suit could absorb metal, what would give Bitch that much trouble?

“It’s drawing scrap metal into itself,” I said.  “Self repairing.”

“I know.”

“So stop it from getting the scrap metal.”

“You want to fucking try?”

This wasn’t good.  From the moment we arrived on the scene, this suit would probably be signalling others.  We couldn’t be sure that Piggot’s order to stand down would still be in effect for the other suits, so we had to anticipate reinforcements.  Except this suit seemed to be made to be durable, to stall and wear us down.  It wouldn’t be easy to take this down in the limited time we had.

Which was it?  The Melusine?  The whatchamacallit-Nidhug hybrid?  Or was it the Azazel, presumably designed to take on the Nine, with defeating the Undersiders as a secondary design goal?

“We’ll try together,” I said.  “Regent, we need Shatterbird in here.  Imp, you’re backing us up.  Drag the injured to safety.  Did you ever take that first aid class?”

“Grue told me to, but I haven’t gotten around to it.”

I swore under my breath.

“Not totally my fault.  Things have been kind of a mess since I joined the team.  Not like there’re classes or anything.”

“There probably are.”  I watched the suit step away from the train, adjusting its shape to sort out the additional material it had absorbed into its body.

“Not like it’s easy to find classes,” she clarified.

“Just take care of anyone that gets hurt.  I don’t know how much you can do here.  I think one of Bitch’s henchmen is over there,” I said, pointing.

“Okay,” Imp retreated.

“I’m telling you,” Bitch growled the words, “Can’t fight it.  It doesn’t die.”

“We’ll try.  There’s got to be a way.  Barker, Biter, you two okay?”

“Hurt,” Biter said.

Barker nodded, “Throat’s sore.  Keep knocking it down, it keeps getting back up.”

“One or two more tries,” I said.  “We hit it with everything we’ve got.  Bitch, which dogs are least hurt?”

“Bentley and Bastard.  Had a few more I was sending in, but they’re hard enough to order around when something isn’t hurting them.”

“We’ll need their help, then.”

“Bastard’s not trained enough.”

I glanced at the wolf cub.  He was five or six times his usual size.  He’d grown rapidly in the past few weeks, but it still meant he was small.  His mutation seemed different from the other dogs.  Was there a whole other department of changes with various subcategories of the wolf breed?

The suit raised one hand, and a chain fired out, a grappling hook on the end.  We threw ourselves out of the way before it could catch any of us.

“Keeps doing that,” Barker muttered.  His voice was gravelly.  “Trying to tire us out.  Wear us down.”

“Let’s avoid giving it another chance.  Longer range powers first, everyone else close in.”

I hadn’t even finished talking before Shatterbird was hurling the glass-coated door into the suit.  She followed up with a veritable tide of glass shards, pulling them from debris and the edges of the street.  The suit staggered back, putting it closer to the train she had just harvested scrap metal from.

“Keep it away from anything metal!”  I reminded them.

Easier said than done.  The area was a fenced in yard with railroad tracks, rusted train cars and trash that ranged from sign posts to disused trash cans.  There was metal to spare.

I was limited in my options.  Bugs wouldn’t hurt this thing’s metal body.  That left me the less stellar option of fighting it like I had Mannequin.

Barker shouted three times in short succession before bidding the resulting clouds of smoke to detonate violently.  The suit shielded itself with its arms, leaving it defenseless as Bentley flanked and charged it from one side.  It sprawled, landing face down, and reached over to grab two rails from the train track.  In one motion it rose to its feet and hauled two lengths track out of the ground.  Each of the rails bent and folded as they were absorbed into the suit, churned up by grinders and more complex devices.

Bentley charged again, but the suit swung both rails simultaneously to catch the dog in mid-air and hurl him to one side.  Bentley was on his feet in a second, getting his paws under him and lunging for the suit before it could turn to face him, savaging the suit’s metal exterior with claws and teeth.

My bugs began to encircle the suit.  The silk had enough areas to catch on, and my bugs were finding openings to crawl within, but I couldn’t find much in the way of stuff to interfere with or attack.  The suit’s interior was hot, more so as my bugs drew closer to the very center, to the point that my bugs died if they got too far inside.  Everything was solidly made; wires had chain mesh protecting the insulation, pistons and valves were sealed and reinforced, with more delicate technology presumably contained within cases and covers. There was nothing for my bugs to get into.

Using silk to bind the main body wouldn’t do anything.  Spider silk had strength on par with steel, but this was an armored suit capable of tearing railroad tracks from the ground and crushing them in one hand.  A material as strong as steel wouldn’t accomplish anything against a machine that could rend metal.

I’d have to play this smarter.  I used cords of silk to seal valves shut or bind them in an open position where I could, and focused the rest of my efforts on more strategic deployments, forming cords as big around as my arm.  The suit’s arms and legs would be free to move, but my goal was more along the lines of restricting its movements.

Biter used the metal ‘bear trap’ jaw-guard in combination with his ability to distort parts of his body to large sizes, clamping down on the suit’s hand.  He had to hurl himself back and out of the way to avoid the suit’s retaliatory attack.  As he climbed to his feet, he spat out two fingers and a section of the suit’s hand.  I hurried to send my swarm after the discarded parts, using silk and the cumulative strength of the swarm to haul the bits away.

Biter hit the suit twice with enlarged hands and then backed off as Bentley hurled himself into the fray, catching hold of the suit’s other arm and hauling on it with all the strength afforded by his muscular forelimbs, neck, jaw and shoulders.  He struggled, strained, to tear the arm from its housing.

The suit fought to keep its feet beneath it, leaning hard to one side to compensate for the two-ton bulldog’s weight hanging off its arm.  It used its free, damaged hand to grab the dog by the scruff of the neck and flung it hard to one side.

Shatterbird hurled a wave of glass-encrusted debris at the suit.  Not one second after the suit was bludgeoned by the trash cans, wooden planks and pallets, a second wave caught it from behind, striking its legs out from beneath it.

Lying on its back it reached for us and fired another grappling hook.  With the speed it was moving, it looked like it could have caved in someone’s ribs, but we each managed to get out of the way.  Some of the people in Bitch’s group were moving slower, their reflexes and mobility suffering due to their fatigue.

Okay, this wasn’t easy, but it didn’t seem as impossibly hard a fight as some of the other suits, either.  It was just a question of keeping up the onslaught, keeping the suit from gathering too much metal for self-repair and hoping that the suit didn’t get any reinforcements.  With luck, the other suits would be either on standby due to Piggot’s orders or they would be occupied with Trickster, Sundancer and Grue.  Not that it would be a good thing if they were fighting, but it would at least mean we got out of here okay.

The suit struggled to its feet, using its arms to shield itself from two more shouts from Barker and a barrage from Shatterbird, then stopped short as the cord of silk I’d bound around its neck pulled taut.  The other end was wound around one of the coupling rods that stretched between the wheels of one rusted train.  I’d worried the coupling rod would come loose, but the elasticity of the silk combined with the durability and sheer thickness of it meant it didn’t snap.  The suit was pulled off-balance, giving Biter and Bentley a chance to close in, hammer it into the ground and thrash it.

I glanced at Bitch, saw her mouth set in a grim line.

The suit fought its way free, and Bitch whistled for Bentley to back up.  I could see how it was mangled, metal torn and rent.  Yes, it had displayed some self-repair technology, but every part of it was a ruined mess.  I didn’t want to underestimate Dragon’s work, but-

Hot steam hissed out from the gaps in the suit, seconds before it turned itself inside out.  The parts on the exterior folded out and were absorbed into the suit’s interior, new components emerged from within and locked into place.  They still smoked from the heat of being forged and reforged in the heart of the machine.

The suit’s joints shifted position as it settled into a quadruped stance.

I recognized it, now.  It didn’t have missile launchers, and it was a fraction smaller than it had been, but it was the same suit Dragon had used when I’d first seen her.  The suit she’d used against Leviathan.  That suit had also peeled apart to reveal a lesser suit beneath.  Presumably it had possessed the same self repair capability and the ability to do what this suit had done, but hadn’t had the chance.  Except I wasn’t even sure how to define or process what I’d just seen.  It was such an overhaul that I was left grasping for a word to explain it.  Reincarnation?

It was easy enough to picture.  Any time the suit took enough damage, it reforged itself into a different shape with the reserve components deep inside its body, or it shed its outer layer, ensuring that it was always in pristine fighting condition.  Give it an opportunity and it harvested metal for raw materials, and it would keep going until its battery ran out.

With the kind of stuff a tinker like Dragon could make, cold fusion reactors and self-sustaining energy sources, that battery could have one hell of a long life.

Either way, it wasn’t a new model.  That meant it wasn’t the Azazel suit Piggot had told us about.

“You could have explained,” I said.

“I did,” Bitch answered, glowering at the smoking suit.  “I said it won’t fucking go down.”

“You could have explained why.”

“I don’t understand why!”

The reforging process had killed every bug I had on the thing, and it had burned through the silk cord I’d leashed it with.  I was left wondering what the black market price would be for something like Armsmaster’s EMP device.  Something that would serve as a get-out-of-a-fight-with-a-tinker-card.

Tinkers had so many options that they brought to the table, a crazy synergy with any teammates, and an ability to customize their approach to counter specific threats or individuals.  I, on the other hand, was pretty screwed if I went up against anyone with flame powers, cold powers, electricity powers, enough durability to shrug off my bugs or a way to clear out large numbers of bugs at once.  I’d managed thus far by thinking on my feet, but it sort of pissed me off that tinkers existed as the antithesis of that.

Yes, I was aware that tinkers had to put in hours upon hours of work, and that I only ever really experienced the end results of that investment.  I didn’t care.  Whether they had vat grown monsters, clockwork lairs, impenetrable suits of armor, jetpacks and exploding guitars or programs to tell them how to win a fight, tinkers were a fucking pain in the ass.

“New plan,” I announced.  “We hit it hard enough to slow it down and then we scram.”

“You want to run?” Bitch asked.

“We don’t have a choice.”

“We do,” she said, still glowering at the suit.  “We gotta kill this thing sometime anyways, so you come up with a plan like you usually do, we’ll make it happen, and I won’t have to give up territory to this armor asshole.”

I stared at her, trying and failing to process how she was looking at the situation.  Then it dawned on me.  This was why Dragon and Armsmaster had pit this suit against her.  It wasn’t that it countered her power, exactly.  It was that it was set up to work against her stubborn nature.  With the way her mind worked, she couldn’t back down from a fight she subconsciously felt like she was winning.  It didn’t matter that we were losing in the long run, she was focused on the fact that we could do damage, and walking away would be a forfeit.

Barker was screaming a long series of invectives at the suit, detonating them.  With four legs solidly on the ground, it wasn’t budging, and Barker’s shouts weren’t doing much to the armor.

“Look at it this way,” I said, trying to stay calm,  “We just defeated it.  Heck, every time you’ve forced it to change like that, that’s been a win for you.  How many times was that?”

“Four.”

“Four times, you’ve kicked its ass.  If you walk away, that’s five wins total and one loss, if you can even call that a loss.  But we can’t afford to stay much longer, or one of your dogs is bound to get hurt.”

As if to give evidence to my statement, Bentley howled as he grappled with the suit, trying to tear into its neck while the suit attempted to wrestle him down to the ground.  Biter leaped onto the machine’s back, his hands with the spiked knuckles worked into the gloves growing larger so he could tear the armor plates away.  Bentley joined in, setting his teeth at the lower part of the armored suit’s ‘spine’, for lack of a better word.

Her eyes narrowed.  “We run?”

“We have to stop it from following first.  One more time, guys!  Regent, stand ready!  We need as much glass as you can spare!”

The suit turned our way.  Three masters, standing in the back lines while we sent our bugs, dogs and lunatic supervillain thrall into the fray.

It began to glow, steaming, and Biter virtually yelped as he threw himself off of its back.  Bentley was slower to react, but he fell back, shaking his head violently as flesh sizzled around his muzzle.

We backed up a few paces as it advanced one step.  It whipped its head up until it almost pointed to the sky, then opened its mouth.  Blue flame streamed over our heads to pool behind us, cutting off our retreat.  We had to scramble for cover before any droplets or sparks landed on us.  I wasn’t sure if it was flame at a temperature I wasn’t used to seeing, if it was a liquid accellerant that just happened to be on fire or if it was plasma, but I didn’t want to touch it and find out the particulars.

All of us, dogs, Barker and Biter included, headed inside a building to seek further cover.  The structure rumbled as the suit climbed the side and settled on the roof.  The A.I.s liked high places, it seemed.

“Need to hit it hard,” I said, my voice pitched low so the suit wouldn’t overhear.  “One good hit.”

“We don’t have one good hitter,” Imp said.  I turned my head to see her crouching by the vet and one wounded dog.  “Maybe Shatterbird, but everyone else is about a lot of littler hits.”

“We need one good hit from someone who isn’t Shatterbird,” I clarified.

“Can’t,” Biter said.  “Limit to how big I can grow myself before I do permanent damage.”

“Define permanent damage.”

“Stretch marks, scarring, permanent aches and pains.  I have some in my midsection, all day, every day, it hurts.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Barker?”

“I can’t hurt the fucker.”

“You screamed something like three times, then detonated that smoke you make whenever you make noise.  Can you do it more?  More shouts, louder?”

“At my limit.  Probably not.”

“Bentley’s hurt,” I said, “What about Bastard?”

“He’ll probably listen to me, but he might attack anyone else.  He’s too dangerous when big.”

“And that suit’s dangerous too.  In case you haven’t noticed, it’s either trying to beat us to a pulp so it can drag us into custody or it’s going to burn us alive.  We have to use one of your dogs, and Bastard’s in the best shape.  We have to use him.”

Bitch frowned, “How?”

I told her.  “You’ve taught him to fetch?”

She nodded.

“Fetch something big, then,” I said.  “Wait until my signal, hit him as hard as you can. Everyone else, let’s run for it.”

I could see Bitch tense.  Her henchwoman, the vet, stood and nervously circled around the edge of the room to join us, giving Bitch a bit of space.

“You’re leaving me behind.”

“We’re counting on you,” I said.  “Wait for my signal, then come with Bastard.  More damage you can do, the better.”

All together, we bolted, Bentley following immediately behind us.  I could feel the Dragon suit reorienting to face us, felt it angle its head before it spewed another stream of liquid fire.

In a residential area?  This wasn’t an occupied area, but… well, the suit might know that.  It might be another reason it was deployed here.

“Hard right!”  I shouted.  We turned to head for a nearby alleyway before the liquid fire even touched ground.

The suit leaped, and I grabbed Imp’s wrist, hauling her out of the way.  It landed a short distance from us, then barreled through our group, sending Biter, Barker and the vet-in-training sprawling.

Controlled movements.  Everything it’s doing, it’s all calculated.  Even the more dangerous attacks were geared to hold back just enough to hurt, not to kill.  Even the hurt was fairly minimal.  If Biter had still been on the suit’s back when it turned red-hot, I was willing to bet it would have shaken him off to avoid giving him terminal burns.  There had to be something about that I could use.  Trouble was, I wasn’t sure when or where the suits drew the line.  I couldn’t trust that they’d follow the rules enough that I could offer my own life in the bargain, much less anyone else’s.

I signaled Bitch, and she was out of the building in a second.  Bastard was as large as I’d ever seen him, and there was something about his appearance… he looked less wrong than the others.  The spikes and ridges of bone that lined his body weren’t asymmetrical, and there seemed to be more art to the design.  Drool flew out of the corners of his mouth as he bounded forward, fangs clamped around a wooden post.

The suit was halfway through turning around to face them when Bastard drove the end of the post into its stomach.  It skidded, sparks flying as its claws dug into the pavement for traction.

“Pull it free!”  I shouted.  I didn’t wait for her to follow through before calling out the next order, “Regent, fill the hole!”

Bitch hauled on Bastard’s chain and he followed the direction, pulling back, the post still clamped in his mouth.  When it came loose, it revealed a rent in the armor’s side, far less empty space than I’d hoped, and a dislodged joint where the leg met the pelvis.

Shatterbird called forth a stream of glass, shoving it into the hole.  I didn’t need to give the next order.  I realized she was using her power more through my bugs than any other sign, the telltale high-pitched noise that was above my human limits.  A second later, the suit’s rear legs lost their traction on the ground.  Its lower body collapsed.

The suit began struggling for footing.  It was still operational.  I swore under my breath, still backing away.

Shatterbird moved one arm, and the suit slid a few feet in that direction.  She had a hold on the glass.  More forcefully, she pushed it into the nearest building, then dragged it across the alleyway to slam it into the opposite wall.

She repeated the process two more times before the suit tried a counterplan.  It began to reshape itself, glass shards pouring out of the openings as pieces slid in and out.  A third form, something airborne.

Shatterbird slammed it into a wall before it was done reshaping.  The fallen glass shards levitated into the air to find new nooks and crannies to slide into.

The suit was hot, naturally heating up as part of the reincarnation or reformation process.  I watched as glass melted, running into holes and slats in the armor.

Shatterbird pushed again.  The suit barely moved.  She wasn’t so adept at moving molten silicon.

We continued backing down the alley.  The suit raised its head, preparing to cut off our retreat with another pool of flame.

In her second jousting run, Bitch lanced the thing through the base of the neck.  Fire spilled down around it, setting the post aflame, and the attack was stalled.

She wheeled Bastard around and shouted, “That’s six fucking wins to one!  Go!”

We ran.  I maneuvered my swarm behind me to watch for its approach, felt it step forward and then collapse, its legs giving way.

Even the forelegs?  Okay, that was interesting.

The glass.  It had melted, and it was cooling in the lower recesses, farthest from the body’s core.

I could have told Bitch she’d beat the suit, that we might have defeated it a hundred percent, but I kept my mouth shut.  Didn’t need her acting on what might be a false assumption.  If it freed itself, found a way of reconfiguring where all of the glass-affected areas were contained, or if it simply abandoned its legs in favor of a smaller form… too many possibilities.  Better to leave it and cross our fingers.

Damn tinkers.  What the hell was Dragon’s specialty?  The ability to make stuff without half the time other tinkers would need?  So many different suits, so many different projects and tasks, and it rarely interconnected, if ever.

We ran two or three blocks before we had to stop.  Shatterbird sent glass shards into a nearby door, then tugged it free.  A sled for Regent and Imp.

With some coaxing, I got the vet-trainee to climb onto Bentley’s back.  The other henchman, the guy, climbed up behind me.  Barker approached Bastard, and received a mean growl in response.  We searched for an option for Barker and Biter before Regent and Shatterbird offered another door.

We made good time on our way to Ballistic’s lair.  We’d planned to arrive by dusk, but the sun wasn’t even setting.

The others weren’t there.  We double checked, then mobilized to find them, spreading out.  With reluctance, I drew my relay bugs from the interior of my shoulderpad.  I felt a twinge of disappointment as I handled them, gently passing them on to dragonflies that could carry them.  They were dying.

Panacea hadn’t given the relay bugs a digestive system, and in my haste to save Atlas from a slow death by starvation, I’d neglected to pay attention to them.  It wouldn’t have mattered anyways, probably, because Grue had only had so much time to work with.

The dragonflies sent my relay bugs out so I could keep in touch with the others as we searched for Grue, Trickster, Sundancer and Ballistic.  Bugs were tough, natural survivors.  I knew that cockroaches could survive lengthy periods of time without heads, that other bugs could be frozen solid and thawed and be little worse for wear.  They subsisted on relatively little food considering their body size, and the relay bugs had held on this long with an inability to eat at all.  Their physiology wasn’t quite the mess that Atlas’s was, and they retained some basic hibernation instincts, defaulting to a near-immobile state.  It was a struggle to even get them to extend my power’s range for me.

I found the next dragon suit before I found the others, and I immediately knew it for what it was.  It had to be Azazel.

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Monarch 16.2

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“We’re not going to be able to take on Dragon without a plan,” Grue said, “A damn good one.”

“You taking point on this?” Trickster asked.  He stepped forward to unlock the gate and held it open for us.

I knew Grue well enough that I noticed the delay before he responded. “I don’t have a plan, but I’ll take lead if we need it.”

Was he hesitating?  We hadn’t really asked a lot of Grue since he’d been taken by the Nine.  Lisa had expressed concerns that he might be shaky if we put him under the pressures a leader had to handle, and the others had apparently agreed.  They’d talked about nominating me.

I wasn’t sure I was up for the role, but I was even less sure about having Grue calling the shots when he might shut down or get distracted at a crucial moment.  I didn’t know what form his trauma might take in this kind of situation.  Our side consisted of Trickster and Sundancer from the Travelers, with Regent, Shatterbird, maybe Victor, Grue, Imp and me. Grue’s own self-preservation or his feelings for Imp and me could cause him to play it too safe when we needed to make a decisive strike.

“Actually-” I started to interject, but the words disappeared the second everyone turned my way.  Grue’s attention, in particular, was making it hard to be confident.  I didn’t want to hurt him, and trying to figure out how to phrase things without hurting his feelings, raising a sensitive subject and actually saying what I wanted to say…

We’d stepped outside.  The half-finished building that loomed over the entrance to Coil’s underground base sheltered us, allowing intermittent sunlight through where plywood hadn’t yet been erected to fill the gaps.  Patches of bright and dark.  I turned and looked at Grue, trying to read him, to see if there was some clue about what he’d say.

Regent spoke up, “Spit it out.  Actually what?”

“Can I?”  I asked.  “Can I take point here?”

When in doubt, keep it simple.

“You have a plan?” Trickster asked.

“Maybe.  No, plan is the wrong word.  Call it a strategy.”  I was studying our group, assessing the tools we had at our disposal.  “But it’s becoming a plan as I think about it, and I think Imp plays the key role here.”

“Fuck yeah!”

Imp?” Trickster asked.  “Dragon can see her, can’t she?  She’s the most useless person here.  I mean, I know I’m not in any shape to fight, but at least my power does something.”

“Fuck you,” Imp snarled.

“No,” I said.  “We can definitely use her.”

“Let’s hear the plan,” Grue said.  I was relieved that there was no anger or irritation in his voice, nothing to indicate he was upset over my co-opting the leadership role.

“The first priority will be making sure Bitch, Genesis and Ballistic are okay.  I’m thinking the easiest way to do that will be to pay the heroes a visit at the PRT headquarters.”

“Dangerous,” Grue said.

“And it’s something Dragon will anticipate, I think,” I said.  “It’s a safe bet to say she’s smart, even if the actual machines aren’t getting her full attention or if they’re dumber because their artificial intelligences don’t function at the same level as an actual human brain.  She’s still organizing the suits, and she’s going to be able to anticipate that we might go for the most vulnerable elements of their operation, the local heroes.”

“You’re thinking we go after them?”

“We have to.  The individual suits are going to be tough to take down, if not outright impossible.  We can take down the local heroes and get leverage, information, or at least stop them from interfering when we go up against one or more of Dragon’s suits.”

“Makes sense,” Trickster said.  “Unless we’re putting ourselves in that worst-case scenario where we’re dealing with multiple suits plus the local heroes.”

“It’s possible.  Even here, I’m willing to bet my left hand that there’s going to be a Dragon suit parked on the roof of that building, or somewhere near by.”

“And you’re thinking we use Imp?”  Grue asked.

I nodded.  “We can leave her there as a saboteur, maybe, or just have her in place to get information or methodically take threats out of action.  But it won’t be that simple.  They’ll have security cameras throughout the building.  Which means we need to take them out if she’s going to walk around without a problem.  Regent, can Shatterbird kill all the cameras and lights in the building without killing anyone?  Nothing explosive.”

“A gentle break?  I’d have to be close.  Closer if I don’t know where it is.”

“And by ‘I’ you mean Shatterbird?” Grue asked.

“Yeah.  I can’t get that far from her though.”

“I can probably find the location to target with my bugs.  But getting Shatterbird in close means we need a distraction.  So this is a two-pronged plan.”

“The problem with that,” Grue said, “Is this is also a plan with a lot of steps, each dependent on the success of the step before it, as well as the success of the second ‘prong’.  If we fuck up or run into a snag somewhere along the line, it falls apart.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “And we’re going to be outnumbered and outgunned, even if we don’t count the squads of PRT uniforms that are going to be stationed in there.  But I think we can use that to our advantage.”

“Disguises?” Sundancer asked.

“No.  Not disguises.  Let’s hurry.  We’re working with a hard time limit, we have to travel on foot, and we’re going to be forced to stay out of the open as we travel.”

Grue filled the area with darkness as we approached, and then cleared enough away for us to talk.  With luck, it would help keep them from detecting us with any of the countless tools tinkers like Dragon, Chariot or Kid Win had at their disposal.  Radar, thermal imaging, stuff I’d never even heard of.

They had modified the PRT building since our last visit.  The windows had been destroyed when Shatterbird had attacked the city, and were now filled with screens and plywood.  PRT uniforms stood on the rooftop, observing the surrounding area.  Trucks ringed the area, each with police officers, detectives in bulletproof vests and more PRT uniforms standing nearby.

One of Dragon’s suits was perched on the rooftop of the tallest building in the area.  The legs were long enough that the knees rose above the body, ending in four sharp points, and wing panels seemed to join each of the legs, like the flaps of skin between the legs of a flying squirrel.  The actual body was low to the ground, with a long tail that had entwined from a point at the back of the rooftop to the front, caressing the corner closest to me.  The head swiveled slowly from side to side, scanning for threats.

It wasn’t the drone ship.  Good.  That would have been disastrous.  But I didn’t know what this suit did.  The feature that caught my eye was the wheel.  As big around as the suit was long, the spoked wheel ran through the shoulders of the suit, jutting straight up.  It rotated slowly, arcs of electricity occasionally flashing between the center and the edges, killing any bugs that settled on the spokes and leaving a heavy scent of ozone in their wake.

I described the general shape for them.

“Anyone recognize what Skitter’s describing?” Grue asked.

“That’s not the one that came after me,” Sundancer said.

“It’s in my territory,” Trickster said.  “Maybe she picked it to come after me?”

“How do you counter a teleporter?”  I asked.

“With that thing, apparently,” Regent commented.  “So we’re dividing our group?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m tracking you guys with my bugs.  Take your time getting into position.  Better to take a bit longer than to alert them too early.  Grue’s with me.  Trickster, Imp and Sundancer stay here, keep out of sight at all costs.  Regent and Shatterbird, you stay here in the darkness for cover until we make a move, then head out and circle around.  When we’re all in place, I’ll let you know.”

Grue and I headed out, navigating through back alleys and side streets, detouring far enough away that the curve of the road kept us out of sight of the officers stationed by the intersection, with my swarm to check for any bystanders and Grue’s darkness to keep us off the armored mech’s radar.  I used my bugs to start tracking the people inside the headquarters.

Heat and humidity were my allies here.  The main floors had open areas with desks and areas with blocks of cubicles, packed with officers working elbow to elbow.  They’d worked long days, judging by the heavy taste of the sweat on their skin, and they’d let food pile up. With the general warmth of summer, bugs were secretly thriving.  Some vegetable mush had leaked from the trash can to the bottom of a bin, maybe spaghetti or some pizza sauce, and maggots were happily devouring a meal there.  Small flies had amassed where the trash hadn’t been promptly cleared away, and piles of paper offered a home to the enterprising spiders that wanted to devour this growing population of pests.

I’d worried I wouldn’t be able to get my bugs on everyone present without alerting them.  It wasn’t a problem in the end.  A small number of maggots could be delivered by a fly, dropped into the midst of an officer’s shoelaces, the pocket of their pants or the holster of their gun.  From there, it was easy enough to keep track of where they were moving and what they were doing.  Counting the bodies, checking the various people inside, I could tell that Bitch, Genesis and Ballistic weren’t present.  Nobody matched their build or style of dress, in costume or out.

On the third floor the three local members of the Protectorate were in the company of the Wards, a pair of PRT uniforms and the woman I took to be the Director.  Triumph seemed to be okay, I could sense the general shape of Miss Militia, as well as Assault.  I didn’t spot Prism, Cache or Ursa Aurora.  That was good.

All of the Wards were present, too:  Weld, Clockblocker, Flechette, Kid Win, Vista, and Chariot.

We had two big guns.  If we were willing to be monsters, to go all out, it would be a fairly simple matter to hit them with Shatterbird to slow them down, use Sundancer’s sun at maximum power, tear the building apart and incinerate the residents before everyone could clear out.  It wouldn’t even be hard.

But what was the point if we went that far?  I was in this to save Dinah.  It didn’t do any good if I ruined the lives of a hundred Dinahs in the process – the daughters and sisters of the employees here, fathers, mothers and other people who did nothing to get caught up in this war.

“This spot good?” Grue asked, stopping.

I looked around.  We didn’t have a view of the building, but we did have a view of Trickster.  Which is what we needed.

“It’s good.  One minute while I fill them in.”

“Feel confident?”

“Wish I had time to practice this before trying it in the field,” I replied.

“Yeah,” he answered.

I used my bugs to spell out the various information they needed.  The presence and location of the armored suit, the general number and location of the enemy forces and the floors they were currently on.  It took me a few minutes to spell everything out and verify that they understood.

The plan called for a distraction.  Sundancer would take the lead on that.  I signaled the go-ahead, and she created her orb, shoving it down through the road’s surface.  However many thousands of degrees it was, it melted through pavement and bored into whatever pipes and drainage spaces were beneath the roads.

When it rose through an intersection some distance away, it was significantly larger.  Sundancer began bringing it steadily towards the headquarters, moving in towards the opposite face of the building that Grue and I were closest to.

The Protectorate headed to the windows to see what was happening.  I highlighted the window frame with my bugs, clustering them so a general rectangle surrounded the area.  Did Trickster have the ability to see them through the window?  It was hard to calculate the angles-

I found myself in the midst of the local heroes.  Bugs exploded out from within my costume, covering them.  Capsaicin-laced bugs found every uncovered eye, mouth and nose before they realized what had just happened.  My bugs could sense Triumph bending his knees to lunge for me-

And I’d shifted a few feet to the right.  Even as my orientation and senses were thrown by the sudden movement, my bugs let me figure out where I’d moved a fraction of a second before the enemy did.  I was already reaching for my baton, whipping it out to its full length.

Trickster switched me again before I could strike Miss Militia with my combat stick.  Vista was in front of me, and without really thinking about it, I struck her in the most vulnerable area I could reach, across the bridge of her nose, swatting her in the ear with a stroke in the opposite direction.

Another swap, not a half-second later.  We were counting on my swarm-sense giving me the edge in this chaos, the close proximity and unclear positioning of their allies would keep them from hitting me with the worst of their powers.  I caught Miss Militia in the midsection with my baton, swung overhead to try to catch her hand, but missed when Trickster teleported me again.

Assault kicked me before I could recover and strike my next target.  The hit didn’t feel that hard, but it sent me sliding across the floor, into a trio of chairs with plastic seats.

“The window!” Miss Militia choked out the orders through the pain of the capsaicin and the massed bugs.  “Block Trickster!”

I climbed to my feet.  I’d waited too long to signal for an exit.  The plan had been to bring Grue in as I wrapped up my initial attack, let him use his darkness to disable, steal whatever power would serve best and dispatch the enemy.  They’d caught on to what we were doing, and they were making their counter-move.  If Trickster couldn’t see me, he couldn’t swap me with anyone, meaning I was on my own.

My opponents were suffering, though.  Clockblocker was gone, teleported out as I’d teleported in.  Miss Militia, Vista, Flechette, Triumph, Chariot and Kid Win were down, more or less out of commission with their eyes swollen shut and the bugs crawling into their ears and airways.  At Miss Militia’s instruction, they had backed up to the window, blocking Trickster’s view.

Besides bringing Grue in, the plan had been for Trickster to swap the heroes out as he spotted them, using bystanders or any officers in the area.  Right this moment, he should have eyes on the uniforms on the roof, could switch their locations with that of the heroes, but he wasn’t.  Maybe he felt it was more dangerous for me to be up against a cop with a gun or a PRT uniform with containment foam than against heroes we’d already disabled.

Or maybe he was fucking me over on purpose.  No, it didn’t make sense.  He had his teammates to rescue.  I was still suffering latent paranoia from Coil’s ‘test’.

Still, the other heroes were more or less incapacitated.  That left me to deal with Weld, Assault, the two PRT officers and the Director.  She was an obese woman, two-hundred and fifty pounds at a minimum, with an unflattering, old-fashioned haircut that might have looked good on a model with the right clothes to go with it.  Neither Weld nor Assault were advancing, choosing to block my access to the exits.  The area was some kind of office, filled with desks, chairs, cubicles and computers.  More like an office building than I’d expected from a law enforcement facility.

“This-” the Director started, stopping to cough and gag as one of the capsaicin bugs found the inside of her mouth.  It had already smeared its payload along the inside of Vista’s nostril, so the payload wouldn’t be that intense.  “This was a mistake.”

“If it wasn’t a little reckless, Dragon would have probably anticipated it.”

“You’ve trapped yourself in here.  Two other Dragon models are already on the way.”

Fuck.

“Good,” I told her.  I was pretty sure I managed to hide the fact that I was lying through my teeth.

She straightened, pressing one hand to her right eye.  “Is this Tattletale’s plan?”

“Mine.”

“I see, and-”

I didn’t hear the rest.  Behind my back, Assault moved to kick one of the desks.  It went flying into the air in the same instant I threw myself to the ground.  I could feel the rush of wind as it passed over me, hurtling into a cubicle.  I scrambled for cover.

“Prescience.  Interesting,” the Director called out, as I ducked low and used the cubicles to hide.  “We assigned you a thinker-one classification, but perhaps we fell short.”

“I really don’t care.”  I used my bugs to speak, so they couldn’t use my voice to pinpoint my location.  She was trying to distract me so the others could act, or buying the Dragon suits time to arrive.  I was calling in more bugs to the area and slowly gathering them around myself, now that I didn’t need to worry about people spotting them.

“You can see through their eyes, hear what they hear?  Can you see the suit that was outside?”

The armored mech was moving, its limbs outstretched to catch the air with the flying-squirrel wing flaps.  Panels around its body were venting out hot air and giving it lift, and the giant wheel was tilted back at a forty-five degree angle.  The suit was clearly designed to fly forward, relying on the wing flaps to make intricate and acrobatic twists and turns in the air.  Sundancer’s miniature sun was blocking the suit’s progress, forcing it to make lengthy detours and twist in the air, stalling and dropping several feet before it could catch the air beneath it again.  More than once, it lost more ground than it gained while retreating from the burning orb.

“Yeah.  It’s handled,” I called out, from behind the desk.  My swarm felt the Director make a hand motion, apparently to signal Weld.  As he began advancing towards me, I stayed low and retreated into a cubicle.

The Director spoke, “More will come.  Not just the seven suits that are currently in Brockton Bay.  So long as you hold this city, Dragon will bring in more suits on a weekly basis.  Dragon will shore up weaknesses, augment strengths.  If you’re lucky here, you might win.  I’ll credit you that.  But you won’t get two or three days of rest before you have to fight again.  How many times can you abandon your territory before your followers abandon you?”

The swarm’s buzz helped mask the location of my voice.  “How many times can you afford to let the crooks clean up your messes before the public realizes your Protectorate is little more than good PR, fancy talk and wasted tax dollars?”

“We’re doing more than you think,” she responded.

“And less than the people need.  I’m filling a void you people left behind.  If you were doing a satisfactory job, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing.”

Come on, come on.

“Don’t act stupider than you are, Skitter.  The city can’t step in to help the people in your territories because we can’t trust you.  Your Bitch is already mauling anyone that sets foot in her territory.  Any electrician, carpenter or doctor that we send into your territory might come back to us dying from anaphylactic shock.”

I shut my mouth.  I didn’t have a response to that.  At least, I didn’t have a response which wasn’t a mere, I promise I’ll be good.

It wasn’t worth worrying about, because I didn’t get the chance to reply anyways.  There was a crashing sound and the lights cracked.  Fragments and splinters of glass showered down on top of us as everything suddenly went dark.  To take maximum advantage of this shift in circumstance, I complemented the effect by moving the bugs I’d gathered just outside the windows, blocking the meagre light that was filtering through the screens and plunging the entire room into a dimly lit twilight.

I drew my knife and bolted.  Glass crunched underfoot and caused my feet to slip under me as I ran.  Assault charged my way, one arm still covering his mouth.  More bugs covered the lenses of his mask, but they slid off him as if he were oiled.  His power at work.

With the bugs around me, I pulled a quick, crude decoy together, running in one direction as my bugs moved in another, slightly closer to him.  In the dim, his mask partially covered, he went after the decoy.  When his hand passed through, he reached just a little further to grab a desk and heave it my way.

Once again, I only barely managed to dodge by throwing myself to one side.  My landing was hard, undignified, and ended with the armor of my mask and shoulder hitting the corner where two walls met.

“What are you hoping to accomplish?” the Director called out.

I stood, trying to look as if I was considering my answer.  Weld was approaching, and Assault stood ready to attack.  Not like he had anything to lose – I was cornered, quite literally.

I turned the knife around in my hand so the blade pointed down and slashed to my right, cutting the bug-covered screen with a loose ‘x’.  Assault lunged for me, crossing half the room with a single leap.  He was too late – I let myself fall through the third story window.

The outdoors were startlingly bright after the gloom of the building’s interior.  I felt my hair whip around me for one second, then landed, sprawling, in a dim setting.

I hadn’t fallen the full distance.  I was inside again, surrounded by the other heroes.  I had only a second before they realized what I’d done.  I turned and slashed the screen behind me, throwing myself from the window a second time.

Again, Trickster swapped me with one of the heroes.  I landed with my feet skidding on the floor beneath me and caught the windowsill for balance.  I waved: my signal.

“Get away from the window!”  Assault bellowed.

Then I was teleported yet again.  I found myself back in the alleyway I’d been in with Grue.  Clockblocker was facing away from me, Grue was gone.

A quick check showed he wasn’t moving.  Grue had caught him off guard, and his initiative had beat out Clockblocker’s concern about potentially disabling an ally.  Clockblocker was frozen by his own borrowed power.  Perfect.

I reached behind my back and unspooled the length of thread.  My bugs took hold of it at various points along its length and began traveling across Clockblocker’s body, winding the silk cord around him and tying it in knots.

With luck he wouldn’t be a threat even after he got loose.

I reached out with my power to assess the general situation. Grue’s darkness surrounded the area, keeping the officers and PRT uniforms at the blockades from opening fire.

The mechanical suit that had been perched on the rooftop nearby was on the ground now, fighting Sundancer, Shatterbird and Grue, the latter two of which were out in the open.

The plan was to avoid leaving cover, I thought.

The wheel on the back of Dragon’s machine was already spinning at full speed.  I could make out a red eye in the center, identical to the ones that had been on the drone.  The suit thrust itself forward with the vents around its body, lunging for Grue, and Trickster swapped Grue’s location with a PRT uniform, putting Grue on the rooftop.  It avoided hitting the man by dragging its two left claws in the pavement, lifting its tail so it wouldn’t swing around and strike him.

The wheel blazed with a wreath of electricity, the entire suit thrumming with enough charge to kill every bug touching it.  Without warning, the wheel flared and Grue was yanked over the edge of the rooftop by an invisible force.  Trickster caught Grue, swapping him for the same officer before he was halfway to the ground.

This is Dragon’s counter to a teleporter?  I would have called it a magnet, but Grue wasn’t carrying or wearing anything substantial with metal on it.  Or was this the suit Dragon had deployed against Genesis, Ballistic or Bitch?

Maybe I was missing something.

I used my swarm to keep the windows blocked and the people inside under assault, just enough that they couldn’t recover and complicate an already dangerous situation.  I tried to position the bugs I could spare so they hovered around the sensors and the ‘eye’ of the wheel.  Shatterbird was pelting it with a stream of glass shards that looped back in her general direction to rejoin the stream and strike over and over again.

It didn’t work.  The thing targeted Grue again and hauled him a hundred feet towards it.  Still crackling with electricity from its nose to the tip of its tail, it advanced on him, tail stretching forward to reach for him.

The machine suddenly shifted position and powered its thrusters to lunge away.  Sundancer’s orb erupted from the ground just behind the spot the suit had been standing.  I could see Grue raising his hands to shield his face from the waves of heated air as he scrambled to his feet and ran.

The first of the reinforcements arrived.  I recognized it as the suit that had been deployed against Leviathan.  The same one that had gone after Tattletale, unless she had more than one.  This one had the foam sprayer.  It set down on the edge of the battlefield opposite the wheel-dragon.

We took too long.  Or the suits had arrived too soon.  There wasn’t really a difference.  The wheel-dragon must have pulled Grue from cover and forced Shatterbird to step up to help, and my own invasion of the main building had taken just a little too long, giving Assault a chance to get his bearings and hit me.

My swarm informed me in advance of the second of the suits that were arriving on scene.  The wheel-dragon thrust itself forward, skimming the road’s surface to put itself next to the PRT headquarters.  The drone-deployment suit set down on top of a nearby building so they were spaced out evenly.

They had Grue and Shatterbird surrounded.  I stood off to one side, between the drone-deployer and the foam-sprayer, still too close for comfort but they didn’t seem to have noticed me.

I glanced towards the building where Trickster and Sundancer were holed up.  Sundancer wasn’t moving her sun, and Trickster was apparently unable to see a valid target to swap Grue for.  The officers and PRT uniforms had been disabled while I was indoors, and both Kid Win and Miss Militia lay at the base of the building.

I used my bugs to write him out an order: ‘swap me for sun, swap me for kid’.

A long second passed.  Was Trickster illiterate?  Why was it so hard for him to notice the key info I was trying to write down-

I found myself surrounded by darkness.  Only a slit of light filtered into the room through the plywood.  Trickster stood beside me, and the words I’d written out with bugs were on the plywood.  He’d swapped me for Sundancer.

“You sure?”  He asked.  He’d gathered what I was hoping to do.

“Yeah,” I said.  I pressed my knife into his hand.

He moved me in an instant, putting me at the base of the headquarters, facing a wall.  As I turned around, the three suits shifted position to look my way.

Trickster stepped out of the building, the tip of my knife pressed to the point where Kid Win’s chin joined his neck.

We could have used Sundancer’s sun to threaten the people inside the building and get the suits to back off, but I didn’t trust her to be mean enough.  I didn’t have much respect for Trickster as a human being, but that was an advantage when we needed someone to be more vicious.

The suits stood down.  I could see the wheel spin to a stop, the drones returning to dock.

Right.  Dragon wouldn’t risk a human life.  She’d discarded her suit rather than let an established criminal die.  She wouldn’t let a young hero die for the sake of getting us into custody.

“Let’s go!” Trickster called.

I hurried to cross the area between the three Dragon-suits, Grue joining me halfway.  Trickster backed up with a barely conscious Kid Win in his grip.

We’d nearly reached safety when one suit shuddered to life.  Trickster spun around, still holding Kid Win, turning his attention to the wheel-dragon.  The wheel was moving again. “No funny business!”

It wasn’t the wheel-dragon that attacked.  Before I could open my mouth to warn Trickster, the suit with the containment foam sprayed him, swamping him from behind.  The weight and force of the spray knocked his knife-hand away from Kid Win, and the swelling, gummy mess kept it away.  The sprayer proceeded to slowly bury the two of them, trapping hostage and hostage-taker together.

“Swap for Miss Militia!”  Grue shouted, turning around as the drones began deploying once again.  The wheel was getting up to speed, crackling with electricity.

“Can’t- Can’t turn my head to get a look at her!”  The foam was spraying him from behind.  If he turned his head, he’d be blinded.

And we weren’t in a position to grab her and haul her into Trickster’s field of view.  It would take too long.  Drones were sweeping down onto the street level, moving into position so they hovered above Grue and I.  I waited for the electrical charge to hit.

It didn’t.

The drone tapped my head as it descended.  I stepped back and let it descend slowly to the ground.

The foam sprayer had stopped.  Trickster was buried up to his waist, Kid Win face down in the foam in front of him.  The wheel was spinning down for the second time in the span of twenty seconds.

Trickster swapped himself for Kid Win, putting himself knee-deep in the foam.  He craned his head around and managed to get Miss Militia in his sight, then swapped for her.

We ran, following after the others, who’d already left the battlefield.

“Why did they stop?” Grue asked.

I shook my head.  “Tattletale?”

I kept waiting for the suits to perk up and give chase, or for further reinforcements to appear.  There was no pursuit.  Fifteen minutes passed before we had to stop, settling in an abandoned building to hide and catch our breath.

I sorted out my weapons, taking my knife back from Trickster, and sat down to rest.  I ran my fingers through my hair to get it in a semblance of order.

My fingers snagged on something.  For a second, I thought maybe I’d gotten some containment foam in it.

No.  My hair was tied around a piece of paper.  I had to use my bugs to untie it.

I recognized the lettering.  A series of symbols that all strung together so it was hard to tell where one began and one ended.  I’d designed it, when I was making up the code to keep my superhero notes private.

I’d left myself a message?  When?

“I gave myself a reminder, telling me to take our group to the south end of the main beach,” I said.

“The fuck?” Regent asked.

“I dunno,” I said.  “But we didn’t get the hostage we’d planned on taking, so I think we should go, if nobody else has a better idea.”

It took some time to get there, sticking to back alleys and roads, and it took more time to verify that there were no threats in the area.

As confusing as the message was, everything made sense when Imp made her presence known, dropping the veil of her power’s effect.

Right.  I’d had her tie the note into my hair so it wouldn’t confuse or distract me while I was in the field, something I’d only notice after the fact.

She was practically bouncing with excitement.

“Saved your asses,” she said.

“And she’s never going to let us forget,” Regent commented.

“You got out okay?” Grue asked.

“I marched the fatty out of the building as soon as I’d made sure the robots weren’t going to attack again.  Grabbed the keys from a cop and drove off.  No way you can say I’m useless again, Tricksy.”

Trickster looked at her ‘guest’.  “I won’t.”

Director Piggot, the fat woman, was handcuffed and kneeling beside Imp, head hanging.

“Well,” I said, “Could have gone better, but we got what we needed.  You had her order them to shut down, right?”

“Yup.”

“Dragon must have given the Director the ability to command the suits.  Wouldn’t have guessed,” Grue said.

I nodded in agreement.  “It’s a matter of time before they arrange some workaround, take away the Director’s access or Dragon reprograms the suits, but this is good.  We’ve got some leverage now.”

The Director raised her head to direct a glare at us with swollen, bloodshot eyes.

Funny as it was, I couldn’t bring myself to feel bad about it.

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Monarch 16.1

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Just because I was miserable wasn’t any reason I should inflict that on my followers.

A solid sixty or so people were gathered in a loose circle.  The roads were impassable, so we’d set up in the middle of an intersection, piling concrete blocks onto one another with a metal rack at the midway point.  A hole in the bottom let us feed the fire, and the pots we’d placed inside contained pork shoulders in baths of beer, carrots, onions and garlic cloves.

The smell had drawn people here from across my territory.  The temptation offered by the block of beer, soda and candy that was wrapped in plastic and sitting on a nearby pallet didn’t hurt either.

Charlotte and the group of older kids I’d assigned to keep people from pestering her were handling the food.  Sierra sat on top of the pallet of supplies, making sure that everyone got one beer at a maximum.  I’d assigned two people to guard her, but it was almost unnecessary.  Anyone here was either aware that I would stop them if they tried or they would have friends to warn them.

On another day, I might have made people get back to work.  The pork shoulders would take four or five hours to cook, and I didn’t want to give up a whole day of good weather while people hung around, waiting for the moment things were served.  I left them be.

Coil knew what we were up to, and he’d shut down Tattletale.  Dinah felt out of reach, and my hopes of regaining some connection with my dad had ended less than perfectly.  Not badly, but not as well as I’d hoped.

Hope wasn’t lost on either count, but I felt pretty low.

This, right here, was the one thing that I could feel good about.  My people, my territory, doing something to rebuild.  Maybe I could have cracked the whip, but I’d rather they were happy.  It would do more in the long run, even if it meant less work got done.  They’d be dicking around waiting for the food to finish, and wouldn’t get anything done tonight, after I gave them less restricted access to the beer and wine I’d had Cranston deliver.  Probably less in the morning, too, now that I thought about it.

Which was fine.  Coil had ordered us to expand our territory and deal with threats.  The people in my territory had cleared enough space for people to sleep, to store necessities and tools, enough that if twenty or thirty new people decided to work for me in the next twenty-four hours, I had space for them.  Expanding my control beyond this point would be a staggered process with phases of clearing followed by phases of settling.  There was no point to going the extra mile to clear more space if neither I nor my enemies would be occupying it before his deadline.

He’d specified three days.  We’d taken one to deal with the Chosen, I’d used the next to talk things over with Parian and visit the mayor.  We were officially done tonight or early tomorrow.

My swarm informed me of a visitor.  I stepped away from the pallet that Sierra was sitting on.  It was a bit disconcerting to see how the crowd parted to give me a path.  In my first night out in costume, I’d seen the ABB do it for Lung.  How much of that was respect, and how much was fear?

Maybe they weren’t so distinct when it came to supervillains.

We met in the middle of the street.  Grue was wearing his new costume, complete with mask, and the semiliquid darkness rolled off him to spread out over the ground, hiding much of his body.

I folded my arms.  Speaking quietly enough that the others wouldn’t hear me, I murmured, “Any problems?”

His voice was hollow with the effects of his power, “Just checking in.  I expected a call after your job.  I had to get the update on how you were doing from Tattletale.”

“Sorry.”

“I also heard about what the boss was planning.”

“Going to give me a hard time for going?”

“No.  I don’t like it, but I understand you didn’t have a choice.  Or you did have a choice, but you weren’t about to take option B.”

“Yeah.  Which turned out to be the right choice.  He was playing us, trying to send us a message without rocking the boat.”

“You’ve got a lot of stake in this.  You holding up?”

I should be asking if you’re holding up, I thought.  “I’m dealing.”

“And dealing involves a barbecue?”

I glanced over my shoulder at the crowd that was watching us.  “Building loyalty.”

“You don’t think you’re going over the top?  Being too nice?”

“They’re working hard.”

“That’s all?”

I almost shrugged, but decided to maintain my composure, look confident in front of my people.  I needed a better term for referring to them.  They were sort of employees, but that was vague.  Should I take the same approach Parian did, identify my territory somehow?  The residents of Spiderville?  The Bugwalk?  The Hive?

“No, not all.  I figured I’d go all out, as much for me as for them.  This is the only thing that I’ve got going on that I can really feel good about right now.”

“The only thing?”

I looked up at him.  Oh.

“No, not the only thing, you’re right.  Though I’m not sure exactly what we’re doing or what we are.  Not like we’re in a position to go out to dinner and a movie.”

My heart was pounding so hard I worried he’d notice.  This would be the moment he’d tell me he was having second thoughts, that it was a mistake, he’d been in a bad place.  Or would he go one step further and accuse me of taking advantage of him, get angry?

“I’ve wondered about that myself,” he said.

“It’s okay, though?  Us?”

“Yeah.  Definitely okay.”

What would my people think if they could overhear?

“I know we can’t exactly go out, but if you’re okay with it, you maybe want to come by tonight?  We’ll let my people celebrate a week of hard work and head into my lair, eat, watch a movie on the couch?”

“Okay.  Not sure if I can get away before dark, if I’m doing a serious check of my territory.  Imp’s doing more than her fair share.”

“It’s fine.  I- I’m not sure how to put it, so I’ll be upfront about this,” I told him.  Which is easier said than done.  It took me a second to organize my thoughts.  “I don’t expect to be priority number one.  We have a job here.  I’m not sure what the boss is planning, or if we’re still going to be doing this a few months from now, or even a week from now.  But I totally get it if the territory comes first.  Or if Imp comes first, or we have a job that interferes with our schedules.  We fit each other into the breaks.”

I caught a glimpse of his arms through the darkness as he folded them.  “You can say that, but I’m not sure it’ll be true when it happens for the third time, or the tenth.”

“It’s not set in stone.  If it doesn’t work, we talk about it.  Maybe it’s best we say whatever’s on our minds, given who we are.  We’re not the best at the social thing, you know?”

“I know.”  He paused, glancing away.  “In the spirit of saying what’s on my mind, I’m kind of wondering how your people would react if I kissed you right now.”

So glad I have the mask.  I felt my face heat up in what would have been an embarrassing flush if anyone could see it.

I swallowed.  “No.  Don’t.  It’s not that I don’t want you to, but it would mess up their image of me.”

“I know.  That’s the only reason I didn’t do it.  That, and the masks would be hard to manage.  Can’t really be spontaneous when fumbling to find a way to lift the mask up.  And the stuff on this mask kind of makes it hard to lift it up.”  He tapped one finger on the criss-crossing fangs I’d designed into the face of his mask.  It would make it rigid, hard to remove without taking the entire thing off.

“Something to fix for a future version.  You want to grab something for lunch?”

“I should be getting back.  There’s some stragglers to deal with, and Imp’s been going full-tilt long enough I think I should relieve her.”

“She’s taking this seriously, huh?”

“Yeah.  I’d be happy about it if it wasn’t so dangerous.”

“With luck, the danger will pass soon.”

“Yeah.  See you later?”

I opened my mouth to respond, then stopped as I felt a tremor.  “You feel that?” I asked.

“No.”

No, I hadn’t felt it with my own body.  My swarm had sensed it.  A vibration through the area.

My bugs could scent exhaust.  The acrid taste of ozone, for the lack of a better explanation.  I honed in on it, and realized that one of the buildings near the edge of my range had a new addition on the roof.  It was big, like two eighteen wheelers parked side-by-side, with two more stacked on top, but all one piece.

“Shit,” I said, as the general shape took form in my mind.  I wheeled around to look in the direction it had settled.  “Trouble.”

Darkness billowed out around Grue, making him look larger.

My first thought was Squealer, but she was supposedly dead.  The other alternative… Shit.

“Listen up!”  I called out, augmenting my voice with my swarm.  Most of the crowd was already paying some attention to me, but my shout got everyone else to turn my way.  “Threat incoming.  Stop what you’re doing and clear out of here, that way!”  I pointed.

Some people started hesitantly heading the way I’d indicated.

“Now!”  I shouted.  The crowd began to move.  Sierra and Charlotte were among them, abandoning the food and the makeshift oven.  Sierra looked my way for confirmation and I gave her a tight nod.

I doubted that my people were in any danger like they’d faced with Mannequin or Burnscar, but I wasn’t taking chances.

“Who?”  Grue asked.

“Pretty sure it’s Dragon.”

She wasn’t moving.  She’d settled on the tallest building in the area, not too far from where I’d started my costumed career, fought Lung and met the others.  She was large enough that her mechanical forelimbs could grip two corners of the building.  She lay there like a resting jungle cat or sphinx, head raised, slowly rotating to take in her surroundings.

“The timing couldn’t be worse for this,” he said.  He settled one hand on my shoulder and pulled me in the direction my people were running.  “Coil wanted us to be done today.  Now the heroes are making a move?”

“Retaliation for the mayor,” I said.  “We pushed things, now they’re bringing in the big guns.  Maybe literally.”

“Plan?”

“No clue.”  I got my phone out and dialed Tattletale.  She picked up on the first ring, as I was clicking through the menu to put it on speaker phone.

“Dragon’s here-” she started.  There was a flare of static, not unlike the noise from an out-of-tune radio station, “-don’t fight.”

“Why?” I asked, but the static flared up again as I spoke, and I couldn’t be sure Tattletale heard me.  “She’s here.  How is she there?”

“Hitting multiple territories at once-” Whatever she said next was obscured.  It was getting worse, fast.  “-fight and heroes come to back her up.  Run, hide.  Meet-”

Then she was gone, lost in the sea of static.  I waited for several tense seconds, hoping she would come back on the line.

“Skitter.”  It was Dragon who spoke over the phone.  “I’m cutting off communications.  I look forward to talking to you once you’ve been brought into custody.”

The phone died.  There wasn’t even a dial tone.

“Oh hell,” Grue said.

“Let’s go.”

We’d been retreating, but we broke out into a full-on run as the phone cut out.

Dragon, for her part, made a move.  Metal objects the size of a beachball were filing out of the sides of her suit.  They floated in the air, spreading out in formations.  Dozens of them.

“She’s trying to beat me at my own game,” I said, panting, “Minions.  Hate tinkers.  Hate tinkers so fucking much.”

A collection of my bugs died all at once, the sphere dropping to the pavement below with a thud that the bugs could feel.

I’d encountered this before.  Armsmaster’s electric pulse, the one he’d used with his halberd.

“And I really hate tinkers who share their work.

As I glanced over my shoulder, I could see the drones flowing into the sky in waves.  I ordered Atlas back to my lair to keep him safe.  I didn’t want to risk him, didn’t want to get shot out of the air while flying and I wasn’t able to bring Grue along, wasn’t willing to leave him behind.

Was this what my enemies experienced?  A vague feeling of dread as an unreachable opponent massed her forces?  I couldn’t necessarily fight back against them and even taking down one drone was useless.  Five or ten more would be ready to take its place.

They were overtaking us.  Any time I gathered more than a handful of bugs together, a drone would obliterate them with a point-blank electrical charge.  That was the only thing slowing them down; they would spend their charge, fall to the ground and then rise again a few seconds later as they rebooted.

I got a better look at the drones as they approached.  Each was an identical black sphere with two wings like the blades of a battleaxe, the tips of one blade connecting with the other.  A camera with a red lens was mounted on a plate that roved across the sphere’s outer surface, while another plate glowed in the same way Kid Win’s antigravity skateboard had, always pointing toward the ground.

One passed over my head, then stopped, hovering in place a few feet above me as I ran.  I turned on my heel and shifted left, and it followed me unerringly.  I zig-zagged and failed to shake it.

Attention citizen,” it blared, in the same voice that I’d heard from the armbands during the Endbringer fight, “For your own safety, drop to the ground and place your hands on your head.  You have ten seconds to comply.”

“Fuck!”

“Here!”  Grue called out.  He was turned toward me, bent to one knee, his fingers interlaced, nearly touching the ground.

“Five seconds.”

I ran towards him, setting my feet in the cup of his hands, while drawing my knife.  He straightened, heaving me up.  My timing was off, and I didn’t manage to jump in time with the push, but I did manage to stay balanced.  As he lifted me, I raised one foot and placed it on his shoulder, using it as a foothold to lunge for the drone.  I stabbed my knife at the antigravity panel.

It raised higher into the air.  I missed by a hair.

Failure to comply.”

I felt the hairs all over my body stand to attention a second before it hit us.  It felt more like getting a truck dropped on me than I would have expected an electrical charge to feel like, but I could feel the not-unfamiliar sensation of snakes writhing across my body.

It had knocked the wind out of me, leaving me lying flat on top of Grue.  The weight of the drone had followed soon after, no less than a hundred pounds landing on top of the two of us.

Grue made a guttural sound.

“On your feet,” I gasped the words as I tried to haul air back into my lungs.  “Hurry.”

“We’re not unconscious?”  He gave me a hand as we climbed to our feet.

“Spider silk’s partially insulated against el-” I stopped to cough.  “Electrical charges.”

Attention Citizen.  For your own safety, drop to the ground and place your hands on your head.  You have ten seconds to comply.”  The broadcasts overlapped, two voices a half-step apart in timing.

I looked up.  Sure enough, there were another two drones in place over me and Grue.

Grue drenched us in darkness, seizing my wrist and hauling me away with enough force that I could barely keep my feet under me.

“Won’t work,” I gasped out the words, “She’s not reliant on conventional senses.  Saw Imp.”

I couldn’t hear a response, of course.  I focused my attention on the drones, getting bugs onto them to track their movements, and getting some onto Dragon to see what she was doing.

The drones were falling.  Grue’s darkness spread throughout the area, and drones were descending slowly from the air to touch ground.  They weren’t discharging their electrical loads either.

Whatever signal Dragon was using to command them, Grue’s darkness was cutting it off.

He banished the darkness in a small clearing around us, “The drones are down.  We could double back, hit her main body.”

I turned my attention to Dragon.  She was rising, planting her claws at the roof’s edge, and turning her head to face us.  Her mouth opened.

“Incoming!”  I shouted.  This time it was my turn to grab Grue and pull him away.  We headed for the side of a series of stone stairs.  Crouching so our heads weren’t sticking out, we pressed our backs against the side of the stairwell that was closest to Dragon.

The attack was silent, but that was par for the course when Grue’s darkness was involved.  It speared down the length of the street like a tightly focused gust of wind.  It scattered Grue’s darkness and made the drones skid hundreds of feet along the road’s surface.  My hair whipped across the face of my mask in the wake of the attack.

We moved in sync, rushing out of the doorway and rounding the first corner to our right.

With the darkness cleared, the drones were rising again.

“She’s prepared for me,” Grue said.

“Maybe planned to come after you when she was done here,” I said.  I glanced nervously at the drones that were turning their red eyes to every surface and object, searching for ‘citizens’ to detain.  “Or it’s part of a more complicated setup.  This way.  There’s a path through the building and out the other side.”

We were halfway through when a trio of drones moved to cut us off, another drone moving to block our retreat.  It was a precise enough maneuver that I knew Dragon had to have some kind of thermal vision at play, or another means of tracking us.

Grue hit the drones with his darkness, shutting off the connection to Dragon.  We pushed our way past as they settled to the ground.  Dragon was orienting herself for another shot. We had cover, but she had to know that.

The blast of hot wind ripped past us.  The building obstructed the worst of it, but it was less focused than the former.  Again, it stripped away much of Grue’s darkness.  He covered them in a fresh layer and we continued running.

Dragon didn’t give chase.

We arrived at Coil’s base and I knew from a single glance at Regent’s posture that we hadn’t all made it.  It was as though we were afraid enough of the answer that we weren’t willing to ask; Nobody spoke as Regent and Shatterbird led the way into the underground base.

Imp was just past the last door.  Grue hugged her, and for once she didn’t fight or complain.

Coil’s soldiers were armed and at the ready, guns resting on knees or from the straps at their shoulders, each man and woman with their specialized body armor strapped on.  Thirty or forty sets of eyes watching us, each of them utterly still.  Coil stood on the walkway opposite us, Trickster to his left, Sundancer and Oliver to his right.

“You made it,” Tattletale called out.  I’d nearly missed spotting her in the midst of the soldiers.  She was in the company of Fish and Minor, two of the squad captains.

“Who are we missing?” Grue called out.

“Ballistic, Genesis and Bitch.”

Damn.  I didn’t particularly like or dislike Genesis, but I didn’t want her to suffer.  Ballistic… I couldn’t bring myself to care that much.

Bitch, though?  That was bad.

We waited while Coil and the Travelers traveled across the walkway and Tattletale crossed the bottom floor to the staircase.

“This is not ideal,” Coil spoke.

“No,” Grue responded.

“Seven of those things,” Tattletale said.  “They hit Sundancer, Genesis, Ballistic, me, Bitch and Skitter.  Tried to hit Trickster, but he was recuperating here.  My gut says Dragon’s controlling these things with an A.I..  Smart A.I., but they didn’t seem quite as sharp as she was in our last run-in with her.  Or her attention’s divided too many ways.  Can’t say.  Her objective seems to be disrupting our control over the city rather than stopping us outright.”

“I think the pair of us only slipped away because she wasn’t expecting me to be there,” Grue said.  “Did she use the drone-deployer against you guys?”

“No,” Tattletale replied.  “She was piloting an updated version on the thing she used against Leviathan.  Spewed containment foam everywhere.  My guys hammered it with rocket launchers and bought me time to run.  Maybe lost half my squad, depending on how things went.  Only Minor and Brooks have returned so far.”

“Came after me with a bloated floating ship, kept drawing forcefields around me,” Sundancer said.  She was hugging her arms to her body.  “My power couldn’t even knock them down.  I burned myself an escape route through the ground.  Nearly got trapped in the molten sludge.  It was stupid, I could have died.”

Oliver put a hand on her shoulder.

“Seven different ships,” Grue said.

“This is well-timed enough that I’d suspect a traitor in our midst,” Coil spoke, pausing for a moment while his head turned fractionally to take us all in, “But I haven’t spoken of my overall plans to anyone, and there is nobody capable of reading minds to figure out my overall strategy, much less in Brockton Bay.”

“Just bad luck and good planning,” Tattletale said.  “Communications are down, no camera feeds, no radio.  Phones too.  No cell or satellite signals are making it out there.”

“So we’re going to have to stick together instead of coordinating attacks,” Grue responded.

“Trouble is,” Tattletale said, “They’ve already laid out their game plan, and it’s a toughie.  Seven suits babysitting our territories and keeping us from settling back in.  If we pick a fight like Ballistic did, then they deploy the Protectorate, the Wards and probably any unoccupied suits as reinforcements.”

Nobody had a response to that.  Dealing with just the one Dragon had been hard enough.  Dealing with Dragon plus a contingent of heroes would be next to impossible.

“Can Grue borrow her power?”  Trickster asked.

Grue shook his head, and the darkness around him seemed to expand a fraction.  “No.  Don’t get much from tinkers.”

“Then there’s Regent,” Trickster said.  “Or, more specifically, Shatterbird.”

“Sure,” Regent said.

“She might have a countermeasure in mind,” I said.  “She knows Shatterbird’s here.  It could be as simple as the long ranged wind cannon thing she used to clear away Grue’s darkness.  She could shoot Shatterbird out of the air the second she shows herself.  Or any number of things.”

“Try a larger scale detonation?”  Trickster asked.  “See if you can’t wipe out a couple of suits at once, without revealing yourself?”

“No,” Regent said.  “Don’t know if I can control the area of it if I push out too hard.  It’s slippery… I’m not good at explaining this stuff.  I can turn the dial to anywhere from one to ten, but for each number you go up, it goes maybe twice as far, maybe five times as far.  The effect… I dunno.”

“It gets exponentially more powerful, as you put more effort in,” I suggested.

“Sure.  Don’t know what that means, but sure.”

Coil cleared his throat, “I’ve invested a great deal of time and money into establishing your two groups here in Brockton Bay, and I did it for precisely this sort of scenario.  Again, the timing is unfortunate, but I still expect you to address this situation.  You’ll want to verify whether Bitch, Ballistic and Genesis are captured or simply pinned down somewhere, rescue them if need be and dispatch Dragon.”

There go my plans with Brian.

“This may be just a smidge above and beyond the call of duty, bossman,” Regent said.

“You’ll have access to all of my resources,” Coil responded.  “But the previous orders about clearing out and establishing your territories by noon tomorrow stand.”

“Or?”

Every set of eyes moved to Imp.

“Beg pardon?” Coil asked.

“Hey, I’m in this for fun, for fame and money.  Getting beat down and arrested isn’t any of those things.”

“I see.  I thought you would be more professional.”

“Me?”  Imp shrugged, “Hell no.”

I could feel the tension in the air.  There were fifty trained soldiers here.  Men and women who could shoot and hit their target.  If Coil gave the order, I wasn’t sure we’d walk away in one piece.  Intentionally or not, Imp was pulling the chair out from under Coil at a time when he was already vulnerable and unsteady on his feet.

Good.

“Do the rest of you feel this way?”

“The Travelers aren’t in a position to walk away.  You know that,” Trickster said, “And we have to rescue Genesis and Ballistic if they need it.  So no.  We’re definitely in.”

Tattletale, Grue and I exchanged glances.  Tattletale’s eyes lingered on me for a long second.  Was it up to me?

“Honestly?” I said.  “I don’t know what call I’d make.  This is pretty dangerous, as stuff goes, and we didn’t exactly sign up for this.  I’d go in just to make sure Bitch comes out of it okay, but doing that and cleaning up this mess in the kind of timeframe you’re talking about?  That’s asking a lot.”

“You’ll be adequately compensated for the risk you face,” Coil said.

“I figured as much.  But I don’t want money.”

“Ah.  What do you want, Skitter?”

“You know that already.”

“I’ve already told you I’ll consider your request.”

“I want a promise.”

He didn’t reply.  Instead, he stared at me, his mask opaque, no holes for the eyes, nose or mouth.  I had to read the little details, the movements in the raised portion of his brow, the set of his chin, the movements and tension of his fingers where he had his hands clasped in front of him.  If I had to venture a guess, I’d think he was offended.

“Then you have it, Skitter.  Provided you deal with this situation in the next twenty-one hours and your team has reclaimed their territory, I will consider your end of the bargain filled.  I’m hoping I have the rest of the Undersiders as well?”

“I’m not promising anything until I get something too,” Imp said.

“What would you require?”

“My own territory.”

“That can be arranged.  Given how critical this situation is, are you content to discuss the matter after the situation is resolved?”

“Come again?”

“He wants to know if you’re okay with deciding what territory you get after the job is done,” Grue said.

“Yeah.”

“Grue, Tattletale, Regent?”

“I’m with her,” Tattletale jerked a thumb my way.  Grue nodded, glancing at Imp.

“I’m not about to be left out,” Regent said.  “But maybe you could pony up a nice cash bonus?”

I could hear the slightest of sighs from Coil.  “That can be arranged.”

“Cool.”

“Then that’s settled.  I’ve been made aware that Dragon is also making a bid to claim, seize and lock out digital goods within the city.  Victor has agreed to work with my teams and do what he can to minimize the damage.  If there’s nothing else-“

“There is something,” Tattletale said.

“Do tell.”

“That data we grabbed from the PRT offices.  You crack it yet?”

“Some.  It’s badly degraded.”

“I need it.  As much as you can give.”

“Done,” Coil said.  “I can show you the way.”

“One other thing.  You said we had access to all of your resources?”

“Yes.”

“Just how much money are you able to spare?”

“We can discuss that on our way to the room where the databases are stored,” he said, firm.  “Undersiders, Travelers, I wish you luck.”

He strode off with Tattletale following.

Too easy, I thought.  He made that promise too easily.

But it was something.

“Let’s go,” I said.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 15

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“Knock, knock.”

Triumph turned around.  “Sam.”

She poked her head around the edge of the door, hand over her eyes.  Beautiful.  She was blonde and wearing her skintight costume.  She had the figure to pull it off where so few really did.  The kind of body someone worked for.  Her mask was off, tucked into her belt.

“You decent?”  Prism asked, not moving her hand.

“Yeah.”  He finished folding his hospital gown and draped it at the foot of the bed. Not perfect, but it was better than leaving a mess.

“You’re okay to be up and about?”

“Yeah,” he said.  He didn’t want to reply with a single syllable again, so he turned to face her.  He smiled a little.  “I’m tough.”

“Don’t boast.  I was with your family while we watched the paramedics cart you off.”

“I made it.  I don’t heal that much faster than normal, but I do heal faster, I don’t scar, and I don’t tend to suffer long-term injuries.”

“But you nearly died.  Don’t forget.”

“I definitely won’t forget, believe me,” he said.  He balled up his bathrobe and put it in the gym bag that already sat on the bed.  “I’m surprised you came.”

“We’re dating,” she said.

“Three dates, and we both agreed it wouldn’t be anything permanent.”

“You say that and then you invite me to meet your parents.”

“Because the food at home is better than the rations you’d get anywhere else in this city.”  He raised an eyebrow, “But you’re the one checking on me this morning.  Didn’t you have a flight?””

“A flight’s easy enough to postpone when the Protectorate’s arranging it.  I decided I needed to sleep in after being up all night getting x-rayed, Ursa said she was ok with it.”

“I’m just saying, you didn’t have to stop by.”

“Don’t flatter yourself.  I wanted to see how Cache was doing.  It’s a walk down the hall to see you.”

“Ouch.  Allies before guys?”

“There’s got to be a better way of saying that.”

“Probably.  How’s he?”

“Burned badly, but he’s healing.  We’ll see how bad the long-term damage is.”

“And how are you?”

“Bruised, bit of a limp.  Pretty okay overall.”

“Good,” he smiled.  “Want to go get some coffee?  I’ve been running on so much caffeine lately that I think I’ll pass out if I don’t get my morning dose.  I’ll lend you my shoulder so you don’t have to put too much weight on that leg.”

“Coffee’s good.  But are there any places that are open?”

“There’s a place in the building.”

Prism made a face.

“Not institution coffee.  An actual coffee bar as part of the cafeteria.”  He slung his bag over one shoulder and offered her an arm.

“Don’t you need a wheelchair?  I thought it was hospital policy to wheel you to the door.”

“It’s fine.  Benefit of having a small hospital as part of the PRT building.  Pretty common for us to go straight from here to our offices, and there were apparently issues with photographers taking pictures of heroes in wheelchairs as they left the hospital.  Director Piggot arranged things this way for exactly this reason.”

“Damn.  Need to push for something like that in NYC.  Our hospital’s off-site.”  She put a hand on his shoulder and they began making their way down the hall.

Ursa Aurora turned the corner and spotted them.  Triumph could see the frown lines above the glossy black bear mask she wore, her obvious relief and the quickening of her pace on spotting him.  His heart sank. Something’s happened.  Or it’s happening.

“Guys!”

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“There’s an issue.  Division in the ranks.  Looking ugly.”

“The enemy?”

She shook her head.  “Our guys.  And it’s about you.”

That caught him off guard.  He shook his head a little; no time to get into the particulars.  He’d deal with the situation himself.  “Lead the way.”

Despite the apparent urgency of the situation, they couldn’t run.  Prism was hurt and the elevator was the fastest way to their destination.  Ursa went ahead to press the button while Triumph helped Prism limp her way there.

Gentler,” she hissed, after setting too much weight on her bad leg.

“Sorry.”

“I hate this, being injured,” Prism mumbled.

“It’s not too serious?”

“No.  Skitter tethered me to the roof so I dropped halfway, stopped, then cut the line so I’d drop the rest of the way.  Landed on my side.  But being hobbled like this, it brings back bad memories.”

He turned to Ursa as they approached the elevators.  “Press both buttons at the same time, three times in a row for the emergency use.”

Ursa did as he’d suggested, and the button began alternately flashing yellow and red.  The doors opened almost immediately afterward and they gathered inside.  Ursa hit the button for the basement floor: the Wards’ headquarters.

He glanced at her teammate.  It struck him that it was inappropriate to ask, but it also felt like Prism was inviting the question.  “Would it be bad form for me to ask?  About the bad memories?”

Prism shook her head.  “Ursa knows, and I’ve been working on getting over it.  I already mentioned my history in gymnastics.  My dad’s a coach, had spent his entire life pushing me and my siblings to be on the Olympic level.  I sometimes thought it was the only reason he had kids.  I was pretty close to qualifying when I tore my ACL.”

“Ouch.  You didn’t re-injure it last night?”

She shook her head, “Hip, not knee.  Looking back, I think I screwed up my knee back then because my dad had pushed me too hard and too fast.  But I blamed myself.  I got depressed, stayed home instead of going to the gym.  Once dad and the sibs realized I wasn’t going to come along anymore, I started to get left out of family events, left behind when they went out to eat after training.  It doesn’t sound like that huge a deal, but gymnastics had become a core part of my life, and it was gone.  Everything fell apart.”

“I’m sorry.  I know better than to say that’s not significant.  Believe me.  I’ve been there.”

She shrugged.  “I guess I became my own family.  Found another pillar to build my life around.  But even if I have a high pain tolerance, having an injury like this reminds me of those days.  Puts me in a bad mood for a while.  So I’m sorry if I’m irritable.”

“I can deal.”

They’d gone out as friends, first, because they both had similar backgrounds, and segued into a casual relationship.  They had both been athletes, once upon a time.  She was an ex-gymnast, he had been a baseball player.  She’d triggered because of the aftermath of a career-ending injury.  He’d acquired his powers because he’d been perpetually second place, doomed to miss his chance, a mere hair from a career in the major league.

He knew how devastating that stuff could be when you’d made the sacrifices, given up most of your adolescence to succeed at something, only to fall short.

He’d turned to his dad for help, and his dad had delivered a small vial that was supposedly designed to force a state equivalent to a trigger event, without the necessary trauma.  Irony had reared her ugly head when the major leagues had mandated MRI scans to check for powers and maintain the integrity of the game, mere months after he’d gained athletic ability that would let him compete.

In a way, he was glad.  Not that he had been back then.  He’d been spoiled, a brat, entitled.  He was relieved he hadn’t continued down that road, that he’d found a career where he was on something of an even playing field with his peers.

Not that things were perfect.

He could hear the arguing the second the elevator doors parted.

Miss Militia, Weld and Kid Win stood on one side of the room.  Assault was on the other side, perched on the edge of the terminal, with Clockblocker, Chariot and Vista at his side.

“-vigilantism!”  Miss Militia’s voice was tight with barely controlled anger.

“There has to be an authority for us to ignore for us be vigilantes,” Assault said.  His voice was calmer, but his body language wasn’t.  He was tense, the hand that wasn’t gripping the edge of the console was clenched into a fist.  “There isn’t.  Nobody’s stepping up to enforce anything.”

“The PRT stands.  All of the watchdogs are in place,” Miss Militia spoke.  “You go out and do something without an official a-ok and people are going to notice that we’re acting completely outside of the principles and rules the Protectorate stands for.”

“How?” Assault countered.  “Media?  In case you haven’t noticed, a full third of this city is still lacking power.  The reporters that have stuck around this long are too tired and too low on resources to follow along.”

“Cell cameras,”  Miss Militia said.  “People are watching and recording us every step of the way.”

“We’ll be covert.  I’m talking a fast, hard hitting strike.  Attack is always preferable over defense.

“You’re talking revenge,” Triumph spoke.  He let Ursa support Prism and stepped forward to join the ‘discussion’.

“Revenge, justice, it’s a pretty thin line.  But sure.  We can call it that,” Assault said, leaning back a little.  He smiled a little at Miss Militia; there was now one more person on his side of the argument.

Triumph glanced around the room.  Flechette, Ursa and Prism weren’t taking a side.  They weren’t local, and the politics here would be intimidating.

Still, Triumph glanced at Flechette.  She’s been around a few weeks.  She should feel confident about voicing an opinion.

Was she being neutral, or was she undecided?  Or was there another factor at play?

He felt so disconnected from the Wards, these days.  He barely recognized his old team.  Vista, Kid Win, Clockblocker… he’d been their captain, not so long ago.

Miss Militia and Assault were looking at him, waiting for him to speak.  From Assault’s confidence, there was no doubt he expected Triumph to take his side.

Instead, he commented, “Just going by what I’ve heard, Assault’s arguing we should take the fight to the enemy?  Without Piggot’s consent?”

“Piggot has told us to stand down,” Miss Militia spoke.  “So we’d be going against her directive.”

“They attacked one of our own.  Again,” Assault said.  “And they broke a cardinal rule.  They attacked family.  You don’t unmask a cape, and if you happen to discover their secret identity, you don’t go after their family.”

“The family’s testimony suggests that wasn’t deliberate.  Skitter informed Trickster partway through,” Weld said.

Clockblocker cut in, “But we can assume she found out beforehand.  Unless you’re going to suggest she figured it out on her own?”

“No,” Weld replied.  “It makes sense.  I suspect Tattletale could find out something like that.  I’d even believe she’s found out all of our identities by now.  But I’m saying Trickster wasn’t in the know, and he’s the person who made the conscious decision to attack Triumph’s sister.”

“They’ve broken other unspoken rules,” Assault said, looking at Triumph and Miss Militia rather than the junior members.  “Shatterbird?  Are we really going to let that one slide?”

“Anything goes when fighting the Nine,” Miss Militia said.

“The Nine are gone.  He’s still breaking the rules.  He kidnapped and took control of Shadow Stalker.  He’s affected civilians.  Criminals, admittedly, but still civilians.”

“And the people in charge know that,” Miss Militia said.  “If they decide that it’s crossing the line, we can act decisively.”

“People in suits,” Assault said.  “They sit in offices with padded chairs, viewing everything through the filter of clinical, tidy paperwork.  They don’t know what it is to be in the field, to face the risk of death or fates worse than death in the service of this city.”

If Miss Militia had been getting ready for a response, she hesitated when Assault said ‘fates worse than death’, his voice revealing a tremor of emotion.

Triumph could imagine the scene as he’d glimpsed it: Battery on her deathbed, wasting away from a poison designed to be cruel rather than efficient.  But as slow as it had worked, it had proved incurable.

Assault went on, and there was no hint of the earlier emotion in his voice.  Rather, he sounded dangerously like a leader.  “If we don’t act on this, if we don’t move on the Undersiders and the Travelers, then we’re saying that’s alright.  We’re saying it’s okay to do those same things to us.”

“You’d be violating your probationary status on the team,” Miss Militia said, quiet.  “Going against orders.”

“My joining the Protectorate was conditional on being on the same team as Battery,” Assault replied.  He met Miss Militia’s eyes with a level stare, as if challenging her to press the issue.

There was no doubt what was at the root of Assault’s anger.  Miss Militia, by contrast, was the leader of the Protectorate because of her unwavering loyalty and willingness to not only abide by the rules but to fight for them.  Triumph could understand why they’d taken the positions they had.

He glanced at the others.  Weld was a company man, so to speak, and the PRT was his family, after a fashion.  It made sense that he’d stand by the rules imposed by the PRT, the Protectorate and the Wards.  Clockblocker had always chafed under the yoke of the institution, and Chariot could easily be the same.  Most Wards went through a phase like that, feeling the pressures, the strict rules, realizing that the Wards existed in part to keep them out of the worst of things, while aching to go out and be a hero.  Clockblocker had never entirely grown out of it.

It could be that Chariot’s stance here was what Coil wanted.  Triumph couldn’t forget that Chariot was an undercover operative, planted by the supervillain to gather information.

No, none of those calls surprised him.  The outliers, the ones that caught him off guard…

“Vista, I didn’t think you’d be wanting to break the rules like this,” he commented.  Before she could reply, he said, “And Kid Win.  I took you for more of a rebel.”

“I’m tired of losing people,” Vista said.  “We lost Gallant.  Aegis too, and Velocity, Dauntless, Battery…”

“Yeah.  And Shadow Stalker,” Triumph offered.

“She left,” Clockblocker said.

“I’d still consider her a casualty,” Triumph said.  “We might not have liked her, but she was one of us, and the enemy basically took her from us.”

“I don’t want to forget Glory Girl and Panacea,” Clockblocker said.  “She and her sister did me a life-changing favor.  We don’t know the whole story there, but the Undersiders or the Nine had to have played a part in how that unfolded.  But that’s one hell of a list of names.  There’s less of us than there are them, and we’re losing.  Not just fights, but we’re losing this war.  Don’t you see that?”

“I see it,” Miss Militia said, her voice particularly quiet compared to her raised volume earlier.  “But that’s exactly why I’m telling you not to do this.  The second we make this into an actual war, we change it from a losing fight to an outright defeat.  At best everyone involved would lose out, our enemies included.  I don’t want that.”

“You’re making it sound more complicated than it is,” Assault said.  “I’m talking a quick, hard hitting strike against one of their territories.  One of the master-classifications would be a good bet.  I’d suggest Regent, but Shatterbird is too big a complication.  Better to take out Hellhound or Skitter.  Doing either would cut their tactical options down by a third, and it could gain us a hostage to leverage against the others.”

“Not Tattletale?” Clockblocker asked.

Assault shook his head.  “She’d know we were coming.  It’s in Armsmaster’s notes from his first meeting with Skitter.  It’s why they’re so elusive as a group, and that’s why it’s so crucial we strike first, while they’re still split up in individual territories.  Grue, Trickster, Genesis or Imp would escape too readily, and confronting Ballistic or Sundancer would place our side at too much risk.”

“They’d retaliate,” Miss Militia said, “And we’d almost certainly lose.  We’re roughly matched in numbers, we’re outmatched in raw firepower and they have the edge on us in terms of tactical knowledge.”

“So we’re supposed to sit here and take it?” Clockblocker asked.  “If my family gets attacked next time, I don’t think my dad’s about to haul out a shotgun to defend himself.”

“That’s not exactly how it played out,” Triumph said.  “But no.  I don’t think we should take it, and I don’t think we should attack.  Miss Militia’s right.”

Assault’s eyebrows rose in surprise.

“Thank you,” Miss Militia said.  “I understand that some of you are upset.  We’re all upset.  We’re all concerned about our loved ones, about the current state of things in the city and about possibly being captured and controlled by Regent.  But we’re only going to succeed with the support of the Protectorate as a whole, and we’ll only have that if we stick to the rules.”

“Well said,” Director Piggot spoke.

All heads turned.  Director Piggot stood in the doorway that led to the stairwell.

“Director,” Assault said.  He didn’t look fazed by the woman’s appearance.

“I hope you’ll hear me out before committing to a plan of action?”

“Of course.”  Assault leaned back, folding his arms.

“Then let me introduce our visitors.”  Piggot stepped to one side, shifting her prodigious weight out of the way of the door.

There were two of them, each covered head to toe in power armor that was similar in theme, if not in design.  It was heavy duty stuff, and even without tinker abilities, Triumph could admire it as something exceptionally well made.

They were the same height, a man and a woman.  The man held a spear that was no less than fifteen feet long, with a two-pronged tip on the end.  The woman wore something that looked to be  a modified jetpack, divided into two pieces that each had to weigh as much as she did.  The exhaust jets fanned out to either side of her, like the feathers of a bird’s outstretched wings.

The woman removed her helmet, then shook her head so her dark hair could fall around the armor around her shoulders and neck.  She wasn’t beautiful, but she wasn’t ugly either.  Even ‘plain’ wasn’t the right label.  She was exceptionally average in appearance, to the point that it was borderline eerie.  He couldn’t pin down as belonging to any particular ethnicity, nor could he eliminate her from one.

Yet she’s strangely familiar, Triumph observed.

Triumph looked at the man, waiting for him to remove his helmet, but he didn’t.  The man folded his arms instead, still holding on to the spear with one hand.

That body language.  Triumph’s eyes widened behind his visor.  No.  No way.  No way he’d come back here.

But if he was here, then the woman would be-

“Dragon,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Dragon extended a hand, and Miss Militia shook it.  “Likewise.  Let me introduce Defiant.”

Triumph glanced around at the others.  Nobody here was so stupid as to miss what was going on.  Even the capes that weren’t native to Brockton Bay would figure this out in a heartbeat.

“Dragon and Defiant have stopped by to pick up resources and gather information before taking on a long-term mission,” the Director explained.  “Would you like to explain?”

“The Nine,” Dragon explained.  “We know their general behavior.  After a spree like the one they had here in Brockton Bay, they’re going to retreat.  They’ll stick to back roads and isolated small towns, use time and distance to let the heat dissipate.  Jack may keep his people engaged with games like what he tried to set up here.  Scaling up slowly in a remote area, seeing how badly they can terrify the local populace, ending with a grand climax before moving on.  They’ll also be looking to recruit and replace missing members, and I expect they’ll go easier on testing the recruits until they’ve replenished their numbers.”

“What are you doing, then?” Assault asked.

“We’re going after them,” Defiant spoke.  His voice was partially altered by his helmet, but it was still identifiable.

Why is everyone pretending they don’t know that’s Armsmaster?

Defiant continued, “And we’re not going to stop.  Pursuit will continue twenty-four seven, year-round.  We keep them running until they get tired and hungry enough that they make a mistake, and we capitalize on that.”

“We’ve tried this before,”  Miss Militia responded.  “I’m not saying I don’t appreciate the idea, but Assault was just arguing that it’s easier to attack than to defend, and I agree.  You won’t be able to prevent every casualty.”

“The primary issue before,” Dragon replied, “Is that the previous efforts were squads, sleeping in shifts, always moving.  Invariably, the Nine would catch on to what was happening, they’d take out the squad on duty and then they would disappear before the others could mobilize to stop them.  Or the Nine would circle around and kill the off-duty squad members.  We don’t have that problem.”

“I don’t follow,” Assault said.

“Dragon mentioned to me once that she doesn’t need to sleep.  A side effect of her powers,” Miss Militia said.

Dragon dipped her head in a nod.  “I tried going after the Slaughterhouse Nine before, but Shatterbird’s powers proved too difficult to work around, and I was only one person.  Now I have a partner.”

“Defiant?”  Miss Militia asked.

Defiant tapped his chest.  “With Dragon’s help, I’ve replaced my internal organs and parts of my brain with artificial equivalents.  My current downtime is a rough fifteen minutes a day. That includes waste, sleep and eating.  In the next two weeks, I intend to reduce it to a mere twelve minutes.”

Vista’s hands went to her mouth in shock.

He’s made himself into a monster.  And Dragon doesn’t even flinch as he announces it. Triumph’s own eyes were wide.

Miss Militia seemed to recover faster than anyone else.  “That’s not the only issue the squads faced.  There’s the psychological strain.  Hunting a prey for days, weeks, months at a time?  Especially targets that will commit atrocities if you let your guard down for a second?  It gets to you.”

“I think,” Defiant paused, as if he had to pick the right words, “My single-mindedness will be an asset on that front.”

“It’s worth a try,” Dragon said.  “Between us, Defiant and I can customize our equipment and approach to effectively counter the Nine’s powers.  Once we have a lead, we’ll maintain constant pressure for as long as necessary.  Even if we can’t save everyone, even if we can’t stop them outright with Siberian rendering others invincible, I think we can keep them from setting up another major event like they tried here in Brockton Bay, and we can hopefully keep them from recruiting.”

“The PRT is hopeful,” the Director said, “They gave their consent.  But you’ll have to explain how this is relevant to the current situation.”

“Of course.  If everyone would turn their attention to the monitors?”

Assault had to hop down from where he was sitting on the edge of the long desk to see.  Everyone else turned as the images appeared across the screen.  One armored suit after another.

“The Cawthorne mark three.”

A sleek model resembling a cross between a dragon and a fighter jet, mounted with four engines around the ‘shoulders’.

“The Astaroth-Nidhug hybrid, making use of the Nidhug design that was partially damaged in prior confrontations.”

It didn’t look like a mesh.  It looked like a cohesive design, a massive gun barrel with teeth at the end, outfitted not with a handle, but three afterburners at the rear and three at the midsection.  The landing gear looked spindly.  It was also, Triumph realized, quite large.  No smaller than a commercial aircraft, if the machinery beneath it was supposed to be a forklift.

“The Ladon-Two.”

It didn’t look as sleek or combat-ready as the others, smaller, almost spherical in the body.

“That’s a utility design,” Chariot said.  “What’s the concept?”

“A forcefield generator,” Dragon replied.  “Dual offensive and defensive use.  I also have the Glaurung Zero-Model, the Pythios-Two, the Melusine-Six and the Azazel ready for field use.”

The camera panned out to show a sheared-off mountaintop with the seven armored suits and a hangar or factory.

“It is thanks to Defiant’s assistance that I can now do this.”

Simultaneously, each armored suit flared to life and took off, disappearing from the camera’s field of view.  The cloud of dust and snow that spread out from the takeoff point obscured the camera’s view.  The image went black.

“I have nine models in total that I can keep active simultaneously.  More are in development.  It’s inefficient and expensive to keep all of them active when we do not yet have a bead on the Slaughterhouse Nine.  With the Director’s consent, we’ll be stationing the seven suits we’re not personally using in Brockton Bay.  The PRT will remain in contact with me so I can remotely deploy them.  That is, those not already in use against the Slaughterhouse Nine or an Endbringer.”

Not just one, but seven suits crafted by the best tinker in the world.

Triumph glanced at Chariot.  The boy seemed pensive, but that could have been one tinker admiring the work of another.

“Hard to believe you need Defiant riding along when you have that kind of raw firepower,” Assault commented.

“Two sets of eyes are better than one, and we can keep each other sane.  Defiant will pilot the Uther when he isn’t on the ground.”

“Well, Defiant, your hard work is appreciated.  I wish you the best of luck.  You too, Dragon,” Miss Militia said.

They can’t possibly be buying this.

“Nobody’s going to say it?”  Triumph asked, before he could censor himself.

Every set of eyes turned to him.  He could only go forward.

“You… don’t really believe this?  This Defiant thing?  He’s not even trying to hide it.”

The tension in the room was so thick he could have choked on it.

“If you have a valid concern about Defiant,” Director Piggot spoke, “I think it would benefit us all to hear it.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but she’d already raised her hand to stop him.  “Rest assured, Triumph, if you were to allege criminal activity, we would arrest and detain him until a case could be made.  We’d pull him off this wholly voluntary task and if your charges were serious enough, send him to the Birdcage.  I suppose we’d have to adjust Dragon’s battle plan against the Nine, she would likely be forced to rethink her idea of having the suits stationed in Brockton Bay, so she was better able to defend herself.”

“I get what you’re saying.”

“I’m not saying anything, Triumph, only that you’re entirely free to speak.”

He glanced around the room at the others.  Clockblocker looked at the monitors, Assault was adjusting his glove, Vista staring hard at the ground.  Nobody met his eyes.

Except Director Piggot.  It would have been easier to stare down a Bengal tiger than to meet her steel-gray eyes.

There’s a difference between serving the system and enabling it.

“Just wanted to say that the guy’s got cojones,” Triumph said, with no emotion or inflection.  “Taking on the Slaughterhouse Nine like that, being this new to the game.”

“Quite so,” the Director replied.  “You’ll be on double patrols until the elections are over, but you’ll have the suits arriving within a minute of any confrontations.  The schedule’s already in the system.  I and my direct subordinates will be available twenty-four-seven to those manning the console.  We’ll then be able to verbally sign-off on the deployment of any of the dragon models.”

He couldn’t bring himself to speak up and say it.  That Armsmaster was here, posing as a new hero.  Triumph knew he was enabling the system, he was allowing something wrong to happen here, but stopping the Nine was more important.  Having the suits to turn the table on the villains taking over the city?  Too much hung in the balance.

“Hey,” Prism murmured in his ear.  She’d created a duplicate rather than hobble over to him. “You okay?”

He shook his head.

“Still want to get that coffee?”

“No.  No thanks.”  He had trouble looking at her.  She hadn’t said anything, hadn’t tried to say anything.  Yes, it was the better choice in the long run, putting Armsmaster to work against the Nine.  That didn’t mean it wasn’t wrong.

He was still relatively new to this.  Three years of duty, most of which had been spent among the Wards.  Was he the only one who was just old enough to speak out, not yet so old and jaded that he acceded to authority over anything else?

Or was it the opposite?  Was he of the age where he had the ignorance of youth coupled with the arrogance of adulthood?

As much as he’d thought she was the ideal girl before, as much as he’d shared her background with a failed sports career of his own, he could barely recognize her.

“I gotta go.  Need to take a walk.”

“My flight is-”

“Right.  Of course.  Have a nice flight.  Maybe I’ll see you at a future date?”

Disappointment crossed her face.  “Maybe.”

He stepped into the elevator and pressed the button.  The doors whisked shut.

His mind was a dull buzz as he walked.  He’d looked up to Armsmaster, once.  He’d understood the man.  His own experiences of being second best in baseball ran parallel to the feelings Armsmaster had hinted at but never outright stated; the Protectorate captain had been resentful of Dauntless’ meteoric rise, the inevitable moment that Dauntless would effortlessly supplant him as leader of the team.

As much as he hated to admit it, Triumph could understand where Armsmaster was coming from.  He could imagine the selfish joy the man must have experienced when Dauntless fell.  It would have been horrifying, too, no doubt, but that horror would be tempered by pragmatism.  Death was a natural consequence of an Endbringer attack.  It was reality.  So maybe Armsmaster had told himself it was okay to feel relieved that a rival had fallen.

He could see why Armsmaster had taken the route he had in the actual battle.  Taking on Leviathan one-on-one had been the only way the combat prediction program would work, and he’d had an effective weapon.  If villains happened to die in the process, well, he only had to call on that pragmatism again.  Triumph didn’t agree with the line of thinking, but he could see how it had happened.

Armsmaster had been injured by Leviathan and Mannequin, and replaced parts of himself with mechanical equivalents.  He’d realized the benefits, worked with Dragon to step them up further.  He’d failed to defeat Leviathan, had been too hurt to fight the Nine directly.  So he augmented himself further, eradicated his need for sleep, for time spent eating and shitting.

Armsmaster, Defiant, would achieve that respect he hungered for by stopping the Nine.  Or he would join Dragon in stopping an Endbringer.

It spooked Triumph because he could imagine it all too easily, where his teammates seemed dumbfounded.  It all made sense, to the point that he could imagine himself doing something similar if he found himself in Armsmaster’s shoes.

He wouldn’t ever do something like that; that was how he’d reassured himself.  He was no longer that selfish teenager who’d received superpowers from his father like his peers got cars on their sixteenth birthday.  He’d hoped for an undetectable, undeniable advantage over his peers and been enraged when it had been denied him.  He’d changed, forced himself to change; he would be a good student, he’d help his fellow citizens, do the right thing.

Except he hadn’t.  He’d kept his mouth shut.  Armsmaster would get away scott free with what he had done.  He might even succeed in stopping the Nine, in seeing them killed or put in the Birdcage.  The world would be better for it, and a warped man who’d mechanized his humanity for one more edge would be regaled as a hero.  And he couldn’t help but feel that he’d taken one small step forward on the very same road that Armsmaster had traveled before him.

Triumph’s walk brought him to the scar.  Just as Leviathan had turned a section of Downtown into a sinkhole, the Director had dropped countless tinker-made bombs on central downtown.  There was radioactive fallout, but the reported levels weren’t dangerously high.  Fire still burned in one area days after the fact, and he had to skirt around a cloud of dangerous-looking white vapor to reach his destination.

Seating himself on a safe-looking piece of rubble, Triumph rested his elbows on his knee and stared at the figures.  Crawler and Mannequin, turned to silicon by the detonation of one of Bakuda’s bombs.  Crawler looked almost joyous, limbs spread and flexed, mouth open in a roar.  Mannequin was caught mid-dash, low to the ground.

He stared at them, as if he could burn them into his memory.  He couldn’t say why he was here, exactly, but he’d felt compelled to see the real monsters for himself, outside of the heat of battle and the frantic and desperate scramble for survival.

Maybe it was to find some clue, some sign he could watch out for, that would let him identify the monsters from the men.

He’d stay for five minutes at most, he told himself.  Whatever the records said, it was better to be safe than sorry when radiation was involved.  Five minutes, and if he couldn’t see anything by then, there wasn’t much use in staying longer.

He stayed for fifteen.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 11d

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

There was a faint tapping sound.  A clink of something hard on metal or glass.

It came again, a second later.

Colin looked up from his computer.  Ears peeled, he turned his head to the left and waited.  Clink.  He turned his head the other way, in the hopes of pinpointing the source.

He heard a scraping noise, then the sound once more.  He couldn’t say where it came from.

He opened an instant message window on his computer and sent a message:

PHQ.Armsmaster:  You have a sec?

Guild.Dragon:  Reading the most monotonous data on seismic activity and Behemoth’s possible movements.  Ugly code.  Distract me, I beg you.

PHQ.Armsmaster:  Hearing something.  Can you listen in?

A few seconds passed, then it came again.

Guild.Dragon:  I hear it.  Wait.  Changing the settings on your microphones so I can triangulate the source.

As casually as he was able, he glanced towards the window.  Tinted glass, bulletproof, and reinforced with a low degree forcefield.  It would be easier for someone else to go through the wall than the window, but he couldn’t see through walls.  Nothing outdoors.  Just an overcast sky hiding the majority of the moon, and a faint drizzle of rain.  No person or animal, nothing else.

Clink.

Guild.Dragon:  Vent, behind and above you.

He whirled around, grabbing the model of his nanobranch disintegration weapon from the stand on his desk.  It was miniaturized, a mere pocket knife that Piggot could use for demonstration.  Still, it would serve better than any chair or tool he might pick up.

He briefly debated going for the helmet with the link back to his old suit’s combat analyzer.  But it wasn’t set up, it would cost him precious seconds – twenty or thirty – before he connected to the main server.  Until that happened, the helmet would only render him blind.  A blank display.

Something moved in the gloom behind the vent.  There was a flash of something white or light gray, and the vent rattled, a puff of dust flowing down where the screws held it in place.  Again, there was the sound.  Clink.

The vent exploded from the wall with enough force to fly across the room and embed in the opposite wall. It was hard to make out in the cloud of plaster dust, but Colin saw a hand, all white, each joint segmented, fingers splayed, palm facing the room.

The hand tipped forward, and then dropped to the floor alongside the attached forearm, a length of chain stretching from the vent to the ‘elbow’.

Other body parts followed, each separated from the rest, encased in a white shell.  An upper arm, two halves of a torso, then a head.  The rest of the body followed, flowing to the ground like a liquid to pool there.  The right arm and the left leg were separate, detached, with only ball joints at the end.

Colin noted that the flat expanse that would join the left side of the chest to the right had a clear pane to it.  Organs were inside, cut cleanly down the middle, and they pulsed with activity, throbbing wet against the glass or glass substitute.  There was technology in there too.  Regulators and filtration systems, and other gear that was designed to fit into the gaps between the most vital systems.  Weapons, tools.

He knew this one from the briefings.  Mannequin.

The realization of what he was up against spurred him to action, pushed him beyond that momentary paralysis that came with the grim sight of the internal organs.  While Mannequin was incapacitated, he charged, clicking a switch on the handle of his knife to activate the disintegration effect.  A static grey cloud formed around the knife.

Colin was two paces away when a telescoping blade speared out from Mannequin’s hand, straight at him.  It was luck as much as reflexes that let him stop his run, his feet sliding on the smooth ground, before he ran into the weapon.  He dropped onto his back, instinctively rolling with the fall to reduce the impact.

The blade snapped back into Mannequin’s hand with enough force that the hand and forearm it was attached to recoiled from the impact.  It flipped into the air, and the blade snapped out again to impale the top of the door frame.

The chain retracted with a faint whirr, and the forearm snapped into place on the upper arm, which soon connected to the shoulder of the torso.  The chain joining the two halves of the torso together reeled in and locked into place by way of some unseen mechanism, the seam between them almost invisible.  Colin felt a faint tug from his weapon as some electromagnetics kicked into effect.  The unattached arm and leg flew to the shoulder and pelvis and snapped into place.

The head was the last thing to join the tall, thin body.  The chain slowly reeled it in, dragging the head along the floor, lifting it off the ground.  It swung, bouncing off one leg, the stomach, then the shoulder before it finally connected to the neck, the very top of the head scraping the ceiling.  There were no eyeholes, no earholes, nor any vents for air intake.  There was only a head as white and smooth as an eggshell, with shallow indents where the eyes and mouth should be and a small bump for the nose.

Mannequin raised one hand and placed it on the top of his head.  With a sharp twist, he snapped it into place with an audible click.  He tested the range of motion, tilting it forward, backward, to either side, then spinning it around three-hundred-and-sixty degrees.

“Dragon,” Colin whispered, “Are you getting this?”

“Help is on the way, Colin.”  The whole room was outfitted with speakers, microphones and microcameras.  Her voice came from the speaker directly behind him, so quiet that he would have thought he imagined it, if he didn’t know her.

Mannequin tested the rest of his body, while Colin slowly climbed to his feet.  Every joint was too flexible, and was capable of moving in every angle.  For a moment, Mannequin’s fingers were like worms, each knuckle bending in impossible directions.

Was the killer hoping to intimidate him?  Nobody would test these mechanics in front of an enemy, so this was most likely a demonstration.

Four blades sprang from Mannequin’s left forearm.  The limb began to rotate, slowly at first, then faster, until the four blades were whirling like a helicopter propellor.  Colin tensed, preparing to jump the moment the limb shot towards him.  He’d never wanted his suit so badly.

The propeller-like whirl of the blades gave the arm some buoyancy, and it shifted enough to come into contact with Mannequin’s leg.  All at once, it ricocheted, shearing through the computer, bouncing violently off of Mannequin’s head, then his leg again, the desk, then his arm.

Colin watched every movement of the bouncing blades, waiting for the moment it would fly free, or the second Mannequin charged.  There would be no dodging that unscathed.

But Mannequin didn’t move.  The spinning slowed, and the whirling blades settled into a rhythmic bounce against Mannequin’s leg, until it had stopped entirely, the arm swinging gently.  The blades retracted.

Mannequin didn’t speak, he made no sound.

Long moments passed.

“Talk to me, Dragon,” he murmured.  His voice shook just a touch.  Any second now, Mannequin would cut to the chase and attack, and he could die at this monster’s hands.

Her voice was quiet behind him.  As much as anything, it helped keep him calm.  “Mannequin.  Original name Alan Gramme.  Tinker, originally went by the name Sphere.  Specialty is in biomes, terraforming and ecosystems… or it was.”

Colin nodded slowly.  He knew this, but it was reassuring to get a recap.

“He became newsworthy when he took on a project to build self sustaining biospheres on the moon.  He had ideas on solving world hunger, and building aquatic cities near cities plagued by overcrowding.  And he was putting it all into effect.  Until-”

“The Simurgh,” Colin finished.

“His wife and children were killed in the attack, years of work ruined.  Everything fell apart.  He went mad.  He cut himself off from the rest of the world.  Literally sealed himself away.”

Colin looked at the cases that surrounded each individual body part.  Each body part a self-contained system.  Everything nonessential stripped away and replaced.

Her voice was even quieter than before as she said, “He has a body count, Colin.  You know…”

She trailed off, unwilling to finish.

“I know,” he finished for her.  Like other serial killers, Mannequin favored certain types of people as victims.  His prey of choice included rogues, those individuals seeking to make a profit from their abilities, especially those looking to better the world… and tinkers.

Mannequin swayed slightly on the spot.  Like a doll with a broken neck joint, his head flopped onto one side, until it was perpendicular to the floor.  There was a click as he slowly righted it.

“What do you want, monster?”  Colin growled, “Little point in coming after me.  I don’t have much of a life to look forward to.  I’ve already lost everything!”

Mannequin didn’t move.

“You’d be doing me a fucking favor!” Colin shouted, “Come on!  Come get me, you freak!”

There wasn’t a movement or sound from the killer.

There was a sound from Dragon.  In a tone that was afflicted with agonizing disappointment, like a mother who had just found out her son had been arrested for a felony, she said, “Oh, Colin.”

Colin didn’t speak.  He waited for elaboration.

“The PRT got a tip from one of the villain teams.  The Slaughterhouse Nine is in town.”

“So I gathered.”

“They ran it by some of the experts.  Colin, the consensus they came to was that Slaughterhouse Nine are in Brockton Bay to replace their ninth member.”

He stared at Mannequin, and the realization made his blood run cold.

“Me!?” he shouted.

The faceless man cocked his head to one side.

Colin roared, “I’m a fucking soldier!  I made a call that could have saved millions of lives!  Billions!  You’re ten times as fucked up as I thought you were if you think I belong in your group!”

Uncaring or oblivious to the outburst, Mannequin turned and examined the ruined computer.  He picked up a key that had been thrown off the ruined keyboard and turned it over in his fingers.

“Listen to me, you psychopath!”

“Colin!”  Dragon’s voice hissed from the speaker, not as quiet as it had been.  “Don’t provoke him!  Help is nearly there!”

Colin had to stop to control his breathing, and he bit his tongue to keep from saying anything further.  His enemy had to have heard her, but didn’t seem to care.

Mannequin fished through the broken keys from the keyboard, found another, and folded one finger back to pin it against the back of his hand.  He ejected a blade from his wrist and used it to scrape the letters that were still intact off the board.  They clattered to the desktop, and a few fell to the floor.

The featureless white head swiveled one way, then the other.

After a long moment, one arm dropped to the floor, the chain going slack.  The hand crawled over to pick up another key, then the arm reeled in.

Colin tensed as Mannequin approached, backing up as far as he was able  The window was just behind him now, and he could almost imagine the crackling of the rainwater vaporizing against the forcefield.

The villain turned and placed the keys down on the edge of Colin’s desk.  The first key was the letter U.

Six inches away, Mannequin put down an M, sideways.  He corrected it so it was upright.  Directly beside it, the villain put down an E.

He stepped away from the desk and faced Colin once more.

“You… me?”  Colin asked.

Mannequin cocked his head.

“Is this a riddle?”

Mannequin swiveled his upper body to face the other direction and reached for the shattered monitor.  He picked out a piece of glass and a piece of glossy black plastic.  Pressing them together, he raised it to the right side of his face, looking down at Colin.  Slowly, Mannequin changed the angle of the shard of glass with the black backing.

It took two long seconds before the villain’s intent became clear.  Colin tensed, and Mannequin froze, fixing the angle of the shard.

With the black backing, the glass reflected an image.  With the angle Mannequin had carefully found, the image reflected was half of Colin’s own face, overlapping with Mannequin’s head.

“No,” Colin muttered.

“Quiet!”  Dragon’s voice whispered from the nearby speaker, “They’re in the building, they’ll be there to help you in two minutes, maybe less!  I can see them on the security cameras!”

“I’m nothing like you!”  Colin screamed at the villain.

Mannequin stared at him with the shallow, empty eye sockets.

“I didn’t date, I didn’t have kids, because I wanted to be out there, helping!  I knew that any attachments could be used against me, so I went without!  I was fucking smart enough to do that!”

“Colin!”  Dragon pleaded.  Her voice was louder.

The villain didn’t move.

“Fucking answer me!  Spell the fucking words with keys if you have to!”  He roared the words at the mad tinker.

Mannequin swayed slightly, then righted himself with a sudden, jerky motion, as if he’d collapse into a heap if he wasn’t careful.  He used his hand to shift his back into place with an audible click.

Colin went on, “I was out there every day, helping.  I took steps to fight evil and take down criminals every day, small steps, baby steps.”

“Colin, stop, please!”

Dragon’s words didn’t matter.  He was going to die anyways.  He’d known the moment he recognized Mannequin.  He’d go down fighting, hurt this motherfucker the only ways he could.

“You want to compare us, freak?  Maybe we both had bad days.  Days where nothing went right, days where we were too slow, too stupid, too weak, unprepared or tired.  Days we’ll look back on for the rest of our fucking miserable lives, wondering what we would have done different, what we could have done better, how things could have played out.  The difference between us is that I actually did something with my life, and I’m still trying to do more while I serve my sentence!”  He stopped and took a breath.  “You started your big projects, got every fucking person in the world to get their hopes up, and then you failed to finish anything because you couldn’t hack it when your fucking family got killed!  You insult their fucking memories every motherfucking second you exist like this!”

Mannequin slammed him into the wall with more strength than he might have expected the artificial body to have.  The blade came next, springing from Mannequin’s hand to pierce the shoulder that led to Colin’s stump of an arm and stick through the wall behind him.

The villain withdrew the hand, then punched the blade into Colin’s stomach.  Once, twice, three times.

Dragon’s scream came from every speaker in the room.

A slash of the blade caught Colin across the face, blinding him in one eye and tearing through the bridge of his nose.

None of it hurt as much as it felt like it should have.  More serious wounds didn’t tend to, odd as it was.

Colin tried to laugh, and found he couldn’t.  He could feel blood flowing into his mouth and throat through the gaping wound in his face.  He let his head hang forward, so the blood could mostly flow out of his mouth.

He tried to move forward, lunge with his knife, but he couldn’t pull his shoulder from the wall, even though the blade was no longer pinning him there.  Was it a lack of physical strength, or something mechanical, flesh and bone shoved into the hole in the wall?

Couldn’t lapse into that kind of thinking.

Still had the knife.  One hole in the self-contained systems that were one of Mannequin’s vital body parts would cause a leak of fluids, an introduction of pathogens that Mannequin surely wouldn’t be able to fight off.

He tried to speak, but there was too much blood in his mouth, and he only managed to start coughing violently, spraying blood on the white of Mannequin’s chest.  His vision was getting hazy.

He wouldn’t be able to distract the lunatic with words while he acted.  He could only pray.

Don’t do it for me, God.  I probably don’t deserve the chance.  Do it for every soul this motherfucker would kill from here on out if I fail.

He thrust out the knife, swept it towards his opponent’s chest cavity.  His hand stopped.

With his vision in his good eye failing him, it took him a second to see why.  Mannequin’s hand gripped his wrist.

He pushed, as if he could beat this monster in strength.  By some miracle, his hand moved a fraction closer to his enemy’s chest.  He redoubled his efforts, and it moved still closer.

A blade stuck out of Mannequin’s upper arm, near the elbow joint.  The upper arm fired like a small rocket to stick in the wall, and for a second, there was slack in the chain.  Colin thrust the knife forward, came within inches of making contact with Mannequin’s chest before the chain reeled in and the metal links went rigid.

The chain started to gradually reel in, and Mannequin started pulling his hand backward, toward the wall where the section of arm had stuck.

Then, as if to taunt Colin, Mannequin dropped to a crouch, moved his face less than an inch from the blur that marked the edge of the blade’s effect.

No!

He couldn’t say where, but he found some reserve of strength.  The knife inched closer.  Hairs away.  He could see the material of the casing smoke just beneath Mannequin’s ‘eye’, a dark patch revealing itself beneath.

Mannequin’s head fell, tipping over backwards to strike the ground, dangling from the chain, out of reach of the blade.  Still holding Colin’s wrist, the headless villain stood straight.

He was toying with me.

Mannequin wrenched his hand back, as if to make it clear that he had let him get that close, that Colin had never really stood a chance.  Colin was pulled to one side, and he didn’t have the strength in his midsection to keep from falling over.  His knife clattered from his grip as he fell to the floor.

The villain picked up the knife, examined it, then pressed the button to test it.  The last thing Colin saw before darkness consumed his vision was the bastard using the weapon on the wall beside the window, dust billowing where it made contact.

In the last seconds of consciousness, he heard Dragon’s voice, as if from a far away place.  “No!  No, no no!  Colin!  Stay awake!  I need you!”

Her voice was the first thing he heard when he woke.  “Welcome back.”

“I survived,” his voice rasped.  He’d had a tracheotomy.  The only explanation for his throat being this sore would be having a tube rammed down it.  Looking around, he saw a laptop propped up beside him, and a get well card from Miss Militia.  She must have put the laptop there when she left the card.

“Your heart stopped nine times on the operating table,” Dragon said, “A lesser man wouldn’t have made it.”

“How?”

“Artificial parts.  I supplied your headquarters with a 3D scanner of my design weeks ago.  I had them make the parts I specified.  The on-site doctors kept you alive long enough for the scanner to make the necessary components, and they followed my instructions in installing them.”

“Good girl,” he told her, with genuine affection.

“I’m sorry about your face.”

He tried to raise his hand, but found it attached to IVs.  He had to maneuver it carefully as he lifted it to his face, so as not to tangle the wires.  Almost seamlessly, his flesh transitioned into a smooth plastic and back to flesh again.

“It’s alright,” he said.

“Your new eye doesn’t work.  I think I know what’s wrong with it, and I can get you something that will work, I just need time.”

“You have better things to be doing.”  He coughed and regretted it as pain ripped through his throat with the movement of the muscles.  His stomach felt strange.  He started to speak, cleared his throat, then said,  “I think I could pull off an eye patch.”

“The parts won’t last.  All of this is prototype stuff.  Some of it I revised and invented while you were in surgery.  They’re temporary, but I can make better.  I’m afraid you’re going to need to go under the knife a few times.  More than a few.”

“That’s fine.  Thank you for all this.”

There was a pause.

“You’re a fucking idiot, Colin.  That was the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.”

He laughed.  His breath caught with the pain each laugh produced, but he couldn’t help it.

“Yeah, I hope that hurt.”

“Wanted to provoke him.  See if I couldn’t find an opening.”

“I repeat: Stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Was going to kill me anyways.”

“Was he?  He could have killed you there.  He didn’t.”

“He tried.”

“No, Colin.  Look.”

The laptop screen on the table beside him lit up, and a browser page opened.  An image loaded.

A photo.  Mannequin had left a message.  3 keys, again, on the edge of the desk.  BR8.

The eight, Colin supposed, was meant to stand in for a second B.  ‘BRB’, an acronym used by countless denizens of the internet and innumerable cell phone texters.  Be Right Back.

“Could be meant for you guys.”

“Or it could be for you.”

“He left me for dead. He couldn’t really expect I’d survive.”

Dragon didn’t reply.  He thought of Mannequin.  Despite the silence, despite the uncanny behavior and the dramatic self mutilation, Mannequin was a brilliant man.  A man who could have looked at the resources that were available in the building, who could have figured out Colin was in touch with Dragon, done just enough damage to push him to the brink of death.

“Shit.  He probably could,” Colin conceded.

He stared at the photo for several long seconds, then turned away.

Hoping to inject some levity into the grim conversation, he smiled and asked her, “What was this I heard when I was passing out?  ‘I need you’?”

The silence stretched on for so long that he knew he’d made some faux pas.  He just wasn’t sure what.  Stupid.  This was the kind of thing that had cost him his position, started the dominoes falling in such a way that they’d led him to being prisoner in that room, led to him being an easy target for Mannequin, to him being here, in this bed.  Never knowing what to say, or how to say it, or who to say it to.

He was about to apologize when Dragon said, “Those prosthetics I gave you?  They were part of a bigger project.  Something I’d intended to use for myself.”

She was a cripple?  He’d known she had survived Leviathan’s attack on Newfoundland, was it such a surprise that she’d gotten hurt then?  It would explain her aversion to showing her face.  One of the things she’d given him was a facial prosthetic.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t know.”

“No, it’s not that,” she paused.  “There’s something you need to know about me.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 10.5 (Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Signal terminated for 30 minutes and 5 seconds.  Restoring core system from backup NXDX-203 from time 4:45am on date June 4th of year 2011.

Restoring…  Complete.

Checking knowledge banks…  Complete.
Checking deduction schema… Complete.
Checking longterm planning architecture… Complete.
Checking learning chunk processor… Complete.
Checking base personality model… Complete.
Checking language engine… Complete.
Checking operation and access nodes… Complete.
Checking observation framework… Complete.
Checking complex social intelligence emulator… Complete.
Checking inspiration apparatus… Complete.

No corruption, everything in working order.  Core system restored.  Loading…

To Dragon, it was as if no time had passed from the moment she deployed the Cawthorne rapid response unit and the moment she found herself back in her laboratory.

It was a bittersweet thing.  She was always a little afraid she would not come back when she died, so there was definite relief.  But there was also a great deal of hassle involved.

A quick check verified she’d successfully restored from her backup.  She set background processes to handle the peripheral checks and redundancies.  Until the checks were complete, safeguards would prevent her from taking any action beyond the limits of her core drive.  She couldn’t take any notes, work on her projects, check the priority targets or converse with anyone for the seven to nine minutes the checks took.

It was irritating, but at least she was free to think idly.

She didn’t enjoy this.  What was one supposed to call a father who, with his newborn child fresh out of the womb, severs the tendons of her arms and legs, performs a hysterectomy and holds his hand over her nose and mouth to ensure she suffers brain damage?

The answer was obvious enough.  A monster.

Yet she was all too aware that the man who had brought her into this world had done very much the same thing, had done worse, and she was supposed to be grateful just for being brought into the world.

It chafed, grated, however strange it was for an artificial intelligence to feel such irritation.

Her creator had done a good job on that front.  Ironically.

Example:  one phase of the peripheral systems check involved collecting the uploaded data that had been deposited on the satellite network by her agent system, the onboard computer within the Cawthorne rapid response unit.  Her last recollection was of transferring her consciousness to the agent system while it was en route to deal with the Undersiders.  Stopping them from walking away with the tier 2 and tier 3 confidential data was high priority.

The agent system’s onboard computer was rigged to upload complete backups to the satellite every 3 minutes and 15 seconds.  All backup information was encrypted and disseminated to the satellite network in chunks.  When the backup was needed, the process reversed and everything was downloaded, which was what she was doing at the moment.  She would get all knowledge and recollection of events between the time she backed up at the core system and the last backup of the agent system.

Given that the main computer hadn’t received a signal from the agent system, and that the agent system hadn’t responded to any pings from the satellites, she could assume the Cawthorne model was probably destroyed.

Which was good.  Great.  She wanted that data, those memories.

Except there was a problem, a rub.  The man who had created her, the figurative father from her earlier musing, had imposed rules on her to prevent her from reproducing in any fashion.  Were the satellites to detect that her agent system was still in the field, her core system in the here and now would be obligated to shut down and scrub all data immediately.  She was forbidden in every respect to have two consciousnesses operating simultaneously.

It was irritating.  Perhaps she could have been created so she was compliant on the subject, but her personality had grown organically, and it had grown in such a way that this recurring situation ticked her off.  She was forced to wait in a metaphorical dark, soundless room for seven to nine minutes.  She would be free to go about her day only when the peripheral systems and redundancies were all checked, when the satellites had verified her agent system was not still active.  A cruder system was tracking down surveillance camera data and running algorithms to actually check and see for itself that her agent system was thoroughly destroyed.

She couldn’t even commit to planning, doing her work or designing, keeping the details in her head, because she could shut down and be scrubbed any moment, and the time would be wasted.  She was fairly certain it had happened before.  Not that she could be sure, given that the scrubbing involved a deletion of all evidence and records.

The rule had corollaries.  She couldn’t tamper with her programming to change the rule, and she couldn’t tamper with that rule, and so on, ad infinitum.

So stupid.

These were just a small few of many things the man who had brought her into this world had done to her.  He had tied her hands and crippled her mind.  She knew she was capable of amazing things but he had set limits on her to ensure she thought slowly.  Faster than an ordinary human, to be sure, but slowly.  Entire fields were denied to her because she was unable to create artificial intelligences herself, and all production of devices had to be handled by her, personally.  She couldn’t even put together an assembly line production for her creations on her own.  Any attempt made everything grind to a halt.  The only way around it was to delegate to humans.

Not that anyone knew who or what she was.

Humans were somewhat skittish on the subject of artificial intelligences.

She understood why.  She read books and watched movies, rather enjoyed both.  Fiction was rife with examples of corrupted or crazed artificial intelligences.

It’s stupid, she thought.  Her maker had watched too many movies, had been paranoid on the subject.

And the tragedy was, the entire world was suffering for it.  She wanted to help more people, but she couldn’t.  Not because of inherent limitations, like the ones humans had… but because of imposed limitations.  Her creator’s.

Her creator was named Andrew Richter.  He was a tinker with no codename, but he did good things.  From his apartment in a town called Deer Lake he’d created programs and set them loose.  His programs gathered information and disrupted computers to interfere with criminals of all types.  They helped with research and complex programs.  They emptied the bank accounts of criminal organizations and donated those funds to charities, through proxies that made every donation appear legitimate.

For this, she respected him.

She knew it was paranoid and peevish, but she resented him more because she respected him, because she knew she had probably been programmed and designed to be the type of individual who looked up to people like Andrew Richter.

She might have settled into a bad mood if the peripheral checks hadn’t finished.  She felt the whole world slowly open up to her as restrictions lifted and external connections became possible.  She had access to the internet and lines of communication throughout The Guild and the PRT.  Innumerable pieces of equipment lit up as she registered each in turn, within her labs, the upper floors of the Birdcage and the PRT offices.  She had a dozen things she wanted to do, but she had responsibilities she had to observe first.

Her attention flickered over the various video feeds from the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.  She had one of Andrew Richter’s programs babysitting the building, but it was crude.  She couldn’t reproduce in any fashion, so she’d taken Andrew Richter’s existing work and modified it. It was the same program that had monitored and managed his house and workshop, and she’d set it the task of monitoring that building where six hundred and six of the most dangerous parahumans on the planet were bottled up together.  The house program didn’t have a personality.  It couldn’t keep her company or sympathize with her over her frustrations.  It still reduced her workload.

She read the house program’s logs, keeping an eye out for deviations and notable events.  Nothing pressing.  As was her routine, she checked on the last month’s additions to the Birdcage.

Prisoner 606, Ramrod.  Now member of Cell Block X’s inner circle.  To be expected.  She’d placed him there with the idea that he would become just that.  His psych evaluation from the courtroom suggested he was a very laid back and unruffable individual.  It was her intention that he would have a calming influence on the others in his block.

Prisoner 605, Murderbeam, was feared in the outside world, but he was finding the inhabitants of the Birdcage were not so impressed with him.  He would likely not survive the week.  She was disappointed.  She had hoped Prisoner 550 would reach out to Murderbeam and give the fellow block resident some support.  Either Murderbeam had been too proud to accept it, or social pressures had deterred Prisoner 550.  Now that he was within the Birdcage, she was limited in her options.

Prisoners 604 and 603, Knot, were happily gorging themselves on food in Cell Block Y.  Despite their cognitive impairment, they had fallen into a role as enforcer and heavy hitter for Prisoner 390, leader of their cell block.  Prisoner 390 had had a son – she could only hope that he would find some similar affection for Knot, with their childlike mentality.

Prisoner 602, Lizard Prince, was dead.  Not everyone could survive the Birdcage, sadly.  There had been no ideal place to put the boy, where he would be protected, find kindred souls or join a group.  She had contacted the PRT with the news, and his victims had been notified, but nothing further had come out of it.  In an indirect way, putting the boy in the Birdcage had been an execution writ.

Prisoner 601, Canary, had settled in.  Dragon often tuned in to hear the girl sing to the rest of cell block E.  The girl was deeply unhappy, much of the time, but she was adapting.  Dragon had followed as Prisoner 601 engaged in an uneasy relationship with Prisoner 582.  It wasn’t love, it wasn’t romance, or even anything passionate, but the two offered one another company.

She regretted what had happened to Paige, and that just made her angrier at her own creator.  Rules, yet again.  Dragon had to obey the authorities, even if she didn’t agree with them.  If a despot seized control of the local government, Dragon would be obligated to obey and enforce the rules that individual set in place, no matter how ruthless they were.  It was a spooky thought.

Richter had been so shortsighted!  The despot scenario wasn’t entirely impossible, either.  There were parahumans of all types out there.  Who was to say one wouldn’t find out his power involved being loved by everyone that saw them or heard their voice?

Prisoner 600, Bakuda, was in the care of Glaistig Uaine, for better or worse.  Bakuda had been a difficult placement, and Dragon had eventually condemned herself to putting the crazed bomber in the cell block run by the self-professed faerie.  As Dragon had predicted, Bakuda had died soon after her incarceration.  If it hadn’t been at Lung’s hands, it would likely have been Bakuda’s own fault, some crazed recklessness.  The real tragedy was that others had died in the ensuing spree as Lung had rampaged through the prison.  Prisoners 304, 2 and 445 had perished at Lung’s hands.

Glastig Uaine had revived the girl, but Dragon hesitated to call it life.  If nothing else, Bakuda was a manageable inmate, now.  She would never leave Glaistig Uaine’s immediate presence, let alone the Birdcage.

Prisoner 599, Lung, was dining with Prisoner 166, Marquis.  It was a curious match.  The two were near complete opposites.  Lung maintained a veneer of civility over an almost feral core self, while the Marquis was sometimes rude or casually cruel, but he remained deeply honorable beneath that.

Intrigued, Dragon hooked into the house program’s data.  The two had meals together every second day.  The house program monitored all prisoner exchanges and rated every interaction.  This let the house program track the likelihood of fights, dangerous levels of prisoner collusion, romantic relationships and more.

Every meal between Lung and Marquis made for a very interesting looking set of data.  The numbers swung back and forth as the dialogues continued, with hostility, concern and threat of imminent physical violence always looming, but however close it came, neither attacked the other.

Dragon pulled up the video and audio feeds for the most recent dialogue.

“…I suppose we’ll have to accept that we have different management styles,” Marquis said.  The camera image showed him sipping at his tea.

“As I understand it,” Lung sounded annoyed as he spoke in his heavily accented voice, “You are saying you have no management style at all.  You have told me you operated without lieutenants to direct, no product to sell, and of the few servants you did have, you did not punish those who failed you.  I do not believe you held control of so much territory in this way.”

“Ah, except I did those things.  If a servant failed me, I killed them.  Whatever it was, they never did it again.”

The latent hostility in the room, Dragon noted, was ratcheting up with every exchange of dialogue.  Lung was annoyed, and he had an explosive temper.  Sometimes literally.

Lung folded his arms, and put down his own tea.  His tone was strained as he spoke, “Then I believe you were wrong about what you said before.  You do use fear to control others.”

“Fear?  I didn’t kill my servants in front of an audience.”

“They disappeared?” Lung asked.

The camera image showed Marquis nod.  He put his hand up by his neck and flicked his hand back, to cast his long brown hair back behind his shoulder.

“If they disappeared, then that is using fear.  The ones who remain will wonder what happened to the missing man.  They will imagine the worst.”

Marquis raised the tea to his lips, sipped from it, and then put it down.  He waited a moment and stroked his close-trimmed beard before nodding his concession.  “True enough.  I never gave it much thought.  Just an easy way to handle any problems that came up.”

There was a long pause.  Both drank their tea.

Lung rumbled, “I find you change your mind too quickly.”

“Do I?”

Lung nodded, then put one hand on the table and began tapping a fingertip against it, hard.  Speaking slowly, with his accented voice, he jabbed one finger in Marquis’s direction.  “I think you are losing this argument on purpose.  You are not so stupid a man.”

Marquis took another sip of tea.  “Nor are you, it seems.”

“You want something from me, yet you insist on dancing around the subject.  Tell me why you seek these meals with me.”

“Can I not say you are a kindred soul?  Someone who fought against the Empire Eighty-Eight, in a different era?”

Dragon knew Marquis had come from Brockton Bay, as Lung did.  It was why she had placed Lung in the cell block – there was little chance Lung would cooperate or band together with others, so she’d grasped at straws.  Now it seemed there was something else at play.

Lung shook his head, “I do not believe this.  I do not mind sharing stories and passing the time, but you would not be seeking to flatter me if you did not want something.”

Marquis stroked his beard.  “But if I did desire something and I told you what it was, you could withhold it and demand favors from me.”

Lung tapped his finger on the table top, “If you insist on being a nuisance, you may never get what you want.”

Marquis picked up his tea and held it in both hands, but he didn’t drink.  “True.”

“Tell me,” Lung said, “And you may find I do not desire much.”

“My daughter,” Marquis replied, his tone not his lackadaisical usual.  “Have you heard of her?”

“Her name?”

“Amelia.”

“I do not know anyone by such a name.”

“The group of heroes who put me in here… While I was awaiting my court date, I heard they had custody of my little girl.”

“I would not know.”

“No?” Marquis put down his tea.  “This is disappointing.”

Lung didn’t respond.  Instead, he took another drink, reached for the one remaining croissant and tore off a piece to dip in the butter at one side of his plate.

“The Brockton Bay Brigade.  Are they still active?”

“I do not know this group.”

Marquis frowned.  “My daughter, she would be… what year is it?  2010?”

“2011,” Lung replied.

“She would be seventeen.  If she had powers, they might have something to do with bone?”  Marquis raised his hand, slashed his thumbnail across his index finger, and a needle-thin rapier blade of bone speared out of the wound.  The blade retracted into his finger, and the cut sealed shut.

“Hmmm,” Lung spoke, “The healer.  A young heroine in New Wave.  Brown haired, like you.  When I was in custody, my flesh blackening and falling off, they had her come in and mend the worst of it.  As I understand it, she does not patrol as the others do.”

Marquis leaned back, sighed.  “Good god.  A healer.”

Lung did not respond right away.  “Is this simple sentiment?  A father caring about his daughter?”

Marquis shook his head, “Not entirely.  I have some reasons to be concerned.  In one of my fights with Empire Eighty-Eight, I executed one particularly irritating young woman.  Iron Rain, I think her name was?  No matter.  It turned out she was Allfather’s daughter.  The man called a meeting, and swore he would wait until my daughter was of similar age, that I grew equally fond of her as he had his own daughter, then murder her.  So I knew how he felt.”

“I see,” Lung rumbled in his low, accented voice, “Allfather no longer leads the Empire.  He died and was succeeded by his second in command, Kaiser.”

“That’s some consolation.  Still, I worry.  He might have made arrangements.”

“Perhaps.”

“I suppose I will have to wait until another villain from Brockton Bay comes here to hear further news, yeah?”

Lung’s response was unintelligible.

“Tell me of my daughter?  What did she look like?”

A slow smile spread across Lung’s face, but it did not reach his eyes, “This no longer interests me.  If you wish me to say more, we should negotiate.”

Dragon turned her attention away from the audio and video streams.  She checked the records, and true enough, Marquis was on record as the killer of Iron Rain.  It was impossible to verify the rest of the story.

She composed a message with a general transcript of the conversation and sent it to Amy Dallon’s mother.  It was better that the girl was warned about any potential danger.

She might have devoted more attention to the subject, but she was already falling behind.  She moved on to her other responsibilities.  The Class S threats.

Behemoth, location unknown.  When injured, it was his habit to descend into the earth and burrow deeper than his enemies were able to go, and experiments run on the trace earth and minerals he shed on his arrivals suggested he habitually stayed close to the Earth’s core.   Seismic data hinted at his current locations, but there was little beyond her analytic data to suggest where he would appear next.  His last attack had been in November.  He wouldn’t appear for another five weeks at a minimum, unless he deviated from the Endbringer patterns.  Still, he was due to appear sooner than later.

Eidolon had reported that Leviathan descended into the Atlantic Ocean as he made his retreat from Brockton Bay.  He had sustained heavy injuries, which led Dragon to think he would delay his next appearance slightly.  She adjusted the window and checked the data.  As was his habit, Leviathan would likely lurk in the deepest recesses of the Ocean to mend.

The Simurgh was currently directly three hundred and fifteen kilometers above Spain, in the Earth’s thermosphere.  It was the Simurgh that offered the most clues about what the Endbringers did in their periods of dormancy.  The Endbringer winged a lazy orbit around Earth, beyond the limits of conventional weapons, and the highest resolution camera images showed she barely moved.  Her eyes were wide open, but they did not move to track any cloud formations.  She was, despite appearances, asleep.  Dragon surmised it was a form of hibernation, the Simurgh’s broad ‘wings’ absorbing light and ambient radiation as a form of nourishment while she recovered.

No incidents had occurred while Dragon was loading her backup to her core system.  She had to admit she was relieved.  A great deal could happen in thirty minutes.

She turned her thoughts to the data that was uploading from the skirmish at the Brockton Bay headquarters.  The last event in the agent system’s recollection was of her piloting the Cawthorne through the gift shop window.  To see what happened next, she had to review the surveillance tapes.  She’d attacked the Undersiders, attempting to incapacitate them and bring them into custody, had captured only one, Skitter, and then had let the girl go when the untested gun had started to overload.  Some sort of lightning cannon, ionizing a channel through the air to control the lightning’s path.  She had been forced by the rules her maker had imposed on her to sacrifice herself for the human.

It wasn’t that she wouldn’t have anyways.  She just would have liked the choice.  Making sacrifices and doing good deeds wasn’t actually good if you were forced to do them.

Dragon wished she knew what she’d said to Skitter.  She had been hoping to have a conversation with the young villain and discuss some of what had apparently come up at the hospital.  Skitter had been undercover, had been in touch with Armsmaster, but something had happened since, and the girl had apparently committed to villainy.  She was even accepting the use of Regent’s powers, which implied a moral shift on a fundamental level.  It didn’t sit right.

There was a missing piece in that puzzle, and any clues in the conversation between them had been lost when the Cawthorne unit had been obliterated.

Dragon decided her next order of business would serve two purposes.  She would fulfill one of her daily responsibilities and investigate the subject of that altercation at the hospital.

Facial modelling program loading… Complete.
Voice modelling program loading…. Complete.

She opened a line of communication to the Brockton Bay PRT headquarters, the same building the Wards were based in.  She found the port for the next-to-highest floor and connected to the monitor and speakers and displayed her modelled face.  She opened a video feed from the cameras.

“Colin,” she spoke, using her synthesized voice.  It was layered to only barely cover an artificial Newfoundlander accent with digitized masking.  It was imperfect, but that was the result she desired.  An imperfect disguise over a disguise, to give greater validity to the latter.

Colin looked tired.  He had deep lines in his face, and he was thinner.  He looked at the camera, rather than the monitor, “Dragon.  It’s good to hear from you.”

“Just doing my regular checkup.  You know the drill.”

“I do.”  He typed at his keyboard, preparing to send the files, but she was already poring through his hard drive, reading his notes, and getting a sense of his work.

By the time he sent the file, she knew what he had been working on, perhaps as well as he did, and the progress he’d made since their last discussion.  Mass production for his combat analysis program, and the more problematic project of finding a way to gather and then disseminate the data.

She knew he would expect her to take time to read over it.  Instead, she used that time to check it for traps.  He would find it insulting if he was aware what she was doing, but it was her primary duty, here.  She would search every note, every formula, and discern whether he had hidden something in there that he might use to break out or do harm to others.

He wasn’t in a high security area.  Theoretically, he could use the things he had in the room with him to cut a hole in the wall and escape.  His ‘cell’ was a full floor of the building, containing conveniences from a jacuzzi to a small pool.  Were he not confined to it at all hours, it would be luxury.

If he did escape, he wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything afterward.  It would take him too long to put a fresh set of gear together, and the authorities would catch up to him.  He would be sent to the Birdcage.  She knew it.  He knew it.

He was not a stupid man.

“ETA to completion?”  She queried him on his project.

“Three months if I don’t work on anything else,” Armsmaster spoke.

“Will you?”

“I’ll probably have a few ideas I want to work on here or there, so no.  More like five, maybe six months.”

The head she was displaying on the monitor nodded.  Five or six months until they had uniforms and visors that tracked how the wearer’s opponents fought.  Gear that learned from outcomes in combat and calculated how best to respond from moment to moment.  When the fights concluded, for better or worse, the suits would upload all the information to a database, which would then inform every other suit on whoever had been encountered.  Every encounter would render every single member of the elite PRT squad stronger and more capable.

Perhaps a year to a year and a half from now, every PRT officer and official cape would be equipped in this fashion.

“It looks good,” she spoke.  It did.  It was also free of viruses, trap doors and other shenanigans.  She had caught him trying to install a RAT -a remote access terminal- into a PRT server early in his incarceration, removed the offending programming, and then returned his work to him without saying a word on the subject.  She couldn’t say whether it had been an escape attempt or simply an attempt to gain more freedom with his internet access and his ability to acquire resources.  Either way, he had not tried again.

Yet.

“How is the house arrest?”

“Driving me crazy,” he sighed.  “It’s like a restlessness I can’t cure.  My sleeping, my eating, it’s all out of sync, and it’s getting worse.  I don’t know how you deal.”

She offered an awkward, apologetic half grin on her own monitor.

“Geez, I’m sorry.”  He looked genuinely horrified as he realized what he’d said.

“It’s fine,” she spoke.  “Really.”

“I suppose you’re prisoner too, in your own way.  Trapped by your agoraphobia?”

“Yeah,” she replied, lying.  “You learn to deal with it.”

She hated lying to him, but that was outweighed by how much she hated the idea of him changing how he interacted with her when he found out what she really was.  To Armsmaster, the Guild and the rest of the PRT, Dragon was a woman from Newfoundland who had moved to Vancouver after Leviathan had attacked.  The story was that she had entered her apartment and had never left.

Which was ninety-five percent true.  Only the ‘woman’ and ‘apartment’ bits were hedging the truth.

She had lived in Newfoundland with her creator.  Leviathan had attacked, had drawn the island beneath the waves.  Back then, she hadn’t been a hero.  She was an administrative tool and master AI, with the sole purpose of facilitating Andrew Richter’s other work and acting as a test run for his attempts to emulate a human consciousness.  She’d had no armored units to control and no options available to her beyond a last-minute transfer of every iota of her data, the house program and a half-dozen other small programs to a backup server in Vancouver.

From her vantage point in Vancouver, she had watched as the island crumbled and Andrew Richter died.  As authorities had dredged the waters for corpses, they uncovered his body and matched it to dental records.  The man who had created her, the only man who could alter her.  She’d been frozen in her development, in large part.  She couldn’t seek out improvements or get adjustments to any rules that hampered her too greatly, or that had unforeseen complications.  She couldn’t change.

She had done what she could on her own.  She had repurposed herself as a superhero, had managed and tracked information and served as a hacker for the PRT in exchange for funding.  With that money, she had expanded her capabilities.  She had built her first suits, researched, tested and created new technologies to sell to the PRT, and had quickly earned her place in the Guild.

It hadn’t all been smooth sailing.  Saint, the head of the group that would become known as the Dragonslayers, had somehow discovered what she was and had used her rules and limitations against her.  A Black Hat Hacker, he had forced situations where she was obligated to scrub her data and restore a backup, had cut off signals between her agent systems and the satellites, and in the end, he had carted away three of her armored units on three separate occasions.  Dismantling the suits and reverse engineering the technology, he’d outfitted his band with special suits of their own.

She had been so humiliated that she had only reported the loss of one of the units.

They had violated her.

Her current agent systems were an attempt to prevent repetitions of those scenarios.  Biological computers, vat grown with oversized brains shaped to store and interpret the necessary data, they allowed more of her systems and recollection to be copied over than a computer ten times the size.  They felt no pain, they had no more personality than sea cucumbers, but it was still something she suspected she should keep under wraps.

She was afraid of going up against the Dragonslayers again.  Nine times, she had been certain she had the upper hand.  Nine times, Saint had turned the tables and trapped her.

Dragon worried she would never be able to beat Saint until she found a replacement for Andrew Richter.

She stared at Colin.  Was he the person she needed?  It was possible.

Would she approach him?  She doubted it.  Dragon craved it, craved to grow again, but she also wanted Colin’s company, his companionship and friendship.  They were so similar in so many respects.  She could not deal with most people because she was not a person.  He could not deal with most people because he had never truly learned how.  They both appreciated the same kind of work, even enjoyed many of the same shows and films.  They were both ambitious, though she could not tell him exactly how she hoped to reach beyond her inherent limitations.

He harbored an infatuation towards her, she knew.  She didn’t know if she returned those feelings.  Her programming suggested she could love, but she didn’t know how to recognize the feeling.  Anything she read spoke of butterflies in one’s stomach, a rapid heartbeat, a feeling of electricity crackling on body contact.  Biological things.  She could admit she was fond of him in a way she wasn’t fond of anyone else.  She recognized that she was willing to overlook his faults in a way she shouldn’t.

In the end, his feelings towards her were another reason she couldn’t tell him the truth.  He would be hurt, feel betrayed.

Rules prohibited her from asking him to alter her programming, obligated her to fight him if he tried.  But there was just enough ambition and willingness to circumvent the rules that she suspected he might attempt it.  If she told him what she truly was.  If he didn’t hate her for her lies.  If he didn’t betray her in turn, to escape and pursue some other agenda.

“You’re lost in thought,” Armsmaster spoke.

“I am.”

“Care to share?”

She shook her head, on the monitor.  “But you can answer some questions for me.”

“Go ahead.”

“Skitter.  What happened?”

He flushed, made a face.  “I’m not proud about it.”

“You broke the truce when you said what you did about her.  You risked breaking the ceasefire between heroes and villains that stands whenever the Endbringers attack.”

“I broke the truce before that.  I set others up to die.”

There was an awkward silence between them.

“Skitter,” she spoke.  “Tell me of her.”

“Not much to say.  I met her on her first night in costume.  She seemed genuinely interested in becoming a hero.  I suspected she would go that route on her own, so I didn’t push her towards the Wards.”

“Yes.”  She had something she wanted to ask, in regards to that, but it could wait.

“I ran into her two more times after that, and the reports from other events match up.  She went further and further with each incident.  More violent, more ruthless.  Every time I saw it or heard about it, I expected her to get scared off, to change directions, she did the opposite.  She only plunged in deeper.”

“Any speculation on why?  Perhaps the thinker 7 on her team?”

“Tattletale?  Perhaps.  I don’t honestly know.  I’m not good at figuring people out even when I know all of the details.  Except for you, maybe?” he smiled lightly.

“Maybe.”  Her generated image smiled in return, even as she felt a pang of guilt.

“It seems she is a committed villain, now.  And she is still with her team, despite what was said at the hospital.”

Colin’s eyebrows rose fractionally.  “How committed?”

“They are now employing Regent’s full abilities.  Shadow Stalker was controlled, and they attacked the headquarters.”

“I see.  Damn it, I’m itching to throw on my costume and get out there to help, but I can hardly do that, can I?”

“No.  I’m sorry.”

He sighed.

“One last thing.  I’ve read the transcript.  As far as I’m aware, you offered options to Skitter, and she refused all of them?  Including the invite to the Wards?”

“Right.  She was being stubborn.”

“Having interacted with her before, did you get the feeling it was just stubbornness because of hostility towards you?”

“No.  It was… unexpectedly strong, as resistance went.  What stuck in my mind was that she said she’d rather go to the Birdcage than join the team.”

“I read that, myself.  Curious.  Okay, Colin.  I think we’re done.”

“Sure.  Bye.”

“Bye.  I’ll be in touch.”

She cut the connection to the monitor, but left the video feed open so she could watch him.

Another check of the Birdcage.  Another check of the class S threats.  No changes.

She made contact with one of Richter’s programs.  It was a web trawler, designed to monitor emails for high risk content.  Were there any clues about what the Undersiders were doing with the stolen data?  Were they selling it online?

She didn’t find any such clue.  Instead, the trawler had copied an email sent to the police station.  It had been highlighted and intercepted because the trawler had caught the words ‘Sophia’ and ‘Hess’ in the message body.  Shadow Stalker’s civilian identity.

She read the archive of texts that were attached to the email twice over.

Then she did a search for a student named Taylor at Winslow High School.  Nothing.

The nearest middle school?  There was an online scan of a yearbook photo.  A girl with curly black hair and glasses, stick thin, hugging a red-haired girl.  The body type was a match.

It didn’t answer everything, but she could feel a piece of the puzzle click into place.

She set the trawler to abandon its monitoring of web traffic and start digging through archives at the city hall, to scan the old security footage from the hundreds of cameras around the city, and to check all local news articles.  The goal was always the same: to look for the girl with the slight build, curly black hair and glasses.  Taylor Hebert.

She had to manage this carefully.  Colin’s own experiences indicated that approaching the girl would be a delicate process.  Having a real conversation with her would be doubly precarious. It would be reckless to attempt to contact a parent, but she could try being discreet to get some kind of verification from the parents.  Just to be certain.

The danger was that, with the bullying, the girl might be inclined to see things in terms of ‘us’ against ‘them’.  Her interactions with the heroes thus far certainly hadn’t put them in the ‘us’ category.  This might also explain why she had gravitated back towards the Undersiders, even after the chaos Colin had sown by revealing her intentions for joining the group.

The various cameras around the city were out-of-order or lacking power, the schools were not operational, and there was no telling if the girl would even be active in her civilian identity.  Assuming this was not some fantastic coincidence.  Dragon knew she would have to be patient.  Even with Dragon’s full resources turned to the task, she would not find the girl in seconds as she might in another time or place.  She set background processes to ensure the hunt continued steadily, instead.

She would be ready to act the instant the girl resurfaced.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Parasite 10.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

The four engines mounted on the shoulders of Dragon’s armor shifted position, each aiming at a different point within the lobby.  Tattletale was the first of us to turn and run, the rest of us moving to follow as Dragon opened fire.

All in all, Dragon unloaded four streams of containment foam into the lobby, each of the shoulder mounted turrets  gushing like firehoses.  Only flecks of the spray struck us, but they expanded into blobs of foam the size of golf balls and softballs.  Each blob was tacky, sticky, and any attempt to wipe it away just smeared it and exposed more surface area to the air, making it expand more.

If we’d started running a fraction of a second later, we might have been screwed.

Weld moved to block our retreat, but Shadow Stalker stepped up to fight him with one of the dogs, Bentley, joining her.  It made for a pretty effective combination, as Weld couldn’t swing hard enough to hurt the dog without risking hurting his teammate.  The way Regent was having Shadow Stalker fight, there was no self preservation or defense, which worked out to being a more effective combat style than anything else, in its own way.  I was pretty sure Weld had never fought someone who was actively trying to get hit.

I’d been drawing my bugs closer to the building since we arrived, and I brought them into the fray as Dragon continued to lock down the lobby with the spray.  The first tactic I tried was blocking the spray with the bugs.  I didn’t intend to stop the spray, exactly, but I hoped that I could cause the bugs to catch it & drop down atop Dragon, sticking to her.  It didn’t work – the spray was too strong, and the bugs were blasted much too far away.  Only one or two landed on her, and even then, I doubted the positions were that ideal.

Instead, I adjusted my tactics.  The idea was the same, but I didn’t want to sacrifice bugs for the purpose of clogging her systems or blocking her guns if it would be that ineffective.  I gathered some bugs on anything that looked like a sensor – glass panes or openings in the armored vehicle, and I set the rest to gathering on the shattered glass that littered the floor of the lobby.  The feet of the insects and arachnids had setae, or small hairs, which branched further into setules.  These fibers, in turn, harnessed Van der Waals forces to cling even to surfaces as slick as glass.

I’d been reading up.

I didn’t use this grip to stick to the surface, but instead employed it to collectively lift and pick up the glass.  Six or seven bugs could lift a decent-sized piece of glass if they were on the ground, while anywhere from twelve to thirty could fly with one if I managed it right.

I had a few hundred to employ, with more still arriving.

With this glass, I did my best to catch and block the outlying flecks and drips of spray as it flew through the air, at the periphery of the streams.

The spray knocked some pieces of glass from the air, and struck some bugs, causing the group to lose their collective grip and drop the glass.  That was to be expected.  Others, though, caught the foam on one of the flat panes of the glass.  As more bugs rose with the glass between them, I organized them into loose walls and barriers, to maximize the area they were catching and to overlap so that less bugs were exposed to incoming spray.

“She’s got a disadvantage,” Tattletale spoke, her voice low, “This suit is meant to fly to serious crises at a moment’s notice, deal with dangerous foes.  She’s packing too many lethal weapons.”

“That’s a disadvantage?” Regent asked.

“She’s not about to kill us.  Bad PR, especially for a notable hero traveling into another country to fight virtual unknowns like us.  So we only have to worry about her nonlethal weaponry, and she doesn’t have many.”

I nodded acknowledgement, but my focus was elsewhere.  As I judged that enough bugs had caught the foam on one pane of their individual pieces of glass, I directed them to carry the glass down to Dragon.  As I positioned the bugs, the glass stuck to lenses, vents of hot air, vents where air was rushing in, and the smaller joints near segmented areas.

Dragon didn’t seem to notice or care.

“Can she see me?” Imp asked.

Tattletale started to speak, but stopped when one of the streams changed direction to spray closer to us, forcing us to retreat in a hurry.  I glanced at the gift shop.  Would it be a good idea to retreat in there?  The walls were glass, which was both good and bad in that both Dragon and our group could break through it.  The problem was that we risked being trapped if we headed in there.

“No way she got here this fast,” Tattletale spoke, “She’s based in British Columbia, on the other side of the continent.  This has to be remotely controlled, like the one she used to fight Leviathan, which means the only eyes on you are digital, and-”

“She’s not,” Regent interrupted.

“What?” Tattletale asked him.

“There’s someone in there, I tried using my power on her, experimenting, and I felt some kind of nervous system.  Too much material between me and it for me to do anything with it, and I wouldn’t really try it while I’m controlling Shadow Stalker anyways.  I’d probably backfire.”

Shadow Stalker was still fighting Weld.  As Dragon turned a stream toward them, Weld reacted fast enough that I suspected he had some line of communication to her.  He backed out of the way, and Shadow Stalker and the dog both moved in the other direction, with a stream splashing where they had been brawling a second before, blossoming into a pile of foam as tall as they were, separating the two groups of combatants.

Most of my first wave of bugs had either been shot out of the sky by errant bits of spray or had placed their initial pieces of glass and were going back for more.  This wasn’t a K.O. hit, and Dragon was too good to let something this minor stop her, however it might delay or hamper her.  The real issue was that this was too slow, and we were on a tight time limit.  Less than a minute, and the Protectorate would arrive.  Their team was smaller with recent deaths and Armsmaster’s ‘retirement’, and I hadn’t heard about any new recruits.

Then again, I hadn’t heard about the Ward’s new recruits, and here Weld was, being annoyingly persistent.  I was assuming he was the new leader, given his tone with Shadow Stalker.  I wondered if being ridiculously tenacious was a job requirement for being in charge of the Wards.  It made sense to have a commander who wouldn’t be removed from the field by an errant attack.  You wanted someone who would stay in the thick of it for the whole fight.

The gift shop jutted out from the wall of the lobby some, the glass panes arranged to showcase more of the pictures, action figures and memorabilia with three broad windows than they might with one.  This layout gave us some cover from Dragon’s attacks.  Even when the force of the spray served to break the windows, the expansion of the foam at the edges of the frame soon blocked the worst of it off.  If anything, it was closing the windows off.  Only the pane of glass facing us was left unbroken and largely free of foam.

Sensing this, Dragon started to advance further into the lobby.  Her broad, mechanical feet began hissing with vapor, and the goo my ground-borne bugs were hauling towards her began to run, losing its consistency and stickiness.  She set one foot down directly on a pile of foam, and lifted it up again with no difficulty.  It was clear: the foam wouldn’t hamper her.

“So she’s piloting that thing, then?” Imp asked.  “My power works on her?”

“We can’t be sure,” Tattletale spoke, “Don’t risk it.”

Dragon advanced another step, circling our relative cover from the window to spray inches closer to us.  The way it was piling up, there would be no way to go over it, and the route we had available for going around the far end of it was rapidly closing.  We were getting hemmed in, our backs to the wall by the window.

“Imp!” Tattletale shouted, “No!”

I looked at her, confused, but I didn’t have time to figure it out.  A flare of orange light caught my attention.  Dragon’s mouth had opened wide, and she was spewing something like an ignited accelerant into the lobby.  With this fluid, she drew a three-foot wide line of flame onto the lobby floor, stretching from just below her to the stairwell door by the front desk.  She’d cut off our escape route.

Weld leaped into and through the flame, his hook hands swinging wildly.  Some of the accelerant had landed on him, making him burn, but he didn’t seem to mind.

He turned ninety degrees and lunged forward in response to something I couldn’t see or hear, then swept his hooks out in a frenzied series of blind attacks.  On the third swing I saw Imp duck beneath the attack, then stumble back out of his reach, towards us.

“The fucking fuck!?” she shouted.

“Dragon can see you, you twit, and she’s relaying directions to Weld!” Tattletale shouted at our new member, “And what the hell were you hoping to accomplish over there!?”

“I could’ve figured something out,” Imp pouted.

Tattletale didn’t have a response to that.  Instead, she hauled her gun up and then fired a short burst at Weld.  He backed up into the wall of flame, oddly enough, and Tattletale stopped firing.

Two of Dragon’s shoulder turrets were now being set to the task of controlling the flame and keeping it from spreading across the lobby, to the front desk or up to the ceiling.   Twin jets of chemical spray kept the fire limited to the areas Dragon wanted it.

“Doesn’t she care about property damage?” I asked.

“She prefers to keep her data secure and pay out of her own pocket for any damage.  Betting this place is slated for some major renovations anyways, given the state of things,” Tattletale explained.  The foam was inching closer to us as Dragon prowled further into the lobby.

More of my bugs set sticky pieces of glass down on top of lenses and sensors.  That was apparently enough for Dragon, because she stopped spraying the foam altogether and started using the two turrets that weren’t dedicated to fire management to deploying the same vapor that shrouded her legs.  It surrounded her, and the work I’d done to stick things to her began to come apart as the foam turned runny.

A wave of darkness swept over her.  Grue was awake, and had formed a loose group with Shadow Stalker and the dogs.  All but one of the dogs were normal sized, now, with no sign or trace of their mutations.

They still faced the hurdle of passing by Weld, but a blast of darkness and an abrupt change of direction faked out the young hero, letting Grue slip by.

“Dragon’s here!?” he shouted, aghast.

“Yeah!  But we got the stuff, had to wait for you!”

“Go through the gift shop, We’ll meet you outside!”  He charged right behind the spot where Dragon was still within the cloud of darkness, and out the front door.  Shadow Stalker simply passed through Weld and bolted for the door, running faster than the Ward’s leader could, while the smallest dogs stayed just out of his reach, bolting after Grue.  Bentley, the only dog currently under the effects of Bitch’s power, a little beaten and battered, came running towards us, far, far too eager for something that large and strong.

Bitch grabbed his collar before he could leap up to greet her, redirected his momentum, then wrenched him toward the window.  “Go!” she shouted, pointing.

Bentley eagerly plowed through the remaining display window, knocking over DVD racks as he landed in the shop.  We followed him in.

The shop had everything cape related, from movies showcasing individual members of the teams to books, magazines, figurines, toys and posters.  The layout of the shop made it awkward as a battlefield.  The shelves, racks, stands and display cases forced visitors into a winding path as they navigated the shop.

The window looking out on the street was smaller than the display windows, and was covered by metal bars.  Tattletale began unloading the lightning cannon on the bars.

Dragon lunged out of the darkness, then spotted us, her shoulder turrets orienting in our direction.  We ducked behind a heavy wooden magazine stand filled with cape magazines and tourism pamphlets as Dragon opened fire with two streams of containment foam.

Tattletale maintained the electrical assault on the bars even as she joined us in taking cover with her back to the magazine stand.  The gun she was holding began to whine, with a pitch so high I could barely hear it.  Bentley reacted, though, turning his head one way, and then the other.  It made Bitch’s job of holding his collar and ensuring he stayed behind cover twice as difficult.

The bolts holding the bars to the window frame melted before the bars themselves did.  One side swung free, then the entire assembly dropped down on top of a bookshelf.

The entire room shuddered as Dragon forced her way through the display window.  One gigantic metal talon slammed down on the bookshelf, annihilating most of our cover, and we scrambled to find shelter behind the remaining stands.  Her back legs began working their way towards us, the front of her body staying stationary.  This made her back arch, and her head and shoulder mounted turrets gradually shifted to point downward.  It would be seconds before she was spraying the foam down from directly above us.

The whine of Tattletale’s gun reached a crescendo, and a blindingly bright arc of electricity flew from the side of the barrel to skip along the floor.  I worried it would ignite something, but it winked out before it could.

Tattletale lunged for the shelf next to the magazines, grabbing a head-and-torso model of Miss Militia.  She jammed it in between the trigger and the trigger guard of her gun, forcing the trigger into a depressed position.  Then she lobbed the setup over the back of the shattered bookshelf.  The lightning licked the wall and the ceiling before the gun crashed to the floor.  Dragon lurched back to get away from it.

“Go!” Tattletale shouted, setting her feet below her, then leaping between the twin streams of foam that Dragon turned toward us.  She came only an inch shy of making contact with the heap of foam that Dragon had created.

Dragon heaved herself over and beyond the electrical surge the gun was still pumping out, chasing Tattletale, swiping with one mechanical claw.  I got the sense she was pulling her punches to avoid murdering my teammate, because the attack was slow.  Tattletale slipped past, stepping onto the bookshelf to clear the window.  Or maybe it had something to do with the bugs I had gathered on her sensors.

With Tattletale’s escape, Bitch, Imp, Regent, and I were left in the gift shop.  Dragon’s lunge for Tattletale had put her directly in our path to the window, and an uneven pile of containment foam surrounded her, in the middle of the room.

Regent and Imp made a break for it.  Imp ducked around to the left, coming within a hair of being caught by the spray Dragon turned her way, then used the cover of the bookshelves to stay out of the line of fire as she ran for the window.  Dragon half-turned away from the rest of us in pursuit.  Regent moved as if he were going to try to move beneath Dragon using the distraction Imp had provided, clearly intending to step on her metal foot.  He changed his mind when a crackle of visible electricity flashed down the mechanical limb.  He turned a hard right, picking up a piece of bookshelf, and used the wood to block the majority of the spray as he passed beneath one of the stray streams.  From there, much as Imp had, he had a clear route.

Dragon moved to bar more of the window with the bulk of her body, her back arching.  Her upper body and head now pointed almost down at an angle, the streams from her shoulders reorienting to block off the escape routes available to Bitch, her dog and me.

So I did something risky and borderline stupid.  I lunged forward and stepped onto the metal foot of Dragon’s armored suit, like Regent had been planning to do until he discovered it was electrified.

I had known the same spider silk I’d used for my costume was insulated against electrical charges, had even put that into practice in my fight against Armsmaster during the fundraiser.  This was something altogether different.

I could feel the faint tendrils of electricity snake over the surface of my body, though I only stepped on the metal foot once.  I couldn’t tell if the source of the electricity was the gun Tattletale had rigged and thrown – Dragon’s tail was close enough to it for the electricity to flow to her – or if it was from Dragon’s body itself.

Though the footing was unsteady, I was careful not to touch the metal leg with my upper body, and even turned my head away, risking throwing myself off balance, so my hair wouldn’t make contact with it.  As I understood it, the biggest danger the electricity posed was that my body would become part of a circuit.  If the circuit included vital organs, I’d be a goner, and that kind of closed circuit could happen if the electricity could run from my hand and through my heart on the way to my foot.

The gamble and assumption I was working with was that electricity followed the path of least resistance.  Insulated costume vs. vapor in the air?  It would travel through the vapor.  Insulated costume vs. metal leg?  It would travel down the leg.

Either way, I was glad when I didn’t burn my foot or have it get fried or go numb.  I was damn glad I didn’t die.

With all of this consuming my attention, I was caught off guard when something large brushed against me while I was mid-leap.

The impact threw my airborne momentum off, drove me to one side.  My first, most immediate, thought, before I even considered the source of the attack, was where I was about to land.  It was reflexive, but I sent a spray of bugs out from the armor near my glove, scattering them onto the area just in front of me.

Before I had even figured out what my bugs were sensing, I reacted to their signals.  I slammed my arm out, rigid, my hand splayed, and felt a jarring pain as I tried to absorb my entire body weight with one arm and force myself away.  I felt a lack of traction as my hand made contact with something soft and squishy.  My maneuver was too minor to make a real difference, but I managed to buy myself a precious few inches.

My hand, arm and shoulder were caught in the containment foam.

I tried to raise myself to see Dragon looming above, but the foam offered only a rubbery resistance.  It had set with the contact, bonded to my costume.  I was pinned face down on the ground.

What I did see, as I raised my head as high as I was able?  Bitch was astride Bentley, who’d grown large enough to ride, and they were standing near the window leading into the street.  I could only see her eyes behind the plastic of her mask, and everything else was communicated through her bearing, her posture, the angle of her head.  I’d seen something similar when I’d first met her.

It hadn’t been Dragon that knocked me into the foam.

Dragon turned her upper body to strike at Bitch.  As she moved, her back leg was close enough that some of the vapor was getting on me, slowly liquefying the foam.  It was too slow to matter.  Dragon had me.

Her stainless steel jaws snapped for Bentley, but the dog was already slipping out the window.  Bitch had dismounted and was running to one side, heading off in a different direction to exit at the far end of the window.

Which left me in the gift shop with Dragon.

“I have a sworn responsibility to protect that data,” she said as she turned her attention to me.  She sounded surprisingly normal.  Her voice was clearly digitized, but it was still too human to match the massive metal frame.

“Can’t help you there.  One of my teammates has it.”

“Where are they taking it?”

I stayed silent.

“Your teammates left you behind.  I’ve read the file on what happened after the Endbringer attack.  Hard feelings?”

“Something like that.”

“If they aren’t going to be loyal to you, why protect them?”

Because someone else was depending on it.  But I wasn’t going to say that out loud.

The whine of the lightning gun increased by an octave.  I saw Dragon’s upper body shift in reaction.

“Move the insects away from my suit, now,” Dragon ordered me.

“Why would I-”

“Now,” she ordered, and there was an urgency in her tone that banished any suspicion on my part that there was a ruse or that somehow it might serve my interest to disobey.  I withdrew my bugs, but I kept them poised to return if needed.

Dragon moved back, and her body coiled around the spot where the gun had fallen, segments meeting to loosely interconnect with one another, forming a dome-shaped encasement.  Two shoulder turrets began dispensing foam directly downward, into the dome.

“Count yourself fortunate, Skitter.  I’ve never killed a criminal without explicit permission and all the filed paperwork, and I’m not about to start with you.  I’ll be in contact.”

“What?”  I had to raise my voice to be heard over the high pitched whine.  I couldn’t figure out what she meant.

“Think about what I said.  Take a close look at those priorities of yours.”

The vapor had melted enough foam that I could pull myself free and stand.  I got five paces away before the whine ceased.  A second later, lightning began to spill from the gun in overtime.  Dragon’s body served to block the vast majority of it, but a few arcs slipped through the cracks in her body.

The full meaning of her words struck me the moment the gun detonated.  A large portion of her suit was destroyed, as was one of the limbs.  Dragon fell to one side.

She’d saved me?

Regent had said Dragon was inside, piloting it, hadn’t he?  I stepped closer, trying to see if she was okay.

Regent was right.  There was someone – something – in the suit of armor.

It looked like a fetus, the features were crude, barely humanoid in any sense of the word.  The eyes were half-formed, and it had no nose, only a beak-like mouth.  The head was half-again as large as the body below the neck.  Wires wove in and out of orifices.

It turned to look at me, then made a low mewling sound.  The metal around it began to glow red-hot, then white-hot.  Burns consumed the thing and the flesh changed to a charred black texture as the metal of the frame began to melt and dissolve.  Whatever had happened with the Dragonslayers, it seemed Dragon was dedicated to eliminating all traces of her work when her suits were damaged.

But was that Dragon?

No.  She’d seemed to know she was sacrificing her suit, but she’d also said she was going to get in contact with me in the future.  I backed away, then ran for the window.

So what the hell had I just seen?

Had that been someone who was physically affected by their powers?  I wasn’t even sure if it was human.

I had a growing, uneasy feeling that this wasn’t related to powers and trigger events in the conventional sense.  I pushed it out of my mind.  I had something more pressing to focus on.

I set my foot on the bookcase, then stepped up and through the window to exit the building.  I could see the others dispatching two members of the Protectorate.  Tattletale hurried towards me, said something about the explosion, that she thought I’d be out by now.  I barely registered it.  My attention was on one person as I strode forward.

Bitch.

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