Scourge 19.5

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The Grue Echidna had created turned his attention to the rest of us.  His power massed around him and then flowed forth like a tidal wave of crude oil.  I was already atop Atlas, rising into the air.  I couldn’t avoid the fact that Scapegoat was in the truck, and if we were separated-

I flew after the wave of darkness, tracing its path as it met Scapegoat’s van and making my best guess at where it would wind up.

The darkness hit a wall, and the van materialized, solid once more.  More heroes were deposited two or three city blocks away from where they’d been standing.

My heart was pounding in my chest as I blinked a few times and double checked that I hadn’t gone blind.  If the Grue had cut off Scapegoat’s power, or if he’d delivered enough of an impact to disrupt it, it could have left me in worse shape than before.

I could see, and I could breathe.  Scapegoat was safe inside the containment van.

He’d scattered us.  Our tight battle lines were now spread out over city blocks, and people were having a surprising amount of trouble getting their bearings.  One of the team leaders managed to get his squad organized, pointing them in the right direction, before Echnidna’s Grue hit them again.

There was a limit to what I could do.

I gathered my bugs and started working out how to stop the Grue.

I had cords pre-prepared.  I spliced a number together into a hundred-foot long line, then had my bugs fly the cord out.

A minute later, my fastest flying bugs were winding the cord around the Grue’s neck, while others were biting and stinging.  He barely even noticed, beyond swatting at the insects wherever they landed.

I needed something to tie him to.  A telephone pole?  It wouldn’t stop him or even hamper him in what he was doing to disrupt our fighting lines.  If he could teleport himself, then it wouldn’t even hamper him at all in the long-term.

Legend, Eidolon and Alexandria moved into the fray, accompanied by a number of other flying heroes.  They were coordinated enough that they had to have planned it out in advance.  Alexandria went in first, circling around and then swooping down to strike Echidna across one back leg.  She stuck on contact.  Through a combination of her own strength and one of Legend’s lasers, she got free before Echidna could turn and envelop her.

Eidolon was making his move before Alexandria was even free.  He cast out a bubble that swelled as it moved through the air.  By the time it reached Echidna, it was twice as big around as she was, enough to reach from one sidewalk to the other.  The colors around her became muted, and her movements slowed to a tenth of the speed.

It was a time-distortion effect.  Legend took the opportunity to emit twenty individual laser beams.  They each flowed out as a steady, unfaltering stream, and turned in mid-air to punch into Echidna.  Each was meticulously placed to drive through the center of her body and avoid the places where her victims were being absorbed, or even cut her victims free.

One beam turned down and took a sharp right to strike the ground just to the teleporter-Grue’s right.  It slashed towards him and he used his darkness to teleport himself to safety, cutting the cord I’d created in the process.

I commanded my bugs to collect the thread and cart it to the destination he’d teleported to.  It was futile to try to tether a teleporter, I knew, but if I could find a way to trip up his abilities, tie his ankles together at a crucial moment… something, it might help.  Beyond that, I’d have to hope the venom brought him down.

Echidna tried to move to one side, but Legend’s beams followed unerringly, swelling in size and number.  Thirty, forty, fifty… each cutting their way through her flesh as though she were made of little more than snow.  Smoke or steam billowed around her as her flesh charred and boiled.  The lasers might have been affected by the time distortion, but that didn’t matter when the lasers were moving at the speed of light in the first place.

She feinted right, then lunged left, but Legend’s aim didn’t err in the slightest, and Eidolon’s slowing effect drifted after her.  Still, Echidna moved faster than Eidolon’s slowing effect did.  Slowly but surely, as pieces of her flesh were carved away and left to fall to the ground, she made progress toward the effect’s perimeter.

Alexandria flew low to the ground, striking and catching hold of a traffic light.  In one second she was a blur, the next she appeared to be moving as fast as a person did when they ran.  Charging into the effect’s area, Alexandria made a beeline for Echidna.

The swing was slow motion, but Echidna was too.  Alexandria struck her with the metal pole, and Echidna moved like she’d been hit full strength.  Her front claws were lifted off of the ground by the force of the blow, and she reared up, the canine faces contorting in pain and anger.

The lasers moved around Alexandria, passing within centimeters of her.  She didn’t even flinch as she lowered herself to the ground behind Echidna, used her hands and one knee to correct a bend in the pole, and then stabbed it into one spot on the back of Echidna’s leg where a hero was trying to get free.  Legend’s cutting lasers and the leverage of the pole pried him free.  Alexandria caught him before he hit the ground and threw him.

Other heroes saw and positioned themselves before he reached the edge of the effect.  He resumed normal speed and the heroes caught him.

Echidna’s Grue blanketed the area in darkness, and Legend opened fire on the area where the darkness had originated from; the ground floor of a nearby grocery store.  My bugs identified the Grue on the far side, and with a moment to get arranged, they connected the ends of cords.  A little shorter than a hundred feet, now.  If I tied it to a section of a nearby window, and he tried to run, it could maybe yank him off his feet, but that didn’t amount to much.

The Grue teleported Echidna to him, freeing her from Legend’s attack and the slow effect.  The darkness carpeted them and bought her a second to breathe and regenerate.

Had to remove the Grue from consideration.  I tried to visualize what would happen next, anticipate their next move.  Noelle would throw herself into the fray again.  Either he’d use his teleportation to do it or…

I tied the other end of the cord to a piece of bone plate that stood out on Echidna’s side.

Eidolon was pointing to the building that Echidna had materialized behind, pointed two fingers at it with a thumb extended in a gesture much like a gun.  Legend took the signal and opened fire, unleashing countless lasers into the ground floor of the building.

The Psycho-Grue took shelter, ducking to one side of a nearby dumpster.  At the same time, Echidna did just what I’d hoped for: she bolted.  The cord went taut, and the Grue was pulled off his feet by the suddenness and force of her movement.

I hadn’t tied it into a proper noose, but the cord was around his neck.  I’d read somewhere that nooses tended to kill because they broke the neck rather than by suffocation, provided they were tied right and there was enough of a drop.

This wasn’t a drop, but it was a tough cord around his neck, and the creature on the other end weighed no less than fifteen tons, maybe twice that.  She’d accelerated from zero to fifty in an instant, and he went limp almost immediately, dead or completely disabled in a heartbeat.  My bugs cut the cord and held it ready.

Echidna hadn’t used her power yet.  She’d absorbed enough capes, but something was holding her back.  I wondered if her regeneration drew on the same pool of flesh-generation that made the clones and she couldn’t make clones while healing the kind of heavy damage the Triumvirate was dishing out.  Maybe there was some other drawback.

The ‘shoulders’ of her lower body scraped and dragged against the sides of buildings as she stampeded through the back alleyways.  She kicked a dumpster and sent it careening as she ran, brushed against a fire escape with enough speed and force that it was ripped from the brick wall.

She was very nearly out of my power’s reach when Myrddin cut her off.  He waved his staff and a group of heroes materialized around him.  Tecton and Chevalier were among them.

The heroes around me were trying to get sorted into squads again.  I was aware of someone driving the van that held Scapegoat.  Taking him in the wrong direction.

I drew arrows with my bugs on the dashboard and prayed that whoever the cape was behind the wheel, they were aiming in the right direction.

Seeing how the heroes were struggling to get organized, suffering for the lack of armbands to help them navigate and get essential information, I decided in an instant that I needed to guide more than just the van.

I began drawing out arrows and letters.

I drew out an ‘E’ with an arrow pointing in Echidna’s direction, a hundred times in a hundred places.  Above Echidna, I set swarms of insects to flying in formation, tight circles and figure-eight loops, vertical or horizontal.  Letters and words formed.  Echidna, Myrddin, Chevalier.  Did the ‘e’ go after the ‘i’?  Couldn’t remember.  Was supposed to be ‘i before e, except after c’, but there were more exceptions to the rule than there were correct uses.

Shaking my head to stir myself awake, I tried to refocus, paying attention to the primary site of the fighting.

Echidna charged Myrddin and the heroes that accompanied him.  He used his staff to draw something into the air.  My bugs could feel a vibration, see the white blur of a light source.

The sign he’d drawn exploded outward, striking Echidna on her right side.  It was enough to alter her course, and her shoulder slammed into the corner of one building.  Her body dragged against the building’s face until that she had to stop and pull away.

Chevalier pointed his sword at her, fifteen feet long, and pulled a trigger.  A blast erupted down the center of the sword’s mass, and a cannonball caught one of Echidna’s monstrous heads between the eyes.  Through the composite vision of all my bugs, I could get a sense of the damage that had been done, the spray of gore.

I was too tired to be focusing on my bugs to this degree.  My awareness of my real self was faltering.  I was unconsciously updating the positions of the arrows to allow the heroes to home in on Echidna, but I also had to work to keep myself close to Scapegoat, and I wanted to make sure I knew where Bitch and the others were.  Atlas was following my unconscious commands, but that meant I was straying a dangerous distance from Scapegoat.  Had to be safe.

The arrows I’d drawn for each of the heroes were working, though.  Heroes were moving towards Echidna with purpose, now, and the van with Scapegoat inside was moving in the right direction.  I caught some squad captains giving orders.  A cape that could speak over distances was relaying information to Myrddin and Chevalier.

Tattletale was on the ground, but she didn’t advance toward the scene of the fighting.  She had gotten her hands on a cellphone, and was speaking steadily into it, relaying information. I only caught some of it – I couldn’t devote that much focus to her.  It was about Noelle.

Chevalier and Myrddin made an effective duo.  Chevalier’s power had made his armor virtually impervious, his cannonblade massive, each effectively many times as dense and/or many times as large as they should be, but he was still able to treat them as though they were the normal size.  He swung his sword as though it were barely there, and when he found an opportunity to strike out with a gauntleted fist, the effect was always far greater than the hit deserved.

Not so different from Fenja and Menja, only his gear was the focus, not himself, and he was a little more versatile.

Myrddin, for his part, coupled versatility with raw power to devastating effect.  He had a bag of tricks and switched from one to another without hesitation.  Echidna spewed a stream of bodies and gore, and Myrddin drew a dark sign into the air, suctioning the incoming matter into it.  I sensed Chevalier and Tecton slamming their weapons into the nearest surfaces to avoid being pulled in, catching hold of allies who weren’t so capable.  Then my own bugs were yanked toward the crevice and violently crushed against all of the other debris, leaving me momentarily blind in that area.  More of my bugs flowed in, giving me time to see Chevalier delivering a series of powerful sword strikes and cannon shots at Echidna, not letting up.  He paused, throwing himself into a side-alley as Noelle tried to stomp on him, and Myrddin released the matter he’d suctioned in as a condensed bullet of gore, dust, crushed bodies and dead bugs.

Perhaps the strongest thing about the partnership between the two heroes was how well it accommodated others.  Heroes with ranged powers were free to unload on Echidna while the other two fought, and heroes like Tecton could offer further support, destroying the ground beneath her feet.  She was big enough now that he couldn’t trap her, but he could make her stumble, or bring concrete from the nearby buildings raining down on top of her.

The Triumvirate flew straight over Echidna, and Legend opened with a laser beam I could see from three blocks away.  He killed some of the bugs I’d been using to draw words in the air in the process.  That was as much my fault as his.

Echidna was more or less trapped, forced to back away, but unable to fully turn around with the walls of the alley on either side of her.  Eidolon threw down another slowing bubble behind her, and Alexandria dropped to ground level to stand behind Echidna and stab the metal pole of the street light through the knee of one of Echidna’s back legs.

There was nothing for me to do beyond helping to organize the others.  I made sure to draw arrows and words high enough above the buildings that anyone approaching the scene would be able to tell that Alexandria and Chevalier had Echidna flanked.

Atlas carried me above the scene, a distance away from the Triumvirate, but still close enough to see into the alley.

Echidna was sustaining a beating, and there were only four directions she could go.  She could go up, which was the only route available to her that didn’t involve going through a solid surface, but that involved running face first into the laserbeam that Legend was firing straight down from above.  Going down involved tearing through pavement and whatever was below the road.  Even if there was a storm drain or some other underground space to enter, she was doubtlessly sustaining too much damage to take the time to get that far, and she was too big to fit, unless the area was cavernous.

That meant she was bound to head either left or right, through walls of brick or concrete.  I was careful in how I positioned my swarm, putting them on walls so I could tell if she knocked one down on her way through, while keeping the bugs out of her likely path.  Cloned bugs were the least of our problems, but I wasn’t about to contribute to her arsenal.

I’d drawn heroes closer to the scene of the fight with my directions.  Now I had to communicate the danger.

I spoke through my bugs, moving each closer to the capes.  The swarm was spread out, which made the resulting voice thin and reedy to the point that I wasn’t sure if it was audible over the noise of the fighting in the alleyways.

Incoming,” my swarm buzzed.

More than a few heroes jumped at that.

Look for my signal,” I said, “She’ll have to go through the walls to escape.”

Many of the squads were in or around the alleys but not actually participating in the fights.  With arrows and the movement of my swarm, I did my best to indicate the ways to the walls she might head for, and I drew exclamation marks on the faces of the buildings next to her.

It didn’t take her long to reach the limit of her patience.  She tried to advance on Chevalier, only to get driven back by Tecton, Myrddin and one or two ranged capes.  Backing up meant running into Alexandria, who was stabbing and swatting with the pole that had held the traffic light.

One claw ripped through brick and wood, and she plunged into the building to her left.  She was tall enough that she had to hunker down, and she was still shoving her way through the flooring that separated the first and second floors.  Her route put her on a path for where the fighting had originated, where the majority of the heroes were now waiting.

She could wade through brick and concrete and leave a building folding in on itself in her wake, but dealing with a mass of capes proved more difficult.  Forcefields blocked her movements, and a half-dozen heavy hitting capes like Grace were waiting to blindside her.

A heartbeat after the first wave assault passed by, Chronicler’s replicas of the melee assault group tore through Echidna a second time.

Echidna fell over, and was in a position to see Legend, Alexandria and Eidolon overhead.

Some capes had stayed in the fray, including types like Weld and Wanton, who couldn’t be absorbed and couldn’t be affected by the capes with ranged attacks.  They joined in with the Triumvirate’s attacks on the fallen foe.

She vomited, but it wasn’t the same as before.  Her vomit this time was thick with bodies, to the point that it didn’t spray.  The vomit tumbled from her four mouths as a sludge that met or exceeded her total body weight in sheer volume.  Worse, where it had maybe been ninety percent liquid and ten percent people, before, the numbers had inverted.

Legend raked a laser across the piling, writhing, reaching bodies, but Echidna was getting to her feet, throwing herself into the building behind her.  She’d done enough damage with the last maneuver, and her return trip brought a wall crashing down.  Powers of all kinds were brought to bear as the capes on the ground did what they could to save themselves and their teammates.

I could have stayed, helped with the wounded, but the van with Scapegoat was moving on, and I was worried about what might happen if Echidna managed to get away.  She was wounded, but regenerating, and bodies kept pouring forth from her mouth.  It would be best to leave the wounded and dying to the less mobile capes.  I was more useful in the fray, though that didn’t say much.

She was moving at a good pace.  Only the fastest were able to match her in speed, and few of those were also capable of slowing her down so the rest of us could catch up.

A trail of clones flowed in her wake.  All of them were capes, and even though they were unclothed and unarmored, some were taking more than a few hits to finish off.  Worse, at least one of the people she’d caught was a cape in much the same vein as Prism had been.  A self duplicator.  It amounted to scores of bodies, where one in twenty were capable of copying themselves, and maybe three or four in twenty were tough or borderline invulnerable.

I joined in with the other heroes who were fighting to kill or mop up the clones before the psychotic things could get organized.  They were lumped together as a tangle of limbs, heads and torsos, and each was tacky with the fluids of the vomit.  My swarm made contact, and began ruthlessly doing as much damage as I was capable of.

Myrddin caught up and hit her with one of his ‘spells’.  Echidna promptly disappeared in a clap of thunder, and Myrddin went very still, floating in the air.

From his controlled breathing and lack of celebration, I could only assume that Myrddin was concentrating.  Echidna wasn’t dead and gone, only held at bay for the time being.  I was willing to bet it was the same effect he’d used to carry Chevalier, Tecton and his other teammates into the fight in the alleyway.

In the meantime, the rest of us were left to dispatch the clones as quickly as possible.  They were frailer looking, with features missing.  There were clones without ears, clones without noses, clones with missing fingers.  Half finished, their skin was so thin as to be translucent, and most lacked hair or their hair was so sparse as to barely matter.  The skin of most broke and bled where my bugs bit, as though it were little more than wet paper.

If my swarm was made up of countless tiny surgeons, doing strategic damage, Rachel’s dogs were the opposite.  Bentley plowed through the ranks of the clones like a living bulldozer.  He wasn’t running full-bore, but he wasn’t slowing down at any point either.  The other dogs followed, each roughly the size of a pony, chained to Bentley’s harness.  The dogs fought among themselves in their struggles to attack and wound the clones, but I could see Rachel doing what she could to ensure that none of them were killing.

She’d done the same with Bastard.  It made sense, in a way, that she didn’t want them to get accustomed to killing before they were fully trained.

The clones weren’t wholly helpless, though, fragile as they might be.  They did have powers.  Through the bugs of my swarm that lingered on the combatants, I could track the fallen.  Two heroes down, injured or dying, another deceased.

We were outnumbered, and we couldn’t afford to lose one person for every twenty clones that fell.  Echidna had created at least a hundred clones in the course of her last getaway.  She would create a hundred more when she reappeared, if we didn’t find a solution.

Legend found a position to open fire from, and sent a barrage of lasers down toward the trail of bodies, while Alexandria followed the direct path that Echidna had taken, darting left and right to strike out and kill even the tougher capes in a single hit.

In the midst of the chaos, a speaker began blaring at the top of one containment van.  The same voice that had come from the armbands.

The following information has been disseminated, and remains unconfirmed.  Echidna is in a rage state.  The monster is in control, not the girl.  Seventeen capes are currently within her.  Her rate of regeneration and production of clones is derived from a central core within her lower body that produces an endless quantity of biological material.  A body part severed from the core will die.  Destroying the core in entirety will destroy her…”

Tattletale, I thought.  She’d passed on the info she’d gleaned.

Scapegoat was out of the van and shouting.  Weld was among the capes that came to his assistance.  He held a female clone in his iron grip, with one hand over her mouth.

Tecton and Wanton moved to help, and Scapegoat looked up at me, gesturing.

Pointing at the ground.

Would have been easier if he’d just said it.  I found a clear spot on a rooftop and landed.

The second I was settled, Scapegoat laid his hands on the clone Weld had caught.

As before, the sensations hit me.  Phantom sensations of every possible texture and experience rippling across my entire body.

This was why he’d told me to land.  He’d been worried I might lose control of my power, maybe losing control over Atlas and fall.

I just had to endure.  I could control my bugs to some extent, though flight wasn’t so possible.  One of the clones had broken away from the fighting, and my bugs were both attacking her and pointing the pursuing capes in the right directions.  She split off into four copies.  The heroes killed three of the four, only for the survivor to split off into a quartet once again.

If I’d been thinking about containment, I might have set triplines at each of the major intersections, cutting them if and when heroes passed through.  As it was, I couldn’t stop her retreat, and could only try to blind her, choke her and distract while they closed the distance with my direction.

But she was fragile, like most of her fellow clones.  Mandibles tore her paper-thin skin, and more bugs found her jugular.

Just like that, she died with blood spouting from her throat.  She created duplicates of herself, but they were created with the same injury.

The capes caught up to her.  One murmured, “Kudzu.”

“…s not her, Jouster,” another said.

Elsewhere, Regent was dispatching other clones.  He deftly tripped up the more mobile ones and closed the distance, then executed them with a quick stab of a knife.

The sensations kept hitting me.  It was a deeper sensation now.  Tastes, vision, hearing… everything under the sun, fragments of a million different sensations.  Picking through the noise was nearly impossible.  I had to find refuge in my swarm’s senses, disassociate from my body…

If I hadn’t been trying so hard, I might have missed it.  It was more subtle than the first time I’d heard it.  A keening noise that my own ears couldn’t hear.  Even many of the insects were unaware.

Using my swarm, every bug in the four block range, I buzzed out the alert.

Shatterbird!

Some capes reacted fast enough.  Helmets with visors were torn free, intact armbands and cell phones discarded.  Some erected forcefield barriers.  I was tearing off my mask, bundling it in the fabric that hung around my legs.

There were others too caught up in the fighting, yet others dependent on hardware with silicon chips that they couldn’t shirk so quickly.

It wasn’t as strong as her last big attack; there was less glass in the city to carry the effects.  Still, I could hear the resounding crash of everything glass in this half of the city breaking.  A tidal wave of destruction rolled past us, leaving countless injured in its wake.  The attack was weaker, but not necessarily weak.

Tecton had been left immobile, components of his suit destroyed.  The clone and Scapegoat were down, struck by the glass from the van’s windshield.  Chevalier had been caught by something, a fragment of glass that had penetrated a slit in his visor, and he was struggling to fight three clones and avoid hitting his teammates, all while partially blind.

I checked myself.  I could breathe, I wasn’t blind.  All despite Scapegoat’s disabled state.

Had he transferred the conditions to the clone?  Was I in the clear?

I wasn’t sure, and I wasn’t sure I could afford to take the risk and stray beyond that one-hundred and fifty foot range of his.

The direction the attack had come from…  Shatterbird had stayed behind, used her power from the base.  I’d assumed it was because Echidna had eaten her, but it was all too possible that they’d found another route.  Inducing temporary unconsciousness?  Or perhaps Echidna had eaten her and then spat her out right away, to induce enough weakness that Regent couldn’t use her.  I’d have to ask Regent for details, and that wasn’t an option.

No, there were bigger worries.  Battle lines had broken, and simply by virtue of being more numerous than we were, many clones were still standing.  It made only a small difference, but it was still an advantage for their side: the clones weren’t wearing or carrying anything glass.  An advantage of being naked.

The big heroes were trying to get organized.  Myrddin was still keeping Echidna out of the fight, the Triumvirate were exchanging quick words as they tried to figure out whether they should stay for when Echidna popped back into existence or help with the clones.  Legend shot as he talked, and Eidolon was casting out blue sparks that flew forth.

Clones were advancing on Scapegoat and Tecton.  Weld was there, but he wasn’t quite enough.

I stood on Atlas’ back as he descended to the road, shaking my mask to let the glass fall free before carefully pulling it back on.  Weld glanced at me and nodded as I appeared at his left, helping to form a defensive line.

Weld’s hands started to change into long blades, and with the reach they afforded him, he was able to defend more ground.

I stepped off Atlas and let him stand on his own, his scythelike forelimbs raised.  He wouldn’t be that good in a fight, but the clones were fragile, and two more weapons was better than nothing.  My knife and baton slid free of their respective slots in my compartment, and I whipped the baton out to its full length.  It offered me a little more reach, an excuse to take one more step away from Scapegoat’s body and the frozen Tecton.  In this fashion, Weld, Atlas and I formed something of a triangle.

Being on the ground, it added a kind of reality to the situation.  On a technical level, I was more aware of the bodies when I used my powers, more aware of the enemy numbers.  Here, though, I could see only the crowd.  Hero and clone were fighting, the ground was littered with the dying, the maimed and the dead.  There were countless people who needed help, people who I couldn’t personally reach.

My bugs could reach them.  I did what I could, trying to blind the right people, to injure and maim clones where I could ferret out vulnerabilities.  Most of the vulnerable clones were already out of the fight, leaving us with only the more troublesome ones.  The duplicators, the durable and the mobile.

I was fighting a duplicator.  Another Kudzu, like the one I’d killed earlier, unless there was another Asian duplicator with a Japanese-sounding name.  She was vulnerable, but she knew how to fight.  Better than I did.  My advantage was my weapons and my armor.  Hers was her relentlessness.

My baton crushed one skull like an overripe pumpkin, my knife caught another in the chest, pushing past bone like it was a willowy tree branch rather than anything more solid.  I kicked her in the chest to help pull my knife free, and suffered a painful kick to the side of my knee before I was able to retaliate.  I fell, tried to strike the offending Kudzu with my knife, but she caught my wrist.  A swing of my baton was caught as well.  I got my feet under her and thrust my head into hers as I returned to a standing position  Her face was softer than my mask was.

She fell, and the fourth Kudzu formed three new doubles before I could advance and attack her.  One kicked me hard enough that I had to lean against Tecton’s armor to get my balance.  My swarm had hurt the one Kudzu who’d stayed back, and the new doubles were feeling the same pain, but they were still fresh, weren’t tired or hurt from previous rounds.

Weld fought with an invincible man who was smoking, his hands hot enough that they were heating Weld’s flesh.  The man grappled him, and Weld’s attempts to strike him were having little effect.  The man dug his fingers into Weld’s chest, and white-hot metal dripped to the ground.  He was digging for organs.

I hated to spare bugs when I was fighting the Kudzu-clones, but I sent some Weld’s way.  They coated the man, and found some flesh they could damage.

“His back, Weld!” I shouted.  “His front half is tough, but everything that isn’t facing you is vulnerable!”

A Kudzu took advantage of my distraction to club me.  I retaliated by stabbing her, a nonfatal blow.

Weld pulled one arm free, reached behind the man, and started sawing into the back of his head.  Serrated edges formed on the blade, to allow for a better cut, Weld found something vital, and the man slumped to the ground.

He turned to help me with the Kudzu.

A scattering of Legend’s laser bolts tore through our surroundings, though he was blocks away.  Three of the Kudzu I was fighting were hit by Legend’s shots, and Weld lunged forward to stab the fourth.  The least hurt of them vibrated and split off into a fresh set of quadruplets.

Clones of clones, I thought.  I could only swear in my head.  My lungs weren’t suffering like they had been earlier, but I was short on breath nonetheless.

Overall, our side was winning, but we weren’t winning fast.  Nearly a third of us had fallen when Shatterbird hit, and more were losing in this chaos that followed.

Which made this the moment, fittingly, when Echidna popped back into existence.

Eidolon and Legend had been doing what they could from range, and now they were forced to deal with Echidna, leaving the rest of us to deal with the remaining clones.

Legend started using a massive laser to tear into the piles of clones that spilled forth from her mouths.

One Kudzu-clone shouted.  “Cover me!  I got this!”

Roughly a quarter of the remaining clones broke away from their individual engagements, including the Kudzu I was fighting.

Fuck me, they’re cooperating.

Our side did what they could to stop them, but these clones were still in the fight because they were hard to kill.  My bugs attacked the Kudzu, and I gave chase to stab one, then another in the back, before my hurt knee gave out and I fell to a kneeling position.  Bitch and her dogs threw themselves into the ranks of the clones, tearing and rending, but it wasn’t enough.

Chevalier wasn’t far from me.  His cannonblade detonated, painfully loud in my ear, and four or five clones died with each shot.  Legend’s lasers tore into their ranks, and Eidolon threw down a slowing field to stall for time.

It was too little, too late.  They were making a beeline for Echidna, for Legend, Alexandria, Eidolon and Myrddin.

The Kudzu who’d shouted got close to Echidna, and a tongue circled her throat.  She was reeled in, and stopped herself at Echidna’s mouth, bracing herself in position.

Chevalier took aim and shot.  A miss.

Miss Militia’s rifle shot was on target, punching through the front of the Kudzu’s throat.

But the Kudzu’s death wasn’t instantaneous, and she had time for one last gesture.  Echidna vibrated, and then split off into four copies.

Four copies of Noelle.

My breath caught in my throat in the moment I processed the reality of what had just happened.  I managed to huff out a small shuddering breath.

They were withering and dying like Kudzu’s obsolete clones were, slowly but surely, right off the bat, but there were still four of them.

This was Echidna’s greatest weapon.  Ballistic had talked about her sense for tactics, but that was Noelle, really.  This was Echidna, and she was too gone for much of that.

No, the variations that naturally occurred in powers laid out a range of capes.  Virtually every power was offensive, just about every power had some use.  That was the norm, the standard.

But exceptions existed.  They were the Bonesaws, the Crawlers, the Echidnas, the Legends, Alexandrias, Eidolons and Dragons of the world.  By sheer fortune, they’d stumbled onto powers that set them head and shoulders above everyone else.  Having the right variant, being in the right situation to use that power.

If one in a hundred capes met that kind of standard where they were just that much more versatile or powerful, then Echidna could make a hundred capes, and chances were good that one of those would be exceptional in that way.

An Echidna-double turned and charged straight for us, stampeding through the clones to get to the troops on the ground.  Forcefields went up, Chevalier unloaded cannon blasts to stall her advance, and we all did our best to retreat.  I took to the air with Atlas.

The other two Echidnas, including the original, started fighting the big name heroes.  Tongues lashed out, and Legend severed them with cutting lasers.  The clones vomited geysers, spitting out no clones with the fluid, and Alexandria bore the brunt of the blow.

Eidolon was creating blue sparks that floated around him, but when Alexandria began to lose in her struggles to keep the vomit from reaching her comrades, he switched to using a slowing field instead.  He cast it down around two of the Echidnas.  The one he didn’t catch vomited, and he threw up a small forcefield to ward off the attack.

A narrow tongue was hidden in the midst of the vomit, a concealed attack.  Prehensile, it snaked out and caught him by one arm.

Eidolon was pulled in, and clipped the forcefield he’d raised with enough force that he was momentarily stunned.  The forcefield and slowing fields disappeared, and Alexandria was caught off guard by the sudden increase in her opponent’s speed.  

Caught against its back, she started to tear herself free with the help of one of Legend’s cutting lasers.  A spray of vomit forced Legend to abandon his efforts to save his teammates and retreat for his own safety.  He cleaned up the clones that the original Echidna was still producing.

A second later, one of the Echidna-doubles leaped on top of the other, sandwiching Alexandria between her and the other Echidna-double.

The real Echidna closed her mouths, and the vomiting stopped.  She stepped on the tongue that had a hold on Eidolon, then stepped on the caught Eidolon.

Legend did what he could, but even with the three Echidna-doubles looking more like the walking dead than anything else, he couldn’t do enough lasting damage to any of the brutes.  Miss Militia and Chevalier contributed some ranged fire, as did the heroes on my side of the battlefield, but the Echidna-doubles used their bodies to block the worst of the incoming fire.

Echidna bit deep into her double, tore at flesh until she found the morsel caught between their bodies.  Alexandria.  I could see the muscles in her throat working as she swallowed.

Each of her doubles made a final reckless charge before falling to pieces.

A hush of sorts descended on everyone present.

Two of our best, caught.

Echidna reared back a little, then spat, as though she were coughing out a morsel of food she’d been choking on.

An Alexandria.  Had to be, with that long black hair.  The woman stood, and I could see how she was missing an eye.  She brushed her hair to one side, so it covered half her face, and I could hear a murmur.

“Director Costa-Brown,” someone in the crowd murmured.

The Head of the PRT and Alexandria were one and the same.

I couldn’t bring myself to care.  I wasn’t sure if it was just that I was in shock, that I was more focused on the fight that was looking a hell of a lot less winnable, or a simple lack of surprise that the PRT would have been so corrupt and imbalanced as to have a major balancing factor missing from their ranks.

Miss Militia took aim with her rifle and shot.  The bullet sparked as it clipped Alexandria’s forehead.

Alexandria shook her head.

Another cough, another spit.

Eidolon.  I couldn’t tell if he was unattractive by nature or if it was just mild deformations.  He looked so small, so below average.

He found his feet.  Miss Militia shot him twice, and he fell back against Echidna’s leg.

He flickered, and the wound was smaller, another flicker, and the wound almost disappeared.  Each flicker was stronger than the last in how it reversed the damage.  He staggered to his feet again.

“Go!” Chevalier screamed, breaking the frozen silence.  “Before he’s at full strength!”

We charged.  There was no other choice.  If we didn’t win noweveryone lost.

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Scourge 19.2

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I wanted nothing more than to stop, to look after Grue and lick my wounds, but I couldn’t let the heroes come to one of their deeply misinformed conclusions at my expense.  Not when they were talking about murder.

It took me two attempts to get to my feet.  I didn’t like looking anything less than my best when surrounded by so many people who were judging me, and I felt pretty far from my best.  My bugs formed a cloak, strategically covering me much in the way that Grue did with his darkness.

I noticed how Miss Militia and Weld went silent as I approached.  Other heads turned, but nobody moved to stop me.  If anything, they edged out of my way.  They didn’t clear a path, exactly, but a number of them found reasons to walk away, shift position or avoid looking at me as I moved through the perimeter they’d formed.

For an instant, I felt like I was among the students at the school.  Only this time, instead of drawing attention, with people approaching me and bumping into me, I was pushing them away.  Instead of that incessant tolling, there was only quiet, the sound of the wind, a vehicle in the distance, and the buzzing of the insects that cloaked me.

A part of me wondered how much of that was my reputation beyond Brockton Bay, and how much was my innate creepiness.

“Skitter,” Weld said, when I reached him and Miss Militia.

“Thank you for the rescue,” I said.  “I can’t really sum it up in words, but… it was pretty damn heroic.  I owe you.”

“Imp got in touch with me, with a message from Tattletale.  The two of them made a pretty convincing argument.  You’re okay?”

I offered a curt nod.  I wasn’t, but it wouldn’t do to say so.  Silence was a very effective tool, I was finding, because it spoke volumes and rarely put me into a less advantageous position.  The more I talked, the more I risked revealing just how exhausted and battered I was feeling.

“Catastrophic, was the word Imp used,” Weld said, “when describing just what might happen if a clone got your power without any of your restraint.  Not to mention the issues posed by the psychotic Grues.  Your clones could commit mass murder on the scale of hundreds, but his threaten to lose us the battle.”

“And we suspect at least one survived,” Miss Militia said.

I nodded.  “There’s other capes who are just as dangerous as us.  Think in terms of the damage some heroes could do.  You?”

Weld looked at Miss Militia.  She nodded.  “If anything, this situation is very illuminating, in terms of how bad some parahumans might be in a worst case scenario.  There are some powers that are tame at first glance, but utterly disastrous if left unchecked.”

“I take it I have one of the tame powers?” I asked.

“No,” Miss Militia said.  “I wouldn’t say that.”

There was a pause in the conversation.  I wasn’t going to argue with or agree with her point, and neither she nor Weld were volunteering further information.

“Your team took off your armbands,” Miss Militia said.

“Yes,” I replied.

“You’re playing very loose within the scope of the rules, with the consequences I outlined.”

“That’s somewhat related to what I came here to talk to you about,” I said.

“Go on,” she said.

“The clone told you things,” I ventured.  “I wanted to address them before you jumped to conclusions.  Or, at least, I wanted to address one major point.”

“You were conscious?”  Weld asked.

I nodded.

Weld spoke, “I understand if your clone was lying.  Psychological warfare, creating division in the ranks.  I’d be willing to believe the clone is capable of it, in light of our past experiences with you.  No offense.  But I still had to tell my boss.”

I didn’t respond right away.  He was giving me a way out.  I tried to get a sense of Miss Militia’s body language, using just my bugs: her arms were folded.  It was a moment where I desperately wished I could see and get a better read on her.

I’d always hated those parts in the TV shows and movies, where everything could be resolved with the simple truth.  It was why I’d never been able to watch romantic comedies.  It grated: the sitcom-esque comedic situations which would be resolved if people would only sit down, explain, and listen to one another, the tragedies which could have been prevented with a few simple words.

I didn’t want to be one of those tragedies.

“Thomas Calvert was Coil,” I said.  I kept my voice low enough that only the two of them would hear; I didn’t need to provoke a riot.

“Beg pardon?” Weld asked.

Miss Militia’s arms unfolded.  She hooked her thumbs in her belt, silent.

“Thomas Calvert got powers,” I said, “The ability to create a parallel reality where he could nudge things to unfold in different ways.  He used those powers to make a lot of money with no risk, hired high power mercenaries, and then hired both the Travelers and us.  The Undersiders.”

Miss Militia shifted position, leaning against a wall with her arms folded.  “A lot of what you say fits with what we know about Coil, but I’m not seeing where Thomas Calvert comes in.”

“His power meant anyone working under him could operate with less risk.  Our plans were that much more likely to work, because we got two chances any time he was able to give us his attention.  With that, we took over the city.  At that point, he’d exhausted the use of the ‘Coil’ persona, so he staged his own death.  He staged the deaths of those reporters, rigged the whole scene and set it up so it would play out like it did.  And in the end, a body double was set to die in his place.  His hired woman gets elected mayor in the aftermath, Piggot loses her job, and Thomas Calvert becomes head of the PRT.”

“You’re giving him a hell of a lot of credit,” Miss Militia said.

“He’s spent years rigging this.  If you dig, you’ll probably be able to find some traces of it.  Maybe the reporters who were on the scene only started working at a certain point, after he put them in position.  Maybe you can follow the money trails.  But he set everything up.  Think about it.”

I raised one hand, counted off my points.  “Through the Undersiders and Travelers, he would control all illicit activity in Brockton Bay, slowly moving on to the neighboring cities.  Through his money, power and his activity as Coil, he would control local business and industry.  Most of the construction companies that are rebuilding, all of the areas that are being bulldozed and rebuilt, he owned the land, he owned the businesses.  He could do it all at a loss because he was able to get money in other ways.  He was prepared to control the government through his puppets, and he controlled the heroes through his newly acquired position in the PRT.  All in all, he was set to have an absolute grip over Brockton Bay and all of the major aspects of the city.”

“And you murdered him?” Miss Militia asked.  “Your clone was telling the truth?”

“I think,” I said, and I had to pause to get my thoughts in order, “that this dialogue of ours is going to play out far better if I don’t answer that question.”

“Because you murdered him,” Weld said.

I didn’t answer.

“I’ll have to discuss this with the higher-ups,” Miss Militia said.  “The de-facto truce we’ve formed should protect you until this is all over, but I’ll make a strong recommendation that you be left alone for the time being.  It might help.”

“I wouldn’t,” I told Miss Militia.

“Wouldn’t what?  Make my recommendation?”

“I wouldn’t tell the higher-ups.  We took off the armbands because Tattletale had a feeling… complicated to explain.”

“I would really like you to explain,” Miss Militia said.

The problem with explaining was that it threatened to offer insight on Tattletale’s power.  Worse, it might get the Chicago Wards in trouble, and they’d been decent.

Maybe changing the subject… “Tattletale had ideas that Eidolon’s motives weren’t entirely pure.  And I don’t think they were.  When we got closer, I overheard Eidolon talking to Noelle.  He knew a few things that suggested he already knew what Coil was doing.”

Eidolon?” Weld asked.

Miss Militia put a hand on my shoulder, and ushered me away from the perimeter where the heroes were walking around and getting prepared.  I was pretty sure nobody was able to hear, but I didn’t object.  She leaned close and spoke an order in my ear, “Explain.”

This explanation was having the opposite effect I’d intended.  It threatened to get me and the others in deeper trouble.

“Do you know what Cauldron is?” I asked.

“A rumor,” Miss Militia said.  “It was an idea that cropped up around the time the first major parahumans did, and occasionally a person or group will use that idea and claim some greater conspiracy or a power connection.  In every case, it is investigated and thoroughly debunked.”

I frowned behind my mask.  “If you don’t think Cauldron’s responsible, how do you explain the monstrous parahumans?  Like Gregor the Snail or Newter?”

“Or me?” Weld asked.  He was just behind us.

“Or you,” I said.  “I’ve run into too many situations that involve Cauldron to buy that it’s a series of hoaxes.  The Merchants had vials that granted powers, and a suitcase detailing some contract with Cauldron.  I read some of it, before Faultline’s crew absconded with the rest of it.”

“Did you actually see someone drink and gain powers?”  Miss Militia asked.

“No.”

“It’s a name that’s acquired enough momentum and prestige that people will occasionally use it to their advantage.  Nothing more,” Miss Militia said.

“Then why did Eidolon say that Coil was involved with Cauldron, and that Cauldron was responsible for Noelle?”  I asked.

Miss Militia pursed her lips.  “I don’t know.  It could be that you’re lying.”

“If I was going to lie, I’d pick something more believable.”

“Or you’re picking something so unbelievable that it’d take ages to sort through the data.  In the meantime, this situation gets resolved and we let you walk away unharmed.  I have talked to my team, and I’ve seen your records.  You tend to do that.  Protect yourself in the present with details and arguments that would take a long time to verify.”

“I’m not looking for an argument,” I said.  “If you don’t believe that Calvert was Coil, then that’s fine.  I just wanted to put all my cards on the table.”

“Except for actually admitting to the murder,” Weld said.

“Right,” I said.

“Assuming we believed you, what are we supposed to do with this knowledge?”  Miss Militia asked.

“For now?” I asked, “Nothing.  Operate as you would otherwise.  But keep your eyes open, with this information in mind.”

“And if we do?  If we keep our eyes open, thoroughly investigate this allegation about Calvert and Coil, and we still decide to arrest you, will you agree to come peacefully into custody?”

I shook my head.  “No.  I don’t think so.”

“So it’s really selfishness that brings you here,” Miss Militia said.  “You don’t expect to change the way you operate, and you expect to get away with acknowledging that you murdered a man, if not outright admitting it… but you want us to change how we handle our end of things, based on your hearsay.”

“If you want to see it as self-serving, that’s your call,” I said.  “Maybe that’s how you work.  But I don’t have high aspirations, now.  I saved Dinah.  I want to protect the people in my territory, and stop the forces that might hurt them, be it the Slaughterhouse Nine, Coil or Echidna.  Maybe you won’t believe me when I say so, but I’m not trying to argue in my own defense here.  I won’t confirm or deny what the clone said, but nothing I’m saying here really gives me an alibi or leverage to escape this situation.”

“You’re giving us excuses to soften the impact of the crime you committed,” Miss Militia said.

“I’m not admitting to anything,” I pointed out.

“You know what I mean.”

“Maybe they are excuses, kind of.  It’s one way of looking at it.  Another way is that maybe now you can maybe be more wary when talking to Eidolon, or pay more attention when you start looking into Calvert’s daily life, see if anything points to Coil.  He wasn’t stupid, but you don’t devote that much time and energy to something without some blurring of the lines.  I don’t gain much if you do that, but you could stand to benefit.”

“Maybe,” Miss Militia said.

“Are you speaking from experience?” Weld asked.  “When you talk about blurring the lines between identities?”

I turned toward him, remembered that he’d seen my face.  “That would be telling.”

“Could be,” he answered.  “It’s something I’m interested in.  I never had the benefit of a secret identity.”

“Overrated, as far as I can tell,” I told him.  I thought of my dad.  Was he the victim of a blurring of the lines?  Or just a casualty in a long series of events that had affected the whole city?  Or both.

“This seems like a good time to cut in,” Tattletale said.  She approached from around the corner, turned her head in Miss Militia’s direction, “May I steal Skitter from you?”

Miss Militia waved a hand to one side, silent.

Tattletale was leading me off when Miss Militia spoke up.  “I don’t know if you’re speaking the truth…”

She trailed off.  I opened my mouth to speak, then shut it.  Silence was safer.

“…But if you are, I appreciate it.  It’s not like me, to demand evidence, to suspect everything, but I have to.  My teams can’t afford for me to give anyone or anything the benefit of a doubt.”

“Being in charge is hard,” I said, without turning her way.

Tattletale gestured in the direction we were going, then walked beside me as we left Weld and Miss Militia behind.  Whatever warped disease Noelle had dumped into me to weaken me and leave me unable to fight back after I’d been vomited out was steadily wearing off.  That was only a part of the overarching problems, though, and I still felt drained.  My stamina was pretty rock bottom, and the recent fight hadn’t helped.  I was hungry, thirsty, and I wanted to crash for fifteen or thirty minutes.

Oddly enough, though she no doubt felt far more spry than I did, it was Tattletale who fell a half step behind me as she walked to my left, and it seemed very deliberate in how she did so.

She’d done something very similar when we’d been on the rooftop, a subtle maneuver to help portray me as the leader and as someone to be respected.  Tattletale was scary in her own way, in a very different way than I was scary, but scary.  That she was showing deference or whichever would suggest something, even if people didn’t consciously realize it.

The alternative interpretation was that she’d been hurt more in the fight than she was letting on.

“Skitter,” Tattletale said, “Meet Scapegoat.”

My bugs passed over the young hero, and he didn’t flinch.  He would be one of the Wards, unless his stature was misleading.  His costume was a robe, though closer to Myrddin’s in style than Panacea’s.  My bugs traced beneath the robe to detect armor that suggested the costume was intended to be worn into a fight.  He wore a mask attached to his head by a band that felt like metal, apparently designed to flip up.  Two curling horns were attached to the band, at the sides of his forehead.

“Scapegoat?” I asked.  “A healer?”

“No,” Scapegoat said.  “But I can fix you.  Sort of.”

“What do you mean by ‘sort of’?”

“What I do is fragile.  It’s not healingYou’ll stop hurting, the wounds will disappear, but it’s a delicate balance, and the duration is limited.”

“I’ll take what I can get,” I said.

“When the duration expires, unless certain conditions are met, the injuries come back.  Sometimes not as bad, sometimes worse.  And they’re usually slower to heal.”

“What’s the duration?” I asked.

“Anywhere from one hour to six hours.”

“And the condition?”  I asked.

“Longer you go without breaking the effect, the better the chance the injuries stay gone.”

“Sit,” Tattletale said.  I sat.

Scapegoat touched my hand.  I felt a wave of sensations rushing over me.  Being hot, being cold, vibrations, the feeling of different fabrics and skin contacting mine, all at once.  The feeling of my costume against my skin became intense, sharp, even overwhelming.  I jumped and pulled away.

“It’s okay,” Tattletale said.

I nodded, gave Scapegoat my hand once again.

Tattletale explained, “Scapegoat’s effect operates on a quantum level.  He’s digging through potential realities to find unhurt versions of you, versions of you that are close enough to who you are right now that everything fits together seamlessly.”

“Except the injuries,” I said.  Sensations were rippling over me, each simultaneous, and the simple contact of my costume against my skin or the ground under my feet was so intense that it felt electric.

Tattletale nodded.  “Except the injuries.  For the time being, he’s patching you together with unhurt parts from the versions of Skitter from the other realities and other possibilities, and his own body serves as a bridge for that.”

“Is this safe?” I asked.  I had to grit my teeth as the effect continued to intensify.

“Relax,” Scapegoat said.  “More agitated you are, the weaker the effect.”

Relax.  I reached out to my bugs, trying to feel what they felt, see what they saw, hear what they heard, and displace myself from my body.  It was a method I’d tried many times before, almost meditative.

“It doesn’t take much for the effect to break,” Tattletale said.  “A heavy impact, a new injury or a major shock.  If that happens, all the injuries come back.  Probably worse.”

I’d planned to comment on how hard it was to relax and distract myself from the sensation when the meaning of Tattletale’s words struck me.

“How the hell am I supposed to fight if I can’t get hurt?”

“Play safe.  And stay within a hundred and fifty feet of Scapegoat.”

I frowned.  “I don’t think I can operate like that.”

“I can stop,” Scapegoat said.  “If you’re feeling ungrateful.”

“You’re barely functional,” Tattletale told me, ignoring him.

“A lot of it’s just the way that her puke makes you feel sick.  It’s wearing off.”

“You’re saying you’d rather keep going the way you are?” Tattletale asked.  “Ribs, lungs, exhausted, battered…”

“If it means being able to fight without having my hands tied, maybe.” I said.  And not feeling like this.  Scapegoat’s process sucked.

“But you can’t fight.  Not in this shape.”

“It doesn’t really matter,” Scapegoat said.  “It’s too late to undo it.”

All at once, the sensations stopped.  My entire body seemed to vibrate like a silent tuning fork might, in the absence of the sensations.  My ears were ringing, and spots swelled behind my eyelids.

I opened my eyes, and I still couldn’t see.  No.  It was different.  There wasn’t a white haze.   I wiped at the lenses of my mask, and dried bile and blood flaked off, leaving them more or less clear.

I blinked a few times, then took a deep breath.

I could see, and I could breathe.

“She’s fucking blind!?”  Scapegoat yelped.

I looked down at Scapegoat.  His costume was all white and gold, his mask an alabaster goat’s head fixed to a golden band, his robe white, and the chain around his waist more gold, with a goat’s head buckle.  He was on his knees on the ground, and the yelling had elicited a coughing fit.

“Could’ve sworn I mentioned it,” Tattletale said.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Oh.  He takes on whatever injuries he removes from others.  The eyes you’re using right now are essentially a blend of his eyes and the ones he was able to find by paging through alternate Skitters.  Kind of.  Hard to explain.”

“How the fuck am I supposed to operate like this?” Scapegoat rasped.  He started coughing again.

“You visit my other teammates, make sure they’re ship-shape,” Tattletale said, “Then we accompany you, and we create a situation where you can use the offensive effect of your power.”

“Fuck me,” Scapegoat said.

“It’s temporary,” she said.  In a lower voice, she added, “And I’m paying you well.”

A corrupt hero?  Or just an enterprising one?  I wondered.

I was also wondering if Tattletale had the funds for this.  She’d just paid off Coil’s soldiers, and as far as I knew, she was committing to keeping his enterprises going, but she wouldn’t have all of his funds, nor all of his contacts.  It came perilously close to emulating Coil’s fatal mistake.

Other junior heroes were gathering around us, as Scapegoat continued coughing and wheezing.  The one that caught my eye at first was a girl with a flower motif to her costume, her hair pink and styled in waves like a rose’s petals, which was impressive given how she’d probably just gotten out of bed before arriving.  Others included a boy in green with a sledgehammer, a guy with plate armor with fins at the side of the visor, a boy with a candle on his tan costume, and a pair I recognized as Grace and Wanton.

“Problem, S.g.?” the girl asked.

“Hate my power, hate my power, hate it, hate it, hate it,” Scapegoat rasped.  Wanton and Grace gave him a hand in standing.  He was still making his way to his feet when Grace turned to me.

“You’re blind?” she asked.

“I was,” I said.

“It happened after we parted ways?”

“No,” I said.

She gave me a funny look.

I kept my mouth shut, deciding to let her draw her own conclusions.  She looked down at Scapegoat, and I changed the subject.  “You’re okay?  No lasting effects from Noelle?”

“Ship shape,” she said.  I wasn’t sure she was telling the truth; Grace looked a little worse for wear.  Her hair looked wet, and the fluids that Noelle had been spitting out had congealed into the cracks and folds of her costume, with colors ranging from black to red to bilious yellow.  I wasn’t sure how she’d looked before, but she looked tired.  Was it waking up before sunrise, or had she been affected emotionally?

I probably didn’t look much better.  At least my costume was black and gray.  The muck wouldn’t stand out.

I felt better, though.  Enough that I felt almost euphoric.  Aches and pains I’d stopped paying attention to long ago were gone.  It did a lot to help me disassociate from the images and scenes I’d seen inside Noelle.

Tattletale might have been right.  Maybe working with Scapegoat was necessary.  If making this permanent was an option, I was willing to do what it took to preserve the effect, keeping Scapegoat close and keeping myself in one piece.

It wasn’t something I had a lot of experience in, playing safe.

“Let’s go find the others,” I said.  I didn’t like how Grue was acting when I left him behind.  “Grace, Wanton, are you coming with?”

“The orders we got stand until we hear different,” Grace said.  “We’re supposed to accompany you.”

“Good.  Then let’s see about getting Bentley and putting him on the dog’s back.”

Tattletale shook her head.  “Too many impacts, with him lumbering around like he does.  Either you or he take too heavy a hit, and we’re back where we started.”

“What if we find a containment van and put him in the passenger seat?” I asked.

“The last van didn’t fare too well,” Tattletale said.

“We’ll use containment foam to keep him safe and in one piece if we have to,” I told her.  “I hope it doesn’t come to that.  Let’s go.”

I started to move to pick Scapegoat up off the ground, but Tattletale stopped me, putting one hand on my wrist.

“Treat yourself like you’re made of glass,” she said.  “No heavy exertion, don’t get hurt, don’t strain yourself.”

“That’s a little extreme,” I said, but I didn’t touch Scapegoat.

It took two people to help Scapegoat to walk.  Grace walked on one side of him, Tattletale on the other.  When he’d taken on my injuries, had he received a more crippling variation?

I was hungry to observe and absorb every tidbit of information I’d been missing.  I could see the heroes gathered, all eyes on the wreckage of the building.  PRT officers were treading the perimeter, spraying volumes of containment foam onto the rubble.

Eighty heroes, if my bugs were counting right.  Maybe eight in all were in the air.  It made it easy to find Eidolon.  Like Grace, his costume had been tinted by the film of dried fluids.  He was a few stories above the ground, and his cape flapped around him in the strong winds.

It was hard to make capes look good.  They had a way of clinging to the body, or flowing the wrong way, getting caught around an arm… it took a measure of majesty to make it work.  Eidolon could pull it off.

Ironic, that the slang for a parahuman was ‘cape’, and so few of us wore them.

I’d worn a short cape, not so long ago, barely long enough to reach the small of my back.    I’d adopted it more for utility than style, to give me more concealed area to hide my bugs and for the marginal extra protection it afforded me.  I didn’t have it now, and I was somewhat glad.  I might have felt more self-conscious, seeing Eidolon up there.  I’d wind up worrying if I really had the ability to make it look good, when I needed to focus on projecting confidence.

There weren’t many villains here, and now that I could see, I was getting evidence to my previous concerns about being watched.

We reached the Undersiders, and I knelt beside Grue.  Imp was beside him, and both Regent and Bitch were standing nearby.  Regent gave me a nod, and I nodded back.

“Sorry to do this,” I said.  I looked at the three heroes that had accompanied us, “But I’d like to have a private conversation with my teammates.”

The bugs flowed from my costume and the surroundings, forming a moving curtain that separated me from Grace, Wanton and Scapegoat.  I gradually widened it, forcing them to back up.

Wanton let Grace support Scapegoat and tried to venture forward into the swarm.  He snorted and backed up as bugs crawled into his nose, ears and mouth.  I gave him a few seconds to experience the sensation, then removed them.  He didn’t try a second time.

“What’s going on?” I asked, keeping my voice low.

“He’s gone quiet,” Imp said.  “Not responding much.  He flinched when I tried to touch him.”

“Being inside Echidna, you see things,” I said.  “Variations on your trigger event, or ugly moments from your life.”

“Oh,” Imp said.  “Oh.

I looked at Grue.  He was staring off into space, with darkness gathered in thick ropes around him, to the point that I couldn’t make out how he was sitting.  He did that instinctively, I’d noted.  The more he withdrew into himself, suppressed his emotions, the more his darkness manifested around him.

If it was this bad, then I wasn’t sure what I could do.

I knelt beside him, and even with the darkness that wreathed him, I could sense him pulling away.

“Imp,” I said.

“What?”

“You should take him home.”

“But… I can help.”

“I know,” I said.  “You’ve helped a lot already.  But he can’t stay here.  Not like this.  If he relived his trigger event, he’s going to need reassurance from you.”

“His other trigger event was about you,” Imp said.  She sounded almost accusatory.

“Maybe,” I said.  I stared into the black lenses of her mask.  “Do you want me to take him? Because I will.  I’ll leave, Tattletale can lead the Undersiders, and you can stay and focus on assassinating clones.”

She drew her knife, turned it around in her hands, as if she were considering it.

“Whatever you do,” I told her, “Make the call fast.  If you aren’t staying, I want to get moving fast.  I need to collect bugs before the fighting starts up again.”

She glanced down at Grue, then she looked at the others.  Regent and Rachel were watching us carefully.

For my part, I looked at Grue.  I wanted nothing more than to walk away.  I’d be okay being partially blind, waiting weeks or months to see if maybe my senses came back, if it meant holding him, helping him through this, giving him whatever support he needed so badly.

I could so vividly recall the vision I’d seen of Mannequin, and all the people I’d cared about struggling to get to safety.  Everyone had been counting on me, and I’d been failing them.  Odd, that the recollection was somehow reassuring to me in this brief moment.

In the same moment, I turned to Imp and Imp turned to me.  The black lenses of her mask met my yellow ones straight-on.

“You’re the leader,” Imp said, and that was answer enough.

I reached out and took Grue’s hand.  He flinched, trying to pull away before I got a firm hold.  I managed it anyways, seized his hand between mine.

“Grue,” I said.  I kept my voice firm, but quiet.  “It’s Skitter.  Taylor.  I need you to listen.”

He didn’t budge an inch.  I squeezed his hand.  “Listen.  You’re going with Aisha, understand?  I think I know the kind of thing you saw.  What you experienced.  But you need to remember the important part, okay?  You didn’t fail.  You did what you wanted to.  You saved her, you saved me, and you saved yourself.”

He tugged, trying to pull his hand away, and I held fast.  The darkness was swelling around him.

“There’s only one more part left.  Just like you did then, you need to walk away.  Leave the scene behind.  It’s the best thing you can do.  You turn your back, and you walk away from where all the ugliness happened.  Understand?  Go with Aisha.  You two go home together.”

I stood, and I pulled on his hand at the same time.  He resisted.

“Take her home,” I said.

This time, when I pulled, he worked to climb to his feet.  I took his hand and placed it firmly in Aisha’s.  I watched them walk away, hand in hand, and when I couldn’t see them with my eyes, I sensed them with my power, followed the movements with the blotchy vision of my bugs.

The bugs I’d formed into a barrier drifted in my direction and congregated on me.  The younger heroes were a short distance away, and Tattletale was with them.

They were watching as reinforcements arrived.

Alexandria and Legend had joined Myrddin, Chevalier and Eidolon.

The big guns.  We were finally treating this like a class S threat.

When I approached Tattletale, the other Undersiders followed me: Regent and Bitch with a litter of dogs of varying size trailing around her, chains clinking where they were attached to collars and harnesses.

Tecton was on the other side of the crowd, looking somewhat worse for wear.  Grace and Wanton started making their way toward him, and I followed by necessity, because they were helping a blind Scapegoat hobble along.

Our trip led us past the collection of major heroes, and the crowd that had gathered around them.  Glancing at them, I could see Tattletale in my peripheral vision, a smile spreading across her face.

I felt a moment’s trepidation.  I’d seen that kind of smile, had seen it on Emma’s face, often enough, just before she pulled something.  It wasn’t directed at me, though.  I reached out for Tattletale’s arm, but she was already speaking.

“Cauldron,” she said.  The word just loud enough for the heroes to hear.

Eidolon managed to feign ignorance, not even moving a muscle, and Alexandria barely moved, nothing out of the ordinary for someone who’d heard a voice calling out.  Legend, though, turned our way, looking straight at Tattletale.  His lips pursed a fraction, and then he looked away.

Tattletale’s grin widened a fraction.  She murmured to me, “All three know.”

In which case we just added three people to our list of possible enemies.

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Interlude 18

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“Scout it,” Noelle gave the order.  “Recuperate while we wait.”

Marissa sent a hawk flying through the dense foliage.  Noelle could feel that dull thrum of adrenaline, feel as though time had slowed down, her perceptions and reaction times cranked up to the maximum as she assessed every skeleton and bog zombie between her team and the hawk’s ultimate destination – a clearing with a withered crone standing idle in the center.

Everything was a clue, the placement the enemy had chosen for each unit crucial, because it would force them to maneuver one way or another.  Was that treasure chest placed at the back of the swamp-dungeon because the enemy Overlord had wanted to put it as far out of reach as possible or was it because he wanted to bait them into a trap on that side of the room?

It would be impossible to guess from that one clue alone, but the position of the monsters, lighter on that end of the room-

“Stay to the right,” she ordered.

There were reports of assent from the others.

Like being aware one was dreaming without actually disturbing the dream, it was a rare thing to be in the zone and to be aware she was in the zone.  She knew she was right.

“Cody, go ranged.”

Cody’s Highwayman sheathed his rapier and drew twin pistols from his belt.

“Luke, wind magic, wind spirits.  Dimplecheeks doesn’t usually use casters as an overlord, but he’ll stick to old habits.  He’ll have teleportation.  Mars, circle around, poke at her from range.  Go!”

They charged into the clearing.  The hag, Dimplecheeks, summoned two Über demons as they breached the threshold, then teleported to the far end of the room.  Luke’s shaman was already setting down wind spirits who were spewing forth miniature tornadoes, casting out gusts of wind that would accelerate his team and slow down or push their enemies.

“Enemy team just turned around,” Jess reported.  “They’re backtracking for the portal.  They’re going to invade en-masse.”

“Fuck,” Noelle said. Her mind was racing, covering a dozen factors at once – positioning her Challenger to best benefit her allies in the fight, avoiding the hag’s spells, calculating the damage her team was doing, keeping track of her items, and those of her team.  “How many rooms?”

“They were one room past portal, they’ll be entering around now.”

Ten seconds at best.  “We can’t kill her before they show.”

“Want me to send troops?”  Jess asked.

“No.  Fortify your dungeon.  If they take us out, you hold them off.”

“You know my boss monster isn’t that strong.  They’re only three rooms from fighting it.”

Hold them off,” Noelle said.

Sure enough, the enemy appeared at the entryway of the boss room.  Her team was hurt from the fight with the hag, and the enemy team hadn’t ventured far enough in to burn all of their resources.

Dying was inevitable.  That didn’t mean that their efforts were futile.  She had to slow them down-  She challenged the enemy’s Chronomancer to a one-on-one duel, consequently shrugged off the vast majority of the damage the remainder of the enemy inflicted, and charged to close the distance to strike the mage down in three blows.

She challenged the hag the second her target was down, landed two good hits, dropping their target to a third of her total health.

Then Cody fell, with Luke falling shortly after.

Noelle managed to use her own body to absorb the worst of the enemy attacks while Marissa ‘kited’ across the area’s perimeter, maintaining a consistent distance as she fired arrows at them.

Caught between the approaching enemy and a cloud of poison fog the hag had cast, Mars chose to rush through the latter.  Her health dropped to zero and she collapsed.

“Fuck!  Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Cody was shouting.  He kicked something.

It was as though Cody’s tantrum were happening in a very distant place.  Noelle’s focus was entirely on slowing the enemy down.  She challenged the enemy’s barbarian, because he did the lowest damage and everyone she didn’t challenge would do less damage to her.  She took a swig of the potion she still had in her inventory from the start of the game.  It wouldn’t restore even five percent of her health, but there was a dim possibility that it would force the enemy to land just one more attack.  Take a half second, or invest a few magic points into an ability to catch her.  Magic points they couldn’t use to take Jess on.

The three remaining enemy heroes bum-rushed her, cutting off her fighting retreat and forcing her into one location.  The hag landed a toxin-bomb on her, and her health disappeared in an instant.  The screen turned to shades of crimson and black, and a timer appeared in the dead center.

Forty five seconds to respawn.  The enemy players were surrounded in flares of light.  Level ups.  It would make up for the expense of passing through the portal.  It had been a good maneuver, perfectly timed, so they could disengage from Jess’ own forces and backtrack through her dungeon.

“Fuck!” Cody shouted.

Cody would take thirty seconds to respawn.  Thirty to forty-five seconds before they spawned at the checkpoint…

No, the enemy’s bandit was backtracking through the dungeon.  Hacking away at the checkpoint flag.

Now twenty to thirty-five seconds before they spawned at the dungeon entrance.

She watched the clock count down, bought new items, continued to watch the clock.

Cody respawned.

“Go!” she shouted.

Luke appeared soon after.  So did the enemy Chronomancer, in Jess’ checkpoint room.  The enemy was on the second to last room, dispatching goblin grenadiers and goblin gunners, fighting their way past the trenches Jess had laid down.

They defeated the last of the monsters.  The blood gate was satisfied and opened, giving them free rein to fight Jess’ end boss, an ogre king.

The boss Dimplecheeks had put in the checkpoint room, halfway through his dungeon, was just as tough and more dangerous.

Mars and Noelle respawned, and they charged through the dungeon.

Jess had half her health remaining, the hag had one-third, but there were four enemies in Jess’ boss room and Cody hadn’t even reached the hag.

By the time Cody and Luke were in the hag’s room, it was thirty-twenty five in the enemy’s favor.  The ogre king was tough, but slow, easy to hit.  The enemy delivered damage steadily, while Luke and Cody were forced to adapt as the more fragile hag teleported to inconvenient spots, costing them precious seconds each time.

Noelle and Mars joined the fray.

When the fighting stopped and the screen went dark, Noelle wasn’t entirely sure if they’d won or lost.

Letters in gold script flashed across the screen.  ‘Victory!’

The others were out of their chairs, cheering.  She joined them.  They hugged.  She turned, saw Krouse perched on the desk in the center of the room beside Chris and Oliver.  He was smiling.

Noelle hugged him, and for once she was able to forget all her doubts and insecurities, all her issues, the way even physical contact would leave her with a pit in her stomach.  She hugged him tight, and it was good.  It felt right.

“We’re going to nationals!” Cody whooped.

“That was you,” Krouse whispered to her.  “You made the difference.  You won.”

Her breath was too hot as it passed through her lips.  The exertion, this body mass, it made her feel feverish.  Worse than feverish.  She felt like she had when she’d been camping as a child, standing too close to the fire, seeing how long she could endure it.

Only it was all over, inside her.  A prickling, almost unbearable heat.

I know why you showed me that, she thought. She looked at Trickster; he adjusted his hat, swapped Sundancer with one of the flying capes.  The sun fizzled out as she landed.  One threat out of commission.  Ballistic and the other cape he’d arrived with were down as well.

She tried to read Trickster’s body language.  Back straight, walking with confidence.  He’d hesitated when she’d asked for his help.  Now there wasn’t a trace of doubt.

She’d admired that about him, had been jealous of it.  The confidence.  The sense of pride.

But the memory that had flashed across her consciousness, almost more vivid than reality, the emotions very real as she recalled them, it hadn’t served the intended purpose.

You can’t convince me that way, she thought.  This victory and that one don’t even compare.

There wasn’t a reply, of course.

“Bitch!  Run!” Regent hollered. “Go to Tattletale!”

Only his head, shoulders and one arm were free of Noelle’s grip.  She tugged and pulled him in faster.  He put his free arm inside her flesh, found something more or less solid and managed to push back enough to avoid having his head pulled in.

Trickster and Noelle wheeled around.  Bitch, the girl with the dogs, was the last Undersider here.  Trickster couldn’t find an angle to swap the girl with anyone else.  The boy in the armor would be too large, and Trickster’s field of vision didn’t allow for him to get his eyes on her and someone more appropriate.

Noelle tagged several of the bodies in her internal stomachs, felt flesh constrict tight against them, felt the pre-prepared nuggets of flesh in her gullet forming into close replicas in an instant.  Timing was crucial; if she spat them out too soon, they’d be malformed, missing limbs or features.  Too late, and there was extra material.

She retched, sending them flying in the direction of the girl with the dogs.  Bodies for Trickster to use.

But the boy with the armor was already moving.  He slammed one hand into the ground, and a cloud of debris and dust masked him and Bitch.

She couldn’t wholly control the vomit, lost one of the powered ones.  Not one of the Undersiders, she was relieved to note.  It had been the big one, who’d been with the tinker.  He’d called himself Über.  She didn’t try to reclaim him.  He was more or less useless.  The loss still pained her.  Better to have him than one of the unpowered ones.

Her vomit caught Genesis, who was presently a charging bull with a jellyfish-like tentacles trailing behind her.  The vomit blinded Genesis, and Noelle struck her hard enough to kill.  The body collapsed and started disintegrating.

“Hey,” Regent said.  “Monster girl.”

Noelle snarled as she glanced down at the boy who was stuck inside one of her legs.  Only his face was left to be consumed.  Her voice was hoarse with emotion as she asked, “What?”

“When you make my clone, do you think you could give him a goatee?”

Noelle didn’t dignify the question with a response.  She flexed and drew Regent completely within her body.  She’d hurt him later.  For now, she needed him to help her escape so she could hunt down his friends.

She ran.  The simple act of moving flooded her body with endorphins and adrenaline.  It felt good, made her feel strong.  That was another avenue of attack, as her body tried to work its manipulations on her mind.  The hunger, the heightened emotions, rewarding her with pleasant memories and good feelings when she operated in sync with it.

It was a matter of weeks, days or hours before she lost enough ground that she was the one trying to manipulate her body into doing what she wanted, with it calling all the shots.  If the process continued, she would eventually be subsumed entirely, unable to do anything but observe, and maybe not even that.

The pavement had been cracked like a sheet of glass, and the footing was unsteady, but the mass of her body was crushing fragments underfoot, and she had four good legs, with five more for further support.  Falling wasn’t a concern.

Noelle passed through the cloud of dust that the one in armor had sent flying into the air.  She saw the armored tinker punching the ground once more, leaped to clear the ground that suddenly plunged into a pit in front of her.  She picked out a selection from those within her and, with her rightmost head, sent a stream of bodies at him.  He punched the ground with his other hand, and pavement tilted upward in a makeshift barrier, blocking the worst of the stream and flying bodies.

The ones who did land in his vicinity were on him in moments.  One was the little space-warper, another was a copy of the firebreathing acrobat with the rich smell, and three were copies of the unpowered people she’d absorbed.  They mobbed the armored tinker.

She hadn’t included the Undersiders in that stream.  Until they were more fully absorbed, there was a good chance that she’d spit them out if she tried to copy them.  Using any one person too frequently carried the same risks, and she suspected that it would be more difficult now that she was so full.

The girl in silver armor, with white flowing clothes was dashing toward her from the other side, not any slower for the shattered ground underfoot.  Noelle picked out unpowered individuals she could afford to lose, closed her muscles tight around them, and spat out the partially formed nuggets along with a mess of the internal fluids.

The girl ducked low, landing on a fragment of road, using her forward momentum to skid toward Noelle as though she were snowboarding.  There was an explosion of debris as she kicked off the ground, and the girl soared toward Noelle, twisting in the air to land a kick with that same foot.

It felt like getting hit by a cannon.  Noelle’s stride broke and she had to plant one foot to the side to keep from falling over.

She’d lost ground, and Bitch was swiftly increasing the distance between them.

Noelle hesitated, then decided to let the girl go for the time being.  Better to defend herself, establish a better position.  While stationary, she could spit up an Undersider, swallow them back up again.  She’d read up on them, had talked to Trickster about them.  She had a good sense of what they were capable of.

But which one?  She had three.  Regent might work against this girl in white, but his influence would be too minor in the big picture.  His smell was weakest of the three.

Not that it was really a smell… but she was peculiarly aware of the people with powers, active or otherwise.  Each had a texture and a tone and a flavor, something she felt like she could come to understand.  She might have said it was taste, might have compared it to when she’d tried wine that one time and tried to see what the wine aficionados looked for when they sampled a vintage.  Except the word ‘smell’ worked better, because smell and taste were really very similar and smell worked over distances.

There was a difference in Skitter, Grue’s and Eidolon’s smells, along with a handful of the other visiting capes.  A smell that set them apart from the other parahumans in the same way that the other parahumans were set apart from the people who could have powers but didn’t.  An intensity.

She wished she’d spent more time researching the powers.  She hadn’t been able to bring herself to, had wanted only to distract herself from the thoughts of what was happening to her.

Which one to use?  Skitter was more dangerous in a general sense, but she wouldn’t stop the girl in white now.  That left Grue.

She didn’t spit, but simply contracted and let the body spill forth.  Sure enough, the real Grue tumbled out, prostrate, unable to move.  A tongue snaked out of her center-mouth and caught him before he could try to escape.  She’d swallowed him by the time her Grue was on its feet.

Noelle only had a glimpse of her Grue’s real form before he started cloaking himself in darkness.  He was muscular, broad-shouldered, his long hair slicked to his head by the fluids of the vomit.  Angry red ulcers studded his dark skin at set intervals.

He cast a glance over his shoulder at her as the darkness crept up over his shoulders and the back of his head.  His eyes were black from corner to corner, his teeth too large, misshapen much like his fingernails were, tangled together to the point that he couldn’t open his mouth.  It forced him into a perpetual grimace with his teeth bared.

He turned his back to her as the darkness covered his face, squared his shoulders.  The body language was clear.  He was protecting her.

He’s one of the useful ones, then.  Her copies of the little space warper had been like that.  Naturally inclined toward teamwork, disciplined.  The other three were more likely to run off.  They were still useful, but they did things in their own way.

Spheres of darkness appeared in her Grue’s hands.  One after the other, he hurled them at the girl in white.  The first missed, and the second seemed like it might do the same, until it arced in the air to strike her from the side.

The darkness was more like gum than smoke, and she struggled.  Noelle’s Grue closed the distance, moving over the surface of the road much as the girl in white had.

Then Noelle saw why and how.  A thread of darkness, barely thicker than a finger, extended from the sticky darkness to her Grue.  That would be how he’d moved the projectile in the air, and how he was absorbing her power.

The boy in armor created a fissure that spat debris into the air as it parted, aiming to separate the Grue and the girl in white.  By intent or accident, he cut the thread of darkness in the process.  Noelle’s Grue stopped, turned to face the tinker and created more spheres in his hands.

Those two were occupied.  Noelle turned to see Trickster dealing with the flying heroes.  Two were on the ground, prone.  That would be the result of Trickster baiting them into shooting one another.  The remaining hero had a weapon in hand but wasn’t shooting.

Eidolon was there too. His smell was interesting.  Complicated, but somehow off.  If he was using any particular method of attack on Trickster, then Noelle couldn’t see it.

Trickster disappeared from the skirmish with the flying heroes, putting one of her creations in his place.

She sniffed him out.  He was in the midst of the one batch of bodies that had piled up against the tinker’s makeshift wall.  They were turning on him, grabbing for his arms and legs.  He teleported to keep them from getting any serious leverage, but the escape was slow.

“Leave him!” she ordered, and her voice came out with surprising volume.

They didn’t listen.  They struck him, gripped his costume and dragged him to the ground.

Trickster shouted in alarm as he was submerged in the mass of clones.

Noelle advanced on her creations in as threatening a manner as she could, the ground shaking with her advance.  They noticed and backed away.

Trickster, for his part, didn’t even flinch as she closed the distance between the two of them, stepping within a few feet of him.

It would be all too easy to just snap her tongue at him.  Catch him, swallow him.

She held off.  Instead, she faced Eidolon and the other flying cape.

Trickster adjusted his hat and did the same.  The two of them against the world.

“It’s not you, it’s me,” she said.

Krouse folded his arms.  ”You can’t blame me at least a little?”

“No,” Noelle said, shaking her head.  If I could only explain, I would…  She could feel her throat seize up.  Worrying that her voice might crack if she spoke at the normal volume, she lowered her voice to a hush as she said, “You’ve been great.”

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

Doing fine?  How many hours had she spent lying awake in bed, agonizing over this relationship?  Hating herself?

She’d relapsed because of it, and recovering was proving to be a long, hard road.

“We aren’t!” Noelle said, “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?”

Only part of it.

“Don’t dismiss my concerns,” she said, and the anger in her own words surprised her.

“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,” Krouse said.

Her breath caught in her throat at that.  Had Marissa told him?  Or had he figured it out?  It wasn’t like she hadn’t left signs.

He continued without a pause, “…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.”  Noelle knew she was repeating herself, but it was the only argument she could make.  All of the others would involve discussing other topics, her issues.

And she couldn’t bring herself to do that.  Marissa knew, would keep quiet because she got it.  Marissa knew, wouldn’t bring it up, would back her up when needed.

Noelle loved Krouse, but she knew he wasn’t so graceful.  It would become something jarring, intruding on their everyday interactions.

“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?”  Krouse asked.

“Don’t do that!”

She could see his expression change to bewilderment at her reaction.  He spread his arms, as if he were asking a question without opening his mouth.  I’m being irrational… but that’s the disease at work.

It took her a long time to find the words.

“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?”  He asked.  I think you’re fantastic, if that counts for anything.”

The words stung, nettled her, as if they personified his lack of understanding.  She said as much, “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 couldn’t keep going down this road, couldn’t have an argument, or she’d let something slip.  She stared 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.”

Noelle glanced up at him, then looked back down.  She tried to find the words, but both brain and mouth failed her.

“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.”

It’s… it’s a bad time for me, she thought, as if voicing the words in her head would let her utter them out loud.  The wrong moment.  Any earlier or later in my recovery…

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,” she said, meaning it.

“Okay,” he said.  He paused very deliberately.  She didn’t take the invitation to speak.

He sighed, ”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-”

Can’t do this.  Can’t break it off.  Not when he’s being this good about it.  Not when it’s making the both of us this miserable. 

“Never mind,” she said, abrupt.  I’ll find another way.

“Never mind?”

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

“Sure,” he said.

Her feelings were a chaotic storm.  Relief, quiet joy, fear, misery, self loathing, panic…

I’m not well, she thought.

”Want me to walk you home?”  His voice was gentle.

She nodded mutely, unable to find the words to speak.  A simple five word confession would simultaneously explain everything and spoil the tone of their relationship.  She knew it, knew she was being irrational, that her recent relapse was making her that way, was making her nasty and emotional and unpredictable.

How could he not notice?  The way she picked at her food, the way Marissa got on her case about eating?  The countless other clues?  Yes, she’d been in recovery for much of the time they’d known each other, but… hadn’t he been paying attention?

She simultaneously loved and hated him, in that moment.  He was the best thing in the world for her, and the worst thing in the world for her, both at the same time.

And it wasn’t fair to him, putting that on his shoulders.

She was fighting with Eidolon.  The realization startled her.  She’d been adrift in vivid memories, and she’d lost time.

She sniffed, for lack of a better word, and found Skitter prone on the ground.  Her tongue snatched the girl up, and she swallowed the girl anew.  The taste and smell were right.  Good.

That spooked her.  Her body wasn’t making good decisions when it was on autopilot.  Or, at least, it wasn’t making decisions she’d accept.  Almost losing an Undersider?  No.

She double checked.  Skitter, Grue, Regent and the little space warper were safely ensconced inside her, each tucked away in neat little wombs, unconscious and helpless and safe from the ongoing fighting.

Why did you show me that?  Why was that so important?

There was no reply.  Never a reply.

Eidolon reached out with one hand, and she instinctively rushed out of the way.

The gravity effect hit her, and she could feel her flesh tearing, feel the extremities ripping: her ears, nose, lips and all the little pieces of her monstrous lower half.  At her shoulders, the top of her head, the flesh above her spine on her lower half, the flesh was pulled down and away until it started to rip.

Eidolon fell out of the air, hitting the ground hard.

Noelle turned her head, saw Regent.  Her Regent.  He was only half-formed, one arm missing, the features of his face more like a fetus than a teenage boy.

She smiled.  Maybe her other half had made some good decisions.

Her flesh was already knitting back together, everything shuffling into their proper places or shifting around to fill in gaps.  The fluid that welled from a bottomless source in her monstrous lower half bubbled up and coursed through her veins to supply the needed materials.

The girl in white hit her again, striking the joint of one outstretched limb.  Noelle swiped at the girl in mid-air with her other forelimb, came within inches of making contact.

The ground underfoot shattered.  Noelle leaped before the tinker could repeat the effect and sink her into another sand trap.

There was another explosion from beneath her.  She leaped to avoid the worst of that one.  She vomited in the direction of the tinker, but he was anticipating the attack.  He provoked an eruption of rock shards and dust midway between them.  The bulk of the flying bodies and fluids were knocked off course by the plume of debris.  With a third strike he raised a barrier around himself.  Two of the three bodies that hadn’t been stopped by the debris were caught on the shards of pavement.  One suffered a broken back, the other hit the edge of a fragment with enough force that his stomach was ripped open.

The third flew over the barrier.  The tinker caught it with a punch, and the piledriver in his gauntlet extended twice in an instant, punching two neat holes through the upper body.

He didn’t even wait for the body to hit the ground before striking and creating another fissure that extended beneath the barrier and beneath her.  She leaped out of the way before it opened wide enough to catch her or one of her feet.

It was bad timing.  She had been distracted by the recent vision.  Eidolon hit her square-on with another gravity attack.  Her flesh was savaged and split, she was almost immobilized under the force of it.  If the tinker used his power now-

Trickster broke Eidolon’s contact with the gravity field by teleporting him.  The hero reacted in an instant, releasing a half-dozen blue sparks from each hand.  They grew until they were each three feet across, crackling with electricity, moving at a walking pace as they slowly homed in on Trickster.

He had to teleport to avoid the closest one.  Only some of the orbs followed him to his new destination, the others remaining where they were.

Noelle opened fire on the tinker, two streams of vomit, each directed to one side of him.

She considered vomiting on the electric orbs, then thought twice about it.

Trickster teleported again, trying to maintain distance, but Eidolon had created more of the sparks, and the things were spreading out evenly across the battlefield, moving closer to Trickster if he got within ten paces of them.

It threatened to hamper her own movements too, Noelle noted.

Eidolon raised a hand in Trickster’s direction, and Trickster was quick to teleport away.  The gravity slam hit one of Noelle’s creations instead.  Trickster wound up within two paces of one orb, and had to scramble back before it touched him.

Noelle looked at him, remembered the scene from the most recent memory.  In this moment, with so many other people to be angry at, so many others to hate, she didn’t feel that bottomless resentment for Trickster that she’d experienced ever since the transformations started.

It wasn’t you, she thought.  I keep saying it was your fault.  It wasn’t.

She was already moving towards him as the thought came to her.

I blamed you for giving me the elixir.  The potion.  Whatever you call it.  But it was me.  I heard you guys talking about how the people who drank the stuff were supposed to get tested for psychiatric issues.  I didn’t tell you the Simurgh showed me visions of my worst days, of my relapses, my lowest points.  That she drove me into a state where I was reluctant to take the full dose, eager for a compromise.

She started running.

I knew all this, and if I’d only had the courage to say it, maybe this all would have gone a different way.

Oh, the irony, that this was what she’d become.

She crashed into the first of the lightning orbs.  She felt the current surge inside her, settle in her bones, latent.

A heartbeat later, every single orb that Eidolon had cast out flashed with visible arcs of electricity, striking her.  The energy ripped through her, stripping flesh from around the bone of her arm, her ribs, her spine, and the larger bones of her lower body.  The electricity surged to the ground and out the top of her head, stabbing toward the sky in a visible lightning strike.

Noelle staggered, touched one hand to her face, where her flesh had been distorted by the strike, separated from bone so it hung down, large patches of hair at the crown of her head burned away. The ends of her fingers where she’d touched the orb were blasted away, revealing bone.

She could feel it growing back, flesh knitting together.

Even this wasn’t enough to kill her.

She touched another, and it was worse, drawing on the residual energy from the first contact.

The third was worse still.

She’d complained of the sheer heat of this body before, but this… it was heat and pain on an inhuman level.  Transcendant.  Were she regular Noelle, Noelle without the powers, without the monstrous lower half and warped brain, even a tenth of this would knock her out, stop her heart from the sheer intensity of it.

On contact with the fourth orb, her frontmost legs collapsed under her, with everything within a half-foot of the major bones being rendered to little more than ash.  There was nothing to connect flesh to bone, and she toppled.

She roared, and for perhaps the second time in the past hour, both she and her monstrous half were in agreement.  With her other legs, she pushed herself forward, and extended one of her long tongues for the orb closest to Trickster.  To Krouse.  She screamed in pain and fury as it ripped through her, and another bolt stabbed toward the sky.

Too much damage, too fast.  She wasn’t healing fast enough.

A series of lightning strikes nearby marked the deaths of some of her clones.

Eidolon was there, too, at the end of the street.  The glow beneath his hood and sleeves was almost blue in the reflected luminescence of the twenty or thirty orbs that hovered around him.  A further twenty or thirty orbs were spread out over their immediate surroundings.

The others… the tinker had created short walls of stone to shield himself and the girl in white.  The rest of the battlefield consisted of bodies and other fallen.

Eidolon spoke into his wrist.  Noelle realized that there were other capes nearby when they each came to a stop, resting on rooftops and behind cover a few blocks away.

Short of Eidolon, there was nobody for Trickster to swap himself with.  And given that Eidolon had so many orbs in his immediate vicinity… no, Trickster swapping himself for Eidolon wasn’t an option.

Her other half hated him, and she was realizing just how much her monstrous body had been influencing her without her knowledge, now that her emotions were all pointed at this one individual, this one target.  It left her feelings towards everyone else at an almost normal level.  Her feelings for Krouse, her hatred of the Undersiders, her anger at Coil, each had been twisted, magnified, warped.

“If he does another gravity attack, I’m kind of dead,” Trickster said.

“He won’t,” Noelle rasped,  “He’d knock those orbs out of the air, and he’s counting on them to destroy me.  They probably will.”

As some of her tendons and ligaments knit together, she got two legs under her and positioned herself as close to Trickster as she could without touching him, shielding him from the orbs that were approaching at a crawling pace.

“I’m sorry,” Trickster said.

Noelle couldn’t bring herself to reply.  She wanted to say she was sorry too, that his apology was unnecessary, but a kind of indignant rage was rising deep within her, threatening to overwhelm her.  All of it was directed at Eidolon.

And in the midst of that rage, she felt a killing instinct she hadn’t experienced before.  Even coming this far, she’d never wanted to kill.  She’d wanted the Undersiders dead, yes, she’d tried to kill people, but a part of her had always held back from wanting to kill, from wishing to carry out the act of murder herself.

To execute this man who sought to end her existence.

It wasn’t her desire, not really.  It was her body’s.

“You want to kill?” she asked.  “You really think you can fight your way through this?”

“What?” Trickster asked.  “What are you talking about?”

Not talking to you, she thought.  “I have two conditions.  Don’t harm Trickster, and make it a nice memory this time.”

Then she let her defenses down.  Her other self took over, and it wasn’t her memory that she experienced.

Some of the others departed early.  Others were readied to depart soon after arrival.  Still others, this one included, were to wait.

They were one, they were all.  A collective, a single entity, a trillion times a trillion entities.  Each with a function in the whole, each with a role in the cycles, each with an individual identity.

As one, they traveled.  The distance was immeasurable, the passage of time impossible to convey.  There was no standard, for there were realms they had traveled where time and space operated on different levels.

For all, their own kind was the only standard, the only thing that remained relatively static through the cycles.  When they met their own kind they shared with each other.  When a new cycle was carried out, everything of the parent was borne by their spawn.

And the collective moved toward their destination.  They operated as a whole to decipher it, to pick apart the permutations, see the futures and the possibilities.

But for this one entity, which existed as part of the whole, there was a target within that destination.  When it came time for this one to depart, it would seek out a particular individual, and it would bond with that individual.  This one would fragment itself if others met the criteria; if there was time and opportunity enough then it would move to better candidates, younger or more able ones with a greater ability to affect the cycle.  This one would wait until the time was right, and then it would activate, come into the identity and role that had been ingrained into its being.

All to serve this cycle.

With the help of the collective, this one could see its objective.  A single living being.  This one encoded that being, the time and place in its very makeup.  It would be ready.

Noelle’s eyes went wide.

It wasn’t me.

Whatever her body was, the intelligence and purpose that lurked inside her other half, whatever these powers were.  It had all gone to the wrong person.

Gone to the wrong person, askew from the beginning, then twisted further by her own psychological issues, messed up by the fact that she’d only taken half a dose.

The realization and the confusion that came with the vision were compounded as she stared at her surroundings.

Her minions surrounded her: two copies of Trickster; a skinny girl with long dark hair, covering herself with her arms and a carpeting of rodents, Skitter;  a Grue; a Regent; two blondes who would be copies of the girl in white; four of the civilians, and one she didn’t recognize as any of the civilians she’d absorbed.  The tinker.  Eight of them in all.

Her flesh was knitting together.  Wounds as bad as the ones before, and worse ones.  Eidolon had apparently wanted to spare her captives, because the electricity had only affected her, her flesh as it surrounded her bones.  He had selected that power with their safety in mind.

And there he was, in front of her.  Eidolon, on his knees, covered in bile and blood.

“Why?” he asked, in an eerie, distorted voice.

You want to know why I did this?  Where would I start?  Why would I even tell you, when you tried to kill me, kill Trickster?

She was breathing too hard to respond, even with her nearly bottomless stamina.

“Why isn’t it working?”  He asked.

“I…” she had to stop for breath, “I don’t care.  Whatever it is.”

“I was supposed to get stronger, and there’s nothing.  Nothing at all to reach for.”

She turned, saw Trickster on his hands and knees, covered in the fluids of her vomit.

You weren’t supposed to hurt him.

You were supposed to give me a nice vision, for that matter, she thought.

“Why?” Eidolon asked.

“I don’t care,” she said, again.  She took a deep breath before speaking again, though there was little point, when it was this entire body that was so drained.  “I… it’s your choice.  We continue this fight, and my creatures run, they do whatever damage they can, and it’s weeks before you find every last one… or you let me go.”

Eidolon struggled to his feet.  “Let you go?”

“Three Undersiders down.  Three to go.  Then I give myself up.  Deal stands.”

“What’s to say you keep that promise?”

“Nothing.  But you don’t have another choice, do you?”

Eidolon didn’t respond.

“I’ll even let you call in reinforcements,” she offered.

“Your knight in shining armor took it,” Eidolon spoke.  “The wristband I use for communications.”

Noelle turned to Trickster, and he extended one hand, holding out one of the wristband displays.  Noelle took it.

Her Skitter was watching, looking concerned.

“Don’t fucking look at me,” Noelle spat the words at her minion.

Her Skitter turned her eyes to the ground.

“Trickster said you thrived on this kind of impossible fight.  Prove it.  Or die horribly.  I don’t care.”

Her Skitter looked up and smiled, lopsided.  Half the girl’s face was paralyzed, Noelle realized.  She wondered if the real Skitter had spaces between each of her teeth like that, or the gnarled twist of a nose.

Noelle turned back to Eidolon, waited for his decision.

“Okay,” he intoned.  She gave him a curt nod.

Tentatively, Eidolon slid the armband into place and pressed a button.  “Requesting reinforcements to my location.  In bad shape, need to mop up some clones.”

Her Regent said something she couldn’t make out.  He talked as though his tongue was too large for his mouth.  He had more muscle than fit on his frame, stretching his skin almost comically tight.  It was easy to believe the problem extended to the inside of his mouth.

“And they let me pass uncontested,” she said.

He spoke into the armband again.  “Do not engage target Echidna.”

Understood,”  a woman’s voice came from the armband.

“Echidna?” Noelle asked.

“One of the PRT members coined it,” Eidolon said.  He was eyeing her minions warily.  “Said he had a three year old girl called Noelle, didn’t want to associate her with something like you.”

“What was his last name?”

Eidolon gave her a wary look.  “Meinhardt.”

“Okay,” Noelle said.

Then she turned to run, leaving Trickster behind.

Her nose led her to the remaining Undersiders.

Back home, insofar as she had one.  The same place where she’d been kept contained for weeks.  Coil’s headquarters.

Surfacing from her dream, she’d temporarily supplanted the killer instinct that was demanding Eidolon’s head.  Now that she was closer, her thoughts were afire with thoughts of revenge, and that killer instinct was welling up again.  The idea that she’d maybe had the chance to get back to normal, that her friends had maybe been close to going home, and the Undersiders had taken all that away, it made her want to scream.  To inflict punishments worse than death on them.

Her vision from before lingered.  The entity.  The thing that was taking her over, that had made her a monster, it had an identity, now.  She wouldn’t say it had a face, but it was no longer a vague malevolent force, now.

Part of her felt sympathetic for it, because this thing that shared her body had been wronged by some nebulous circumstance.  In that, at least, they were kindred.

Another part of her was just bewildered.  The memory it had shared with her was so vast, it changed everything, had left her feeling like her problems here were so small, so miniscule.  Even this, this fight, her revenge, in a way it felt artificial, false.

It’s not my world, she thought.  It’s almost like a game.  Killing characters in some false, barbaric setting.

If she felt like she was more in sync with it, now, did that mean she’d lost ground in her perpetual war with the entity, her other half?  So much ground lost, so fast, in the heat of this battle?

She shook her head.  Focus.

The tunnels that Coil had used to move his trucks in and out of the base had been collapsed, and it had been recent.  She could smell the smoke from the explosives.  She spat out a Vista, then another, and another, until she had one that could give her a way in, shrinking the rubble and expanding the corridor.

In her restlessness, unable to shake the idea that her sanity was slipping away moment by moment, she pushed her way through the last length of the rubble, absorbing it into herself and spitting it out behind her, moving through it as though she were a thick fluid; even her bones dissolved when needed.  The only thing that slowed her down were the capes she’d stored within herself.  Each of the three Undersiders, the tinker, and the girl in white.  She used her strength to wedge gaps sufficient to squeeze the individual organs through.

She brute-forced her way through the last few feet of the barrier, and paced her way into the interior, the ground shaking with her footfalls.  The vault door was still open, crumpled, and the entire interior was lit only by red emergency lights.

Tattletale was on the metal walkway, hands gripping the railing.  Bitch was on the ground, with no less than seven dogs around her, each of varying size.

Noelle could smell the Protectorate and Wards members moving towards her location.  She was put in mind of the memory her entity had granted her only a little while ago, of the night her team had passed the qualifiers for nationals.  She’d passed the point of no return, and now the enemy forces were collapsing in on her.

She smiled a little.  She would almost thank Tattletale for this, if she wasn’t so eager to rend the girl limb from limb, to wipe the smile from her face and hear her screams.  All that aside, Noelle hadn’t felt more like herself in a long time, and she had these circumstances to thank.

The difference between this scenario and that one, really, was that the reinforcements were minutes away.  This fight wouldn’t last that long.

“Well then,” Tattletale grinned.  Her tightening grip on the railing betrayed the emotion she was trying to hide.  “Come on.  Do your worst.”

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Queen 18.8

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I signalled Bitch to stop so I could communicate with the others.

“I fucked up,” I said.

“What?”  Grue asked.  “How?”

“She’s been absorbing my bugs.  She’s spitting out some, and I can’t control them.  They’re methodically destroying my swarm, and they’re hunting down people and attacking them.”

“She probably absorbed some before she even ran into us,” Tattletale said.  “And she just needs one of a given type to make copies.  I wouldn’t blame yourself.”

“Did she absorb hornets, black widows, brown recluses?”

“Maybe not,” Tattletale admitted.

“Okay,” I said.  “Because there’s homicidal hornets and spiders out there now.  Because of my fuck-up.”

“Don’t focus on the mistake,” Grue said, “Let’s focus on making up for it.”

I took a deep breath.  “Okay.  Bitch and I will be going ahead to deal with some unpowered clones.  I’ll be in touch through the swarm.  You guys keep moving forward, and I’ll signal you about any clones that Eidolon or my bugs aren’t able to take down.”

“Eidolon’s gone quiet,” Tattletale said.  “He might be changing powers, chasing at a distance to safely keep track of her while he adjusts.”

“I’ll try to signal him,” I said.  “Let him know we’re here, and that we’re engaging Noelle if and when we’ve managed the clones and we see an opportunity.”

“Hopefully he doesn’t accidentally wipe us off the face of the planet,” Regent joked.

“Hopefully,” I echoed him, except I wasn’t joking.

“Then I’ll suggest that this can be where we part ways,” Tattletale said.  “I’ll take Imp, I can do more good with a phone and computer, and she’s no good to anyone right now.”

I nodded.  I helped Imp climb down to the others.

“Good luck.”

Bitch whistled, and Bentley sprang into motion once more.

The people inside the building lobby were only now starting to recover from whatever Noelle’s power had done to them.  Their clones hadn’t suffered any such drawbacks, though, and the abuse that had been heaped on the victims was more than making up for their recovery speed.  They were helpless.

None of the victims were standing.  I reached forward, putting one hand on the chain that Rachel was using to keep Bastard close.

She looked back at me.

“Clothesline!” I raised my voice to be heard over the rushing wind.

Rachel let some chain out and caught it under her left foot, forcing it lower.  She managed to hook it on one of the growths of bone of Bentley’s ribcage.

We stampeded into the building lobby, through the hole Noelle had made, and Bitch whistled, flicking the chain as Bentley and Bastard passed through the space.

“Left!” she shouted, while steering Bentley right.

The chain was just low enough to catch the standing and crouching clones.  The clones were caught by either the chain or by the bodies of their fellow clones, pulled back en-masse, drawn together into a tangle of bodies and distorted body parts.  I moved my bugs through their midst to ensure they were all mutants.  There was only one innocent who’d been dragged long with them.  His clone had a grip on his clothing, and hadn’t let go when the chain had caught it.

“Getting down,” I said, sliding off the dog’s back.  I hurried to the mass of clones before they could get themselves in order, drew my knife and slashed the hand that gripped the one innocent.  I managed to pull him free without any of the clones hitting or grabbing me.

I was left coughing by the exertion and the pain in my side.  Bitch steered Bentley to put his bulk between me and the clones.

“I got ’em,” she said.

“I’ll handle the others,” I told her.

“Right,” she grunted the word. “Bastard, hurt ’em!  Bentley, kill!  Kill!”

The canines threw themselves into the mass of clones the chain had caught.

There were three clones in the remaining group.  One continued thrashing her alter-ego, while the other two stood to face me.  I held my knife in one hand, drew my baton with the other and flicked it out to its full length.  Not nearly as threatening as either of the canines, but I’d make do.

It was odd that Rachel was having Bastard hold back, being limited only to a ‘hurt’ command.  Come to think of it, she’d had Bentley do the killing when fighting the Vista-clone, too.

My rib throbbed even now, just from riding Bentley and hauling the one victim out of the mass.  I was left breathing hard, though the exertion had been mild.  My stamina wasn’t a tenth of what it might otherwise be, to the point that I was worried I might get dizzy, start coughing or wind up too tired to fight if it came down to a straight hand-to-hand brawl.

I couldn’t afford to take it easy, though.  Where I might otherwise have tried to distract them or buy enough time for Bentley to finish off the others and deal with these guys, the person that the female clone at the back was thrashing wasn’t going to last long.  The two who were facing me were both men, both bigger and tougher than they might have been as humans, one fat, the other tall and broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted to the point of being a caricature.

My swarm was my best offense and my best defense, here.  My bugs went for eyes and ears, and that was excuse enough for the two mutants to charge me.

They were half blind, and the mass of bugs that clung to me billowed out to mask my location.  I started to move to my left, but I felt the fat one veer slightly in that direction and chose to head between them, instead.

The pair stumbled forward into my swarm, arms swinging wildly in a blind attempt to hit me.  I ducked low, then moved forward to the mass of fallen and wounded.  The female clone had her more normal self by the neck, and was repeatedly raising her and slamming her down.  If someone else’s leg wasn’t in the way, she might have had her head dashed against the ground.  As it was, a beating was still a beating, and something vital was bound to give sooner or later.

The clone looked up at me as I approached, still cloaked in a thick cloud of bugs. I realized why she hadn’t stood to face me.  Her left leg was gone, barely a flipper.  She raised her arms in self defense, and I batted one aside with my baton before stabbing her just above the collarbone.

They’re not people.  They’re mockeries.

The small, helpless sounds she made as blood bubbled around the throat-wound weren’t helping my attempts to assuage conscience.

Damn Noelle, damn her for making me do this.

“You leave Steph alone!” the fat clone bellowed.

The words caught me off guard as much as the fact that he’d seen the attack.  He charged, and I swiftly backed up, bringing my weapons to the ready.

He didn’t come after me.  He stopped by ‘Steph’, the one-legged clone with the fatal throat wound.

“You care about her?” I asked.

“She’s Steph,” he said.

“I… what?”  My train of thought was interrupted further by the snarling and gnashing of Bentley fighting the clones.  One tried to break away from the group to come after me, but Bentley caught him, striking him flat against the ground with both front paws, like how a cat might pounce on a mouse.

“She’s Steph.  She’s Steph.  Of course I care.  Fucking bugs!”  He lashed out with one arm, as if he could hurt the swarm, drive them away.  His arms folded around the clone-Steph.

I pulled the attacking bugs away, leaving only enough to track his movements.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to open up a line of dialogue, but my conscience couldn’t afford to let me not.  “But… what about the person she was beating up?  You don’t care about the real Steph?”

“Ignored me.  Looked down on me because I was fat.  Fuck her,” he spoke with such force that my bugs could feel the spit flying from his mouth.

“She’s still Steph, isn’t she?”

“Bitch.  Brushing me off.  Made it so we were friends, not boyfriend and girlfriend.  Bitch,” he said.

He let the mutant-clone Steph drop limp to the ground, clenched and unclenched a fist.  “Fuck her.  Fuck you for killing Steph.”

“Why do this?  Why hurt people?”

“I’m a soldier,” he said, his words dull.  “It’s what I am.”

I sensed his girth, used my swarm to sense his equally heavy alter-ego.  “You… don’t strike me as a soldier.”

“It’s what I am.”

“Is… is he a soldier?” I gestured in the direction of his other self.

“No.  Fat fuck could never be a soldier.  Kill him.  Dig my fingers into that gut and rip and tear until he dies.  Strangle him.  No willpower, hide from the world behind that disgusting fat.  Choke the life out of him.  He’s useless anyways.  Waste of air, waste of a life.”

Projecting much?

“And when he’s dead?  What will you do?”

He moved toward me, and I backed away a step, bringing my bugs closer to him.  He went still again, glanced around.  “Kill others.  Kill Dad and Mom and Sammy and the cats.  Kill teachers and classmates and burn my house and burn the school.  Fuckers.  All of them.  Looking down on me.”

His words struck a chord, and it was the closest experience I’d ever had to the sort of flashback that happened in the movies.  I could remember being in the school bathroom, dripping with juice.  Being so frustrated, so angry, so hurt that I just wanted to lash out.

Was that all he had left?  Was that all he was?

“And if they all die?”

“Kill others.  Burn this fucking disgusting city.  Burn this fucking country.  Keep burning, keep killing.”

“Do you really think that’ll make anything better?”

“No.”

“Then why?  Is there any way I can get you to stop?”

“No.  Won’t stop.  I’m a soldier.”

“Whose soldier?  Hers? Noelle’s?  The monster who spat you out?”

“No.”

“And you?” I asked, turning so my back wasn’t to the broad shouldered one in the midst of my swarm.

He didn’t answer.  He charged for me instead.  The obese one took the opportunity to come after me from a different angle.

Again, I drew my swarm around me, put each of my bugs on the offensive to distract, and used my swarm-sense to figure out where they were moving, getting out of the way.

Ducking low, I felt a sharp pain in my side.  I grunted in pain and barked out a cough.  The cough made me need to cough more, which only helped inform them of my position.

The coughing fit took the strength out of me at a time when I needed to move most.  Swimging blindly, the fat one struck me across the face.  My mask absorbed the worst of the impact, and I stuck my knife out in his general direction, sticking it into the general area of his chest, hitting bone rather than anything substantial.

“Bugs fucking hurt,” he growled, apparently oblivious to the pain of the knife wound.  “Stop it!”

He swung again, but I managed to get out of the way.  With the stinging, biting insects in his eyes, crawling into his mouth and nose as he talked to gag him, I managed to distract him enough that I could safely retreat.  My entire body shook as I suppressed coughs, and I dropped to one knee to try and catch my breath.  I hoped that being closer to the ground would mean I didn’t get hit; I was too breathless to move out of the way if he swung a punch at me.

The broad-shouldered one stepped close, his cheeks wet with the vitreous fluids of torn eyeballs and blood where my swarm had dug in deep.  I suppressed another cough and slid my knife’s blade against the back of his knees.  It might not have cut deep enough if he’d been wearing clothes, but he was naked, and there was nothing to stop the knife.

He collapsed just in front of me.  I hesitated a moment, then stabbed my knife into the side of his throat.

They’re not realNot real people.

Bentley had finished tearing apart the other eight or so clones, and at Rachel’s instruction was closing in on the fat clone.  I moved my bugs to give her a clearer view.

I was ready for him to make a break for it.  He didn’t.  He turned toward us, clenching and unclenching his fist.

There’s no saving them.  Whatever had happened to their heads while they were grown inside Noelle, they’re twisted.  Their perspectives are warped.

“Stop him,” I said.  “Finish them, Rachel.”

Rachel whistled, and Bentley leaped.  The clone tried to come after me, but didn’t make it two steps before the dog got to him.

“Feels wrong,” I said.  Rachel gave me a hand in climbing back up.

She didn’t offer a reply.  It wouldn’t feel wrong to her.

I started searching with my bugs, looking in the direction Noelle had last gone.

Without even the ability to tentatively feel Noelle out with my bugs, I was having trouble keeping track of her.  Every passing minute meant that there was more sunlight, but even with that I couldn’t see Noelle.  It was as though a painter was working with white and black paint, throwing handfuls of it onto a canvas from three feet away.  It didn’t convey a picture so much as a blurry, indistinct abstract.

I should have been able to follow movement, to track Noelle by the way the patches of light and dark changed.  The issue was that there were countless things moving across my radius.  Water was running where some streets were still draining, plastic bags blew in the wind and shadows shifted as the sun and clouds moved.  Each changed the canvas, altered the blurry, muddy blotches of light and dark.

I could hear Grue give an order, and his group started moving with purpose.

“Grue just saw her, I think,” I said.  I pointed the way.

I’d started another coughing fit by the time we caught up with the others, and I could feel my skull pounding as if it had a three pound heart inside of it instead of a brain.

“She found some of the other capes who were holding position,” Grue said, when I’d managed to get my breath.  “Lights in the distance.”

“Fuck,” I said.  I was about to comment on how we were too close to Ballistic’s headquarters for comfort, but remembered that Grace and Tecton were listening.  I stopped myself before the words left my mouth and coughed instead.

“You okay?” Tecton asked.

“Little worse for wear.”

“Sounds like more than a little.”

I shook my head.

As we got closer, I tentatively moved the bugs closer, until I had them on the flying heroes.  I made an effort to discover and eliminate the hostile bugs that Noelle had created, and tried to find identifying details on the capes we were approaching.

“One of the heroes is a guy with an emblem, I think it’s a book with chains around it,” I said.

“Maybe Chronicler,” Tecton said.

“Three more flying ones,” I said.  “One with antlers on his chest emblem.”

“All guys?” Tecton asked.  When I nodded, he said, “That’d be Strapping Lad, Intrepid, and Young Buck.  And the one you mentioned before would definitely be Chronicler.”

“Seriously?” Regent asked.  “Strapping Lad?”

“They’re from the Texas Wards team,” Tecton said, as if that was explanation enough.  “Lad, Intrepid and Buck are all about the harassment.  Flying, teamwork, hitting hard and adjusting their battle plans to match the enemy threat level, staying out of danger.”

“Up until they get too close and she grabs one,” I said.

“Could happen,” Tecton replied.  “Eidolon’s probably up there too, too quiet.  Might be waiting for new powers to finish manifesting before he makes any moves.”

“What can we do?” Grace asked.

“I remember those Wards from the Leviathan fight.  Some of them,” I said.  “They fly?  All of them?”

“Yeah,” Tecton said.

“Then we support on the ground,” I said.  “You, Grue and maybe Regent can slow her down.  Bitch keeps us mobile.  We stay ready to move at a moment’s notice if it comes down to it.  Staying safe is a bigger priority than anything else.”

Noelle was limited to moving on the ground.  It gave the young heroes a natural advantage: each of them flew, and two of the three were armed with long ranged tinker-made weapons.  The guns weren’t anything flashy or spectacular, more the kind of laser weapon that a fan of science fiction might create, but the young heroes apparently thought it was worth keeping up the onslaught, and the guns didn’t appear to rely on any ammunition or reloading.

The one without the gun was apparently Young Buck, going by the raised image of antlers on his chest emblem.  He would fly around Noelle, close to the ground, then turn himself, his gear and the bugs I’d placed on him into a living projectile.  Or, maybe, he was using some kind of uncontrolled breaker power to go faster than the speed of sound, unable to change course or take any action while he traveled.  Whatever he was doing, he flashed across the battlefield as a straight, living projectile before materializing again.  The ground shook with his impacts he delivered to Noelle.

The one I took to be Chronicler was casting out a hazy field around himself and the other two with the guns.  The field shifted, drifting closer to the ground, and then solidified in a semisolid image of the heroes, complete with the laser fire.  A quick check with my bugs verified that the shots were just as real as what the real selves were creating.  The aim wasn’t so hot.  It was more of a replay of the actions they’d just taken than proper clones.

Young Buck moved beneath Chronicler, and passed through the field as he turned into a beam.  When the images appeared, they mimicked the same beam attack, their paths a perfect parallel to the real Young Buck.

We stopped as she came into view.  For the others, anyways.

“Fuck me,” Regent said.  “Anyone else noticing what I notice?”

“Bitch’s dogs,” Grue said.

“Not that similar,” Rachel grumbled, but she didn’t sound confident.

“Pretty fucking similar,” Regent said.

I leaned forward, hand on Rachel’s shoulder, whispered, “What is it?”

“Her entire lower half, it looks like my dogs.  Bit on the back doesn’t look like it, though.  More like a hand, but same look.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

“We good to go?” Grue asked.

“Go,” I gave the order.

Tecton slammed his piledriver-gauntlets into the ground, and a fissure opened beneath Noelle.  The ground shattered around her, denying her the footing to move out of the way as Chronicler and Young Buck worked together to multiply Young Buck’s offensive power.  Tecton repeated the process, disintegrating the ground beneath her.

“I can’t do a lot to her,” Regent said.  “Only some of her is normal, and it doesn’t really connect together.”

“Try, or focus on the clones,” Grue ordered.  He sent a blast of darkness my way, enveloping me.  I could feel the quality of my bug-senses decline, my degree of control degrading.

A moment later, he withdrew the darkness.  Did he just want the view?  The sense of what was where?

Raising his hands above his head, Grue fired a thick stream of darkness at Eidolon.

The hero moved out of the way before the beam made contact.

“Work with me!” Grue growled.  “Damn.  I can’t throw darkness over Noelle without hurting our side as much as we hurt her.  I need powers.  Grace?”

“You want to copy my power?”

There was a rumble as Tecton shattered more road beneath Noelle.  With the way he’d directed the attack to place it off to one side, I suspected she was trying to climb out of the funnel-shaped depression the explosions had made.  Given her speed from before, it was surprising how slowly she was climbing.

Then it struck me.  An antlion pit.  The sides of the pit weren’t giving her any traction.  Any time she set her weight down, she only pushed the sand to the bottom.

“Let me test it, see what I can get,” Grue told Grace.

“Fine.”

I scouted the area with my bugs, and accidentally ran into Noelle with a handful of houseflies as she slid backwards into the pit.  I wasn’t going to agonize over the fact, but I didn’t want to give her any more ammunition.  My bugs did find a mess of vomit at the very bottom of the shallow crater.

“There’s vomit, but no clones,” I said.  “She’s trying something.”

“The two-dimensional Vista.  She’s ambushing,” Grue said.

“Ambushing who?”  Tecton asked.

“I don’t know.  Can you see them?” I asked.  “When they’re moving on a surface, are they visible?”

“Why are you asking us?” Grace asked.

“Tecton,” I said, “As much ground as you can affect, now!”

He didn’t hesitate, punching the ground and driving both piledrivers into it.  There were no fissures, this time.  The entire area rumbled, and the ground spiderwebbed with cracks in every direction, not leaving two square feet of ground untouched.  Bentley nearly lost his footing, and Bastard growled, until Rachel pulled on his chain.

The first clone stepped out of a piece of plywood that had been placed across a shattered balcony door.  An Über.  He pulled the plywood free and disappeared into the apartment, swatting at the bugs that I’d set on him.

A Circus emerged beneath the flying heroes, cradling a shattered arm.  Bugs began drifting toward her, as if a strong wind were pulling them in.  The normal Circus packed a pocket dimension she could put things into.  This one was only storing air, forming a strong vacuum around herself.  Chronicler’s cloud dissipated as it was sucked in, and the heroes with weaker flying abilities were swiftly being dragged her way.  Regent hit her with his power, and the effect slowed, but she recovered faster than the fliers did.

My swarm could see a large blob of shadow, Noelle, taking advantage of the distraction to climb free of Tecton’s antlion pit.

“Now!” Grue said.

Grace ran forward, having little trouble moving on the shattered road.  She leaped and kicked Noelle, no doubt putting her invincibility in one foot.  As the kick was delivered, Grace used Noelle as a foothold and thrust herself away.  Grue chased her attack with a stream of darkness, enveloping Grace as she stuck her landing, leaped, and did very much the same thing Grace had, slamming one fist into Noelle.

Noelle toppled with a rumble my bugs could feel, then slowly slid back into the crater Tecton had made before she could get her feet under her again.

The Über stepped out onto the balcony with a block of kitchen knives in hand.  Though they weren’t weighted for throwing, he had no problem throwing a knife to hit Young Buck as the hero flew by.  Young Buck spiralled out of the air, stopping himself only a moment before he hit the ground.  When he righted himself, his hands were pressed around the knife that had embedded in his stomach.

I sent more bugs after the Über, my bugs tearing at his eyes and hands in earnest.  He threw another knife blind, hitting Chronicler in the arm before he collapsed and started thrashing to get the bugs off himself.

The Circus, for her part, had used her pocket-dimension vacuum to draw one of the fliers close enough to get her hands on him.  The hero, Intrepid or Strapping Lad, was set aflame from head to toe, his costume ignited in entirety.  He kicked out, blind in the midst of the flames that were immolating him, and she ducked out of the way.

Grace saw the flames of the burning hero as Grue banished his darkness.  She made a break for the Circus.  Regent knocked the Circus off balance, momentarily interrupting the suction yet again, and Grace punched with enough force to cave in the clone’s chest.  The Circus dropped to the ground, dead.

Grace couldn’t see in Grue’s darkness, so they were limited as far as their partnership went.  He backed away slowly, searching for another opportunity or another power he could borrow.  Without Grace’s natural agility, the individual pieces of road made for unsteady footing, each tilting and sliding as weight was placed on them.

Noelle screamed with frustration and rage.  As far as I could tell, she was still at the bottom of the pit.

I couldn’t follow what was happening, not without giving her more bugs to work with, but then again, I wasn’t sure that anyone else was having more luck on that front.  Not with the pit around her.

“She’s pulling something!” Tecton shouted.  He raised his voice to be heard by the other capes, “Get back!”

Everyone moved away, excepting Young Buck, who was frozen, hands to his wound.  Grace retreated, holding onto the incinerated young hero.

When Noelle vomited, the slurry came out as one stream, a geyser that extended six or seven hundred feet.  Rachel steered Bentley out of the way before it hit, and the others danced off to either side to avoid getting splashed.  Grace got clipped, and went sprawling, almost glued to the ground under the weight of the fluid, the cape in her arms falling.

A dozen bodies began climbing free of the vomit.  Ten or so clones had been deposited on the street, along with a real Leet in civilian clothes.  One of the clones was a Circus, folding herself into her pocket dimension.

“She’s walking on the bodies,” Tecton said.  “Incoming!”

The bodies.  She vomited bodies into the pit to keep stuff from sliding underfoot.

Young Buck charged through Noelle, but he wasn’t flying when he finished his maneuver.  He tumbled to the ground, rolling after he landed.

I could hear armbands informing others of the fallen.

My arm jerked in pain, and I slapped at a hornet.  One of Noelle’s.

Noelle advanced on the burned cape and Grace.  Tecton slammed the ground, but the effect was muffled.  He’d shattered the ground for blocks around, had maybe killed or eliminated several of the two dimensional clones, but his piledriver gauntlets wouldn’t be as effective on this soft surface.

Two of the Southern Wards opened fire from above, pelting Noelle with laser fire.  I could sense her growing tall, or rearing up on her hind legs, and she vomited a stream into the air.  Chronicler and the other cape were splashed, caught by the clotted liquid and a flying body.  Chronicler’s power remained, the hologram images sustaining the same fire at the same angle, not adjusting as Noelle moved to one side.

Eidolon made his move.  My bugs could sense the air growing heavy and humid.  Vomit dried, and clones staggered and fell.

The humidity increased to the point that I could feel the moisture flowing through the air in thick clouds, rising from every surface, heavy off the bodies of the clone, off Noelle and the streams of vomit.

My bugs were dying.  The flying insects were first to die, their wings crinkling.  The ones closest to me were alive, but they were suffering too.

Dessication.

“You’re killing Grace!” Tecton bellowed at the sky.  I doubted Eidolon would hear from his vantage point.  I had only his word to go by.  Grace was in an area my bugs couldn’t reach.

“Acceptable losses,” Grue said.  Tecton whirled around to face him.  Grue’s voice was calm, “His plan isn’t working.  Tattletale said he wanted to experience enough danger to get a power boost, and I’m not getting the feeling he’s had that.  He’s too experienced to panic, but with everything he’s seen, everything he’s done over the past decades of work, maybe he’s thinking he has to do something here, and he’s decided he can’t let there be another Endbringer.  Can’t let there be another monster in this world.”

“She’s on our side!  She’s one of the good ones!”

“If it makes you feel any better,” I said, “Eidolon might be assuming she’s already dead.”

I’d positioned some bugs so that they could distinguish Noelle’s vague lumbering frame against the background of the dimly lit sky.  Her flesh was drying and flaking off in chunks as the moisture was pulled out with force.

But the ground still rumbled with the vibrations of her steady advance, and for all the dried flesh that was falling free, she wasn’t getting noticeably smaller to my bugs’ senses.

Eidolon hit her with a gravity slam.  More flesh came free.  I saw a change, with that, but the edges of the silhouette filled in.

“She isn’t dying?” I asked, my voice a murmur.

“She’s regenerating,” Grue said.

The effects of Eidolon’s dessication were starting to get to me.  The air was too dry.  I coughed once and briefly held my breath to keep from succumbing to another fit.

There was a sound like a firecracker taking flight, and Noelle lurched.  Even with my bug’s less than stellar sight, I could see the aftermath.  A hundred slightly different angles.  Noelle’s true body, the human half perched on top of the monster, arched her back, her chest out, head turning toward the sky.  A spray of blood and gore marked a small explosion ripping out the front of her chest.

And another, a shot from behind, tearing through her cranium.

My bugs ventured into the dessicated area.  They would only last for a minute at best, but they’d serve to scout, to give me eyes.  They found Ballistic.

He hadn’t come alone.  Scrub was with him, and Trickster swapped rubble out of the area to move his teammates in.  He swapped himself in for Grace, appearing in the middle of the vomit-slurry.

I opened my mouth to speak, coughed at the dry air instead.

“You decided to help?” Grue called out.

“She’s our responsibility,” Genesis said, “We made a promise to each other.  To get home, no matter what it took.  But there were other parts to it.  Things we added on when the whole situation became clear.  Fixing Noelle was one of those additions.”

Getting home?

“We knew it was fucked up,” Sundancer said.  “But we promised ourselves that if it came down to it, we’d step in before it got bad.  And this is bad.  So we’re acting on it.”

Her orb burned above her head.  Its crackle sounded slightly different in the dry air.

Noelle’s growl was accented by a noise from one of the larger canine mouths.  “Traitors.”

She’s alive.  Shot through the heart and brain, and she’s talking.

“If you were thinking straight, you’d agree with us,” Genesis said.  “You’d agree this is right.  That we can’t let people get hurt, just for your revenge.”

“I didn’t ask for this,” Noelle said.

“I know,” Trickster spoke.  He looked up toward the sky, tilted his head, and then Eidolon disappeared.  I could sense Eidolon’s new location, a few blocks away.  He tried to fly closer, and Trickster teleported him again, keeping him a distance away.  Eidolon had given up his power invulnerability.

“I… I’ll use my sun, Noelle,” Sundancer said.  “We’ll burn you.  It’ll be complete, thorough.  And this ends.  There’ll be no more hurting people.  And we put all this behind us, remember you the way you were.  It’s better if it’s us.”

“I don’t want to be a memory,” Noelle said.

“You already are,” Ballistic said, from behind her.

She turned, and a low growl sounded from one of her lower mouths, deep enough I could feel the rumble of it.

Ballistic shook his head.  “The old Noelle’s long gone.  Do you think she would have survived getting shot like that?”

Noelle didn’t answer.

“You have her memories, nothing more,” Trickster said.

“Krouse,” Noelle said.  “You turn on me like this?”

“I don’t know what else to do.”  He teleported Eidolon away again.  This time Eidolon stayed put.  Choosing a new power?

“You did this to me.  This?  The old Noelle disappearing?  It’s your fault.  You know it.  You created me.”

He’d created her?

He’d dosed her.

“Yeah,” Trickster said.  He lit a cigarette, put it in the mouth-hole of his mask.

“And I listened to you.  I bought your promises.  Your hollow assurances.  I listened and cooperated when you said I should be locked up.  I listened when they shut me in that vault, in the dark, alone, with that fucking beeping that wouldn’t let me sleep.  I waited all this time because you said I could get better.”

“I know.  It eats away at me.  But I don’t know what else to do.”

“I spent the past two years listening to you.  Doing what you wanted.  Just do what I want here, and I’ll let it all end.  I’ll let her burn me, and then you guys can find your own way home.”

“I know what you want,” he said, “But the consequences-”

“-Don’t matter,” she said.  “It’s not our world.  It’s… it’s as screwed up as the things I make.  They’re just dark twisted copies of people in this dark, twisted, fucked up world.”

“No’-” He started.

“You owe me this.”

Trickster sighed, spat out the barely-touched cigarette.  Even though I couldn’t identify tone, I felt a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Shit,” I said.  “Grue-”

Trickster was already turning.  Grue was only beginning to raise a cloud of darkness around us when he disappeared, Trickster standing in his place.

“Grue!” I screamed.  He was where Trickster had been, half a city block away from Noelle.

Noelle lunged.  Trickster could have moved out of the way fast enough.  Grue wasn’t so lucky.  The shattered ground under her feet shifted, and she slammed into him, her lower body catching Grue, adhering to him.

He was giving her us.

Trickster was already gone from the midst of our group. There was gunfire and incoherent shouting as people tried to identify his location.  Ballistic was gone, replaced by a piece of rubble.  He was taking the most immediate threats out of the picture.  Eidolon, Ballistic, Grue…

Who came next on that hierarchy?

Me.

I found myself only five paces away from Noelle, plucked from the midst of my cloud of bugs.  There were too few to hide me from Trickster’s sight, with the way the dessication had thinned their ranks.

She caught me with the back of one claw.  There was a sound like a gunshot going off, my ribs feeling like my bones had turned to white-hot brands, and I stuck.  She set her claw down on the ground, and my back exploded with pain as I struggled to contort my body, get in a position where I wasn’t being folded in half under the weight of an eight ton monstrosity.

I was spared being snapped in two not by my own struggles, but by the pull of her flesh as it folded around me.  It simultaneously consumed me and pulled on me, as if by a hundred hands.  The process was smooth and inevitable, flesh flowing around me like hot candlewax, even as I was drawn upward and inward.

I could sense Regent appearing nearby.  Noelle turned to face him.  He didn’t fight, didn’t try to run.  He said something, but I couldn’t make out the words, couldn’t hear them with the dark, hot, rancid-smelling flesh that had enveloped me.

The last of the flesh closed behind me, my power stopped working, and I was left with only absolute darkness and the pounding flow of Noelle’s blood in my ears.

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Queen 18.7

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“He’s talking to her about Cauldron,” I said.  “And Coil.”  I’d signalled the others to exit the van, and we were gathered around Bentley and Bastard.

“Cauldron?”  Tecton asked.

“Cauldron worked out a formula that could give people powers, and the capes with monstrous features are the failed results,” I said.

“The Case 53s,” Grace said.

Tattletale nodded.

I raised my finger to my lips.  To where my lips were behind my mask, really.  I wound up sliding my hands beneath the sides of my mask to plug my ears.  I’d hoped to shut out other sounds and allow myself to focus.  It wasn’t too helpful.

Tattletale murmured something to Grue, and he surrounded us with darkness, leaving a clearing so we could communicate.  It took me a second to realize why.  Were he and Tattletale hoping to mask us from Noelle’s other senses?

Rachel’s dogs could smell through the darkness, couldn’t they?  It wouldn’t stop Noelle if she really was smelling us.

“…saying he knew them…” Noelle said.  Is that a question?  I was having trouble discerning tone.

“…m saying exactly that, Noelle,” Eidolon replied.  “… … very beginning.  Coil involved … … people who made you like this.”

“I don’t believe… No.”

“Eidolon just said Coil was involved with Cauldron.  And that Cauldron is responsible for Noelle,” I informed the others.

“Another of Coil’s schemes?” Grue asked.  “But why would he make Noelle?  What does that serve, really?”

“He didn’t make her,” Tattletale said.  “But the rest is very possible.”

I’d spoken because I was worried I wouldn’t get a chance later, between fatigue affecting my memory and the possibility of an imminent fight.  I’d missed some of what Eidolon said in the process.  “…help you.”

“I’ve had too many…” she said one word that was too complicated for me to make out.  “…of help.  Can’t get my hopes … …”

I was disappointed in how limited these senses of mine were.  They were useful, but the tactile nature of my swarm-sense left me blind as to people’s changes in expression, and listening in like this, I could only catch the individual speech sounds, working out how they fit together into words while trying not to fall too far behind.  I wished I’d devoted more time to trying to figure out my swarm-sight and swarm-hearing.

Eidolon said something, and I couldn’t decipher the word.  He paused, so I grasped that there was some meaning there.  Ended with -tive or -shiv… prerogative?

Alternative.  It connected just as he started speaking again.  “Do you want to die…”

“Yes,” Noelle’s answer was clear.

“I’m …red to die too,” Eidolon said.  There’d been another longer word in the middle there that I couldn’t afford to stop and work out.  “My danger sense tells me you … alone.”

“No,” Noelle said.  She bumped into more of my bugs as she shifted position, moving one large leg that was likely so thick around that three people together couldn’t have reached around it with their hands meeting.  The bugs disappeared from my power’s senses.

“Why don’t you … us…” Eidolon said.  Introduce.  It only made sense as a question:  Why don’t you introduce us?

“Show my hand…”

“Why not…” Eidolon said, and I missed the tail end of it.  Another question?  I was starting to get a headache, trying to process all this.

Something peeled away from Noelle’s side, and when it bumped into my bugs, they weren’t absorbed.  The stature, the length of the hair… another Vista.

I thought maybe Noelle had produced another clone, but others started to emerge from the surrounding architecture, peeling away from nearby walls as if they’d been inside the surfaces.

And they weren’t all Vistas.  I noted the presence of what had to be a Circus, disproportionate and thin, with a hunched back, using her knuckles to walk.  There was another Vista, two large figures who might have been Übers, and on the second floor of the building behind Eidolon there was a narrow young man, shirtless, with a gun bigger than he was.  Leet.

“…not expect you to … a trap,” Eidolon said.  He hadn’t budged, and as far as I could tell, his tone of voice hadn’t changed.

Noelle didn’t reply.  From her vantage point, she had to be able to see through the open, glass-less window behind Eidolon, see the Leet silently setting up the gun.

“Trouble,” I said.

Grue banished the darkness.  “Trouble?”

“She’s ambushing him.  There’s a Leet with a gun inside the building behind him.  Tinker made, has to be.”

“Eidolon knows what he’s doing,” Grace said.

“And if he doesn’t?” Tattletale asked.  “If that gun just happens to be able to punch through any invincibility or whatever it is he’s given himself?”

“He’s better than that,” she said.  “He’s Eidolon.”

“He’s human,” I said.  “Humans make mistakes.”

“He’s Eidolon,” she repeated.

“I’m with Grace on this one,” Tecton said.  “Too dangerous to go.  She has a vendetta against you guys.  It’s not worth the risk that you’d throw his plan into disarray.”

“Then why are we here?” I asked.

“If things fall apart,” he said, “We can act then.  Eidolon’s powers are weakest just after he changes them.  If she creates a clone of him, the clone will be picking the powers for the first time.  There’ll be a window of opportunity where we can take them out.”

“Assuming we can get close enough,” Grue said.

“And there’s a good half-dozen capes around her,” I said.  “One Circus, one Vista that can apparently hide people in two-dimensional space, two Übers and the Leet with the gun.”

“We compromise,” Tattletale said.  “Skitter, draw arrows on the ground, discreet but easily readable.  Point the way to the Leet, okay?  The rest of us hang back, and we wait to make sure we can get Eidolon out of a bad situation if one crops up.”

I started to draw the arrows.  I was going to ask why, but I realized I was missing what Eidolon and Noelle were saying.

“…think you can win…” Eidolon said.

“I hope I don’t,” Noelle replied.

“… … want to die, why fight…”

“Can’t think straight.  My … wiring is all screwed up.  Won’t let me give up.  Too angry, too …less.”  Ruthless? Restless?

Leet was still setting up.  He’d had to find a point where there was an open door, just so he had enough space behind him that the weapon could be positioned horizontally.  The design was crude, hodgepodge.  It resembled Squealer’s work, just going by what I was interpreting with my swarm-sense.  That meant there was an excess of openings and gaps.  The part that burned hottest had to be the power source.  It was at the very back of the gun, at the point furthest from the mutant Leet.

I sneaked cockroaches in through the gaps in the weapon’s exterior and started them chewing through the wiring.

“… … you so sure that you’ll be any calmer when they’re dead?” Eidolon asked.

“I’m not.  … I’m angry, and it’s like the … have been taken off my emotions.  My anger, my …tion, the pain, the hate, … so much deeper.  … it’s not mine.  Not my emotion, so I can still think … .”

“They’re both stalling,” I said.

“Eidolon’s picked the powers he thinks will win the fight,” Tattletale said, “And is waiting for them to get up to full strength.  Noelle’s waiting for her evil-Leet to shoot.”

“I’m trying to sabotage the gun,” I said.  “But it looks like he’ll be ready to shoot any second now.”

Tecton and Grace simultaneously looked at one another, but they didn’t speak.  What was that about?  Was their faith in Eidolon faltering as I described the situation, or was it more about me?

“Less than a minute,” Tattletale said.

“I’m pretty sure we don’t have that long,” I retorted.

The words had only just left my mouth when Leet dropped to a position at the side of the gun, putting one eye to the scope.  The entire weapon shifted on the tripod mount as he aimed.

Eidolon’s head turned slightly, as if he were looking at Leet out of the corner of one eye.

Leet pulled the trigger.

“There we go,” Eidolon said.  The gun wasn’t firing.  He pulled the trigger again, and an arc of electricity ripped out from a space by the power supply, toasting half of the bugs I’d positioned on Leet and sending him sprawling to the ground.  He was back on his feet seconds later, tearing one panel away to get at the sparking power supply.  Tougher than a normal person.

“Attack!” Noelle screamed.

Her minions started to move on Eidolon, but it was Eidolon who acted on the command.  He swept one arm out in front of him, as though he were brushing a curtain aside or waving away some bugs.  There was a crash we could feel where we were huddled together, making the ground shake.

In that very instant, Eidolon had killed the vast majority of the bugs I’d placed in the area.  It took me a second to process what he’d done.

The bugs that were still alive were unable to move, pressed hard against the ground to the point that they were sinking into the soft earth.  Even the more durable cockroaches had died where the ground wasn’t soft enough for them to be pushed down into it.

Through the few surviving bugs, I could get a sense of what was happening.  Tufts of weeds that had stuck up between slats in the pavement now laid flat against the ground, as though they’d been starched and ironed in place.

The effect only lasted a few seconds.  I tentatively moved more bugs into the area to do an inspection, found the air both dense and strangely warm.  The ground had shifted, and both the pavement and the concrete panels of the sidewalk had cracked.  Chunks of rubble had been pulverized, piles of debris pancaked against the ground.  Plywood, siding and wood paneling had been torn from the faces of nearby buildings, rendered into unrecognizable fragments of wood and plastic.  Each fragment had been mashed flat or shoved into cracks and crevices.

The Übers and the Circus were dead, pulverized against the ground with their limbs broken in multiple places, their chest cavities and skulls cracked like eggs.  The Vista was nowhere to be seen.

Eidolon hadn’t moved, and a tentative search told me that Noelle was still standing.  My swarm noted the presence of blood dripping to the ground beneath her massive body.

Eidolon said something, but I didn’t have enough bugs in the area to hear him.

“He just crushed everything around her,” I said.  “Almost as if he dropped a house-sized, invisible anvil around her.”

“Around Imp?”  Tattletale asked, gripping my arm.

“Around Noelle,” I said.  “What do you mean, Imp?”

“The building where Leet was-” Tattletale started, grabbing my arm, “Did he hit it?”

“No.”

“Turn the arrows around!  Give every warning you can!  We just sent Imp in there to deal with Leet!”

I did as she asked, using every bug I could to draw warnings, turning the arrows to point to a retreat.

Damn it!” Grue said, “Why did we send her in there!?  We need to get in there, in case anyone-”

Stay,” Tecton warned, “Evacuate your teammate, but don’t get in Eidolon’s way.”

There was another crash.  Once again, the vast majority of my bugs in Noelle’s vicinity disappeared.  Only a small few who were lucky enough to be in the right place and tough enough to endure the pressure survived.  The bugs who had been flying above Noelle sank into her flesh.

Through them, I could sense her advancing, moving one massive leg forward, relaxing and letting the pressure Eidolon was generating slam the limb into pavement with enough force to crack it.  Then she moved another leg forward.

Eidolon floated higher, maintaining the same relative distance between himself and her.

She dropped lower to the ground, as though she were succumbing to the pressure, then leaped in the same instant the last of the bugs who’d sunken into her flesh were absorbed.  I couldn’t follow what happened next.

There was another crash, another earth-shaking rumble, and even the bugs who’d survived before were obliterated, leaving me utterly blind.  I moved a few bugs closer, to gauge if the effect was still active, and they died as though they’d moved beneath a falling hammer, going splat against the ground at the effect’s edge.

Behind Eidolon, Leet had finished fixing the gun, helped by the fact that the electricity had killed my saboteur-cockroaches.  In the same instant he moved to take position by the trigger, Eidolon turned around, raising one hand in his direction.

And Imp was there.  She drew her knife across the psycho-Leet’s throat.  Eidolon froze as Leet staggered and slumped against the windowsill, blood pouring from the open wound.

I felt a momentary confusion.  Leet was dead?  Eidolon seemed to be reeling as well, but he recovered faster.  He wheeled around to strike out with the effect again.

“Leet’s dead,” I said.

“How?” Tattletale asked.

“Throat slit.”

“Imp.  She’s not listening to instructions.  Did Eidolon attack Leet?”

I shook my head.

She released my upper arm from the death grip she’d been maintaining since Eidolon had attacked.

It wasn’t like her to get that upset.  She usually had more information to work with, so she had a better idea of what was going on, but that couldn’t account for her full reaction.  I wished I could read her expression.

Leet slumped almost entirely out the window.  In a dying gesture, he feebly reached out for the end of the gun, gripping the barrel.  When he fell from the window, he kept hold of the gun.

The tripod skidded, and momentum coupled with Leet’s weight pulled the gun after him.

Eidolon glanced over one shoulder at the body falling from the second floor window, then soared straight for the sky.

I was already sliding from Bentley’s back, heading toward the ongoing battle.  The movements, Eidolon’s reaction, everything spoke to something deliberate, something devastating on Leet’s part.

The weapon’s power supply detonated on contact with the ground.  I didn’t have many bugs in the area to track it, only experienced a momentary sensation from the bugs in the area, much like I sensed when they were burned or electrocuted.  When the sensation disappeared, they were gone, dead.

I could see the actual explosion, a flare of white that I could most definitely make out with bug eyesight and with my own damaged eyes, a glow that rose above the buildings around us.

No,” Grue said, just behind me.  The both of us had stopped in our tracks in the wake of the explosion.

My bugs flooded into the area, to give me a better sense of what was happening.  I caught Noelle stampeding toward a tall building. She had been in the blast radius, and she hadn’t slowed down.  I hoped she hadn’t slowed down, because she was damn fast.

She wasn’t in Leviathan’s speed class, but she was moving at the sort of speed I might expect from a car on the highway.  Maybe the comparison wasn’t so apt, because she was a living thing.  Like a predator, she shifted from a standstill to eighty miles an hour in a heartbeat.  She was more like a rhino than a jungle cat, though, and she was ungainly.  My bugs could track the vibrations of her footfalls better than they could trace her outline, and I could sense how her movements weren’t synchronized.  There was no pattern to how her legs moved; rather, it was as if each leg had a mind of its own.

Still, the sheer power of her movement carried her forward, while having six or more legs meant she always had several feet on the ground for balance.

She reached the base of the tallest skyscraper in the area and scaled it just as fast as she’d moved over ground.  Chunks of concrete were pulled and clawed away as each of her feet found or made footholds.  The debris fell in her wake, but her movement was steady and unfaltering.

Eidolon turned her way, laid down that same pressure he’d applied earlier, tearing a full  third of the building to the ground.  A large part of the upper floors cast straight down, torn free of the building’s housing.  The debris moved straight down with such force that it punched through as many as five or six of the floors below.  Noelle was already moving out of the way as the attack landed, circling around to the other side of the building, still climbing.

She reached the top before the dust from Eidolon’s destruction rolled past us.  I held my breath.  I couldn’t afford another coughing fit.

We made our way to the spot where their fight had started.  Where Eidolon’s power had struck, the pavement had depressed until it was a good two feet lower than where we were standing.

“Imp,” Grue breathed the word, stepping down to the depressed pavement and breaking into a run as he headed for the explosion site.  Tattletale gave me a hand in stepping down as we followed.  It wasn’t necessary, but I didn’t turn her down.

The explosion had shattered one exterior wall of the building, and scorched the inside.  My swarm fanned out to search the building’s interior.  It didn’t take long to find her on the second floor; she was so caked in dust and debris that I’d almost mistaken her for a piece of wreckage.

“Second floor, near the back.  Stairwell is this way.”

Noelle, I realized, was vomiting from one of the three mouths on her lower body.  The slurry contained a human being, naked, with ulcerous growths all over her body.  Circus.

And Noelle wasn’t in contact with Circus.

“Fuck me,” I said.

“Is she hurt?” Grue asked.  It took me a second to realize he meant Imp.

I shook my head.  “I don’t know.  I was swearing because… It’s Noelle.  She’s creating clones, and she apparently doesn’t need to be in constant contact to do it.”

“She does,” Tattletale said.  “Everything the Travelers said indicated it, and my power corroborated.  She’s touched people before and hasn’t produced any of them in the time she was with Coil.”

“Maybe it’s a short duration thing,” I said.  We’d reached the staircase.  I was a little slower than my teammates in ascending the stairs.  My stamina was nowhere near where it needed to be, and my chest was aching as I breathed harder.  It made talking harder.  “She absorbs someone and she can create clones for a little while after.”

“Maybe,” Tattletale said.

We reached the top of the staircase.  The floor wasn’t entirely intact at the landing, so Bitch and her dogs hung back.  With the damage the explosion had done to the exterior wall, I could feel the saltwater scented air stirring my hair.

We reached Imp’s side.  She’d slumped against an intact wall.  I worked with Grue to clear away the pieces of wood and concrete that had joined Imp in being thrown against the wall.

“Turn around,” Tattletale ordered Tecton and Grace.

Tecton listened.  When Grace didn’t immediately obey, he grabbed her by the shoulder and forced her around.

Grue took off Imp’s mask.  My bugs traced her, and I could sense the trail of blood running from one of her ears.

“Hey,” Aisha murmured.  “Owie.”

“Are you hurt?” I asked.

“Ear hurts.  Hurt all over where I hit the wall.”

“That ear’s a ruptured eardrum,” Tattletale said.

“Shitty,” Aisha said, “Least I save money, not having a reason to buy surround sound when I get my own entertainment system.”

“You’re not so lucky.  It’ll heal,” Tattletale said.

“Did you hit your head?” Grue asked.

“No,” Tattletale and Imp answered in the same moment.

Grue smacked his sister lightly across the head.  “Idiot!  You’re supposed to listen when we give you orders.”

“I know why you were giving that order,” Imp said.  “You wanted me to clear out in case he smooshed this building.  Except I knew I couldn’t get out fast enough.  I figured I’d take out that gun guy.”

“Leet,” I supplied.

“Leet, yeah.”

Grue cuffed her across the head again.

“Hey!” Aisha said.  Then she cringed, or winced, as if she was in pain.  “Ow.”

“What?”

In a quieter voice, she said, “Ear hurts when I speak too loud.  Stop hitting me.  It was the right call.”

“You still didn’t listen,” Grue said.  He took the mask from Tattletale and helped Aisha put it on.  “Get up.”

Imp stood, then wobbled.  “Dizzy.”

“Ruptured eardrum will do that,” Tattletale said.  “Let’s go.  We should see what we can do to help against Noelle.”

Grue and Tattletale supported Imp between them as we made our way to the stairwell.  I turned my attention to the fight.  “Eidolon’s holding his own.”

“Told you,” Grace said.

“He’s using that pressure-”

“Gravity,” Tattletale said.

“Right.  He’s using supercharged gravity to try to pin her down and simultaneously take out any of the clones she spits out.  He’s staying out of reach with flight, and he said something before about a danger sense.  Precognition, I guess?”

“Didn’t help him stop the explosion,” Regent commented.

“It let him move well out of the way before it went off,” I said.  “And it’s helping him when Noelle tries to trick him.  She’s… I don’t even know how to put it.  She’s wearing a Vista that can turn two-dimensional, and the Vista is helping keep her other clones alive.  Whenever Eidolon moves like he’s about to drop that gravity magnification on them, she folds Noelle’s clones against whatever surface they’re touching and then pastes herself into Noelle.”

“Can we help Eidolon by taking the Vista out?” Grue asked.

“I don’t know how we’d get the Vista without attacking Noelle,” I said.

“Eidolon can hold onto about three serious powers at a time,” Tecton said.  “If he’s packing flying, danger sense and gravity manipulation, that’s it.  Sometimes he does four, but two or three of them are usually pretty minor.  Enhanced accuracy, whatever.”

“Unless the flying’s an extension of the gravity manipulation,” Tattletale pointed out.  “I’d guess he’s maintaining a kind of power immunity, in case Noelle manages to close the distance or one of her underlings tries to hit him from range.”

I could follow the fight as Noelle leaped to another rooftop.  Being airborne, she might have been vulnerable if Eidolon had been able to devote his full attention to her, given how it wasn’t possible to dodge while midair, but she’d timed the jump to coincide with a killer-Circus’s pyrokinetic attack on Eidolon.

The hero destroyed the Circus with a use of his gravity power, and I could guess that the same power had destroyed any incoming fireballs she’d thrown his way, because he wasn’t even touched by any hot air.  The top floor of the building the Circus had been standing on was still collapsing as he directed another gravity-slam in the direction of Noelle’s landing point.  She was already moving on, leaping to a building face that Eidolon wouldn’t have a line of sight to.

The degree of mobility the pair had meant it was hard to get bugs in a position where I could follow what was going on.  I moved the bugs up through the various buildings, spreading them out as best as I could.

In tracking the movements of the bugs through the buildings, I got a sense of where Eidolon had done damage and where the civilians were.

“He’s doing a fantastic job of avoiding hitting any civilians when he uses his powers.”

“Told you,” Imp said, mimicking Grace’s tone, in the same moment Grace said, “Of course.”

Imp laughed, then winced at the pain it caused her.

“Could be an extension of his danger sense,” Tattletale suggested.

We’d reached the stairwell, and the others declined to go back for the van.  Imp and I got on Bentley’s back.  I sat behind Imp so I could help keep her from falling.  We weren’t broadcasting it to Tecton and Grace, but I wasn’t in great shape, myself.  Even if Bentley wasn’t the most comfortable way to travel with a cracked rib, it still beat running.

I pointed the way, and we headed for the site of the battle.  I wasn’t exactly sure what we could do.  This was a fight between titans.  Eidolon had hit Noelle a thousand times as hard as any of us were capable of, and she hadn’t even slowed down.

I was getting increasingly worried that there was some factor here that would decide the battle, something I should grasp but wasn’t.  It didn’t help that both Noelle and Eidolon had powersets that I didn’t fully understand.  Noelle was apparently pulling clones out of nowhere, despite not having contact with Vista or the other villains.  Getting a sense of any given power and accounting for all the possibilities was hard enough, but Eidolon had a bunch of them at any given time, and they could change.

Eidolon struck at one cluster of clones that were lurking in a half-destroyed building, then hit himself with a gravity attack.  He and his costume were left untouched, but the bugs I had on him were annihilated.  I was left blind.

Why?  The attack was pointless.  There hadn’t been any of Noelle’s servants in the area.

Was he sending me a message?  Did he want us to back off?

Noelle was consistently managing to avoid being struck by any of the gravity attacks, or scrambling out of the way of trouble after sustaining a glancing blow.  She was keeping tall buildings between herself and Eidolon.  He used the gravity manipulation where he could.  He had changed up his tactics, sending chunks of building flying, then spiking them down to the ground with the gravity-slams.  He wasn’t changing powers, though, even though Noelle had adjusted to them.  It was very possible he couldn’t: that if he gave up one power for another one more suited for the situation, he’d be too vulnerable while it grew to full power, or it would be too hard to catch up after the fact.

One of the heads of Noelle’s lower body vomited up a slurry of flesh, with two naked bodies in the midst of it.  A Vista covered in fingernail-like plates of hard flesh and a Leet with one forearm and hand as big as his torso.  The two clones were on their feet in seconds.  The Vista ran in Eidolon’s direction, while the Leet made a beeline for a nearby mall entrance.

I sent a swarm of bugs after them, focusing predominantly on going after Leet.  They weren’t fast, but they would hopefully interfere with his efforts to build anything.

We arrived at the edge of Eidolon and Noelle’s battlefield.  As I drew a swarm together with the bugs in this new area, I found Eidolon and tagged him with some houseflies and wasps.  Best if I knew if he was moving in our direction, so we could clear out of the way.

“Circle around,” I said.  “We keep eyes on one another, but our goal is to clean up clones wherever we can, so we need a broad perimeter.”

“Got it,” Grue said.  Tecton nodded as well.

Rachel signaled, and Bentley ran.  Tecton and Grace moved as one pair, while Regent, Grue and Tattletale formed another group.

The Leet had entered a mall.  The place had been looted, but he stopped somewhere long enough to grab some basic clothes.  He wrenched a piece off a clothing rack and used the ragged end to cut a sleeve off and open up the shoulder enough that he could fit his oversized left hand through it.

The activity bought my bugs enough time to catch up to him.  As they attacked, he started thrashing.  I was in the middle of changing my focus to other things when I noticed something curious.

A rat.

The rat itself wasn’t so unusual.  Large for its size, maybe.  But it had moved in the same general direction as my swarm, and it was wet with fluids.

The vomit?

I’d been flying bugs over surfaces at a height sufficient to catch humans.  It was a waste of energy and bugs to fly them over the ground level, when I generally knew that a road was flat, and any obstacle that was shorter than one or two feet wasn’t worth dwelling on.

Moving my bugs closer to the ground, I found more.  Rats, wet with the fluids of Noelle’s vomit.

She’d absorbed rats?  She wasn’t limited to cloning people.

I made a point of searching the vermin out and killing them with my bugs.  I’d played exterminator once before.  Not over so large an area, but I’d done it.

I pointed the way to Noelle, and Rachel changed direction.  Eidolon was dealing with the last Vista-clone that Noelle had spawned.  The girl wasn’t going on the offensive, but she was using her power to move quickly, using every spare moment to raise lumps of pavement and concrete from the ground, sculpting them into rough images of Noelle.  It would be sunrise, now, but in the dim light, they would be something that distracted Eidolon and potentially drew his fire.

He paused in his attempted murder of the mutant girl and eradication of the statues, striking himself with another gravity-slam.  Again, he killed every insect I had on him.

Was he aware of something we weren’t?

Noelle turned toward a group of people who were evacuating one of the buildings that had taken damage.  Before I could open my mouth to shout a warning or take an action, she lunged into the lobby of the building.

The people she touched were absorbed as quickly and easily as if she were quicksand.  Some were almost drawn in.

It took a minute and a half for her to form the clones within her.  We closed the distance as her body swelled.  When she’d reached critical mass, each of the three mouths on her lower body opened to heave out a tide of blood and gore, along with eighteen or twenty people.  Half of the people she’d heaved out had clothes.  The other half had mutations.  The mutants were on their feet as soon as they could find traction in the sludge, the innocents seemed as though they could barely move.

One of the people was Vista, I realized.  Not a clone – she was costumed.  An extremity, a tentacle or tongue, extended from one of Noelle’s lower mouths to wrap around Vista’s midsection.  The girl was hauled into the mouth and swallowed in a flash.

“She’s keeping them,” I said.

“What?” Tattletale asked.

“The capes she keeps spitting out.  Circus, Über, Leet and Vista.  She’s holding the four of them inside her, so she can keep creating more clones.”

“She doesn’t have to let people go,” Tattletale said.  “Fuck me.  We won’t be able to kill her without killing whoever she’s holding inside her.”

As the mutant clones around Noelle began to thrash and strangle the near-helpless victims, their maker shifted position, stepping on arms and legs.  Her body was oriented more towards Eidolon.  I wasn’t willing to sacrifice bugs to know her exact position, but I got the sense she was looking up at him, despite the fact that there were several buildings between her and him.

She made contact with the bugs I had in her immediate vicinity as she twisted her body to look towards us.

Then she ran in the other direction.

“We rescue the people she just vomited out, clear away the clones,” I said.  I used the bugs I’d gathered near the other two groups to speak to them.  “Then we signal Eidolon and chase Noelle.  We need to get in contact with the heroes.  Whatever Eidolon’s plan is, it’s not working.”

I could track the rats that were crawling out of the vomit.  A dozen of them, and they were homing in on people, savagely biting and clawing into any flesh they found.  I made sure to cluster my bugs in as dense a swarm as I could afford, to keep them contained.  The bugs I didn’t devote to the task worked to disable and distract the more mundane clones.

I might have missed it if I hadn’t had the bugs pressed together to contain the rats.  I had missed it already, countless times.  Wasps, hornets and cockroaches were crawling free of the slurry of flesh that Noelle had vomited into the building’s lobby.  They were attacking my bugs and any people they found.

I couldn’t sense them, and I couldn’t control them.

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Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus #3)

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Thursday, June 16th, 2011, 22:11

“Are you comfortable?  Is there anything I can get you?” Jessica Yamada asked.

“A… okay,” the staff employee said.  What had her name been?  Worthwhile?  No.  Worth-something.  She was elderly, and took more time than was necessary to go through the letters, “M… okay.  M, n, o, p, q, r,s t, u…”

A… M…

“Stop,”  Jessica said.  “I can guess.”

“I have to continue,” the older woman said.  “Patient’s right to communicate.  T, u, v, w, x, y… Y.  Third letter is Y.”

“We’ve been over this, Victoria,” Jessica said.  “You know that’s something I don’t have any power to give you.”

Victoria blinked three times, the signal for the alphabet.  The older woman started.  As Victoria’s right eye was the only one open, she started with the second half.  “M, n, o, p… P, okay.”

Victoria switched eyes, closing one and opening the other.  First half of the alphabet.

“A, b, c, d, e, f, g, h…”

Another blink.

“H.  Okay.”

“Phone?” Jessica interrupted, before the reading started again.

A blink.  Affirmation.

“I’ve explained you can’t phone her.  She’s gone to the birdcage-”

Jessica paused.  Her own heart rate was climbing, her breathing involuntarily quickening.  She felt a bead of sweat running down the back of her neck.  The old woman had stepped out of her chair, backing away.

“Stop that,” Jessica said, her voice firm.  She’d managed to keep her voice from trembling.

The sensation didn’t fade.

“She went to the birdcage because she wanted to,” Jessica said.  “And we let her because there were serious concerns about her unleashing an epidemic if she had another psychotic break.”

Three blinks.  To the old woman’s credit, she stuck to doing her job.  “A, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i… I, okay.”

“Victoria,” Jessica said, and she wasn’t able to hide the tremor this time, “if you want to communicate with me, I’m going to insist that you turn your power off.”

Victoria reduced the effect of her power, scaling it down to a general sensation of unease.

“Thank you.  Returning to our previous topic, Amy had to be contained somewhere.  Everyone involved agreed on that point.  There was too much danger, otherwise, with the possibility of uncontrollable, incurable plagues that could eat through plastic or metal.”

Jessica waited patiently as the staff member went down the list.  I.  D.  O.  N.  T.  C.  A.  R.  E.

I  don’t care.

“Others do care, Victoria,” Jessica Yamada informed her patient.  “Amy cared.  She knew her own limits and her own potential, for good or for ill.  It wasn’t an easy decision, for her or for the authorities, but that decision was made with everyone’s best interests at heart.”

Again, the letters.

N.  O.  T.  M.  I.  N.  E.

Not mineNot in my best interests.

“She didn’t feel that she could fix you, or that it was right to use her power on you again.”

Two blinks.  Negation.

“You… that’s not what you meant?”

Blink.  Agreement.  Three blinks to signal for the board.

A.  L.  O.  N.  E.

“Not entirely, Victoria,” Jessica said, her voice gentle.  “There are others who care about you.”

No blinks, now.  Long seconds passed.

“Back to my original question.  Is there anything we can do to make you more comfortable?”

B.  A.  T.  H.

“Excellent,” Jessica said.  “We’ll see what we can do.  Anything else?”

Two blinks.  No.

“I’ll be seeing you for a longer appointment next Tuesday, then,” she said.  “Tell any of the staff if you would like to get in touch with me before then.  I’m on-call, twenty-four-seven.”

One blink.

Jessica exited the room.  The door sealed shut as it closed behind her.

“Well?” the head nurse asked.

“Some headway,” Jessica said.  She took off her suit jacket and folded it over the nearest chair.  Her back was drenched with sweat, shoulder-blade to belt.  “Hard to endure.”

“She’s upset.  Understandably.”

“I know.  But I’ll take her on as a patient, and hopefully we can get her in a better head space.  Thank you again, for letting me overstep my duties.  It helps me to open a dialogue if I can offer her something she wants or needs.”

“You can’t offer her what she really wants.”

“But a bath is a good starting point.  Is it doable?”

“Yes.  We’re well equipped for disabled patients.  We’ll lower her in with hoists.”

“She won’t break?  Or tear?”

“No.  She’s far more durable than she appears.  For better or for worse, she retains her invincibility.”

“I see.”

“Who’s the next patient on your caseload?”

“Sveta.”

“Garotte.  I know you’ve heard the instructions about the protective safeguards a thousand times-”

Jessica sighed.

“-But I have to go over them anyways.  There are regulations, Jessica, as you well know.  You’ll be wearing a type-C reinforced protective suit.  The suits include both an inner and outer layer, the inner layer-”

“Has a button in the palm.  I can withdraw my fingers from the outer glove and press the button.  At random intervals, you’ll buzz me surreptitiously…”

“And we expect you to press the button to verify that you’re okay.  You can press it twice in the event of an emergency.”

“The damn thing has malfunctioned and interrupted three of my last seven sessions with her.”

“It’s what we have for the time being.  If you don’t verify your own safety or if you signal an emergency, we’ll employ containment foam through the sprinkler system.”

“And I’ll be stuck here for another hour, with another four pages of paperwork after the fact.”

“Is she your last patient for the day?”

“No.  I’m scheduled to see Nicholas after.”

“Sadboy.”

Jessica didn’t correct the head nurse.  She hated using the codenames; it reinforced the idea of the patients being less than human.  “Yes.  I’ll see him, then I’m done for the day.  I’m on rotation with the PRT for Friday-Saturday, then I have Sunday all to myself.”

“Any plans?” the head nurse asked.

“I’ve learned not to make any.  There’s always a crisis of some sort.”

They’d reached the changing room, and Jessica pulled on the protective inner-suit.  The suit fit close to her body, smelled faintly of someone else’s sweat, and consisted of a stretching mesh covered in fine chain link.  The entire thing was reinforced by a grid of metal bars, complete with oiled hinges at each joint, so she had a near-full range of motion.  Zipping it up, it went straight up her neck, the bars running vertically down her throat.  She couldn’t look down without getting jabbed in the soft flesh beneath her jaw.

It made it harder to get the outer suit on.  The entire thing was one piece, like footie-pyjamas, and the fabric was heavy, with alternating layers of insulated fabric and more chain mesh.

She liked to go into situations armed with knowledge.  When she’d been new to the job, fearing her first week of work at the asylum, she’d researched all of the protective measures, even running down the patents that were public access to see what they entailed.

Odd as it might have sounded, she’d stopped doing that as of late.  It wasn’t due to a growing confidence.  Just the opposite.  Now that she had a better grasp of what her patients were capable of, it was easier to hope the people designing the safeguards were doing everything they needed to.  It was better than researching it and knowing they weren’t.

The heavy fabric exterior suit fit her like hazardous materials gear, bulky, broad, leaving a great deal of empty space between her body and the fabric.  Protective airbags of more reinforced cloth inflated to fill that space.

She stepped into the dock, and the door behind her shut.  The next door opened.

The room was empty.  The wall had a mural painted on it, ocean waves and beautiful architecture that Jessica couldn’t place as belonging to any particular era or culture.  There was a short, translucent table littered with painting and drawing supplies, and what looked like a cat’s tiered scratching post, extending floor to ceiling, securely bolted to both.  Mirrors were fixed to the wall, to show that the room’s resident wasn’t hiding behind it.

“Come on out, Sveta,” she said.  She clenched her teeth and braced herself for the ambush.

Sveta had been waiting above the door.  Tendrils snaked around the neck of the protective suit, and cinched tight in a moment.

Even with her full knowledge of the suit’s protective qualities, Jessica felt her heartbeat quicken.

Deep breath.

Her breath caught in her chest as she heard the faintest, almost inaudible sound of metal creaking.

More tendrils had caught her legs and arms, and even lashed across the room to catch the only points available to hold, the two-inch diameter bolts that held the scratching post ‘bed’ to the ground.

“So sorry,” Sveta whispered.  “Sorry.”

Jessica felt her arm jolt as one set of tendrils lashed up the length of her right arm to catch her gloved fingers.  Each finger was pulled in a different direction, but the metal reinforcement in the outer glove held, and her hand wasn’t crumpled like tissue paper.

“Relaxation exercises, Sveta.  Don’t try to fight the instincts all at once, don’t worry about me…”

Sveta convulsed, contorted, and every part of her drew tighter.  Jessica heard something metal give way, felt a small component tap her shoulder, bouncing around the interior of the outer suit before settling in her boot.

Calm.  Sound calm.  “…Just focus on your extremities.  Flex them, release them, repeat.”

Another contortion.  Jessica forced herself to take a deep breath, simultaneously cursing whoever had let this defective equipment go back in the changing room.

“I’m so sorry,” Sveta said.  “I’m trying, but it’s making it worse.”

“Take your time,”  she replied, defying every instinct that was telling her to get out of this dangerous situation: to press the button, fight or panic.  Like Sveta’s, her instincts weren’t serving her best interests here.  Unlike Sveta, she could fight them.

Sveta contorted, and an airbag gave way in the suit’s midsection.

“Oh!” Sveta said.  She’d noticed, and the realization coincided with further constriction.  “Oh, I’m sorry, Mrs. Yamada!  No, no!”

“It’s fine,” Jessica lied.  Too many things were going wrong with the suit, all at once.  Why?  There had to have been an altercation between another staff member and a violent patient.  The only reason this many safeguards would be giving way would be if the suit had sustained recent damage.

Except it had gone unreported, and the suit had gone back on the shelf.

“Should have- we should have done this through the glass,” Sveta moaned.  “I’m sorry.  I like you.  I don’t want you to die.”

“We’re striving to socialize you, right?  That’s our goal?  We can’t do that without regular human contact.”

“I’m going to kill you.  I don’t want to but I’m going to.  I’ll-”

“Hush,” Jessica said, sounding far, far calmer than she felt.  “Take-”

She nearly said take a deep breath.  She corrected herself.  “-a few seconds and keep doing your relaxation exercises.  Flex your extremities, relax them.  Flex, relax, steadily work your way up, inch by inch.  Look at me.  I’m not worried.  I’m in this suit.  I feel safe.  Okay?”

“O-okay.”

“I want you to think of all the progress we’ve made since the start of the year.”

“But something popped in the suit just now.”

“We wear the same suits for multiple patients.  That was a safeguard to protect any patients that might collide with us.  It’s not meant for you.  Don’t worry.”

Jessica hated lying to her patients.

“It’s not- it’s okay?”

“It’s okay,” Jessica soothed.  “You remember our goal, right?”

“Christmas?”

“I think you’re well on your way to your goal.  That’s what you think of when you’re trying to be positive, right?  You can celebrate Christmas with a few other patients, people who you can’t hurt.  I just met one of them, I think.  A new patient of mine.  She’s someone who could use some friends.”

Like a dozen frog’s tongues, tendrils snapped across the length of the room to the ‘bed’, encircling it. In another second, as though each tendril were elastic bands stretched to their limits, Sveta had shifted there, her tendrils gripping the post as she hung from it.  Jessica was free.

Sveta was little more than a very pale face with thin tendrils streaming around it like hair.  Small organs dangled from the largest of the tendrils that extended from the back of her face.  A small symbol marked the girl’s cheekbone: a stylized ‘c’, in black.

It took Sveta a second before she relaxed enough to let the tendrils uncoil from the post.  The tendrils settled in the air, in a rough facsimile of where a person’s limbs might be.  She’d positioned herself so that the organs could rest on the ‘shelves’ on the post.

“I’m sorry,” Sveta said, eyes downcast.

“I’m fine.  I understand,” Jessica soothed.  She shifted position, and one tendril snapped out to catch her leg, gripping her around the knee, squeezing and twisting with a strength that could have torn every ligament in her knee and wrenched Jessica’s calf from her upper leg.  Sveta flinched, closed her eyes for a second, and the tendril moved back to the post.  The suit had held.  No damage done.

“Can… can you tell me about her?  The girl you just saw?”

“I can’t talk to you about my patients, just like I couldn’t tell them about you.”

Sveta clutched the pole harder.  “I understand.  Was she… was she a bad guy?  Like me?”

“Do you think you were a ‘bad guy’?”

“I killed people.  Yes.”

“It wasn’t you.  It was your power.”

“I still killed people.”

“I think that’s a good topic for today’s session.  But there’s a few things I want to cover first, before we get into the meat of it, so let’s put a pin in that topic for now.”

“Okay.”

“She was a superhero, I can say that much without betraying any confidence.”  And you’ll hear it from the staff sooner or later.  Better to hear it from me.  “There may be wiggle room.  Maybe I could convince one of the hospital staff to stop by, and she could tell you a bit about the new patient through the intercom?  If the patient gives consent?”

Sveta’s eyes lit up.  “Yes please.”

“I can’t make any promises.”

“I understand.”

“Now, have you been keeping that journal?”

Sveta snatched a notebook off of the small table with the art supplies, reaching out and bringing it to her faster than the eye could follow.  She passed it to Jessica with just as much speed and force.  Even with the air bags filling the void in the protective suit and offering a cushioning effect, Jessica had to take a step back to catch her balance.

“May I?”

Sveta nodded, bobbing the mask with the mass of tendrils behind it.

The bed-post contorted into an ‘s’ shape as the girl twined around it.  It indicated some kind of negative emotion.  Jessica paged through the recent entries.  The letters of the words were exaggerated, and they got more so as the writer got agitated.  Worries, daydreams about being human, the vividness of her imagination when she pictured places like she’d drawn in the mural, her day-long spell of depression after waking up from a dream where she’d been human, in bed with a boy…

Jessica closed the book.  None of this was so unusual, capable of explaining the sudden anxiety she saw now.  “Can I ask what’s bothering you?”

“I… why aren’t you scared of me?”

“Because I have no reason to be,” Jessica lied, meeting the girl’s eyes.

The truth is that it’s because I’ve spent more time in the company of monsters than Legend, she thought.  Trust me, honey, you aren’t the scariest I’ve run into, not by half.

Friday, June 17th, 2011, 10:15

“You’re not the person that was here last week,” the redheaded boy said, shutting the door behind him.

“We rotate.  The PRT doesn’t want any therapist developing a bond to the point that they could manipulate a cape.  By rotating through three or four for a given area, they can ensure that one therapist will be able to identify manipulations on the part of any of the others.”

“Doesn’t that kind of defeat the point?  Not letting us develop a bond, no trust?”

Yes, Jessica thought, but she said, “It’s not my place to say.  Is that what you’re hoping to get, here?  A one-on-one relationship?  A bond of trust?”

“And now it begins,” he said.  “Answering questions with questions.”

“An unfortunate fact of the job.  Would you like to sit?”

The boy let himself sink into the chair.

“What should I call you?” Jessica asked.  “I prefer to use real names wherever possible, but I understand if you’d prefer the confidentiality of a codename.”

“Clockblocker.  Dennis.  Whatever.  You get crucified, drawn and quartered if you betray our secret identities, right?”

“Nothing that graphic, but the penalties are severe, and they include extensive jail time, and forfeiting the credentials it took me eight years to get.  You strike me as someone who’s paying a great deal of attention to the workings of the system.  Where people are, how they’re operating.”

“I have to, don’t I?  You ignore that stuff, you get fucked,” Dennis said.

“That’s the second time in two minutes you’ve brought up consequences.  Is that something that concerns you?  Consequences?”

“In the last three months, my dad’s leukemia came back, Leviathan destroyed a third of my hometown, the Endbringer killed my best friend and teammate, and another of my teammates, the Undersiders abducted one of my teammates-”

“Shadow Stalker.”

“Yeah.”

“I talked to her after that incident.  Anyways, I’m sorry to interrupt.  I’m trying to frame it all in my head.”

“They left her so fucked up she went and broke her parole.  Um.  It’s all been unravelling.  People I care about and rely on are getting knocked around, screwed over by dumb luck or because they let their guard down.  Aegis, Gallant, Amy and Victoria, Battery, Shadow Stalker…”

“Did you care about Shadow Stalker?”

“She was a teammate.”

“I know.  But the way your thoughts seemed to connect there, it sounded like something more.”

Dennis shrugged.  “It makes me sound like a sleazebag if I say it, but I can get away with that here, right?”

She let herself smile a little, “Yes.”

“She was hot, and when you spend four or five hours a day with the same people, and you’re a guy, and the one girl in the group that’s around your age is that good-looking, maybe you look forward to seeing her.”

“That doesn’t make you sound like a sleazebag.  It makes it sound like a perfectly normal teenager with a mild crush.”

“Maybe?  Not really; I couldn’t stand her as a person.  It still sucked balls, hearing what I did about her going to juvie, on top of everything else.”

“Did you see yourself in her shoes, at all?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re very mindful of consequences and the dangers you’re facing.  Are you afraid you’ll suffer a similar fate?”

“I dunno.  No.  If I’m worried about anything like that, it’s that there’s a worse fate waiting out there for me.”

“A worse fate?”

“With all the stuff the capes bring to the table, there’s a hundred bad endings that are possible that wouldn’t have been possible thirty years ago.  You hear about what happened to Victoria and Amy Dallon?”

Victoria.  The vivid mental picture disconcerted her briefly.  “Um.  Yes I have.”

“Case in point,” Dennis shrugged.  “And there’s all the stuff that went down with the Slaughterhouse Nine, too.”

“Scary business.”

Dennis shrugged.

“Are you sleeping well?”

“Way I’ve been working, sleep isn’t a problem.  Head hits the pillow, I’m out.”

“And the stress of all of this, it’s not affecting your diet?”

“No.  I mean, my diet’s not great, but that’s just trying to work around shift schedules and crap, you know?”

“I know,” Jessica smiled.  “Work makes it hard on me too.  I was going to walk you through some coping methods for anxiety, but it seems like you’re getting by.”

“Too busy to think, really.  I prefer it that way.  I don’t know if anxiety’s the right word.”

“No?  What word would you choose?”

He paused.  “I dunno.”

“Take your time.  It’s not a big deal if you can’t come up with one.”

“It’s… I feel like there’s probably a word, in another language, but English doesn’t have it.  Not despair, but… that feeling you get when you’re losing?”

“You feel as though you’re losing?”

Dennis nodded, leaned back in the leather seat.  “We’re fighting a war.  The consequences don’t seem to hit the bad guys as hard.  We fight Leviathan, and people act like we won, because the casualty rates were lower than they’ve been in nine years.  Slaughterhouse Nine come, and again, there’s a lot of people who act like it was a victory because only half of them made it out of the city.  Nobody but me seems to notice that, hey, those guys still lived.  They escaped.”

“Maybe they share the same thoughts you do, but they don’t want to face that reality because it scares them.”

“Maybe.”

There was a long pause.

“Looking at the general notes from your last appointment, you gave the a-okay for him to mention that you were working on some coping mechanisms for your anger?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to keep working on that, or do you feel like it’s more under control?”

“It’s pretty much under control.  I was… my dad was dying, then.  Amy healed him.”

“I see.”

“I… I regret this.”

“Regret what?”

“Joining the Wards.  The rules, the bureaucracy.  It’s… fuck, I mean, I appreciate having the resources.  Guys to make the costume, even this.”

“Talking to me?”

“Sure.  Make sure my head’s screwed on right.  But at the same time, being stuck in a classroom after Leviathan attacks, because the rules say I have to be in school a certain number of hours a day?  It’s fucked.  I wonder if the villains are winning because they don’t have to worry about that stuff.”

“Could be.”

“I don’t get it.  I almost think I could be okay with things if I understood them.  Why the fuck do they get away with this shit?”

“I can’t give you the answers you want, and I’m afraid that answers to questions of that magnitude aren’t going to appear nearly as fast as we want them to.”

“I know.”

“But you’re very observant, Dennis.  I’ve already said as much.  I find that we often find what we’re looking for the moment we stop actively searching for them.  Perhaps spend less time looking for the answer, and keep an eye out for opportunities to learn the answer.”

“Psychobabble,” he said, smiling a little.

“Sorry,” she said, returning the smile with one of her own.

Friday, June 17th, 2011, 13:01

“Jessica?” Weld asked, peeking his head in the door.

“Come in,” she said.  “It’s good to see you, Weld.  It’s been a little while.”

Weld closed the door and settled in the reinforced chair she’d brought into her office in anticipation of the appointment.

“Have you picked a name?” she asked.

He chuckled lightly.  “I’m Weld.  That’s it for now.”

She nodded.  Studied him, at ease in his chair, hands folded across his stomach.

“So.  A lot’s happened,” she said.

“Endbringer, Slaughterhouse Nine.  Losing control of the city.  Did you come from out of town?”

“Yes.”

“Was it on the news?  What’s been going on here?”

“It has been.  I try to catch the eleven o’clock news, and it seems there’s a new story every night, detailing recent events in Brockton Bay.”

“What kind of picture does it paint?”

“Of?”

“Of the city.  Of us?  The villains?”

“Things look worse than they are, if you go by what’s on television.  It paints a positive picture of the local heroes, I have to say.  Not entirely undeserved, if you ask me.”

“Thanks for saying so,” Weld said.

“You don’t sound convinced.”

“I’m not.  It’s only been five days since the Slaughterhouse Nine fled.  Smoke’s clearing, and I’m not liking where we’re at.”

“Where are you at?”

“Villains who took territory before everything went to hell are still holding the territory after.  Us?  We’re not in good shape.  We lost Battery.”

“I heard.  I’m sorry.”

“We got hit harder, and while they’re picking up the pieces, nobody’s jumping to help us.”

“No?”

“Flechette’s going back to New York before too long.  Nobody’s replacing her, or any of the ones who died.  Maybe they think we’re cursed, or maybe it’s career suicide to try to help a city that can’t be helped.”

“Does that matter to you?  Career?”

“Some.  There was mention of me maybe climbing the ranks.  I’m marketable, but I’m a freak, too.”

She thought of Sveta.  “It sounds like you’re being unfairly harsh on yourself.”

“It’s how it was explained to me.”

“I see.  That’s unfortunate, that a colleague would make you out to be a freak.”

“Water off my back.  Honest.  It doesn’t bother me.”

“Is there anything-“

She stopped as his phone rang.

“Sorry,” he looked genuinely guilty as he reached for the phone, “Way things are-“

“I totally understand.  Please, go ahead.”

He answered.  “Weld here… yes.  Skitter?  With Parian.  I understand.  No, I get it.  We’ll see if we can track her.”

He was already out of her seat.  “If it’s okay-“

“Go.  You have a team to lead.”

“Flechette said the local villains in power just made a move on a Rogue friend of hers.  I’ll… could I wrangle a longer session next week?”

“That could be arranged.  Go,” she said.

He was at the door when she called after him, “and Weld, I want you to pick a proper name!”

Friday, June 17th, 2011, 18:01

“Fuck them!  Fuck her!”

“Lily-“

“Fuck!  Fuck!”  Lily paced.

“Lily, please, could you sit?”  Jessica asked.

Lily stopped, resting her hands on the back of the armchair.

“It’s clear something happened,” Jessica said.  “You ask me to come, and that’s totally, one hundred percent okay, but I can’t do anything to help until you explain what happened.”

“They got her.”

Jessica felt her heart sink.  “Who?”

“Parian.  Skitter got to her.”

“The Rogue your teammate mentioned.  Was she hurt, or killed, or-“

“Turned.”

“Turned?”

“She changed sides.  Ran into Skitter, with Ballistic wreaking havoc in the background.  Knew something was up.  Tattletale fucking with our heads or something.  Then Skitter goes into this good cop bad cop routine, but she’s using Ballistic as the bad cop, the idea that if we don’t go along with her plan, he’ll try to kill us.  Makes Parian an offer she can’t refuse.”

“Power?  Money?”

“Money.  Two hundred thousand dollars, so that Parian’s friends and family who were mutilated by the Slaughterhouse Nine could pay for surgery.  So Parian could go to school.”

“A lot of money.”

“And she asks Parian to leave.  And it’s… it rips my heart out, because she’s my one good friend here.  Because she’s more, I… I can’t remember if I’ve talked to you about it.  You PRT therapists all sort of blend into each other.”

“We’ve talked about it.  You had feelings for her.”

Lily folded her arms on the back of the chair, rested her forehead against her wrists.

“Did you tell her about those feelings?”

“No.  No I didn’t.  I was thinking about it, but now I can’t ever, because if it pushes her away, she’ll be totally, completely beyond my reach.  Completely on their side.”

“Do you think she reciprocated?”

“I don’t know.  Sometimes, I thought yes.  Other times, I thought yes, but not nearly as much as I had feelings for her.  And there were other times I thought definitely no.  But I couldn’t ask because by the time I got up the courage, the Slaughterhouse Nine had murdered most of her family and her friends, and the ones who weren’t dead were… altered.  Fuck, my feelings weren’t even on the third page of the list of priorities there.  It was about taking care of her, helping her.  It’s what you do for friends.”

“It is.  It sounds like she was lucky to have you.”

“And then Skitter waltzes in and… it’s like, she slithers right past your defenses.”

“How’s that?”

“I can’t even put it into words.  You run into her, and you can’t even look straight at her without feeling your skin crawl.  Like when someone’s got something wrong with their eye and your own eye starts watering… only with her it’s because of the bugs.”

“Okay.”

“And then she talks, and she sounds so idealistic, and naive.  I don’t know how you sound idealistic and naive with a swarm of cockroaches and bees crawling over your face, but she does.  And so you let your guard down.  And then she starts making sense.  And that was the point where Sab- where Parian started lapping it up.”

“Did she make sense to you?”  Jessica asked.

“I had a feeling about what was happening, said as much.  Now, I don’t know.  There’s only two good answers for it.”

Lily walked over to the door and picked up the satchel she’d brought into the office.  She returned to the chair and sat, plopping the satchel down on the coffee table.

“What is it?” Jessica asked.

“The thing that lets me know which of the two it was.”

“And what are those two answers?”

“Either my gut was right, and Skitter was just feeding us info that Tattletale prepared, just to fuck with us… or Skitter was right.”

“And this satchel contains the answer?”

“It does.”

“May I?” Jessica leaned forward.

“No.”

Jessica stopped.

“I can say no, right?  You don’t have the right to search my things.”

“You can,” Jessica said, leaning back.  “And I won’t touch it.  What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Lily said.  Her eyes were damp.  “Doesn’t matter.  Doesn’t change what happened with Parian.  Won’t change the choice she made.”

A tear fell free, and Lily wiped it away with her sleeve.

“Fuck, so stupid.  I go up against Leviathan, go up against the Slaughterhouse Nine, and this is what fucks with my head?  This is the moment I want nothing more than to go home, to go home and just crawl under the covers?”

“You could.”

“Can’t.  I… It’d mean I couldn’t do the costume thing again.  Not the same way.  Gotta tough it out.”

Lily didn’t look tough, Jessica observed  She looked like a heartbroken, homesick teenager.

She couldn’t say that, though.

Jessica stood from her chair and approached the girl.  When Lily realized what Jessica was doing, she gratefully accepted the offer of a shoulder to cry on.

Lily’s cell phone rang.  She pulled away, breaking the hug, but she didn’t answer the phone.  “Never fucking ends.  Didn’t think it would be like this.”

“Are you going to answer?”  Jessica asked.

“Can’t.  Not like this.”

“May I?  I’m not sure if it’s against the rules, but-“

“Yes.  Please.  But-” Lily paused, and the cell phone rang again before she spoke, “Don’t mention I was there?  With Parian?  I wasn’t supposed to be.”

Jessica nodded and answered.  “Mrs. Yamada answering for Flechette.”

Miss Militia here.  Could you please inform Flechette that Triumph has been hospitalized?  Anaphylactic shock.”

“Which hospital?”

“Oh god,” Lily said, eyes going wide.

The one attached to the PRT headquarters.  Flechette knows where.

“We’re in the building,” Jessica said.  “I understand if you’re busy, but could you contact me in my office, when you have a free moment?”

I will.

Jessica hung up and returned the cell phone.  “The hospital in this building.  It’s Triumph.”

Lily stood, pocketing the phone.  “What happened?”

“Anaphylactic shock,” Jessica answered.

“Skitter.”

Jessica didn’t answer.

Lily wiped the tears from her face.  She drew in a deep breath, then let it out slowly.  Her expression hardened, her shoulders squaring.  There wasn’t a trace of the emotion she’d shown just moments before.  “Do I look okay?  Presentable?”

Jessica nodded.

“Thank you.”  Lily was already moving, snatching the satchel from the table, striding for the door.  It slammed shut behind her.

Jessica sat in her chair and tried not to dwell on just why it bothered her that Lily had been able to switch personas so easily.  Did the career demand it?  Why couldn’t a teenager just be allowed to be vulnerable, at a time they felt vulnerable?

The phone rang five minutes later.

“It’s Miss Militia.  You wanted me to contact you?”

“Yes.  I just… I’ve seen half your Wards today.  They aren’t doing well.”

“I know,” Miss Militia said.

“They’re losing faith.”

“I know.”

Saturday, June 18th, 9:01

There was a knock on the door.

“Come in?”

“Hi.  I’m Kid Win,” the boy said.  He wasn’t in his suit, though.  He looked like he’d just come from the shower, and his brown hair was still damp.  He extended a hand and Jessica shook it.  “Clockblocker said we had a different therapist this week.”

“Protocols.  Can I ask how Triumph’s doing?”

“He’s okay.  Recovered.  Assault and some of the others are more upset over it.  We’re calling in the big guns.”

“That must be a relief.  To have others pick up the slack.  To deferring some responsibility, after having a heavy burden on your shoulders for some time.”

Kid Win shrugged.  “Dunno.  I am excited to see Dragon’s stuff.”

“I can imagine.”

A silence stretched on.  Jessica tried to get a grasp on this boy, reconcile him with the one filled with self-doubt that she’d read about in Mr. Camden’s files.

“Um.  I still don’t really get what we’re supposed to do here,” Kid Win said.

“We talk.  It’s safe territory.  A place where you can vent about your issues.”

“I kind of prefer to work through problems on my own.”

“It’s very common for tinkers to be introverts.  But sometimes we all need a person to bounce ideas off of.  Non-tinker ideas.  Sorry, it’s a rule I have.”

Kid Win smiled sheepishly, “I kind of subjected Mr. Kiles to a rant about types of modular equipment, a few days ago.  I think he needed therapy by the time I was done.”

“Do you have any ideas you want to bounce off me?  It’s been a rough month.”

Kid Win shook his head.

“Nothing?”

“I don’t know if this is me.”

“If what’s you?”

“Needing to bounce ideas off people.  Needing therapy.  All my problems so far, they’ve stemmed from me trying to fit myself into everyone else’s mold.  It’s only when I broke away from that, started thinking on my own, that things started to make sense, all the pieces of the machine working in unison.”

“Given your tinker background, I’m not sure I can tell: is that a metaphor, or a literal machine?”

“Metaphor.”

“Okay.  Your life didn’t start making sense until you stopped worrying about what others think.  But I’m not being judgmental, and I don’t intend to change your mind about anything.  I don’t want to make you conform.”

“I’m… I still don’t think I want the therapy,” Kid Win said.  “Can I opt out?”

“I’m afraid not.  Why don’t you want it?”

“I’m more comfortable going the other route.  I’d rather walk my own path and be a little screwed up, than walk everyone else’s path.  I’m okay with thinking in a way that’s outside of the norm.  I’ve been happier since I started down that road.”

“How does that impact your duties with the Wards?”

“It doesn’t.  I mean, I stick to the rules,” Kid Win said, with a measure of confidence.  “Funny, how it’s easier to do that when I’m being more unconventional.”

“I’m still not sure I understand.  Can you give me an example of what you mean by unconventional?”

“It’s like… if I did this therapy thing, and I mentioned how I’m not bummed and pissed off about what’s going on with the villains and all that, if I talked about how I’m actually happier now, when everyone else is miserable and stressed, I feel like you’d talk me out of it.”

“I don’t want to do anything like that.”

“If you ask me a question,” he asked, “Do I have to answer?”

“You wouldn’t get in trouble, no.  Is there a particular question you don’t want to answer?”

“It’s not that.  I… I guess I’m saying I’m done here.”  He reached into his pocket and withdrew a pair of headphones.  “No offense.  But I feel like having thirty minutes to kick back and take some notes on stuff is going to be a hell of a lot better for my mental health than talking.  No offense.”

She was offended, but she didn’t say so.

Saturday, June 18th, 11:06

“Um?  Hi?”

“Please come in.  Would you rather me call you Vista or Missy?”

“Vista.”

“Vista it is.  Nice to meet you.”

Vista sat down in the armchair.  It took her a second to get comfortable.  Her feet didn’t touch the ground if she sat all the way back, and she was forced to sit awkwardly upright if she couldn’t lean against the chair back.

“I heard they called in the big guns.”

“Dragon.”

“Pretty big as guns go,” Jessica said.

“Are you doing that on purpose?”

“What?”

“Talking down to me.”

“No.  I didn’t think I was talking down to you.”

“It sounded condescending.”

Jessica took a deep breath.  “What can I do for you, Vista?  Is there anything you want to share?”

“Have you been here?”

The non-sequitur caught Jessica off guard.  “I’m not sure I follow.”

“Have you been in Brockton Bay since this all started?”

“No.  I travel for work, and stay in hotels.  On the weekends, or when I’m not working, I stay in Boston.”

“How are you supposed to help when you don’t understand?”

The question might have sounded accusatory, but it rang as more curious instead.

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I’ve been trying to help the others, and a lot of the time I can’t.  So how can you do it, when you don’t even know?  When you have no idea what we’re talking about?”

“I went to school for a long time.”

“Does that teach you how to talk to someone when their mentor’s just been attacked?”

“Are you talking about Triumph?”

“Is it why you ask a lot of questions?  Because you don’t know?”

“I ask questions,” Jessica said, “Because only you can give your perspective on things.  I know a lot of what’s happened.  Some from research, some from your colleagues.  But the only opinion and viewpoint that matters to me when you’re in that chair is yours.”

“Hmph,” Vista huffed..

“Where do you stand?” Jessica asked.  “What’s your view on things?  Summing it all up?”

“Sucks,” Vista said.

“I can believe it.”

“When I go on patrol, I can’t go alone, not until I’m fourteen.  So I spend the most time with everyone.  I hear what they say, and we talk about everything.”

“If there are doctors and field medics, maybe you’re the equivalent of a field therapist?” Jessica suggested.

Vista wasn’t amused in the slightest.  “Don’t be condescending.”

“I’m talking the same way I would with anyone else.  I promise.”

There was a pause.  Jessica sat quietly, letting it stretch on.  In a pinch, a resounding silence could prompt a patient to open up.

Vista finally said, “Weld said I’m the team’s heart.”

“I can imagine him saying it.”

Vista gave her a dirty look.  “I couldn’t help Shadow Stalker, but Weld said she was beyond helping.”

Jessica nodded.

“…But I think I got through to Clockblocker.  For a while I thought he’d fly off the handle at Weld.”

Jessica almost replied, but kept her mouth shut.

“I feel like there’s two ideas and they’re playing tug of war with my head,” Vista confessed.  She gave Jessica a look, as though she were daring her to say something.  “Yeah.  One part of me, it’s like… I want us all to stay together.  Aegis died.  Gallant died.  Battery died.  Velocity died.  Dauntless died.  Browbeat died, Armsmaster retired and Shadow Stalker went to jail.  And now even after it’s all over, Triumph gets hurt?”

“I think I’d feel pretty spooked, after all that,” Jessica said.  “It’s a lot of people to be losing, in the space of a month.”

“I just… I want to do what I can to keep us together.  Keep people fighting.  But..”

“But what?”

“The other part of me?  The colder part that’s being very logical, very rational?  It says that won’t happen.  We won’t stay together.  Can’t.  One by one, horrible things will happen to us.  My friends will die, and if they’re lucky, they’ll die fighting. And I’m somehow okay with it.  What does it really matter when the world’s supposed to end in two years?”

“I… I’ve heard about that.  It’s pretty strictly limited to the PRT, though, and there hasn’t been any strict confirmation.”

“We don’t have very good precogs,” Vista said.  “Not ones that can see that far ahead and still make sense of it all.”

“Does it… are you bothered?  Looking at things that way?  Thinking that your friends will die violently?  That the world will end?”

“No.  I’m… very okay with it, when I think about it clinically.  It’s the way things are, isn’t it?  The way the world works.”

“I don’t think so,” Jessica confessed.

“That part of me, that feels like that?  It’s telling me I’m going to die.  It’s inevitable, it’s soon, and it’ll be horrible,” Vista said.  “Therapy that.”

Was she serious, or was it a challenge?

“Okay,” Jessica said, somber  “I’ll try.”

“Just like that?”  Vista’s eyes widened a little.

“Just like that.  Believe it or not, I’ve handled worse things than a young woman torn between fatalism and wanting to help her friends stick together.  I can’t tell you anything about your teammates, but I can arm you with some tools, so your field-therapy is more effective.  If that part of you is better equipped, maybe it’ll get a bit of an edge in that tug of war that’s going on inside your head.  Sound good?”

Vista nodded.

Sunday, June 19th, 17:39

Jessica fumbled to find the ringing phone.  She had to move the pizza box and the bag of chips to reach it, reclined back on her bed the second she hit the call button, muting the television.  The pants she’d put on only for long enough to answer the door and pay the delivery guy slipped to the floor.

“Yeah,” she said, suppressing a sigh. “No, I’m not busy.  Isn’t he Richmond’s patient, though?  He’s away?  Fuck me.  Okay.  I’ll be there in an hour.”

Monday, June 20th, 12:50

Jessica paced back and forth in her office.

Somehow, when she’d left after seeing the Wards on Saturday morning, she’d let herself believe that things were largely resolved.  Dragon had been en route.  Not just one suit, either.

When she’d heard, on Sunday, that the suits had left the city, unsuccessful in their mission, she’d allowed herself to believe that things, at least, hadn’t gotten worse.

She’d seen Clockblocker in the morning.  There had been a shift conflict with Weld having to watch Vista on her shift, and he’d rescheduled for the afternoon.

Now this.  She’d never felt more useless.  The Wards had intervened to stop a mad villain from attacking the local debate, and it had all gone tragically wrong.  They hadn’t finished tallying the dead.

The Wards were okay, at least.  Physically.

Nobody came to her office all day.  Too much to be done.

Waiting nervously, restless in her inability to offer any assistance at all in a crisis like this, she headed up to the roof and bummed a cigarette from one of the interns, smoking for the first time since grad school.

Tuesday, June 21st, 6:10

Jessica sat on the edge of the roof, legs dangling.  She was on her fifth cigarette.

“Mrs. Yamada?”

The voice startled her, because it didn’t sound quite human.  She turned around.

Oh.  Wow.

Eidolon.

“Could I ask for a few moments of your time?” he asked.

“I… yes.  I should warn you I predominantly work with juveniles.”

“I know.  I’m not looking for therapy.”

“Oh.”

He didn’t say anything as he crossed the rooftop.  Somewhere downstairs, the local heroes were gathering.  The Undersiders were present as well.  Another threat.  Flechette had been right.  It didn’t end.

She felt a pang of sympathy for her Wards.  Vista had asked her how she could dispense advice, when she hadn’t experienced it for herself.  The response that Jessica had been unable to frame was just this.  That if she did, if she found herself under that same pressure, she wouldn’t have the objectivity.  Besides, if she was unbalanced, how could she hope to offer any aid to another person?

It was a bittersweet thing that nobody had asked her to.  She wanted to help, but she was glad she didn’t have to, because she wasn’t sure of her own emotions, now.

Except Eidolon was asking.  One of the most powerful men in the world.

He sat down beside her.  He pulled his hood back, letting it fall around his shoulders, then undid the clasp for his mask. He set the glowing mask down on the edge of the roof, beside her cell phone and cigarettes.

He looked so average.  Heavy cheeks, thinning hair, a big nose, thick brows.  More ugly than attractive, but not so much that he’d draw attention walking down the street.

And still, she felt like it was hard to breathe, as though his very presence sucked the air away.  She felt like she might if someone had a gun to her head, with no intention of pulling the trigger.  It was there, devastating power that could end her existence in a heartbeat.  The fact that he didn’t plan to use it didn’t matter.

This, Sveta, she thought, is why I can be around you and be so calm.  Because I’ve been around monsters like this.

“I wanted to talk to you,” Eidolon said, sounding very normal, “because there are few I can trust to listen.  I might have found a priest, but it’s late, and there are so few good ones out there.  I’ve used psychometry to view the past few days of your life.  You’ll do what I need you to do.”

How am I supposed to respond to that?  “I… okay.”

“I’m losing my powers.  Slowly but surely.  If this goes much further, mankind may lose this war.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Against the Endbringers, there are really only two individuals who can stop them, drive them away.  Scion is one.  I’m another.  Each of us is worth a hundred other capes, if not more.  I’m not boasting when I say this.  But my powers are getting weaker every day, little by little.  Whatever vast, improbably deep well parahumans tap into to use abilities, I suspect mine is running dry.”

“And only Scion will be able to stop them, after you’ve lost your powers?  I’m sorry.  I’m thinking slowly tonight.  Been awake for a long time.”

“It’s fine.  You’re exactly right.  They really only need two or three critical victories, and it all ends.  And they will win more without me there.”

Jessica nodded.  I can’t process all this right now.

“When I fight, Mrs. Yamada, I feel as though my lost power is somehow within reach.  Reserves I have not yet touched, maybe.  Or a fresh well.  It is something, but it is there.  The problem is that I rarely get to truly fight.  Do you understand?”

“Yes.  I think so.”

“I hope that tonight is one of those moments.  I hope to fight, to fight seriously.  With the information we have about this threat, I can feel confident that the situation would be salvageable if I fail.  Even in the worst case scenario, this could be ended with a strategic missile strike.  In my absence, the heroes would have weeks to adjust, to change their battle plans and compensate, before the next Endbringer arrived.”

“You’re talking about dying?”

“Here, at least, I can fight this monster, and where I might never make the gamble against an Endbringer, I hope to fight this thing to the death.  Hers or mine.”

To the death.

He continued, “If I can find that untapped well of power, then it will be worth it.  If I can’t, then there’s no point to me existing anyways.”

“Surely you have something else to live for.”

He gave her a look that was both incredulous and pitying.  She felt a pang of sympathy for Vista, and how she’d reacted when she felt like she was being condescended to.

Maybe life doesn’t offer anything suitably interesting or profound to a man who’s been as powerful as Eidolon is, she thought.

“I…” Jessica said, “Why me?  What am I doing?”

“You know, now.  If I die, you can explain what happened.  But I’ve read you, and I don’t think you will tell others until the fight is over, and you won’t tell others what I planned if I succeed, tonight.”

She stared at him.

“If you were a priest,” he said, “I would have you say a prayer and bless my endeavor tonight.  I will settle for having you wish me luck.”

“Good…” she had to get her words in order, “Good luck.”

He nodded.

Then he took off.

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Queen 18.6

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Help is on the way,” Miss Militia’s voice came over the armband.

“Three Vistas,” I said.  “And Noelle is probably north of our location, going after-”

“Skitter!”  Tattletale shouted, interrupting me, “lose it!”

“What?”

“The armband!  Toss it!”

I pulled at the straps.  As I gathered bugs onto the armband to get a better sense of what I needed to do with the straps, I could tell that the entire thing was swelling, distorting.  I could hear the screen crack.

I pulled it free and threw it, simultaneously climbing to my feet and scrambling away.

“Grue!  Cover it!”  Tattletale shouted.  “Use your power on anything that one breaks down!”

Grue threw out a stream of darkness, then dissolved the darkness that wasn’t covering the area where the armband had been.  Without the ability to see, I had only my bugs’ senses to go by, but I could track where he’d laid down the darkness by the way the air seemed thicker.

From Tattletale’s words, I’d expected an explosion, but it simply twisted away into wisps of thick smoke.

“It’s radioactive,” Tattletale intoned.  “Everything she’s dissolving like that.”

“Unless I cover it?” Grue asked.

“Unless you cover it.  Should cancel out the effects.  But you did want me to let you know when I’m making an educated guess.  This is one of them.” Tattletale said.  “I hope I’m right.  We could win this fight and still wind up dying in a hospital bed a few years from now, because we got too close as that stuff dissolved.”

Oh shit.

“Doesn’t matter, does it?” Regent said.  “World’s ending in a few years anyways.”

“Let’s avoid the extreme radiation poisoning,” I said.  “Regardless of whether the world’s ending or not.”

The other Undersiders and the Chicago Wards were out of the van, and we were collectively backing away from the nega-Vistas.  More specifically, we were retreating from the one who was creating the radioactive dust.

The first one I’d noticed was still on the rooftop, spreading out her efforts, thinning walls and twisting supports.  Her progress was slow, but I was willing to bet that half of the city block would be collapsing onto us in a matter of minutes.  If not sooner.  If I had to guess, her power operated in a different manner than the original Vista’s.  It affected a wider area, it was slower, and she didn’t seem to be suffering for our presence.

The bugs that I was sending her way were having a hard time approaching.  They kept veering around so they flew clockwise around her instead of straight.  I had only a few bugs attacking her, but the same effect that I’d seen with her face had hardened her skin and there weren’t many places left to attack.  Her mouth was little more than a lipless slit across the lower half of her face, firmly closed, and only the smallest bugs could get at her eyes.  She barely flinched at the bites and stings my swarm was delivering.

Meagre as my efforts were, they still should have left her blind, filling her eye sockets with ants and no-see-ums, but her power was still steadily working on the buildings around us.  Another peculiarity of her abilities?  The ability to sense the layout of whatever structures she was affecting?  Did that extend to sensing us?

The second one had arrived, creating footholds and handholds to ascend the section of road she’d raised into a vertical wall, twelve feet high.  She was now perched on top, crouching.  In the time that it had taken me to lose the armband, she had started to work on cutting off our best avenue of retreat.  The road we’d traveled on to get here was raising behind us, bulging upward into a similar barrier.  As far as I could tell, her powers were most in line with the regular Vista, and she seemed to be reacting most to the bites and stings.  I wished that would make me feel more confident about these circumstances.

That left the freakishly tall one.  The Vista with limbs that zig-zagged, who was apparently turning matter into radioactive dust.  She’d climbed past the wreckage of the fallen building and now stood on solid ground again, facing us.

“We off the radioactive one first?” Tecton suggested.

“No,” I said.  I used my bugs to draw an arrow in the air.  “Priority’s the one on the roof, over there.”

“There’s a third one?” he asked.

Apparently he hadn’t caught my message to Miss Militia.

“She’s going to bring down more buildings if we don’t take her fast,” I said.

“Raymancer,” Tecton ordered, “handle it.”

Raymancer stood like he had before, feet together, one arm extended.  I didn’t sense any energy blast or ray from his hand.  The Vista didn’t act as though she’d been shot either.

“She bends light!?”  Wanton asked.

“She’s bending space,” Tattletale said.  “You won’t get a straight shot.”

“Don’t need one,” Raymancer said.  His second shot left a shallow crater in the Vista’s chest.  She sprawled onto the roof, hands pressed to the injury.

The thinning of the walls didn’t stop.

“How the fuck does that work?” Regent asked.  “The laser didn’t even-”

“She’s still alive!” I called out, interrupting him.  There was a small explosion as  Raymancer directed a shot at the Radioactive Vista and missed.  I could sense how the barrier behind us abruptly stopped growing and how the space to one side of her warped to let her evade more easily.

“Vista to our three o’clock is assisting her!” I said.

“Grace!” Tecton shouted.  “Leaving rooftop to you!  Launch!”

Grace leaped toward him, onto the back of one outstretched hand.  She had no trouble maintaining her balance as she placed the other foot on the back of his other gauntlet.

She bent her knees, and extended them to jump in the same instant the piledriver attachments on the gauntlets extended with explosive force.

Most of the bugs I’d placed on her were torn free by the force of the wind ripping past her, as she turned into a human projectile.  She had to have used her selective invincibility to augment her feet and legs so they weren’t annihilated by the piledrivers, and she would be using her enhanced agility to ensure she stuck the landing.

Except the landing wasn’t going to happen as planned.  If I’d understood what they’d planned, I would have warned her.  Her trajectory shifted as she ran into the rooftop-Vista’s power.  Grace fell short of reaching the rooftop.  Very short.  She hit the ground with both feet together, arms spread, and left a shallow crater around her impact site, a half-block away from the building.  Grace was running toward her target a heartbeat later, unhurt.

Some of the flying capes that had been assigned to watch over us were targeting the Vista on the rooftop, and I saw that as excuse enough to focus on other, more immediate problems.

Rachel and her dogs went for the Vista to our right, with Regent doing what he could to hamper their target’s movement, forcing her to use her power to maintain the distance from the beasts.

Which left the rest of us to face off against the radioactive one.

“One on the rooftop’s occupied,” I said.  “Now we can fight her.”

She extended her hand toward us, and the ground between us and her bulged, as though a cartoon mole had crawled beneath the pavement.  Raymancer fired at her, clearly hoping to distract her, but each shot missed by a fair margin.

My bugs were covering every inch of her skin, and I had them biting and tearing at her flesh.  Her skin was hard, gnarled, and calloused, but I did the damage where I could at the elbows, knees and neck, drawing blood.  I tried to tell myself that she was a monster, a mockery of a real person, and she was too dangerous to be allowed to live.  With that kind of unhinged mental state, and her ability to irradiate people…  I grit my teeth.  No choice.

Grue finished covering the bulging ground with darkness.  Tall-Vista didn’t react.  Her hand was still pointed at us.

“It’s a feint!”  Tattletale shouted.  She spun around.  “There!”

My swarm moved in the direction Tattletale was looking.  I found the bulge, a basketball-sized blister on the side of the containment van, felt it erupting a mere foot from Raymancer’s head a half-second before Grue’s darkness covered it.

Too late.  Raymancer stumbled, coughing.

Grue turned and extended a hand toward the tall Vista.  With my swarm spread out around her, I could sense miniscule explosions appearing all around her, see the flashes of light with the bugs’ distorted vision.  The individual detonations weren’t much larger than golf balls, and even the direct impacts weren’t enough to kill my larger bugs.

“How the fuck do you use Raymancer’s power?”  Grue asked.

“You copy powers?”  Wanton asked.

“Thought you guys read up on us,” Tattletale quipped.  “Grue, focus the beams with the lenses.  The beam appears from the center, so line them up to refine the beam into something more effective.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve only got the one lens there.”

Lenses?  My bugs weren’t sensing anything.

Wanton was closing the distance, now that the other Vista was distracted trying to avoid Bentley and Bastard, still hobbled by Regent’s power.  As he got halfway to her, the ground around her began to distort and twist into curls.  Wanton disintegrated as he entered the area.

For a heartbeat, I thought she’d used her power on him.  When the debris, dust and chunks of building began stirring and orbiting a central point that continued his general trajectory, I realized it was his power.

Wanton didn’t hesitate as radioactive dust exploded around and inside his new body.  If anything, it proved an advantage, as the dust provided more material to work with and the damage to the street let him pull up chunks of pavement.  He closed the distance to our opponent and began thrashing her.  One of her arms snapped and dangled as one large chunk struck her.

Grue’s attacks weren’t terribly effective.  There were only half the number of explosions, but they were sufficient to kill bugs if they happened to hit one.  He abandoned Raymancer’s power and cast out his darkness toward the Vista.  A moment later, the ground under her feet was contorting, and dust was rising around her.

To our right, Rachel and Bastard were closing in on the Vista.  Her foot was contorted by Regent’s power, and her neck was craning at awkward angles, making it harder for her to focus on them and use her own abilities.

She backed away, raised her one good hand in their direction, and promptly bumped into Imp.  Before the pseudo-Vista could react, she had a taser pressed to her neck.

Rachel closed the distance, Bentley loping forward.  My bugs caught her voice.  An order, not too hard to make out.  Not with the context.

“Kill,” Rachel said, her voice quiet.  The bulldog picked up the Vista in his jaws and bit down until an audible series of cracks marked the breaking of a dozen major bones.  He shook her like a rag doll, no doubt snapping her neck and aggravating every injury he’d just inflicted.  The girl was dead in an instant.

Rachel’s ordered him to drop the body, ordered Bastard to back away from the carcass, and then took hold of Bastard’s chain.  She started to wheel Bentley around to rejoin us, but I was already drawing arrows in the air.  Wanton wasn’t at risk from the radiation in his new form, apparently, but Rachel and her dogs were.  There was nothing saying that any radiation wouldn’t be able to penetrate the monstrous flesh and hit the dog nestled in the core.

Kicking Bentley into an all-out run, she led Bastard in an all-out toward the one on the rooftop.  No hesitation.  No apparent remorse.

Rachel and I had grown closer, to the point of maybe being friends on top of being teammates.  Whatever rifts had formed between us were largely mended, and she trusted me as a leader.  With all that in mind, it was sometimes hard to remember that she was still Rachel at the core of it.  If her psychological wiring didn’t give her any real empathy for her fellow human beings, it wasn’t about to give her any for human-esque beings.

Tecton slammed one gauntlet into the ground, creating a crack that rushed toward the taller Vista.  It exploded in a geyser of debris and dust as it reached her.  She staggered, then staggered again as Grue landed a shot with Raymancer’s power.  She tried to raise one hand to defend herself, but the thin, curved bone of her upper arm had been shattered.  Her broken arm dangled in front of her.

With the topographical map my swarm provided, I noted the presence of thick veins standing out on her arm, where the weight of the dangling limb pulled the skin tight against the shattered bone.  I barely thought about it, sending my bugs to the area, biting deep into the largest one, working together so that one hornet might pull one way, a beetle pulling another, to better rend the flesh or positioning it for a stronger bug to bite into.

She jerked in reaction, and blood began flowing.  Beads of it at first, but the skin was pulled tight and the bugs were relentless.  It virtually tore between the combination of damage and strain.  A small river of blood flowed, intermittently spurting.

That would be an artery, not a vein.  Fuck me.  I tried to suppress the quiet horror that took hold of me as my bugs tracked the blood pouring down her arm, trickling off her fingertips in individual streams.

Still fighting to avoid being brained by Wanton’s telekinetic storm, the tall Vista let out a drawn out half-moan, half-scream, equal parts despair and anger.  It didn’t sound exactly normal, but that didn’t surprise me.  What made my blood run cold was that she almost sounded like a young girl might.  A little too close to reality for comfort.

She went all-out with her power, aimless, directionless.  Street signs, mailboxes, piles of debris, walls and sections of road began twisting and bulging.  Grue laid down a blanket of darkness all around us, aiming to dampen the spread of the radioactive particles.  I wasn’t sure how that worked, but Tattletale thought it did, and I wasn’t about to complain.  I’d settle for a white lie if it meant we were able to stay focused on fighting, rather than the cancer we’d have five years from now.

It took ten seconds before the Vista collapsed.  Only ten seconds to bleed out to the point of unconsciousness.  The blood continued pumping free, and nobody leaped forward to staunch the flow.

I sensed some of the faster capes from Miss Militia’s group making their arrival on the scene.

The wound the rooftop-Vista had sustained from Raymancer was shallow, the majority of it consisting of surface damage to her artificially smooth, thick skin and to her ribs.  I’d only peripherally been aware I was doing it, but my bugs had seized on the opportunity to dig in and attack the more vulnerable flesh of the open wound. She barely seemed to care, focusing her efforts on diverting incoming fire and trying to distort the rooftop to force Grace to fall off.  That changed when several bugs found a hole leading into the empty space surrounding her lungs.

In that same moment, the Vista started trying to claw the bugs out of the shallow cavity.  The distraction afforded one of the heroes a chance to catch her in the head with a gobbet of foam.  A smaller containment foam blaster?

Flying capes closed the distance and settled around her.  There was a brief dialogue that I couldn’t make out with the unfamiliar voices.  Someone said something about foam, there were a few words of argument from a pair, and one pressed a finger to their armband, saying something about a captive.

It was Miss Militia who responded through the armband.  She gave a curt order, and several capes turned away.  One of the capes who hadn’t took aim and shot the fallen girl between the eyes.

The fight was over.  The heroes were already moving north in pursuit of Noelle.  I signaled for Rachel to return.

That moan-scream the tall Vista had made was still ringing in my ears.  It had been way too human for my tastes.

There was no doubt she’d been going all out.  Raymancer was on his knees, supported by Tecton.  He’d taken a hit of the dust straight to the face.  If Tattletale was right… he’d just taken a lethal dose of radiation.  The clone hadn’t even flinched in delivering the attack.

I’d had fights like this.  Dealing with the Nine had been much the same, had demanded we hold nothing back, had involved enemies who didn’t hesitate.  The difference was that the Nine had demanded it because anything less wouldn’t cut it.  Fighting these clones, they were vulnerable.  They only defended themselves so they could keep causing damage.  When I tried to hurt them, they got hurt.  It sounded so lame when I framed it like that, but… it shook me.

Even knowing they were deranged, that Tattletale had confirmed they weren’t really people, I couldn’t ignore how brutal we’d been.  My actions.  The clones weren’t innocent, but they were innocents.  If that made any sense.

And I knew I’d have to do it all over again, the next time we ran into a clone.

Tattletale touched Grue’s arm, and he banished the darkness around us.

“I’m going to die,” Raymancer said, his voice barely above a whisper.

“There’s a good chance, yeah,” Tattletale said.

“Hey,” Tecton said, “Don’t be a bitch.”

She didn’t respond.  Instead, she touched her armband, “Raymancer down.  He needs immediate medical attention for acute radiation poisoning.  Quarantine this location, you’ll want stuff for radioactive decontamination, mobile showers if you’ve got them.  Oh, and Skitter’s armband is out of commisison, we need a replacement before someone mistakes her for a clone.”

Keep close to her, Tattletale,”  Miss Militia said.  “And we’ll deliver one shortly.  Quarantine, civilian evacuation and decontamination are en route.

“We’re moving on to check on Ballistic.  Your man can meet us there.”

“If they can track us with the armband, they can follow us to his headquarters,” Grue commented.

“He can move bases,” I said, “Finding him fast is a bigger priority.”

“He won’t like that,” Grue said.  “Going from a well set-up base of operations to some place improvised?”

“He didn’t want to come today, he deals with the fallout,” I said.  I waved as Rachel approached.  She was still holding Bastard’s chain.  “Let’s go.”

“Tecton?” Tattletale asked.

“I… I can’t leave Raymancer here,” Tecton said.

“Wanton can watch him,” she said.

I looked at Wanton.  He was still in his telekinetic form.  To my swarm sense, he gave me the impression of a miniature galaxy, with dust and various objects orbiting a central point.  When he moved, the outer edges took longer to catch up than the bits closer to the center, almost like a jellyfish in water.

“Hey, W,” Tecton said.  “Fight’s over.”

“He can’t change back,” Tattletale said.  “If he does, that dust he drew into his t.k. body is going to settle, and then he’ll be in the same shape Raymancer is.  Maybe everyone in his vicinity will.”

“But-”

“But they can stick him in a decontamination shower,” Tattletale said.  “Just needs to hold himself together long enough for that to happen.  Not to worry.  Fifteen minute decontamination and he’s clean.”

“Longest he’s ever held that form was twelve minutes.”

“Then he’ll need to hold together for longer.  But we’ve got to get ahead of Noelle before the next trap is set up.  We need you to come with us.”

“You want me to leave my team,” Tecton said.

“We could run into more Vistas.  She warps space, distorts architecture.  If the next batch is organized enough to cut off all avenues of retreat while keeping their distance, or drop more buildings on us, we’d need you to help.  Rachel’s dogs aren’t going to be able to get us free if Vista buries us, or if she traps us under some bubble of stretched building.”

“Go, T,” Raymancer said.

“But you-”

“I’ll get looked after, and I’ll give Wanton he encouragement he needs to break his old record.  Get Grace and go.”

“You heard the man,” Tattletale said.  “You want to drive?”

“You go ahead,” Tecton said.  “Driving with the suit is a hassle.”

“All the better,” Tattletale said, cheery.

Tecton didn’t reply as he got into the van.  I climbed onto Bentley’s back.

The van had to take a detour, given the three sections of road that had been raised as barriers and the one fallen building.  Bentley wasn’t so disadvantaged.  We crossed the ruins of the toppled building.

I could smell the thick, metallic scent of blood in the same moments that his hot breath wafted past me.

I wondered if I should be in the van.  I could communicate with Tattletale and Grue if I was, and it would mean I wasn’t experiencing an agonizing pain in my side every time he set his feet down with too much force or leaped an obstacle.

That said, I wasn’t sure I wanted to turn Rachel away if she was being friendly.

The van stopped to pick up Grace.  They traveled down a different street, moving parallel to Rachel and I.

“…so fast?” Tecton asked.  I couldn’t make it all out.

I caught the tail end of Tattletale’s reply: “… a trap.”

I drew out letters on the dashboard with my bugs: ‘Trouble?’

She shook her head.  I didn’t catch what she said.  She repeated herself.  “…ventative measure.”

Preventative measure.  She was picking up the speed so any other enemies that were lying in wait would have less time to spring any surprises on us.  I scattered the bugs, left a brief ‘ok’ and then removed those.  I caught Tecton saying something, but couldn’t make it out.  His mask didn’t help.

I redoubled my efforts to check our surroundings and find any possible clones of Vista, Uber, Leet or Circus.

We caught up to a group of the faster-moving heroes who’d flown ahead.  They were dispatching another Vista.  She was shorter, thicker in the arms and legs, with a neck as thick around as her head was.  The space around her was twisted into jagged shapes, with some raised into points.  Two of the capes had been injured but were still fighting.

We rode past, and the van with the others gave chase.

The flying capes weren’t moving with purpose.  They were roving the area, going west-to-east and back again as they moved in a general northerly direction.

We were nearly at Ballistic’s base when a digitized voice sounded over the armband.  Not Miss Militia.  Dragon’s A.I.   “We have a sighting.  All cooperating capes are ordered to stand down.  Remain at your present coordinates until further notice.

Stand down?  I tapped Rachel on the shoulder, and she pulled Bentley to a stop.

The armband buzzed again, but it was Miss Militia’s voice this time.  “Eidolon has found our primary target.  He has requested that all capes in the area remain in position.”

I caught Tattletale pressing the button on her armband.  She asked, “Why?”

Whatever program was managing communications, it didn’t see fit to convey Tattletale’s message.

The van caught up to us.  Tattletale rolled her window down, and opened the back.  The others climbed out to join the conversation.  Grace folded her arms and hung back.

“What’s going on?”  I asked.

“Don’t know,” Tattletale said.  “But if Eidolon is fighting Noelle…”

Regent finished her sentence for her, “We might not have to worry about the end of the world happening in two years.”

“Why is Miss Militia letting this slide?” I asked.  “She has to know the risk.  Everyone has to know the risk.”

“She’s letting this slide because Eidolon outranks her and she has no choice,” Tattletale said.  “And he’s doing this because he’s got an agenda.”

“An agenda?” Grace asked.

“Yeah.”

“He’s the top hero in the Protectorate.  His agenda is doing the right thing.  Is this what you guys do?  You analyze the situation until you’ve twisted it into a scenario where you just have to do something?”

“Yeah,” Regent said.  “We’re really good at it, too.”

“Ha ha,” Grace said, without any humor.

“Look,” I said.  “Fine.  You guys are helping us, so you get a say.  If you guys are willing to hear me out and you decide that there’s no merit to what I’m saying, we can go along with what you want to do.”

“Hear you out?”

“Yeah.  Look, you can’t deny that putting one of the most powerful people in the world in close quarters with someone who could turn Vista into those things is a fucking bad idea.”

“Sure I can.”

“Play nice, Grace,” Tecton said.

“No, I’m going to make my arguments.  He’s not stupid.  He knows what he can do, and he’s heard what she can do.  You don’t get to be a member of the Triumvirate if you’re an idiot.”

“He’s desperate,” Tattletale said,  “He’s losing his powers.  He knows putting himself in dangerous situations makes his power stronger, like how one of my teammates gets a little stronger when outraged, and another gets a little stronger when feeling protective.  Fighting Noelle is nearly as dangerous as fighting Endbringers.”

Endbringers.  When Leviathan had attacked, it had been destruction layered on top of more destruction.  Noelle was being pretty damn subtle for someone who could tear vault doors apart and generate an army of superpowered soldiers.

Even in terms of the overall impact of her assault, as far as I knew, it had been limited to one fallen building, two injured capes and one in critical condition.  It felt like too little.

Then again, the sun wasn’t up.  Dinah had said Noelle wouldn’t do any real damage until dawn.  Would things get worse?

“How long until sunrise?” I asked, cutting Grace off just as she started to voice a response.

“Nine minutes,” Tattletale answered.

“Dinah said the situation doesn’t start getting really bad until dawn…” I trailed off.

“You think this is why the situation goes south,” Grue said.

“It’s a possibility.”

Tattletale pressed the button on her armband.  “This is really bad timing on Eidolon’s part, M.M..  Shit’s due to go down at sunrise.  Can you call him off?  Remind him?”

There was no indication the message went through.

“Fucking computer,” she said.  “Let’s go.”

“No,” Grace said.  “You said it was our call.  I don’t buy the argument.  We stay put.”

“Tecton?” I asked.

He was still in the passenger seat.  “I don’t know.  Are you willing to disobey the order and have Miss Militia okay a kill order on you?”

Try to okay a kill order on us,” Imp said.

“Oh, well then,” Tecton said.  “That’s not a problem.”

I thought about the possible scenarios that could unfold.  Deranged Vistas had been brutal enough.  Deranged mutant Eidolons?

“Yeah,” I said.  “If it comes down to it, I’m willing.”

“Be it on your heads,” Tecton said.

“Get in if you’re coming,” Tattletale said.  “Get out if you’re not.”

Tecton hesitated, but he stayed in his seat.

“Tecton?” Grace asked.

“They believe it enough to go this far.  They’ve either got an unhealthy amount of conviction or they’re insane-”

“Or both,” Imp said.

“Or both.  If it’s conviction, I can accept that they might know what they’re doing.  The same argument you made about Eidolon being an upper echelon member of the Protectorate applies to them.  They didn’t get here by being terrible at what they do.”

“They did get to the point where they’re about to get kill orders put out on them, and you stand to get in trouble with the Wards.”

“What’s the worst they could do?  As a tinker, I’m a protected species.  Not like they’re going to fire me.  If these guys are right, they might need our help.  If they’re wrong, maybe I get in a bit of trouble.  I’m willing to take that bet.”

“And if they’re trying something?  Or if they are insane?”

“Then it’s better I’m along for the ride, isn’t it?”

Grace didn’t respond.  Instead, she turned around and walked away.

When she reached the back of the truck, she hopped in.  “You fucking owe me, Tec.”

She slammed the one door closed, as if to punctuate her irritation with the situation, leaving the other open for my teammates.

Tattletale dropped her armband out the driver’s side window.  The rest of the Undersiders discarded theirs.  There was a pause before Tecton and Grace followed suit, throwing theirs free of the van.

That done, Tattletale put the van in gear.   It was already starting to move by the time Imp and Regent had climbed in and slammed the doors behind them.

With Tattletale’s ability to identify Eidolon’s general location and my ability to narrow the result down with my bugs, it only took a few minutes to find them.  The issue was that we only had a few minutes to begin with.

Eidolon was in the air, flying a safe distance above Noelle.  And Noelle…

I couldn’t get a read on Noelle.  My bugs disappeared into her as they made contact, their signal distorting and cutting off.  It left me with a hazy picture.  She was big.  African elephant big.  I didn’t get much more than that.

They were talking.

Eidolon had his hands folded into his sleeves, like an ancient sensei, legs dangling, his costume billowing around him.  His voice was calm, quiet, in stark contrast to the hot breath that billowed around Noelle as she panted with no less than five mouths.  Four of the mouths were considerably larger than the one owned by the rough human shape on top.

I only caught two words as he spoke to her.  Coil was one.  Cauldron was another.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Queen 18.4

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We had to take the elevator in two trips, due to the size of our group, and that meant splitting us up.  The heroes were too wary to leave any number of us unsupervised, whether it was on the ground floor or upstairs.

I entered the elevator in the company of Parian, Regent, Bitch, Bastard and Bentley, Miss Militia, Weld, Clockblocker, and Triumph.  It seemed to be an advanced design, the elevator offering so smooth a ride that I might not have been able to tell it was in motion if it weren’t for the bugs elsewhere in the building.

We exited at the third floor.  I could use the bugs that had gathered near the waste bins or in the walls to try to get a sense of who and what was around me.  I recognized the area as the site where I’d entered via Trickster’s teleportation: desks, cubicles, computers and paperwork.  I could sense some people heading into back rooms to rouse people who were sleeping in the office, on benches and in chairs.  All of the officers and out-of-uniform PRT operatives were gathering to look.

One of them stepped forward from the rest of the crowd.

“Deputy director,” Miss Militia said, standing straighter.

“I’m too cynical to think this is an arrest, or to hope that it’s anything more than another ruse,” the Deputy Director said.  “And I can’t help but note these villains aren’t in restraints.”

“It’s not an arrest, and I hope it’s a trick,” Miss Militia replied.

“You hope it’s a trick?” the Deputy Director asked.

“Because I like the truth even less.  A new class S-threat.”

Every officer in the room reacted, a general murmur punctuated with swearing and exclamations.

“Who?”

“An unknown.  Possibly a fourth Endbringer, not yet fully grown.  I’d like to get in contact with PRT thinkers to verify.”

“Waites,” the Deputy Director called out, over the noise from the gathered police,  “Doyon.  Get on the phone.  Patch them through to me as soon as you get hold of someone.”

“We should wake people up,” Miss Militia said.  She glanced at the nearest clock, “It’s four twenty-four in the morning.  If this is real, we’ll want the heaviest hitters ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.  There’s a chance this may be our one chance to kill her.”

“You’re killing her?” I asked, quiet.

“No,” Miss Militia said.  “Nothing’s set in stone.  But there’s a chance it may be our only opportunity and our only option.  If we’re going to do it, I want to do it successfully.”

“No word from Director Calvert?” the Deputy Director asked.

One of the guys in plainclothes spoke up, “He’s gone silent, sir.”

I didn’t miss the fact that nearly a third of the local officers glanced my way.  We were apparently the prime suspects.  Which wasn’t wrong, per se.

The Deputy Director ordered, “Militia, join me in the Director’s office.  Triumph, see to it that the villains are detained and separated.  Interview rooms one and two for Regent and Skitter.  Conference room for Hellhound.”

I could sense Rachel shifting position.

“If I may make a suggestion, sir,” Miss Militia cut in, “I think we should put Skitter in the conference room?  She and Tattletale are our main sources of information.”

“Not complaining,” I said, “But Bitch, or Hellhound if you want to call her that, may be more comfortable in my company.  Her dogs are their normal size.  If she uses her power, you’ll be able to see.  Miss Militia already saw to it I was disarmed.”

“This sounds like you’re positioning people for a maneuver,” the Deputy Director said.

“No.  Just trying to keep things as copacetic as possible,” I said.

“I’d okay it,” Miss Militia said.

“Fine.  Hellhound and Skitter in the conference room-” the Deputy Director paused as the elevator opened with nearly all of Brockton Bay’s remaining parahumans.  “Tattletale to the conference room.  Parian in the legal room.  Grue and Imp in interview room two.  Put police tape and a sign on the door with a notice of Imp’s stranger classification to remind people why it’s shut and staying shut.”

“Hey!”

“Relax, Imp,” Grue said.  “You want to confirm this is alright, Skitter?”

“So long as my teammates go free when trouble starts,” I said.  “But yeah.  I understand the paranoia.”

And I think we could break out if we had to, I thought.  I didn’t say that part.

“This sucks,” Imp commented.

“Suck it up,” Grue responded.  “Come on.”

We split up, with Rachel, Tattletale and I settling in the conference room, at the end furthest from the door.  Triumph stood watch, and the blinds were left open, leaving us visible to the countless officers who were now on their computers and phones.  There wasn’t one of them who wasn’t casting us suspicious glances every minute or so, or peering through the windows of the interview rooms at Regent, Grue and Imp.

I also noted the fact that there were nearly a dozen PRT officers fully suited up in their combat gear, complete with the full-face helmets, the chainmail-mesh covered body armor and containment foam sprayers.  They kept out of the way.  If I was using my eyes and I didn’t have my swarm sense, I wouldn’t have known they were there.

“Sorry, by the way,” I told Triumph.

“The fuck you apologizing for?” Rachel grumbled.  She’d settled into a chair, feet on the table, Bastard curled up in her lap.  One hand dangled, resting on Bentley’s head.

“I attacked his home, remember?  Didn’t know it was him, but Trickster threatened his family.  A fight broke out and I nearly killed Triumph.”

“They know?”  Triumph asked.  “You shared the details already?”

“More or less,” I said.  “Bitch doesn’t care and isn’t the type to use it against you, and Tattletale would have figured it out anyways.”

Tattletale nodded.

“Fuck,” Triumph swore.  “Weld was right.”

“Anyways,” I said, “It… there were better ways to do it.  So I am sorry.”

“Didn’t need doing in the first place,” Triumph said, sighing.  “I was prepared to risk my life the day I graduated from the Wards.  Knew what I’d be getting into.  Week I had clearance, I watched all the video we have of the class S threats.  Leviathan, Simurgh, Behemoth, Slaughterhouse Nine, Nilbog, Sleeper.  I knew what I was getting into.  So I’m not shocked or horrified at the attempt on my life.  What gets me is what you did to my dad.  Set his career back years, if it’s even recoverable, by forcing him to take that stance.  The whole thing, start to finish, was unnecessary.”

“He’ll recover,” Tattletale said, “I’d argue his career was already pretty fucked after the way things went down, here.  Not saying he was to blame, or that he wasn’t, but it’s hard to graduate from mayor to governor when your legacy is a flooded ruin of a city.”

“It’s not that bad,” I said.

Tattletale shrugged, “Not if you’re here, but the photographers and reporters who are getting pictures and video footage of Brockton Bay aren’t going to take pictures of the barely affected areas.  They’re going to get the beaches, the south end and the crater.  Because that’s what sells.  The people outside the city only see the worst bits.  When we’re talking public perception, it’s not what is, it’s the picture that’s painted.”

“And the picture is of a handful of scary and powerful supervillains running a fucked up city,” Triumph said.  “Which is about to get more fucked up if you aren’t pulling our legs.  So yeah, not a good legacy for my dad.”

“We have no reason to pull your leg,” I said.

“Getting access to something else that’s confidential?  Covering your kidnapping of Vista so you’re clear to use Regent’s power on her later?”

“Why would we want her?”  Rachel asked.

“She’s strong.”

“Bitch’s question is a good one,” Tattletale said.  “Yes, Vista’s strong, but why would we want her?  It’d be putting ourselves at risk, for no particular gain.  If we wanted raw power, we’d have kept your cousin.  There’s nothing left in the city that we want or need, so it’s not like we really need her assistance to get a job done.  We have money, we have resources, and anything that’s worth anything is destroyed or taken by now.”

“Then what do you want?” Triumph asked.

“Security.  We have all of the basics.  Shelter, food, warmth, companionship, money.  Anything we do from here on out’s going to involve better securing ourselves where we’re at.  We want to stop visiting villains from getting a footing anywhere in the city unless they’re joining us.  Keep the peace so we keep you guys off our backs.  I wouldn’t mind a system like the Yakuza of Japan’s yesteryear, where we support and involve ourselves in local business, legally, to the point that nobody will be able to shake us.”

“That’s terrifying,” Triumph said.

“Why?  Because we’re bad?  Ooh, spooky,” Tattletale waggled her fingers at him.  “If we do it right, we won’t have to extort anything from the locals.  We can do more to stop the drug trade than any of your guys.  Then we disappear into the background, make enough money off the side benefits of our powers and investments to live a life of comfort.  Mobilize only if and when there’s a new threat.  Build trust with you guys, ensure that any new parahumans go to either your group, go to ours, or they get dealt with some other way.  Ensure that anyone like Hellhound who needs more elbow room or freedom is somewhere they’re comfortable, where they won’t do any real harm.”

“And she’s okay with that?” Triumph asked,  “Being benched?”

“Give me my dogs, don’t bother me, don’t get in my face, I’m okay with whatever,” Rachel said.  Her arm was moving.  It took me a second to realize she was scratching Bastard.

“Calmer than you were a week and a half ago, if that’s the case,” Triumph said.

“Dunno,” Rachel replied.  “That was then.  This is now.”

Triumph sighed.

Weld and Clockblocker joined us.  Clockblocker handed Triumph a can of coke or something like it.

“They behaving?” Clockblocker asked.

“Pretty much.  Tattletale mentioned Dinah, but it wasn’t to fuck with me.  We were talking about their master plan, if you can call it that.  Not much else.”

Clockblocker looked at me.  “Skitter and I had a discussion on the way over.”

“And you won’t have another,” Miss Militia cut in.  She’d stepped out of the Director’s office next door and into the doorway.  “We’re not here to socialize.  We got in touch with some thinkers.  Eleventh Hour says he gets an ‘eight’.  Appraiser’s read says we’re ‘purple’.  Rule for any pre-situ call is we get three points of reference,  going by thinkers alone, that means a third thinker.  The first they were able to get in touch with was Hunch.  Your old teammate, Weld.”

“Didn’t think he rated, yet,” Weld said.

“Chief Director Costa-Brown gave the a-ok, and Hunch says it’s bad.  All together, we’re calling this a threat level A.”

“No shit.  The Undersiders are for real?”  Triumph asked.

Tattletale didn’t wait for him to get an answer, “That’s threat level S.  S-class.”

“The Chief Director of the PRT determined it was an A-class threat.”

“Bullshit,” Tattletale said.  “S-class.  I know Appraiser offered a purple-velvet diagnosis for his previous ratings on Endbringer attacks, so that’s not the reason it’s so low.  Eleven’s score of eight has to be above the seventy-five percent mark, and an answer as vague as Hunch’s is going to be a seventy-five percent exact, as per section nine-seven-six, article seventy-one.  That’s three values that have to be above the threshold for declaring a threat level S situation.”

“How the hell do you know all that?” Weld asked.

Tattletale waved him off.

“The Chief Director made the call.  We’re standing by it,” Miss Militia said.

“We’re talking class-S, even if you ignore pre-situation verification.  Section nine-seven-five, article fifty-seven.  Classifying high level duplicators and villains who operate to any exponential degree.  Nilbog and Simurgh both count, and Noelle does too.  If the powers generate more instances of power generation or recurring effect in an epidemic pattern…”

“She’s not a self duplicator,” Miss Militia said, “And yes, she’s creating powers, but they’re copies of other people’s powers.  They’re not exponential or self-recursive in effect.”

“You’re splitting hairs.”

“And,” Miss Militia said, “She doesn’t create more powers on her own.  She has an intrinsic requirement of needing contact and time to absorb.  She doesn’t meet the criteria as they stand.”

“Still splitting those hairs,” Tattletale said.  “Her threat level zooms up to S as soon as she gets her hands on anyone who can enable something like that.  Like, say, any tinker.”

“I don’t know why we’re even discussing this, when you seem to have our operations manual memorized and you’re capable of realizing it for yourself,” Miss Militia said, “but it doesn’t bear dwelling on.  The difference in our response to a class A crisis and a class S one is minor at best.  Some tertiary protocols change, we won’t necessarily have Alexandria, Legend or Eidolon assisting, and there’s no penalties for anyone who subscribed to the critical situation roster if they sit this one out.”

“Which they will,” Tattletale said.  “You’re ignoring the fact that people are inherently selfish.  It takes something to shake them from that reality, and that’s not common.”

“I think you’re underestimating the inherent goodness of people who dedicate their lives to heroism.  I know for a fact we have ample volunteers already informed on the situation.  They’re en route.”

“If the heroes aren’t showing in full force, others won’t either.” Tattletale said, “And there’s no epidemic protocols with a class-A.”

“We have one tinker,” Miss Militia said.  “Kid Win.  Armsmaster is no longer on the premises.  We have no duplicators.  The risk is one we can control, either through the organization of our forces or turning any combatants with problematic interactions away.  Epidemic protocols are unnecessary.”

“Armsmaster escaped, you mean,” Tattletale said.  “And it won’t be that easy.”

“Maybe not, but that’s the word from above.  I’m not interested in debating this further, Tattletale.” Miss Militia said.  She turned her head slightly toward me, clearly expecting me to comment along the lines of what I’d said in the containment van, about authority tying one’s hands.  When I didn’t rise to the challenge, she said, “We’re having a strategy meeting in a matter of minutes.  The first phase of the response will be teleporting in momentarily, but our best mass-teleporter died in the Leviathan attack, and the process is slow.  I’ll be releasing the rest of the Undersiders to join you soon.”

“As soon as you have enough extra bodies to watch us,” Tattletale commented.

“Yes,” Miss Militia said, terse.  She looked at the three young heroes who had gathered at the wall by the door.  “Be good.  Excuses or no excuses, it looked bad when we had the last incident with a break in the truce.  Don’t let Tattletale provoke you, don’t provoke them.”

“You can’t blame them if they get emotional,” Tattletale sighed.  “It’s only natural, three young men, three young women, a possibility of Capulet-Montague forbidden love between hero and villain…”

“My warning goes for you too, Tattletale.  I already instructed Triumph to shout at the first sign of trouble.”

“I’ll be angelic,” Tattletale said.

“Good.  You should also know that Parian is leaving.  She asked me to tell you, and to let you know she’ll be at her territory.”

Parian was gone?  Shit.

“I wouldn’t have let her go,” I said.  “For a lot of reasons.”

“It’s unfortunate, I agree,” Miss Militia said, “But we’re not in a position to stop her, short of fighting her.  She was adamant about not wanting to participate in this fight.  Flechette is escorting her back.”

“And however Noelle found Vista, she might find Parian and Flechette and target them the same way,” Tattletale said.

“Maybe.  They both have devices to alert us.  In the worst-case scenario, they can inform us if something’s happened.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to prepare.”

Miss Militia didn’t wait for a response.  She was already striding down the hall, gesturing to get someone’s attention.  Someone too small and too young to be a cop.

The three boys at the other end of the long table started talking among themselves.

“This is falling apart before it begins,” Tattletale commented.

“I get the impression Miss Militia’s spooked,” I said.  “She’s tense.”

“Anyone would be,” Tattletale replied.  “Doesn’t help that the last Endbringer fight ended her predecessor’s career.”

I nodded.

“Our muscle’s going to suffer in this fight,” Tattletale said.  “Your bugs, Bitch’s dogs, they can’t hurt her, if she absorbs things on contact.  Not unless we want clones of Bitch’s dogs running rampant.”

“The heroes have long ranged fire,” I replied.  “Kid Win, Miss Militia, Triumph.  So Bitch and I adopt a support role.  The dogs get our key players around the battlefield, if Bitch is willing.”

Rachel grunted something that could have been agreement.

“And I might be able to tie Noelle up without the bugs touching her.  Grue can slow her down, Regent could do the same.” I finished.

“Regent couldn’t use his power against Leviathan.  Can you imagine him getting Leviathan under control?”

“I’d rather not,” I admitted.  “There’s a sweet spot as far as rep goes.  Having a pet Endbringer puts us in the ‘too scary to be allowed to live’ category.”

“We’d have to do what the Slaughterhouse Nine do, win frequently enough against high odds that people can’t afford the losses.”

“Would mean we have to go mobile,” I said.  “So we have time to recuperate while the enemy tries to track us down.  Anyways, enough ‘what if’.  Let’s get back on topic.”

Tattletale nodded.  “Imp?”

“For this coming fight?  Rescue,” I said.  “The enemy won’t target her, they might not target anyone she can get in contact with.  Fallen allies, captives, Imp gets them to safety.”

Tattletale nodded.  The tone of her voice shifted fractionally as she said, “You guys can chime in at any point here.”

The young heroes had stopped talking and were listening in.

“I don’t know what you want us to add,” Clockblocker said.

“Interactions,” I said.  “Maybe we put you on Bentley’s back.  We won’t have to kill Noelle if you can tag her.  We’ll be able to keep her frozen long enough for us to erect some form of containment.”

“Me?  On the dog?”

“You scared?” Rachel asked.

“I think anyone would be a little scared.  You can’t tell me they aren’t a little intimidating.”

“Your power nullifies any threat they could pose,” I said.

“If it closes its teeth around my arm, the fraction of a second it takes my power to kick in is going to buy it time to dig in just a little.  Jaws clamped on my arm, I freeze it, sure, but then every time it unfreezes, it closes a little more before I can freeze it again.  No thank you.”

“He’s scared,” Rachel said.  She scratched the top of Bastard’s head, and I realized she was talking to the wolf cub that was sleeping in her lap.  “You’re the stuff of nightmares.”

Clockblocker snorted, then got caught up in a murmured conversation with Weld and Triumph.  They were facing our way as they talked.

I tried to ignore them, focused on taking deep breaths, controlling the intake so I wouldn’t start coughing and humiliate myself in front of the local heroes.

“You okay?” Tattletale asked.

“Coughing less.  I feel like I’ve maybe got the worst of it out of my lungs and throat.”

“I meant you.  You’ve been quiet.  You weren’t saying as much as you normally might when I was talking to Miss Militia.”

“Thinking.”

“Important you keep doing that,” she said.  “But not if it’s getting you like this.  Unless you’re putting together a master plan.”

I shook my head.  “No plan.  Just fatigue and-”

I stopped.  Each and every officer in the next room was turning their heads.  I used my bugs to feel out the subject.  A hood, with the warmth of a faint natural glow from beneath, with the same effect around his hands, with his loose sleeves.  I noted that a glass helm like the one Clockblocker wore fit over his face beneath the hood.  People went out of their way to clear out of his path, to such an extent that I might have thought they were in front of an elephant and not a man.

Eidolon entered the conference room and grabbed the seat just to the right of the one at the far end of the table.  He swept his cape to one side before he sat down.

“Didn’t think you were coming,” Tattletale said.  “With it being just a Class-A threat.”

“The infamous Undersiders,” Eidolon spoke.  His voice reverberated slightly, an effect similar to Grue’s.

“And the famous Eidolon,” Tattletale retorted, “while we’re doing the reverse-introductions.      I thought I told Miss Militia that we shouldn’t bring in anyone we can’t beat in a fight.”

“Don’t concern yourself over it,” Eidolon said.  “I can render myself immune.”

“We won’t know until it happens,” she replied.

There was a pause.

“Tattletale.  Are you looking for a chink in the armor?”

“You can’t blame me, can you?  If we wind up having to fight you, then it might be all over.  So I’m gathering intel.”

Eidolon didn’t reply.

“Okay, sure.  Fine,” Tattletale raised her hands in surrender.  “It’s cool.”

Eidolon turned away to follow the murmured conversation between Weld, Triumph and Clockblocker.  Tattletale rested her elbows on the table, rubbed at her eyes.

“Tired?” I asked.

“Exhausted.  Been using my power all night, my head’s throbbing, and this whole business with Noelle hasn’t even started.”

“Take a nap,” I suggested.

“No time.  And I do want to make sure I have some ideas in advance, for anyone we might have to face.  Noelle is going to target Eidolon.  If we fight him, we’ll have to use his weaknesses against him.”

“Tattletale,” Eidolon cut Clockblocker off mid-sentence, his voice carrying across the room.  “Could you elaborate?”

“Don’t worry,” she said, “No weaknesses you don’t already know about.”

“Is that so?”

“You’re losing your powers,” she said.  “Not fast enough that it matters today, but enough that the difference is appreciable.”

It was hard to read Eidolon’s body language with the few bugs I’d permitted myself.  He was leaning forward slightly, and his upper arms pressed against the fabric of his costume as he flexed or clenched a fist.

“And how would you know this, if it were true?”

“Because any other day, with you heroes being as short on teleporters as you are, you’d be helping bring people in.  You’re conserving your strength.  It might even be a long term fear, like you’ve only got so much power to use over your lifetime before it’s all spent.  Candle that burns twice as hot, or something.”

“Simple deduction?  Did you consider that I am not teleporting people because there’s a shortage of volunteers?”

“That would contradict what Miss Militia said, and she wasn’t lying.  And it doesn’t fit the overall picture.  Alexandria-”

Eidolon slapped his hand down against the table.  A forcefield expanded from the impact site, forcing Rachel and I out of our chairs and against the wall.  I slumped down to the ground, grabbing my rib, and coughed painfully.

The forcefield had kept Rachel and I out, but Tattletale was inside with Eidolon.  The sounds from within were muffled.

But I had bugs on both Eidolon and Tattletale, and I could almost make out their words.

Tattletale was speaking.  “…reason you … this situation a class-A threat isn’t because it doesn’t fit.  …did it is because Alexandria wanted an excuse not… …  You came because you needed to prove something to yourself.  Test … measure of your power in a …nse situation… work best when… danger.  This is best challenge you’ll have…”

“…treading dangerous waters,” Eidolon spoke.  There was no growl in his voice, no anger, irritation or emotion at all.  Only calm.  It made him easier to understand.

“…can live with danger, … it’s interesting.  Awfully interesting… why Alexandria’s not coming… … me?  …secret.”

Eidolon said something, but his tone had changed and I wasn’t able to switch mental gears fast enough.

“…you?”  Tattletale asked. “Years…-”

“The fuck!?” Rachel snarled.  Bentley growled as if to accompany her words.  He was already growing.

“Relax,” I said, before I started coughing again.  “They aren’t fighting.”

“He knocked me over!”

I could see Miss Militia and Assault at the other end of the room, but the forcefield bubble was blocking us.

“What happened!?” Miss Militia shouted.

I tried to respond, coughed instead.  My voice was weak with the fresh rawness of my throat as I did manage to utter a reply, “Eidolon flipped…”

“Eidolon attacked!” Rachel yelled.

“Did she provoke him?”  Miss Militia asked.  Her gun was raised.

“No,” I managed only a whisper.

The forcefield winked out.  Eidolon was still sitting, he hadn’t moved except to slap the table with his hand, but Tattletale was standing.

“Just wanted to have a private conversation,” Eidolon said.  “I’m sorry.  I’ll be getting some fresh air.”

With that, he stood and strode out of the room.  He made his way to the stairwell and I could track him moving to the roof.

I picked up my chair and sat, still coughing intermittently.  Rachel was still standing, and her dogs were still growing.  I gestured for her to sit.

She just glared across the room.

I gestured again, but the force of the motion made my chest hurt and I started coughing.  Before I recovered, Rachel sat with an audible thud.  She kicked her boot against the edge of the table, hard, and left it there.

“What did you do?” Miss Militia asked.  She was facing Tattletale.  I could see the other Undersiders behind her.

“Was just commenting that it seemed odd he wasn’t helping you guys out with teleporting people in,” Tattletale said.

“You said more than that,” Weld noted.

“I’m tired, he’s tired, we talked it out.  All copacetic,” Tattletale said.  She leaned back and stretched.

“I’m not so sure,” Miss Militia said.  “Skitter, are you alright?”

“Recent injury,” I managed.  “Will be fine in a minute.”

Miss Militia nodded.  Not much sympathy, but I couldn’t blame her.  “Then let’s get things underway.  Everyone, please get seated, or find space to stand.”

Grue, Regent and Imp joined us, and Grue set his hands on my shoulders as he stood behind me.  He rubbed my exposed back where the armor panel was missing as I coughed hoarsely once or twice.

I counted the people in costume with my swarm.  It wasn’t nearly as many reinforcements as we’d had against Leviathan.  I saw Chevalier and Myrddin, but didn’t recognize anyone else.  There were the Wards and Protectorate members from Brockton Bay, with perhaps twenty more.

“Tentative ratings, based on what we know, we have her down as a brute eight, a changer two and a combination of striker and master with a rating of ten.”

“Too low,” I heard Tattletale murmur.

I suppressed a cough, managed only a choke.  It drew more attention to me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone was already paying way too much attention.  I was wearing my older costume, and somehow felt more juvenile, more exposed.  I didn’t have the covering of bugs over the exterior of my costume like I was used to, either.

“Her ability allows her to create clones of anyone she touches.  The PRT office believes she’s a class-A threat, but Tattletale’s expectation is that this individual has the potential to become an Endbringer.  We’re moving forward with extreme caution.

“Our primary issue at the moment is that we can’t yet locate her.  She has one hostage, a young member of the Wards.  The girl was attacked en route to her home.  Locating our target quickly is paramount, but we should also be careful to avoid giving her a chance to use her power on us.  For the time being, we will be operating with the same protocols and plans that we employ against Hadhayosh.  Hit and run, maintain a safe distance as priority number one, and employ continuous attacks.  We’ll be dividing you into teams-”

Miss Militia stopped short as an officer pushed his way through the people near the door, Chevalier included.  He handed Miss Militia a phone.

She turned around and pressed a button on the wall.  The faux-wooden panels separated to reveal a widescreen television.

It flickered on.

Her?” Kid Win asked.  “That’s the class-S threat?”

“She’s bigger than she looks,” Tattletale commented.

I was disappointed I couldn’t see.  I tried looking at the screen with my bugs, but they saw only a rectangular glow.

“Quiet,” Miss Militia said, “It’s a webcam feed.  I’m setting it so we’ll be transmitting audio only… Hello, Noelle.”

“Who is this?”  Noelle asked.

“She talks,” I heard someone whisper.

“Miss Militia,” Miss Militia said, louder.

“The gun woman.  Who else is there?”

“Other local heroes,” Miss Militia replied.

“Oh.  There aren’t more?  The Undersiders didn’t get in touch with you?”  Noelle sounded funny.  Her voice was hollow, almost disappointed.

“It’s just us right now.”

“Because I smell more,” Noelle said.  “Which makes it hard to believe you.  But you can lie if you have to.”

“You can smell us.”

“Not you.  But it doesn’t matter,” Noelle’s voice broke.  She stopped.

“Are you there?” Miss Militia asked.

“I’m here.  I was telling you it doesn’t matter.  I only called because… I killed her.  The space-warper.  I’m so bad with the names.  So many names for you capes.  I only ever paid attention to the powers.”

“You killed Vista,” Miss Militia said.  “Why?”

“Because I could.  Because I was hungry, and I’d already used her up.  See?”

There was a brief pause, then a number of gasps and breathless words all at once.  One of my bugs caught a noise from Clockblocker, deep in his throat.

Grue leaned close, whispered in my ear, “Five Vistas.  All but one of them have faces more like masks than skin and muscle.  Hard, rigid.  Wearing borrowed clothes, not costumes.  The fifth one might be taller than I am, and her bones look curved.”

I nodded.

There was a thump from the microphone on Noelle’s end, presumably as she turned the camera back to herself.

“Just wanted to let you know that.  I’m sorry.  This isn’t like me.  It’s the stuff that’s growing on me.  I have my memories, and when I think, it’s always my thoughts, but it feels like it’s taking over my subconscious, and when it wants something the hormones and adrenaline flood into my body and my brain, so I feel what it feels.  Twists the way I think.”

“Why Vista?”

“She was alone.  And could smell how strong she was.  Read about her online, too.  Internet was all I had for a long time.  Now I’ve got them.  They’re pretty obedient, and it’s nice to have company.  I haven’t had any physical contact with anyone for a while, and they like giving me hugs.  Except the sixth.”

“Sixth,” Miss Militia said.

“Not as obedient.  She ran off.  Gibbering something about killing her family.”

Miss Militia thrust her index finger toward the door, and the Wards were gone in a flash, running for the stairwell.

“Can we negotiate?”  Miss Militia asked, her voice oddly calm given the ferocity of the gesture and the threat against one of her colleagues’ family.

“Not really a negotiation… but I can offer you a deal.”

“What’s the deal?”

“Kill the Undersiders.  Or hand them to me so I can torment them before I kill them.  You can do it any time you want to.  Just… knock them out, or hurt them, or find a way to tell me where they are.  If it’s a choice between hurting one of you or hurting one of them, I’ll hurt them.  I promise.  If I’ve taken someone hostage, you probably have a little while before the hostage is dead.  Just know that I’ll trade you any of my hostages for any Undersider, any time, any situation.  When the Undersiders are all dealt with, I’ll sniff out and kill all of the clones I’ve made, then I’ll let you try to kill me.  Or imprison me.  Do whatever.  I don’t care anymore, because I don’t think I’ll be me much longer.  I don’t think I’m even me right now.  Not the me I was… I’m rambling.

“They took away my only chance.  My only chance to get well.  Until they’ve paid for that, I’m going to make this hard on you, heroes.  I don’t think I can die, and I don’t think I’m that easy to stop in other ways.  I’ll hunt you down, I’ll copy you until you’re all used up, let your copies ruin your reputations and your lives, and then I’ll eat you.  I’ll do it to each of you, one by one, until you realize it’s easier to go after the Undersiders than to come after me.  Give me my revenge, and this ends.”

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Interlude 15 (Donation Bonus #3)

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August 20th, 1986

She was being poisoned by people with smiles on their faces.

She hated those smiles.  Fake.  Pretending to be happy, pretending to be cheerful.  But she’d spent enough time here to know that her friends and family would be crying the second they thought they were out of earshot.  The strangers had a weariness that spoke to the inevitable.  The older they were, the more reality seemed to weigh on them.

Somewhere along the line, they had stopped telling her that the chemotherapy would make her better.  The smiles had become even more strained.  There was more emphasis on making her comfortable.  Less explanation of what was going on.

So when her mother came in to check on her, bringing the mug of heated chicken broth, she pretended to be asleep.  She hated herself for it, but she couldn’t stand the lies, the fakeness.

If it wouldn’t have given her away, she would have winced as her mother sat down by her bedside.  It meant she might be staying a while.

“Becca,” her mother murmured from behind her.  “You awake?”

She didn’t respond, keeping her breathing steady.  She tried to breathe through her nose, so the sores that filled her mouth wouldn’t sing with pain at the contact with the air.

Her mother ran one hand over her head.  Her hair was mostly gone, and the contact was uncomfortable to the point that it was almost painful.

“You’ve been so brave,” her mom whispered, so quiet she was barely audible.

I’m not brave.  Not at all.  I’m terrified.  I’m so frustrated I could scream.  But she couldn’t.  Everyone had painted her as being so courageous, so noble and peaceful in the face of the months of treatment.  But it was a facade, and she’d passed the point of no return.  It was too late to break composure, too late to stop making bad jokes, faking smiles of her own.  She couldn’t complain or use her mother’s shoulder to cry on because everyone would fall apart if she did.

She was their support.

“My little superhero,” her mother said.  Rebecca could feel her mother’s hand on her bare scalp once more.  She wanted to slap that hand away, yell at her mother.  Don’t you know that hurts?  Everything hurts.

“You’ve been trying so hard.  You deserve better.”

And just like that, from the tone and the word choice, Rebecca knew she was dying.

She felt a mixture of emotions.  Relief, in a way.  It would mean the chemotherapy could stop; she could stop hurting.  There was anger too.  Always some anger.  Why couldn’t her mother just tell her?  When would they get up the courage to deliver that news?

Apparently not tonight.  Rebecca heard the scrape of the chair moving as her mother stood, the muffled footsteps as she retreated down the hall.

Tears had been harder to come by since the chemo had started.  Most days, her eyes were red and itchy, her vision blurry, too dry to cry.  But it seemed this occasion deserved them.  For a long time, she lay on her side, staring out the window at the cityscape of Los Angeles, tears running sideways down her face, across the bridge of her nose and down to her ear, soaking her pillow.

There was a sign that caught her eye, because it was so bright a yellow against its immediate background of blues and dusky purples.  The classic logo of a fast food restaurant.

It struck her that she would probably never get to eat there again, never get a special kids meal with the dinky plastic toy that was meant for kids ten years younger than her.  She’d never forget about the toy afterward, letting it clutter the top of her dresser along with the other colorful trinkets and keepsakes.

She’d never get to read the third book of the Maggie Holt series, or see the movie they were making of the first book.

She’d never have a real boyfriend.

It was dumb, but those stupid trivial things hit her harder than the idea that she’d never see her family, her friends or her cats again.  The steady tears became sobs, and her breath hitched, making her entire chest seize in pain.  The involuntary clenching of her empty stomach was twice as bad, and she started to think she might need to throw up.  Or dry heave.  Experience told her that would be worst of all.

She’d started moaning without realizing it, quiet and drawn out, trying to replace those painful lurching sobs with something else.

“Do you need morphine?”

The gentle voice startled her, interrupting both the moans and the sobs.  Morphine wouldn’t help the most basic, terrifying, inevitable reality she faced.  She shook her head.

There was a whispering.

“I’m going to increase the drip just a little, Rebecca Costa-Brown.”

“Who?”  Rebecca stirred, turning around to see who was speaking.  A black woman with long hair in a doctor’s get-up was messing with the IV bag.  But… no name tag.  And there was a teenage girl with pale skin and dark hair standing behind her, wearing knee-high socks, a black pleated skirt and white dress shirt.  “You’re not one of my doctors.”

“No, Rebecca.  Not yet,” the woman replied.

Quietly, Rebecca asked, “Are you one of the doctors that takes care of people that are dying?”

The woman walked around to the end of the bed.  The teenager stayed where she was.  Rebecca gave the girl a nervous look.  She was staring, her expression placid, hands at her side.

“Who are you, then?”

“Shh.  Lower your voice.  It would be a shame if the nurses happened to come by and eject me.”

“So…” Rebecca started, making a conscious effort to speak more quietly, “You’re not supposed to be here.”

“No,” the woman replied.

Rebecca closed her mouth.  She could feel the effect of the morphine.  If nothing else, it was helping ease the uncomfortable sensation where her stomach had been cramping, her skin feeling raw against the stiff hospital sheets.  She didn’t know what to say, so she fell silent instead.

“To answer your question, I’m a doctor, but not one that works in this hospital.  I’m more of a researcher and scholar than anything else.  And I came to make you an offer.”

“Shouldn’t my mom be here for this?”  My mother makes all of the decisions.

“Normally yes, when dealing with a minor.  But this is a private deal.  Just for you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You’ve heard about the superheroes?  On the television?”

“Yeah.  There’s, like, a bunch.  Twenty or something?”

“No less than fifty, now.  They’re appearing all over the world, with thousands upon thousands estimated to appear by the turn of the millennium.  I confess I have something of a hand in that.  Which is why I’m here.”

“You… make superheroes appear?”  Rebecca could feel herself getting foggy with the morphine.

“I make superheroes, but it’s not easy.  The risks are high.  The files?”

The teenager on the other side of the bed stepped forward, pulling off her backpack.  She reached in and withdrew a file folder.

The woman moved the wheeled, adjustable bed-desk that still held the chicken broth Rebecca’s mother had brought.  She moved the plastic container and put the file folder down.  Opening it, she spread out the glossy photographs that were contained within, until six images sat side by side.

A man with gnarled skin like the wood of a tree.  A woman with tentacles everywhere.  A beetle-man.  A boy with skin that seemed to be melting like wax.  A burned husk of a body. A little girl without eyes, only flat expanses of skin where they should be.

“Right now, in the early stages of my project, only one in seven succeed.  Two of those seven die.”  The woman tapped the pictures of the burned body and the boy with melted skin.  “Four experience unfortunate physical changes.”

“They’re monsters.”

“Yes.  Yes they are.  But of those seven, statistically there’s one who experiences no major physical changes, who gains powers.  All anyone has to do is drink one of my formulas.”

Rebecca nodded.  Her eyes flickered over the photographs.

“And I’ve stumbled on a little side-benefit, Rebecca.  I mix those potions a certain way, and it not only helps reduce the severity of any physical changes, but it also has a restorative effect.  The body heals.  Sometimes just a little.  Sometimes a great deal.  I think we could heal you.”

“Heal me?”

“I’m not asking for money.  Only that you take this leap of faith with me and help me build something.  I know the risks are great, I wouldn’t normally ask someone to face them, but I suspect you don’t have much left to lose.”

Rebecca extended a hand to touch the photos, but it was herself she looked at.  Her fingers so bony, her skin mottled yellow with bruising around the knuckles.  I’m already a monster.

She tapped the photo.  “If… if it was just this?  If you were offering to save my life and make me one of those monsters?  I’d still accept.”

August 21st, 1986

“I think we can mark this as a success,” the Doctor spoke.

Rebecca opened her eyes.  She’d seen something fragmented but profound, but it slipped away as fast as she could think to recollect it.  She staggered to her feet, wobbled.  The girl in the school uniform caught her before she could fall.

“I’m not a monster?”

“No.  In fact, I don’t know if it could have gone better.”

Rebecca extended one arm.  Her skin was a healthy pink, her hand thin but not so emaciated as it had been.

“I’m better?”

“I would guess so.  In truth, I’m not sure how the regeneration affected the cancer, it might even have exacerbated the symptoms.  For the time being, however, you seem to be well.”

“I feel really light.”

“That’s promising.”

Rebecca allowed herself a smile, letting go of the girl’s hand.  She could stand under her own power.  Everything around her appeared sharp.  She hadn’t realized how bad her vision had become.

Even her mind seemed to be operating like a well oiled machine.  Had the drugs and poison made her stupid?

No.  She’d never been like this.  It was like her brain had been a bicycle and now it was a Ferarri.  Even as her eyes flicked over the interior of the warehouse, she could tell she was processing faster, taking in details and sorting them better, as if her thoughts were no longer limited to the confines of her skull.

“What can I do?”

“I’ve yet to start categorizing the results.  For the time being, I’m playing a game of battleship, creating what I can and logging the results.  I hope to find the patterns and the factors at play, given time.”

“You’re going to keep doing what you did with me?”  Rebecca bounced in place.  It took so little effort to move so high.  She was better.  She was alive, like she hadn’t been for months and months.

“I’m going to find an alternative as soon as possible.  The risks are too high, at present.  You can understand that what I have is valuable, and every time I approach a potential patient, I face the possibility that I’m going to be exposed.”

“They’ll stop you?”

“They’ll try.  I have her to guard me,” the Doctor nodded in the direction of the dark-haired girl.  “But I’d rather work without interference.”

“So what do we do now?  What do I do?”

“I have ideas.  Would you object to accompanying me for some time?  I could use another bodyguard.”

“I don’t even know what I do.”

“Nor do I.  But I think it would be a bad idea for you to return home.”

Rebecca stared down at her hands, clenched and unclenched them.  What would her parents say?  What would the doctors and nurses say?

She walked across the empty building.  By the time she reached the other end, she was floating, her feet not even touching the ground.  She set her hands on the wall, dragged her fingertips through the concrete, then crushed it in her hands.  It should have ruined her skin, left scrapes or torn her fingernails, short as they were, but it hadn’t.

I used to be a shadow of a person, barely there.  Now I’m something more in every way.

When she turned around, the girl in the school uniform was whispering in the Doctor’s ear.

The Doctor spoke, “Two years, then you decide if you want to stay.”

Rebecca looked down at the concrete dust that had settled in the lines and folds of her hands, met the Doctor’s eyes and nodded.

May 1st, 1988

“Alexandria,” the Doctor called.

Alexandria waited patiently as Contessa adjusted her cape, then strode through the door.  The Doctor was there, of course.  Professor Manton, too.  The boy with the math powers was there, standing next to a boy who was staring off into space.

“She’s young,” Legend said, sizing her up.

“She’s also one of my best yet,” the Doctor said.

“I’ve heard of her,” Hero said.  “Los Angeles?”

Alexandria nodded.

“You took down Strongarm and Mongler.  It was impressive,” he said.

“Thank you.”

The Doctor spoke, “She’s as strong as any parahuman we’ve recorded.  Flies at speeds that match your own, Legend.  Near-perfect memory retention, accelerated processing and learning.”

Legend gave her another serious look.  She wore a black costume with a skirt, knee-high boots and elbow-length gloves.  A heavy cape flowed behind her back.  Her black hair was held back out of her face by the metal visor that covered the upper half of her face.

“It’s more typical for heroes to wear brighter colors,”  he said.  “It conveys a more positive image.”  His own costume was a testament to that philosophy, blue with flames and lightning stencils in white.

“Black’s more utilitarian,” the Doctor said.  “Harder to see in the dark.”

“And it’s easier to get the blood out,” Alexandria added.

Legend frowned.  “Do you get a lot of blood on your costume?”

“I hit really hard,” she said, deadpan.

He didn’t seem to appreciate the humor.  It didn’t matter.

“Okay,” Hero said, folding his arms.  “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Alexandria.  But I’m not sure I see the point of this, Doctor.”

“You each committed to assisting my enterprise, in exchange for the powers I could grant.”

“Yeah,” Hero said.

“Now I have two things I’d like you to consider.  The first is… well, you could consider it a new arrangement.”

“Alright.  I can keep an open ear,” Legend said.  Eidolon and Hero nodded in agreement.  “What’s your proposal?”

“It’s not my proposal.  Alexandria?”

Alexandria felt her heart skip a beat as the three heroes turned their attention to her, but she kept her emotions from her face.

“This room, I would argue, contains the most powerful parahumans in the world, Scion excepted.  The good you accomplish is undeniable.  Even if villains outnumber the heroes, powers have come to benefit the world in the long run.  A golden age, if you will.”

Legend nodded.

“But we know that trigger events tend to produce damaged, disturbed and unbalanced individuals.  Any traumatic event will do that, and a trauma punctuated by the acquisition of superpowers is going to leave a lasting impression.  Trigger events produce more villains. We know this.”

The Doctor cut in, “And I’m producing more heroes than villains.  For now, the proportion favors us, and you’ve been able to keep the criminal element in line.  For the most part.   But even as I expand my operations, I have come to the realization that I can only produce so much.  And the rate of parahuman growth is expanding.  The next twenty years are projected to produce a total number of six hundred and fifty thousand people with powers, worldwide.”

Alexandria spoke, “I’ve looked at the numbers, at the growth, the trends, checked and double checked them.  Even if the rate decreases, we’re going to get outpaced and we’re going to get outpaced hard.  The people with trigger events will outnumber the Doctor’s clients, and we’ll wind up with three to ten villains for every hero that steps forward.”

Legend, Eidolon and Hero were paying attention.

The Doctor spoke, “Alexandria and I have discussed this at length.  A recurring worry is that as much as I’ve been able to gift you three, you four with exemplary abilities, we could see other threats of comparable power.”

“Is there any evidence of this?”  Hero asked.  “You haven’t explained how you create the powers, but what you’ve said leads me to believe you’re producing something purer than what everyone else gets.”

“Purer?  Perhaps.  But the purer something is, the more fragile it becomes.  The process seems to be influenced heavily by psychological strain and stress.  Almost an inverse of the trigger event phenomenon.  You know there’s a possibility that the formula can become tainted, giving inhuman characteristics to the unfortunate subjects.  This is despite the most sterile conditions.  I’m improving the results over time, with Professor Manton’s help, but there are no guarantees.”

“The point we’re getting around to,” Alexandria spoke, “Is that even if the Doctor can get better results with time and effort, the explosion in the natural parahuman population is inevitably going to produce an individual with powers that outstrip our own.”

“So we lose in the long run?” Eidolon asked.  “We’re doomed?”

“No.  Because I’d like to propose a solution.  A way to assert control.  I want to band together.  Form a team.”

Legend leaned against the wall.  “There are teams forming already.  Yes, we’d be powerful, influential, but I don’t see how that addresses the problems.”

“Simple.  We do what the government’s been pushing for.  We regulate.  We bend to the government’s yoke, all four of us together.  We follow their stipulations and regulations.”

“That sounds like a horrendously bad idea,” Eidolon spoke.  “Why?”

“Because if it was us four, together?  We could afford to push back if they pushed too hard, and they’d know that.  And just by being there, we could make the project attractive enough to bring others in.”

Legend turned, “And how does this benefit you, Doctor?”

“It doesn’t.  Not directly.  That’s why this is Alexandria’s proposal.”

“But,” Manton spoke, his voice gravelly for his relatively young age, “We could send some of our clients to you.  Happier clients are better for business.”

Legend folded his arms.  “And you’d want to be in charge, Alexandria?”

“No.  I think you or Hero would be a better choice, to portray a kind face and a positive image.  You two wear the colorful costumes.”

“Not Eidolon?” Hero asked.

“He’s too powerful.  Not saying either of you aren’t, but we wouldn’t be able to convey the impression that it’s the government in control of the heroes if it was Eidolon front and center.”

Legend nodded.  “You’ve given this a lot of consideration.”

“More than a little,”  Alexandria admitted.  “I have an eight stage plan to incorporate parahumans into society, I’ve also researched and developed plans for marketing and monetizing capes.  America is the most powerful country in the world, and it’s a capitalist nation, first and foremost.  We’ll use that.”

“Seems to be getting away from the idea of doing good deeds for the sake of doing good deeds,” Eidolon said.

“It is, but that’s inevitable.  The post-baby boomer generation is growing up.  Couple that with the explosion in parahuman numbers, and this situation threatens to get well out of control.  We need structure and organization if we’re going to keep things intact.”

“There’s no guarantee your plan will survive contact with government,” Legend said.

“There’s one guarantee.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m estimating that it will take at least five years to establish this plan nationwide.  In that span, we’ll start with only a few groups in the largest cities, we’ll gradually and gratefully accept involvement and oversight from government and law enforcement.  We’ll also create a sub-group for minors with powers, so we can strictly structure their environment and development.  Those are the key points.  That gives me time to address your doubts.”

“Again, how?”

“I expect we’ll be able to employ the remainder of the plan, the eight-stage integration of parahumans with the public, because I will be in a position of power in the government.  I, my civilian self, can be in charge of the government-sponsored superhero teams within eight years.”

“There’s too many holes in that plan.  People will wonder why Alexandria and your secret identity aren’t in the same place at once.”

“There’s more than one solution to that.  For one thing, I can work faster and better than my unpowered peers.  For another, the Doctor thinks she can find a suitable body double with similar powers before the deadline.  I designed this costume to be elegant without being attention-getting.  No color, as you pointed out.  And I don’t seek leadership of the team.  Instead, I will content myself with working to guide legislation to where we need it.”

“It seems so manipulative.  Everything people feared we’d be doing,” Hero said.

“I have booklets of paperwork you can look over.  All of the math, all of the projected issues for the future, and all of my proposals and plans.  You don’t have to give me an answer right away.  Just consider it.”

“Okay,” Hero said.

“And,” the Doctor said, “I think it goes without saying that everything said in this room stays in this room?”

There were nods all around.

“Good.  Thank you.  There’s one more thing I would like to show you.  If you’ll accompany me?”

She turned to the girl in the suit and the young man with the thousand-yard stare.

“You know where to take us.”

The girl in the suit placed her hands on his shoulders, tapping one twice.  In response, the boy raised his hands, bidding the back wall of the room to fold out into an area that shouldn’t have been there.  Bright sunlight streamed down around them, a salt-scented wind blowing in their faces.

“My god,” Legend said.

“He gained a very valuable set of powers, but there was an unfortunate effect on his perceptions.  He sees too much at once.  He’s effectively blind and deaf.  He agreed to work for me in exchange for care and comfort.”

Eidolon and Hero advanced to the edge of the window, staring out at a landscape of tidy concrete buildings and overlarge trees.  There was a coast there, too.

“I will be locating my operations there in the future.  Doormaker will shuttle you to and from my base in the future.”

“Where is it?”

“Another Earth.”

“Like Earth Aleph?  The one Haywire opened the portal to?”

“In some respects, yes.”  The Doctor gestured, and Contessa squeezed the boy’s shoulders again.  The portal shut.  “My assistant will hand you the booklets Alexandria prepared for her project.  Doormaker will then take each of you home in turn.  Thank you.”

One by one, the others departed.  Legend was first through the doorway Doormaker created, taken to New York.  Both Eidolon and Hero made their way to Chicago.  Professor Manton and the others left.

Only Alexandria and the Doctor remained.

“You didn’t tell them about our long-term goals,” Alexandria spoke.

“No.  There’s issues that have to be addressed first.  We’ve already discussed several.”

“Anything I can do?”

“You have your end of the project.  I feel they’ll come around.  Focus on that.  I’ll handle the projected issues on my side of things.  Just need to find the right individual.  Someone I can groom, perhaps.  Between you and I, one of us is bound to succeed.”

Alexandria nodded.

“Your two years are up in three months.  Will you be returning to your family?”

“I nearly forgot.  I’ve been so busy.”  Alexandria frowned.

“It might do you good to see them.”

“Maybe.”  Why did she have her doubts?  Why didn’t she want to go home?

“Good.  I do expect you’ll return?”

“Of course.”

Maybe, she realized, it was because every memory of her family was tinged with the feelings of despair, of loss.  With the Doctor, she had hope.

December 13th, 1992

Big.

The clawed hand speared toward the sky, followed by an arm the size of an oak tree.  When it turned to slam against the ground, bracing for leverage, she could feel the impact rippling through the air.  The dry ground shifted, bulged and cracked as he shouldered his way up and out from underground.

Really big.

Forty-five feet tall at the very least, he climbed forth from underground.  His skin was crusted with black stone that might have been obsidian, layers of what might have been cooled magma sloughing off of him as he planted his feet on the ground and stood straight.

‘Straight’ might have been too generous.  He was built like a caricature of a bodybuilder, or a bear-human hybrid.  He rippled with muscle, his skin gray, thick and leathery like the hide of a rhinoceros or elephant.  His black obsidian horns were so heavy his head hung down.  They weren’t rooted in his forehead, but in the middle of his face, a half-dozen curved shafts of black crystal twisting their way out of his face and back over the top of his head, some ten feet long.  A single red eye glowed from between the gap in two horns, positioned too low.  His mouth was a jagged gap in his lower face, twisting up to a point near his temple, lined by jagged horn-like growths that were too irregular to be called teeth.

His claws were the same, not hands in the conventional sense, but mangled growths of the same material that made up his horns, many of the growths as large as Alexandria herself.  He could flex them, move them, but they were clearly weapons and nothing else.

The rest of the Protectorate was present, and the local heroes, the Mythics.  Rostam, Jamshid, Kaveh, Arash.

It somehow didn’t feel like enough.  They’d come anticipating earthquake relief.  Not this.

The creature roared, and as invulnerable as she was, it almost hurt.  A whirlwind blast of sand ripped past them.  Kaveh stumbled back, collapsed, blood pouring from his ears, one of his eyeballs obliterated.

The fight hadn’t even started, and they’d lost someone.

“Hero,” Legend spoke with the smallest tremor in his voice, “Call for help, as much as you can get.”

The creature, the Behemoth, stepped closer, raising one claw and pointed at Kaveh.  Kaveh the Smith, the builder, the forger.

The man ignited from the inside out, flame and smoke pouring from every orifice as he was turned into a burned-out husk in a matter of seconds.  His skeleton disintegrated into fine dust and ash as it crashed to the ground.

He can bypass the Manton effect.  She thought, stunned.  She flew forward, trying to draw his attention, interjecting herself between the Behemoth and the others.

He pointed his claw once more, and she braced herself, gritting her teeth.  Time to see how invincible I am.

But it wasn’t fire.  A lightning bolt flashed from the tip of Behemoth’s claw, arcing around her and striking one of her subordinates in a single heartbeat, before leaving only the smell of ozone.  She flew in close, slamming her hands into his face, driving him back, throwing him off-balance.

He struck her and drove her into the ground.  His flame burned through her, the sand was turning to glass around her, burning her costume, but it didn’t burn her.

But she couldn’t breathe.  She flew back and out of the way until she had air again.  She stared at the scene that was unfolding, the heroes beating a hasty retreat as that thing advanced, slow and implacable.

Shit,” Hero’s voice came over the communications channel.

“What?” she responded.  Legend was pelting the thing with lasers that could have burned buildings to the ground, and he was barely leaving a mark.  Eidolon was manipulating the sand, creating barriers while simultaneously drawing sand out from beneath their enemy, while pelting it with laser blasts that he spat from his mouth.

At least he’s too slow to dodge or get out of the way of trouble.

Guys back home say we’re close to some major oil fields.

She shook herself free of glass and dirt and threw herself back into the fray.  A bad situation was suddenly critical.  The creature roared again, and the force of the noise threw her flight off course.  Eidolon’s makeshift walls collapsed and more heroes fell, bleeding from heavy internal damage.

They’d been right after all.  Dumb luck had created a parahuman as dangerous as what the Doctor could create by design.

Fire, sonic, lightning.  And he hit me harder than he should have, even being as big as he is.  Kinetic energy, too.  

Her eyes widened.  Not individual powers.  Those were all the same power.  She pressed one hand to her ear, opening communications to the rest of her team.  “He’s a dynakinetic!  He manipulates energy!  No Manton limitation!”

How do we even fight something like that?

But she knew they didn’t have a choice.  She threw herself back into the thick of the fight.

January 18th, 1993

“I, Alexandria, do solemnly affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the director appointed over me, according to the regulations of the PRTCJ.”

Applause swelled around her.  As far as the eye could see, there were crowds and flashing cameras.  President Griffin extended a hand and she shook it.

He leaned close, “You do us proud.”

“Thank you, James.  I’ll give my all.”

He squeezed her hand and moved on.

“I, Eidolon, do solemnly affirm…”

She gazed over the crowd, saw her mother standing there with eyes glistening.  The lesser members of the Protectorate were in the front row as well, her subordinates among them.

Turning further right, she saw Hero looking at her, almost accusatory.  She turned and faced the crowd.  Regal, unflinching, dressed in an updated costume.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the Vice President spoke into the microphone, “Let me introduce the founding members of the Protectorate of the United States of America!”

Invincible as she might be, she thought her heart might burst as it swelled with pride, the crowd cheering with such force that the stage shook.

September 15th, 2000

Alexandria and Hero were last to arrive on the scene, entering through the window.  Legend pressed one finger to his lips.

“We’ve got her cornered?” Hero whispered.

“Think so,” Legend replied, his voice as quiet.  ”We’ve got teams covering the drainage and plumbing below the building, and the entire place is surrounded.“

“She hasn’t tried to leave?”  Hero asked.  ”Why not?“

Legend couldn’t maintain eye contact.  ”She has a victim.“

Alexandria spoke, stabbing one finger in Legend’s direction, “You had better be fucking kidding me, or I swear-“

“Stop, Alexandria.  It was the only way to guarantee she’d stay put.  If we moved too soon, she’d run, and it would be a matter of time before she racked up a body count elsewhere.“

I’m in this to save lives.  Sacrificing someone for the sake of the plan?  She knew it made sense, that it was even necessary, but it left her shaken, a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.

“Then let’s move,” she responded, “The sooner the better.“

“We’re trying an experimental measure,” Legend spoke, “It’s meant to contain, not kill.  Drive her towards main street.  We have more trucks over there.“

They operated with a practiced ease.  Legend blasted down the door and Alexandria was the first through.

Siberian was there, kneeling on the bed, her body marked with stripes of jet black and alabaster white, her arms slick with blood up to the elbows.  The man who lay on the bed – there would be no saving him, even if Eidolon manifested healing abilities.

She looks familiar, Alexandria thought, even as she soared across the room.

They’d underestimated their opponent.  Alexandria’s fists collided with Siberian and didn’t budge a hair.  She flew out of the way before Siberian could claw at her with long fingernails.

Legend fired beam after beam at Siberian, but the striped woman didn’t even flinch.  She was invincible on a level that surpassed even Alexandria.

Eidolon cast out a cluster of crystal that exploded into a formation around Siberian on impact, encasing her.

Siberian shrugged it off like it was nothing, lunged forward, going after Hero.

Alexandria dove to intervene, to guard her teammate, but Siberian was faster.  She reached Hero first, her hands plunging through his chest cavity.  When she pulled her arms free, she nearly bisected him.

Eidolon screamed, flying close to scoop up the two pieces of Hero, carrying them outside.

Siberian leaped after them, missed only because Legend shot his comrades with a laser to alter their trajectory.

Their enemy plunged to the street, landing on both feet as though she were light as a feather.

The ensuing moments were frantic, filled with screamed orders and raw terror.  Alexandria chased Siberian to try to scoop bystanders out of the way, to catch the PRT vehicles that Siberian flung like wiffle balls.

And they were losing.  Eidolon was trying to heal Hero, to teleport people out of danger when Alexandria and Legend proved unable, and changing up his abilities every few seconds to throw something new at Siberian in the hopes that something would affect her.  She waded through zones of altered time, through lightning storms and force fields, tore through barricades of living wood and slapped aside a projectile so hyperdense that its gravitational field pulled cars behind it.

Alexandria moved in close, hoping to stop Siberian, to catch her and slow her down, saw Siberian swing, pulled back out of the way.

Her visor fell free, clattering to the ground.  Then she felt the blood.

Saw, in her one remaining good eye, the chunks of her own face that were falling to the ground around her, bouncing off her right breast, the spray of blood.

It had been so long since she’d felt pain.

Legend called out the order and buried her in containment foam, hiding her from sight.

September 16th, 2000

Alexandria sat in the hospital.  Eidolon’s healing had only been able to do so much.  She held a glass eye in one hand, the remains of her other eye in the other.

She looked up at the Doctor.  “William Manton?”

The Doctor nodded.

“How?  Why?”

“I don’t know what predicated it.  His daughter’s in our custody.  One of our failures.”

“He gave his daughter the formula?  Without the usual preparations and procedures?”

“I suppose he thought he was qualified to oversee all that.  Despite my strict instructions that staff weren’t to partake.  Or he had other motivations.  It could have been a gift from a father trying to buy his daughter’s affections.”

“Or her forgiveness,” Alexandria looked down at the glass eye, then back up to the Doctor.

The Doctor’s eyebrows were raised in uncharacteristic surprise.  “Did you see anything suspect?”

“No.  I only met his daughter twice, and it was brief, her father wasn’t around.  But I know the divorce between Professor Manton and his wife was pretty bad, as those things go.  He was angry, maybe did some things he regretted?”

The Doctor sighed.

“So that was him?

“Almost certainly.  He gave his daughter one of our higher quality formulas, and she couldn’t handle it.  When he realized what he’d done, realized that he couldn’t hide it from us, he took one formula for himself and fled.  I didn’t know what it had done for him until tonight.  The resemblance between Siberian and Manton’s daughter is subtle, but it’s there, and the footage from Hero’s helmet-camera has been run through every facial recognition program I could find.”

“What did Legend, Eidolon and…”  Alexandria stopped when she realized that she’d been about to say Hero.  “What did they say?  About Manton?”

“They don’t know.  I suppose we should tell Eidolon.  He reacted badly when his powers informed him of our other plans and projects.”

Alexandria hung her head.  “How do we stop him?  Manton?  If he’s transformed into that…”

“The sample he took, F-one-six-one-one, it tends to give projection powers.  I suspect his real body is unchanged.  But I’m wondering if we shouldn’t leave him be.”

Alexandria stared at the doctor, wide-eyed.  “Why?

“So long as he’s active, people will be flocking to join the Protectorate-”

Alexandria slammed her hand on the stainless steel table beside her cot.

Silence rang between them in the wake of the destruction.

“I will not condone the loss of life for your ulterior motives.  I will not let monsters walk free, to profit from the fear they spread.”

“You’re right,” the Doctor said.  “I… must be more shaken by Manton’s betrayal than I’d thought.  Forget I said anything.”

If Alexandria saw a hint of falsehood in the Doctor’s body language, she convinced herself it was the strain of one eye compensating for the job she’d used to perform with two.

“You realize what this means, don’t you?” The Doctor asked.

“That we’re no longer doing more good than evil?” Alexandria replied, bitter.

“No.  I still feel we’re working for the forces of good.  Manton was a selfish man, unhinged. The exception to the rule.”

Alexandria couldn’t quite bring her to believe it.

“No, this means we simply need to step up our plans.  If we’re going to go forward with the  Terminus project, we need to advance the overall efforts with Cauldron.  And we need the Protectorate effort to succeed on every count.”

“Or we need your project to work out,” Alexandria replied.

The Doctor frowned.  “Or that.  We still have to find the right individual.  Or make him.”

April 10th, 2008

Mortars, bombs and air-to-ground missiles rained down around her. It had been a decade and a half since she had really felt pain, and she still couldn’t help but flinch as they struck ground in her immediate vicinity.  Still, she continued walking, her cape and hair fluttering behind her.

Two people lay face-down on the edge of the street, a teenage boy and girl holding hands.  She knelt and checked their pulses.  Dead.

But she could see others.  She quickly strode over and kneeled by a young man.  His stomach was a bloody mess, and he was gasping for every breath.

“To gustaria livir?” She asked, in the local’s anglo-spanish pidgin.  Do you want to live?

His eyes widened as he seemed to realize she was there.  “Eres an gwarra engel?”

“No,” she replied.  She brushed his hair out of his face with one hand.  “No an engel.”  Not an angel.

Livir,” he breathed the word before slumping over.

She swept him up in her arms, quickly and carefully.  Keeping an eye out for any falling mortars, she quickly ascended into the air.

She was at the cloud-level when the door opened.  She stepped into the brightly lit corridors of Cauldron’s testing laboratory and strode down to the cells.

Thirty cells, filled with subjects.  Thirty-one now.  The cells didn’t appear to have doors, but  the individuals within were all too aware of the dangers of stepping beyond the perimeters of their cells, or of trying to harass Alexandria as she strode by.

Only two-thirds of them were monstrous, affected by the formulas.  Others would go free with alterations to their memories.  Some would have fatal weaknesses inserted into their psyches, reason to hesitate at a crucial moment against a certain foe.

But they would be alive.  That was the most important thing.  They had been destined to die, in places where the wars never stopped, or where plague was rampant, rescued from the brink of death.

Entering one cell, she brushed the hair from the young man’s face once more, then propped him up while she administered the sample the Doctor had left for her.

She stepped back while he convulsed, his wounds filling in, his breathing growing steady enough for him to scream.

His eyes opened, and he stared at her, wide-eyed, still screaming as sensations returned to him and pain overwhelmed every sense.

“Eres okay,” she said, in his language.  “Eres livo.”

It’s okay.  You’re alive.  She forced herself to smile as reassuringly as she could.

So long as they lived, they could have hope.  Living was the most important thing.

And here I am, administering poison with a smile on my face.

She turned and walked away.

June 18th, 2011

“…I guess we have another unanswered question on our hands,” Eidolon said.

Legend sighed, “More than one.  William Manton and his link to Siberian, the tattoo on his right hand, our end of the world scenario and the role Jack plays as the catalyst.  Too many to count.”

“None of this has to be addressed today,” Alexandria said.  ”Why don’t you go home?  We’ll consider the situation and come up with a plan and some likely explanations.”

Legend nodded.  A small smile touched his lips.

The Doctor turned to Eidolon, “You want another booster shot?”

“Probably another Endbringer attack coming up, it’s best if I’m in top form.”

“A month or two, either Simurgh or Behemoth if they stick to pattern,” Alexandria said.  She watched as Legend strode out of the room.  Eidolon paused, then gave the hand signal.  No bugs, and Legend wasn’t listening in.

The Doctor already had the booster shot ready.  Eidolon extended one arm, clutching his bicep to help make the vein more pronounced.  The doctor injected.

“The boosters aren’t cutting it anymore,” Eidolon said.  “I’m getting weaker.  Powers are taking longer to reach their peak, and their maximum strength isn’t what it used to be.  If this keeps up, then I won’t be able to offer anything during this end-of-the-world scenario.”

“We’ll find a solution,” the Doctor said.

“You were too calm,” Eidolon spoke.  “I was worried you’d miss my warning.”

“Very clever, burning the words into the paper in front of me.  Thank you.  Was I convincing?”

“You managed to feign skepticism over this apocalypse scenario,” Alexandria spoke.

“Well, that’s the most important thing,” the Doctor spoke.

“He’s suspicious.  He knows or suspects we’ve been lying to him,” Alexandria said.

“Unfortunate.  Will he expose us?”

Alexandria shook her head.  “No.  I don’t think he will.  But he may distance himself from us to lower the number of opportunities we have to see his doubt for what it is.”

“We’ll manage,” the Doctor replied.  “In the worst case scenario, we’ll explain the circumstances, explain our plan.”

“He won’t like it,” Eidolon spoke.

“But he’ll understand,” the Doctor said.  “If the Terminus project is a success, the end of the world isn’t a concern.  And I believe we will succeed.”

“Provided we come up with a solution to the bigger, more basic problems we’re facing,” Eidolon said.  “Or we’ll simply find ourselves in the same circumstances after we’ve gone to all this trouble.”

Alexandria nodded.  “The Protectorate is proving to be a failure on that front.  Recent events haven’t given me much hope in that regard.”

“So that leaves only my end of things,” the Doctor said.

“Coil,” Eidolon said.  “And if he fails?”

“Ever the pessimist,” Alexandria said.

“This revelation about the possible end of the world has decimated our projected timeline.  We don’t have time to prepare or pursue anything further,” the Doctor said.

“If we assist him-”

“No,” the Doctor spoke.  “If we assist him, there’s no point.”

“In short?” Alexandria leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table.  “He doesn’t even know it, but everything rests on his shoulders.”

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Interlude 14.5 (Bonus Interlude)

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“It’s just going to be another minute or two.  The data has to compile and upload.  It’s not my work, so I played it safe and went for the slowest, heaviest compression method that I could.  It’s going to take a bit.”

“That’s fine.  Thank you.”

Kid Win shifted position uncomfortably, falling silent.

You don’t have to be intimidated.  I’m just a man.

Legend stared out the window.  He wouldn’t miss this city.  There weren’t happy memories here, and there was little he was proud about.  Most of the time, he was able to feel that he’d made an impact, that the world was a better place for his being there.  That wasn’t the case here.

“How long have you been in the Wards?” he asked, to make conversation.

“Two years.”

“I’ve seen your records.”

Kid Win cringed.

“No, don’t act like I’m going to say something bad.  The Deputy Director in charge of the Wards, I can’t quite remember his name, he had some glowing praise for your ability to engage with the public.”

“Engage with the public?  I don’t remember doing much of that.”

“Something about speeches to other youths at school?”

“Oh.  That wasn’t a big deal.”

“The guy who’s rating your performance seems to think it was.  Can’t quite place his name, the suits sort of start to blur in with one another-”

“Deputy Director Renick,” Kid Win supplied.

“Yes.  Thank you.  He seemed to think you connected with the crowd, and you did it better than any of your teammates. You were frank, open, honest, and you stood out because of how you handled yourself when the students started getting rambunctious and heckling you.”

“Director Piggot yelled at me for drawing the gun.”

“It was something that could have backfired very easily, but you struck the right tone and you defused the situation with humor.  I think that’s a good thing, and so did the staff at the school.  The teachers sent emails a few days after the event, commenting on the overall positive impact you had on the students, the hecklers included.  And when I say you, I mean you specifically.”

Kid Win shrugged, tapping a few keys on the laptop to rotate through a series of progress bars and graphs.  “Nobody told me about that.”

“That’s a shame,” Legend said, turning his gaze to the window to relieve some of the pressure his very presence seemed to put on Kid Win.  “The ability to manage yourself with the public is crucial if you intend to go on to make a career out of working with the Protectorate.”

“It’s kind of weird, that someone as important as you are is making such a big deal out of an event I barely remember.”

“I study the records of everyone I intend to work with, and I studied yours.  I try to make a note of individual strengths.  That event stuck in my mind when I was reading through your files.  It was a very easy mental picture to put together, especially the part with the gun.”

Kid Win smiled a little.

“You remind me of Hero.”

The smile fell from Kid Win’s face.  He looked startled.  “Really?”

“I imagine he was very much like you when he was younger.”

Kid Win looked uncomfortable.

“You can talk about it,” Legend assured him.  “It’s okay.  It was a long time ago that he passed.”

“I sort of modeled myself after him.”

Legend studied the boy.  Red and gold body armor and a red-tinted visor.  There were additions that seemed to be more recent, judging by the lack of wear and tear, but if he looked past those, if he imagined the boy with a helmet covering that brown wavy hair, replaced the red with blue chain mesh, he could see the resemblance.

“I can see that.”

“I didn’t mean to copy him, or to ride off his fame or anything.  I was younger when I started, I totally meant it to be respectful-”  Kid Win stopped as Legend raised a hand.

“It’s okay.  I think he would be flattered.”

Kid Win nodded, a little too quickly.

“He was the first real tinker, you know.”

“Before we knew tinkers have specializations,” Kid Win added.

“I’ve thought about it.  The disintegration gun, the jetpack, the sonic weapons, the power sources and explosives that were surprisingly effective for their size.  I suspect his specialty tied into manipulating and enhancing wavelengths and frequencies.”

Kid Win’s eyes went wide.  He glanced at the laptop.

“I know enough other tinkers to know that look.  You just had a stroke of inspiration?”

“Sort of.  More like a bunch of half-assed ideas all at once.”

“Don’t let me distract you.  If you want to take a minute to make some notes on whatever came to mind, I won’t be offended in the slightest.”

“It’s okay.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.  I-” Kid Win paused.  “I guess I’d rather keep talking to you than write down ideas that probably won’t work out.”

“Thank you.  I’d say you shouldn’t worry too much about trying to emulate Hero.  It’s heartening, if I had to put a word to the feeling, that you look up to him and carry on his legacy.  But you have your own specialization and your own strengths.”

Kid Win nodded.  “I’m figuring that out.  I spent a long time trying to be like other tinkers and struggling.  Ninety percent of my projects just stopped before I finished it.  The stuff I finished, I finished it because it was simple.  Guns, the floating hoverboard… well, I used to have a floating hoverboard.  I sort of copied Hero’s approach.  ‘Board instead of jetpack, but I made the guns, tried a few disintegration rays.  Maybe part of the reason I finished that stuff was because I felt like I’d be insulting Hero by trying to copy his style and making a mess of it.”

“Makes sense,” Legend spoke, primarily to show he was listening.

“But lately I’ve started to relax about that.  Maybe it helps that we’ve been working as hard as we have.  I’ve been too tired to keep to the rules I thought I was supposed to follow.  Still have to spend time in the workshop, I think I’d go crazy if I didn’t, but I’m winging it more.  I’m trusting my instincts and spending less time using the computers to get the exact numbers and measurements.”

“To help compensate for your dyscalculia?”

“I didn’t know you knew about that.  I didn’t know the PRT knew about that.”

“Dragon’s talents make for very comprehensive records, sorry.”

Kid Win frowned, his expression changing fractionally as he stared down at the keyboard in front of him.  He seemed to come to terms with the idea, because he moved on. “Anyways, I think it’s working for me.  I’m getting the feeling that I do have a specialization, but it’s more of an approach than a particular field.  Equipment with multiple settings and uses, modular weapons, gear that’s adaptable to different situations, I guess?”

“That’s fantastic.  The fact that you’ve struggled and then found your strengths the hard way could be an asset.”

“An asset?”

“If you wind up leading the Wards or a team in the Protectorate, it means you’ll be better equipped to help out teammates who are having their own problems.”

“I’d be horrible in a leadership position.”

“Hero said the same thing, and I think we’ll both agree that he was wrong.”

That seemed to give Kid Win pause.

“Think about it.”

“Okay,” Kid Win replied.  “Not that I’m not majorly grateful that you’re giving me the pep talk, but you said you were in a bit of a hurry and I think we’re done here.”

“The compiling is done?”

“I could refine it further, try to give you some additional features, but the coding and the hardware I’m working with here is so tightly structured that I think I’d do more harm than good.  It’s like the techie equivalent of trying to put toothpaste back in the tube after you’ve squeezed it out… you can’t, so maybe you try to make more tube that sticks out of one side, but you keep doing it and you wind up with this kludgy mess that you can’t even use for its original purpose.  For getting toothpaste.”

“I think I understand what you mean.  Thank you for this.  It’s already uploaded?”

“Yeah, and it was my pleasure, really.” Kid Win smiled.

Legend stood and stretched a little.

The goodbyes had already been made and he’d had his meeting with Emily.  Business was wrapped up here.  He’d called home to let Arthur know he wouldn’t make it to dinner but that he hoped to be back before midnight.

A light smile touched his face.  He even felt a little giddy at the thought of getting home, wrapping Arthur in a hug.  Growing up, he’d never thought that he’d feel giddy about his husband after six years of marriage.

But he had something to take care of first.  The notion put a damper on his pleasant mood.

“I’m going to go, then.  You and I,” he promised Kid Win, “Should talk again sometime.  You can tell me if you’ve figured out your specialty, and if you’re leading a team.”

“Maybe the next time you’re in Brockton Bay?”

“Maybe.”  Legend smiled, but he was thinking, does he know?  This whole region might be condemned.

Maybe Kid Win was being optimistic.

Legend turned and opened a window, then let himself float through.  He took a second to get his bearings, to inform himself of which direction was up, down, north, east, south and west, then he took off.

Powers were classified into categories, and the ‘breaker’ classification was used to mark those powers which were limited to one’s own body and their immediate vicinity.  Though it had initially been used to cover individuals who could make themselves stronger, denser, larger or change the materials they were made of, it was slowly expanding to include others.  There was a theory that was gaining traction, suggesting that the breaker classification was one of the most common powersets, if not always the most pronounced.  Innumerable people with powers had also adapted innate defenses that kept their own powers from harming themselves.  Pyrokinetics tended to be resistant to flame. There were automatic shutoffs, biological and mental, for various other powers.  Even beyond that, there were other adaptations that were so subtle as to be almost undetectable.  His weren’t.

Legend’s flight powers let him accelerate to a speed that exceeded sound and continue accelerating, to no hard limit.  The soft limit was that he had breaker powers that kept the acceleration from tearing him to shreds, altering his body into something else entirely as he gained speed.  The drawback to this was that his brain also shut down on a cognitive level as the transformation occurred.  He had never let himself go so fast that he lost the ability to consciously control his movements.

There were other benefits too.  He was better at registering and processing light waves, regardless of which state he was in.  He could see with perfect clarity up until the point that an obstactle intervened or the atmosphere occluded his vision.

If an opponent attacked and struck him, he instinctively transitioned into his energy form for a split second.  In that state, he absorbed energy of a variety of kinds, including the kinetic energy that was transferred with a punch or with a bullet.  His opponents were forced to whittle him down, each attack only a fraction as effective as it might otherwise be.  Even then, a share of that small amount of damage was healed a second later as he used the absorbed energy to mend his body.  Conversely, his enemies could try to hit him with enough speed and force that even a hundredth of a second of contact was sufficient to take him out of the fight.  Leviathan and Behemoth had managed to land blows of that magnitude.

Siberian has as well.  He set his jaw and increased his speed a notch.

He traveled over the Atlantic Ocean, moving so fast that the water appeared to be one flat plane.  His thoughts became a blur, and he was forced to focus on his destination, letting all other thoughts and doubts fall by the wayside.

It was refreshing, in a way, cleansing himself of the responsibilities and the thousands of problems he was forced to handle as the leader of the Protectorate.  Still, it always scared him just a little.

It took him only an instant to reach a complete stop.  He let himself settle down into his real body once more.

He’d wondered sometimes if his ability to fly was meant for travel on an interstellar level.  What if he kept accelerating?  His breaker power would let him weather the void of space, his ability to see would be that much more powerful if there was no atmosphere to occlude his vision over miles… even the boredom of traveling for years was nothing if his conscious mind shifted into a rest state.

Not that he’d ever test it.

He’d absorbed light, heat and ambient radiation while he flew, and he felt restored.  Even the mildest wear and tear had been tended to, his body restored to peak condition.

His mind was another matter, his emotions.  It was like waking up in a warm bed, the man he loved beside him, only to experience a sinking feeling as he came to dread the coming day.

He drifted closer to the oil rig, and settled down on a fence, using a touch of his flight ability to stay balanced.  In every direction, as far as the eye could see, there was only water.

“Any time now,” he said.

It began as a pale square in mid-air, then unfolded rapidly, three-dimensional.  When it opened up further, the interior of a building loomed in mid-air, the exterior absent.

He floated forward and set foot on the white tile of the hallway.  He felt the distortion as the space shifted, felt the rush of wind as air pressure adjusted.  It took only a couple of seconds.  When he glanced over his shoulder, the oil rig was gone.  There was only more hallway behind him.

He walked onward, confident in his ability to navigate the maze of rooms and corridors.

When he pushed open the double doors and stepped into the conference room, there were a few looks of surprise.

“Legend,” the Doctor spoke, “I thought you were occupied in Brockton Bay.”

“Jack escaped.”

“That’s… really unfortunate,” Alexandria said.

“Quite,” the Doctor replied.

Legend glanced around the room.  Alexandria leaned back in her chair, her helmet on the table in front of her, a star-shaped scar at the corner of one eye.  Beautiful, Legend was sure, but more in the way a lioness was beautiful.  In her black and gray costume, she was intimidating, her expression regal.

Eidolon was the opposite.  He had lowered his hood and removed his glowing mask, revealing a middle-aged man with thick eyebrows, thinning hair and heavy cheeks.  He looked more like an average family man who was getting dressed up as Eidolon for a costume party than he looked like Eidolon himself.

There were others around the table.  The Doctor: dark-skinned, hair tied into a prim bun with chopsticks stuck through it, wearing a short white dress beneath a white lab coat.  The Number Man, with his laptop set in front of him, looking more like a businessman than one of the most influential and lesser-known parahumans on the planet.  There was also the woman in the black suit, who had never introduced herself or been introduced by name.  Whenever Legend came here with the others, the woman was there with the Doctor.

Insurance, he thought.  The Doctor thinks that woman can face us if we turn on her.

Would she win?  Legend harbored doubts.  He’d met a lot of powerful individuals over the course of his career, and he’d learned how to measure them.  This woman didn’t relax for an instant, where someone who was assured of victory would be more willing to let down her guard.  More likely that she’s supposed to stall or stop us if there’s a problem, buying the doctor time to escape.

“Jack escaped.  What about the other Nine?” the Doctor asked.

“We suspect that Bonesaw and Siberian also escaped, with Hookwolf as a new member of their group.”

“I see.”

“It’s unusual for you to show any interest in what’s going on outside the realm of your business and research.  Any reason for the curiosity?”

The Doctor smiled. “Hard to keep track of what goes on beyond these walls, sometimes.”

Legend nodded.  He took a seat to Alexandria’s right.  He considered for a moment, then spoke.  “There are some things that concern me.”

“Is this tied to why you came here today?”

“Yes.  Let me begin by saying that there’s apparently a precog in Brockton Bay that’s pretty damn certain that the world’s going to end shortly.”

“Precogs are notoriously unreliable.  I tell many of my customers that when they express interest in seeing the future.  I think I even told you.  Or was it Alexandria that I discussed it with?”

“It was,” Alexandria replied.

“You’re right,” Legend said, “Most precogs are vague.  They have to be, because the future is vague.  But all reports point to this precog being very specific.  Jack Slash was mentioned as the catalyst for an event that occurs in two years.  More specifically, she said this occurs if Jack escaped Brockton Bay alive, which he did.”

There were nods around the table.

“What do you mean when you say the world ends?” Eidolon asked.

“Thirty-three to ninety-six percent of the population dies in a very short span of time.  I assume the aftermath of this scenario leads to more deaths in the long run.”

The Number Man spoke.  “Depending on the circumstances of death, the demise of even one in three individuals would lead to further casualties.  Lack of staff for essential services and key areas, health, atmospheric and ecological effects of decomposition on a massive scale, destabilized societal infrastructure… The best case scenario is that Earth’s population drops steeply over twenty years, until it settles to forty-eight point six percent of where it currently stands.  Three billion, three hundred and ninety-one million, eight hundred and three thousand, five hundred and four.  Give or take.”

“That’s the best case scenario?” Alexandria asked.

The man shrugged.  “It’s unlikely it will occur.  The bare minimum of people would have to die, there couldn’t be any bodies, and there wouldn’t be anything left unattended that could cause uncontrolled fires or nuclear incidents.  If I were to ballpark a number, talking about events that could kill one-third to nearly all of the world’s population, I’d say roughly seventy-two percent of the earth’s population are likely to die.  That leaves one billion, nine hundred and fifty million alive.  More than half of those individuals would die over the following twenty years, and more than half of those who remain would die in the ten years following that.  Keeping in mind these are estimates, of course.”

“Of course,” The Doctor said, “Precogs are unreliable.  I’m surmising this girl doesn’t know exactly how this occurs?”

“No.  Her employer didn’t say anything on the subject.”

“We’ll take measures,” Eidolon said.  “Evacuation, we’ll also push for automatic shutdown controls on power grids and nuclear facilities.  With the Endbringers out there, it would be sensible to do it anyways.  We can reduce the potential damage.”

“Unless,” Alexandria said, “The numbers the precog provided are already accounting for us having this conversation and taking the extra measures.  If she does view the future, it’s very possible she saw this very meeting and everything that followed, in a manner of speaking.”

That was sobering.

“We’ll do it anyways, of course,” Eidolon said.

Legend and Alexandria nodded.

“Let’s remember,” the Doctor said, “The numbers already pointed to an endgame situation at the twenty-three year mark.  If the Endbringers continue doing the damage they’ve been doing at the current rate, things won’t be sustainable.  We’ll be forced to withdraw from damaged and dangerous areas, populations will condense, the Endbringers attack those pockets…  and that’s without considering the possibility that they achieve something big in the interim.  We’ve talked about the crisis scenarios: Behemoth triggering a nuclear winter, Leviathan obliterating or tainting the world’s renewable water supply.”

“You’re saying we’re already facing an end of the world situation,” Alexandria said, “And this is just accelerating the timetable.”

“Yes.  Any measures we take are still vital.  They’ll help here, with this scenario, but if it never occurs, it will still help against the Endbringers.”

“Are we assuming the Endbringers are at the core of this end-of-the-world scenario?” Eidolon asked.

“Likely,” Alexandria said, “But let’s not rule anything out.”

“Provided this is really occurring,” the Doctor spoke.

“We can’t afford to say it’s not,” Legend said.  “You have precogs among your staff and customers?”

“Some,” The Doctor answered.  “I can ask them about this end of the world scenario.”

Legend nodded.  “Good.  Eidolon, you want to try your hand at it?”

“If my power lets me.  It only gives me what it thinks I need, not what I want.”

“We need all the help we can get.  Let’s see if we can’t figure out how this happens, so we can stop it or mitigate the damage.  There’s a lot of capes out there with the thinker classification.  Get the word out, call in favors, offer favors.  Anything to get more information on this.”

There were nods and noises of agreement from his fellow Protectorate members and the Doctor.

Legend quietly cleared his throat, glancing around the table.  “Speaking of great minds… there was another point I wanted to address, that came up during my stay in Brockton Bay.”

He had their attention.

“Alexandria, I expect you read the reports already.  You didn’t seem that surprised when I talked about the precog and her end-of-the-world scenario, you’ve probably read up on my notes here.”

Alexandria had originally named herself after the Library of Alexandria, though she’d ceased mentioning that, choosing to leave enemies in the dark instead.  As strong as she was on a physical level, her mind was equally formidable.  She never forgot a detail, absorbed information quickly, reading two pages of a book with a glance, and she learned quickly, retaining everything she picked up.  She knew most commonly spoken languages, no less than ten styles of martial arts and she could match some of the best non-tinkers in the world when it came to computers.  Not only was she rated well in the brute classification, but she held high scores in the mover and thinker categories.

“I read what you provided, though I’m not sure what you’re referring to specifically.”

“Siberian.”

He saw a change in her expression, saw Eidolon flinch as if he’d been slapped.

“I’ll explain for those of you who lack access to the PRT records or the time to peruse them.  Siberian is not a brute-class cape.  Siberian is a ‘master’, and the striped woman is a projection.  I caught a glimpse of the man who is creating the projection before they retreated.”

“And?”

“And he had Cauldron’s mark tattooed on the back of his left hand, a swan on his right.”

With the exception of himself, the Number Man and the woman in the suit, everyone present reacted with surprise.

“You don’t think that was William Manton?”  Alexandria asked.  “But why the mark on his right hand?”

“I don’t know.  It doesn’t fit on a lot of levels.  A top parahuman researcher becoming one of the Nine?”

“It happened to Alan.  To Mannequin,” Eidolon said, his voice quiet.

“There’s nothing in the records,” Alexandria said, “Nothing saying he was present at any of the places the quarantine protocol was put in effect.”

She would know.  She read every record, could call them to mind with perfect accuracy.

“He could have stolen someone’s identity.”

Alexandria nodded, “True.”

“We have confirmation he’s alive,” Eidolon said, his voice quiet.  “We suspected, but-”

“We made assumptions, and we were way off base.  That’s what concerns me.”  Legend leveled a hard look at the Doctor.  “See, we’ve been going by the assumption that William Manton, from the time he left Cauldron to the present day, has been continuing his work.  We’ve been assuming he’s traveling across the world, experimenting on human subjects, giving them powers with physical mutations as a side effect, then releasing the victims back into society with Cauldron’s symbol tattooed on their bodies.  Or at least, that’s what you told us.”

“You’re implying I lied?” the Doctor asked.  She didn’t look bothered in the slightest.

“I’ve looked at the timelines.  It’s not likely that William Manton could be conducting experiments to give some poor girl tentacles in Illinois at the same time Siberian’s busy attacking people in Miami.  Not to mention he barely looked capable of taking care of himself, let alone conducting research.”

He glanced at the others.  Eidolon’s brow was creased in concern, while Alexandria looked pensive.

“The pattern doesn’t fit,” he said, to drive the point home.  He looked at the Doctor, “Which leaves me to wonder just who is conducting experiments on human subjects.”

“We have no need for human experimentation.  The Number Man can calculate the odds of success for a given formula.”

“Maybe that’s the case.  But just who is conducting experiments on human subjects, who knows enough about Cauldron to tattoo or brand them with the mark while simultaneously having access to these kinds of resources?”

“It’s not us,” the Doctor spoke.

Legend stared at her, studying her.  “And you don’t know anything about how William Manton is connected to all this?”

“I’m as mystified as you are.  If it would assuage your suspicions, you can examine this complex,” the Doctor suggested.

“You and I both know this place is far too large to explore in one lifetime,” he answered.

“True.”

“And if we were to surmise that you’re the culprit here, there’s nothing saying you couldn’t have your doormaker maintain a path to another alternate reality where you have captives stashed away.  It would even explain why there haven’t been any real missing persons cases that we can link to the case-fifty-threes, if you’re simply snatching them from another reality and depositing them in our reality when you’re done.”

She spread her arms wide.  “I don’t know what I can say to convince you.”

“You trust me, don’t you?” Alexandria asked.

“Yes,” Legend said.

“I’ve trained myself in kinesics.  I can look at a person’s face and body language and know if they’re lying.  And I can tell you the Doctor is telling the truth.”

Legend sighed.  “Right.”

“We’re okay, then?” the Doctor asked.

Legend nodded.  “I’m sorry to accuse you.”

“It’s understandable.  This situation doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“I can’t add anything here, and my power’s not volunteering anything that could help to solve this particular mystery,” Eidolon spoke.  “I guess we have yet another unanswered question on our hands.”

Legend sighed, “More than one.  William Manton and his link to Siberian, the tattoo on his right hand, our end of the world scenario and the role Jack plays as the catalyst.  Too many to count.”

“None of this has to be addressed today,” Alexandria said.  “Why don’t you go home?  We’ll consider the situation and come up with a plan and some likely explanations.”

Legend nodded.  The thought of holding Arthur and Keith in his arms energized him.

The Doctor turned to Eidolon, “You want another booster shot?”

“Probably another Endbringer attack coming up, it’s best if I’m in top form.”

While the others talked and planned, Legend stood and left without a farewell.

An opening between realities unfolded before he was half of the way down the alabaster white hallway.  He stepped through the opening to the oil rig, and then began his flight back to New York City.

But he didn’t go home.

Instead, Legend descended on the rooftop of the NYC Protectorate offices.  A tinker-made scanner verified who he was and opened the doors for him in time for him to walk through.

He nodded a greeting to everyone he passed.  When people asked him how things had gone, he offered them a response that was polite but short enough that it was clear he wasn’t looking for further conversation.

He reached his office and closed the door.

He was careful to start up a virtual operating system preloaded with the standard PRT databases and software.  Nothing that would leave a trace on his regular OS.  He unplugged the fiber-optic cables and disabled the wireless.

The precautions were little use if he was already being watched, but it made him feel better.

Once his computer was isolated from outside influences, he withdrew a USB cable from one drawer, plugging one end into the keyboard.  He reached up to one ear and withdrew an earbud.  The other end of the USB cable connected to it.

ASCII art of Kid Win’s face popped up as the earbud connected to the computer, along with the text, ‘thank you’.

He couldn’t bring himself to smile.

Problems of self-confidence aside, Kid Win had produced an interface that was easy to use.  Legend clicked on the yellow button and waited.  Voices played from the computer’s speakers.  He adjusted the volume and listened.

“We suspect that Bonesaw and Siberian also escaped, with Hookwolf as a new member of their group.”

“I see.”

“Any reason for the curiosity?”

“Hard to keep track of what goes on beyond these walls, sometimes.”

Text appeared, transcribing what was being said.  The program paused, the image of the yellow button popping back out.  A red word appeared below the last statement: LIE.

A vague lie, but not a damning one.  His pulse was pounding as he hit the waiting yellow button to resume the record.

“We have no need for human experimentation.  The Number Man can calculate the odds of success for a given formula.”

LIE.

He clicked again.

“…Who knows enough about Cauldron to tattoo or brand them with the mark while simultaneously having access to these kinds of resources?”  His own voice was the one playing from the speakers.

“It’s not us,” the Doctor’s voice answered his.

LIE.

He sat staring at the screen, horrified.

Cauldron had given him his powers, had given him what he needed to be at the very top, to lead the largest collection of superheroes in the world.  They hadn’t wanted much in exchange.  He kept an eye out to make sure nobody got too curious about Cauldron, diverted them if they did.  He’d greased the wheels for some of Cauldron’s top customers.  He was also ready to defend Cauldron if and when it became public knowledge.  It was for the greater good, he told himself.  There was no way for Cauldron to operate otherwise, lest the world’s governments fight over the ability to create whole armies of people with powers and interfere with the organization’s ability to operate.

It would operate, he knew, it obviously wasn’t in a location where it could be raided or seized by military forces, but it wouldn’t be able to reach nearly as many people, and capes would come under scrutiny with the possibility that they’d purchased their powers.

He’d committed to this because Cauldron was essential.  With the rise of the Endbringers and threats like the Slaughterhouse Nine, the world was in need of heroes.  Cauldron produced more heroes than villains, because there was none of the trauma of a trigger event to throw them off.  Even for those individuals who turned to crime, Cauldron was able to leverage the favors that were part of the contract in order to guide their path.  More superheroes meant better chances for everyone when it came to fighting the Endbringers and dealing with the big threats.

It struck him that this wasn’t necessarily true.  If the Doctor had lied about human experimentation, she could have lied about those details as well, too.

Human experimentation on a large scale.  Unwitting, or perhaps unwilling to connect the dots, he’d helped it happen in a way.

His hand shook as he reached for the mouse.  He clicked the button once more, hoping there would be something he could use to convince himself that this was a mistake.  A false positive, a clue that Cauldron was really a force for good after all.  Hadn’t Armsmaster said that his lie detection system was imperfect?  Or maybe Kid Win had generated errors in the code.  The alterations had been minor but comprehensive:  Legend hadn’t wanted to be informed in real-time about the lies, lest he give something away.

“And you don’t know anything about how William Manton is connected to all this?”

“I’m as mystified as you are.”

LIE.

He knew what came next, with the conversation fresh in his memory.  He didn’t want to press the button again, but there was little choice.

“I’ve trained myself in kinesics.  I can look at a person’s face and body language and know if they’re lying.  And I can tell you the Doctor is telling the truth.”

The red text popped up as the last four and a half words appeared.  LIE.

Alexandria knew.  Of course she had.  Her ability to read people, her vast troves of knowledge, her ability to see patterns.  And she was the most willing of their group to take the hard, ugly road.  Had been since Siberian had hospitalized her.

Click.

His own voice.  “I’m sorry to accuse you.”

LIE.

Had he been lying?  He supposed he had.  He didn’t like the Doctor, and he hadn’t truly felt sorry for his suspicions.  Ever since he’d seen William Manton with the Slaughterhouse Nine, he’d harbored doubts about what was going on.

Those doubts had become quiet conviction after he’d gone to see Battery in the hospital.  One of Bonesaw’s mechanical spiders had cut her suit.  He knew exactly the kind of disorientation, hallucination and waves of paranoia she would have experienced as the gas took hold.  While she reeled and tried to get a grip on reality, she’d likely left herself open for further attacks.  Whatever the case, one of the spiders had injected her with a poison Bonesaw had devised.

Her death had been slow, painful and inevitable.  It had been engineered to strike those notes in a way that millions of years of evolution had yet to refine a plant’s toxin or an animal’s venom.  Lying in the hospital bed, still delirious, Battery had used halting sentences to tell him about Cauldon, about buying her powers, and about Cauldron asking her to help Siberian and Shatterbird escape.  She’d planned to pursue the Nine, to offer assistance and then kill one or both of the villains.  Battery had begged him for affirmation that she’d tried to do the right thing, that he would find the answers she didn’t.  He’d reassured her the best he could.

She’d died not long after.

He almost couldn’t bring himself to click the yellow button again.  Alexandria had been lying to him.  And that only left…

Click.

Eidolon’s voice came from the speakers.  “I can’t add anything here, and my power’s not volunteering anything that could help to solve this particular mystery.  I guess we have yet another unanswered question on our hands.”

The word was in red letters on the screen.  It could have been his own pulse behind his retinas, but the letters seemed to throb with a heartbeat of their own.  LIE.

“All lies,” Legend whispered the words to himself.

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