Cockroaches 28.5

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At least she’s stopped screaming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yo,” I responded.

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

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

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

Building something?  I looked up.

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

“What is she-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“True,” I agreed.

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

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

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

Imp shrugged.  “So?  What do we do?”

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

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

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

“It worked,” he said.

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

“Only that many,” Defiant said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I understand that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Tattletale asked.

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

I stopped there.

What?” Tattletale asked, again.

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

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

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

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

“Right?” I asked.  “So you agree?”

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

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

“If there’s an issue…”

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

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

“Better safe than sorry,” I said.

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

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

There were nods all around.

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks,” I said.

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

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

“This is crazy,” she said.

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

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

Canary nodded.

“Holding up okay?”  I asked.

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

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

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

“Foil and Parian,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  I get that,” Canary said.

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

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

Canary’s eyes went wide.  “Oh.  Oh!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She cackled again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lung,” I said, almost absently.

“You know him?” Canary asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

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

“What did Lung do?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sappho?

Canary blushed again.  “I… uh.”

“I mean, seriously,” Imp said.

“Ease up,” I warned her.

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

“And you never got any?”

“I had somebody, but like I said…”

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

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

The remainder were fertilized, bearing eggs.

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

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

“Let’s go,” he said.

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

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

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

A pleasant idea, nothing more.

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

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

Information about Lung.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defiant had called it a Gladius.

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

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

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

Threats and conflicts, within and without.

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

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

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

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

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

We relaxed.

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

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

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

The Dragonfly passed through the portal.

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

Defiant pulled the craft up.

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

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

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

Two days to make this.

Leviathan had taken less than an hour to demolish it.

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

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

Even through the rain, his five eyes glowed.

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

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

In any substantial numbers, I thought.

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

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

She frowned.

Grew things exponentially.”

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

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

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

“Twice?”  Miss Militia asked.

Tattletale pointed.

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

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

I swallowed.

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

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

“Time to face the music,” Tattletale said.

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

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

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

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

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

It was in that same moment that the Simurgh descended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death throes?

She’d hit his core.

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

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

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

Leviathan went utterly still.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could see his shape distort.

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

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

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

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

Fins.  Leviathan had fins.

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Mother turned to face us.

“Wha-  The-” she stuttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My tech?”  Defiant asked.

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

“Mecha-Leviathan?” Imp murmured.

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

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

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

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

Fuck you,” Tattletale retorted.  “Cope.”

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

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

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

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

“Fuck you,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Contessa would have changed their minds.”

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

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

“They were attacking civilians.”

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

“They broke the truce,” Tattletale said.

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

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

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

Her eyes fell on Lung.

Were they serious?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tattletale smiled a little, but didn’t talk.

“How good of you,” Defiant said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Essentially,” the Doctor said.

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

Dinah, standing beside Faultline, nodded slowly.

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

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

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

There were heads nodding.

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

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

Too many people ready to stab us in the back.

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

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Scarab 25.5

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Three days.

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

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

Sometimes we made headway.

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

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

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

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

Tecton approached me, setting his hands on my shoulders.

“What?” I asked.

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

“I’ve napped.”

Sleep.  You’re swaying on your feet.”

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

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

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

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

“I know,” Tecton said.

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

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

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

“You’re not a bad person, Taylor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If he hits Brockton Bay-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom?

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

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

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

She didn’t respond.  She was already gone.

But the doorway remained open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” I said.  “What is this?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I decided to leave her alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My sincere apologies.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not an option,” Doctor Mother said.

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

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

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

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

“Hands on experience,” Marquis answered.

“Panacea,” Tattletale said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A hundred thousand lives, being mulled over so readily.

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

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

Granted,” Glaistig Uaine said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is,” the Doctor replied.

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

Chevalier sighed.  “Dragon?  Some backup.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Both at the same time?”

“Be constructive,” I cut in.

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

“Phir Sē died?” I asked, surprised.

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

“I’m sorry,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Die badkamer?”

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

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

“With your pet monster, right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Dragon spoke.  “No, you won’t.”

Ek sal nie-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No?”

“Not your money.  Not you.”

“Shortsighted,” Saint commented.

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

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

Fuck that,” Tattletale said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And?”

“Nobody here.”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s true,” Doctor Mother said.

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

“Yes.”

“Why?”  Chevalier asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“I can imagine,” Doctor Mother said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scourge 19.7

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The heroes found positions and opened fire on Echidna.  The difference in this and the fighting as it had been before was noticeable.  Small, but noticeable.  Capes weren’t communicating and teamwork was faltering as a result.  Capes like the red lightning girl and Chronicler were struggling to find people to use their powers on.

I didn’t want anyone else running or flying headlong into the thread, so I gathered my more harmless and useless bugs in a thick cluster around each piece of thread, until each thread appeared to be a black bar a half-foot across.

Clockblocker appeared at my side.  He was in fighting shape, though he didn’t look it with his damaged costume.

“Anything I can do?” he asked.  “Anything else set up?”

I shook my head.  “She dissolves the thread if it touches her flesh, and things are too frenetic.  Someone would get hurt.”

“Gotcha,” he said.

He didn’t move from where he was standing.  A minute passed as Echidna was bombarded.  She wasn’t quite at full fighting strength, she didn’t have many capes to clone, and she was apparently hesitant to charge or make any sudden movements with the possibility of there being more thread.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”  Clockblocker asked.

“That I had something in mind?” I asked.  “I guess a part of me thought that maybe if you figured out what I was doing, you wouldn’t have frozen the gun.”

“That’s not fair.  I don’t think I’ve given you any reason to think I’m vindictive like that.”

“Not really,” I admitted.  “Maybe I didn’t want you to give her a tell, or do something that Eidolon might notice.  I’m not sure why, not entirely.”

“So you’re not really doing anything that those guys out there aren’t.  When it comes down to it, you’re suspicious of us, just like we are of each other.”

“Maybe,” I admitted.  “It’s… a lot to take in.  What do you even do from here on out?”

“I don’t know,” Clockblocker said.

A series of neon green concentric circles exploded outward from a point in the sky above, rippling out to disappear over each horizon.  Eidolon had engaged one Alexandria-clone, and whatever he’d done seemed to have finished her off.  One left.

Echidna belched out a mass of clones, and I added my bugs to the firepower that the heroes threw their way.

Some slipped past the loose perimeter the heroes had established, and were promptly gunned down.

“I’m guessing Tattletale told you the particulars of my power?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“The range?  I’m surprised you knew it would work through interconnected pieces.  Hell, I barely knew I’d be able to push that far.  I guess that makes this one of the rare days my power’s working at peak efficiency?  But you somehow knew that?”

I glanced over my shoulder at Tattletale.  She was getting out of the van, and was joined by Faultline, Labyrinth, and four members of the Travelers: Sundancer, Ballistic, Genesis in her wheelchair and a blond boy who resembled but didn’t quite match Oliver in appearance.  Tattletale was exchanging words with Regent.  Getting an update?

“You’re not responding,” Clockblocker noted.

“I”m not sure what you want me to say.”

Yes, Clockblocker,” he added a falsetto note to his voice, bent one wrist to a ninety degree angle as he raised his hand to his mouth, “Of course we know more about how your powers work than you do.  How else would we kick your posteriors with such frequency?

He faked a high society woman’s laugh, where the laugh was said as much as it was uttered.  A cape nearby, one I recognized as Astrologer from the New York team, shot us a dirty look, before she returned to calling down projectiles from the sky.

“I don’t sound like that,” I commented, trying not to sound as irritated as I felt.

“I thought it fit pretty well for one of the wealthy crime lords of Brockton Bay,” he said.

I was a little caught off guard, to see this side of Clockblocker, or more that he was showing it to me.  Was it humor as a coping mechanism?  Or attempted humor as a coping mechanism, to be more on target?  I could believe it, from the guy who’d chosen Clockblocker as his cape name.  But to let me see anything other than the hard-nosed defender of the peace was something different.  A show of trust, letting his guard down some?

Or maybe it was just a coping mechanism, and he had a hell of a lot to cope with.  Only an hour ago, he’d probably felt he had his whole future laid out for him, a career in the Wards transitioning into a career with the Protectorate, with funds, fame and every side benefit and piece of paper he might need to mask his real identity.  Now nobody had any idea how that would work out.

Another circle exploded across the sky.  Alexandria-clone-two was down.  Legend and Eidolon descended in Echidna’s direction, keeping a healthier distance.

Whatever Eidolon had been hitting the clones with, considering the area it was covering and the fact that it was apparently taking Alexandria out of action, it suggested a kind of attack that couldn’t be used near the ground, because it might have leveled whole sections of the city.

Tattletale caught up to me.  The others in her retinue hung back.

“Was that you two?” she asked.  She pointed at Echidna, where the right and left sides of the monster’s body weren’t quite lined up.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You realize that if you pull off the dramatic sacrifice, Grue won’t be able to take it?  He’s relying on you to be his crutch for the time being.  You can’t kick it out from under him mid-step.”

“He’s stronger than you’re saying,” I murmured.  I eyed Clockblocker, all too aware that he was listening in.  Tattletale was aware, too, which meant she was trying to communicate something.  “Can we finish this discussion elsewhere?”

“Why don’t I just leave you alone?” Clockblocker offered.  “I wanted to make myself available in case you wanted to repeat the maneuver, but you’re saying that’s not so doable.”

“Not really,” I admitted.  “But thank you.”

“Signal me if you need me,” he answered.

Alexandria had a steel, fire-scorched girder in her hands, retrieved from a fallen building nearby.  She wasn’t flying, but she walked forward, relying on the girder’s size and sheer presence to clear her way through the assembled capes.

Her back was straight, her chin raised, as her subordinates stared.  Her black costume, it was fortunate for her, served to hide the worst smears and stains from Noelle’s vomit.

She swung the girder at Echidna like someone else might swing a baseball bat, and Echidna was knocked off her feet and into a building face.  The girder didn’t bend like the traffic light had.  This was a piece of metal intended to help support buildings.

Echidna opened one mouth, no doubt to vomit, and Alexandria flipped the metal around, driving one end into the open mouth and through Echidna, the other end spearing out of the monster’s stomach.

Before Echidna could react or retaliate, Alexandria flew straight up into the air, joining Legend and Eidolon.

As attacks went, it wasn’t a game changer.  Something else?  A symbol?  A gesture to us?

Echidna roared, lunged, only to hit a forcefield.  The field shattered and she stopped short, the girder rammed further through her.

To say we were at full strength would be a lie.  Too many had been injured.  Still, we’d pinned her down.  I could see Noelle atop Echidna’s back, craning her head to look at me.  Through some signal or some shared knowledge, Echidna was following Noelle’s recommendation, avoiding sudden movements, enduring every attack that came her way rather than risking running headlong into more frozen silk.

In fairness, she still had something of an upper hand.  None of our attacks were slowing her down, not really.  She was healing faster than we hurt her, and our side was getting tired, burning resources.  We weren’t sustaining casualties, but we weren’t winning this fight either.

With our current disorganization, it was only a matter of time before she popped out another clone that was capable of turning the tables.

“We need to finish her,” I said.

“Sundancer could do it, probably, but she would need convincing.  Labyrinth’s going to set up while we wait for Scrub,” Tattletale replied.

“Where is he?”

“Bit dangerous to have him riding along in a car.  We put him in another, and he nuked the engine.  We rigged a sled, and he should arrive in a bit, depending on how many times they need to stop and replace the chain,” she said.

“He’s going to open the door?”

Open is probably the wrong word.”

“What’s the right word?”

“I’d say it’s more like using a battering ram than a doorknob.”

“With dimensions,” I said.

Through dimensions.  Knocking down the door, not knocking down the house.”

“I’m not seeing the difference between the two,” I said.  “What’s to say a given area is one thing over another?”

That,” Tattletale said, “Is Labyrinth’s job.”

I could see Labyrinth.  Faultline was right next to her, apparently talking her through the process.  Arches and high walls rose like cresting waves, locking into place as they met one another.  It amounted to what looked like a church, if only four paces in diameter.

“You think that’ll be easier for Scrub to punch through.”

“Positive,” Tattletale said.

“How do you punch through to the right place?”

That, Tattletale said, “is something we’ll have to trust to luck and an educated guess.”

“Not reassuring,” I said.  “What’s going on?  I’m worried.  Nearly getting yourself shot, twice?  Provoking the Triumvirate?  Spending however much it costs to bring Faultline into the city, after the financial hit you took pulling the soldier gambit on Coil?  Now this?  The dimensional hole?”

“It’s how I operate.”

“Yeah, you’ve been reckless before, got cut by Jack, provoked Glory Girl.  But this is turning the dial to eleven.”

“We came out ahead in the end, both times.”

“It wasn’t necessary.  There were other ways around either of those situations.”

“Not as much as you’d think,” Tattletale said.

Echidna roared again, each of her mouths making a slightly different noise, combining into a discordant noise that made almost everyone present wince.  Weld tore his way free of her side, two capes in his grip.

Still five captives inside, I noted.  I saw Weld climb free and drop to the ground.  He wasn’t going back in for more.

Tattletale took me by the arm and led me back and away from the fighting, to where we had more privacy to speak.  I used bugs to guide some capes at the back lines toward some clones who’d flown into an alley.  It was odd, to be playing a part in a high-speed chase while standing still, but the capes were closing the distance on their quarry nonetheless.

“I’m just looking for answers,” I told her.  “This dimensional hole, provoking the heroes, apparently spending a lot of money I’m pretty sure you don’t have.  I… I can kind of get that you’re feeling a bit aimless, a bit unfocused.  Maybe that comes across as recklessness.  I’m feeling like that too.  We beat Coil, and so much of what we’ve done over the past while, it was with the end goal of doing just that.  So I get if you’re not sure of where to go from here.”

“Except you’ve been talking to the heroes, and you’ve had that to help center yourself, figure out where you stand,” Tattletale said.  “I haven’t.”

“That’s it?  You need to talk to someone?”

“No.  That’s not what I’m saying,” she said.  She sighed.  “Yes.  Kind of.  It’s only part of it.  Who the hell am I going to talk to that grasps things on a level I do?  Do you really expect me to find a therapist and sit down and not pick him apart faster than he can decipher me?”

“You could talk to me,” I said.

“Not when you’re part of the problem, part of what I’d need to work past.”

“That’s not fair,” I told her.

“No, it isn’t,” she admitted.

Echidna spat out volumes of clones at the defensive line.  The reaction was only a little slower than it should have been.  Squads still weren’t operating as squads.  Legend and Eidolon were offering support fire from above, but they were standing apart from the rest, in a much different way than Tattletale and I were.

“It’s not you,” Tattletale said.  “It’s more about my relationship with you.”

“This isn’t the point where you confess your undying love for me, is it?”

She snorted.  “No.”

“Then what?  Or is this just going to be another secret you keep?”

“All of the good secrets are getting found out anyways, or so Regent said.  I suspected they would be, for the record.  Part the reason I dished like I did was to put us in a good position in case the juicy stuff did come out.”

“Not sure I buy that,” I said.

“You don’t have to.  It was only a part of it.  And I understand if a more in-depth explanation is overdue, but I need to turn it around in my head some, get it to the point where I can share it without it coming out wrong.”

“Your trigger event?” I asked.

“That’s a part of it.  But can we please put that off until after we’ve torn a hole in reality and stopped the pseudo-Endbringer?”

“Just tell me this isn’t another educated guess.”

“It’s not.  Except for the bit where we might be able to find the right universe.”

“When you’re saying it’s not an educated guess, is that because you’re sure or because it’s an uneducated guess?”

“I’m mostly sure.”

I sighed, loud enough for her to hear.

She grabbed my hand and pulled me in the direction of the van she’d brought.  Labyrinth’s church had expanded considerably, and Scrub was very deliberately keeping his distance, keeping the company of Gregor the Snail, Newter, Shamrock and Spitfire.  They looked a little the worse for wear, with burns, scrapes and bandages.  Had Tattletale pulled them away from a job?

“Hey, F,” Tattletale said, smiling.

Faultline didn’t return the smile.  “You’re aware that I’m going to track you down, beat you to a pulp and leave you tied up for the authorities to collect if we don’t get our payment?”

“You’ll get your payment the minute I have access to a computer Shatterbird hasn’t toasted,” Tattletale said.  “No sweat.”

“I’m harboring serious doubts,” Faultline said.  She glanced at Echidna, “But I can look at this situation, and I understand if there’s a rush here.  How does this work?”

“Really simple,” Tattletale said.  “We should get Labyrinth clear, though.  Then I’ll show you.”

Faultline gave her a look, then hurried to Labyrinth’s side, dodging a wall that was erupting from the ground to fit into the greater structure.  The ground surrounding the temple-like tower had changed, with an ornate inlay of what looked to be artificial flowers.  The petals were gold leaf, the stems the black-gray metal of iron.  The thorns, I couldn’t help but notice, were real, like needles, sticking out of the ground.  Dangerous ground to tread.

As Faultline led Labyrinth to safety, I put one hand on Tattletale’s shoulder to get her attention.  “You sure?”

“I’ve got a theory.  With the clues on the passengers that we got not so long ago, about the powers, the idea of how the things work, I’m getting a sense of the bigger picture.  I think I could spend a decade working it out, but the basics of it?  I think there’s a lot of powers that are a lot more versatile than their owners are aware, because they never get the opportunity to leverage it.”

Above us, Legend followed through on one cape’s attacks, opening a wound in Noelle’s side.  Grace leaped in as the laser stopped, grabbed a cape that had been exposed by Legend’s attack, then kicked herself free, bringing the cape with her.

Another cape exhaled a cloud of what might have been acid vapor in Noelle’s direction, apparently to slow the healing of the wound.  It didn’t make much of a difference.

“Based on what?” I asked Tattletale.

“It’s all part of a whole,” she replied, absently.  Her focus was on the others.  “Scrub!  Get closer to the tower!  Everyone else, get back!  Labyrinth, don’t use your power any more!  Hold off!”

Heads turned.  People had no doubt noticed the tower, but now something was happening.

Scrub stepped closer, and one of his explosions ripped through the air.  Another followed shortly after, intersecting one area of altered road.

Like a gas in the air that had been ignited, the entire thing went up in a heartbeat.  In an instant, it was a white void, as undefinable as Grue’s darkness, perceivable by the edges, but with zero depth or dimension.  He’d shunted out the entire structure, as well as everything that had altered on the ground, but nothing had come back.

The door had been kicked out of the frame.

To look at it, I’d almost expected a rush of wind as the void on the other side sucked everything into it, like the vacuum of space.  There was only the sensation of a breeze as the air flowed into it.

Alexandria landed next to us, with enough force that I nearly lost my footing.  Every set of eyes that wasn’t on Echidna was on us, now.

“What did you do?”

“Made a hole,” Tattletale said.

Apparently.  You didn’t ask?  You didn’t consider the ramifications of this?  Close it now.”

“Who said we could close it?” Tattletale asked.

“You’re a fool,” Alexandria said.  She set one hand around Tattletale’s neck.  She could have killed Tattletale with a squeeze, but she didn’t.  A threat.

“I’d be careful,” a cape growled, from the periphery of the scene.  I didn’t recognize the man.  He wore a costume in orange with red metal claws.  Alexandria turned to look at him, and he added, “Wasn’t so long ago that your partner called us all fools.”

In the background, Echidna screeched.  She fought her way forward through the crowd, but the battle lines were holding, now.  Our side hadn’t been surprised, this time, and the only capes in her reach were capes she couldn’t absorb.  The rest were staying well back.

She wasn’t an Endbringer, in the end.  It would be impossible to trap any of them like this, to get an advantage.  They had other tools, ways to exert pressure that were entirely independent of their own abilities.  Behemoth generated storms and background radiation, Leviathan had the waves, the Simurgh had her scream.

“That wasn’t him,” Alexandria said.  “It wasn’t Eidolon who said that.”

“Close enough,” the cape said.  “Let her go.  You can’t throw around authority you don’t have.”

“As of this moment, I am still Chief Director of the PRT, and I am the leader of the Protectorate team that overlooks the second largest city in the United States.  That hasn’t changed.  At the end of the day, I’ll face any consequences I have to, but for now, I’m still in charge.”

“Your authority doesn’t mean anything if they don’t accept it,” Tattletale said, staring Alexandria in the eyes.  “Put me down.”

“I can’t let this go any further.”

“In case you haven’t noticed,” Tattletale said, “There’s no further to go.  It’s pretty much gone.  All that’s left is to find out whether this is a useful trick we just pulled or a really useful trick.”

“Useful?”  Alexandria asked.

“Worst case scenario, it’s a place we can dump Echidna.  A place where she won’t be able to hurt anyone.”

“Or?”

“Or Labyrinth figures out that she can work with this.”

The hole blurred, colors consolidating into forms.  I could see Faultline standing by Labyrinth, arms folded.

“Labyrinth… the shaker twelve,” Alexandria said.

“That’s the one,” Tattletale said.  “Mind letting go of my throat?”

Alexandria let go, but settled her hands on Tattletale’s shoulders.  The implied threat was still there, just not so imminent.

“It’s deep,” Labyrinth said.  Her voice was faint, as if from far away.  “There’s so much there.  Worlds that I didn’t make.”

“All parts of a whole,” Tattletale mused.  “Okay, Labyrinth.  The world we’re looking for isn’t very deep at all.  In fact, it’s very, very close to the surface.  When you push into that world, it’ll feel easier.  Like a path that someone’s already walked, more than once.”

“There’s two like that.”

I would have missed it if it weren’t for my bugs.  Alexandria reacted, stiffening, a slight straightening of her back.

Behind us, Echidna roared and threw herself against the barrier of ice and forcefields that surrounded her.

I turned toward Alexandria.  “What?”

“I didn’t say anything,” she responded.  Her hands still rested on Tattletale’s shoulders.

You didn’t have to, I thought.  But I wasn’t sure how to use the information, and I didn’t want to distract anyone from the subject at hand.

“Look,” Labyrinth said.  “One’s like this…”

The image shifted.  I wasn’t the only one who walked around to get a better view through the window.  The landscape on the other side the window was different, the grassy hills that had been Brockton Bay before settlement, the distant beaches.  There were houses, but they were squat and blocky, half-overgrown.

Again, the slightest reaction from Alexandria.

“…And here’s the other.”

Another landscape.  A city, like Brockton Bay, with different buildings.  Intact, undamaged.  It looked like a back road, one that didn’t get much in the way of traffic.  Apparently the streets in that Brockton Bay were in different places.

“Earth Aleph,” Tattletale said.

The Travelers’ world?

“Are you insane?” Alexandria asked.  “There’s sanctions, treaties, truces.  If you open this hole to Earth Aleph, it could mean a war between universes.”

“If that war was possible,” Tattletale said, “We’d have had it already.  The possibility of a whole other world of resources is too much to pass up.  Sure, our side has more raw firepower, by a factor of a hundred, but their side has just as many nukes.  It’s a zero sum war.”

“You don’t understand what you’re getting into.”

“What I understand is that accidents happen, and everyone in earshot will call this particular interuniversal portal as an accident, because it keeps things peaceful.  I also understand that this keeps Brockton Bay on the map.  Any other circumstance, people are going to keep trying to scrap this city, to accept that it’s too costly to rebuild, that the criminal element holds too much power.  They’ll throw bill after bill out there until the right combination of people are in power, the right hands can be greased, and Brockton Bay gets bulldozed and paved over.”

“It still could,” a cape said.

“Oh, sure, theoretically,” Tattletale said.  “But there’s really two options here.  Either we spread the word, and a whole sub-industry explodes around this simple little doorway, accessing and trading information between worlds, research, a mess of other stuff, a city full of residents who’ve put up with disaster after disaster get work, get their homes rebuilt, and ultimately get their second chance.”

“Or we keep this a secret,” I finished her thought, “And we get none of that.”

“Or we keep this a secret,” Tattletale agreed, “We do what Alexandria wants, and everything stays hush hush, just the way the big bad secret organization likes it.”

I could see the capes around us paying attention.  Ten, fifteen capes, from cities all across America and Canada.

“You have no idea what you’re doing,” Alexandria said.

“Fucking you over?”

“You’re putting everything at stake.  All of us, this world.  Even if we ignore the chance of our very first interdimensional war-”

“Traitor!” someone shouted from the sidelines, cutting her off.

Alexandria turned her head to try and identify the culprit.  I got the impression she wasn’t used to people insulting her.  There were more capes nearby.  Miss Militia had backed up, but was keeping her eyes on the spot where Echidna was trapped.  On the far side of the clearing where the gateway stood, Gregor the Snail escorted a bound Sundancer and Ballistic to the periphery of the area.

“I can’t help but agree with Alexandria,” Faultline said.  “This is reckless.”

“More than a little,” Tattletale agreed.  “But I’m not sure you heard the full story.  I only heard it secondhand, and I was with you from the time your helicopter arrived.  When we last ran into Newter, you guys were looking for dirt on Cauldron.  You still looking?”

Faultline’s eyes narrowed.  “Why?”

“No less than ten minutes ago, Eidolon’s evil double admitted full culpability.  The Triumvirate, much of the upper levels of the Protectorate.  Kidnapping people from other universes, experimenting on them to figure out some power-inducing formulas, dropping them here.  Might help you to understand why people are giving Alexandria the evil eye.”

Faultline glanced at Alexandria.  “A little too easy, to find out like this.”

“It’s not the full story,” Tattletale said, “Not by half.  But it should inform your call on whether to side with her or not.”

Faultline frowned.  “That’s not… no.  Maybe she is the person behind the scenes.  Fine.  But that doesn’t change the fact that she might be right.  Better to have Labyrinth find another universe to link to.  Maybe one where a mountain is blocking the other side of this gateway, if we can’t close it.”

“Why do you have to be so reasonable?” Tattletale asked.  “That’s the worst of both worlds.”

“It’s not war,” Faultline retorted.

“Stop,” Chevalier said.  People parted to give him room to enter the clearing.  “There’s other concerns.  The deal that was described to me was that the Travelers would do what they could to eliminate Echidna.  Failing that, we find a way to move her through the gap and deposit her in a place where she can do no harm.  That’s our first priority.”

There was a murmur of agreement.

“Want to go home, Sundancer?  B-man?” Tattletale asked.  “Genesis?  Oliver?”

Ballistic, Genesis and Oliver stared at the opening.  Sundancer was shaking her head.

“What?”

Sundancer spoke, “I… it’s not home anymore, is it?  I’m not me.  Can’t go back to the way things were.  I’ve killed people.  Accidentally, but I’ve killed.  I have powers.  If I went there, I wouldn’t be Marissa.  I’d be… Sundancer.  I’d be famous.  If anyone found out about me, or if there was something in the media that goes between worlds, that clued them in…”

“They don’t have to know,” Tattletale said.

“I don’t… I don’t know if I can.”

I spoke up, “Are you talking about going home, or killing Noelle?”

“She’s… she was my best friend.”

“She’s not Noelle anymore,” I said.

Sundancer shook her head.

“Go,” Tattletale said.  “She’s not happy like this.  You do this, then you go home.  You give your mom a hug, fabricate an excuse to explain why you disappeared, and then go back to life as normal.  Never use your powers again, if you don’t want to.  See if you can eventually convince yourself that none of this ever happened.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“No.  But it’s a hell of a lot better than staying here, isn’t it?”  Tattletale asked.

“She’s my friend.”

“Was,” I said.  “It’s a big difference.”

Sundancer looked at the mound of ice, rock and forcefields.  Echidna was thrusting her clawed hands through the barriers, only for them to be reinforced.

“Are there… does she have anyone inside her?”

“There’s-” Tattletale started.  I flew a bug into her mouth and down her throat, and she choked.

“No,” I lied.  “I’ve been keeping track with my bugs.  Weld and the others got everyone out.”

Saved everyone they could.  If Weld had backed out and nobody else was able to free the small handful that were still trapped, that was it.

Nobody was correcting me.  They knew, but they weren’t correcting me.

Sundancer hung her head.  She started approaching Echidna, her hands cupped in front of her.

“Move!”  Chevalier shouted.  “Clear out of the way!”

Capes began to retreat.  Final patch-up jobs were thrown onto the mound of rock, forcefields and ice before the respective capes turned and ran.

It took Sundancer a long few seconds to form the miniature sun.  When it was formed, she held it over her head, letting it grow with every passing second.

I had to back away as the heat reached me.  I could note how the ice was melting, even though it was a hundred feet away.

Echidna roared and threw herself against her temporary prison.  Rock and melting ice tumbled away.  She began to claw free, until her upper body was exposed.  Capes opened with ranged fire, tearing into her forelimbs and limiting her mobility.  Alexandria dropped Tattletale and cast off her cape, before flying in and helping to hold Echidna in place.

“Marissa!”  Echidna screamed, her voice guttural, voiced from five different mouths.  “Mars!  It’s too soon!  I want to kill them!  I want to kill them all!  Kill this world!  Destroy this universe that did this to me!  Not yet, Mars!”

The sun flew forward, melting pavement as it traveled, before it enveloped Echidna, Alexandria and the prison of ice and stone.

It hung there for nearly a minute, deafening with its sizzling and crackling.

The sun flickered and went out. Echidna wasn’t there any more.  Only sections of her feet were still in contact with the ground, bones and claws scorched black, crumbling and decaying like any part of her did when disconnected from the core that supplied her with power.

Alexandria was there in the midst of it, panting for breath.  Her costume had burned away, and only the metal pieces remained, including helmet, belt and metal underwear, each so hot they were melting and running over her skin.

But Sundancer was already turning away, not wanting to see it for herself.  She pulled off her mask and threw it aside.  Blond hair tumbled down around her shoulders, half-covering her downcast face.

Piece by piece, she removed her costume, not caring in the slightest about the watching crowd.  Each discarded piece sank into the melted ground around her or smoked on contact with it.  When she’d finished, she wore only her camisole and terry shorts.  The ground was still shiny and smoking from the sheer heat as she approached, left cool and solid in her wake.

She stepped into the portal, without a word, and then looked around, confused.  She took another few steps, and passed around the side of the portal as though it were merely a corner, out of sight.

The other Travelers went through next.  Oliver and Genesis didn’t look like anything but ordinary people, with no costume or monstrous form, respectively.  They merely passed through.

Ballistic hesitated for long seconds.  “Trickster?”

“We have him in custody.  He’ll go to the Birdcage,” Chevalier said.

“Good.  Because we don’t want him,” Ballistic said.

He walked through the portal, still wearing his costume.

“Can you close it?” Faultline asked, when Ballistic had disappeared from sight.

“No.  Not really,” Labyrinth said.  “I can pick a different world.  So there’s no war.  Or do like you said, find a place where a mountain covers the hole.”

“Feel free,” Tattletale said, grinning.  “In fact, that might even be more useful.  Can you imagine how significant Brockton Bay might become, if we had a whole unpopulated world to get to, harvest for resources, and Brockton Bay was the terminal you had to pass through?”

Faultline frowned.  “You used us.”

“I hired you.  Not my fault if you didn’t ask for enough money.

Faultline put her arm around Labyrinth’s shoulders.  “Can you find a world without people?”

“I… yes.  There’s one with lots of trees.  I’m looking all over, and I can’t find anyone at all.  Not even on the other side of the oceans.  Only animals.”

“That’ll do,” Faultline said.  She looked at Tattletale, “Not for you.  Only because I couldn’t stand to let her be responsible for an Endbringer finding a defenseless world.”

“Much obliged, whatever the reasoning,” Tattletale replied.  She flashed a smile.

Faultline only frowned and turned to usher Labyrinth away.

“Wait,” someone called out.

Weld, with the red skinned boy and Gully beside him.  They caught up with Faultline’s crew.

Whatever words they exchanged, I didn’t get a chance to hear.  There was no way that the ‘monsters’ could serve the Protectorate.  Faultline was a known element, someone who had, as far as everyone was aware, always been good to the people I was now thinking of as the Cauldron-made.

I couldn’t even begin to guess where they’d go from there, but they’d have stuff to talk about, no doubt.

I’d mentioned to Tattletale that I’d felt adrift, after letting Dinah go.  Untethered, I think, was the word I’d used.  Everyone here now felt like that, to some degree.  The future had never been quite this uncertain.

I saw Alexandria standing by the sideline.  Eidolon had gathered her heavy cape where she’d tossed it aside and was helping to drape it around her shoulders.  I wasn’t the only one looking, but she was oblivious, uncaring.  She still stood with all the confidence in the world.

She was barely covered, with one hand pinching the cape shut in front of her, traces of now-cooled metal lacing through her hair, the eyebrow and eyelashes of her one good eye.  It highlighted the lines at the corner of her eye, a finer metal finding its way into the crevices.  Her other eye held only a scarred over ruin with cooled metal pooled in the deeper recesses.  There were nubs of melted metal rods, no doubt there to help hold a high-end prosthetic in place.  Tinker-made, if she’d been hiding her injury to play the role of the PRT’s Chief Director.

Without Echidna to divide our number, our ranks were free to line up in a rough semicircle around Alexandria and Eidolon.

“Nobody can know what happened today,” Alexandria said, utterly calm.

Someone scoffed.  “You want us to keep your secret?

“Not the secret,” she said, unfazed by the scoff.  “Echidna.  Four capes were inside her when she was scoured away.  More were injured or killed in the course of the fight, or in Shatterbird’s attack.  We can’t cover that up.  We shouldn’t.  They were good capes.  But we can’t tell the whole story.”

“You don’t get to say that,” the ice-generating cape said.  “You have no place, saying that.”

“I won’t argue,” Alexandria said.  “Everything we did, we did for the right reasons.  I understand it’s ugly, without the context.”

Someone at the front spat in her face.  Alexandria didn’t even blink.  She let the spit run down around the ruined pit where her eye had been, much like she had with the molten metal.

“If word were to get out about the clones, the ramifications would be too damaging.  We’ve spent decades cultivating an illusion, that we’re heroes.  Decades shaking the idea that we’re killing machines.  The nature of this fight threatens to reveal just how much damage even the more mundane of us parahumans could do to the common people.  That’s not only the clones and what they did, but how we dealt with the clones, in turn.  We can’t shatter the image that the Protectorate has so painstakingly built, or the entire world will turn on us.”

“And the Protectorate?” Miss Militia asked, her voice hard.

“What of it?”

“The involvement with Cauldron.  It won’t stand, not like this.”

“It has to,” Alexandria replied.  “Too much depends on the Protectorate, even internationally.  If it crumbles, then the whole world suffers for it.  Other teams around the world would go without the resources we provide.  If it means keeping the Protectorate intact, I will step down.  I’ll tender my resignation as Chief Director of the PRT, effective the moment I can reach my desk.  I’ll consent to being watched until the moment I can step down as Alexandria, if you are uncomfortable with me continuing to serve the Protectorate in costume.  Eidolon, I’m sure, will do the same.  Myrddin’s death will be excuse enough for our retirements.”

“What about Legend?” Miss Militia asked.

Alexandria raised her head, staring up at where Legend hung in the air, unmoving.

“He was only aware of the most basic elements.  That Cauldron sold powers, but not how we tested them.  He did not know of our relation to the Nine.”

“He made excuses for you,” Miss Militia said.  “Lied.  We can’t trust him any more than we can trust you.”

“I’m aware.  But what he does next is ultimately up to him.  I am only telling you what I know, and I know he did not know as much as Eidolon and I did.”

“That’s not good enough,” a cape said.  “You’ve committed crimes against humanity.  You bastards should be tried.”

“Do that, and the whole world pays.  Every cape would come under scrutiny, both from other parahumans and from the public.  Teams would dissolve, faith would falter, and I sincerely doubt we’d last through the next two Endbringer attacks in that kind of a state.”

All around me, capes exchanged glances.  I could hear angry murmurs, my swarm could sense fists clenching in anger.

“And the captives?  The people from other worlds Cauldron kidnapped?”  Miss Militia asked.

“Anyone with clearance should know that the number of people with physical mutations has declined steeply.  We’ve stopped experimenting.”

“Or so you say,” Tattletale cut in.

“I do.  Tell me I’m lying, Tattletale,” Alexandria said.

Tattletale shook her head.

“You need us,” Alexandria said.  “If not for the assistance we can provide in the face of class-S threats, then for the image, for the idea.  I’m trusting that each of you are sane enough, reasonable enough, to understand that.  You could come after us, but I assure you it wouldn’t be worth it.”

“And Cauldron?” someone asked.

“As I said, we’re only barely involved.  If you want to try going after them and get justice for what happened to the captives, feel free.  Just know that we can’t help you there.  We can’t give you access or information, because they’re out of your reach, and in the wake of all this, they’ll be out of our reach too.”

I felt numb.  She was everything I despised.  Authority, the institution, the self-serving people in power, the untouchable.  All around me, I could hear angry voices, each trying to drown the others out.  Chevalier was among them, Miss Militia was quiet.

Tattletale was quiet, oddly enough.

“I-” I started, but the voices drowned me out.

My swarm buzzed with noise.  People startled and jumped as the bugs moved, shifting from the various positions where I’d more or less hidden them at elbows and in armor plates.

I stepped out of the crowd, toward Alexandria, and then turned my back to her, facing the capes.  So many eyes on me.

“She’s right,” I said, my swarm carrying my voice for effect.

Voices rose in anger, and again, I had my swarm move, buzzing violently, until they stopped.

“I’m not a public speaker, so I’ll make it short.  I’ve got a long history with the Protectorate, a hell of a lot more experience being angry with them.  I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for them, and that’s not a good thing, not entirely.  But Alexandria’s right.  Not about Cauldron, or the human experimentation.  I don’t know anything about that.  But she’s right that we shouldn’t make any rash descisions.  Talk it out with your teammates before you make a call.  Maybe the various team and squad leaders should convene, form a unanimous decision.  I don’t know.  But… don’t let your anger push you to do something that affects everyone.  Please.”

A second passed.

“You’re not with the PRT, are you?” a cape asked.

“No,” I said.

“So you don’t have to wake up tomorrow and go to work, pretend like everything’s normal?”

“No.”

“Work beside someone, wondering if they lied about their trigger event?  If they maybe got their powers from a bottle, something made only because some psychopaths,” he spat the word out at Alexandria, “Decided to experiment on innocent people and sell the results at a profit?”

“No.  I don’t really have to wonder about that.”

“Then where the fuck do you get off, telling us what to do, then?”

“Calm down, Jouster,” Miss Militia said.

“It’s fine,” I said.  “You’re right.  It’s not my place,” I said.  I looked at Miss Militia and Chevalier.  Clockblocker was just a little ways behind them.  “Thanks for hearing me out.  Good luck.”

Atlas flew to my position.  I drew my bugs around me and took flight, rising well into the air and hiding myself in the mass of bugs before pausing to adjust to a sitting position.

I saw Legend hovering in the air.  His fists were clenched, and he was looking down.  He looked agonized.

If I’d had any idea what to say, I might have approached him.  I didn’t.

With a command, I directed Atlas away from the discussion that could decide history, maybe even the fate of the world.

I sat on the railing of my balcony, Atlas’ body hidden behind the towel-covered railing, serving as a footrest while I fed him a much-needed meal.  Unfolded pieces of paper sat in each of my hands.

I couldn’t stand to be there any longer.  I’d said what I could, for what little it was worth, but I was too tired, the stakes were too high, and Jouster had been right.  The consequences might have been world-spanning, but it was ultimately up to the Protectorate to decide what happened next.  I didn’t like feeling that helpless.

Beneath me, some kids from my territory were carrying boxes of treats I’d ordered two days ago.  They’d take more than their fair share, but they’d distribute the treats to the other people in my territory, people who had likely gone a good little while without a chocolate bar or bag of chewy candy.

There hadn’t been any clones in my range as I zig-zagged my way to the North end, no signs of swarm activity.  I’d stopped by home, checked things over with my bugs, and my dad was there, more or less fine.

I’d go home in just a little while.  It wasn’t a peaceful place, though.  This was.  My territory, being with people I’d taken care of, people I’d protected and fought for.  My heart was easier here than it was around my dad.

I was aware of the approaching figure, twisted around to get a look at Lisa.

“Can I come up?”

I pointed at the door, followed her movements as she navigated her way past Charlotte and up the stairs.  She reached the balcony and stepped out to hop onto the end of the railing opposite me.

“I own the land the hole to the other universe is on,” Tattletale said.  “Or Coil’s fake name does, and I can finagle that so I have control over it.”

I nodded.  “The meeting?  Did they decide?”

“Legend left first.  Then Alexandria and Eidolon.  The heroes were still talking when I left.”

“Okay,” I said.  That didn’t mean anything, not exactly, but it was better than the alternative.  The longer they talked, the more tempers would cool.

Perversely, I almost hoped that Cauldron had the clout to silence a few angry voices.  I could only hope that they were few and far enough between that the story wouldn’t reach the public.

“Rex,” Tattletale said.

“Hm?”

“His name was Reggie, but he got into sports in high school.  They started calling him Rex, until everyone used the name.  I don’t mean this to be insulting, but you were kind of opposites in a lot of ways.  He was this popular guy, charming.”

“Your boyfriend?”

She laughed, a short sound.  “My brother.”

“Oh.”

“My family was well-to-do, I think that’s come up.”

“Yeah.”

“When you’re that rich, when you have people working under you who do the chores and handle the stuff that you’d normally do with your family, sometimes it’s hard to stay a family, you know?”

Not really, I thought, but I nodded.

She gave me a funny look, but she didn’t call me on it.  “It gets to this point where, you know, your cool older brother only spends time with you because it’s his duty as a sibling.  And when you realize that, it sort of hurts.  Makes it insulting.  I think I caught on to that around the time I started high school.  I stopped accepting those token offers of siblinghood.  We were brother and sister, we lived in the same house, went to the same school.  Our paths crossed, but we didn’t interact.  We were strangers.  He was caught up being the popular senior, and I kind of resented him for it.”

“For not being a brother?”

Lisa shrugged.  “Don’t know.  More for acting like a brother than not being a real brother.  For being the popular kid, being the favorite child, heir to the family businesses.”

“What happened?”

“I started noticing, he was in rough shape.  The smiles seemed fake, he’d get angry easier.  Was bottling something up inside.”

“What was it?”

Lisa shrugged.  “I’ve dwelled on it so long I’ve imagined possibilities and derailed my train of thought.  Even with my power, I can’t guess.”

“And something happened?”

“He slowly got more and more distant.  He’d fake more smiles, get a little more angry, a little more reckless.  And then one day he offed himself.”

Just around the corner, some kids were screaming and shouting as they played.  One boy was pelting another with chocolate pellets.  The victim shrieked in pain.

My bugs swept over the boy with the chocolates, and the pair froze.  They looked around, trying and failing to see me, then ran for the nearest alleyway, fight forgotten.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“So am I,” Lisa sighed.  “I’ve spent so long trying to figure it out, but I couldn’t.  You’d think the star athlete might be gay, but it wasn’t that.  Something else.  I let on to my family that I’d noticed something, after, and they started blaming me.  They were grieving, but that doesn’t excuse it, does it?”

I shook my head.

“Calling me stupid, an idiot,” Lisa looked away.  “It got to be too much, like I was in a pressure cooker, everywhere I went, it was about him, and there was always this feeling, like everyone was aware that I’d known something and hadn’t spoken up, hadn’t done something to help.  I think I had my trigger event while I was asleep, tossing and turning and dreaming about it all.  And then, boom, I wake up and I start figuring stuff out, with killer migraines on the side.  Maybe if I’d caught on that it was powers sooner, I might have been more secretive, but my dad caught on.  Did a complete turnaround.  Faked affection, hid the real feelings, all to get me to use my power for the family’s benefit.”

Lisa shrugged.  “I was already seeing too much ugly, even before the powers.  Seeing more of it?  Seeing when people were being fake, when everything else was still screwy because of Rex’s suicide?  It was too much.  I took more money than I should have from my parents and I ran.”

“And Coil eventually found you.”

She nodded.  “And I eventually found you.  I took one look at you, and I had a grasp of what was going on.  Didn’t take too long for me to notice that you had that same air around you that Rex did.  Maybe I did what I could to save you because I couldn’t save him.”

“Earlier, you said that you couldn’t talk to me about the problem because I was the problem.”

“I saw it when you pulled the trigger, offed Coil.  You saved Dinah, and you described how you felt adrift in the aftermath of it.  But you found a new focus.  You could fight Echidna.  Save the city.  Me?  When you shot Coil, I realized I was done.  I’d helped you out of the same trap of despair Rex had been in.  Don’t know if the road I helped you down was a good one or a bad, but I’d finished.”

“But why be reckless?  Why take the risks?”

“Because I did what I had to do, I helped you, and I still feel like the stupid, self-obsessed little child that let her big brother die.  It wasn’t conscious, but maybe I felt like I needed to up the stakes.  Pull something dramatic.  Show that, with these crazy smart capes like Alexandria and Faultline around, I could still be the smartest person in the room.”

“And do you feel like the smartest person in the room?”  I asked.

She stared out over the cityscape.  “Maybe- maybe when the interuniversal trade takes off.  Can you imagine?  With me and you as the top dogs?  The whole world will pay attention to us.”

I hopped down from the railing, walking around Atlas as I made my way to Lisa.  I wrapped my arms around her, and she returned the hug.

I crumpled the papers in my fists.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus #4)

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Dr. Jeremy Foster was woken by the sound of a distant gunshot.  He sat straight up in bed.

Another gunshot.

He reached over to his bedside table and found the remote.  A press of a button illuminated his bedroom.  He opened the drawer to grab the handheld radio and pressed the button.  “Report.”

Silence.

“Captain Adams, report.”

It wasn’t Captain Adams who responded.  It was a woman.  “Stay put, doctor.  We’ll be with you in a moment.

He was out of bed in a flash.  Remote in hand, he turned off the light and opened his bedroom door.

There were two figures in the hallway, cloaked in shadow, one large and broad, the other narrow.  The smaller one saw him and broke into a run.

He slammed the bedroom door and locked it in the same motion.  There was a crash as the figure threw himself against the door.  If the door were the usual wood chip and cheap cardboard, it might have broken, but Jeremy valued quality, even with the things one normally didn’t see.  His doors were solid wood.

The doorknob rattled as the doctor crossed his bedroom.  He reached for the underside of one shelf on his bookcase, pulled a pin, and then pulled the bookcase away from the wall.

The remote fit into a depression on the stainless steel door that sat behind the bookcase.  He made sure it was positioned correctly, then hit a button.  There was a click, and the door popped open a crack.  He had to use both hands to slide the door open.

The doorknob rattled again, then there was a heavier collision.  The bigger man had gotten close.

Safely inside, Jeremy pulled the bookcase tight against the wall, felt it click into place, and then shut the metal door of his panic room.

Monitors flickered on, showing his estate in shades of black and green.  At any given time, he had seven armed men patrolling the grounds and an eighth keeping an eye on the security cameras.  He could count seven fallen, including the man in the security office.   They lay prone on the ground, or slumped over the nearest surface.  One struggled weakly.

He picked up the phone.  There wasn’t a dial tone.

The cell phone, then.  He opened a drawer and picked up the cell.  No service.  There was only static.  They had something to block it.

There was no such thing as ‘security’.  However much one invested in safes, in armed guards, in panic rooms and high stone walls, it only served to escalate a perpetual contest with the people who would try to circumvent those measures.  Raising the stakes.

Helpless, Jeremy watched the invaders making their way through his house.  He was already mentally calculating the potential losses.  Pieces of artwork worth tens of thousands, valuables not secured in the safes…

The Magnes painting at the landing between the second and third floor, overlooking the ground floor foyer.  Jeremy winced at the realization.  He’d only picked it up two months ago.  The two million dollar price tag might have given him pause, but it was insured.  He’d bought all the furniture for foyer to complement the work, and now he’d have to find another painting to take its place and buy new furniture to match.

Except they were walking by the painting as though it weren’t even there.

A part of him felt offended that they hadn’t even stopped to admire it.  Philistines.

No.  There was a very good chance they were coming for him.

One by one, they entered his bedroom.  It was a blind spot of sorts.  He’d wanted his privacy, so the only ways to turn on the security camera in the corner of the room would be to unlock or open the balcony doors, break the glass or input a particular code.

He stepped over to the computer, typed in the code.  Simonfoster19931996.

The screen flickered to life, but it wasn’t his bedroom in the picture.  A field with four walls approximately where his bedroom walls had been, the six invaders waiting very patiently in the middle as walls stripped away to become tendrils, tendrils became vines and vines twisted together into treelike forms.

The window went quickly.  The ‘field’ of knee-length grass rippled as the wind caught it.

The bookcase was slower to degrade.  Books were rendered into leaves, shelves into vines.  He watched the image on the camera with an increasing sense of dread, glanced at the door.

The screen went black.

“No, no, no, no,” he said.

A crack appeared in the door.  Floor to ceiling.

He grabbed the handgun from the counter, double checked it was loaded.

Another crack crossed the door, horizontal, nearly six feet above the ground.

He disabled the safety.

With the third crack, the door fell into the panic room, slamming against the ground.  He fired into the opening of the doorway, and the acoustics of the metal-walled room made the shot far, far louder than it had any right to be.

There was nobody standing in the doorway.

He looked around.  The layout of the room wasn’t set up for a firefight.  Especially not a firefight that involved parahumans.  He crouched, kept the gun pointed toward the door.

They didn’t make a move. The floor of the panic room was being finely etched with markings that overlapped and wove into one another.  Where lines drew to a taper, points were curling up, strands slowly rising, dividing into finer growths and flaring at the top with the vague cat-tail like ends of wild grass.  He could see the clean-cut edges of the door curling, twisting into tendrils.  Some had teardrop shaped bulges on the end.

“Elle,” he called out.  “Labyrinth?”

All together, the bulges on the tendrils unfurled into tiny, metallic flowers, framing the doorway.

“She’s having one of her bad days, doctor,” the woman who had been on the other side of the radio called back.  “She’s not feeling very talkative as a result.  If you have something to say, say it to me.  I go by Faultline.”

Faultline pressed her back to the ‘wall’.  Not that it was really a ‘wall’.  Labyrinth’s power was slowly working on the metal, gradually twisting it into gnarled textures and branches. Shamrock was beside her, clad in a costume of skintight black leather with a green clover on the chest, her red hair spilling over her shoulders, a combat shotgun directed at the ground.  Gregor and Spitfire were on the other side of the door, holding similar positions.

Newter sat with Labyrinth on the bed, his tail circled around the girl’s waist, keeping her from wandering.  The bed was barely recognizable, nearly consumed by waist-high strands of hardwood-textured grass.

A cool summer breeze blew in through the opening that had once been the window, scattering dandelion seeds and leaves throughout the room’s interior.

“I don’t know what she told you,” the Doctor called out.  “I always treated her professionally, to the best of my ability.”

“We’re not here for revenge on her behalf, Doctor,” Faultline responded.  “We’re looking for information.”

“I’m not working with the Asylum anymore.  It’s been over a year.”

“I know,” she replied.

“Protocols have changed.  I can’t get you past security or anything like that.”

“The Asylum doesn’t really interest me,” Faultline said.  “Not why we’re here.”

“Then why?”

“Because we’ve been trying to track down people who can give us answers, and you stood out.  Spending a little too much money.”

“I’m a good doctor, that’s all!”

“Doesn’t account for it.  Comparing you to your coworkers at the asylum back then, you were spending too much money.  Just enough that I think someone was bankrolling you.”

“Your sources are wrong!”

“Don’t think so.  I think someone was paying you to keep tabs on certain individuals within the asylum.  Was it Cauldron?”

She shut her eyes, listened.  She couldn’t make out any telltale gasps or movement.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“The other possibility is that you were working for a foreign government.  A spy.  Or, to be more specific, you were working as a spy for several foreign agencies.”

“Look at my neighbors!  We do the same kind of work, we live at the same level!”

“Your neighbors are in debt, or they’re riding on the capital from smart investments.  You aren’t.  Just the opposite.  Your investments are nil, yet you somehow have enough money sitting in the bank that you can coast into retirement.”

“No,” the Doctor said.

“The difference between you and the other people on my list is that you were stupid about it.  Showing too much of the money.  If it wasn’t me who noticed, it’d be one of the people paying you.”

“Nobody paid me!  Your sources are wrong!  I am in debt!  Hundreds of thousands!”

“Let’s cut past the lies and bullshit, Doctor Foster.  I’m offering you a deal.  You and I both know that you won’t be able to maintain this lifestyle if your employers realize you were discovered.  Depending on who they are, they might even take offense.  Either they terminate their relationship with you or they terminate you.”

More of the house around them was blowing away, dandelion seeds in the wind.  The wall surrounding the window was gone, and the roof was well on its way to the same state.

“I don’t- you’re wrong.  These people you’re talking about, they don’t exist.  I don’t know them.”

“Okay,” Faultline said.  “Now, I’d have to double-check whether the person paying for the mission is willing to torture or kill you for the information we want…”

She hesitated, glanced at Gregor.  He shook his head.

“…And he isn’t.  Isn’t that good news?”

“God.  I’m just- I’m a doctor!  I work with politicians, sometimes with big name parahumans.  The- the president’s friends come to me!  But I’m only a doctor!  I’m not a spy!”

“Then you have nothing to worry about,” Faultline said, “if we leave and we spread the word that we thought you were involved.  If it’s an unfounded rumor, then nothing happens.  Maybe your reputation takes a little hit, but a powerful man like you will bounce back, won’t he?”

“Please-”

“But if you’re lying, if you are involved, the people who paid you to keep your eyes open and your mouth shut will be upset.  I don’t think you’ll be able to escape them by hopping on a plane to some remote country.”

She let the words hang in the air.

“I… if I told you, I would be in just as bad a situation.  Hypothetically.”

“Hypothetically,” she said, “I suppose you’d have to decide whether it was better to trust us and our professional, circumspect demeanor and the possibility that we’d let the details slip or whether you wanted to suffer the inevitable consequences if we started talking.”

There was another pause.  She waited patiently.

“I was supposed to find out just how much the United States knew about what was going on.  Like you said, keeping my eyes open.  Twice, putting a special thumbdrive into one of the main computers.  That was for the United Kingdom.  I sent regular reports to another group.  I think they were the C.U.  I didn’t do anything specific for them.  Just describing new inmates, recent hirings and firings, changes in policy.”

The C.U.l  China.  It was good to be right.  “Did you download anything onto the drives, or-”

“I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  I was supposed to plug them in, then wait.  After, I took them out and destroyed them.”

“Very possible it was putting a backdoor into place, giving your employer remote access,” Faultline said.

“Why does this matter?”

“That’s our business, not yours.  Did they ever show particular attention to an individual?”

“Some attention for the more powerful ones.  Nothing ever came of it.  I gave them more details, they paid me, that was it.  The patients stayed in the asylum’s custody.”

“If you had to, how would you get in touch with them?”

“Email.  Sometimes phone.  They changed handlers.  Been a while.”

“When did they last contact you?”

“Two years ago?  About?”

“Why?”

“Wisconsin.  The Simurgh attack.  There was an open call for civilian volunteers.  My contact from the U.K. left me a message.  Asked me to volunteer my medical expertise, see who was filtering out.”

“Did he have a handle?”

“Christof.”

Her heart leaped.  “Spell it.”

“C-H-R-I-S-T-O-F.”

A rare smile spread across Faultline’s face.  Finally, after weeks of looking, they’d found a connection between two clues.  Christof was a familiar name.  She glanced at the others, and Newter gave her a little ‘fist pump’ gesture, smiling.

“How much did he pay you?”

“He didn’t.  I refused the deal.”

Every clue points to a greater picture, how they operate and where the priorities are.  In a situation where every piece of information was valuable and every avenue of collecting that information crucial, there was a lot to be said for identifying where the major players weren’t looking for clues.  It suggested they already knew, they already had agents in play.

If they’d let him go so easily, there might have been others.  But it suggested they were interested in what had happened in Madison.

Which meant her crew had reason to be interested.

“Keep talking,” she said.  “Let’s talk about some of the other jobs.”

“Hate the heat,” Faultline said.  “I never thought I’d miss Brockton Bay, but the weather was usually nice.  Damn sun’s not even up and I’m sweltering.”

“It might be easier to bear if you wore something more… summery,” Newter commented, eyeing her short-sleeved dress shirt and the black slacks that were tucked into cowboy boots.  She glared at him, and he smirked in response.

She’d have to put him in check or he’d be intolerable for the rest of the day.  “Maybe I need to get the bullwhip?  Or did you forget the drills?”

Newter groaned aloud.  “You’re on that again.”

“On the wall.  Go.”

Newter leaped across the hotel room and stuck to the wall, one hand planted above his head so he could stay more or less upright, his tail curling around his lower foot.  “Pain in the ass.  You know I’ll have to scrub the hotel walls after to get rid of the footprints before we go.”

“Deal,” Faultline said.  “The practice could make the difference between you dodging a bullet and you moving too slow to avoid it.”

Spitfire and Elle stepped out of the bathroom, Spitfire with a towel in hands, drying Elle’s hair.

“How are we doing?” Faulltine asked.

Elle didn’t respond.  She chewed slightly on her lip, and her eyes looked right through Faulltine as she glanced around the room.

“I think we’re about a three,” Spitfire said.  “She brushed her teeth after I put the brush in her hands.  Why don’t you sit down on the couch, Elle, and I’ll brush your hair?”

“I’ll do that,” Faultline said.  “Get me a brush and then go finish getting ready.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Spitfire said.  She glanced at Newter, and Faultline suspected she saw an eye roll there.  Spitfire led Elle by hand in the direction of the couch, let go as Elle got close enough to Faultline.  Faultline led the girl to the couch, then sat on the back of the couch with her feet planted to either side of the girl.

She caught the brush that Spitfire threw across the room and set to brushing Elle’s white-blond hair.  “This is badly tangled.  Were you sleeping in a tree again?”

Elle nodded slightly.

“I’ll try to be gentle.  Let me know if I’m tugging too hard.”

Elle nodded again.

Faultline caught a whiff of hot sand, salt, and humid air.

“Don’t make water, okay, Elle?”  Faultline said.  “It’s not that we’re paying the deposit for the room, but it’s a matter of principle.  We’re professionals.  We don’t leave messes.”

The ocean smell faded away by the time Faultline had stroked the brush five more times.

“Thank you,” Faultline said.

The ‘Labyrinth’ power would typically clean itself up.  When they’d left Dr. Foster’s estate, much of it had been turned to leaves, grass and flowers with electric blue petals.  As the effect faded, the building would be restored.

What Elle’s power didn’t clean up was the aftermath the changes themselves wrought.  If a stone pillar toppled onto a car, the pillar might disappear, but the car would remain crushed.  A fire quenched by water would remain out, even as the moisture faded.

Gregor and Shamrock entered from the hotel room’s front door, holding hands.  Both were in their combat gear, with some adjustments made to adjust for the heat.  Shamrock wore black yoga pants and a green sleeveless t-shirt with her clover-leaf symbol on the front in black, her mask dangling from her right front pocket, her shotgun dangling from her free hand.

Gregor wore a fishnet shirt over bare skin, thick canvas pants and a snailshell-spiral mask strapped to his face, with holes worked into the gaps for his eyes.  The dark vague shadows of his organs were visible through the flesh of his broad stomach.

“I’m sorry the rest of us aren’t ready to go.  Slow start,” Faultline confessed.

“It happens,” Gregor said, in his accented voice.  “And I know it is almost always Spitfire, Newter or Elle at fault.  Not to say I would fault Elle.  But you should not apologize for any of them.  Only yourself.”

“Frankly, bro,” Newter said, “I’m surprised you’re even capable of moving.  It’s not like you slept a wink, know what I mean?”

Gregor lobbed a glob of goo at Newter, who leaped to the ceiling, cackling.  The slime bubbled away to nothingness.

“I took the role of leader,” Faultline said. “It’s my job to kick people’s asses and get them moving when we have a job coming up.”

“And I’m the client,” Gregor said.  He’d taken a seat in an armchair, and Shamrock sat in his lap.  Almost as an afterthought, he folded his arms around the young woman.  “I could ask that you and the team are more casual with this job.  Our destination is going to be there whether we leave before dawn or at sunset.”

Faultline shook her head.  “I’d rather treat this as I would any job.  If nothing else, keeping everyone on the straight and narrow means they won’t get sloppy on our next serious job.”

“Very well,” Gregor said.  “Then I’d like to leave within thirty minutes.”

“We’ll make it ten,” Faultline said.  “Pack everything up.  Spitfire can help Elle get her stuff on.  Elle makes us an exit from the balcony so we aren’t walking through the hotel in costume.”

She stood from the back of the couch, and nearly collided with a statue that had emerged from the wall above and around her.  A woman, back arched, hands outstretched to either side of Faultline.

She led Elle to the bedroom, where Spitfire was pulling the last of her fire-retardant gear on.  Her own gear was in a separate suitcase.

Faultline was a believer in doing things right.  Image came secondary to effect, and doing the job right was better for image than having the best costume.  Her own costume blended several functions.  A bulletproof vest, lightweight, with a stylized exterior, formed the most expensive single component of the outfit.  She tied her hair back into a crude bun, then gingerly drew the ‘ponytail’ from the side of the suitcase.  Unfolding the surrounding cover, Faultline slowly and carefully used her fingers to comb the fake hair onto a semblance of order.  The bristly hair extension masked a thin, flexible rod in the core, with painted spikes protruding at various angles.  It was all too common for an enemy to reach for the ponytail in an attempt to get her.  Their hands would be impaled on the waiting spikes, if they weren’t invulnerable, and the hair extension would come free, giving her a chance to escape.

Belts with various tools and weapons were strapped to her upper arms, forearms and thighs, held in place with suspenders.  Knives, lockpicks, various pre-prepared hypodermic needles, climbing tools, sticks of chalk, a mirror, a magnifying glass, iron wire and more were on hand if she needed them.  She ran her finger over the belts to ensure that each pocket was full.

She checked her semiautomatic, then slid it into the holster at her left hip.  A flare gun went into the holster at the right.  Flowing sleeves that would mask the belts and their contents were buckled on next, followed by a dress with a side pocket that would let her access the gun in a pinch.  The buckles meant that anyone pulling on the fabric would pull it free rather than get hold of her.

It was amusing, just how much of a contrast Labyrinth’s costume was.   The robe was easy enough to wear that she could put it on over her clothes.  It was green with a ‘maze’ drawn on the fabric.  There were no safety measures, only minimal supplies and gear.

Faultline donned her mask, more a welder’s mask with a stylized crack to see through than anything else, then led the other two girls back into the main area of their hotel room.

Newter had changed, but he didn’t need much.  He had handwraps and footwraps that left his fingers and toes free, basketball shorts and a messenger bag slung over one shoulder.  He was the first one to exit the apartment, disappearing out the window, then poked his head back in long enough to give a thumbs up.

Elle opened the window into a proper exit, complete with a staircase leading to the road behind the hotel.  Faultline paused to look at the looming stone wall, only a few blocks away.  Three hundred feet tall, it was all smooth stone.  Parahuman made, no doubt.  The barrier encircled the area the Simurgh had attacked, containing everything within.

Every house and building within three hundred feet of the wall itself had been bulldozed.  She couldn’t help but feel conspicuous as they crossed the open area.  It was dark, there weren’t any spotlights, but she couldn’t help but be paranoid.

“Cell phones are dead,” Shamrock commented.

Faultline nodded grimly.  Of course there wouldn’t be any transmissions into or out of this area.  No messages of any sort would be permitted.  Not even water entered or left the quarantine area, let alone communications or goods.  Anyone still inside was left to fend for themselves with whatever resources they could gather.

She’d checked and double checked the measures authorities were taking, ensuring that the area wasn’t being watched for intruders.  There weren’t any people on the wall, and the only surveillance was busy keeping an eye out for anyone who might be trying to make it over the top of the wall.

Going through the wall?  Anyone digging through would be caught by the daily drone sweeps, and anyone trying something faster would make too much noise.

Besides, they certainly didn’t expect anyone to be trying to get in.

Faultline touched the wall.  She felt her power magnifying around her fingertip on contact.  She just had to will it, and her power would dance around the contact point, leaving a hole a third of an inch across.  If she really pushed for it, it would extend several feet inside the object.

Her power worked better with multiple points of contact.  She touched with her other fingertip, and felt the power soar between the two, running through the surface like a current.

She let it surge outward, and a fissure appeared.

She tapped one toe against the wall, and power surged from either fingertip to the point of her toe, drawing a triangle.  Moving closer to the wall until she was almost hugging it, she moved her other toe against the surface.  Four points of contact, six lines.

Then she pushed, literally and in the sense of using her power.  The power surged into the object, the lines widening and she swiftly backed away as the resulting debris settled.

Once the dust had more or less cleared, she could make out a tunnel, roughly door shaped.  Her power had destroyed enough of the material that there was barely any debris on the ground.

“Labyrinth,” Faultline said, “Shore it up?  Make a nice hallway?  Taller and wider than this, please.”

Labyrinth nodded.  It took only twenty or thirty seconds before there was a noticeable effect.  By the time they were halfway down the tunnel, there were alcoves with statues in them and torches burning in sconces.

Walking through the tunnel was claustrophobic.  Faultline could handle that, but she could see Shamrock clinging to Gregor.  It made his progress through the narrow tunnel that much slower.

How fragile civilization is, Faultline mused, as she emerged on the other side.  Newter clambered up the side of the nearest building for a vantage point.

Some of it was the Simurgh’s doing, no doubt, but the thing that made her catch her breath was the degree to which things had degraded.  Windows were broken, plants crawled over the surroundings, a building had collapsed a little further down the street.  Stone was cracked, windows shattered, metal rusted.  The buildings, the cars that still sat in the middle of the street, they looked as though they had been left abandoned for a decade, though it was closer to a year and a half in reality.

It didn’t take much.  Animals found their way inside, fires started and spread, and weather damaged the structures.  Once the spaces were partially breached, the wind, sun, rain and temperature were free to wear on the interiors, and everything accelerated.

That damage, in turn, paved the way for other things to take root.  Mold could get into materials and surfaces.  Plants could take root, winding roots into cracks, widening them.  Ice did much the same in the winter months.

Still, it was so much, so fast.

She couldn’t help but think about what Coil had said about the world ending in two years.  However it happened, if it happened, how long would it be before nature had destroyed every trace of humanity, after mankind was gone?

“Pretty,” Labyrinth said, as she emerged from the tunnel.  Her head craned as she looked around.

Faultline and Spitfire gave the girl a look of surprise.  It wasn’t like her to talk on a bad day.

“You think so?” Faultline asked.

Labyrinth didn’t venture a response.

“Guess you like different architecture, huh?”

Still no response.  Faultline rubbed the girl’s hooded head, as she might with a dog.

Gregor and Shamrock were the last ones to exit the tunnel.

“All good?” Faultline asked.

“A little much,” Shamrock said.  “Knowing how tall the wall is, how much pressure’s bearing down over our heads… I’m a little claustrophobic at the best of times, and that’s worse than the best times.”

“We have some time before we need to pass through again,” Faultline said, “Maybe Labyrinth can make it wider, shore it up more so you’re more comfortable, for the future.”

Shamrock nodded.  “I hope so.  Thank you.”

“We’re looking for any signs of life,” Faultline said.  “Avoid confrontation if you don’t have backup.  We patrol this area in a pinwheel formation.  We have four people patrolling, each in a different cardinal direction.  Head three blocks out, turn clockwise, travel two more blocks, then zig-zag your way back to the center.  One person always waits with Labyrinth in the middle, so we have a fortified spot to fall back to.  We take turns staying with her, so nobody walks too long.”

There were nods from each of her subordinates.

“Flare if there’s any trouble or any find.  Everyone has their guns?”

Everyone did.

“Gregor and Shamrock babysit during the first patrol, don’t need anyone to backtrack, obviously.  Move out.”

It took only a second for Newter, Spitfire and Faultline to choose their individual directions.  Gregor and Shamrock stayed behind.

Better to give Shamrock a chance to calm down, Faultline thought.  Her boot heels made noise as she walked.

Doctor Foster had been asked to keep an eye on those being released from the city’s quarantine.  Each individual got a tattoo of a bird on one hand or on one arm, marking them as someone affected by the Simurgh.

It had been a short-lived policy, covering only two of the Simurgh’s visits to America in the span of four years.  Shortly after the second event, the idea was abandoned.  The idea, that people could take extra caution around anyone with a tattoo of a white bird, only generated prejudice.  The affected individuals couldn’t find work, they were beaten and they had their lives threatened.

The outcry had meant it was hard to spread the word about what the tattoos were intended for, and the problem was further exacerbated when some people had started getting the tattoos as a matter of protest.  In some poll a year back, something like six out of ten people had been unable to say why the tattoos existed.

But it wasn’t likely that the tattoos were why the Doctor had been asked to oversee this situation.

No.  The person who had assigned the Doctor the job, Christof, most definitely wasn’t working for the United Kingdom.  Christof was, according to data they’d picked up on a job a week ago, supposedly working for Cauldron.

Which meant Cauldron wanted someone expendable that could keep an eye on things.

Faultline noted a message scrawled onto a wall: ‘three thorn babys seen here may twenty. killed two one lived’.

Just below that line, there was another message, drawn in pink chalk that had streaked where moisture had run across it: ‘thanks’.

Faultline walked on.  Where doors were obviously open or unlocked, barriers hacked down, she peeked inside.  There weren’t any signs of people having resided anywhere nearby.

Her patrol carried her back to Labyrinth, Gregor and Shamrock, and the statue-topped gazebo that Labyrinth had put together in the meantime.  Newter had returned and was looking out from a nearby perch.

“No luck?” Shamrock asked.

“Signs of life, not too long ago, but no people.”

Gregor put down the backpack he carried and handed Faultline a water bottle.

Newter scaled his way down the side of the building nearly as fast as if he’d fallen, arriving a few seconds before Spitfire returned.

“Anything?”  Faultline asked.

“Ominous graffiti, not much else.”

“Those… spine babies, was it?”

“No,” Spitfire said.  “I couldn’t read it all.  Very broken English.  But it said something about a Devourer.”

“Let’s move.  We move up six blocks, then do another patrol,” Faultline said.  She thought about the Devourer, and the fact that the number one priority of the people in this place seemed to be warning about the local threats.  “And, until we’re out of here, we walk with our weapons at the ready, flare guns in hand.”

They moved up to the next location, moving deeper into the city.  Faultline was pleased that she didn’t have to order her team to hold formation.  They were practiced enough that they did it naturally.  Newter scouted out front, Gregor took the rear.  Shamrock took the right flank, shotgun at the ready, and Spitfire took the left.  Faultline moved in the center with Labyrinth.

She called the group to a stop when they had traveled far enough.  When they paused to look at her, she gestured for them to move out, staying with Labyrinth.

“Sorry to drag you around like this,” she said.  “Do you feel thirsty?”

Labyrinth shook her head.

“I know new places don’t help you feel more lucid,” Faultline said.  “And it’s more than just today.  We’ve been going from city to city, doing a series of jobs to try to dig up more info.  I wanted to say thank you.”

Labyrinth only stared around her, looking at the buildings.

“Maybe you want to stay here?” Faultline asked.

Labyrinth shook her head once more.

“Well, I’m glad.”

A flare detonated overhead.  Faultline whipped her head around.  Newter.

She bolted in the direction he’d gone, holding Labyrinth’s hand, pulling the girl after her.

When she saw Newter, she stopped, let herself breathe.

Civilians.  Five of them.  They were wielding improvised weapons.  A makeshift bow and arrow, spears.  Nothing that posed a serious threat to Newter.

“These are my friends,” Newter said.  He was holding his hands and tail up in the air.  “More will be coming shortly.  We’re not here to hurt anyone.”

“Why are you here?  You’re insane, coming to a place like this.  You know what the Simurgh does.”

“We do,” Faultline said.  “But we have a friend, she’s got a bit of precognitive talent.  Enough that it should clear us of any schemes the Simurgh is pulling.”

Eyes went wide.

“We’re looking for answers,” Faultline said.  “Information, either about or from the monsters who came through that portal the Simurgh made.  Give us something to work with, we’ll show you how to leave.”

“Assuming we want to,” one man said.

Why wouldn’t you?  Faultline wondered.  She chose to be diplomatic and keep her mouth shut.  “Assuming you want to.  I’m sure we could come to another deal.”

“Why do you want to talk to the monsters?” the woman with the bow asked.  She had improvised urban camouflage paint over her face.

Faultline gestured in Newter’s direction, was aware of Gregor and Shamrock arriving.  She turned her head to see Spitfire coming around the corner.  She gestured at her teammates, “These guys are my friends, and they’re my employees.  We want answers about why this happened to them.  Once we have those answers, we decide where we go from there.  If nothing else, it’s valuable info.”

“You’re on their side?” a man with a spear asked.

“Yes,” Faultline said.  “But I could be on yours too.”

The woman with the bow stepped away from her comrades.  Her weapon pointed in their general direction.  “You have a way out?”

“Yes.”

“And you just let us go?  There’s no catch?”

“No catch.”

“I… how do I know I can trust you?”

“You are one of us,” Gregor said.

The woman froze.

“Maddie?” a man asked.

“How did you know?” Maddie asked.

“I know this feeling, of being lost.  Of being very alone and not knowing who can be trusted,” Gregor said.

“How can I believe you?”

“Because we’ve been where you’ve been.  These two don’t remember, they had their memories taken,” Shamrock said, “But I didn’t.  I remember what it was like in there.  And I get why you’re afraid.”

“You were in there?”  Maddie asked, her eyes going wide.

Shamrock nodded.  “One moment, I was going to bed in my temple-school.  In another, I was in a cell.  A cot, a metal sink, a metal toilet.  Three concrete walls, a concrete floor and ceiling, and a window of thick plexiglass with a drawer.  You might know the kind of cell I’m describing.

“They drugged me, then they waited until I started showing signs that something happened to me.  It took them a while to figure out, because my power was subtle.  When they had an idea of what I could do, they gave me a coin.  I had to flip it when the doctor came.  If it came up heads, I got to eat, I got fresh clothes, a shower.  If it didn’t, I got nothing.  I realized I was supposed to control it.  Decide the result of the toss.  When I got good at it, they gave me two coins, and both had to come up heads.”

“How long were you there?” Maddie asked.

“I don’t know.  But by the time I saw the chance to escape, I had to roll twelve dice and each one had to come up with a six.  And if it didn’t, if I got more than a few wrong, they found ways to punish me.”

Gregor put his hands on Shamrock’s shoulders.

“They made me use my power.  I… I think I was one of the people they used to punish the ones who failed their tests,” Maddie said.

“Christ,” one of the men said.  “And the freak has been with us for a week?”

Maddie turned to glare at him.

“If it means anything,” Shamrock said, “I forgive you.  You didn’t decide to punish anyone.  We did what they made us do.”

Maddie flinched as though she’d been struck.

“Come with us,” Faultline said.  “You don’t have to stay with us, but we want to hear what you have to say.”

“I’m a predator,” Maddie said.  “Not because I want to be.  You don’t want me to be near you.”

“You were around them for at least a little while,” Faultline said.  “You can be around us for a few hours.”

Maddie glanced around, then nodded.  “When… when they tested you, did they give you a name?”

“They gave me a number at first,” Shamrock said.  “I couldn’t use my real name or they’d punish me.  When I passed a year of testing, they let me pick a codename.  I picked Shamrock.”

“I wouldn’t pick,” Maddie said.  “So they gave me one.  Matryoshka.  I… I don’t deserve my old name.  So call me by that one.”

“Layered doll,” Faultline said.  Matryoshka nodded.  “Let’s go.  We’ll leave the quarantine area, get you some proper food while we talk.  If need be, we’ll come back and see if we can find more people.  If you wanted to guide us for a return trip, maybe direct us to others, I could pay you.  Get you on your feet in the outside world.”

Matroyshka smiled a little at that.

It took a little while to verify that everything was in order at the hotel.  Nobody had noticed their exit and there weren’t any law enforcement officers stationed nearby.

They entered the hotel room much the way they’d left, with a makeshift ladder leading to the balcony, and quickly settled in.  Matryoshka gorged herself on the groceries Faultline had bought shortly after they’d arrived.  She stared wide-eyed at the television.  It was the first time she’d ever seen one.  It led to her excitedly describing her world between mouthfuls of food.

Faultline visited the bathroom, then stopped as a square of white caught her eye.

A note?

She opened the door to verify it wasn’t attached to anything, then pulled it into the room with the toe of her boot.  Closing the door, she unfolded it with her toe to verify that it didn’t have any powder inside.

Only a message: ‘Front desk.  Message from Brockton Bay.  ASAP.’

Brockton Bay?  Faultline frowned.  That would be Coil.  He was the only one with the resources to get ahold of her group.

She was loath to leave Madison while they were having some success pulling in more information on Cauldron’s operations, but… Coil did pay well.

Well enough to warrant a phone call.

She headed down to the lobby in civilian clothes, with Shamrock as backup.

Oddly enough, there was a wait at the front desk.  A young woman, dark-haired, wearing a suit and fedora, with luggage on wheels.

Arriving at four in the morning?

The woman smiled and tipped her hat at Faultline as she headed to the elevator.  Faultline watched her with a touch of suspicion.  She didn’t relax when the elevator doors closed.  She watched the floor number for the elevator tick upward until it stopped at ‘four’.  Two floors above the rooms her team was in.

“What is it?”  Shamrock asked.

“Gut feeling.”

“About the woman?”

“Just… felt wrong.  Do you mind going upstairs?  Check on the others?  Maybe tell them to be on guard, and get all the nonessentials packed up.  Might be paranoid, but I’m thinking we should change hotels.  Good enough chance we were seen, worth doing anyways.”

Shamrock nodded and headed for the staircase.

“You had a message for me?”  Faultline asked the woman at the front desk.  “Room 202.”

“Yes.  A phone number.”

Faultline nodded.  She took the piece of paper with the number, then stepped outside to call it on her cell.

The person on the other end of the phone picked up on the first ring.

“Yes?” Faultline spoke into the phone

“This is Tattletale,” the voice came through.

“Fuck me.” Faultline groaned.  “How the hell did you find us?”

“Long story.”

“What do you want?  We’re not available for any jobs.”

“Don’t want to hire you for a job.  In fact, bringing your guys into the current situation would be a fucking bad idea.  Pretty much all of you are… well, let’s say it’d do more harm than good.”

“You’re wasting my time, Tattletale.”

“It’s been a long night.  Cut me some slack.  I want to borrow Labyrinth.  I don’t care how many of the rest of you come.  Non-combat situation, use her powers.”

Faultline paused.  “Why do you want her?”

“Because I have a group of people here with very little to lose and nothing left to hope for, and I need them on our side.  I think Labyrinth can give them what they want.”

“Labyrinth’s powerful, but I can’t imagine any situation where she’d be able to give anyone what they wanted.  Her power’s temporary.  The kind of stuff you could do with her power… there’s easier ways.  Other people you could go to.”

“I think,” Tattletale said, and she managed to sound condescending, “That I understand her power better than you do.”

Faultline considered hanging up.

She sighed, then raised the phone back to her ear.  “You wouldn’t be baiting me if you didn’t think you could get away with it.  Cut to the chase.  What are you offering?”

“Three point four million.”

Faultline blinked.  Her surprise at the sum was tempered only by irritation that Tattletale had managed to get her hands on that kind of money.  “Double it.”

“Done,” Tattletale said.

A little too fast.  I’d think she was lying, but that’s not why she was so fast.  She expected me to make a counteroffer.  Probably decided the first amount with that in mind.

Faultline grit her teeth in annoyance.  “I want it in advance.”

“Sure,” Tattletale said, sounding far too pleased with herself.  “And done.”

A little too fast, again.  She had that set up, damn her.  “You have my account information?”

“Coil did.  Don’t worry about it.”

Faultline hung up in irritation.  She considered taking the money and refusing the job, but she -and Tattletale- knew her reputation as a mercenary was too important.

Should have refused.

She made a beeline for her hotel room.  She’d need to check the account information, then move funds to an account Tattletale didn’t know about.

A glance at the display above the elevator showed that it hadn’t moved.  Faster to take the stairs to the next floor than to wait.

Her heart skipped a beat when she heard the screaming.  Faultline flew up the stairs to the door, pushed her way into the second floor, and raced down the hallway to the hotel rooms.

There was blood on the door as she pushed it open.

How to even take this sort of thing in?  How to describe it?

Her team had been destroyed.

Gregor was in the kitchen, on his back.  His chest heaved, and he’d covered much of his upper body in a foaming slime.  What she could make of his face was contorted in pain, scalded a tomato red that was already blistering.

One of Newter’s arms, one of his legs and his tail had each been broken in multiple places.  The remains of the coffee table, the flatscreen television and one door of the television stand lay around him, where he’d sprawled into them.

Matryoshka had unfolded into a mess of ribbons, but knives from the belt Faultline had removed to go down to the lobby had her pinned to the wall in six different places.

Labyrinth was the one screaming, steady, almost rhythmically, with little emotion to it.  From the lack of affect, Faultline might have assumed she was in shock, but it was simply the fugue from her power.  A small mercy – two thin cuts marked her face, and one hand was impaled to the armrest of the couch by another of the small knives.

Shamrock was busy giving Spitfire a tracheotomy.  A fedora filled with slime was plastered to the younger girl’s face, and she was struggling weakly.  Shamrock’s own face was covered in blood from nose to chin, and her efforts to administer the tracheotomy were limited as the fingers of one hand were bent at awkward angles.

“The woman in the suit,” Faultline said, dropping to Spitfire’s side.  She noted the slime.  Gregor’s.  And Gregor had been burned with Spitfire’s breath?  “Power thief?”

Shamrock let Faultline take over, positioning the clear plastic tube that was sticking into the hole in Spitfire’s throat.  She had to spit blood out of her mouth before speaking, “No.  I don’t know.  She came in here and took us apart in twenty seconds.  We didn’t touch her.”

Spitfire coughed, then started breathing at a more normal rate.  She gave Faultline two pats on the wrist, calmer.  A signal of thanks?

“Super speed?  Super strength?”  Faultline asked.

“No.  Don’t think,” Shamrock spat blood onto the floor.  She tried to stand and failed, put one hand to her leg.  “Nothing I could see.”

“A thinker power.  Precognition?  No, that wouldn’t work with your power.  Fuck!”  Faultline scrambled to her feet, hurried to Labyrinth’s side. “Hey, Elle, calm down.  It’s okay, it’s over.  Stop screaming.”

Labyrinth shut her mouth, whimpered.  The cuts to the face were thin.  They’d heal with little to no scarring.  The hand-

Faultline stopped.  There was a piece of paper beneath the hand.

She helped Labyrinth raise her hand where it was impaled, leaving the knife in place.

The bloodstained piece of paper had a message on the underside.

Final warning.
-c

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Plague 12.2

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I’d spent nearly sixteen years in Brockton Bay, living a half-hour’s walk away from the ocean and I couldn’t remember ever being on a boat.  How sad was that?

I mean, I was sure I’d been on a boat before.  My parents had to have taken me on the ferry when I was a baby or toddler.  I just didn’t remember any of it.  My parents were introverts, by and large, and their idea of an outing had been more along the lines of a trip down the Boardwalk, a visit to the Market or going to an art gallery or museum.  Maybe once in a while we’d go to something more thrilling like a fair or baseball game, but no… this was the first time I could remember being out on the water.

It was exhilarating, the boat ride.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  I loved the feeling of the wind in my hair, the slight turbulence as the boat bounced on the short waves.  It wasn’t that different from how I had enjoyed riding Bitch’s dogs, and there was none of that primal, deep-seated worry that the hulking monster I was riding would turn around and snap my face off.  I’d almost think I had been destined to fly, based on how thoroughly I enjoyed myself, and that it was only bad luck that I’d gotten other powers instead… except I remembered flying with Laserdream as the Endbringer attacked, and  that hadn’t been the most enjoyable experience.  That might have been a special circumstance; I’d been dealing with the fact that I’d had a broken arm, I’d recently puked my guts out, I’d been soaking wet, and an Endbringer had been working on wiping my hometown and everyone I cared about from the face of the planet.

That day would almost feel like something that had happened in a dream, if I hadn’t spent every hour of every day since living in the aftermath.

Coil’s people had dropped us off along with two sleek motorboats, depositing them at the water’s edge.  Grue was in one boat with Bitch, her three dogs and a puppy she had on a long chain.

I wasn’t sure if the puppy conveyed the image we wanted, but with her attitude towards me lately, I wasn’t willing to comment and risk her going off on me.  She’d remained angry after I’d called her out on her screwing me over and setting me up for Dragon to arrest, but she’d left me more or less alone.

The puppy was cute.  It was skittish, especially around people, which seemed a little odd.  It wasn’t the kind of dog I’d expect Bitch to favor.  Too young, not vicious or intimidating in appearance.  On the other hand, skittish as it was, it had an aggressive streak.  It constantly hounded Bentley, nipping at his flanks, then spooking and running away the second the bulldog looked at him.  It had made for a fair amount of noise when we’d been getting the boats into the water.  One for Bitch, her dogs and Grue, one for the rest of our group.

Our boats weren’t out on the ocean.  We traveled through the area downtown where Leviathan had collapsed a section of the city.  It was now more or less an artificial lake.  The water was fairly still, lapping gently against the ruined roads and collapsed buildings that surrounded the crater, but with the speed these boats were capable of going, even waves a half-foot high made us ramp slightly off one and then crash down onto the next with a sudden spray.

Tattletale was at the back, steering the thing.  It seemed counter-intuitive, with the boat going the opposite direction she pushed or pulled the stick.  Still, she seemed competent at it.  Better than Grue, which I found slightly amusing.

From time to time, I was finding myself in a strange emotional state.  As I stayed alert for it, I was able to catch those moments, try to pick them apart for what they were.  The high-end motor whirred and the boat bounced over the waves, the wind and water getting in my hair, all while we headed into the most ridiculously dangerous and unpredictable situation we’d been in for weeks. It was one of those moments; I felt almost calm.

For a year and a half, I’d spent almost all of my time in a state of constant anxiety.  Anxiety about schoolwork, my teachers, my peers, my dad, my mom’s death, my body, my clothes, trying to hold conversations without embarrassing myself, and about the bullies and what they would do next.  Everything had been tainted by the constant worries and the fact that I’d constantly been preparing for the worst case scenarios and maybe even setting up self-fulfilling prophecies in the process.  I’d spent every waking moment immersed in it.  Either I was stressing over something I’d done or something that had happened, I was concerned with the now, or I was anxious over what came in the future: distant or near.  There was always something.

And that was before I’d ever put on a costume and found myself caught up in my double-crossing plan against the Undersiders and everything that had stemmed from that.  Before Dinah and running away from home, before I’d decided to go villain.  Stuff that made some of what I’d been worried over before seem trivial.

So why could I feel calm now?

I think it was that realization that there were moments where I was helpless to act, oddly enough.  This boat?  Speeding across the Endbringer-made lake?  I had to be here.  There was no other option, really.  As I clutched the metal rim of the boat with one hand while we soared forward, the wind in my hair, I could accept the fact that I couldn’t do anything in this time and place to get Dinah out of captivity sooner.

With that in mind, I surrendered myself of that responsibility for the present.  Much in that same way, I cast off all the other worries, great and small.

A light flashed ahead of us.  Three blinks, then two.

“Regent!” Tattletale called out.

Regent raised a flashlight and flashed it twice, paused, then flashed it twice again.

There was one flash in response.

Grue slowed his boat as we reached our destination.  Our meeting place was in the center of the lake, one of the buildings that still partially stood above water, leaning to one side so a corner of the roof was submerged, the opposite corner peaking high.  Tattletale didn’t slow our boat like Grue had his, and instead steered the boat in a wide ‘u’ to ride it up onto the corner of the roof.  Regent and I hopped out to grab the front of the boat and help pull it up.  When Grue rode his boat aground as well, a little more carefully, we helped him too.  Bitch hopped out and spent a moment using gestures and tugs on the puppy’s leash to get her dogs arranged and settled.

Hookwolf and his Chosen had situated themselves at the corner of the roof that stood highest from the surrounding water.  Hookwolf stood with his arms folded, densely covered in bristling spikes, barbs, blades and hooks, only his face untouched by the treatment, covered by his metal wolf mask instead.  Othala, Victor and Cricket were sitting on the raised edge of the roof behind him.  Stormtiger floated in the air just beside Cricket, and Rune had levitated three chunks of pavement into the air behind the group, each the size of a fire truck, like weapons poised at the ready.  She sat on the edge of one of the chunks, her feet dangling over Victor’s head.  Menja stood just behind Rune on the floating piece of shattered road, twelve feet tall, fully garbed in her valkyrie armor, a shield in one hand and a long spear in the other.

I almost missed it in the gloom, but when I did spot it, it was almost impossible to ignore.  On every patch of skin I could see in the Chosen’s group, scars and scratches had just barely healed over.  There were still faint indents and lines of pale skin that marked where the deep lacerations had been.  The little scars made patterns across their skin, some spraying out from a single point, others running parallel to one another, going in the same direction like a snapshot of rainfall imprinted on their skin.  With that many scratches and scars, they must have been hit hard.

Faultline’s group was gathered to one side.  Faultline, Newter, and the new member Shamrock wore more concealing costumes than their usual.  Faultline’s face was covered in a tinted visor, and her arms and legs were covered in opaque gloves and leggings.  Labyrinth and Spitfire were fully decked out in their usual concealing robe and fire-retardant suits, respectively.  Only Gregor showed skin.  The barnacle-like growths of spiral shells that covered his skin had multiplied on one side of his body, until there was more shell than skin.  The skin around it was crimson enough that it stood out in the gloom.  It looked tender.

I saw a flash of light above us, and spotted Purity in the air high above the rooftop, using her power to create a flare of light, extinguish it, then create it again.  There was an answering series of flashes from across the water.  It was a different set of signals than the ones she’d set up with us.  It made sense for the light signals to be different from group to group, so Purity could keep track of who was coming and where from.  The main reason we’d agreed on this meeting place were the seclusion it offered, and the fact that it was just hard enough to access that the Nine wouldn’t be able to approach without us knowing.  Hopefully.

All at once, an incoming boat made its presence known.  As though a switch was flipped, there was the sound of something that sounded like the combined noise of radio static coming from a bank of speakers, an eighteen wheeler with the muffler off and an onrushing train.  It wasn’t just noise – the vehicle flickered with flashes of electricity and lights that people could probably see from anywhere downtown.

Seeing it approach, I had no doubt it was a tinker contraption.  It was the size of a small yacht, but it looked outfitted for war, with what looked like tesla coils crossed with old school tv antennae fueling its forward momentum and sending arcs of electricity dancing over the waves in its wake, as though it was riding on a current of lightning.  Various guns had been placed haphazardly around the upper deck, each manned by a Merchant.  Skidmark stood at the highest deck with Squealer, the driver.

Squealer had apparently never grasped the concept of elegance in design.  From what I’d read and heard, she went for size, augmentations and additions when she built her vehicles.  She was kind of the polar opposite of Armsmaster in that regard.

The hull of their boat scraped against the edge of the building, nearly running over the boat that Grue and Bitch had come in on.  All of the lights shut off, and the Merchants descended onto the roof.  Skidmark, Squealer, Mush, Scrub, Trainwreck, the telekinetic whirlwind lady with the long hair and one other.

Another reason for this meeting place had been subtlety, keeping out of sight and off the radar.  The Merchants apparently hadn’t gotten the message.

“Hey!” Hookwolf growled, “What part of keep a low profile don’t you fucking understand?”

Skidmark smirked, raising his chin to give it an arrogant tilt, “We did.  My Squealer built a box that cancels out light and noise at a certain distance.  Nice and in your face up close, almost invisible and silent when far away.  Isn’t that right, baby?”

Squealer just smiled.  It probably wasn’t as sexy or cute as she thought it was.  Aisha, when left to her own devices, was a pretty girl who dressed trashy.  Squealer, I felt, was more of a trashy woman who dressed trashy.

“Hey, Faultline,” Skidmark’s smirk dropped off his face as he realized who else was present.  “What the motherfuck were you doing, fucking with my party!?”

“You had something we needed.”  Faultline’s response was as measured and calm as Skidmark’s question wasn’t.

“Who hired you, bitch?  Tell me and my Merchants won’t come after you in revenge.  All you’ll have to do is return that shit you stole or pay me back for it.  Maybe you can spit-polish my knob for a little goodwill.”

“Not going to happen.”

“Then forget sucking my cock.  Pay me back and tell me who hired you and we’ll call it even.”

She shook her head.  It was more the kind of head shake that accompanied an eye roll.

Skidmark went on, “You’re mercenaries.  Don’t tell me you don’t have the cash.  I’ll only ask for five mil.  One for each vial you took.”

Fautline didn’t answer him.  Instead she looked at Hookwolf and asked him, “Did we really need to invite him?  Does he contribute anything to this discussion?”

“He has nine powers on his team,” Hookwolf responded.  “Ideology isn’t important.”

“He doesn’t have an ideology.  He’s just an idiot.”

“Enough of that,” Hookwolf snarled, his voice hard with a sudden anger.  “We don’t fight amongst ourselves.  Not on neutral ground.  Both of you shut the fuck up.”

Faultline shook her head and leaned over to whisper something to Shamrock.  The Merchants settled themselves on the side of the roof opposite our group.  Skidmark gave Grue the evil eye.  Was he still resentful over what had happened at the last meeting?  Being denied a seat at the table?

Another series of flashes served to alert us, indirectly, of incoming arrivals.  The Travelers appeared soon after.  Trickster, Sundancer, Ballistic each stood on the back of some kind of turtle serpent.  I couldn’t make out Genesis’s form in the gloom.  What little light was available came from the moon and Purity’s radiance from where she floated above us.  I could have used my bugs to get a feel for the shape Genesis had taken, but my habit was generally to place my bugs on clothing where they wouldn’t be noticed, and Genesis was effectively naked.  I didn’t know anything about them, but they were our allies.  I didn’t want to irritate her and upset anything between our two groups.

Coil was the last of us to arrive, maybe because he’d wanted to be fashionably late.  The two soldiers who’d driven his boat stayed behind.  Purity set down by where the boats had landed, followed by Fog and Crusader, who I hadn’t seen in the dark.  Night stepped out of the lake, between our parked boats and onto the roof, water streaming from her cloak.  Had she been the just-in-case measure if an incoming boat hadn’t known the signal?  She would be invisible in the pitch black gloom beneath the water’s surface, which would mean she wasn’t in her human form.

The way the Travelers and Coil had positioned themselves, we’d formed a haphazard ring.  From the top of the roof, going clockwise, the arranged groups were Hookwolf’s Chosen, Faultline’s crew, us, the Pure, Coil, the Travelers and the Merchants.

“It seems everyone is here,” Coil spoke, taking in the collected villains.  Forty-ish of us in all.

“Not quite everyone,” Hookwolf replied.  “Victor, Othala.”

Othala touched Victor, and Victor raised one hand.  A fireball appeared in it, then disappeared as he clenched his hand.  He repeated the process two more times.

“Who are you signalling?” Purity’s asked.  Her hand flared with light, ready to fire.

“It would be a grave and stupid mistake if you invited the Nine,” Coil told Hookwolf.

“We’re not stupid,” Hookwolf said.  Three answering flashes appeared over the water.  I heard the faint noise of a boat motor.  Everyone present on the roof readied for a fight, turning towards either Hookwolf or the incoming boat.  I used my power to call on local crabs, and to draw out the bugs I’d stored in the boat, keeping them close to me.

There were three more flashes, close, and Victor responded again.  In moments, the boat arrived.  It wasn’t the Nine.  It was the good guys.

Miss Militia was first out of the boat, and Battery activated her power to haul the boat up onto ‘land’ in a flash before stepping up to Miss Militia’s side.  Triumph, Weld and Clockblocker rounded out their group.  Our circle made room, though half the people present seemed to be tensed and ready to use their powers with the slightest excuse.

“It seems we have a problem,” Miss Militia spoke, as her group took her place between the Pure and us Undersiders.

“We do,” Hookwolf said.  “Two problems, actually.”

“Two?” Purity asked.

Hookwolf pointed at the Travelers, then pointed at Grue and the rest of our group.  “They’re being cocky, think they’re being clever.  Figure we should get all this out in the open, at least so you’re aware.  You too, Coil, Miss Militia.”

“Perhaps you’d better explain,” Coil responded.

Hookwolf pointed at each of us in turn, “Grue has been making attacks against my people in the upper downtown area.  Howling has been heard in the Trainyard.  Bitch.  Regent was sighted in the college neighborhoods.  Skitter made a move to take over the Boardwalk and claim it for herself.  Tattletale is either abstaining, or more likely, putting herself in the middle of the Docks and keeping her head down.”

“So?” Tattletale asked.

Hookwolf ignored her.  “Downtown we’ve got Ballistic attacking my people in the upper downtown neighborhoods, north of this lake here.  Sundancer was spotted in the shopping district, Genesis at the downtown coast, near the south ferry station. Trickster has been driving looters out of the heart of downtown, the towers.  You seeing the pattern?  All of them alone.  Most of them making moves to take a piece of the city for themselves.”

“We already knew they were talking territory,” Miss Militia responded, “This isn’t a priority.  The Nine-”

“They haven’t taken territory,” Hookwolf snapped back, “They’re taking the city.  Split it up all nice and proper between them, and now they’re taking advantage of the distraction the Nine are giving them to secure their positions before we fucking catch on.”

Grue looked at Trickster, and there was some kind of unspoken agreement between them.  Knowing Grue, I was certain he was deliberately ignoring Coil.  No use volunteering more information than necessary.

Trickster spoke, “We didn’t know the Nine were around before we put this into motion.”

There was a flicker of surprise on Purity’s face.  “So Hookwolf is right.  You are taking over.”

“Something like that,” Grue responded.

What was Hookwolf’s game?  Had he brought everyone here under a different pretext so he could ambush us on this front?

“This isn’t of any concern to us,” Miss Militia spoke, stern.  “The only reason we’re here is to get information on the Slaughterhouse Nine, their motives, and strategies for responding.”

“That might help you in the next week or two, but a month from now you’ll be regretting it,” Hookwolf told her.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think we have any other choice,” Miss Militia replied.

“We do,” Hookwolf said.  “They want us to lose our territories to them while we busy ourselves dealing with the Nine-”

“That’s not our intent,” Trickster cut him off.

“Pigshit,” Skidmark muttered.  He looked angry.  Even Purity had a hard cast to her face, or what I could see of it through the glare of her eyes and hair.  These were people who thought highly of themselves.  Whether that self-esteem was deserved or not, they didn’t like being played for fools.

All at once, this meeting had become about us versus them.  The Travelers and the Undersiders against everyone else.

Hookwolf said, “Then agree to a truce.  So long as the Nine are here, you’re hands off your territories, no fighting, no business.  We can arrange something, maybe you all stay at a nice hotel on the Protectorate’s tab until this is dealt with.  That’ll mean we can all focus on the real threat.”

Stay in a hotel until the Nine were dead, arrested or driven out of town.  He couldn’t seriously expect us to do that.

“I’m inclined to agree,” Coil answered, after a moment’s consideration.  “Perhaps now is an opportune time to share this information:  I have sources that inform me that should Jack Slash survive his visit to Brockton Bay, it bodes ill for everyone.”

“That’s vague,” Faultline spoke.

“I’ll be more specific.  Should Jack Slash not die before he leaves Brockton Bay, it is very likely the world will end in a matter of years,” Coil spoke.

“Bullshit,” Skidmark answered.  The others were showing varying reactions.  I doubt many bought it.

“You contacted us to say something very similar a couple of days ago.” Miss Militia said, “But I have the same questions now that I did then.  Do you have sources?  Can you verify this?  Or provide more information?”

Behind her, Weld reached into his pocket and withdrew his smartphone.

“More information?  Yes.  I have sought further details and pieced together a general picture of things.  Jack Slash is the catalyst for this event, not the cause.  At some point in the coming years, Jack Slash kills, talks to, meets or influences someone.  This causes a chain of events to occur, leading to the deaths of anywhere from thirty-three to ninety-six percent of the world’s population.”

That gave everyone pause.

Coil went on, “If Jack Slash is killed, the event is likely to occur at some point in the more distant future instead.”

“Dinah Alcott,” Weld spoke.  All eyes turned to the metal-skinned boy.

“Beg pardon?” Coil asked.

“Thursday, April fourteenth of this year, Dinah Alcott was kidnapped from her home and has not been seen since.  Dinah had missed several weeks of classes with crippling headaches in the months before her disappearance.  Investigation found no clear medical causes.  Police interviewed her friends.  She had confided to them that she thought she could see the future, but doing so hurt her.”

“You think Dinah is Coil’s source.  That makes a lot of sense.”  Miss Militia turned from Weld to Coil, and her voice was heavy with accusation, “Coil?”

“I did not kidnap her.  I offered Dinah training and relief from the drawbacks of her abilities on the contingency that she immediately cut off all contact with her family and friends and provide me a year of service.”

He lied so smoothly, flawlessly.  What really rattled me was hearing him refer to her as Dinah for the first time.  Coil added, “She took a week to decide, then contacted me during one of her attacks.”

Of course, the heroes weren’t about to take his word for gospel.  Miss Militia’s lips pursed into a thin line.  “Could I contact her to verify this?”

“No.  For one thing, I have no reason to let you.  Also, the process of gaining control of her power requires that she be kept strictly isolated from outside elements.  A simple phone call would set her back weeks.”

“So Coil has a precog,” Hookwolf growled, “That explains how he always seemed to fucking get the upper hand when he pit his mercenaries against the Empire.”

Coil clasped his hands in front of him, “I knew you might come to these conclusions if I volunteered this information.  You all should already know I am not a stupid man.  Would I weaken my position if I did not wholeheartedly believe that what I was saying was correct?  Jack Slash must die, or we all die.

“And to maximize our chances for this to happen,” Hookwolf added, “The alliance of the Travelers and the Undersiders must concede to our terms.  They hold no territory until the Nine are dead.”

Coil deliberated for a few seconds.  “I think this makes the most sense.”

Skidmark and Purity nodded as well.

Coil’s response caught me off guard.  He was throwing us to the wolves to maintain his anonymity in things.  I felt my heart sink.

It made sense, on a basic level, and I could see why the other groups were agreeing.  I mean, our territory wasn’t worth risking that the world ending.  Coil was apparently willing to delay his plans, or pretend to delay his plans while he carried them out in secret.  But I would be giving up my territory, condemning Dinah to more days, more weeks of captivity.

really didn’t like that idea.

“Easy decision for you guys to make,” Trickster said, chuckling wryly, “You’re not giving anything up.  In fact, if we went with your plan, there’d be nothing stopping you from sneaking a little territory, passing on word to your underlings to prey on our people, consolidating your forces and preparing them for war, all while we’re cooped up in that hotel or wherever.”

He was right.  I could imagine it.  Not just weeks, but months lost.  We’d just lost the element of surprise thanks to Hookwolf outing us here, and the local villains and heroes were now all too aware of the scale of what we were doing.  Add the fact that they would get a breather?  A chance to regroup and prepare?  To retaliate?  Regaining any of the ground we lost while we helped hunt down the Slaughterhouse Nine would be excruciating.

In those weeks or months it took to retake territory and slog ahead with constant opposition, there could be further delays.  It would mean that my plan to efficiently seize the Boardwalk and surrounding Docks would fall apart.  I’d have to pull away from my people and my neighborhoods to help the others fight off attacks.  I wouldn’t be able to offer exemplary service to earn Coil’s trust and respect in the mess that ensued.  The opportunity to free Dinah would slip from my grasp.

Worst of all, there was no reason for it.  We’d claimed more of the city as our territory than they had assumed, and now Hookwolf was building on that, giving them reason to worry we had other sinister motives.

“No,” I murmured, barely audible to myself.  I could see some of the other Undersiders -Grue, Tattletale and Bitch- turn their heads a fraction in my direction.

“No,” Grue echoed me, his voice carrying across the rooftop.

No?” Coil asked, his voice sharp with surprise.  Was there condemnation in there?  It was  very possible we weren’t going the route he wanted.

Grue shook his head, “We’ll help against the Nine.  That’s fine, sensible.  But Trickster is right.  If we abandoned our territories in the meantime, we’d be putting ourselves in an ugly situation.  That’s ridiculous and unnecessary.”

Trickster nodded at his words.

“If you keep them you’ll be putting yourself in an advantageous position,” Purity intoned.

“Don’t be stupid, Undersiders, Travelers.” Faultline cut in, “You can’t put money, power and control at a higher priority than our collective survival.  If Coil’s precog is right, we have to band together against the Nine the same way we would against an Endbringer.  For the same reasons.”

“And we will,” Trickster said.  “We just won’t give up our territory to do it.”

“Because you’re hoping to expand further and faster while the Nine occupy the rest of us,” Hookwolf growled. “We agree to this like you want, and you attack us from behind.”

“We haven’t given you any reason to think we’ll betray a truce,” Grue told him, his voice echoing more than usual, edged with anger.  The darkness around him was roiling.

“You have.  You’re refusing the terms,” Purity said.

Hookwolf was manipulating this.  He wasn’t as subtle about it as Kaiser had been, it was even transparent, what he was doing.  Dead obvious.  At the same time, the scenario he was suggesting was just dangerous and believable enough to the Merchants, to his Chosen, and to the Pure that they couldn’t afford to ignore it.  Coil couldn’t talk sense into them without potentially revealing his role as our backer.  Even the heroes couldn’t counter his argument, because there was that dim possibility that he was right, that they would lose control of the city to villains if we continued to grab power.

Which was admittedly the case.  Dealing with the local heroes was one of our long-term goals, for Coil’s plan.

We were fighting for Coil’s plan and Coil wasn’t helping.  He remained silent, inscrutable, sticking to the situation that worked best for him and him alone.  Damn him.

“You’ll be earning the enmity of everyone here if you refuse,” Hookwolf said.  Was there a hint of gloating in his tone?

“We’ll be ruining ourselves if we agree, too,” Grue retorted.

“I strongly recommend you agree to this deal,” Purity said.

“No, I don’t think we will,” Trickster said.

“No,” Grue echoed Trickster, folding his arms.

That only provoked more argument, along many of the same lines.  It was clear this was getting nowhere.

I turned to Miss Militia, who stood only a few feet from me.  When I spoke to her, she seemed to only partially pay attention to me, as she kept an eye on the ongoing debate.  “This isn’t what we need right now.  Hookwolf’s made this about territory, not the Nine, and we can’t back down without-”  I stopped as she turned her head, stepped a little closer and tried again, “We, or at least I have people depending on me.  I can’t let Hookwolf prey on them.  We all need to work together to fight the Nine.  Can’t you do something?”

Miss Militia frowned.

“Please.”

She turned away from me and called out, “I would suggest a compromise.”

The arguing stopped, and all eyes turned to her.

“The Undersiders and Travelers would move into neutral territory until the Nine were dealt with.  But so would the powered individuals of the Merchants, the Chosen, the Pure, Coil and Faultine’s Crew.”

“Where would this be?  In the PRT headquarters?” Hookwolf asked.

“Perhaps.”

“You were attacked as well, weren’t you?  Who did they go after?”

“Mannequin went after Armsmaster.  Armsmaster was hospitalized.”

That was some small shock to everyone present, though I might have been less surprised than some.  Armsmaster as a prospective member for the Nine.

“What you suggest is too dangerous,” Faultline said.  “We’d all be gathered in one or two locations for them to attack, and if Armsmaster was attacked, we could be too.”

“And their whole reason for being here is recruitment,” Coil spoke, “Perhaps the plan would work if we could trust one another, but we cannot, when many here were scouted for their group, and may turn on their potential rivals to prove their worth.  We would be vulnerable to an attack from within, and we would be easy targets.”

“We could make the same arguments about ourselves,” Grue pointed out, “If we agreed, we’d be sitting ducks for whoever came after us.”

“I think the Protectorate can help watch and guard nine people,” Coil replied, “I’m less confident of their ability to protect everyone present.”

So Coil wasn’t willing to play along if it meant losing his ability to stay where he was, but he was willing to make life harder on us, his territory holders.  Did he have some plan in mind?  Or was he just that callous?  Either way, he was an asshole.

“No.  I’m afraid that compromise won’t work,” Hookwolf said, squaring his shoulders.

Miss Militia glanced my way.  She didn’t say or do anything, but I could almost read her mind: I tried.

Hookwolf wasn’t about to give up anything here.  He had us right where he wanted us, and he was poised to kill two birds with one stone: The Nine and his rivals for territory.

“It seems,” Hookwolf said, “The Travelers and the Undersiders won’t agree to our terms for the truce.  Merchants, Pure, Faultline, Coil?  Are you willing to band together with my group?”

Purity, Coil and Skidmark nodded.  Faultline shook her head.

“You’re saying no, Faultline?”

“We’re mercenaries.  We can’t take a job without pay.  Even a job as important as this.”

“I will handle your payment here as I did for the ABB, Faultline,” Coil said, sounding just a touch exasperated.

“And Miss Militia?” Hookwolf asked, “A truce?”

“Keep the business to a minimum, no assaulting or attacking civilians,” Miss Militia said, “We still have to protect this city, there’s no give there.  Don’t give us a reason to bother with you, and we’ll be focused wholly on the Slaughterhouse Nine in the meantime.”

“Good.  That’s all we ask.”

The leaders of the new group crossed the roof to shake hands.  In the process, things shuffled so that our group, the Travelers and the heroes were near the bottom of the roof.  The heroes moved off to one side, as if to guard us from any retaliation, making the separation in forces all the more obvious.

“You guys are making a mistake,” Grue said.

“I think you have things the wrong way around,” Hookwolf said.  “Nobody wants to break the peace at neutral ground, so perhaps you should go before things get violent?”

Tattletale asked, “You won’t let us stick around and discuss the Nine, who they attacked, what our overall strategies should be?  Even if we aren’t working together as a single group?”  She paused, looking deliberately at Faultline, “You know, the smart thing to do?”

She was met only with cold stares and crossed arms.

There was little else to be said or done.  We’d lost here.  I turned and helped push our boat into the water, then held it steady as everyone piled in.  Tattletale had started the motor, and we were gone the second I’d hopped inside.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 11c (Anniversary Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Spitfire had often complained that having a power based around creating flame meant you faced two kinds of opponents.  There were the people who burned, who were the majority.  Civilians fell into this category.  Unless the person with the power was amoral, which Spitfire wasn’t, this actually wound up being a detriment, because of the easy possibility of life altering injuries, death and scars.  The kind of thing that brought heroes down on the villain’s head in full force.  The second group was the foes who didn’t burn.  People in armored suits with enough covering, people with forcefields, people with foreign materials either forming or surrounding their bodies, the list wound up being fairly long.

“Spitfire, run!”  Faultline ordered.

Burnscar wore a red dress and had chosen to go barefoot rather than wear shoes.  Her dark brown hair was a tangled mess above staring green eyes.  Her skin was pale, giving a greater contrast to the red of her clothing and the dark the circles under her eyes.  The round scars of what were likely cigarette burns formed individual rows down from the bottom of each eye to her jaw.  She strode forward through the flames she’d set on the streets outside Faultline’s now-deserted nightclub, Palanquin.  Sweeping her arms to either side, she spread the flames along the breadth of the road, drew the heat into her palms, and then hurled it at her opponents.

Burnscar didn’t seem to have the same reservations about incinerating more vulnerable enemies that Spitfire did.

Gregor the Snail caught one fireball with a hurled glob of slime, extinguishing it.  The other landed in the middle of the group, not striking anyone, but nonetheless driving them apart.  Newter was at one side of the resulting blaze in the middle of the street, Faultline and Shamrock at the other, with Gregor and Spitfire at the back, furthest from Burnscar.

Spitfire turned to run, and Burnscar drew together another fireball, lobbing it forward, where it soared high in the air before it began to drop.  The fireball collided with Spitfire, smashing the girl to the ground.  Flames licked off of her fireproof suit and the pavement around her, and it was long seconds before she was able to start pulling herself to her feet.

Burnscar drew fire up around herself, blinding the others, and in a moment, she was beside Spitfire, clutching the girl’s throat with her fingertips, pushing her down against the ground that was still burning with traces of the fireball’s heat.

Why couldn’t this be one of the areas where the streets were flooded?  Why did Palanquin have to be on this hill?

“Get her!”  Faultline shouted.  Shamrock drew her gun and fired, and Gregor launched a stream of slime toward the spot where Burnscar crouched.  The slime put out the flame where it landed, and in the moment the splashing slime and the billowing smoke obscured her, Burnscar disappeared.

“There!”

Burnscar had emerged from a patch of flames fifteen feet from Spitfire, and was striding toward the girl, ensuring Spitfire was in the way of any potential attacks from the rest of Faultline’s crew.  She seized Spitfire and began dragging her toward an alley, one hand around her throat.  Wherever Burnscar stepped, she left burning footprints, and the flames slowly swelled and spread to join with one another, a trail of fire forming a path behind her.

Newter lunged forward, leaping over the flame that separated him from Gregor and then hopping to the nearest building to grab a bag of trash with his tail.  Twisting his entire body, he whipped the bag at Burnscar.  It struck her, and she staggered back, losing hold of Spitfire.

Burnscar dropped into the flames that covered the pavement and emerged from the flames just behind the others.

Elle, from the second floor room of Palanquin, banged on the window, trying to alert her comrades.

Like a flamethrower, twin streams of fire shot from Burnscar’s hands, striking Shamrock, Faultline and Gregor.  Catching sight of the attack at the last second, Gregor did his best to shield Faultline and Shamrock with his bulk.  Newter threw more trash and rubble towards Burnscar, and succeeded in interrupting her assault on his teammates.

Faultline was on fire, her costume alight.  Gregor slimed her to put it out, then wheeled on Burnscar.

The same instant he turned towards her, the flame around her flared up, consuming her.

They turned to look for her, simultaneously trying to back away from the flames that spread with each of Burnscar’s attacks, and they missed seeing the crouching form in their midst.  Only Elle, from her higher vantage point, was able to see Burnscar.

To say that Faultline and her crew were friends wasn’t meaningful enough.  Elle saw them as family.  And she was helpless to do anything to save them.

Her power was available to her, but the range was too small.  She needed time to soak it into an area, and she’d gone for a walk earlier.  Two hours since she’d gotten back, and her power was limited to her room, the neighboring rooms, the upstairs hallway and the exterior walls of the building that surrounded these areas.  Not enough to reach the street where the fighting was happening.  And if she moved beyond the boundaries, she would be losing ground.  Any time she moved to a new place, beyond the limits of where her power was taking effect, her area of influence shrunk to a few feet around her, only to start gradually bleeding out once more, faster with each passing minute.

She tried using it anyways.  Closing her eyes, she reached for the other worlds.

Pocket worlds, as she interpreted them.  Realities that were a blank canvas to be altered according to her thoughts, both conscious and unconscious.  They were lucid dreams that were big enough, detailed enough, intricate enough to swallow her up, as they so often did.  She could make new ones at a whim, but she found it better to build on what she already had.

There was the high temple.  Faultline and the hypnotist they’d hired had talked her through it, building a place that wasn’t so influenced by Elle’s negative thoughts and ideas.  It was a place she associated with personal triumphs, with her inner strengths.  At the opposite end of the coin was also the bad place.  Of the worlds, it was the biggest by far.  Nothing she could use there, she knew.  She was intimately familiar with every aspect of it.  She had spent a long time there.

Her eyes snapped open as explosion erupted in the street.  She saw Faultline, Gregor and Shamrock tumbling through the air.

Elle clutched her arms to her body.  The lonely hallways… no.  The burning towers.  Definitely no.

The barren ruins.  She’d almost forgotten.  It had been her first attempt at making a world outside of the bad place.  It had worked up until the moment negativity and self loathing crept in through the cracks, filling in details where she didn’t want them.  Ugly details.  What had resulted was a beautiful, solemn landscape rigged with traps and pitfalls, as if the landscape itself was eager to hurt or kill anyone who didn’t watch their step.  As she focused on that world, a small part of her consciousness flew over the landscapes, an image in a second mind’s eye.  Fields of tall grass, collapsed walls half covered in moss, the remnants of an old castle, a stone hut with a tree growing out of it.  She’d always had a soft spot for things that had once been beautiful but had transformed into a different kind of beauty as they aged.  She liked the look of a tree that had grown to splendor and then died, the statue worn by years of hard rain.  This was the aesthetic that had shaped the ruins.  Until everything turned ugly, unpredictable and dangerous.

Today was a good day.  She’d exhausted herself earlier in the week by taking on the Merchants on what she could easily mark as a bad day.  It seemed she was veering to the other side of things: she’d eaten, gone for a walk, even ventured to have a conversation with Faultline.  She could only do those things because her mind’s eye, the gate to those other worlds, was nearly closed right now.  The drawback was that this also meant that the use of her power was slow.  As though she were looking through a spyglass, trying to find a distant detail, she could only take in one scene at a time.

She found what she wanted.  An age-worn statue of a woman in a toga, holding a large urn.  Focusing on it, she pushed.

It was agonizing.  Not the use of her power – that was easy, unavoidable.  Even on a good day like today, her power worked without her asking for it.  The floor under her feet was turning into a stone tile, grass and moss growing in the cracks, as if the ruins were leaking into the real world.  It was agonizing because the emergence of the statue was slow.  Brick folded out of the way as it appeared from within the outside wall of Palanquin.  It slid forth at a glacial pace of a quarter-inch every second, and it wasn’t small.

The fire had spread across the street and to the wall of the building opposite Palanquin.  Burnscar was using it to travel great distances at a moment’s notice, simultaneously spreading the flames further with every attack or spare moment she had.  Newter was quick enough to avoid her attacks while hurling objects at her to attempt to distract and batter her, but he couldn’t approach to make contact with her and knock her out without her burning him, and his range of movement was quickly narrowing as the fires spread.  Not only were new patches of flame created when she attacked, but she frequently paused to will the existing fires to swell and extend further in every direction.

Gregor was hurt, but he was trying to control the spread of the flames, while protecting Faultline and Shamrock.  His skin glistened, which made Elle think he was covering himself in something that would protect him from being burned.

Her power was still so slow.  Only half of the statue had emerged.  Not enough.  She needed the entire thing.

Burnscar had noticed the statue, and paused to pelt it with fireballs.  Elle winced as the head broke free, felt a momentary despair as one arm shattered.  But the rest was intact.  Just two or three minutes.

Gregor caught Burnscar with a stream of slime, and the young woman disappeared in a swirl of fire.

Burnscar had appeared just behind Gregor, Shamrock and Faultline.  Before they could notice and react, she drew a ball of flame into a condensed point between her hands and released it in a violent explosion of heated air.

“No!” Elle screamed, banging on the window.

Faultline wasn’t moving, and Elle couldn’t quite tell through the smoke that covered the street, but she might be burned.  Gregor… Gregor wasn’t moving either, and he lay in a patch of fire.  However fireproof the slime he’d coated himself in might be, he wasn’t immune to being roasted.  Shamrock was limping away, limping towards the statue, and Newter was evading a fresh series of attacks from Burnscar.  Only Spitfire was largely untouched, helpless to do anything against an opponent that was not only fireproof, but who could walk through fires as easily as anyone else might use a doorway to move from one room to the next.

This wasn’t right.  Her team, her friends, her family were all moments away from being obliterated.

She had to focus.  The statue wasn’t enough.  She needed a mechanism.  The one that was attached to the statue in her mind’s eye didn’t work.  Something else.  She searched. A portcullis with a wheel… no, too rusted, the chain too prone to snapping.  Ah, there.  A math puzzle, where a ball was set to roll down a series of tubes, with its path being determined by a series of levers, each moving a paddle that would adjust the ball’s route.

So frustrating.  On her worst days, the days when her view of the other worlds was so expansive that she could barely register the real world, she didn’t have to put things together like this.  She could shape things as she made them come into the real world, and they emerged as quickly as she wanted them.

Fitting everything into the statue, she had to use some of the math puzzle, the lever, some of the statue’s existing mechanism, positioning it all so that they fit together as she pushed it into existence.

A fireball caught Newter in the stomach.  He was knocked from where he clung to the wall, falling to the ground.  He had to roll out of a patch of ground that was licked by orange flame.

Burnscar turned to Shamrock, who was waiting for the lever to emerge.  A fireball was flung at the red-haired woman, who ducked too slowly.  The flame clipped her in the shoulder in its route to punch a hole in the wall, directly where the lever was.  Pieces of the mechanism tumbled around Shamrock.  Gears, levers, paddles and fragments of the switch.

“No!”  Elle shouted, “No!’

Her effort had been for nothing.  Could she cobble something else together?  Would it matter?  Their opponent had an idea of what Elle wanted to do.  She wasn’t going to offer the opportunity.

The last piece of the math puzzle emerged within the brick walls of Palanquin.  Two inches across in diameter, the ball fell along its set route.  Rolling down a slight slope, dropping through one spot where the paddle was pointing down, landing on the next slope, rolling in the opposite direction, over two paddles.

Elle grabbed her chair and shattered her window.  Gripping the sides of the window, ignoring the glass that bit into her fingers, she screamed, “Shamrock!”

Both Shamrock and Burnscar looked up at her.

She slapped the wall with her hand, leaving bloody fingerprints where the glass had cut her, “The ball needs to go right!”

Burnscar launched another fireball at Shamrock, and Shamrock leaped to one side.

“What ball!?”

Elle couldn’t tell her, not without letting Burnscar know.  She could feel the ball making its way down the last slope, dropping down the far left, to where the mechanism and the lower half of the puzzle had been devastated by Burnscar’s fireball.  Shamrock would get a glimpse of the ball through the hole in the wall, as it dropped down… now.

Elle felt the almost imperceptible influence of Shamrock’s power.  The woman was a telekinetic and clairvoyant on the smallest of scales, capable of making small changes and knowing how to use them to make big things happen.  The ball moved a few millimeters to the left, hit a splinter of wood and bounced toward the right, spinning.  It landed, and the spin of its rotation coupled with the help of an additional nudge carried the ball to the right, and down into the chamber behind the statue.

There was a rumble, and water began pouring from the stump of one arm and the urn the statue held.  It poured down around Shamrock, flooding out onto the street to quench the fires on the ground level.  Soon it was only the patches of flame on the walls that remained.

Shamrock raised her gun, aiming at Burnscar, and fired.  Once, twice.  It was hard to tell if the shots hit home, because Burnscar was already wreathing herself in flame, disappearing to appear from the burning wall nearest Spitfire.

Spitfire ran, and Burnscar chased her.  Elle could see Shamrock hesitate, then leap through the curtain of water that poured from the urn, giving chase, hoping to help her teammate.

“No!” Elle shouted.  But her voice was drowned out by the sound of the water.  Soon the pair were gone.

Her phone.  She needed to phone them, let them know.  Where was it?

In the kitchen.  Stupid.  She’d been in one of her momentary fugues when they’d been gathering dinner, she had to have left it there.  And if she ventured any further than the upstairs hallway, maybe the ledge above the dance floor, she would be losing any ground she’d gained with her power here.

A horn… some kind of noisemaker.  A bell?  There was a bell in one area of the barren ruins, if she could only find it.

Burnscar dropped from the burning wall opposite Palanquin.  Retracing her steps.  She looked up at the window that Elle stood behind.

She’s not after Spitfire.  She’s after me, Elle thought, with a moment’s despair.

Burnscar trudged through the expanding pool of water to enter Palanquin’s front door.  The club was empty, there was no power, no music.  Even the employees were attending to their personal lives.  It was just Elle and Burnscar.

It was a minute before the door to her bedroom opened.

“There you are,” Burnscar said.

Elle looked away.

“Hello, old friend,” Burnscar said.

She wasn’t good at talking, even on a good day.  “Mimi.”

“Long time.”

Elle nodded.

“I’m… I’m sorry about your friends.  I didn’t come here planning to do that.  It’s just… you know.”

Elle nodded, trying to keep her outrage off her face.

“I- Fuck.  I’m really sorry, you know?  I can’t help it.”

You can.  You just don’t try hard enough.

But Elle didn’t voice her thoughts.  She nodded.

“I don’t think I did any permanent damage.  They’re alive.”

“Thank you,” Elle managed.  She couldn’t entirely suppress the bitterness in her voice.  Burnscar didn’t seem to notice.

“I- I wanted to talk.  Like old times.”

Old times.  Elle couldn’t help it.  Her thoughts turned to the bad place, the biggest of her worlds, the world she had spent the most time.

“Back when we were both having our good days?  We’d talk, and I really liked those times.  I look back on them fondly.  One of the few moments I treasure.”

Elle nodded.  Behind Burnscar, the door to her room was changing to metal.  A tiny window was expanding, bars already closing down like teeth.  The wall around the door was growing tatters of cloth that rippled like they were blowing in the wind.

“Fuck,” Burnscar said, “I don’t even know where to start.  Since I learned you were in this city, and the group wanted to come here, I’ve been looking forward to this, seeing you again, but now I don’t know what to say.”

“The weather?” Elle tried, lightly joking. The wrong thing to say.

“I don’t want to talk about the weather!” Burnscar snapped the words, in a mixture of desperation and anger.  Her eyes flashed orange and flame flared around her hands, then it all faded.

“Sorry.”

“I… um.  How are you?  How have you been, since you escaped?”

“Been… been good.  Good people.”  So hard to articulate my thoughts, even on a good day.  “They take care of me.  Faultline helped… more than any doctor I’ve had.”

“The doctors,” Burnscar scowled.

“You?”

“I… did you know I escaped at the same time you did?”

Elle shook her head.

“I did.  But I had no place to go.  I had some bad days.  I was lonely, scared.  Some guy tried to convince me to be his whore, earn some cash, get fed… I refused, but he kept coming after me.”

“Sorry.”

“I… I really wanted to be good.  I’d told myself I wouldn’t use my power.  But I had to protect myself, you understand?”

Elle nodded.  The cloth around the door had started to settle into a shape.  Padded walls, lined with barbed wire and jagged rows of glass.  There were stains of shit and blood on some of the cloth, now, growing and swelling.  She tried to will it to stop, to focus on her high temple.  Her safe place.  But looking at Burnscar, that place felt so far away.  It was out of her reach.

Burnscar went on, “So I used it to scare him off… but you know how it works.  You know what happens with my power.”

“I remember.”

“I… the doctors say that using my power, it adjusts the chemical balances and connections in my brain.  Empathy, impulse control, my emotions, they disappear as I use my power, and I can’t help using my power if there’s fire nearby.  It snowballs, because I use my power more when I don’t have that self-control, when I don’t care about the people I’m near, and when I’m in that headspace I don’t want to leave it.”

“Yeah.”  And you retreat into that state to avoid facing the guilt over things you’ve done.  You use it to hide from your own fears.  If I blame you for anything, it’s for that.

Burnscar shook her head.  “If you hadn’t put out most of the fire out there… I dunno what I would have done.”

I have a pretty good idea.

“So I burned the pimp to scare him, then I burned him to hurt him, for payback over his hounding me, and then I couldn’t really stop myself.  I burned him to death.  Fuck. That was the start of a bad few weeks.”

“Sorry.”

“I- before I knew it, the Slaughterhouse Nine had found me.  Shatterbird recruited me.  And now I’m stuck.  I’m trapped.  You know there’s a kill order out on me?  If I try to quit, either the Nine or the cops will off me.  So I keep going, I work for them, and it all just gets worse.”

“Surrender?  Go to the birdcage?”

“They’d find me.  You don’t even know what these guys are capable of.  Our newest member, she replaced Hatchet Face, though he’s still around… kind of.  She can find people.  There’s no place secure enough to keep me safe until they took me to the Birdcage.  I almost think they’d be able to get me in there, if they wanted to.  Siberian?  She’d be able to get me.   Even in the Birdcage.  She always gets her prey.”

“Can’t keep hurting people, Mimi.”

“I have to.  I- I can just use my power.  Stay in that headspace where I don’t feel bad, where I act the way the Nine expect me to.”

The bad place was intruding on the room further.  Elle spoke up, “Mimi…  Can I touch you?  Anchor you?  Don’t want my power to hurt you.”

“So you want to keep me out of your world?”  Mimi smiled and shook her head.  “No way.  Half the reason I came here was because I heard you were making beautiful things these days.  I have to see it.  The things you can make, now.”

Then she turned and looked around.  Her face fell as she saw the padded walls, the bed that had become a cot, the shit stains, the blood, the needles in the corner, the broken glass and the razorblades that were embedded in every surface, waiting to catch anyone unsuspecting that put their hand or foot in the wrong place.

“No,” Burnscar said.

Elle tensed.  “Sorry.”

Burnscar’s face fell.  “This… this isn’t beautiful.  I remember this.”

“Would show you the others… if I could.”

Burnscar’s voice was choked.  “But you can’t.  Because I remind you of the asylum.  I remind you of the bad times, the times you were most miserable.”

Elle looked down at her feet, swallowed past the lump in her throat.

“I thought we were friends.  We had our moments, didn’t we?  Only a few times, when we were both allowed out of our cells, when we were having good days.  A few jokes, stories.  I mean, I know that some of the time I was coming off a bad spell, so maybe I snapped, or I called you names, or threatened you…”

Burnscar trailed off.  Elle stayed silent.

“It.  It wasn’t, um.” Burnscar stuttered.  Her eyes flashed orange.  “Did you see me as a friend?  Don’t you dare lie to me.”

Elle couldn’t come up with a reply.  They used me as an enticement to get you to cooperate.

“Oh fuck.  Fuck me, I’m sorry,” Burnscar said.  She turned away, fumbled with the metal door.  Elle realized it had locked, adjusted things to allow it to open.  Burnscar pulled it open, then stopped in the doorway.  Her back turned, the girl said, “I’m sorry about your friends.  I really hope they’re okay.”

“I do too.”

“I’m glad you’re doing well.  I hope I didn’t fuck everything up.”

It took a bit of courage, but Elle hurried to cross the room and wrap her arms around Burnscar, hugging her from behind.

“We had some good times,” Elle lied.  “Take care.”

Burnscar pulled away, and Elle let the girl go.  She saw Burnscar find the door to the indoor balcony that overlooked the dance floor, heard her run down the stairs.

Elle sank down against the wall, pushing away the sharp things that would cut her with a use of her power.  She put her head in her hands and closed her eyes to the sights around her.  She’d wait a few minutes.  She’d take a few minutes wait until she could be sure Burnscar was gone, then she would leave to check on the others.

It would be weeks before she had made up for the ground she had just lost, in terms of her mental health, in pushing past the bad memories and the bad place.  She reassured herself with the thought that she would get better, in time.  She’d gotten there once, she could get there again.  If the others were okay.

As for Burnscar?  There would be no helping that girl.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Infestation 11.7

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Newter dropped from the ceiling.  The main part of the mall had only the one level to it, but the roof was arched slightly, and he was dropping from one of the higher points.  I was bad at estimating distances, but what was that?  Fifty feet? Sixty?

He landed in a crouch, a hair behind the girl who was carrying the vial down the pile of rubble to the base of the platform.  As she turned, dust, papers, cigarette butts and fragments of rock stirred around her.  They moved in a counterclockwise orbit, rising, increasing in intensity over a span of one and a half seconds.  Whatever her power did, Newter stopped it, smacking her in the forehead with his palm, almost gently.  She stepped back, as if she’d lost her balance.  The building whirlwind around her dissipated into a billowing cloud of dust and her legs turned to rubber beneath her as she tried to step back once more. She fell.

Newter’s tail encircled the vial before she could drop it, and he flicked it into his left hand.  An instant later, he was racing for the stage, almost casually finding stepping stones as he made a beeline for Skidmark and the rest of the group.  He was going for the case and the vials.

Much of the crowd was running after Newter, rushing for the base of the stage and climbing the heaps of rubble to follow.  In doing so, they were vacating the center of the mall where the casualties lay.  I hated to get closer to the chaos, but I suspected it would be a long time before I had a better chance to find and retrieve Bryce.

“I’m going after the kid,” I said.

“Minor, Brooks, escort her,” Lisa ordered.

On the other side of the mall, Newter had reached Skidmark and pounced for him.  In reaction, Skidmark used his power to coat his cape in a layer of his power.  He raised it between himself and Newter.  Newter was already airborne, unable to change course, but he had the presence of mind to hock a loogie into Squealer’s face.  He bounced off of the cape, knocking Skidmark back, and fell to the ground.

Skidmark used his power to saturate Newter and the ground around him.  As his power took hold, Newter was launched through the rungs of the metal railing and down into the midst of the crowd at the base of the stage.  Skidmark shouted something, but I couldn’t make it out over the noise of the other Merchants.

I tore my eyes from the scene and we hurried toward the heaps of unconscious, bloodied and wounded that lay where the arena had been.  We were halfway there when the entire mall began to brighten.  The barred windows were expanding, and massive torches were lighting on the far sides.  Shafts of orange light extended into the mall’s interior, patterned into diamonds by the meshes of bars Labyrinth had erected.

The wall behind Skidmark and the other ‘upper circle’ members of the Merchants began to bulge inward.  Features took form: a face, ten feet tall.  Protrusions below it, near the floor of the platform, marked emerging fingertips.

Labyrinth wasn’t stopping there.  Minor had to catch my arm and pull me back to keep me from being caught in the path of another effect in the mall’s floor.  The ground cracked and bulged upward as though a mole was tunneling at high speeds just beneath the tile.

“Get back!” someone shouted behind me.  I recognized Lisa’s voice and took her advice, backing away from the hump.  Minor stopped me from backing up into another hump that had appeared behind me.

Stone walls heaved upward from the mounds of broken tile, blocking my path and stopping at a height of twelve or more feet.  As more walls rose around me, I saw a door form to my right, and the corridor to my left had a bend in it.

A maze.  She was living up to her name.

The walls at the outside edges of the mall were altering, now, more faces and body parts making themselves apparent.  Like statuary or reliefs.  Limbs intertwined and nude figures decorated the interior walls of the mall, each tall enough to extend from floor to ceiling, animated so that they moved with a glacial slowness.  With a surprising speed, the interior of the mall was coming to resemble some kind of temple.

I had to admit, I was spooked.  That girl’s power was intimidating when she wasn’t on my side.  She wasn’t all there, mentally, so the only thing holding her back was the person telling her what to do.  If she could make those giant torches, she could set the floor on fire.  Or she could have created spikes instead of walls, without leaving the rest of us any place to run.  That nobody had been hurt was purely by her choice.

Stone poles speared down from the roof.  Looking up, I saw that the edges of the crack in the roof had fanged teeth, and that figures were sliding down the metal poles.  Two female, one obese male.  Spitfire, Faultline and Gregor the Snail?

Not quite.  Faultline and Gregor, yes.  I didn’t recognize the other woman, and she was too tall to be Spitfire with her mask off.  Red haired, slender, older than Spitfire or Labyrinth had been.

She slid down the pole, up until the moment Trainwreck leaped from the stage and caught the base of the pole with his shoulder.  He was built like a football player in a quadruple-thick layer of cast iron protective gear, steam billowing behind him as he tore past the stone pole like it was nothing.  It cracked in four places, and the girl dropped out of the air.

One section of the pole hit the ground in an upright position, and she landed atop it with one foot, wobbling briefly.  Controlling the angle the pole fell, she angled her fall toward a nearby wall of the maze.

It wasn’t enough.  Trainwreck smashed the pole from under her, sending her flying through the air to land in the midst of Labyrinth’s maze.

Labyrinth created a short pillar below the metal case and canisters, and began to extend it towards the gap in the roof.  Skidmark used his power to force the things off the top of the pillar and onto the platform, where they rolled.  A few stray papers fluttered from the case.

There was a crack of gunfire, and I saw the momentary light of the shot to my right.  I couldn’t see over the wall, but I saw Trainwreck lumbering forward, one oversized metal gauntlet raised to protect his head, the only vulnerable part of his body.  I directed some bugs to the scene, and realized that a woman with the exact same proportions as the red-haired woman was firing at Trainwreck.  She’d made it through the maze and back to the skirmish with Trainwreck so quickly?

There was a brief pause in the gunfire, then a single shot fired.  Sparks marked the ricochet between his shoulder, the back of his hand, and the armor that rose behind his head.  He dropped to one knee with a suddenness that suggested he was wounded.

I hurried to the wall.  I could use my bugs to find my way through the maze, getting a sense of the layout, but I needed something faster.  Labyrinth was using her power and adjusting the battlefield with every passing second.  The way things were, given how she wasn’t aware of who I was, I was included among her enemies.  If I didn’t go now and the battle resolved one way or the other, I might lose my window of opportunity to get Bryce.

There was no way I was going back without him.  The intensity of the emotion I was feeling on the subject surprised me.

I hated the idea of going back to Sierra and telling her I’d failed.  Hated the idea of that conversation on top of the news I had about Bryce joining the same Merchants that assaulted her friend with a broken bottle.  I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t be leader of a territory and know that someone out there was maybe telling others I hadn’t followed through, fighting that constant nagging doubt in the back of my mind that wondered if ‘my’ people were whispering or laughing at me behind my back.

And maybe a small part of it was that my meeting with my father had been a reminder of how important family was.  Bryce was the errant youth, his sister the anxious family member.  Were my emotions here tied to the parallel between them and my father and me?

“Help me over,” I ordered Minor.  There was a crash not too far away as Trainwreck tore through one of Labyrinth’s walls.

“Can give you and Brooks a boost, but not sure if I can follow,” Minor told me, “Maybe if I find a place with something to stand on-”

“That’s fine.  Look,”  I drew an arrow on the wall with my bugs, “I can give you directions.”

There was little surprise on his face at the demonstration of my power.  He gave me a curt nod, dropped to one knee, and wove his fingers together to give me a stirrup for my foot.  I sheathed my good knife, stuffed the spare between the sheath and the strap that attached it to my midsection and stepped inside the bridge of Minor’s hands.  He heaved me up, almost throwing me.

The cut on the back of my arm burned as I found a grip, then hurt twice as much as I hauled myself onto the top of the wall, my toes scrabbling on the untextured surface for traction.  I reached down for Brooks, but he shook his head and waved me aside.  He wanted to come up on his own.

Fine, whatever.

I hopped down into the next corridor.  The far left had an archway leading into one of the more open areas, a circular area that was serving as a clearing for Trainwreck and the red-haired girl to fight.

I crouched down as I reached the doorway, peeking out and trusting my bugs to give me the fuller story of what was going on.  Brooks appeared behind me and crouched, gun raised, his back to the wall.  His breathing was quiet and controlled even after his recent climb and jog.

Trainwreck and the new girl on Faultline’s team were facing off on the far side of this area.  Behind Trainwreck, I saw a section of wall toppling, spotted Faultline dashing through the obstruction as though it were barely there.  She ran up behind Trainwreck and slashed her fingertips across his heel as he was stepping forward.

As he set the foot down on the marble floor, his ankle shattered and his foot broke free of his calf.

He caught the ground with the stump of his mechanical leg, and she darted in close to cut through the knee of his other leg.  He fell onto his back as she slipped between his legs, and she quickly turned to begin using her fingertips to cut down the wall, like a jungle explorer using a machete to hack through brush and vines.  The red-haired woman joined her.

The ground rumbled as sections of the black marble floor rose to form into broad, shallow stairs, leading from the two young women to Skidmark’s stage.  The capes in Skidmark’s group were struggling to find ground to stand on, as they were crowded back to the edges of the platform by the statue that was still emerging from the wall.  A head and two forearms with reaching hands, all in dark stone.

It was eerie, to see the changes that had occurred in our surroundings in the time it had taken me to cross the wall and wait for the fight to pass.  If the attentions of the Merchants had erased any familiarity I had towards the Weymouth shopping center, Labyrinth had cremated the remains and erected something else in its place.  It was a cathedral, dedicated to a goddess that was very real and having a very active hand in current affairs.  Labyrinth.

Which reminded me of the fact that I needed to get through this maze.  Labyrinth’s power was drawing many of the crawling bugs down into the ground as it refurbished the floors and consumed the piles of trash or rubble.  I still had the bugs on the ceiling, but I didn’t want to give our presence away.  Of the relatively few bugs I was willing to use, a share were being used to direct Minor and placing them in strategic locations to get a sense of the layout.  As the maze took shape in my head, I showed Minor the way.

I stepped into the clearing and, double checking nobody was in earshot, I approached Trainwreck.  Brooks followed just behind me, watching my back.

Trainwreck didn’t look like much, just going by the face.  He had a round face, small eyes, greasy hair tied back in a ponytail and scarred cheeks.  He looked like a homeless guy who hadn’t had a shower in a long time.  The only thing setting him apart from the Merchants were the gunshot wound near the corner of his jaw and the steam-powered armor that rendered him strong enough to pound the crap out of Armsmaster.

I asked him in a low voice, “Trainwreck.  Are you still working for Coil, or did you leave?”

He tensed, and his eyes turned my way, though he couldn’t turn his head with the hardware around it.  I stepped back as he used one arm to prop himself up and get a better look at me.

“No idea what you’re saying,” he said.  He gave me a level stare, and I was almost convinced.  But I’d seen him in the parking garage when I first found out Coil was the Undersider’s employer.

“Right, total nonsense, sorry,” I said.  I tried not to show fear as he tried to get to a standing position with his ruined mechanical legs, looming over me.  “But if you were working for the man, maybe you could find some excuse to knock over that wall over there…”

I pointed at the nearest section of wall.

“You’re fucking nuts,” he told me.  He raised his arm, and my legs tensed, ready to leap towards him if he took a swing at us.  As big as he was, without him being able to use his legs, being in close would be safer than trying to leap back out of his reach.

He brought his hand down on the wall I’d pointed at to heave himself to an upright position.  The wall fell as he rested his weight on it.  Using his other hand to help balance himself, he gripped the wall in his heavy gauntlet and flung the section of wall at Faultline and the red-haired girl.  The girl turned and stepped out of the way as the wall rotated in the air, bounced between her and Faultline with mere inches gap between them, and slid back down the stairs.  He didn’t pay any further attention to us as we ran for the gap he’d opened.

My power let me get a general map of the people who were still unconscious or prone, and the bugs wouldn’t stand out too much as they checked the bodies.  I went by body types, trying to find people of Bryce’s height and build.  The path Trainwreck had opened gave us avenues to two people who could have fit the mark, with a third over the next wall.

Good news?  The first of the prone bodies I went to was Bryce.

Bad news?  He was injured.

Scrub’s power had torn through the clusters of Merchants during the fighting, and Bryce’s new ‘family’ was no exception.  The girlfriend was dead, her head and shoulders gone, muscle and fluids flowing out where the flesh had been annihilated.  The girl’s mother was a goner too.  She lay on her back, her face missing.  Had she been behind her daughter, holding her, hit by the same blast?

‘Thomas’ was still alive, the black man with the scar on his lips.  The man who had hurt Sierra’s friend from the church, who had literally torn the guy a new asshole, if I’d gotten Sierra’s meaning right.  Thomas crawled slowly for the nearest arch, breathing hard, his face drawn with pain.  A slice had been taken out of his arm, shoulder, and a section of his back, as though a guillotine had grazed him from behind.  I wasn’t quite sure how he hadn’t died yet, with the amount he was bleeding.

Brooks stooped down to help Bryce, who had gotten off lightly compared to the others.  He was missing a large portion of his right hand, and he’d had the presence of mind to try to loop his belt around the injury to control the blood loss, pulling it tight.  He seemed like he’d lose consciousness any second.  Brooks retrieved some medical supplies from his backpack and began tending to the boy.

I watched Thomas struggle towards the door.

Minor arrived fifteen or twenty seconds after Brooks had started to work on the boy, standing guard while our medic took care of Bryce’s hand.

Brooks helped Minor to get the boy to a standing position, while I watched Thomas struggle on.  He was getting weaker, fast.  The blood loss had been too severe.

Skidmark had several parahumans working for him, and I didn’t know all their powers.  Maybe Thomas would get care.  Maybe Skidmark would attend to his people.

Probably not.  I knew that by leaving him here, I might be leaving him here to die, but the chance of him surviving anyways was pretty slim. Besides, bringing him would slow us down, and I wasn’t sure we could afford that.

I shook my head a little, as if it could cast away the layers of little justifications and excuses I was putting together.  I was searching for a rationale, a reason to leave him behind.  Also, maybe, I suspected I was trying to give a reason to the fact that I had almost no sympathy for the man.

If I was going to leave him there, I’d own up to what I was doing.

Sierra had wanted Thomas and his followers to suffer, and I’d agreed to make it happen.  I couldn’t do anything about Bryce’s girlfriend or her mom.  They were dead, and it had probably been instantaneous and painless.  Thomas, though?

Brooks followed my gaze to Thomas.  In his accented voice, he asked me, “You want me to bandage him up?  Don’t know how much I can do.”

Thomas heard and stopped crawling, dropping onto his belly.  He didn’t look toward me, but I knew he was listening.

“It’s fine,” I told Brooks.  “Focus on the boy.”

He nodded, then helped hold Bryce’s prone form while Minor got a better grip.  Thomas didn’t move, react or say anything.

“Let’s go,” I said.

We ran, and with Brooks keeping one hand on my shoulder to guide me, I glanced behind us to get a sense of what was going on.

The battle was still ongoing.  Gregor the Snail was here, but unlike the others, he wasn’t operating in Labyrinth’s world.  He passed through the walls of the maze, spraying streams of slime at Trainwreck, who had apparently advanced halfway up the stairs by using his hands to help him walk.  Trainwreck retaliated by throwing a chunk of stairs at Gregor with one hand while trying to block the stream of slime with the other.  The section of stairs hit the wall of the maze just in front of Gregor, some of it bouncing over to pass through Gregor.  Not real, as far as he was concerned.

What did this look like to Gregor?  Was he standing in the mall as it had been, while Trainwreck seemed to stand on thin air?  Or was Trainwreck on the ground?  I couldn’t parse it.

Mush had started pulling himself together, but Labyrinth was making his job into a struggle.  His right arm had divided, stretched, forked out and reconfigured until it looked like a mass of reaching veins and arteries.  He plunged it into one of the trash cans that Labyrinth was absorbing into the floor, and when he withdrew it, the tendrils had formed the connective tissue for an oversized hand crafted out of garbage.  His other arm and much of his lower body had already gathered some garbage around it, letting him stand several feet taller than he had before.  The skin of his head and body was peeling off into more tendrils, reaching for more trash and distributing some from his arms to his torso.

From what I could gather, he needed some kind of loose matter to form the body of his other self.  Dirt, compost, trash, maybe even sand.  Problem was, however fantastic his surroundings might have been for this five minutes ago, Labyrinth was screwing him over by cleaning things up, maybe inadvertently.  One upper arm, his naked upper body and his nearly bald head were all exposed and vulnerable.

Scrub had climbed up to one corner of the platform, and was keeping to the edge of the fight.  His intent was clearly to be close enough to Faultline’s group to possibly tag them, but not so close that one of his uncontrolled blasts would catch a fellow Merchant.

My bugs told me we were close to Lisa, Charlotte, Jaw and Senegal.  I caught Minor’s attention and pointed, and he put Bryce down long enough to give me a boost up to the top of the wall that stood between us.  I straddled the wall and waited for Brooks and Minor to figure out how to get Bryce up to me so I could pass him down to the others.

From my vantage point, I could see more of the battle unfolding on the far side of the mall.

One powered Merchant charged Faultline and collapsed through the ground she had strategically weakened.  She kicked him several times in the face before the next member of Skidmark’s group tried to take her on, drawing and pointing a gun.  Faultline drew her feet apart, and then dropped through the floor of the platform in a spray of splinters.

To her right, the red-headed woman was striding towards Scrub.  He aimed a shot and missed by a fraction, and she didn’t even flinch.  Another try, another miss.  As she got close, he let his power go haywire, and a dozen flashes erupted in close vicinity to him.  None touched her.

She had her gun drawn, but she didn’t shoot him.  Instead, she grabbed him by the collar, then wrenched him to one side so he tipped over the side of the platform and fell the twenty or so feet to the ground below.  It wasn’t enough of a fall to guarantee that he was out of the fight, but she seemed confident enough to turn away and move on to the next target before he’d even finished falling.

Gregor was keeping up his steady pressure, alternating between blasting Trainwreck and blasting Mush with one hand and aiming at Skidmark with the other.  Skidmark used his power to push away the worst of the slime, but it was clear he was losing.  His power wasn’t strong, it didn’t have much more push to it than a strong wind.  Any attempt to get it as effective as it had been at the edge of the arena took time and multiple layers of the effect.  In short, Gregor could make the slime more easily than Skidmark could get rid of it.

A knotted bandage tied around Bryce’s good arm was thrown up to me, and I used it to draw his arm up while the others managed his lower body.  Once I had his wrist, I gripped it firmly in one hand, my upper body hugging the top of the wall to keep myself from being pulled off.

Minor gave Brooks a boost and the medic straddled the wall facing me.  We worked together to raise the unconscious boy over the top of the wall and pass him down to where the others waited.

I glanced back towards the fight.  Faultline had emerged from beneath the platform and moved around to the side, and using her power to draw hand holds into the side of the platform.  The cape who’d been aiming at her with the gun stooped over the hole she’d dropped into and looked down to see if she was still down there.  He was oblivious as she hauled herself over the edge of the platform and attacked him from behind, striking him with one elbow, then reversing the turn of her body to sweep his legs out from under him with one extended leg.  The sweep of her foot had apparently coincided with a use of her power, because there was a cloud of stone dust as he collapsed onto broken, uneven ground.  From my angle I couldn’t see for sure, but I thought maybe he’d fallen head first into the hole she’d first descended into.

Brooks and I hauled Minor over, and I waited while he climbed down, since I was already fairly secure where I was.

Skidmark was losing.  It was obvious from where I sat, and I could see his changing expression as he saw Mush collapse beneath Gregor’s sludge and realized he had no friends left.  Gregor, Labyrinth, Faultline and the red-haired woman were all in action, and Skidmark was pretty much alone at this point.

I hadn’t seen Newter or Spitfire, and I couldn’t be sure if he was okay or not.  Sure, the Merchants could have hit him with weapons rather than their bare hands, but he was quick, he had his tail, and he only needed to touch someone to drug them out of their minds.  Spitfire might be the one babysitting Labyrinth somewhere out of the way.

It had to suck for Skidmark, losing like this.  He’d risen to power based on a streak of good luck and momentum rather than any talent, deed or ability.  Now it was falling apart.  He’d lost, he’d had his ass kicked in front of the bulk of his followers, and he would likely never regain what he’d had.  Not that I felt bad for him.  There was a kind of justice to it.

He didn’t even have a power that would let him go down in a blaze of glory.  No, his final act here would be one of petty spite.

His power streaked from his hand to the ground where the canisters and metal case sat.  I could see Faultline’s expression change behind her mask, saw her set her feet and start sprinting for the case before Skidmark’s power even took hold.

The metal box and canisters launched out over the edge of the platform and into the air above the crowd.  Only a few papers escaped the case at first, but his power had saturated the insides of the box.  Just after reaching the apex of its flight, his power seized the contents and the case expelled everything from within.  Papers slid off one another and into the air, forming a small cloud.

“Taylor!” Lisa shouted.

I knew what she wanted.  I drew clouds of my bugs from the ceiling, catching the papers that weren’t saturated with Skidmark’s power, collecting my bugs on them.  I could have maybe carried them directly to me with enough bugs, but I found it easier and more discreet to use the bugs and nudge the papers into floating on the air currents, like paper airplanes without the ‘airplane’ aspect of things.

As they got close, I took a firmer hold over them and moved them directly to us.  The papers crumpled as my hands closed around them.  Four or five pages.  I couldn’t be sure two might have been stuck together.

“We need an exit,” I said, as I hopped down from the wall.  I handed Lisa the papers.

Lisa nodded, “I’ve been thinking on that.  Look.”

She pointed at one corner of the mall.  It looked like any other section, heavily altered by Labyrinth’s powers.  The shops had been almost entirely consumed by Labyrinth’s powers, and were further shrouded by the floor-to-ceiling statues of human figures that stuck out of the walls.  In the corner Lisa was pointing at, there were male and female figures, expressions solemn, hands reaching, moving so slowly I might have thought it was my imagination.  The shop below was nearly gone, the entrance nearly covered up.

“Not seeing it,” I said.

“Look at how they’re standing.  The male figure is sticking out of the left wall, reaching with his right hand, the female figure is doing the opposite.  Look past them, at the corner.”

I did.  Between the figures was the point where the two exterior walls of the shopping center joined… nothing jumped out at me.  The walls were bare.

“I don’t see it,” I repeated, as she tugged on my arm and started running forward.  As a group we started moving toward the corner.  “What am I looking for?”

“Nothing!  There’s nothing there because her power isn’t extending to that corner.  She’s too far away, on the roof at the other side of the mall. Which means the interior of that shop isn’t affected by her power!”

However ominous the giant statues were, they didn’t react to our passing.  The exit was small, barely three feet across.  If Lisa hadn’t given me her reasoning, I wasn’t sure I would have had the guts to go through.  It was spooky to think about putting myself in a smaller space like the store interior and having it close tight behind me.

The bodyguards had to go through the doorway in a crouch, and Minor dropped Bryce to let the others drag him inside, just so he could fit.

As Lisa had suggested, the shop interior was largely unaffected by Labyrinth’s abilities, though it had been trashed by looters and the effects of Leviathan’s attack.  We found the back rooms, and Jaw kicked the door open.  From there, we made our way to the emergency exit, cleared rubble away and escaped into the parking lot.

A handful of others had found escape routes too, I noted.  Merchants were crossing the parking lot at a run, or helping wounded buddies limp away.  We weren’t so conspicuous.

I hurt.  I’d been cut on the arm, and I’d taken my lumps in too many other places to count.  My knuckles and fingertips were scratched raw from climbing the walls of the maze and moving rubble, my cheekbone throbbed where I’d been elbowed, and my fucking contact lenses were still irritating.  Never ever something I could get used to, even with other things taking up my attention.

But we’d made it.

We moved at a light jog for a good distance before Brooks called us to a stop.  We lay Bryce down for him to look at, and he decided we needed call for a pickup to get the boy more serious medical attention.

While we waited for the car to arrive, Lisa, and I sat down on a nearby set of stairs.  The other bodyguards were still on duty, still watching for trouble.  Charlotte stood a distance away, hugging herself.  She looked like she wanted to leave, but lacked the courage to go alone.

I was going to go reassure Charlotte, but Lisa retrieved the papers I’d given her and smoothed them out against her leg, and the widening of her eyes caught my attention.

“It’s a letter or contract from the people who made the stuff, talking to the guy who’d bought this stuff.  Let’s see, we have… page two.  Pages eighteen and nineteen.  Page twenty-seven.  Page sixteen.  Wonder if we can put a narrative together.”

“You probably could,” I said.

She glanced over one page, then handed it to me as she moved on to the others.  I read it.

client one, and clients two through six for confidentiality purposes.  For clarity, and to help ensure that the proper clients receive the intended products, we must restate facts for client one to double-check.  Client one is the negotiator for each of the clients, guardian of clients two and three and is not intending to consume the product.

This cannot be stressed enough.  Client one is not to share or use any of the product intended for other clients.  Ignoring this warning or failing to adhere to any other warnings or directions within this documentation will compel Cauldron to carry out the countermeasures and call in all debts noted in sections 8b and 8c on pages seventeen, eighteen and nineteen.

Clients two through six are noted here in as much detail as is allowed given the agreed-upon confidentiality.
■  Client two is the elder of client one’s two relatives noted here, female.
■  Client three is the younger of client one’s two relatives noted here, male.
■  Clients four and five are client two’s friends.  Client four is female.  Client five is male.
■  Client six is the friend of client three, male.
Both vials and protective containers are noted with the numbers specific to each client, each containing the requested upon products from the catalogue.

I wish to give written evidence of the verbal exchange between Cauldron and client one on February 18 2011.  Client one is informed that client four scored a borderline failure on the psychological testing and that results may lead to a Deviation scenario

“What’s on the other pages?” I asked.

“Sixteen is accounting.  Bank statements, confirmation of money exchanged, a list of what was bought.  Seven figures base price, more for this Nemesis program, still more for some powers.  Don’t have all the pages I’d need to get it, but I’m getting the sense the more unique powers and the stronger ones cost way more.”

‘The sense’, she’d said.  Her power filling in the blanks.

“Pages eighteen and nineteen refer back to something called the ‘Nemesis program’, potentially revoking it, they’re talking about debts, services required by this ‘Cauldron’ using the clients’ powers.  There’s a bunch of specifics on how the time, effort and risk of said services would factor in with one another.”

“People can buy powers?  How many people are doing this?”  I felt a touch offended at the idea.  I’d earned my powers through my hardships.  Most of us had.

“Enough that there’s a whole enterprise here with a private army.  There’s this bit that very politely notes that breaking the rules will get you hunted down and executed by Subjects, capital S.  Clients are warned that these guys are entirely loyal to Cauldron, will not accept bribes.  And these Subjects are apparently something different from Deviations.”

“Cauldron calls us Subjects.  The PRT calls us Case 53s,” a voice said from above us.  “Regular people call us monsters.”

Our bodyguards wheeled on the spot, a set of guns training on Newter, where he clung to the side of the building.  They had been covering the possible approach points from the ground.  They hadn’t been expecting trouble from directly above us.

“I heard of the Case 53 thing,” Lisa told him, backing away.  “The rest is new.  You work for them?  No.  But you’re related to this.”

“Gregor, Shamrock and I were test subjects.  Guinea pigs to test the new formulas, so the buyers don’t get fucked.  According to Shamrock, three in five of us don’t even survive.  One in five Subjects are retained and brainwashed so they can protect the business and enforce the contracts.  Shamrock was going to be one of them, but she escaped.  The rest of us have our memories removed, and we’re released as part of the ‘Nemesis program.'”

“Which is?”

Newter glanced at the papers, “I’d really like to know.”

“So you followed us.”

“Something about the way that one moved,” Newter pointed at Jaw with his tail, “Reminded me of some other mercenaries I’ve come across.  Don’t bother shooting, by the way, I’m too quick.”

Lisa gestured, and the bodyguards lowered their weapons.

Newter frowned, “I gathered you were mercenaries, decided to spy, but finding you’d taken the papers was a surprise.  Who are you?”

Lisa looked at me, without a ready answer for once.  I looked over at Charlotte and sighed.  She’d already put some of the pieces together.  She could probably figure it out from here.  I might as well control when that happened, so I wouldn’t get caught off guard further down the road.

I raised the piece of paper, as if to hand it to Newter, and I directed bugs to cluster on it.  In moments, the half of the paper closest to him was dark with various flies and creepy crawlies.

Charlotte’s eyes widened.  This was apparently her putting the last piece into place.

“Ah, Skitter,” he said.  Apparently my having saved his life once and gifting him a paper bag filled with money didn’t do much to ease his wariness.  He wasn’t any less guarded when he asked, “Why are you here?”

I pointed at the unconscious Bryce.  “An errand.  Didn’t mean to get in your way.  I only grabbed the papers as a spur of the moment thing, and because they would’ve been ruined if they’d just drifted all over in there.”

“That wasn’t much of a concern.  One of my teammates is collecting the papers as we talk, and I expect she’ll find nearly all of them.  The ones that she could find with some luck, anyways.”

“We’re honestly not looking for trouble, and  I have no problem with giving you these.” I banished the bugs on the paper and stepped forward to extend it towards him.

Lisa followed my cue, offering the others, “Wouldn’t mind copies of whatever you’ve got.”

Newter frowned.

Before he could say anything, Lisa hurried to add, “I’m good at figuring stuff out.  I’m a fountain of knowledge.  I want to know more about this stuff, and I could help you guys in exchange for what you’ve already got.”

“I’d have to ask Faultline.  She doesn’t like you.”

Lisa grinned.  “And I don’t like her.  But she’s not stupid, either.  She knows this is mutually beneficial.”  Lisa drew a pen from her pocket and scribbled on the back of one page.  “My number, if you’re interested.”

He took the sheets, looked them over, then rolled them up and stuck them in his back pants pocket.

“We’ll be in touch one way or another,” he said.

Then he was gone, around the side of the building and up to the roof in heartbeats.

I looked at Charlotte, and she shrank back, as if I could hurt her by looking at her.

Which was dumb.  It was fairly obvious to anyone who considered my power that I didn’t need to look at people to hurt them.  Not that I’d hurt her, anyways.  She’d done nothing to deserve any such thing, beyond being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Charlotte, Bryce and Sierra.  The civilians.  I still had to figure out how to deal with them.  My heart sank.  Social interaction: not where my talents lay.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“This what you wanted?” the teenager with scruff on his chin and his hood up handed over the paper bag.

Broad hands with ruined, rotten brown fingernails pawed through the contents, “It is.  Here.”  The voice was slightly accented, the words and sounds very careful, as though he were not comfortable with English.

The young man reached out and his eyes widened as a fold of bills was pressed into his hands.

“This is… more than I thought it would be.”

“Are you complaining?”

The young man shook his head.

Gregor the Snail put his hands in his pockets, as if to hide the fingernails and the growths that scabbed the backs of his hands.  Each of the hard growths, which might have been shell or scale, none any larger than a silver dollar, had a prominent spiral shape to it.  As much as he could tuck his hands into his pockets, he was unable to hide his face.  He had no hair on his head, not even eyebrows or eyelashes, and the hard growths crusted his face like a terminal case of acne.  Most strange and disconcerting of all was the fact that his pale skin was translucent enough that one could see shadows of his skeleton, his teeth and the tongue in his mouth.

“As you can see,” Gregor said, without any affectation, “It would be hard for me to walk into a store and make simple purchases.  I do not like to rely on my friends for this.  Makes me feel indebted to them, and this is not good for friendships.  If you are interested in repeating this sort of transaction, being on call to run errands for me for a time, it could be arranged.”

“Really?” the guy rubbed his chin, “For how long?”

“Until I called and you were unable or unwilling to run my errand.  If this happened more than once, or if the reason was not good, I would find someone else, as I did with the last individual.”

“You didn’t hurt him or anything?”

“No.  I did not.  He decided he would rather spend the evening with his girlfriend.  I have not called him again.”

“This won’t be anything illegal?”

“No.  No drugs, no prostitutes, no weapons.”

“So you call me, I run out and grab you groceries, or clothes, or take-out, or shampoo, or whatever, and you pay me three-”

“That is four.  And I do not have hair, so you would not need to concern yourself with shampoo.”

“Right.  Sorry.  So, four hundred dollars each time?  What’s the catch?”

“No catch.  I have money, I like things to be convenient.  Only one small chance of trouble.  My first assistant, she quit because she was concerned that my enemies would use her to get to me.  I will not deny this is possible.”

“You have enemies?”

“Yes.  But there has not been a case yet where any of my assistants ran into trouble with them.”

“Have any of them run into trouble at all?”

“The last assistant, the boy with the girlfriend.  He thought he could get more money, because he could go to the police and tell them what he knew about me.  He was lucky to try this when I was in a generous mood.  I dissuaded him.  He worked for me for two months after that with no complaint.  We were not friendly, it was pure business.  I would recommend, gently, that you not try the same thing.”

“Hey.  Live and let live, right?”

“That is a good saying.”

“Okay.  I’m wanting to go to college this fall, and this is sounding a hell of a lot better than working minimum wage for fifty hours a week.  Here, my cell phone number,” he handed over his phone.

Gregor the Snail took a second to put the number in his own phone.  “I have it.  I will call.”

They parted ways.

Gregor walked down the side streets of downtown Brockton Bay with the hood of his sweatshirt casting his face in shadow.  Anyone who happened to cross his path and look beneath his hood were quick to glance away.  Embarrassed, spooked.  Those that saw him from a distance knew him as monstrous as well, but in a different way.  To them, he was simply one of the morbidly obese.  A man in his late twenties or early thirties, nearly three times the weight he should be for his five feet and ten inches of height.  His weight, he knew, was one of the rare things in this modern world that someone could use to mock him openly.

It had taken him years to come to peace with this.  With being one of the monsters.

As he came to his destination, the throbbing pulse of music reached his ears.  The club sat two blocks away from Lord Street, and there was a line extending around the side of the building.  Glowing yellow letters in an almost intentionally plain script spelled out ‘Palanquin’.

He skipped the line and headed straight for the front door.  A burly Hispanic doorman with a beard tracing the edges of his jaw undid the chain fence to let him through.

“What the hell?” one of the girls near the front of the line complained, “We’ve been waiting for forty five minutes and you let that fat fuck through like that?”

“Out of the line,” the doorman said, his voice bored.

“The hell?  Why?”

“You just dissed the owner’s brother, fuckwit,” the doorman told her, “Out of the line.  You and your friends are banned.”

Gregor smiled and shook his head.  The line the doorman had pulled was bullshit, of course, he wasn’t the owner’s brother.  But it was nice to see one of the assholes getting what was coming to them.

He had worked as a bouncer for clubs that wanted someone more exotic and attention-getting, way back when he was first getting on his feet, so he knew that the line you saw out the door was rarely an indication of how many people were inside.  An empty club could have a line of people waiting to get in, to give the right image.  Even though it was a Tuesday night, Palanquin had no such need for such deceptions.  It bustled with people.  Gregor carefully navigated the crowd of dancers and people holding drinks, until he reached a stairwell guarded by a bouncer.  As with the front door, his admittance to the stairs was automatic, unquestioned.

The upstairs balcony wasn’t filled with people, and those that were present, a dozen or so, were almost boneless in their lethargy.  Mostly girls, they lay prone on couches and in booths throughout the balcony that overlooked the dance floor.  Only three people were more or less alert as Gregor approached.

“Gregor, my boy!” Newter grinned from ear to ear.  Gregor caught the briefest flash of disgust on the face of one of the girls sitting with Newter, as she looked at him.  She was a blonde with blue lipstick and pink highlights in her hair.  Had Gregor been working as the doorman, he would have checked her ID, double checked it, then even if it did look real, he would have kicked her out anyways for being too young.  She couldn’t have been older than sixteen.

Still, that was roughly how old Newter was, and he could hardly fault the boy for being interested in someone his own age.

The other girl, dark haired, had a European cast to her features.  She showed no such distaste.  When she smiled up at him, there was no sign the expression was forced.  That was both rare and interesting.

“I brought your dinner,” Gregor said.

“Good man!  Pull up a chair!”

“The others will want their food as well.”

“Pull up a chair, come on.  I’ve got two stunning girls here, and they’re not believing me when I’m telling them about some of the cooler jobs we’ve pulled.  I need backup here, bro.”

“I do not think it is a good idea to be talking about these things,” Gregor said.  He stayed standing.

Newter reached for the bag and grabbed a sandwich from inside.  “It’s cool.  Faultline joined the conversation a while ago, so she’s obviously okay with it.  You aren’t going to tell, right, Laura?  Mary?”

Each girl shook her head as Newter asked them by name.  That let Gregor label the dark haired girl as Laura and the girl with the blue lipstick as Mary.

“If Faultline said it was fine.” Gregor said.  He took the bag back from Newter and found his own sandwich.  “Laura and Mary, I am sorry, the other sandwiches I have here are spoken for.  I could offer you some of my own, if you would like.”

“That’s okay, I’m not hungry,” Laura replied, “I like your accent.  Is it Norwegian?”

Gregor finished his first bite, swallowed, and shook his head, “I am not sure.   But I have spoken to an expert and he says the other language I speak is Icelandic.”

“You don’t know?”

“No,” Gregor replied.

His brusque answer only stalled the conversation for a moment before Newter got it going again, “Okay, bro, tell these girls who we went up against last month.”

“The toybox job?” Gregor asked, “With the Tinker black market?  There was nobody-”

“The other one.  The job in Philadelphia.”

“Ah.  Chevalier and Myrddin.”

Newter clapped his hands together, rocking back in his seat, “Told you!”

“And you beat them,” the dark haired girl said, disbelieving.

“We didn’t lose!” Newter crowed.

“It was a close call,” Gregor added his own two cents.  “Chevalier is leader of Protectorate in Philadelphia.  Myrddin leads Protectorate of Chicago.  These are people whole world recognizes.  They got positions protecting big cities in America because they are strong, because they are smart and talented.  We got the job done, as we always do, and we walked away.”

Newter laughed, “Pay up.”

Neither Laura nor Mary looked bothered as they reached into their pocket and purse, respectively, and fished out some bills.

“What was the bet?”  Gregor asked.

“I told them they didn’t have to pay if I was lying.”

“And if you weren’t lying?  They pay more?”

“No penalty.  I got company and conversation for a while,” Newter smiled.  He reached up to the back of the booth, grabbed a bag that sat there, and fished out a pair of plastic spoons and a bottle of water.  With a water dropper he retrieved from his pocket, he siphoned water from the bottle and placed a few drops in each spoon.  The final step was dipping the tip of his tongue in each drop of water.

“Lick it up,” he told the girls.

“That’s all?”  Laura asked him.

“It’s enough.  Any more and you might be out for an inconveniently long time.  That right there,” Newter pointed to the spoon with the tip of his tail, “Is a little less than an hour of psychadelic tripping.  No hangover, no side effects, it’s not addictive, and you can’t overdose on it.  Trust me, I’ve tried to make someone overdose before, combat situation, and I couldn’t make it happen.”

Mary was the first to take the spoon and pop it into her mouth.  Moments later, her eyes went wide, and she fell limp against the back of the booth.

“Hey,” Laura said, turning to Gregor.  She reached into her pocket, found a receipt and a pen, and scribbled on the blank backside of the paper.  She handed it to him.  “My number.  If you want to talk, or, you know, something else.”

She winked at him, then popped the spoon into her mouth.

Gregor blinked in a mild confusion as her head lolled back.

“Looks like you made a good impression, Gregster,” Newter chuckled.

“Maybe,” Gregor said.  He put the half of his sandwich that remained back in the paper bag, then balled up the wrapper.  After a moment’s hesitation, he crumpled the receipt with Laura’s number into the ball.  He pitched it to a trash can halfway across the room.

“Hey!  What gives?”

“I do not think she liked me because I am me,” Gregor said, “I think she liked me because I am a monster.”

“I think you’re sabotaging yourself, man.  She’s hot.  Look at her.”

Gregor did.  She was attractive.  He sighed.

“Newter, do you know what a devotee is?”

Newter shook his head.

“It is a slang term for someone who is attracted to people with disabilities, because of the disability.  I think it is about power, attraction to someone because they are weak somehow.  I think it likely that this Laura sees me as weak because of the way I look, the way I may have trouble day to day, and this is compelling to her in a similar way to how a cripple or a blind man might be to a devotee.  This does not appeal to me.”

“No way.  Maybe she likes you because of the person underneath.”

“She did not see enough of me to know who that person might be,” Gregor replied.

“I think you’re doing yourself a disservice.  I’d jump on that opportunity.”

“You are a stronger person than I in many ways, Newter.  I should bring the others their dinner,” Gregor turned to leave.

“Hey, signal Pierce downstairs to send another girl or two up, will ya?”

Gregor did as he was asked, getting the attention of the bouncer at the foot of the stairs.  The bouncer, in turn, got the attention of a set of girls on the dance floor.

While the girls made their way up, Gregor turned to Newter, “Are you happy?”

“Oh man.  You’re not going into a philosophical phase again, are you?”

“I will spare you that.  Are you?”

“Dude.  Look at me.  I have money to burn, I’ve got the hottest girls in the city begging to get a taste of me.  Literally wanting to taste me!  What do you think?”

“You are happy, then?”

“Time of my life, bro.”  Newter opened his arms wide to greet a trio of girls as they reached the top of the stairs.

“I am glad.”  Gregor turned and entered the hallway at the back of the balcony.  As the door sealed shut behind him, the pounding of the music behind him dimmed.

His next stop was the first door on his left.  He knocked.

“Come in.”

The bedroom had a bed on each side, in opposite corners.  One side of the room was cluttered with posters, pictures, a bookshelf overflowing with books, an Apple computer with two CD racks towering above it, and two speaker systems.  The music from the computer speakers only barely managed to drown out the music from the club downstairs.  The girl who was lying back on the bed had a dense covering of freckles on her face and hands, and curly brown hair.  Magazines were piled in stacks around her on the bed, threatening to topple over at the slightest movement.

The other side of the room was spartan.  Nothing adorned the walls, there were no books, no computer or computer paraphernalia.  There was a bed, a bedside table and a dresser.  The only character whatsoever was a colorful bedspread and pillowcase.  Gregor knew it had been a gift from Faultline.  The owner wouldn’t have gone out to get it herself.  The resident of that side of the room was seated in the corner, staring into the wall.  She was blonde, the sort of platinum white-blond hair that rarely lasted through puberty.  Her royal purple sweater was slightly too large for her, drooping over her hands, and her pale jeans were clearly intended to be more comfortable than fashionable.

“I brought your dinner, Emily.”

“Thanks,” the freckled girl answered him.  She caught the sandwich he threw to her and began to peel open the package.

“Is she okay?” he asked, gesturing to the girl in the corner.

“Not one of her better days.”

He nodded.

“Elle,” he spoke, gently, “May I come closer?”

They had learned the hard way, that the more distant the girl was, the stronger her power.  This made her particularly dangerous when she was so lost that she might not recognize him.  Cruel irony, Gregor observed, that she had virtually no power at all when she was most herself.  It was a problem they hoped to find an answer to, someday.

The girl in the corner turned to meet his eyes.  He took that for consent, approached her, and pressed a sandwich into her hands.

“Eat,” he instructed her.

She did, almost mechanical in her movements.

After Faultline had enlisted him and Newter, a job had taken them into a high security asylum.  They had been there to question someone about the Dragonslayers, a villain group that used tinker technology stolen from the most powerful and highest profile tinker in the world for petty theft and mercenary work.  Their invasion of the asylum had not gone as well as it might have, and had led to a high-tech lockdown of the facility.  Not only did it extend their mission by several hours, but it had led to issues with one of the residents, a parahuman that apparently had to be moved regularly, lest her influence over her surroundings spread beyond the confines of her cell, making her a serious problem for the staff, other residents and unwitting bystanders.

In the end, after dealing with the dispatched squad from the Boston Protectorate and getting the information they needed about the Dragonslayers, they had recruited the girl.

He watched and waited long enough to ensure she was on her way to finishing her sandwich, then turned to leave.  Emily gave him a small wave of the hand in goodbye, and he nodded once in acknowledgment.

His final stop was the office at the end of the second floor hallway.  He peered in the window, then let himself in as quietly as he could.

Faultline, owner of Palanquin and several other cover businesses across Brockton Bay, was seated at a large oak desk.  In front of her, in the midst of ledgers, notebooks and university textbooks, was something that looked similar to a xylophone, a series of rods lined up next to one another, strapped tight to a board.

Faultline was in her professional clothes; a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up and black slacks tucked into shiny black riding boots with steel toes.  Her wavy black hair was tied back in a ponytail.  She wore no mask – those employees of Palanquin who ventured as far as this office were too well paid to turn on her.  Her features were perhaps too sharp to be called conventionally attractive, but Gregor knew she was certainly more attractive than Newter or himself.

As Gregor watched, she closed her eyes, then swiped her hand across the top ends of the rods.  Red and blue energy crackled, and coin-shaped pieces of wood, metal, stone and plastic fell to the desktop.  Other rods, several of which were green wood, were untouched.

“Fuck,” she muttered.  She swept the coin shaped bits of various materials into a trash can that sat beside her desk.  Glancing up at where Gregor stood just inside the doorway, she raised one eyebrow.

“I did not wish to interrupt you.”

“Don’t worry about it.  Maybe distracting me will help.”

“If you are sure.”  He approached the desk, setting the paper bag down on it, “It was seven o’clock, nobody had eaten yet.  I got us some sandwiches.”

“Thank you.  How’s Elle?”

“Spitfire said she was having a bad day, but she has eaten now.  Perhaps tomorrow will be better.”

Faultline sighed, “Let’s hope.  It’s very easy to let yourself grow attached to that girl, know what I mean?”

“Yes.”

“Fuck!” she swore, as she swiped her hand over the rods and, again, the green wood refused to be cut.

“What are you doing?”

“We’ve talked about the Manton effect.”

“The rule that prevents some powers from affecting living things.  You have been trying to remove such restrictions from yourself.”

“Without luck.  It’s a matter of time before we’re on a job, things come down to the wire, and I’m too weak, because of this arbitrary limitation.”

“I find it hard to believe that anyone who has toppled a building on someone could call themselves weak.”

“That was luck more than anything else,” she sighed, as she adjusted the positions of the rods.

“If you say so.”

“It’s not like there isn’t precedent for this.  We know for a fact that some capes who were once held back by the Manton effect have figured out a way around it, or past it.  Narwhal being the most obvious case.”

“Yes.”

“There’s a school of theory that says that the Manton effect is a psychological block.  That, because of our empathy for living things, we hold back our powers on an instinctual level.  Or, maybe, we hold back against other living things because there is a subconsciously imposed limitation that prevents us from hurting ourselves with our own powers, and it’s too general, encompassing other living things instead of only ourselves.”

“I see.”

“So I’m trying to trick my brain.  With this setup, I move from inorganic material to dead organic material to living tissues.  Green wood, in this case.  Or I mix it up so it goes from one to the other without any pattern.  If I can trick my brain into slipping up, anticipating the wrong material, maybe I can push through that mental block.  Do that once, and it’d be easier for future tries.  That’s the theory, anyways.”

She tried again.  “Fuck!”

“It does not seem to be working.”

“No kidding.  Do me a favor.  Rearrange these.  Don’t let me see them.”

He approached the desk, unstrapped the rods, shuffled them, and then strapped them in place while she sat there with her eyes closed.

“Go,” he told her.

She tried again, eyes still closed.  When she opened them, she cussed a few times in a row.

Gregor stepped around the desk, grabbed her by the throat with his left hand, and pulled her out of the chair.  He shoved her to the ground and climbed atop of her so he was straddling her, his knees pressing her arms down.  His grip tightened incrementally.

Faultline’s eyes widened and her face began to turn colors as she struggled.  She brought her knees up into his back, but one might have had more success hitting a waterbed.  The effect was the same.  Beneath his skin, which was tougher than one might guess, his skeleton, muscles and organs all sat in a sea of viscous fluids.  His skeleton, he’d learned, was more like a shark’s than a human’s.  It was a flexible cartilage that bent where bone would break, and healed faster than bone.  He’d been hit by a car and climbed to his feet shortly after.  Her kicks would not have much effect.

“I am sorry,” he told her.

Her struggles gradually became weaker.  It took some time before she started to go limp.

He waited a second longer, then released her.  She sputtered into a cough as she heaved air into her lungs.

He waited patiently for her to recover.  When she looked more or less in control of her own breathing, he spoke, “Months ago, we were talking about this subject, the Manton effect.  You mentioned how it might be possible for someone like us to have a second trigger event.  A radical change or improvement in their powers as a result of a life or death moment.  Such might explain how one broke the Manton rule.”

She nodded, coughing again.

“It would not have worked if I had warned you in advance.  I am sorry.”

She shook her head, coughed once, then answered him, her voice hoarse, “It didn’t work anyways.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What if it had worked, you big lunatic?  What did you expect me to do to you?  Cut off your hand?  Kill you?”

“I thought perhaps my hand or my arm, at worst.  I do not think you would kill me, even in a moment such as that.  You have done much for me.  Even if it proved impossible to reattach, I would not say it is a very attractive hand,” he examined the hand he’d just used to strangle Faultline, “To lose it, for something you have been working on for a long time is not a regrettable thing.”

“Idiot,” she pulled herself to her feet, coughing again, “How the hell am I supposed to get pissed at you when you say something like that?”

He stayed silent.

“Well, either that’s not going to work, or I need something that gets me even closer to death… in which case I’m scratching it off the list anyways.” She moved her chair and sat down at her desk, shoving the apparatus with the rods into the trash.  “I like being alive too much to dance on that razor’s edge.”

“Yes,” his voice was quiet.

“Thank you, by the way, for trying that” she told him, as she emptied the bag of one and a half sandwiches.  She returned Gregor’s half-sandwich to the bag and put hers aside, unopened.  “I don’t expect it was easy.”

He shook his head.

“So, returning a favor, then.  Sit down.”

He pulled a chair over and sat on the other side of the desk.

“A year ago, you agreed to give me a share of your earnings in our little group, if I put them towards answering some questions we had.”

“I remember.”

“I’ll talk to the others about this, soon, but since you were the one that paid the most, I thought it only right that I share with you first.”  She opened a drawer and retrieved a file.  She pushed it across the desk.  “This is what I’ve found, so far.”

He opened the file.  The first page was an image, high resolution, of a stylized ‘u’, or a ‘c’ turned ninety-degrees counter clockwise.  He touched his upper arm, where a tattoo identical to the image marked him.

“Whoever it is,” Faultline explained, “Whether it’s one person or many, is very, very good at covering their tracks.”

He turned the pages.  The next set of pages were pictures, crime scene reports, official files and news articles about various parahumans, each set of pages relating to a specific one.  The first was a monster of a man with a beetle-like shell covering his body.  Gregor himself was the second.

“You and Newter, you already know, aren’t alone.  On a steady basis, parahumans have been turning up across North America.  Retrograde amnesia, all marked by that same tattoo as you are on various parts of their body.  Each was dumped in an out of the way location in an urban area.  Alleys, ditches, rooftops, under bridges.”

“Yes.”  Gregor turned more pages.  Each set of pages had more individuals like him.

“Here’s the thing, though.  At first, most were strange in appearance.  As many as four out of five monstrous parahumans, if you’ll excuse the term, follow the pattern, and that number might increase if you got a chance to examine or get a decent interview with the others.  The tattoo, amnesia, their first memories are waking up somewhere in a strange city.”

“At first, you said?” Gregor asked, “This changed?”

“Turn to the red tab.”

He found the red tab that stuck out and turned to that page.  A high quality picture of an attractive redheaded girl.

“She showed up in Vegas.  The whole casino thing has bitten the dust, pretty much, since parahumans who could game the odds or cheat started showing up.  But there’s underground games, still.  She participated in a few, and had a bounty on her head in a matter of days.  She’s calling herself Shamrock, and I’d put good money on the fact that she’s got powers that let her manipulate probabilities.”

“I see.  Why are we talking about her?”

“Next page.”

He turned the page.  “Ah.”

It was a grainy surveillance camera image.  Shamrock was in the midst of changing clothes in what looked like an underground parking lot, and, though partially obscured by her bra strap, the tattoo was visible on her shoulderblade.  A stylized ‘u’.

“That’s puzzle piece number one.  Given the dates, and you’re free to look them over in your own time, going by the first sightings, the people that are showing up with these tattoos are getting less and less monstrous with each passing year.  Not always, but it’s a trend.  Then, boom, we get Shamrock.  No strange features to speak of.”

He turned ahead a few pages.

“Puzzle piece number two.  I’m afraid it’s one of those cases where things have been covered up too well for us to verify, but I’ll tell you what I heard.  Tallahassee, Florida, just three months ago, a rumor circulated about someone calling themselves the Dealer.”

“What was he dealing?”

“Powers.”

“Powers,” Gregor echoed her.

“Pay him an amount in the neighborhood of thirty five thousand dollars, the Dealer gives you something to drink, and you join the ranks of the heroes and villains in the cape community.  Powers in a bottle.”

“I see.  How does this relate?”

“Because one individual claiming to be a customer made a blog post about his transaction.  It’s near the end of that file.  In his post, he described the Dealer as having a metal suitcase filled with vials. Engraved on the inside of the lid…”

“The same symbol as the tattoo,” Gregor guessed.

Faultline nodded, “And that’s where we stand.”

“I see.  Can we track down this individual with the blog?”

“He’s dead.  Murdered by two unnamed capes less than a day after he made the post.”

“Ah.”

“What I think is that someone out there has figured out how people get powers, and they’ve made a business out of it.  But the first attempts didn’t go so well.  It could be that, if the chemistry is bad, the people who drink the stuff become like you, like Newter, like Sybill and Scarab.”

“So this person, or people.  You think they are experimenting.  They have been refining their work, and the physical changes have become smaller.”

“And this Dealer was either their salesman, or more likely, someone who stole some of their work and tried to profit from it.  The people he dealt to didn’t get the tattoos.”

Gregor’s chair groaned painfully as he leaned back.

“What is next?”

“No one’s seen or heard of this Dealer since the blog poster was murdered.  The Dealer’s either dead or gone to ground.  So we follow our other lead.  I’ve got private investigators looking for Shamrock.  I’m thinking we wrap up our contract with Coil, here, then, if we’re lucky enough that our PIs find her before the bounty hunters do, we pay her a visit. Either she can tell us something, or we can offer her a position on the team.”

“Or both,” he said.

“In an ideal world,” Faultline smiled.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Hive 5.2

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Coil addressed the room, “Then that’s our major piece of business concluded tonight.  Anything else before we go our separate ways?  Offers, announcements, grievances?”

“I’ve got a complaint,” a man at the side of the room spoke.  Heads turned to Kaiser’s group.  Hookwolf.

He wore a mask that was little more than a piece of sheet metal cut and shaped to resemble a wolf’s features, attached to his head with straps of black leather.  He had a chain threaded through the belt loops of his jeans, sporting a heavy metal belt buckle.  The buckle featured a wolf superimposed on a swastika – the same image he had tattooed on one of his biceps.  The opposite arm simply had ‘E88’ on it.  Outside of the mask and the belt buckle, you couldn’t really say he had a costume.  He was shirtless, shoeless, and hairy.  His blond hair was long and greasy, and he had thick hair on his chest, stomach and arms.  Harpoon-like spears and metal that curled like fishhooks radiated out from his shoulders, elbows and knees, all bristling with barbs or wickedly serrated edges.

Nobody, to date, had ever escaped the Birdcage, the name that had been coined for the supervillain prison in British Columbia.  Hookwolf, though, had escaped on no less than two occasions while being transported there.  He was a killer, and thought nothing of murdering people if they didn’t fit the Aryan ideal.

He turned to look at our table, very pale blue eyes visible through the slits in his metal mask, “My complaint’s with her.”

“What’s the issue?” Grue’s voice was calm, but it looked like he was generating a bit more darkness around him than he had been, making himself look a fraction bigger.  I wondered if he knew he was doing it.

“The crazy one, Hellhound, she-”

“Bitch,” Bitch interrupted him, “Only the panty-ass heroes call me Hellhound.  It’s Bitch.”

“Don’t fucking care,” Hookwolf growled, “You attacked my business.  Set your fucking dog on my customers.  Lucky I wasn’t there, whore.”

Grue gave Bitch a long look, then he spoke to Hookwolf, “That’s the kind of risk you run, doing business in Brockton Bay.  Capes can and will get in your way, hero or villain.”

Hookwolf glared at him, “It’s a matter of respect.  You want to fuck with my business, and we’re not at war?  You let me know if you’ve got an issue, first.  Let me decide if I want to move shop.”

“You mean give you a warning I’m coming,” Bitch spat the words, “That’s the dumbest fucking thing I ever heard.  Just so you know, moving to a different neighborhood won’t be good enough.  You open up another dogfighting ring, I’ll be visiting that one too.”

Oh, that’s what she’d done.  I glanced at Tattletale, then at Grue.  I was getting the impression neither of them had known.

Kaiser spoke, “Is that a declaration of war, Undersiders?  We just agreed to a truce, if you recall.”  He was utterly calm, a stark contrast to Hookwolf.  Hookwolf was brimming with barely suppressed rage to the point that I could picture him leaping across the room and attacking us if someone so much as dropped a glass.

Grue shook his head.  I think.  I couldn’t really tell with the way his darkness shrouded him, with his back turned to us.  He answered, “Not interested in war, but I’m not going to stop my teammate from doing what she has to.”

“You mean you can’t stop your subordinate,” Kaiser mused.

Grue didn’t have a quick response to that.  I suspected he couldn’t say Bitch wasn’t a subordinate without demoting himself in the eyes of the others at the table.  Kaiser, Trickster, Faultline and Coil were all leaders.  Grue took a leadership role when needed, but he wasn’t in charge of us.  Not exactly.

Grue clasped his hands in front of him, leaning forward with his elbows on the table. “It’s not so unusual for a cape to have a pet issue.  You should know that as much as anyone.  How would your people react if you forbid them from harassing or hurting gays, Kaiser?”

“I wouldn’t.”

“Exactly.  Same with her.  Word gets around that you’re someone who hurts dogs, she’ll fuck you up.  It’s kind of common knowledge here.”

“Not something I’d pay attention to.  I’m more of a cat person.”  The sardonic comment elicited a few chuckles from the room.

“I think it’s worth paying attention to if it leads to situations like this,” Grue responded, his voice firm.

“I delegate to my underlings and trust them to keep track of minor details.  Hookwolf has been out of town until recently.  He must not have heard.”

The bullshit was so transparent I couldn’t help but wonder if he was baiting us.

“I’d like to resolve this peacefully,” Grue reiterated.

Kaiser shook his head with the sound of metal edges scraping on metal, “Peace is always preferable, but I can’t let an insult like this slide.  We’ll need restitution before this can be put to rest.  Money or blood.  Your choice.”

Bitch made a sound low in her throat.  She and Hookwolf weren’t the only ones bristling.  I looked at the table where Hookwolf sat with Fenja, Menja, Night, Fog, and Krieg, and everyone there looked visibly angry.

“Then let’s sit on it until we’re freer to give the matter our full attention,” Grue spoke, “The truce is in effect, and we’ll meet again when things are more or less resolved with the ABB.”  He looked to the others at the table for confirmation.

“We will,” Coil replied. Faultline nodded.

“What do you say?” Grue asked Kaiser, “Set this aside for now?”

Kaiser nodded, once.  “Fair.  We’ll discuss the matter further at our next meeting.”

“That’s settled then.  Anything else?” Coil asked, “Issues, negotiations, requests?”

There was no reply.

Coil took that as answer enough.  “Then let’s conclude the meeting.  Thank you for attending.  Faultline, could I have a word before you leave?”

There was the sound of chairs scraping against the floor as the people at the table got up, Faultline and Coil excepted.  Skidmark’s group headed out the door to leave right away, while Kaiser and Purity walked to the table where their underlings sat with their drinks.  The Travelers loitered around their table, not quite settling in, not leaving.

Grue returned to us, but he didn’t sit.

“Let’s go.”

Nobody argued.  We stood and left Somer’s Rock.  Skidmark’s group was taking their time leaving down one end of the street, so, unspoken, we headed in the other direction, just to be safe.  There was no doubt those guys were spoiling for a fight.  They were the diametrical opposite of Kaiser, Coil, and Faultline.  Hotheaded, reckless, unpredictable.  They would start a fight, even knowing they would set every other gang in the city against them for abusing neutral territory.

We were a block away from the pub when Grue spoke, “Bitch.  Do you understand why I’m pissed right now?”

“Why we’re pissed,” Tattletale added.

“I guess.”

Grue paused, as if he was choosing his words carefully, “I want to be certain you know what you did wrong.”

“Fuck you,” she snapped, “I get the idea.  You don’t have to get on my case.”

Grue glanced at the rest of us, then looked over his shoulder in the direction of the pub.

We walked in grim silence past three different stores before he lashed out.  He grabbed Bitch by the shoulder, then pulled her backward to break her stride and put her off balance enough that she stumbled.  Before she could regain her footing, he forced her bodily into the recessed area at the front of an old bookstore and shoved her against the door, his hand gripping her throat.

I looked towards the pub.  There was nobody leaving, and nobody looking our way.  Biting my lip, I joined Tattletale and Regent in stepping inside the alcove.  I was praying Grue knew what he was doing.

For several long seconds, he just held her there, leaving her to claw for a grip on his arm and glove, kick ineffectually at his leg.  Twice, as she looked like she had enough leverage to hit him harder, he used his grip on her throat to pull her forward and then shove her back against the door again, hard enough to give her coughing fits.

She didn’t stop fighting as he spoke, his quiet voice hollow with the effects of his power, “I hate this, Rachel.  That you make me do shit like this.  That when I say things like that, I sound like everything I hate most in this world.  But that’s just the way you play things.  It’s the only time you’re willing to listen.  You hearing what I’m saying?”

Bitch jabbed at the center of his stomach, but he used the length of his arms to pull his body back enough to avoid the worst of the hit, while still holding on to her throat.  He slammed her against the door again.  “You hearing me, Rachel?”

She nodded sullenly, eyes darting in every direction but directly at him.  He eased up a fraction, and she was able to gasp in a few breaths.

“Look me in the eyes,” he intoned.

She did.  His visor was just an inch from her face, and she couldn’t actually see his eyes, but she stared steadily into the dark holes of his skull mask.  I wasn’t sure I could have, and he wasn’t angry at me.

“You made me look bad.  You made us look bad.  I’m not pissed because of what you did to Hookwolf’s business.  That’s you.  That’s your baggage, your shit.  I get that it’s par for the course with you on the team.  I can live with that.  You following?”

Another reluctant nod.  Not breaking eye contact.

I peeked around the corner to make sure this conversation was still private.  The Travelers were outside the pub now, but they were taking their time leaving.  Trickster was smoking a cigarette through the mouth-hole of his mask.

Grue went on, “You know what you did wrong?  You didn’t fucking tell us.  You let me fucking go in there and talk to those guys and get caught with my pants down.  I had to fucking defend the actions of my team without knowing what the fuck people were talking about.  It made me look weak.  It made all of us look weak.”

“You want an apology?”

“Would you mean it?  I haven’t heard a honest apology from you since I met you, and believe me, an insincere apology from you would only piss me off more right now.  So it’s your call.  You want to try?”

Bitch didn’t answer.  I could see her square her shoulders, straighten her head, a change of posture that was subtly challenging.

“Christ, Rachel.  This is your second major fuckup in the span of two weeks.  Do I need to talk to the boss and-”

“Stop,” Tattletale cut in, “My turn.”

Grue dropped his hand from Bitch’s neck and stepped away, folding his arms as he turned his back to her.  What had he been saying before Tattletale interrupted?  Do I need to talk to the boss and see if we can replace you?

If that was it, I could see why Tattletale had stepped in.

“You’re frustrated, I get it,” Tattletale spoke.  Bitch was staring in the window of the bookstore, avoiding eye contact while she rubbed her neck.  Tattletale went on, “You don’t feel like you did anything wrong, and if you had another chance to do things over, you feel like you’d do everything the same way… yet people are pissed at you.”

Bitch met Tattletale’s eyes.  Her tone was a combination of irritation and boredom, “And people are taking turns chewing me out and spewing psychobabble shit at me.”

Tattletale waited, maybe to get her composure, to figure out another approach, or to use her power to dig for information she could use.  Or maybe she was waiting to give Bitch time to think about how she wasn’t helping herself any with what she was saying.  I wasn’t sure – I couldn’t read her expression.  She wasn’t smiling or grinning like she usually did, though.

Tattletale’s tone was more exasperated as she replied, “Fine.  I’ll cut right to the point.  Both of your screwups this past week had to do with a lack of communication.  If you’d called to let us know you were heading out to the money early, maybe we could have anticipated the ambush.  If you let us know you’d messed with Hookwolf’s dogfighting ring, we’d have been more prepared tonight.  So open your mouth more.  Talk to us, let us know what’s going on.  Alright?”

Bitch didn’t respond, tension standing out on her neck, posture stiff, hands in her pockets.

“Think on it,” Tattletale suggested.

I checked around the corner again.  Trickster was still smoking his cigarette, but he was looking directly at us.  At me.  The gorilla-thing was too, but the others were looking at Trickster.  I think he was talking.  It was hard to tell.

“I think it’s time to wrap this up,” I informed the others, “Eyes on us.”

We left the nook, with only Bitch’s slumped posture giving any indication that anything had gone on.  She trailed a few feet behind the rest of us.  There was tension, and it wasn’t all directed at or coming from her.  Grue and Tattletale were walking slightly apart from one another.  He either hadn’t liked it when she cut in, or he was angry at himself, but something was bugging one or both of them.

Regent had been quiet throughout.  From what Lisa had said as she visited me earlier in the week, he was still getting twinges of pain from his arm.  I suspected his current state was a combination of painkillers and a lack of a good night’s sleep.  He hadn’t been a part of the recent dialogue, but his silence wasn’t helping the mood any either.

I didn’t like this.  This friction spoiling the camaraderie of the group, the undercurrent of tension.  I liked these guys.  Even Bitch, I dunno, I supposed it would be a stretch to say I liked her, but I could maybe respect her for what she brought to the table.

I knew it would be hard to turn on them, to pull off that grand betrayal and turn their information over to the Protectorate, once I had the information I needed… but when I thought on it, I knew I could bite the bullet and do it.  I would have less regrets in the long run.  I could even be proud of it, in the grand scheme of things, maybe.

More and more, I was seeing the day I turned that information over and said goodbye to the Undersiders as the day I wanted to transform myself.  Start transforming Skitter into a hero in the public eye, doing what I could to repair my image, and redefining Taylor into someone confident and outgoing and brave.  If I could cut ties with the Undersiders and take that plunge, I knew I could change myself.

But, strange as it sounded, I would feel worse about handing their information to the Protectorate if this sort of negativity was what I was leaving behind when I did it.  I knew it made no sense, but I wanted to be able to tell myself I’d had one successful set of friendships, before I severed ties for the sake of doing the right thing.  I could only hope that the sore feelings would fade.  Even when I’d had friends, it had just been me and Emma.  I didn’t have enough experience to really know one way or the other, as far as how groups of friends handled these sorts of sore feelings and resentment.  It sucked.

As I glanced back at Bitch, it struck me that this had to suck worse for her.  I felt a twinge of sympathy.

I knew what it felt like, to be the one alone in the midst of a group of people.

Slowing my pace until I was walking beside her, I found myself struggling to find words.  Make small talk?  I wasn’t sure how.  Reassure her?  I didn’t think I could say anything without seeming like I was siding with her on things, or opening a can of worms as far as getting the argument going again.  Adding my own voice to Grue’s and Tattletale’s would only make her feel worse, and I had my suspicions she wouldn’t stand and take it from me the same way she had with the other two.

“Hookwolf was running a dogfighting ring?” I asked her, my voice lowered, “Like, making dogs fight?”

“Fight to the death,” Bitch answered, almost inaudible.

When your only real companions or family in the world were your dogs, I could see where that hit home.  I’d never had a dog, but the way I saw things, dogs were like kids.  They were at the mercy of specific people, and if those people decided to abuse that, it was just flat out wrong.

“You stopped them?”

She turned her head my way, met my eyes.  “Made them bleed.”

I felt goosebumps prickle the back of my neck and my arms.  I wasn’t sure if I would feel better or worse if she decided to elaborate.

“Good,” I replied.

We didn’t say anything more the rest of the way back.  Probably for the best.

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Hive 5.1

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The place was nondescript.  A hole in the wall in the midst of a long street of hole in the wall businesses.  Everything was run down.  For every given store or restaurant you passed, you could only guess if the place was still open or not.

The pub had a sign on it reading ‘Somer’s Rock’.  There were iron bars on the windows and the curtains were drawn, but it would have been more unusual if that wasn’t the case.  It was that kind of area.  The paint on the outside was peeling, and the rust from the bars had bled onto the gray-white paint below the windows.

As we stepped inside, it became clear that Somer’s Rock was one book that should be judged by its cover.  It was dim, dingy and depressing.  The wood floor was stained the same dark gray as the counter of the bar, the curtains and tablecloths were dark green, and the only real color or brightness, if you could call it that, was the yellow light cast by ancient, burnt lightbulbs.

There were three people in Somer’s Rock when we arrived.  One was a sullen looking twenty-something girl with brown hair and a slightly wrinkled server’s uniform, who glanced at us as we came in, but made no attempt to welcome us.  There were two identical twins behind the bar in the far corner, probably her older brothers, busying themselves with washing glasses and studiously ignoring us.  One of them was wearing a dress shirt and apron, looking the part of a bartender, while the other had a black t-shirt under a Hawaiian shirt.  Besides the contrast in fashion, they were identical in height, haircut, features and expression.

A group of tables had been pulled together with chairs arranged around them, but we walked past them to a corner booth.  Tattletale, Bitch, Grue, Regent and I all arranged ourselves on the worn cushioned benches.  I was calling them that in my head, really, because they weren’t Lisa, Brian, Rachel and Alec.  We were all in costume.

As we settled in, the girl with the dour expression approached us, setting her notepad down on the table and then stared at me, the look in her eyes almost challenging.  She didn’t say a word.

“Coke?” I ventured, feeling uncomfortable under the look.

“No, Skitter,” Tattletale nudged me, “She’s deaf.  If you want something, write it on the pad.”  To demonstrate, she reached across the table, took the pad and wrote ‘tea, black’.  I took her cue and wrote down my order, then passed the note across the table to the boys and Bitch.  The girl gave me an ugly look as she walked away with our orders.

It had been a week since the incident with Bakuda.  Lisa and Brian had stopped by several times as I spent my days in bed, giving me updates on the situation as it unfolded.  At one point they had even brought Alec and Bitch, and I’d been very relieved my dad hadn’t been home at the time.  Alec and Bitch weren’t the polite houseguests that Lisa and Brian were, and I suspected their presence and personalities would have raised more questions with my dad than they put to rest.

Apparently someone at the PHQ had named my costumed self ‘Skitter’.  Lung had overheard something about it, and it had now spread through the city in the aftermath of his escape, which implied he was probably looking for me.  As a newspaper article raised our possible involvement in the bombings that had taken place, as adversaries of Bakuda, my new name had come up yet again, so it looked like it was maybe catching on.  I didn’t love it, but I didn’t love any of the names I’d come up with, so I could cope.

It seemed that we had arrived a few minutes early, because the rest of the guests arrived within seconds of each other, as the server brought us our drinks.

Kaiser came through the door with a girl on each arm, blondes with measurements like Playboy models.  Kaiser wore armor head to toe, elaborately worked and topped with a crown of blades.  The leader of Empire Eighty Eight.  The twins went by the names Fenja and Menja, and were decked out in Valkyrie-style armor featuring countless little steel wings, along with closed-face helms.  Had to admit, Kaiser liked his heavy hitters.  These two could grow to be three stories tall, and they were a hundred times more durable when they were.

Purity entered a few steps behind him with several others following her.  She was dressed in a white costume without any markings or symbols on it, but the fabric glowed softly.  Her white hair and eyes glowed too, but it was more like they were made of heated magnesium than anything else.  I couldn’t look in her direction without getting spots in my eyes, and my mask had tinted lenses designed to reduce glare.

The people that had come in with Purity were other members of Empire Eighty Eight.  Krieg, Night, Fog and Hookwolf.   It was interesting to see, because as far as I’d known, while every one of them had been a member of Empire Eighty Eight at some point in time, Purity had gone solo, while Night and Fog had splintered off to form their own duo in Boston not long after.  All reunited, apparently.

That wasn’t even Kaiser’s entire team.  Aside from the rare exception like Lung reaching out to Bakuda when she’d been at Cornell, it seemed that most groups recruited new members from within their own city.  Kaiser was different.  He was one of the better known American villains with a white supremacist agenda, and people sharing his ideals were either recruited from other states or they came to him.  Most didn’t stay with him for too long, for whatever reason, but it still made him the Brockton Bay resident with the most raw parahuman muscle at his beck and call.

Kaiser sat at one end of the table in the center of the room, his people finding seats and chairs at the tables behind him.  Purity didn’t relax or order drinks, though.  She sat in a chair a few feet behind Kaiser, folded her arms and crossed one ankle over the other, settling in to watch the proceedings.  From my research online and digging through old newspaper articles,I knew Purity could create light and charge it with kinetic energy.  She was like a human flashlight, if the light from the flashlight could punch through brick walls and tear city buses in half.  As far as raw firepower went, she was up near the top of the list, a flying artillery turret.

Coil entered after Empire Eighty Eight, all the more conspicuous because he was alone.  No backup, no show of force.  He was taller than Grue, but he was thin to the point of being skeletal.  His skintight costume covered him head to toe, lacking even eyeholes or openings for his nose and mouth, and the way it clung to his skin let you see his individual ribs and joints.  The costume was black, and the only design on it was a white snake, with its head starting at Coil’s forehead, the tail extending down the back of his head, looping and winding over his entire body before finally ending at one of his ankles.  He sat at the end of the table opposite Kaiser.

“What’s his deal?” I whispered to Tattletale.

“Coil?  Can’t say as far as his powers go, but he’s one of the more powerful players in town.  Considers himself a chessmaster.  You know, like a master strategist, tactician.   Controls more than half of downtown with squads of top notch personnel in the highest end gear.  Ex-military from around the world.  If he even has powers, he’s the only one in his organization who does.”

I nodded.  Almost the opposite of Kaiser in that department.  I might have asked more, but others were streaming into the room.

Faultline.  I knew of her from my research.  She was twenty-something, and her straight black hair was in a long bristling ponytail.  Her costume was weird, approximating something like a blend of riot gear, a martial arts uniform and a dress.  Four people entered the room with her, and the two guys in the group were instantly the weirdest people in the room.  I knew them by name too.  Newter wasn’t wearing a shirt, shoes or gloves, which made it all the more apparent that his skin was neon orange from head to toe.  He had light blue eyes, dark red hair that looked wet and a five foot long prehensile tail.  Gregor the Snail was morbidly obese, average height, with no hair on his entire body.  His skin was milky white and slightly translucent, so you could see shadows beneath it where his organs were.  Like someone else might have bad acne, he had bits of shell or scales crusting his skin.  They looked almost like barnacles, but there was a spiral shape to them.

You wouldn’t have thought they were close by their body language, silence and the sheer difference in appearance, but both had matching tattoos.  Newter’s was just above his heart, while Gregor’s was on his upper arm.  It looked like the greek ‘Omega’ symbol, but upside down.  Maybe a stylized ‘u’.

The other two girls in Faultline’s group were very normal by contrast;  Labyrinth wore a dark green robe and mask with lines all over them.  Spitfire wore in a red and black costume with a gasmask.

I was surprised when Faultline deliberately walked by our table on her way to her seat, taking the long way around.  As she passed us, she looked over Tattletale and me and sneered a little before taking the chair to Kaiser’s right.

“I’m going to go before all the seats get taken, if that’s cool?” Grue spoke, and the rest of us nodded.  Grue sat between Faultline and Coil.

“What was that with Faultline and you?” I murmured to Tattletale, “History?”

“Nothing important,” she replied.

Regent leaned forward.  “She and Tattletale have been feuding a little.  Faultline upped the ante when she poached Spitfire from us when we were in the middle of trying to recruit her.  Can’t say why Faultline doesn’t like Tattle, but I know Tattletale hates it when people act like they’re smarter than her, and Faultline is smarter than her.  Ow.  Fuck, that hurt.”

Tattletale had kicked him under the table.

“They’re mercenaries right?” I asked.

Tattletale nodded, “Faultline’s crew does anything short of murder.  You can say her personality sucks, you can say her powers suck, but I’ll admit she’s very good at finding hidden strengths in the people that work for her.  See those two guys?  When it came to powers, they got a bad roll of the dice.  Became freaks that couldn’t hope to pass in normal society, wound up homeless or living in the sewers.  There’s a story behind it, but they became a team, she made them effective, and they’ve only messed up one or two jobs so far.”

“Gotcha,” I said, “Impressive.”

“Keep in mind, though, we haven’t screwed up any.  We’re 100%.”

“They’ve done something like three times as many jobs as us,” Regent pointed out.

“But we haven’t failed any jobs, is the important thing,” Tattletale stressed.

Another group arrived, and it was like you could see a wave of distaste wash over the faces in the room.  I had seen references on the web and news articles about these guys, but they weren’t the sort you took pictures of.  Skidmark, Moist, Squealer.  Two guys and a girl, the lot of them proving that capes weren’t necessarily attractive, successful or immune to the influences of substance abuse.  Hardcore addicts and dealers who happened to have superpowers.

Skidmark wore a mask that covered the top half of his face.  The lower half was dark skinned, with badly chapped lips and teeth that looked more like shelled pistachio nuts than anything else.  He stepped up to the table and reached for a chair.  Before he could move it, though, Kaiser kicked the chair out of reach, sending it toppling onto its side, sliding across the floor.

“The fuck?” Skidmark snarled.

“You can sit in a booth,” Kaiser spoke.  Even though his voice was completely calm, like he was talking to a stranger about the weather, it felt threatening.

“This is because I’m black, hunh?  That’s what you’re all about, yeah?”

Still calm, Kaiser replied, “You can sit in a booth because you and your team are pathetic, deranged losers that aren’t worth talking to.  The people at this table?  I don’t like them, but I’ll listen to them.  That isn’t the case with you.”

“Fuck you.  What about this guy?” Skidmark pointed at Grue, “I don’t even know his name, and he’s sitting.”

Faultline answered him, “His team hit the Brockton Bay Central Bank a week ago.  They’ve gone up against Lung several times in the past and they’re still here, which is better than most.  Not even counting the events of a week ago, he knows about the ABB and he can share that information with the rest of us.”  She gave Grue a look that made it clear that he didn’t have a choice if he wanted to sit at the table.  He dipped his head in the smallest of nods in response.  We’d discussed things beforehand and agreed on what details we’d share.

“What have you done that’s worth a seat at this table?” she asked Skidmark.

“We hold territory-”

“You hold nothing,” Grue answered, raising his voice, his powers warping it, “You’re cowards that hold onto the areas nobody else cares about, making drugs and selling them to children.”

“We sell to everyone, not just-”

“Find a booth,” Grue’s echoing voice interrupted him.  Skidmark gave him a look, then looked at the others sitting around the table.  All still, every set of eyes he could see behind the masks was staring him down.

“Assholes.  Puckered, juicy assholes, all of you,” Skidmark snarled, stomping off to the booth where his teammates already sat.

The serving girl picked up the fallen chair and restored it to its position at the table, not meeting anyone’s eyes as she walked up to the table where Kaiser’s people sat, put down her notepad and waited for everyone to write down their orders.  It struck me just why the pub had a deaf waitress.

“I’ll be taking a chair, I think,” someone spoke from the door.  Most heads turned to check out a male figure in a black costume with a red mask and tophat.  It gave me sort of a Baron Samedi vibe.  His teammates followed him into the room, all in matching costumes of red and black, differing only in design.  A girl with a sun motif, a guy with bulky armor and a square mask, and a creature so large it had to crawl on its hands and knees to get through the door.  It was hard to describe, approximating something like a four armed hairless gorilla, with a vest, mask and leggings in the red and black style its team was wearing, six-inch claws tipping each of its fingers and toes.

“The Travelers, yes?” Coil spoke, his voice smooth, “You’re not local.”

“You could call us nomadic.  What was happening here was too interesting to pass up, so I decided we’d stop by for a visit.” The guy with the top hat pulled off the first really formal bow I’d seen in my life. “I go by Trickster.”

“You know the rules, here?” Grue asked Trickster.

“We’ve been to similar places.  I can guess.  No fighting, no powers, no trying to bait others into causing trouble, or everyone else in the room puts aside all other grievances to put you down.”

“Close enough.  It’s important to have neutral ground to meet, have civilized discussion.”

“I won’t argue that.  Please, continue as if I wasn’t here.”

When Trickster took a chair and put his feet up on the table, nobody complained, though Skidmark looked like he wanted to kill someone.  The rest of the Travelers settled in a booth not far from us.  The gorilla thing sat on the floor and it was still large enough to be at eye level with its teammates.

Coil dipped his head in a nod and steepled his fingers.  When he spoke, his voice was smooth, “That should be everyone.  Seems Lung won’t be coming, though I doubt any of us are surprised, given the subject of tonight’s discussion.”

“The ABB,” Kaiser replied.

“Thirty five individuals confirmed dead and over a hundred hospitalized in this past week.  Armed presence on the streets.  Ongoing exchanges of gunfire between ABB members and the combined forces of the police and military.  They have raided our businesses and bombed places where they think we might operating.  They have seized our territories, and there’s no indication they intend to stop anytime soon,” Coil clarified the situation for all present.

“It is inconvenient,” Kaiser spoke.

“They’re being reckless,” Faultline said.  She made it sound like that was a crime on par with killing kittens.

Coil nodded, “Which is the real concern.  The ABB can’t sustain this.  Something will give, they will self destruct sooner or later, and they will likely cease to be an issue.  Had things played out differently, we could look at this as a good thing.  Our problem is that the actions of the ABB are drawing attention to our fair city.  Homeland security and military forces are establishing a temporary presence to assist in maintaining order.  Heroes are flocking to the city to support the Protectorate in regaining control of matters.  It is making business difficult.”

“Bakuda is at the center of this,” Grue joined the dialogue, “Lung may be the leader, but everything hinges on the girl.  She ‘recruited’ by orchestrating raids of people’s homes while they slept, subduing them, and implanting bombs in their heads.  She then used those bombs to coerce her victims into kidnapping more.  No less than three hundred in total, now.  Every single one of her soldiers knows that if they don’t obey, Bakuda can detonate the bombs.  All of them are willing to put their lives on the line, because the alternatives are either certain death or watching their loved ones die for their failure.  Taking her down is our ultimate goal, but she’s rigged her bombs to go off the second her heart stops, so it’s a little more complicated than a simple assassination.”

He reached into the darkness that shrouded his chest and withdrew a package.  “She videotaped the ambush she pulled on my group a week ago and left it behind when she ran.  I’ve made copies.  Maybe you’ll find it useful for getting a better understanding of her.”

Grue handed a burned CD to everyone at the table.

This was our show of strength.  The video showed everything from the point Bakuda had liquefied Park Jihoo to the second bomb she had set off in her ranks.  As the second bomb had gone off in the midst of Bakuda’s group, the camera had dropped briefly, recorded the sounds of guns going off and everything being darkened by Grue’s power, but it didn’t show us running.  It didn’t reveal our weaknesses, how lucky we’d been to get away, or how bad our circumstances had really been.  It did let everyone know what we’d been up against, let them know that we’d come out fine and had been able to attend this meeting.  That would do as much for our reputation as anything else.

I wasn’t 100% recovered from my concussion, and Alec was complaining of twinges in his arm, still, but Brian had stressed how important it was that we attend, give the illusion our team was intact, untouched. Seeing the other groups with their subtle posturing, I knew he’d been right.

“So,” Coil let the word hang in the air as he cracked each of the knuckles on his right hand individually, “We’re in agreement?  The ABB cannot be allowed to continue operating.”

There were nods and murmurs of agreement from around the table, some from the various villains gathered around the room.

“Then I suggest we establish a truce.  Not just everyone here, but between ourselves and the law.  I would contact authorities and let them know that until this matter is cleared up, our groups will restrict our illegal activity to only what is absolutely essential to our business, and we will enforce the same for those doing business in our territories.  That would let police forces and military focus entirely on the ABB.  There would be no violence, infighting between our groups, grabs for territory, thefts or insults.  We band together with those we can tolerate for guaranteed victory, and we ignore those we cannot cooperate with.”

“Just saying my group won’t be getting directly involved in this without a reason,” Faultline spoke, “We won’t be going after the ABB unless they get in my way or someone pays my rates.  It’s the only workable policy when you’re a cape for hire.  And just so we’re clear, if it’s the ABB paying, my team’s going to be on the other side of things.”

“Unfortunate, but you and I can talk after this meeting is done.  I’d prefer to keep matters simple,” Coil said, “You’re okay with the other terms?”

“Keeping on the down-low, not kicking up a fuss with other groups?  That’s status quo with my group anyways.”

“Good.  Kaiser?”

“I think that is acceptable,” Kaiser agreed.

“I was talking to my group about doing something not too different from what Coil just proposed,” Grue spoke, “Yeah, we’re cool with it.”

“Sure,” Trickster said, “Not a problem.  We’re in.”

Hands were shaken around the table.

“Funny,” Tattletale murmured.

I turned away from the scene to look at her, “What?”

“Aside from Grue and maybe Faultline, everyone’s already plotting how they can use this situation to their advantage, or fuck over the others.”

I turned back to the scene, the villains sitting around the table.  It dawned on me just how much sheer destructive potential was gathered in the room.

This could get complicated.

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