Tangle 6.5

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My legs hugged the sides of Judas’ body.  I could feel his breathing beneath me, the expansion of his body as his lungs filled, then emptied.  He huffed out a breath, and it steamed in the cool night air.

He stepped forward, just a little, and I got a glimpse of the world below us.  Thirty two stories down, the cars on the street were visible only by the yellow and red points of their headlights and taillights.  I felt Tattletale clutch me tighter, from where she sat behind me.  Judas’ front paw rested on the stone railing of the rooftop, clutched it hard enough that the points of his nails bit into the concrete.

Getting up here had been easy enough – Tattletale had cracked the employee access door and we’d taken the supply elevator to the roof.  Had someone been alerted to our presence?  Spotted us on camera?  Hard to say.  But time was short, and we’d already wasted enough time waiting for the dogs to finish growing.  The moment Bitch deemed them set, we would move out.

This plan had been terrifying when we’d just been talking about it.  Actually being on the verge of doing it?  Ten times worse.

Still time to think of a reason to back out.

Bitch’s whistle, one of those ones that make you wince when you hear them a hundred feet away, cut through the faint, ambient hum of the city below us.

Last chance, Taylor.

A second later, Brutus, with Bitch and Grue astride his back, stepped over the edge of the roof.  Judas shifted forward under me, then followed.

Falling from a height like that, you don’t get to scream.  The wind takes your voice from you.  If you happen to have something to hold onto, you cling to that for dear life and you pray, even if you aren’t a praying type.  My hands clutched hooks of bone on either side of Judas’ neck hard enough that I thought I might break either the bone or my hands.

Three stories down from the roof, there was a patio.  As Bitch whistled and pointed from her position below us, Judas kicked against the wall just behind us, pushing out and away from the building.  My heart rose into my throat and stuck there as I saw the edge of the patio below us, surely out of reach.  Had he pushed too early?  The next chance we’d have to touch a surface would be when we spattered violently against the road.

His instincts seemed to be better than mine.  His front claws reached down and gripped the patio’s edge.  Every muscle in my body tensed in my effort to not be thrown off him as we stopped, even with his powerful body absorbing the worst of the fall.  He gripped the ledge, then pushed against it while leveraging his back legs into place.  With every muscle in his body, it seemed, he leaped.  Not down, this time, but out.

Time seemed to stand still as we left the building behind.  The only thing below us was the street, twenty-nine stories below. The wind blew through my hair with a painful bite of cold. We’d crossed the event horizon, it was do or die from here on out.  That made it eerily easy to cast aside all doubts and hesitation and steel myself for what came next.

The Forsberg Gallery was twenty six stories tall and was one of the more recognizable buildings you could find downtown.  If I remembered right, it had been designed by Architecture students at the university, a few years ago.  I wasn’t really a fan of the design, which resembled the late stages of a game of Jenga, with each section formed in tempered glass with steel bars and girders providing the base skeleton.  The entire thing was illuminated by lights that changed according to the time of the evening.

In the blue-gray of the evening, the tower was pink and orange, echoing the sunset that had finished just an hour ago.  As the leap carried us over it, a pink tinted spotlight consumed my vision.

My lenses absorbed the worst of the glare, and a second later, I was able to make out what was happening again.  Brutus, a matter of feet in front of us, slammed into the glass of the roof, sending cracks spiderwebbing across it.  Grue virtually bounced from where he sat on Brutus’ back, losing his seat, hit the glass of the roof with his shoulder, and began to slide.  There was barely any traction to be had, not even on the steel girder that separated the massive panes of glass, and the only thing at the end of that slide would be a very long fall.

He reached out and grabbed ahold of the end of Brutus’ tail, pulling himself to a standing position at the same moment that Judas, Tattletale and I crashed into the pane of glass to their right.

The damage Brutus had done on impact was enough to ensure that we could break through rather than simply breaking the window.  There was a moment where you could hear the sound of straining metal, followed by the sound of a lot of shattering glass.

Together we all dropped into the center of the Forsberg Gallery’s top floor, joined by a downpour of glass shards.  Grue landed on his feet and stumbled back as Brutus landed just in front of him.  All around us, there were people in fancy dress and uniforms.  Suits, dresses… costumes.  People ran screaming and running for cover.  Heroes stepped forward, some trying to grasp the situation in the midst of the chaos, others putting themselves between us and the civilians.

A matter of heartbeats after we touched ground, Regent and Angelica plunged into the room, landing just behind us.  Regent lost his seat as Angelica landed, but managed to roll as he hit the ground, bringing himself to a crouch as he stopped.  He almost managed to make it look intentional.  Angelica stepped up to Bitch’s side, wearing the same harness we’d fitted her with at the bank robbery, but with two large cardboard boxes strapped to her sides, rather than bags.

I felt weirdly calm as my eyes swept over the room.  The Protectorate was gathered around the stage at the back of the room.  Armsmaster, Miss Militia, Assault, Battery, Velocity and Triumph.  Dauntless was MIA.

Not far away was the ‘kids’ table with some of the heroes of the hour.  Clockblocker, Vista, Gallant and Shadow Stalker, interrupted from their mingling with the rich kids, teen actors and the sons and daughters of the local who’s who.  The platinum blonde in the white evening gown that was giving me the evil eye?  That would be Glory Girl, out of costume.

Standing guard by the front of the room, raising their weapons in our direction, was an on-duty PRT squad.  Their very recognizable uniforms were chain mesh augmented with kevlar, topped with faceless helmets.  The only means you had to identify them with were the badge numbers printed across their vests in bold white numbers.   Four of the five had what looked like flamethrowers.  They weren’t firing yet – they couldn’t.  They were packing the best in nonlethal weaponry, but there were elderly people and children in the crowd, and according to Tattletale, that meant they were prohibited from opening fire on us for the moment.

The civilians… men and women in their finest clothes and jewelry.  A combination of the richest and most powerful people in the city, their guests and those willing to pay the exorbitant prices for the tickets.  The tickets started at two hundred and thirty dollars and had climbed steeply as they’d been bought up.  We’d initially considered attending as guests, for one plan of attack, before we decided that it was too dangerous to risk having our secret identities caught on camera, or to have something go wrong as we attempted to smuggle our equipment, costumes and dogs inside.  Once we’d decided that much, we’d stopped checking the cost of tickets, which had gotten as high as four hundred dollars a person.  The guests could use thirty dollars of the ticket price to bid on an auction, but it was still pretty exorbitant.

I recognized the mayor – the first time I’d seen him in person.  There was a guy who might have been a lesser known actor – I thought I recognized him, too.  The rest were just people, maybe a bit better looking than the norm, a bit better dressed.

And Emma.

I could have laughed.  She was standing there in the crowd with her parents and older sister, looking scared shitless in a little sky blue dress and blue sandals. Her dad was a high profile divorce lawyer.  I supposed it was possible he’d worked for someone famous or powerful enough that his family hadn’t needed an invitation or expensive tickets to get in.

It kind of sucked, knowing I was about to give her an awesome story to share with the rest of the school when her suspension was over with.  I was really, really hoping it wouldn’t be a story along the lines of ‘these idiotic villains just pulled a stunt so dumb it would put Über and Leet to shame, and got themselves arrested in a matter of seconds’.

Tattletale laughed, with a nervous edge, “Holy shit!  Not doing that again!  Fucking intense…” Her voice trailed off as Grue blacked out the crowd, leaving only the spot where we stood and the very edges of the room clear of the darkness.  She gave him a dirty look.

“Bitch, Regent, go!” He shouted, as he stepped my way, grabbed my hand and practically pulled me from where I sat on Judas’ back.  Tattletale hopped down, following a pace or two behind us.

The three of us ran for the front of the room, while Bitch whistled for her dogs and ran for the back.  I sensed it when Regent unhitched the two boxes that were strapped to Angelica.  The boxes were heavy and  hit the ground hard, splitting at the seams.  Better than I’d hoped.  I had my bugs flow out from the top of the box and the split sides, and ordered them into the crowd.

If a few more of the biting and stinging sort headed in Emma’s general direction, it wasn’t due to a conscious choice on my part.

If everything went according to plan, Bitch, Regent and the dogs could delay or stop anyone who ventured beyond the cloud of darkness.  Everything else, our success or our humiliating arrest, hinged on Grue, Tattletale and I.

My bugs reached the front of the room just seconds before we did.  I could sense their locations, and this in turn gave me the ability to identify where the people, the walls, doorway and furniture were.

I was moving with my knife drawn before Grue even banished some of his darkness to reveal a portion of the PRT squad that was stationed at the entrance.  As the cloud of black dissipated into tendrils of smoke, I was stepping behind one of the team members, drawing my knife against the hose that extended between the flamethrower-like device he held in his hands and the tank on his back.  It didn’t cut immediately, forcing me to try a second time.  As the knife severed the material of the hose, the PRT team member noticed me and drove his elbow into my face.  My mask took the worst of the hit, but getting hit in the face by a full grown man isn’t any fun with any amount of protective headwear.

I fell back through the doorway even as the tank began emptying its contents onto the floor.  It was a yellow-white, and as it poured onto the ground, it expanded like shaving cream.  The tank was probably close to three gallons, making for a hell of a lot of foam.

Grue leveraged all of his weight to bodily kick one of the squad members into the foam, then slammed the base of his palm into the next guy’s chin.  As the man reeled, Grue grabbed at the tank on his back and pulled it up over his head.  This not only pulled the man off balance, but the weight of the tank kept him that way.  Grue, his hands still on the tank, pulled the squad member’s helmeted face down at the same time he brought his knee up.  The pane of the helmet cracked, and the man didn’t even have the wherewithal to bring his hands up to soften the fall before hitting the ground.

A fourth squad member stepped out of the darkness, and Tattletale took hold of the nozzle of the man’s weapon, forcing it to one side before he could open fire.  I scrambled to my feet to help her.  As Tattletale began to lose the wrestling match over the weapon, I leaped over the still-expanding pile of foam, then went low as I landed to knock his legs out from under him.  He fell, hard, and Tattletale wrenched the weapon from his hands.  As he climbed to his feet, she pulled the trigger and blasted him in the face.  Grue banished enough darkness to reveal the final member of the team, and Tattletale buried him under a blasting of the foam.

I’d watched a discovery channel feature on this stuff.  The PRT, the Parahuman Response Team, was equipped with tinker-designed nonlethal weaponry to subdue supervillains.  This containment foam was standard issue.  It ejected as a liquid, then expanded into a sticky foam with a few handy properties.  It was flexible and it was porous when fully expanded, for one thing, so you could breathe while contained within it, at least long enough for rescue teams with a dissolving agent to get to you.  It was also impact resistant, so PRT squads could coat the ground with it to save falling individuals or keep heavy hitters from doing much damage.

The way it expanded, you could coat all but the strongest villains in it, and it would disable them.  Because of the way it denied you leverage and was resistant to impacts and tearing, even the likes of Lung would have trouble pulling themselves free.  Topping it all off, it was resistant to high temperatures and a strong insulator, so it served to handle the pyrokinetics and those with electromagnetic powers.

While the PRT member struggled ineffectually to remove his foam-covered helmet, I pulled the tank off him and helped Tattletale put it on.  Grue already had his on, and was getting a third one off one of the foam-captured PRT team members for me.

It was heavy, and I almost couldn’t handle the weight.  Rather than stagger around, I crouched and let the base of the tank rest against the ground.

Grue pointed to our left, and we aimed.  A second later, he made the darkness dissipate, showing the buffet table surrounded by the various Wards and Glory Girl flying a few feet above the ground.  They were swatting at the bugs crawling on them, but they weren’t so distracted that they didn’t notice the sudden emergence of light, or us.

“Glory Hole!” Tattletale heckled the heroine, before opening fire on her.  Grue directed a stream at Clockblocker, to the left, so I turned my attention to the person on the far right of the group.  Shadow Stalker.

I admit, I had a reason to be ticked at her, since she wrote a note for Emma’s dad, giving him fuel for that damned assault charge.  It was with a measure of satisfaction that I unloaded a stream of foam on her.

The stream was dead on, but she didn’t seem to give much of a damn as she evaded to one side.  I caught her square in the chest with another spurt, making her stagger a bit, but she didn’t fall or get caught in the stuff like the others.  Instead, she sort of ducked low, her cape billowing, and then rolled to one side, readying her crossbow as her feet touched the ground and she shifted to an all-out run.

Whether that was a tranquilizer shot or a real arrow, I was fucked if she hit me.

I went wide with my stream, aiming to catch her a little and either slow her down or mess up her aim.  She stepped on a bit of foam and was tripped up a little.  Tattletale added her firepower to mine, and with our combined streams, Shadow Stalker fell.  We took a second to bury her under the foam, and Grue added a measure of darkness to it.

“Next!” Grue hollered, pointing.  I hauled the heavy tank off the ground and moved closer to our next target before putting it down again and aiming.

This time, I deliberately moved a force of bugs into the area for some extra distraction.  The darkness dissipated, and it was the Protectorate this time, half of them.  Battery, Assault, and Triumph.

Battery was already charged up when Grue dismissed the impenetrable shadow that had covered them, and moved like a blur as soon as she could see where she was going.  She didn’t bolt straight for us, though.  Instead, she leaped to one side, kicked Assault square in the middle of the chest with both feet, and then careened off in the opposite direction.

Assault was a kinetic energy manipulator, and could control the energies of movement, acceleration and motion much like other heroes could manipulate flame or electricity.  He used the energy from Battery’s kick to rocket towards us, as Battery moved around to flank.

Grue directed a stream straight at Assault, but the first second of fire seemed to skim right off the man.  It did start taking hold after that, but the delayed effects gave Assault just enough time to slam into Grue and send him flying into the wall beside the Wards.  After that, the expansion of the foam kept him from moving much further.

Tattletale and I focused our fire on Battery.  The woman ducked and dodged out of the way of our streams, moving too fast to follow reliably with our eyes.  She seemed to stumble into a cocktail table, one of those round ones large enough for four people to stand around, but any clumsiness on her part was an illusion of the eye.  A heartbeat later, she had the table in her grip and was spinning in a full circle.

She threw the table like an oversize frisbee, and I pushed Tattletale in one direction as I flung myself in the other.  The table edge caught the weapon in Tattletale’s hands and knocked it from her grip with enough force to make Tattletale roll as she hit the ground.

Which left only me standing, against Triumph and Battery.  Armsmaster, Miss Militia and Velocity were nowhere to be seen.  I could have used my bugs to feel out for them in the darkness, but I had more pressing matters to focus on.

Battery was charging again, taking advantage of us being off balance to build up a store of power again.  Heck, she’d probably built her whole fighting style around it.  I could see the normally cobalt blue lines of her costume glowing a brilliant electric blue-white.  I focused my attention on her, drawing every bug in the immediate area to her while I tried to get myself oriented to open fire again.  Wasps, mosquitos and beetles set on her, biting and stinging.

For just a fraction of a second, I saw the glow of the lines of her costume dim, before igniting again.  She needed to concentrate, it seemed, and my bugs had served to distract.  As I pulled myself upright and opened fire, she was a step too slow in getting out of the way of the stream.  I caught her under the spray and started piling it on top of her.

A shockwave blasted me.  I was knocked off my feet for the second time in a matter of seconds and my ears were left ringing.

Triumph had a gladiator/lion theme to his costume, with a gold lion helm, shoulderpads and belt, and skintight suit elsewhere.  He had managed to claw enough bugs away from his face to use his sonic shout.  He was one of those guys that was big, muscular and tough enough that you’d avoid him even if he didn’t have that other power, and his other power was one that let him punch holes through concrete.

Grue aimed and fired a stream at him, but Triumph was surprisingly quick in slipping out of the way.  As Grue reoriented his aim, Triumph kicked over a cocktail table and grabbed it with one hand to use as a shield against the foam.  I tried to scramble to one side, to attack him from another direction, but he opened his mouth and unleashed another shockwave that sent me skidding across the floor, dangerously close to the piles of foam that had the Wards trapped.  As I tried to raise my nozzle in his direction to spray more containment foam at him, my vision swam and I saw double, and a high pitched whine threatened to drown out everything else.  I lowered the weapon, sent more bugs his way and focused on regaining my senses.

“Here!” Grue hollered.  He raised his hand.  Triumph inhaled, gearing up for another blast-

And Brutus barreled through the corridor Grue had parted through in the darkness to slam into Triumph like a charging bull.

Maybe a little harder than I would have hit the guy, had I been the humvee sized monster making the call.  Still, you couldn’t fault a dog for not knowing.

Just to my left, Shadow Stalker pulled her upper body free of the goop and began the slow process of working her crossbow free.  Not normally possible, but her ability to go into a shadow state apparently made her more slippery than most.

“No,” I growled at her. “Stay down.”  I buried her under more foam.

I pulled myself to my feet, wobbled, straightened up, wobbled some more, and then worked on keeping my balance.

“Skitter!” Grue roared, “Move!”

I didn’t waste any time in throwing myself to the ground.  Out of the corner of my eye, I only saw a blur of blue and silver where I’d been standing.

I had to flop over onto my back to see Armsmaster standing six feet away from me, leveling the blade of his Halberd in my direction.  The silver of his visor made precious little of his expression visible.  All I could see was the thin, hard line of his mouth.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, quiet enough that I was pretty sure Tattletale and Grue wouldn’t catch it.  I aimed his way with the foam sprayer.

In a flash, he whipped his weapon around so the butt end was facing me.  There was a muffled ‘whump’ sound, and I felt something like a wave of intensely hot air that made every hair on my arms, legs and the back of my neck stand on end.  I realized the trigger of the containment foam sprayer was depressed and nothing was coming out of the end of the weapon.  I tried again.  Nothing.

That would be an electromagnetic pulse screwing up the machinery.  Fuck.

Before I could organize my thoughts and warn Grue and Tattletale, Armsmaster flipped the weapon around in his hands like you saw military cadets doing with their guns during a march.  As it whirled around him, I heard that ‘whump’ sound twice in quick succession.

Somehow, I doubted he’d missed them.

“Call off your mutant,” he spoke, in that kind of voice that people obeyed.  “I promise you, it would only get hurt if it attacked me, and I’d rather not subject an animal to that, when it’s the master that’s to blame.”

“Bitch!” Grue called, “Call him off.  He’s right.”

From a point I couldn’t see, Bitch whistled.  Brutus moved back through the corridor Grue had made to rejoin her.

“You were moving like you could see in my darkness,” Grue spoke, a note of wariness in his echoing voice.

“I’ve studied your powers,” Armsmaster told us, tapping the butt of his weapon on the ground.  Every bug within fifteen feet of him dropped out of the sky, dead.  “This was over from the moment you stepped into the room.”

Miss Militia stepped out of the darkness beside the stage, with what looked like a machine gun in her hands, Regent as her hostage.  He didn’t have his scepter.

Fuck.

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Interlude 3

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The building housing the local Parahuman Response Team division didn’t really stand out. The exterior was all windows, reflective enough to mirror the mottled dark gray of the sky overhead.  Only a shield logo bearing the letters ‘P.R.T.’ marked it apart from the other buildings of downtown Brockton Bay.

Those entering the lobby would find a strange juxtaposition at work.  On the one hand, you could see the various employees in suits, hurrying in and out of the building, talking in groups.  A team of four PRT officers was on standby, each stationed at a different area of the lobby, outfitted in the best equipment money could buy.  All had chain mesh and kevlar vests, helmets that covered their faces, and firearms.  The equipment differed, however, as two of them had grenade launchers hanging from straps on their shoulders with bandoliers of various specialty ammunition across their chests, including a fire extinguishing grenade, an EMP round and various stun grenades.  The other two had what appeared at first glance to be flame throwers; were they to pull the triggers, they would eject a thick, frothing spray of foam, enough to contain all but the strongest and fastest villains.

In stark contrast to this, there was the gift shop that would be thick with youths when school ended, sporting a selection of action figures, posters, video games and clothing.  Four-foot tall pictures of the various Protectorate and Wards team members were placed at regular intervals around the lobby, each backed by bright colors.

There was a cheery tour guide waiting patiently by the front desk, smiling handsomely at anybody who happened to glance his way.  On schedule, he would introduce tourists and children to the PRT offices, the armory, the training area and the parking lot with the parahuman containment vans, showing them what it took to manage the local heroes.  For those willing to pay for the premium tour, wait up to two hours and suffer a PRT squad escort, there would be an additional stop on the tour – a glimpse of the Wards’ Headquarters.

As a beleaguered team of young heroes staggered into the lobby, however, there was no tour, only a heavyset woman with a bob.  She wore a navy blue suit jacket and skirt, and waited with a pair of stern looking men in suits just behind her.  Wordlessly, she led them through a door behind the front desk and into a meeting room.

“Director Piggot.  Ma’am,” Aegis greeted her, his voice strained.  His costume was in shreds, and was more crimson with his own blood than it was its original white.  It was bad enough his civilian identity might have been revealed, if it weren’t for the matted blood and the chunks of meat that had been taken out of him, some of the wounds nearly a foot across.

“Good god, Aegis,” her eyebrows raised a fraction, “You look like hell.  What’s wrong with your voice?”

“Punctured lung, ma’am,” Aegis rasped, “I think there’s a hole in my front and back.”  As if to demonstrate, he stuck his fingers into his chest cavity.

Director Piggot didn’t look away, but one of the men standing behind her looked a touch green around the gills, “I can take you at your word.  You don’t need to stick your arm all the way through your chest to demonstrate.”

Aegis grinned and removed his hand from his chest.

Her expression hardened, “I wouldn’t be smiling right now.”

Aegis’ grin fell.  He glanced over his shoulder at his teammates.  Gallant, Kid Win, Vista, Browbeat and Clockblocker were all wearing suitably somber expressions.

“This was a fiasco,” she told them.

“Yes ma’am.  We lost,” Gallant admitted.

“You lost, yes.  That’s the least of it.  You also caused horrific amounts of property damage.  I’m afraid any and all destruction caused by New Wave’s golden child is also your responsibility, since you invited her along.  Without my say-so.

“I invited her,” Gallant spoke up, “I’ll take the blame, and you can take the costs for the property damage out of my trust.”

Director Piggot offered him a thin and utterly humorless smile, “Living up to your name, I see?  Yes, I’m sure that’s the best way to get the message across.  Your teammates and I know who you are under the mask.  Of everyone here, myself included, you’re the one most able to handle a fine of tens of thousands of dollars.”

“I won’t deny it, ma’am,” Gallant choked out the words.

“I’m afraid I’m a believer in punishment, when punishment is due.  Taking money from someone with money to spare is not going to mean anything.  All of you will share the fees between you.  Since I can’t touch the trust funds the PRT established for you, I’ll have to settle for docking your pay.  Maybe next time, the rest of you can talk Gallant out of inviting his girlfriend along.”

The protests overlapped. “It was her sister in the bank!  She would have gone in anyways!”  “I start college next fall!”

Director Piggot simply weathered the arguments and complaints.  A more cynical person might even suggest she enjoyed hearing them.  When a minute or two passed and it was clear she wasn’t going to reply or get dragged into the arguments, the young heroes fell into a sullen silence.  She cleared her throat and spoke again.

“Kid Win.  I’m very interested to hear about this weapon you deployed on the battlefield.”

“My Alternator Cannon?”  Kid Win asked, cringing just a bit.

“You’ll have to forgive me,” Piggot smiled, “The paperwork gets to be a bit much sometimes.  Maybe you know where to find the documentation from our military and science teams, for this Alternator Cannon?”

“Christ, Kid,” Aegis groaned under his breath, with his ruined voice.

Kid Win looked more upset about Aegis’ reaction than anything else, “I, uh.  I didn’t get it officially cleared, yet.  I just thought it would be better to use the cannon and do what I could to stop the robbery.”

“That’s where you’d be wrong,” Piggot told him, “Fact of the matter is, the money that was taken from the bank falls very low on my priority list.  You might even go so far as to suggest I don’t care about it.”

“Director-” Aegis started.  He didn’t get to finish.

“What I care about is the public perception of capes.  I care about ensuring that we get enough funding to keep you Wards, the Protectorate and the PRT squads paid and equipped.  Without that, everything I’ve worked to build falls apart.”

“What are you going to do?” Kid Win asked her.

“The cannon gets dismantled, first off.”

“No!” Aegis and Kid Win spoke at the same time.  Director Piggot looked briefly surprised at the defiance.

“I started on the Alternator Cannon so I’d have something to bring out in case of a Class A threat,” Kid Win said, “Getting rid of it would be such a waste.  I don’t care if I never get to use it again.  Give it to your PRT squad.  I’ll teach someone how it works.  You can mount it on one of your trucks or something.”

Director Piggot frowned, “The amount of time and money that would require, for an event that might never occur… no.  I suppose you can keep the cannon.”

Kid Win practically sagged with relief.

“But whatever the power source is, you’re removing it, and I’m keeping it under lock and key.  If a Class A threat does come into play, I’ll hand it over to you.  And the cannon still goes through the standard review process for all Tinker created material.  If it doesn’t pass the review, if you were putting people and property at undue risk with what you pulled today, I’m afraid you could face a substantial fine or jail time.”

Kid Win paled.

“Director!” Aegis grunted out the word, taking a step forward.

“Be quiet, Aegis,” Piggot snapped, “Your trying to speak with a punctured lung physically pains me, and as much as I admire standing up for your team, your one lungful of breath is wasted here.”

Kid Win turned to Aegis and offered a small apologetic smile.

“Kid Win, you’re coming with us for a disciplinary review.  Everyone else is dismissed.  The tour group is going to be coming by your quarters in an hour, and there’s likely to be more than a few reporters peering in the window.  Try to clean yourselves up for the pictures that are undoubtedly going to appear in tomorrow’s papers.  Please.”

The two men in suits marched a miserable Kid Win out the door after Director Piggot.  Kid Win shot a worried look at his team before he was taken out of sight.

“We debrief,” Aegis grunted, “Gallant or Clockblocker handles it.  You two decide.”

The team trudged out of the meeting room and made their way to their reserved elevator.  It was Tinker-designed to impress the tourists as well as be far more secure.  Interlocking sections of metal unfolded and slid apart as they approached, then closed behind them.  The ride down was so smooth that it was nearly impossible to tell the elevator was moving.

They exited into a long corridor of chrome steel.

“I’m going to have nightmares,” Clockblocker groaned, as he tenderly touched the welts around his nose and mouth, “Nightmares with lots and lots of spiders.”

At the far end of the corridor, they came to a security terminal.  Aegis pointed at Clockblocker.

“Don’t you usually do it?”

“Retina maybe detached,” Aegis admitted in his halting voice, “Don’t want to fail scan.”

Clockblocker nodded hesitantly, then leaned forward to let the terminal scan his eyes.  Steel doors clicked, then whisked open with a barely audible whirr, letting the young heroes and heroine make their way into the main area of their headquarters.

The room was roughly dome-shaped, but there were sections of wall that were able to be dismantled and rearranged on the fly.  Some had been set up to give the various team members their individual quarters, while others framed the doorways that led into the showers, the filing room and their press/meeting room.  A series of computers and large monitors were networked at one side of the room, surrounded by a half-dozen chairs.  One of the monitors was displaying a countdown to the next tourist group, while others were showing camera images of key locations in the city.  The Central Bank was one of them, a dark image punctuated by the red and blue of police sirens.

“Shadow Stalker is AWOL?” Gallant asked.

“Couldn’t make it in time,” Aegis grunted, “Told her to stay put.”

“She’s going to hate that.  Doesn’t she have this huge hate-on for Grue?” Clockblocker asked.

“Part of the reason,” Aegis grunted out the words, “I told her to stay.  Don’t need that.  I’m going to shower.  Patch myself up.  You guys debrief.”

“Sure thing, Chief,” Clockblocker saluted.  “Take care of yourself.”

“Fucking mutant dogs,” Aegis muttered, as he made his way to the bathroom.  He was stripped out of the top half of his tattered costume before he was through the door.

“Vista?  Can you go grab the whiteboard?  Grab two?” Gallant turned to their junior member.  Vista almost skipped in her rush to follow the order.

“What’s going to happen to Kid?” Browbeat spoke up for the first time, “I don’t know how all this goes.  Is it serious?”

Gallant considered for a moment, “Could be, but my gut tells me Piggy just wants to scare him.  He needs to stop testing the limits with the people in charge, or he’s going to get in real trouble at some point.”

“So, not exactly the best start to your new career, huh?” Clockblocker turned to Browbeat.

“Fuck, I wouldn’t mind so much if I knew what happened,” Browbeat stretched, and his muscles began to dwindle in size, “At least then I could figure out what to do better next time.  All I know is that I was suddenly blind and deaf, and when I tried to move, everything bent the wrong way.  Then I think I got tasered.”

Vista returned, dragging a pair of whiteboards on wheeled frames behind her.

“Hold that thought,” Gallant told their newest member, “Hey Clock, you don’t mind if I take point?”

Clockblocker was still using his fingertips to explore the raised bumps on his face, “Go for it.  I’m going to procrastinate as long as I can on the leadership thing.”

“You’re next oldest, after Carlos.  It’s only going to be what, three or four months, before you’re the senior member?”

“And I’ll hold that position for not even the rest of the summer before I graduate and pass the mantle to you,” Clockblocker smiled self deprecatingly, “No worries.  Take charge.”

Gallant took off his helmet and held it in one hand, running his fingers through his sweat-damp blond hair.  He smiled winningly at Vista as she positioned the whiteboards so everyone could see them, “Thank you.”

Gallant didn’t need to use his power to get an emotional response from the thirteen year old heroine.  She turned a bright pink.  There could be no doubt for anyone present that she had a major crush on her senior teammate.

“Okay guys,” Gallant said, “Before we get started, I think it’s important to make some things clear.  First off, most importantly, today was not a failure.  I’d even say that today was a win for the good guys, and we start establishing that here and now.”

He took a second to gauge his audience’s disbelieving reactions, then smiled.

“The Undersiders.  They’ve flown under the radar so far, but more recently, they’ve started pulling higher profile jobs.  They hit the Ruby Dreams casino five weeks ago, and now they just robbed the biggest bank in Brockton Bay.  This time we were lucky enough to get in their way.  That means we finally have intel on their group.”

He turned to the whiteboard and wrote the names of their opponents.  Grue, Tattletale and Hellhound went on the first board, with lines separating the board into three columns.  He wrote Regent on the second board, drew a line and then hesitated at the fifth and last column.  “Did he name himself?  The guy with the bugs?”

“Girl,” Clockblocker corrected him, “I was talking to the hostages after the Undersiders made their getaway.  He said he was afraid to move because she was going to make it bite him.  It took me a bit to realize exactly what he meant.  Poor fella was in shock.”

“But we don’t know what she called herself?”

Nobody had any answer to that.

“Then we need to agree on a name for her, or the paperwork’s going to be inconsistent.  Suggestions for a name for the bug girl?”

“Maggot?  Worm?” Browbeat offered, “Stick her with a crappy name?”

“We don’t want to do that,” Clockblocker sighed, “Maybe if we’d won, we could get away with it, but it doesn’t look so good if the press reports that we got our asses kicked by someone called maggot.”

“Stinger, Pestilence?” Vista suggested.

Clockblocker spun himself around in the chair and punched the names into the computer, “Taken.  Stinger is some villain in California with power armor, a jetpack and homing missiles, and Pestilence is a creepy psycho in London.”

“Skitter?” Gallant put the name out there.

There was a clatter of keys as Clockblocker checked, “It’s not taken.”

“Then it’s good enough,” Gallant wrote the name up on the whiteboard, “Now we brainstorm.  This is where we recoup our losses from the day, figure out an angle so we can win next time.  So don’t hold back.  Share any detail, no matter how insignificant.”

“Grue’s power isn’t just darkness.  You can’t hear in there either.  And it feels strange too,” Browbeat spoke, “There’s resistance, like you’re underwater, but not floating.”

“Good,” Gallant wrote that in Grue’s column, “Next?”

“The mutants that Hellhound makes.  The dogs?  She doesn’t control them with her mind.  They’re trained,” Vista offered, “She tells them what to do with whistles, gestures.”

“Yes, good, I noticed that,” Gallant replied, excitedly adding another note to the whiteboard.

“The girl with the bugs… Skitter.  It’s just the opposite.  She has a lot of fine control over them,” Clockblocker added.

“Yes!”

“Also, according to the hostage I talked to, she said she can sense things through her bugs, which is how she kept an eye on the hostages.”

It wasn’t long before most columns were full enough that Gallant had to turn the whiteboards around to use the backs.

Carlos returned from the shower, wearing sweatpants and a towel around his shoulders.  He was Puerto Rican, his hair long.  His body was clean of blood, barring a few residual trickles from the mess of ragged wounds on his arms, stomach and chest.  He had clumsily stitched the cuts and gouges together, which did surprisingly little to make them easier to look at.  He sat down on a chair and added his input for the lists, which didn’t amount to too much.  He had been incapacitated for too much of the fight to have much to say.

There was an abrasive noise from the computer as every monitor suddenly flashed yellow.  The Wards hurried to pull on their masks.  Aegis grabbed a spare from a drawer by the computers.

The entrance whirred open, and Armsmaster strode in, accompanied by the winsome Miss Militia.  She wore a modified military uniform, tight enough in the essential areas to accentuate her curves, sporting a scarf around her lower face with an American  flag embroidered on it, and a similar sash around her waist.  Most arresting, however, was the large rocket launcher she held across her shoulders in the same way a weightlifter might hold a barbell.

“Armsmaster,” Gallant stood up, “Good to see you, Sir.  Miss Militia, always a pleasure.”

“Ever the gentleman,” Miss Militia’s eyes hinted at the smile behind her scarf, “We brought a guest.”

Following behind Armsmaster and Miss Militia was a teenage girl in an enveloping white robe.  Panacea.  She had an ID card on a cord around her neck, featuring her photo and the word ‘GUEST’ in bright blue letters.

“She was kind enough to volunteer to come here and patch you guys up,” Miss Militia told the young heroes, “Can’t send you home with horrible injuries and hundreds of bug bites, can we?  That would give away the show.”

She shifted the position of the rocket launcher on her shoulders, and it dissolved into a blur of green-black energy.  The energy lunged and arced around her for a few brief moments, then materialized into a machine gun.  It only held that form for a few seconds before it flickered and solidified into a sniper rifle, then a harpoon gun, and  finally settled in the form of a pair of uzis, one in each of her hands.  She barely seemed to notice, beyond the automatic action of holstering the guns.

“I wanted to thank you guys for coming to my rescue,” Panacea spoke, shyly, “And for letting Glory Girl come with you.”

Gallant smiled, then in a more concerned tone, he asked, “You two are okay?”

Panacea shook her head, “Tattletale found a way around my sister’s invincibility.  Glory Girl was bitten pretty badly, which is why I didn’t come sooner.  I think it hits you harder, psychologically, when you’re pretty much invincible but you get hurt anyways.  But we’re okay now.  She’s healed but sulking.  I- I’m alright.  Bump on my head, but I’m okay.”

“Good.”

Armsmaster was at the whiteboard, going over the points.  “I like this.  But this one…”  He tapped the column titled Tattletale, “Nearly empty.”

“None of us ran into her, and the hostages didn’t have anything to say about her,” Gallant replied.

“Panacea may be able to help there,” Miss Militia offered.

All eyes turned to the girl.

“I- A lot happened,” Panacea hedged.

“Any detail helps.”

“Um.  I’m sorry,” she said, looking down at the ground, “I got smacked across the head, but my power doesn’t work on myself, and I’m not really the type to go out in costume and get into fights, so having my life threatened, I dunno.  All that… I can’t put my thoughts in order just yet.”

“The sooner-” Armsmaster started.

“It’s fine,” Miss Militia interrupted him, “Amy, why don’t you start taking care of the Wards?  If something comes to mind, anything the Undersiders said or did, or any clues you think might help, share it afterwards, alright?”

Panacea smiled gratefully at the heroine, then turned to the group, “Who needs the most help?  Aegis?”

“I’ll live,” Aegis said, “I can be last.”

Gallant hesitantly raised his hand, “One of Hellhound’s dogs slammed into me.  I think I might have a broken rib.  Paramedics cleared me, but I want to be extra sure I’m not risking a punctured lung or something.”

Panacea frowned, then gestured to the far end of the room, “I’ll take a look at you over there?”

“Go figure, Glory Girl’s boyfriend gets special treatment,” Clockblocker grinned to make it clear he was just poking fun.  Gallant just smirked in response.

The pair went to Gallant’s alcove, and she sat him down on the bed before laying a hand on his shoulder.  She pulled her hood back and furrowed her brow.

“You don’t have a punctured lung.  You’ve got one fractured rib, but you’re not even in that much pain.  Why-”

“I lied.  I wanted to talk to you, alone,” he took her hand.

She scowled and pulled her hand back like he’d bitten her.  As if to make doubly sure he wouldn’t grab her hand again, she folded her arms.

“You know I can sense emotions,” he said, “Everyone’s emotions, like a cloud of colors around them.  Can’t turn it off.  It’s just how I see the world.”

“Victoria mentioned that.”

“So you’re an open book to me.  I know you’re scared.  No… you’re terrified, and that’s why you’re not talking.”

She sighed and sat on the bed, as far from Gallant as she could.

“I never wanted these powers.  I never wanted powers, period.”

He nodded.

“But I got them anyways, and I got international attention over it.  The healer.  The girl who could cure cancer with a touch, make someone ten years younger, regrow lost limbs.  I’m forced to be a hero.  Burdened with this obligation.  I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t use this power.  It’s such an opportunity, to save lives.”

“But?”

“But at the same time… I can’t cure everyone.  Even if I go to the hospital every night for two or three hours at a time, there are thousands of other hospitals I can’t visit, tens of millions of people who are terminally ill or living in a personal hell where they’re paralyzed or in constant pain.  These people don’t deserve to face that, but I can’t help them all.  I can’t help one percent of them if I put in twenty hours a day.”

“You have to focus on what you can do,” Gallant told her.

“Sounds easier than it is,” Panacea answered, with a touch of bitterness, “Do you understand what it means, to cure some of these people?  I feel like every second I take to myself is a second I’ve failed somehow.  For two years, it’s been this… pressure.  I lie in bed, awake at night, and I can’t sleep.  So I get up and I go to the hospital in the middle of the night.  Go to pediatrics, cure some kids.  Go to the ICU, spare some lives… and it’s all just blending together.  I can’t even remember the last few people I saved.”

She sighed again, “The last person I really remember?  It was maybe a week ago, I was working on a kid.  He was just a toddler, an immigrant from Cairo, I think.  Ectopia Cordis.  That’s where you’re born with your heart outside your body.  I was putting everything in the right place, giving him a chance at a normal life.”

“What made him so memorable?”

“I resented him.  He was lying there, fast asleep, like an angel, and for just a second, I considered just leaving him.  The doctors could have finished the job, but it would have been dangerous.  He might have died if I’d left him on the table, the job half done.  I hated him.”

Gallant didn’t say anything.  Scowling, Panacea stared down at the ground.

“No, I hated that he would have a normal life, because I’d given up mine.  I was scared that I might intentionally make a mistake.  That I might let myself fuck up the procedure with this kid.  I could have killed him or ruined his life, but it would have eased the pressure.  Lowered expectations, you know?  Maybe it would have even lowered my own expectations for myself.  I… I was just so tired.  So exhausted.  I actually considered, for the briefest moment, abandoning a child to suffer or die.”

“That sounds like more than just exhaustion,” Gallant replied, quietly.

“Is this how it starts?  Is this the point I start becoming like my father, whoever he was?”

Gallant let out a slow breath, “I could say no, that you’re never going to be like your father.  But I’d be lying.  Any of us, all of us, we run the risk of finding our own way down that path.  I can see the strain you’re experiencing, the stress.  I’ve seen people snap because of less.  So yeah.  It’s possible.”

“Okay,” she said, just under her breath.  He waited for her to elaborate, but she didn’t.

“Take a break.  Tell yourself it’s something you have to do, to recharge your batteries and help more people in the long run.”

“I don’t think I can.”

They sat in silence for a few moments.

He turned towards her, “So what does this have to do with what happened at the bank?”

“She knew everything.  That Tattletale girl.  She said she’s psychic, and from what she said, what she knew, I believe it.”

Gallant nodded.

“You know what it’s like, to talk to people like her?  Like you, no offense?  You build up this mask, you delude yourself into thinking everything is normal, and you force yourself to look past the worst aspects of yourself… and then these Gallants and Tattletales just strip you naked.  Force you to confront it all.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You said yourself, you can’t turn it off, right?  Can’t really blame you.  It’s just… it’s hard to be around.  Especially after dealing with Tattletale.”

“What did she say?”

“She threatened to talk about stuff.  Stuff worse than what I just told you, I guess.  Threatened to tell me things I just don’t want to know.  Said she’d use what she knew to ruin my relationship with Victoria and the rest of my family,” Amy hugged herself.

“My sister’s all I’ve got.  The only person with no expectations, who knows me as a person.  Carol never really wanted me.  Mark is clinically depressed, so as nice as he is, he’s too focused on himself to really be a dad.  My aunt and uncle are sweet, but they’ve got their own problems.  So it’s just me and Victoria.  Has been almost from the beginning.  That smug little monster threatened to tear my sister and I apart using yet another thing I didn’t want, another thing I had no control over.”

Gallant started to speak, then stopped.

“What?”

“Does… does this have anything to do with the, erm, rather strong feelings you have towards me?”

Panacea went still.

“I’m sorry,” he hurried to say, “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“You shouldn’t have,” she stood up and started towards the door.

“Look, if you ever need to talk…” he offered.

“I-”

“You probably won’t want it to be me, okay.  But my door’s always open, and you can call me at any hour.  Just letting you know.”

“Okay,” she replied.  Then she reached over to him and touched his shoulder, “There.  Bruises gone, ribs touched up.”

“Thank you,” he replied, opening the door for her.

“Take care of my sister, okay?  Make her happy?” she murmured, as she hesitated in the doorway.

“Goes without saying.” They rejoined the main group.

Every head in the room turned as Panacea picked up the marker by the computers.  With a grim expression on her face, she began filling in Tattletale’s section of the whiteboard.

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Agitation 3.10

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Six good guys were still in action, as far as I knew.  Clockblocker was down, and posed no threat unless someone walked into his reach where he was lying down, or unless we took longer than the ten or so minutes it would take his power to release him.  Angelica and Brutus were playing a macabre game of tug of war, using Aegis as the rope.

The rest of the battlefield was chaos.  Patches of darkness covered everything, and the landscape was distorted.  In some of the areas Vista had warped, the rain wasn’t falling in a straight line.  One spot in particular had the rain moving horizontally before it dropped to help fill a massive puddle thirty feet across, where her power had made an indent in the ground.

Aegis and Clockblocker were more or less dealt with.  As Vista was the last remaining priority target,  I directed my remaining swarm towards her.  They wouldn’t reach her quickly though, as the rain bogged them down, and both puddles and distorted space forced a more roundabout route for the bugs.

Bitch, still riding Judas, came rushing out of a cloud of darkness, splashing through the huge puddle.  Kid Win and Gallant opened fire on her with laser beams and painfully bright blasts of energy.  She was moving fast and unpredictably enough that Judas only took one or two glancing hits.  The distance between her and Vista rapidly closed.

Vista raised her hand, and the surface of the street bulged upward into a short wall.  As it grew, the wall caught one of Judas’ forepaws, tripping him.  He fell, and his rider was sent tumbling head over heels.

Bitch got to her feet before Judas did, but only managed to take a single step before one of Gallant’s blasts clipped her.  I winced.  His light blasts were charged with energy that made the people struck feel a particular emotion.  Gallant could blast you with one that made you hopeless, scared, sad, ashamed…

Bitch screamed, and it was a long and primal noise, filled with rage.  I was still inside the bank, watching things unfold through the window, barely able to hear it, and it still made my skin crawl.  So he’d shot the dangerous psychopath with a blast that made her angry.  Someone would have to explain that one to me at a later date.

Whirling, still screaming, she pointed at Gallant.  Apparently that was order enough, because Judas charged at the teenager that was dressed like a science fiction Lancelot.

Bitch didn’t attack him though.  Without her dogs at her back, essentially without powers, she went straight for Vista.  She was focused enough to stay on the priority target.

Vista was ready, though.  As Bitch tried to close the distance, the roadway between her and the young heroine stretched out, until the distance she had to cover was two, three, four, five times as far.  Vista then pinched the space behind her closer together, crossed a third of a block with a single skip, and then returned it to normal.  I swore under my breath, and not just because my bugs had a lot more distance to travel.  My head was pounding again, and it was getting steadily worse.

Was someone’s power at work, giving me a headache?  There wasn’t anyone in the Wards, I was pretty sure, who could mess with your head like that.  Gallant could mess with your emotions, but he had to hit you with a light blast to do it.  The person on the roof, then?  I was fairly confident there wasn’t anyone in the Protectorate or New Wave who could affect me like this.

Bitch gave up on Vista and whistled for Judas.  The dog responded immediately, abandoning his skirmish with Gallant, who was trying and failing to stand.  A wash of darkness consumed him before he managed to pick himself up.

Kid Win opened fire on Bitch as her dog returned to her.  Given the excessive distance between them – it would have been a hard shot to make before Vista stretched the area that Bitch was standing on – meaning his aim was wildly off target.  He stopped, changed a setting, and fired a fresh salvo.  This time, the lasers came out in more of a staccato spray, like you’d expect from a machine gun.  One of the lasers caught Bitch in the center of her stomach and laid her flat.  Judas guarded his owner by hunkering over her, blocking further shots and obscuring my view of her.

Near Vista, a large figure staggered out of the darkness, shadows still clinging to him, bellowing and screaming incoherently about bugs.  He thrashed for several moments, then collapsed into a heap a short distance from Vista.  Someone that large could only be Browbeat.  Vista apparently reached the same conclusion I did, because she took a few steps closer to him, looking around helplessly for a way to help him.

An instant after I realized that I didn’t actually have bugs on Browbeat, the figure struck Vista across the side of the head, laying her flat.  I saw the briefest glimpse of Grue’s skull mask before he and Vista were covered by a fresh tide of his darkness.

“Bitch, Vista, Clockblocker, Gallant are out of action, I think,” I called across the room to Tattletale, who was still hammering away at a keyboard.  “We’ve got Aegis handled for the time being.  Not sure what happened to Browbeat, but there’s only him, Kid Win and the person on the roof to deal with, now.  We can make a break for it soon.”

“One last thing to do,” Tattletale grinned to me, “I’ll be right back.  Keep an eye on things here.”

“What?  No – Tattletale!  Dammit!” I shouted, but she was already running, heading back into the offices that we’d been through on our way to the bank.

I didn’t have time to dwell on her leaving.  Flickers of light outside the bank caught my attention.  Kid Win was flying fifteen feet above the ground on his hoverboard.  In front of him, pieces of a massive device were materializing, shimmering into existence like you saw with the transporters on Star Trek.  It was only one or two steps away from being complete, but you could tell what it was.  A gun, no less than fifteen feet long, with a barrel three or four feet across, all turret mounted on a circular platform not unlike the board he was riding.

“Shit,” I whispered to myself.  I sent my bugs after him.

He swiveled the cannon to face Judas, who was still guarding the spot where Bitch had fallen.  A bolt of light erupted from the cannon and sent Judas flying beyond my field of vision.  He fired another shot, at a greater distance, presumably at the fallen dog.  Then he swiveled and fired off two more shots in quick succession, blasting Aegis and the two dogs that were gripping him.

The dogs and Aegis were all sent flying into the wall of the office building opposite the bank.  While the dogs didn’t get up immediately, a bloody and tattered Aegis was on his feet in an instant, and in the air a moment later.  He got to a good height – maybe two or three stories up, and stayed there, likely to get his bearings and survey the situation.

As my bugs approached the Kid, he took notice and maneuvered his cannon to decimate the swarm.  I spread them out, but he simply pulled a lever and released a flamethrower-like blast of lightning and sparks, eliminating virtually all of the bugs I’d sent out into the street.  The scant few that that remained, I sent towards his face, to crawl beneath his visor and into his nose and mouth.  It wasn’t enough.

Then Kid Win aimed the cannon straight at me.

I jumped for cover the moment I realized what he was doing.  There was a muffled sound, more a very large person someone hitting a punching bag than what I’d expect a laser cannon to sound like, and the window exploded.

What was he doing?  We had hostages inside.  I turned to check, and saw there weren’t any hostages near me.  Did he know that?  Heat sensors in his visor?  Was someone watching me through the cameras and passing him info?  Damn it!  There was too much I didn’t know, and Tattletale wasn’t around to fill me in.

Grue sprinted between two clouds of darkness, raising one hand to send a blast of his power towards Kid Win, obscuring the Kid’s line of sight.  Kid Win responded by ponderously maneuvering himself and the cannon out of the top of the cloud of darkness.

I swore under my breath and sent a command for more of the bugs I had inside to drop from the ceiling and go outside to attack.  There were a good few bugs near Clockblocker, who were getting free of the time stopping effect he’d laid on them.  I added those to the assault.

My legs buckled as my headache worsened tenfold.  Worse, the response from my bugs was sluggish, like I was ordering them to move through mud.  I felt a momentary panic, but there wasn’t really anything I could do.  I grit my teeth and ordered the attack anyways, then forced myself to run for the other side of the bank, in case he could somehow detect me and shoot through the walls to hit me.

I glanced through the windows for Aegis as I passed them.  Through the rain, and the darkness that lingered on the surface of the windows, I spotted him.  His white costume was wet with rain and ridiculous amounts of blood, and he was diving straight for the bank like a human missile.  Damn it.

Inexplicably, his descent wavered, then curved.  He flew straight into the ground, full force, hard enough to crack pavement.  One of the dogs, I couldn’t tell which, had managed to extricate itself from the rubble of the shattered wall and rushed at the fallen Aegis.

Kid Win was occupied trying to do three things at once – he was maneuvering out of the way of the clouds of darkness Grue was setting in his way, making return potshots at Grue as Grue zig zagged between spots of cover and with every free moment, he was blasting hundreds of my bugs out of the air.  If my power was at full strength, my bugs probably would have reached him already, but something was interfering.  That, or I’d overexerted myself.  The bugs were slow to react, slow to move and some were slipping from my grasp, returning to their instinctive behavior.  Making matters worse, I wasn’t blind to the fact that every time I gave a command, my headache got exponentially worse.

With Kid Win occupied as he was, the dog had a clear path to Aegis.  Aegis didn’t try to run this time.  He stood his ground and reached for his utility belt.  He retrieved something that looked like a miniature fire extinguisher.

Then he pulled the pin.

For the second time in a matter of minutes, I dove away from the window.  It wouldn’t be a grenade, but the option that made the most sense-  I squeezed my eyes shut and covered my ears just in time.  The explosion the flashbang grenade made was enough to leave me breathless, and there was a stone wall and some fifty or so feet between us.

I chanced a careful look through the window as soon as I’d recovered, hands still over my ears.  The dog was reeling, making pained sounds, and Aegis was pummeling it, using his flight to close the distance and add more momentum to his swings.  When the dog, Angelica, I saw, looked like it was starting to recover, he grabbed two more flashbang grenades from his belt with one hand and pulled the pins with the other, dropping them to the ground just below him.

I ducked behind cover again, but they didn’t go off.  When I chanced another look, I saw the tables had turned.  Where the flashbangs had been dropped, there was a smudge of Grue’s darkness covering the ground.  Angelica was having it out with Aegis, and Regent was striding out of the darkness, in Kid Win’s direction.

I’d forgotten about Regent.  It made sense that he was working from a discreet position like I was.  He probably would have been the one to alter Aegis’ flight path.

Seeing Regent approach, Kid Win turned his turret-mounted cannon in his direction.  Before he could fire, though, Regent raised two fingers, and Kid Win lost his footing on his flying skateboard.  The cannon shifted until it was pointing straight up, as the young hero dangled from the handles, his weight altering the trajectory of the cannon.  His board clattered to the ground a few feet away.

Regent made a dismissive wave, and Kid Win let go with one hand, his fingers and arm curling backwards in a palsied fit.  Regent repeated the gesture, and Kid Win lost his grip on the controls, dropping a good twenty feet to the asphalt.

As Regent approached to stand over him, Kid Win reached for his laser pistol.  He scowled in frustration as his fingers continued to twitch and curl involuntarily, instead of closing on the handle of the gun.

With an almost relaxed air, Regent shoved the end of his tazer into Kid Win’s side.

I don’t know if it was the sense of relief, but I couldn’t help but laugh as Regent collected the fallen skateboard and began a wobbly ascent to the floating cannon turret.  He aimed and began firing at Aegis, who was forced to scramble out of the way.

“What’s so funny, psycho?”

I whirled to face the voice, and saw the freckled, brown haired hostage that had been glaring at me when we’d first taken control of the bank lobby.  After that, I saw only stars as she slammed something large and blunt into the side of my head.

 

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