Scarab 25.4

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Touché, PRT. 

You got me.

Touché.

You’re attempting to reach Glenn Chambers, co-president of Faceti.  For our mutual convenience, please categorize your message.  Press one to contact my personal assistant, who can get your message to me in text asap.  Press two if you got my number from my business card.  Press four if you are an employee.  Press five if this is a personal call.  Press nine if the call is of utmost urgency, to put yourself on the line immediately if I’m on the phone, or set off an alarm if I’m not.

I seriously debated pressing nine.  I felt like this was a nine.

I hit one instead.

This is James, receiving a call for Mr. Chambers.

“It’s Weaver, I… I don’t know who else to call.”

I wasn’t coherent, which was unusual, considering how I could normally keep myself together in a crisis.

Oh, Weaver!  He’s actually talking to someone about you right now.  I got his attention.  He’ll be with you in a second.

“I’m not sure I have a second,” I said.  There was no response.  He wasn’t on the line.

“Oh man,” Golem said.  “I’m… oh fuck.”

Quite possibly the only person who was as concerned as I was.

Glenn here.  You should have called earlier.”

“I didn’t get a chance,” I said.  I would have explained, but time was precious here.

I imagine you didn’t.  Well, there’s good news and bad news.  You’ve already run into the bad news.  Here’s the good.  This?  It’s my plan they’re using.”

I could believe it.  I didn’t respond.

Their timing is off.  I would have done this differently if I were your enemy.  It’s too much of a gamble as it stands.

“They planned this, have been setting it up for a while.  I expected interference with the missions, being supplanted with the Protectorate squad, not this.  I just need to know-”

There was a fanfare, musical, light and jazzy.  By the time it faded, a crowd I couldn’t see had started applauding.

It’s starting,” Tecton said.  He was a pillar of confidence here.

Glenn was talking, but I couldn’t hear over Tecton and the crowd.  I stepped away, my free hand raised to block out the noise.

…nds like the show just started.  They have to have leverage against you if they’re pulling this.  Your probation?

“They’re threatening to declare a breach if I don’t play along.”

Play along.  I heard what you did, announcing what the PRT was doing to the entire building.  Word got around, in certain channels.  Do not do that again.  Don’t call your bosses out and let people know that you don’t want to be here.  They’ll be ready for it, and you’ll hurt worse than they do.”

“Okay,” I said.

Did they prep you?

“No.   I got off a six-hour graveyard patrol with Gauss and returned to the base to hear about this.  They even put our new Protectorate member on the comms to keep me out of the loop, then fed me just enough information I had to listen without telling me enough.  I’ve never even seen this show, and I barely had time to get my costume brushed off and my hair in order.  They tidied it up some here, but-”

Glenn cut me off.  “Okay.  It’s not the end of the world, but I don’t think this show will help you.  These shows almost always result in a ratings dip over timeIt boosts your appeal but hits you on respectability.  It’s only worth it if there’s merchandise or media to sell, which there isn’t.  They’re tanking you.  Still, this is minor in the grand scheme of things.

Being in front of millions of people was minor.  It wasn’t that I hadn’t had appearances before, but most had been without my knowledge.  The unveiling of ‘Weaver’ was a good example of how tongue-tied I was liable to get.

“What do I do?  How do I approach this?”

I’d tell you to just be yourself, but that’s a terrible idea.  Be yourself as you normally are with the Wards.  Be the teenager, the friend.  Play up the fact that you’re a group, that there’s camaraderie.  Build a relationship with the audience by sharing things they probably don’t know.  Nothing sensitive.

I wondered if the dildo prank that the Wards had initiated me with would qualify as sensitive.

More than that, I wondered if I even had enough of a bond with the others, something I could draw on.

Be engaging.  It’s more important to keep the conversation moving than it is to say what you want to say.

“Wards!”  A woman called out.  “All together.  Hurry up now.  You’re on in two minutes.”

Like a kindergarten teacher herding students around.

“Two minutes,” I said.  “I should go.”

Good luck.  This is a day the strategist needs to take a vacation, understand?  Or delegate a task to it.  They’re putting you out there because they think you’ll either take a hit to your reputation or you’ll try to be clever and self destruct.  You stand to lose more than they do, and this isn’t live, meaning they can pull anything they don’t want on the air.

“I get it,” I said.  “They aren’t just giving me enough rope to hang myself with, they’ve put me in a rope factory.”

Exactly.

“Thank you, Glenn.”

I joined the others, my heart was pounding with enough force that the thumps rocked my entire body.  Tecton was closest to the stage, followed by Grace and Wanton.  The core team members, the veterans.  Veterans in one sense.  Wanton didn’t have half the field experience I did, even with our sustained campaign against the local villains, starting to help out in Detroit and trying to deal with that one jerkass in Milwaukee who we hadn’t yet managed to pin down.  Tecton and Grace were a little more seasoned, but not by a lot.

The stage manager was checking the microphones everybody wore.  She paused by me, and ensured it was plugged in, and that the connection was unbroken.  I was essentially wearing the same costume I had in the winter, but had skipped the extra layer beneath.  I suddenly felt intensely conscious of every wrinkle and all of the grit that had gathered up around my ankles and feet as I’d patrolled.

The costumes the others wore were immaculate.  Wanton had styled his hair to be messy in a good way, and was draped in flowing, dark blue clothing with lighter armor situated across his chest, his waist, his boots and along the length of his arms.  I suspected that the cloth afforded him more protection than the thin plates of metal, but it served to mask his artificial arm.

Grace’s costume was light, in contrast to the dark of Wanton’s.  Her new costume was white cloth, almost a martial artist’s outfit, but designed to offer more coverage.  Reinforced pads were situated at every striking point, complete with studs to offer more traction and focused impacts.  There wasn’t a single hair out of place beneath her combination headband, hairband and mask.  She had glossy, wavy locks I was a little jealous of, and a trace of lipstick.

I wish I’d considered some make up.  Not that I wore a lot, or that I’d had the time.  I had only what they’d given me in the studio, and they hadn’t gone overboard, on the assumption that I’d keep my mask on.  No, if anything it forced me to keep it on.  Heavy eyeshadow to make it easier to see my eyes behind the blue lenses.

Cuff seemed to be in the same department as Grace.  She’d done herself up, with a more ornate braid to her hair, and had altered her costume a fraction, to allow for more decorative tailoring at the ends of each panel and the nose of her visor.  Slivers of skin were visible between some slats of armor at the upper arms and collarbone.  Of everyone here, she seemed the most excited.  She couldn’t sit still, but she was smiling, and it was a genuine expression.

That left Annex and Golem.  Golem was uncomfortable, and I couldn’t blame him.  Like me, he had details he’d want to hide.  His family, his background, the fact that he was in foster care.  His costume, too, was a work in progress.  It was a resource for him, and maximizing that resource often set him back in the appearance department.  Annex, by contrast, had settled into a ‘look’.  It was plain, intentionally so.  The white cloak was form-fitting, with ribs to keep the fabric straight and close to his body so it was easier and quicker to absorb.

“Grace,” Tecton said.  “No swearing.”

Wanton snickered a little.

Tecton pitched his voice lower.  “Golem?  You’ve got to stop calling adults sir while you’re in costume.  You do it as a civilian, dead giveaway.  Hasn’t mattered up until now, but this is the test.”

“I probably won’t say much,” Golem said.  “I’m so nervous I feel like I need to puke.”

“No puking,” Wanton said.

“No puking is a good idea,” I agreed.

“Weaver…” Tecton said.  He gave me a look, with only his eyes visible behind his helmet.  “…I don’t even know.  But I’ve kind of gone the extra mile for you, and you’ve done a lot in return, but-”

The stage manager stooped down a little to talk to us, even though both Tecton and I were both taller than her.  “Alrighty, guys!  You’re on in five, four…”

“I still owe you one.  I’ll be good,” I told Tecton, just under my breath.

“One!”

The jazzy fanfare played.  As if that wasn’t cue enough, the stage manager gave us a little prod, literally pushing Tecton forward.

It was surprising how small the studio was, both the stage with its slate gray floor and fake cityscape behind it and the studio audience.  Tecton led the way to the half-circle of a table with the three hosts on the far side.  The largest chair closest to the hosts was undoubtedly his, shipped here by the PRT so he could sit down in his armor without crashing to the floor.

We sat down.  Tecton, Grace, Wanton, me, Annex, Cuff and Golem, in that order.  The music died as we took our seats, opposite the three hosts.  An adult man, African-American by the looks of it, a woman with peroxide blond hair and a girl who could have been her daughter, a brunette who bordered on overweight, with a winning smile and an overly generous chest.

“Welcome back to Mornings with O, J and Koffi,” the woman said.  “School’s out for the day and we’ve got the Chicago Wards here for breakfast.  Good morning, guys.”

We voiced our replies.  Wanton gave me a look, smiling, and I made myself smile as well.

The young girl gave a small wave, “So nice to meet you.  We had the team here before, but you guys have definitely changed things up since.  Campanile was the team leader then.”

“Campanile graduated to the Protectorate a little while ago,” Tecton said.  “He said to say hi.”

“You were there too, weren’t you?” Koffi, the man, said.

“In my old costume,” Tecton said.  “Which I’d prefer we didn’t talk about.”

There were chuckles from the hosts at his comment, and the audience echoed them.  It was oddly surreal.  I intended no offense to Tecton in thinking it, but the comment just wasn’t that amusing.

“The updated costumes look good,” Koffi said.

“We can thank Weaver for that.  Any cloth you see is spider silk,” Tecton said.

“Spider silk, wow!”  This from the blonde woman.

“Cuff and I sort of missed out on that front,” Tecton added.

“I don’t know whether to be amazed or freaked out,” the younger woman said.

“We had a giant Japanese crab on the show just a month ago, I think.  Jo had to leave the stage,” Koffi said.  “I think she’s a little nervous with Weaver here.”

“That was so embarrassing,” the young woman said.  I made a mental note of her being ‘Jo’.  “And you’re never going to let me live it down.”

More laughter.

Oh hell, I thought.  It was all so fake.  Fake responses, fake conversation.  The personalities, the way they were over-talking, it was like they’d taken everything that irritated me and condensed it into this, and situated it all in front of countless viewers so I couldn’t even respond the way I wanted to.

“I don’t dislike you, Weaver,” Jo said.  “It’s bugs I don’t like.  I’m not nervous.”

“Thank you.  Good,” I said.  Then, in an attempt to recover the clumsy sentence, I added, “I’m glad.”

The blonde, who was ‘O’ by the process of elimination, said, “There’s been a fair bit of attention directed at your team.  The leaked video thrust you all into the spotlight.  Then you dropped off the radar.”

“Recuperating,” Tecton said.  “We’re teenagers.  We go to school and play video games and being a cape is only part of it.”

“Except for Weaver,” Wanton said.

Both Tecton and I shot him a look, and then I remembered that there were eyes on me.  There was a reaction from the audience.  Light laughter.

“What do you mean?” Jo asked.

How could I even explain that I was working towards stopping or mitigating the degree of the world ending, when I wasn’t allowed to mention the fact?  Or that we were systematically targeting the most problematic villains, when I didn’t want anyone to see the show and hear the battle plan outlined for them?

“Wanton has been poking fun at Weaver about how she doesn’t go out or maintain any hobbies,” Tecton explained.  “Which isn’t entirely fair.  My apologies to Weaver bringing this up, but it’s not a secret that she’s on house arrest.  She’s on probation, and so she’s limited in what she can do.”

Koffi seized on the topic.  “You had a pretty colorful life as a villain, Weaver.  We’ve seen the cell phone video of you in the cafeteria of your high school, opposite Dragon and Defiant.”

I felt simultaneously glad that the conversation was moving and horrified that I was the subject.  I blamed Wanton.

Still, I said, “Clockblocker too.  I wasn’t actually attending school, though.  It was a couple of unlucky circumstances that put me there, and… yeah.  At that point in time, I’d wanted to focus on taking care of my part of the city.”

“That’s interesting, isn’t it?” O asked.  “You were a criminal overlord.  How were you even qualified for that?”

“It wasn’t like that,” I said.  I was more nervous now, half-convinced I was damning myself further with every sentence.  I’d inevitably come off too harsh and ‘dark’ for the civilians who were watching and too soft for any villains who happened to see.  Damn it.  “Taking the territory and being a villain were independent things.  Related, but different.  It was after Leviathan attacked, food, water, shelter and safety were hard to come by.  It was a way to help.  If I’d been a solo hero then, I’d have done much the same thing.  I’d have been gentler, but yeah.”

With less money to spend, I thought.  I’d avoided mentioning I was an undercover, aspiring hero when I’d started out.  That had never worked out for me, and only complicated things.

“And Alexandria?  I think everyone’s curious about your thoughts there.  You were shocked, in the video, when she made a reappearance.”

I shook my head.  “It’s not her.  I’m… I’m not happy, obviously, to see her up there.  It’s an ugly reminder of what happened.  But to have another person fighting Endbringers?  I’m okay with that part of it.”

“A long, bumpy road, and it’s brought you here,” O said.

“With the Chicago Wards,” I said, in a vain hope to turn the conversation away from me.

She took my cue.  “New costumes, a new group.  Behemoth is defeated and it looks like the Endbringers might have reverted to the schedule they had pre-2002.  An attack every four to five months.”

“Yes,” Tecton said.  “Everything’s new.  There’re a lot of changes going on.”

“Are you excited?” Jo asked.

Oh man, was I ever starting to dislike her.

“I’m really excited,” Tecton said.

The response caught me off guard.  Was he lying for the sake of appearances or was it honest?  How could someone be excited when the end of the world was nigh?  Did he not believe it was coming?

Whatever the answer was, I felt oddly disappointed in him.

Cuff shifted in her seat, and metal scraped against the metal of the chair’s footrest with a high-pitched noise.  She whispered, “Sorry.

O leaned forward.  “It’s fine.  Let’s hear from some of the others.  Wanton, your thoughts?  Are the changes good?”

“The changes are good.  I give Weaver a hard time, but she really kept us alive.”

“She did, by the looks of what happened in that video,” O said.

Bringing the conversation back to me.  Again.

“Grace?” she asked.  “Thoughts on your team member?”

“If you told me way back on the first time we met that I’d come to respect her, I’d have been surprised.”

Jo looked at me.  “Does that bother you?”

“No.  I respected and liked the Chicago Wards right off the bat, but I don’t blame them if there was any suspicion,” I said.

“Pretty generous.”

“If anything, I was pretty amazed by how they all pulled together in New Delhi.  Three of them were new, two hadn’t even been in a real fight before, and they went up against Behemoth?”

Cuff was perched on the edge of her seat, doing her best not to move and make things squeak again.  She had the ability to liquefy the metal touching her skin, which would have eliminated the problem, but the act would have ruined the look of it.  Part of that stiffness was anticipation, like a child who hadn’t done their homework, sitting at their desk and dreading the moment where the teacher called on them.  A stark contrast to her excitement earlier.  Had the screech knocked her off cloud nine?

“Cuff,” Koffi said.  “What do you think?  We saw the video, and you were pretty scared at the start, there.”

“Terrified.”

“You got injured?  We didn’t get to hear how.”

“A burn,” Cuff said, smiling a little.  “I recuperated in a few days.”

A lie.  She still hadn’t fully recuperated today, eight months after the fact.  She might never.

“I love to ask this question,” Jo said.  “What’s it like, being a superhero?”

She loved that question?

“It feels weird to think of myself as a hero,” Cuff said.  “I’m… I don’t think I’ll ever be one of the big heroes.  I’m not a cape at heart.  Fighting isn’t in my personality, and I got powers like this.”

“Cuff is a girly-girl,” Wanton commented.  “Her bunk at the Wards headquarters has pink sheets and rainbows and there’s a unicorn picture on the-”

Cuff leaned around me to mock-punch him.  “I’m not that bad!”

“You’re bad, though.”

Tecton raised a hand to cover Wanton’s mouth.  “I’m thrilled to have her on the team.  She hasn’t disappointed me yet.”

Cuff smiled at him.  “Thank you.

I wasn’t sure I’d have been able to say the same about Cuff, but my standards might have been higher.  She’d always done the job, but there was a reticence to her that wasn’t going away.  Three months ago, in our first real conflict outside of fighting Behemoth, she’d needed a push to carry out an offensive.  Four days ago, in Milwaukee, she’d needed that same coaxing.

Cuff was competent.  She had her strengths, and was stellar in some narrow cases.  At the same time, I still worried if a moment’s hesitation on her part would get one of us hurt somewhere down the road.

She was talking, happy to be in the limelight, stage fright forgotten.  “I was saying what it’s like being a hero.  It’s overwhelming.  It’s something that eats into every part of your life even if you want to limit it to four hours a day, four times a week.  If you don’t train and exercise then you fall behind.  If you don’t read the briefings on the bad guys, then you look stupid when you do run into them and have to ask someone.”

“I certainly hope you’re not getting into serious fights,” Koffi said.

“Um,” Cuff said.  Stage fright back in full force.  She’d touched on something that would get her a slap on the hand from the PRT, and now she didn’t have her footing.

I was trying to think of a way to rescue her when Tecton said, “Fights happen.  We’re actively trying to avoid direct confrontation, but we patrol and we practice our abilities so we can handle ourselves in the real crisis situations.  Many of our members patrol with other capes so they can get experience while having someone to rely on in case of an emergency.”

All true, but he was omitting the fact that we were actively seeking out indirect confrontation.  It was an admirable spot of double-speak, simultaneously reinforcing the atmosphere we were hoping to establish.  Heroes are safe.  Everything is under control.

“I kind of like those times,” Annex said.  “You get to hang out with the local powerhouses, hear what they have to say, learn from them.  I had a brief stay in a few other teams, but the one thing I really like about Chicago is that everyone is okay with me asking questions, and I have a lot.”

“Who’s your favorite cape to hang out with?” Jo asked.

“Shuffle.  Our powers work well together, if we’re careful not to let them interfere.”

“And Golem?  I can almost guess.  When Campanile appeared in the evening news, he had some promising words to say about the Protectorate’s newest member.  When we asked him who the most promising new recruit in the Wards was, he named you.”

“Ah,” Golem said.  “Yeah.”

“Do you think you can live up to that?”

“I hope I can,” Golem said.

The conversation was faltering.  I thought of what Glenn had said.  Showing some of the bonds between team members.  If I had one with anyone, it was with Golem.  The running, the shared perspective on the end of the world, the fact that we were both Brockton Bay natives…

“Everything Tecton has been saying about Cuff is true for Golem,” I said.  “If he’s getting praise from the heroes, he deserves it.  He’s a classic hero at heart.”

“A classic hero?” Koffi asked.

“He’s like Tecton.  Grace and Annex are too, to a lesser degree.  He’s genuinely good-natured and kind.  When everything starts falling apart, he’s still there, naturally courageous.”

“I like how I’m omitted from that list,” Wanton said.  “Only person who hasn’t been praised so far.”

I think you’re awesome,” Jo said, smiling.  The audience cooed.

“Golem’s steadfast,” I said.  “He’s working out, he’s studying hard for both regular school and cape stuff.  And with all of that going on, he’s still generous enough to help me out with my stuff.  Like Tecton said, I’m limited in where I can go and when, and Golem helps with that.”

The running, primarily, but not wholly that.  He’d walked with me to the mall once or twice.  I didn’t want to share details, though, in case people decided to try to find us while we were out, with Golem not in costume.

“Do relationships develop in this environment?” O asked.  “Anything besides friendship?”

“If you’re talking about Weaver and me, then no,” Golem said.  “We’re friends.”

“Friends,” I asserted.

“You had a thing going on with Grue,” Wanton chimed in.

“And this is the third time you’ve turned the conversation awkwardly back to me,” I retorted.

He gave me a sheepish grin.

“A tender moment on the battlefield,” O said.  “I think a lot of people were surprised.”

It was a personal moment, I thought.  If I harbored any ill will towards Glenn, it was for that.  He’d deleted sound or video where it gave up identifying details, like the nature of Cuff’s injury.  He hadn’t erased the scene with the woman in the suit, but the reception hadn’t held up that deep underground, so there was no need.  He’d also been kind enough to erase the scene where Imp had promised to get revenge on Heartbreaker.  The villain hadn’t been notified of her plan.

But all of the bonding, the closeness, leaving interactions with Rachel open for hundreds of millions of people to speculate on?  That was scummy.

Necessary on a level, but still scummy.

I hadn’t replied to his statement.  I almost wanted to let the silence linger awkwardly, just to nettle them and drive home that it wasn’t their business.

Jo didn’t give me the chance.  “You talked about Tecton and Golem as naturally heroic people.  What about you?”

Man, her questions irritated me.  Asking questions where they already knew the answer or where the answer was so immaterial…  Who watched this kind of garbage?

Why was I being forced to support it by my presence?

“I was a villain for three months,” I said.  “Maybe I’d like to think I was a little bit heroic as a villain, and I’m a little bit villainous as a hero.  But I’m working on that last part.”

“Hold on, hold on.  You think you were heroic, before you switched sides?” Koffi asked.  “By all accounts, you killed Alexandria and a law enforcement official.  You were quoted as talking to schoolchildren about the huge quantities of money you earned from criminal activities.”

Was he just sitting back, waiting for an opening?

Grace stepped up to my defense.  “She said a little.  She fought the Slaughterhouse Nine.  She helped the people in her district.”

“That actually sounds impressive,” Jo said.  “If that’s a little, then I wonder what being a little bit of a villain nowadays is like.”

She tittered along with the audience’s reaction.

“No response?” Koffi asked.

They were ganging up on me.  I wished I knew who these guys were, what their normal style was, so I could roll with it.

“I’ll let my actions speak for themselves,” I said.

Tecton was quick to speak, backing me up.  “I think that’s the best way to go about it.  It’s untreaded ground, in a way, to have a notorious ex-villain on the team.  Whatever happens, people are going to wonder where she stands, if I’ve been corrupted by association, or if this is all some elaborate scheme.  But we can work on it.  She can keep doing good work, and hopefully a few months or years down the road, I’ll still be able to say that Weaver’s a good person at heart and she’s done a lot for the good of the city and the world, you know?  Some people won’t be convinced no matter what she does, but time and reliability should let Weaver prove her worth.”

“Makes sense,” O said.  “We’re rapidly approaching another ad break.  I don’t suppose we could get any of you to step up to the plate?  A demonstration of powers?  A neat trick?”

I almost volunteered, but then decided against it.  I didn’t want to spend more time in the spotlight.

Annex stood from his chair.

“One of the new members!  Excellent!”  Jo said.  “We’ve got a crash test dummy, a beat up car…”

“I can do something with the car.  Maybe we could remodel the exterior?” Annex asked.  “Maybe the audience could name a car?  What should we make?”

Jo hopped out of her seat, arm raised like a kid in class.  She was short.  I mentally re-evaluated my estimation of her age to put her closer to her late teens than her early twenties.

A series of beeps, not even a half-second apart, interrupted all of us.  Our phones?

I was still drawing my cell from my belt when I saw a commotion backstage.  People who’d been standing still were running now, talking into headphones.

My cell phone screen was surrounded by a thick yellow border.  A text was displayed in the middle.

Stand by.

Disturbance recorded.

Possible Class S threat.

The others had identical messages on their screens.

There were murmurs among the audience members as someone from backstage stepped up to talk to Koffi and O.

“It can’t be,” Cuff said, her voice quiet.

“We got texts just like this for the incident where we met Weaver,” Tecton said.  “It could be a similar situation.”

The lighting changed.  Tecton stood from his seat, and I joined the others in following suit.

A studio employee advanced to the front of the stage.  When he spoke, the microphone headset he wore carried the sound, “A possible emergency has come up elsewhere in the world.  If this blows over in the next few minutes, we’ll edit out anything problematic and resume the show.  For now, remain calm while we prepare for an emergency broadcast from the news team upstairs.  There is no danger here.”

My phone buzzed.  I checked it to see another text.

Chicago Wards are to remain at current location.

Transportation en route.  Will deploy to studio B parking lot for quick pickup.

A little more ominous than the ‘maybe’ the studio employee had given us.

Panel by panel, the backdrop of the ‘Mornings with O, J and Koffi’ set transformed, images flickering to show a composite of a grainy, long-distance shot of a city.  It had been taken with a cell phone, and the resolution didn’t translate well with the size of the ‘screen’.  There were tall buildings, neon signs glowing in the late evening.  Somewhere in Asia.

“Japan,” Wanton said.

The camera was shaking, and the view on the screen reacted in kind.

Dust rose in clouds, billowing, until they obscured the camera’s view.

The audience was reacting.  Moans, cries of alarm and despair.  They knew what was going on.

“Please be the Simurgh,” Cuff said, her voice small.  Grace put an arm around Cuff’s shoulders.

That may be the first time in history anyone’s thought that.

She’s right, too.  Even the Simurgh would be better than this.

The timing, the fact that it was happening so soon after Behemoth had died… it was all wrong.

Behemoth had come from deep underground.  Leviathan had emerged from the ocean.  The Simurgh had approached from the far side of the moon and descended to hover just above the tallest building in Lausanne.

The fourth, it seemed, was appearing in plain sight.

The dust took forever to clear.  But for a few mutters here and there, small animal sounds of despair from the audience and studio employees who were watching, the studio had plunged into quiet horror.

It stood somewhere between Leviathan and Behemoth in height, if I ballparked by the number of stories in the adjacent buildings.  I waited patiently for the view to clear, revealing more details.  Clues, as if there was a solution to what we faced here.

I pegged him as a he before I saw too much else.  He was broad, a Buddha in physique, if more feral in appearance.  He was as black as night, with something white or silver giving definition around the edges of his various features.  He didn’t wear clothes, but he had features somewhere between leaves and fins, with elaborate designs at the edges, curling away from elbows, his wrist, his fingers and around his legs. It made his fingers and toes into claws, and left dangerous looking blades elsewhere.  His face was a permanent snarl, frozen in place, his teeth silvery white behind the ebon lips.  Tendrils like the whiskers of a catfish marked the corners of his mouth.

All across the exterior of his body, there were gaps, like the gills of a fish, and that brilliant white or silver glimmered from beneath, a stark contrast to the absolute black that marked the rest of him.  It made me think of a tiger.  And at the center of it all, quite literally, there was a perfect sphere of that same material, a marble or a crystal ball, his body perched on the upper half and his legs attached to the lower half.

Arms extended out to either side, he took a step, almost waddled.  He floated as though he were walking on the moon.

“He’s not a fighter,” I murmured.

“No,” Tecton agreed.

“What is he?” Grace asked.

People were fleeing, still in close proximity to the site, evacuating tall buildings.  The Endbringer stopped and extended a hand.  His arms weren’t long enough to reach around his girth, but his upper body rotated on the sphere that formed his midsection, giving him the freedom of movement needed.

The camera shook as he used his power, and an unseen cameraman had to catch it before it fell.  A faint glowing line appeared on the ground, a perfect circle.   The light gradually intensified, reaching higher, and the space within the circle seemed to darken in equal measure.

It moved, the circle roaming, the glowing lines adjusting to scale obstacles and account for higher ground and dips in the terrain.

When it intersected a building, the effect became clear.  Barely visible with the camera’s range, they were nonetheless a blur, moving within the circle’s perimeter.

“They’re trapped,” Golem said.  “He’s manipulating time in there and they’re trapped.”

Golem was right.  How many days were they experiencing in there, with only the food they had on hand?  Was water reaching them?  There didn’t seem to be power.

“Oh god,” Cuff said.  “Why isn’t anyone stopping him?”

“There’s no heroes on scene,” Tecton said.  “Japan doesn’t have many dedicated heroes anymore.”

It took six or seven seconds for the blurring of their movements to slow.  In another second, it stopped altogether.

He left his power where it was.  The glass on the building’s exterior cracked.  Cracks ran along and through the other material, in the street and at the edges of the structure.  It leaned, then toppled, and the destruction was contained inside the effect.

Wanton spoke, almost hesitant.  “Is that- doesn’t that remind anyone of-”

“Yes,” Grace said.  “The barrier, the time manipulation.  It’s similar.”

Similar to what we did.

All in all, the Endbringer was there for a minute.  The effect moved on, and it left a ruined husk of a building behind.  Though there was no sun shining, the stone and terrain had been sun bleached, worn by elements, eroded.

The Endbringer extended his hands out to either side, and two more glowing circles appeared.  Like the first circle had, they flared with light.  Like the first, they moved, drifting counterclockwise around him.  It was a slow, lazy rotation, slower than a moving car but faster than someone could hope to run.

He advanced with floating steps, and the circles maintained a perfect, steady distance away from him and from each other, orbiting him like the shadows cast by three invisible moons.  Here and there, people and cars were caught inside.  He wasn’t a full city block down the street before one circle had a crowd trapped within, half-filling the base of it, another circle perhaps a quarter of the way full.

He moved through a less populated area, and he left trails of skeletons in his wake, in odd fractal patterns that followed the circles’ movements.

He chose what entered and he chose what left.  An attack form that couldn’t be defended against, only avoided.

“Movers will be important,” I said.  “Maybe shakers too, if we can find a way to stop him or his circles from progressing.  His threat level depends on how fast and how much he can move those time-stop areas.”

There was no reply from the others.

I glanced at Cuff, and I saw that she was hugging Grace.  She was silent, but tears were running down her face.  Grace was more resolute, but her eyes were wet.

The timing, it was wrong.

Strategy, figuring out a battle plan, it was crucial here.  The first attacks were often some of the worst for cape casualties, if not necessarily the overall damage done.  Too many lives would be lost in finding out his general capabilities.

But it didn’t matter.

I reached out and took Cuff’s hand, holding it.  A glance in the other direction showed me Golem.  I took his hand too.

This was the key thing in this moment.  Not the future, what came next.  Support, morale and being a team in the now.

Silent, we watched as the heroes engaged.  Eidolon and Legend joined the Japanese heroes in fighting the unnamed Endbringer, keeping a safe distance.

One circle disappeared, and the Endbringer reached out.  Defending capes were too slow to escape the perimeter before the effect took hold, a new third circle forming.  Eidolon tried hitting the effect with three different powers, but it didn’t break.

No, no, no…” Cuff whispered.

In a minute, the capes were dead.

Our phones beeped, and I felt a moment’s despair.  We’d have to fight this thing.

Ship is outside if you want it, Chicago Wards.  Attendence not mandatory.

Temp. codename is Khonsu.

“I’m…” Cuff said, staring down at the phone.  “I’m staying.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You’re going?” she asked.

I nodded.

She nodded back, swallowed hard, before she turned her eyes back to the screen.  In that moment, the Endbringer, Khonsu, reversed the direction the circles were drifting, extending the distance they were orbiting around him in the same movement.

Capes who’d been trying to time their advance to close the distance to Khonsu were caught.  Four trapped and doomed to die a slow death, a fifth caught between a building and the orb’s perimeter as the circle continued its rotation.  When the circle had left the building behind, there was only a bloody smear where the fifth cape had been.  Skeletons for the rest.

Now he stood still, weathering attacks with the same durability the other Endbringers had.  Damage to his flesh exposed silver, and damage to the belly or other silver parts showed ebon black.  The onionlike layers Tattletale had described, plain to see.

I tore my eyes from the screen, marching towards the emergency doors.

So much was wrong with this.

It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right.  Fucked on so many levels.

A woman was sobbing in the hallway as we passed.  A group of twenty-somethings in dress shirts sprinted down the hallway, carrying bags.

The dragon-craft was waiting for us outside, ramp doors open.

Odd, to see the sky so bright, when the battlefield was shrouded in night.

We stepped inside, entering the center of the craft.  I found a seat by a monitor, with a laptop ready and waiting for use, login screen displayed.  The monitor was showing the battlefield, roving over the dead, the buildings that had collapsed under the weight of years.  Oddly, the cameraman wasn’t focusing on Khonsu or the defending heroes.  A few heroes were fleeing, but most weren’t in view.

“We’re ready,” Tecton called out.  “Ship?”

The craft hadn’t taken off.

My growing sense of dread was confirmed as the image on the monitors changed.

Even with those circles being as devastating as they are, it wasn’t enough.  There wasn’t the same broad scale, the promise of lingering devastation.

No.  There was something more to Khonsu.

The monitors showed him in a different city.  A caption on the bottom of the screen showed the words ‘Cape Verde’.

He’d teleported halfway around the planet.

All of the problems with getting to Endbringer fights on time, with mobilizing and dealing with the fact that half of our best teleporters and movers had been slain in past battles… he was capitalizing on that weakness.

My phone vibrated to alert me to a new text.  I didn’t need to read it to guess what it said.  I read it anyways.

Stand by.

“No,” I whispered to myself.

The heroes were engaging, now.  Legend and Eidolon had caught up.  Khonsu had situated himself near some kind of military installation, and they’d wasted no time in readying for a fight.  Missiles and shells exploded around him.  The columns of frozen time that rotated around him caught many, and they exploded within the delineated structures.

For long minutes, he fought.  I watched, my eyes fixed on the screen, to see his behavior, to look for the cue.

He waded into and through the arranged military squadrons with their parahuman supplementary forces.  He was as tough as Behemoth or Leviathan.  No attack delivered more than scratches or nicks.

Five minutes, six, as he leisurely tore through the forces he’d caught off guard.  Eidolon ducked between two of the pillars of altered time and delivered a punch that sent the Endbringer tumbling.  The orbiting columns were pulled behind Khonsu as he moved, and Eidolon came only a hair from being caught.

Alexandria and other capes joined the attack.  Too few.  Everyone else retreated.

Khonsu didn’t pursue.  He remained where he was, arms extended out to either side, palms down.

Then he disappeared in a massive, tightly contained explosion.  Trucks and sections of fence were thrown into the air by the movement.

Long seconds passed.  Then my phone vibrated.  Another text.

Cannot deploy until we have a way to pin him down.

Stand by until further notice.

I struck the laptop that sat in front of me.  One hinge holding it in place snapped.  I shoved it hard, and it fell to the floor of the craft.

“Fuck!” I shouted.  “Fuck it!”

I kicked the fallen laptop, and it went skidding across the floor, down the ramp and into the parking lot.  My foot stung with the impacts.

The other Wards were gathered, sitting or standing around the craft that was taking us nowhere.  There was no way to approach if he’d teleport by the time we arrived.  We’d never catch up to him.  The others were as quiet and still as I’d been violent, haunted, scared.

Nobody talked.  Nobody volunteered ideas, because we didn’t have any.

I wasn’t sure any of us knew how to fight this one.  Nobody in the Chicago Wards did.  Nobody elsewhere.  Speaking, commenting on the situation, it would only remind us of what we were facing.

Above all else, I wasn’t sure I wanted to think about the detail we hadn’t spoken aloud.  The thing, above everything else, that made this so fucked up.  In the nine years that we’d been fighting Behemoth, Leviathan and Simurgh, they’d never attacked this close together.

Even if we found a way to beat this Khonsu, to mount a defense and stop him from picking us apart, settlement by settlement, darker possibilities loomed.

Two attacks, two months apart.  Had their schedule changed?  Would the next attack come in a mere two months, or would it be more unpredictable than that?

No, I thought, with a dawning horror.  No, it was worse than that.  The Endbringer’s schedule of attack had always depended on the number of Endbringers in the rotation.

If they were keeping to their usual rules, it promised a fifth, waiting in the wings.

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Drone 23.3

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“Mr. Chambers?  Weaver’s here to see you.”

He called out from the opposite end of the room, “Send her in!”

I ventured into his realm, staring around me as I entered the space that was apparently the hub of costume design and marketing for the PRT.

The wall to my left had a map of North America.  Cities had been identified, with clusters of portraits around each major city.  Protectorate members on top, Wards on the bottom.

To my right, there were glass cases showing off costume designs, old and new.  A woman was inside the case, dressing a dummy.

Further down, there was Glenn.

Power was a funny thing.  I’d seen it expressed in a number of ways, with parahumans, but the unpowered weren’t quite so flexible.  There were people like Tagg, who relied on bluster and bullying, and people like Calle, with sheer confidence and a strict reliance on their own abilities in a particular field.  Piggot had been something else, someone who had known how to leverage people and situations, more like Calle than anyone, but with the added advantage that she’d had the authority to call in airstrikes and requisition Dragon’s A.I. driven craft.  Like Tattletale had said, Piggot wasn’t a genius, but she had her strengths.

I’d suspected that Glenn Chambers would be more like Calle, with a touch of Tagg’s tendency to bulldoze through problems.  Seeing him operating in his home territory, I wasn’t so sure that was the case.

Glenn Chambers wore plaid pants with red and green, and a pink dress shirt, His belt bore a buckle with the PRT logo on it.  His hair had changed too, parted neatly into what I assumed was ‘geek chic’, and the glasses had changed as well, with thick, round frames.  An ID card hung around his neck.  He didn’t fit any of those particular archetypes.

I looked at him and the person who came to mind was Skidmark.  Brockton Bay’s onetime loser villain, meth-head and drug dealer, later the head of the depraved, anarchist Merchants.  It was hard to pinpoint why, at first.  They were nothing alike, on an aesthetic level.  Their demeanor, their status in society, their appearance or goals, there were no similarities.

People milled around him.  Twenty-something men and women, who carried coffees and portfolios, cloth and paperwork.  Fat as he was, Glenn moved swiftly.  He sipped a coffee, handed it back to the assistant who’d delivered it, and sent her off with a command or clarification.  Men and women with portfolios were told to set up at his desk while he examined action figures in the light of the window.  His pudgy hands, almost childlike, took hold of an action figure by the arm.  He shook it violently, his cluster of minions backing away at the sudden flailing of his arm and the plastic figure.  The arm snapped off, and the toy went sailing through the air.  Someone scooped it up and brought it back to the group.

“Go, and hurry,” Glenn said.  “Tell them to fix it and cast another prototype before the run starts.  These are toys, they’ll be in the hands of children and collectors both.  The people who are buying these are fans.  What’s it going to say if their most immediate association with Esoteric is the broken toy sitting on a shelf?  It’s going to convey that he’s flimsy.”

The action figure people fled, and Glenn approached his desk, where the portfolios had been set out.  I approached, a touch lost in the midst of all of this, and nearly stumbled as another group entered the room, vacating to fill the void left by the group that was exiting.

“Weaver, come.  Look and tell me what you think.”

I approached the desk, and the group parted to give me space.  It was hard to put my finger on why, but I couldn’t help but feel like they were doing it at Glenn’s bequest and not mine.

The massive portfolio folders were open, showing poster images of various Protectorate members.  The leaders of the new teams.  The images were stylized, with splashes in pale watercolor in the background, an almost sketchier appearance to the heroes.  But the masks, necks and shoulders, the emblems and their characteristic tools were all done in hyper-realistic detail.  Chevalier, Rime and Exalt, with backgrounds in gray, blue and yellow, respectively.  There looked to be more behind them.

“They’re good,” I said.

“They’re crap,” Glenn countered.  One finger tapped on a blossoming of yellow and red watercolors at the tip of Chevalier’s Cannonblade.  “The last thing we want to convey are that things are a mess, and that’s exactly what the blobs in the background will do.”

I’d buy one,” I said.  “If I wasn’t already a cape, anyways.  Things are a mess.  I don’t see how you’d convince a non-cape me otherwise.”

Glenn sighed.  “We’re treading into philosophical and hypothetical territories there.  It’s a no-go.”

He turned to one of the artists,  “Something cleaner, tighter.  And don’t use a side-profile of Rime.  If she doesn’t want the post-effects, she’ll have to accept that her waist isn’t quite poster material.”

The poster people disappeared, fleeing Glenn’s presence.

I stepped into the gap, “I wanted to talk to you-”

“One minute,” Glenn dismissed me.  He turned to the group that had just arrived, “The interview?”

“It’s good,” a young man said, handing over a print-out.  “Chevalier is personable, but different from the old leaders.  Fits the ‘New Protectorate’ atmosphere you described.”

“Of course it does,” Glenn said.  He skimmed the paper, turning pages.  “I based it all around him.  Good call on the interview’s quality.  Quite good.”

Skidmark, I thought again.  Skidmark, who had built up a kind of momentum around himself, like-minded people falling into his orbit.  Despite being utterly repulsive and foul-mouthed, Skidmark had charisma.  People followed him.  Glenn wasn’t repulsive, but he grated.

Maybe that was part of their charisma.  Maybe the natural, casual narcissism, as much as it didn’t jibe with Skidmark’s meth-mouth or Glenn’s obesity, conveyed that they were the center of the universe.  Everyone wouldn’t necessarily be swept up in their delusion, but the fact that they drew in weak-willed sheep lent them a measure of clout that forced people to acknowledge them.  For Skidmark, it had been depraved homeless, addicts and thugs.  For Glenn, it was a cadre of college students hoping for a career in marketing, advertising or public relations within the PRT.

Or maybe I wasn’t thinking too generously about Glenn Chambers, given how pissed I was.  Maybe he wasn’t that bad.

“Well?” he asked me, as if I was making him wait.

I resisted the urge to react, forced myself to stay calm.

If he was really like Skidmark, in how he surrounded himself with loyal and terrified sheep and minions, there were two ways to mount an attack.  I could take the fight straight to him, like Faultline had with Skidmark, or I could strip him of his flock.

“I’d like to speak to you in private.”

“Impossible, I’m afraid.  I’m busy enough I shouldn’t even be taking the time to talk with you,” he said.  He offered me a smile, “But you’re my most interesting project.”

“It’s a matter of courtesy,” I said.  He wanted to play this on a political level?  “Please.”

Put him on the spot.  Force him to play along or look bad.

Glenn only smiled.  “Isn’t it just as discourteous to interrupt me in the middle of my work, when I’m already doing you a favor by meeting you?”

Fine.  He wanted to play it that way?

“Last night, Pretender got broken out of Dragon’s craft, our team crushed, and Rime shot.  I almost died.”

“I heard,” he said.  He looked at the woman who was just arriving with his new coffee, “Kayleigh, can you go talk to Mr. Payet?  He was supposed to call me in ten minutes and it’s been fifteen.”

“Yes sir,” she said, running off.

He either doesn’t care or he’s deflecting.

“Your insane restrictions on powers were a big part of that, Mr. Chambers.  The bad guys won, and it’s partially your fault.”

The heads that turned my way, silent and staring, only confirmed my suspicions.  The crowd of twenty-something assistants and designers around him were a defense system.  Not a power, but power in general.

“My fault? I wasn’t even there.”

“I asked to speak to you because I wanted you to know about the damage that’s being done.”

“Ah, this is about the butterflies.”

“It’s about a lot more than butterflies.  It’s the whole mindset.  The attitude of the heroes.  I’d talk to Chevalier, but he’s too busy.  I’d talk to Rime, but she’s recovering from being shot three times.  You’re the only other person I’ve met so far who really seems to be in a position to know what I’m talking about.  Besides, as far as I can figure, image and PR seem to be at the heart of the problem.”

“A complicated issue, something you could study for six years in college,” he said.  “But you’ve figured it out after two brawls?  The rumors of your intelligence must be true after all.”

“I wouldn’t make light of it.  Pretender got captured.  Either he’s in enemy hands, and there’s a body snatcher out there, or he’s dead.  Because of a fight we could have won.” I said.

“You’re sure?”

“There’re no certainties, but come on.  There’s got to be a point where the kiddie gloves come off and we actually put up a fight.  I saw the Wards struggling in Brockton Bay, as they faced pressure from outside forces, me included, and serious threats.  They got whittled down because, as powerful as they are, they didn’t get the chance to put up a fight.  Now the rest of us are starting to face the same pressures, and the PRT isn’t learning from past mistakes.”

“I’m trying to understand what you’re wanting to argue.  Are you saying our Wards, children with powers, should take your cue?  Fight more viciously?  Intimidate?  Be merciless?”

All your capes could stand to stop holding back.  Wards and Protectorate both.  At least in situations like this.  We lost Pretender, and we didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the Vegas teams.  That played a part in losing them.”

Glenn frowned, glancing at his collection of underlings.  “Everyone but Weaver, out.  I hope each of you can find something to do.”

The flock scattered.

“You already know what happens if you speak on the subject,” Glenn called out to them, raising his voice as they got further away.  “I personally know everyone you might try to leak details to.  It’s not worth the risk!  Discretion!”

A moment later, they were gone.  His office seemed so empty without the young professionals running around.

“We must have a talk about which things can be said when,” Glenn said.  He took a second to tidy up stray pictures on his desk.

“I did ask if we could speak alone,” I told him.

“And I said no.  I’m much too busy, and as much as I relish our future discussions, hearing how you did what you did in Brockton Bay, the Vegas Wards are a large part of why I’m racing to provide the public with our new, upgraded Protectorate.”

“Misdirection and deception,” I said.  “You know, I do know about subtlety.  I kind of ran a group that ruled a city.”

“And I’m sure you did an excellent job,” Glenn said.  “But you’re a dog in a duck pond here.  You’re out of place, you don’t know the usual precautions, the customs and conventions.  You gave evidence to that when you talked about the Vegas wards, something that should be kept more discreet.”

That would be his mode of attack then.  I was the ignorant child, who didn’t quite know how the Protectorate worked.

“I’m not sure what you want, Glenn.  You guys know I can hold my own, but you ignore the fact that I took down Alexandria, that I’ve fought against three class-S threats.”

Glenn sighed.  He walked around his desk and plunked down in his chair.  “You’re going to be one of the challenging ones, aren’t you?”

“I only want to help people.  The PRT and the hero teams are falling apart, but you’re more focused on testing me than letting me do something.”

“Chevalier would be a better person to talk to about this,” Glenn said.

“You want me to fight with nerf weapons?  I can.  Put me up against just about any Ward, I could probably give them a pretty hard time, whether I’m using regular bugs or just butterflies.  I could win against most.”

“Your strength isn’t in question.  We’re not sure you’re dependable.”

“I can show you that I can make the butterflies work.  I just want the a-ok to use my full assortment of powers against the real threats.  Like the sniper and whoever that woman in the suit was, last night.  If I’d had a real arsenal in reserve, I could have attacked either of them before they really get underway.  Give me the ability to match the strength of the tools I’m using to the strength of my enemies.”

“Beginning an endless loop of serial escalations,” Glenn said.  “No, Weaver, that’s not what I mean when I say ‘dependable’.  Wrong word.  We have footage of you snapping, shifting from calm to homicidal in an instant.  Was there motivation?  Yes.  But it doesn’t inspire confidence in your allies.  We wanted to see how you functioned in high pressure situations, your willingness to follow our restrictions, as unfair as they might seem.”

“Always testing me,” I said.  “Okay.  I listened, I followed your orders, and the test doesn’t serve a purpose as long as I know about it.  Can we call it quits, at least with the butterflies?”

“You didn’t follow the orders,” Glenn said.  When I glanced at him, he locked his eyes onto mine.  “You stung Bambina.”

“To save people.  She was going to pick us off.  Would you blame me if I picked up a dropped gun and shot someone who was aiming a surface-to-air missile launcher at me?”

“It’s a little different.”

“It’s an almost exact parallel to what I was doing!  She’s a living surface to air missile, only she ricochets all over the place, and she keeps going.  I didn’t even use a gun.  I debilitated her, maybe enough that Vantage could hit her with his bolas.  Nonlethal weapons, exactly like what the Wards are supposed to use.”

“The focus isn’t on lethal or nonlethal,” Glenn said.  “It’s on whether we can trust you to keep on the path you’re walking.  If you start taking shortcuts now, what happens a year down the line?  If we decide you can go all-out in one specific situation, does that open the door for another?”

“Maybe, instead of setting rules and restrictions in place, you could ask.  Talk to me like a human being, negotiate certain rules.”

“Rules you then break or circumvent.  You take rather naturally to it, and no, that isn’t a jab at your iniquitous backgroundIt’s a statement about your particular abilities.”

I grit my teeth.  “I’m good.  I have more experience than some of your Wards who’ve been on their teams for two years.  I’m versatile.  If you need someone in Vegas to deal with thinkers and strangers, I can hold my own, the embarrassment with August Prince aside.  If you need someone to track down groups like the Nine, I can do that.  Recon, assassination, communication…”

“The public’s watching this too closely for us to let you off your leash so soon after Alexandria’s death.  When things quiet down, it might be a possibility.  Our heroes in Vegas tend to be a little grayer than white, and an ex-villain would fit.  But not now.”

I exhaled slowly.  “You guys wanted a newer, shinier protectorate.  You guys need wins.  Give me the chance, I’ll give them to you.  But this isn’t me.  I’m not about butterflies.”

“We know what you’re about,” Glenn said.  He touched his keyboard, then typed out what I presumed was a password.  A second passed, “Look.”

He spun his monitor around.

It was me, entering the PRT office in Brockton Bay.  A video feed from a surveillance camera.

It was me, crawling through a window.  That would be from the night I retaliated against Tagg.  Odd, seeing how the bugs moved in coordination with me.  When I turned my head in the video, the orientation of every bug in the swarm changed in the same moment.

All around me, PRT employees were howling in pain, their cries silenced by the lack of an audio feed.  Either the camera hadn’t picked it up, or Glenn had muted it.  They thrashed.  One reached for me, for the me on the screen, and I could see how I moved out of the way without even glancing at him.  The swarm concealed me at the same time, briefly obscuring the Skitter in the video from both the man on the ground and the security camera.  When it parted, she had shifted two or three feet to the left.  A simple step to one side in the half-second she couldn’t be seen, but it misled the eyes.

And I couldn’t remember doing it.  I’d never consciously added the trick to my repertoire.

“If you told me that girl was a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine,” Glenn said, “I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash.”

It was like hearing my voice played back to me, but it was compounded over several levels.  The movements, the movements of the swarm, it wasn’t familiar to me.

The head turned towards the security camera for a moment, and I could see the yellow eyes of my lenses in the midst of the thick black swarm.

“That isn’t marketable,” Glenn said, oblivious to just what I found so bothersome.

“There’s a middle ground,” I said.

“When I asked you to use butterflies, it was to break a habit, see if it changed how you functioned in the midst of a fight, just like I might ask someone to try on a particular outfit and see how it fits them.  I didn’t think it would throw you off kilter as much as it has.  But that isn’t a bad thing.”

“It is if it means Rime nearly dies and Pretender gets taken.”

“We collected the three members of Bambina’s group.  Not a complete loss.”

“They’ll get free and continue their rampage,” I said.

“Most likely.  We’ll strive to hold on to Bambina at the very least.  With luck we’ll be able to recruit the little prince, maybe Starlet as well.”

I looked at the video.  Glenn had paused it.  The momentary turn of the head, the yellow lenses…

“I can work on being a little less nightmarish,” I said.  “But there’s got to be a way for me to be more effective.  How long are these restrictions in effect?”

“Until you come of age and join the Protectorate,” a voice spoke from behind me.

It was Chevalier, accompanied by Defiant, my ride.  Chevalier wore his gold and silver armor, heavily decorated and etched until every square inch looked like a miniature work of art.  It didn’t strike me as something that would hold up to any abuse, but I’d heard how tough it really was.

“Until I turn eighteen,” I said, feeling a little hollow.

Chevalier approached.  “You murdered two people.  Three, going by your admission while in custody.  Two PRT directors, one major hero.  When Dragon and Defiant suggested we bring you on board, we were divided.  It was Glenn who offered the compromise that we ultimately agreed to.  This compromise.”

I glanced at Glenn, who shrugged.

Glenn?

“You have blood on your hands.  We need to know that you can hold back, that you won’t simply snap as you did when you were in custody in Brockton Bay.  We’re still wanting to ensure that this isn’t a long-term scheme on the Undersider’s part, as unlikely as it might be.”

That’s why you’re waiting two years?  You think that it’ll take that long to vet me, before you can give me actual responsibility?”

“It’s one consideration of many.”

“It’s ridiculous.  The world is going to end before I have my eighteenth birthday.  I’m giving you full permission to use me.  Send me to round up tinkers who could find the Nine’s pocket dimension I’ve been a villian.  I’ve got some reputation I can fall back on.  I can talk to people you guys can’t.”

“I won’t say this is set in stone,” Chevalier said.  “Maybe in a few weeks or a few months, we can discuss options.  For now, we’ll find you a team, get you settled.  Once we know where we’re situating you, we’ll find a different institution to keep you in.  Possibly low security, or in the Wards headquarters, depending.  The rest… there’s time to figure that out.”

I sighed, closing my eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Chevalier said.  “Really.  I was there for the fight against Echidna.  I saw the Undersiders in action.  I saw you in action, and I’m willing to credit you with the maneuver that turned the situation around in the final stages.  As long as your rap sheet may be, I’ve heard of the good you did.  It strikes me that you’ve likely saved one person from death and injury for each person you’ve assaulted, if I were to count what you did before Shatterbird hit your city.”

“But that doesn’t matter in the end.”

“It does.  More than you suspect, but you have to be patient.”

“You’ve faced a great deal in the span of half a year,” Defiant said.  “Take this for the reprieve it is.”

I grit my teeth.  No use.  The legitimate avenues were failing me.

I couldn’t put up with this.

“Then there’s one last thing,” I said.  “If I can’t help directly, let me help indirectly.  I can outfit your heroes.  Most of them.”

Glenn and Chevalier exchanged glances.

“We were going to raise the idea somewhere down the road,” Chevalier said.  “We can work out a deal, like we have with our tinkers.  An allowance, with payment for each costume produced.”

“I don’t want money,” I said.  “But so long as you’re offering, maybe we could talk about a workshop?”

I glanced at Defiant, “And equipment?”

Spiders moved through the back corridors of the prison.  It was a space where the plumbing and heating for the two interconnected prisons ran through pipes, and where the flooring was little more than metal grates, easily removed and replaced in a pinch.  Almost lightless, but that didn’t bother me.  My spiders could manage, and it only meant I had some time to hide them if someone entered and hit a switch to turn the lights on.

I’d thought of ‘Weaver’ as a hero on the straight and narrow.  That was out.

Being a villain with good PR just wouldn’t work either.

No.  A middle ground, then.

The spiders found a rat.  It backed away from the mass, hissed.

A spider dropped on it from above and delivered the first of what soon became a series of bites.  Fatal.

Working together, the spiders set to devouring it.  They weren’t natural scavengers, but meat was meat.  Meat meant the spiders could get the sustenance they needed for breeding.  Breeding, in turn, meant I could start mass-producing silk.

It was calming, a relief to do something concrete after an afternoon in Glenn Chamber’s company.  When the time came, I could carry any materials and the spiders onto the bottom of the Pendragon, moving them to my workshop.

“Hebert,” the guard said.

I raised my head.

“Mail day.  You’re a popular one.”

It was a bundle of mail, bound together with tape marked ‘USPS’.

“They’re already open?”

“Rules.  We don’t read it, or we’re not supposed to.  But they check there’s nothing illegal inside, and the dogs give it a sniff.”

I nodded.  She studied me for a second, then moved on to the next cell.

Mail from all around the United states.  From strangers, from fans.

Words of support.  Criticism.  Death threats.

I opened the ones from Brockton Bay last.

Taylor.  Weaver.  Skitter.  Is it bad that you’ll always be Skitter to me?

I could hit you, hug you, yell at you and hold onto you for hours all at the same time.  It’s fitting that I want to kiss you and throttle you at the same time because that’s what you were to me for a long time.  You drive me crazy and I can never understand what’s going through your head.

This isn’t easy.  I’m not good at this.  Not with where we left off.  It felt like an incomplete break, but I don’t think it would be much better if we were still together or if we’d broken it off completely.  I’m not the type to write heartfelt letters.

I hope they don’t read your mail and give you a hard time because of this.  I’d erase that part but I’ve already started over three times.

What ever am I even supposed to write?  That I want to yell at you because I told you I couldn’t be leader and you left anyways?  That you shouldn’t worry and Tattletale and I have it covered?

You’re an idiot.  I want you to know that.  You’re an idiot, Skitter.  You’re brilliant and reckless and I’m betting it makes sense to you to do this but you’re an idiot.

I’ll write again, when I can figure out what to write.

Grue.

I read it three times.  I could almost hear his voice.

I opened the next one.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! what the fuck???

There was only a little circle with devil horns at the bottom, in place of a signature.  I rolled my eyes and moved on.

Tt here.

You probably want to know the situation.  We’re all alive, Accord hasn’t turned on us yet, things are getting more exciting but we’ll manage.  Heroes are leaving us alone, like you arranged.  Trick will be to get Regent and Imp to stop prodding them for reactions when they cross ways.

Heartbreaker making initial forays, decided to pay a visit.  Can’t tell if he’s invading or after Regent.  Red Hands are a little more aggressive but not too bad.  Meeting for negotiations tonight.  Lost Garden approacheth, sending members after us and trying to clear way for Barrow to advance.  Annoying but no problem until they enter city limits.

Grue wasn’t okay at first.  Worst days since right after Bsaw.  He won’t say in his letter but you would want to know.  Got better when Red Hand and Heartbreaker came.  Busier, something to do other than wallow.

Regent&Imp constantly together.  Mucho annoying since you gone.  They’re testing the waters, seeing what they can get away with.  Will see how it turns out.

We got Flechette.  She a pair with Parian.  Lovey-dovey.  Best case scenario, really.  Not sure if you arranged that, good call if you did.  Flechette’s going by Foil now.  Likes those F names.

My head’s better as of yesterday.  Tryng to take it easier.

Managed to get hold of Rachel.  She said she’d send letter.  She can’t read/write but she insisted she would anyways.  Interesting to see how that turns out.

Everyone on edge of their seat waiting for Endbringer to hit.  Won’t be Bbay but we participating.

See you there, hun?

P.S.  To the asshats reading Taylor’s mail, there’s no codes in this message.  Promise.  Don’t bother.  You want to know what we’re up to, call me.  I’ll fucking tell you.

P.S.S.  Gathering all letters together, 12 hours ltr.  None from Reg, he said to say hi.  Meeting with Red Hands went ok.  No alliance but nonaggression pact mebbe

I took it in and sighed.  There were no less than three villainous groups converging on the Undersiders, and Grue had been in bad shape.

And yet it was still reassuring.  Things were, for better or worse, normal.  Much as I’d expected.

Atlas died.  I wanted to let you know.  Tattletale had him, but he wouldn’t eat or move.  We asked for him, and we found a place for him.  The guys say they think they know a good way to make a mold.  They’re covering him in brass.

A way of saying you’re still with us.  Take care of yourself.

-Char

It affected me more than I would have thought.  Not him dying – he’d never been more than an automaton, a freak of nature made to do little more than obey my commands.

But it was one more tie to the Undersiders that had broken.

The last letter was handwritten in a spidery script.

(She said to write what she said.  All of it.)

(She hasn’t said anything for a long while.  She growled at me when I started to walk away tho.  Oh here.)

I did what you said.  Is quiet.  Have tents and dogs and am hunting with dogs.  Hunting fucked up bull things.

(Bison)

Very quiet with no people.  Learning to cut them up.  (The bison not people).

People are cutting down trees to clear space around portal, but easy to stay away from them.  Simple way to live.  Nice but miss toilets.

(We all miss toilets)

Tattletale visits, brings dog food and tools, tents.

Is what I wanted for long time.  Except others, my people, but they are okay and I can take a break and ride for while if they get on my case.

Being around you wasn’t simple or quiet but things made more sense.  Your minion with dark hair said we need to be around people but I’m around people and still feel somethings missing.

Fucked up.  Makes me angry.  Tattletale tried explaining but whatever.

Going to take puppies to your place again soon.  Show the kids to them.  Might help.

You have plan, okay.  But if your plan means you’re thinking about fighting us you should know I am getting very good at hunting and skinning things.

Sucks somehow but can’t really understand why.  Maybe see you at next Endbringer fight.  We both stay alive.  Try hard.

That’s all.

(Signing off – Rachel and Rachel’s excellent minion/henchperson/letter writer)

Stay alive until we can see each other again?

Doable.

‘Try hard’?

Maybe that was the push I needed, such as it was.

I collected the mail, wedging it into a space between two of the library books on the little table in my cell.

Withdrawing a notepad, I started sketching out the designs I was thinking of.  Alterations to the costume, weapon ideas, tools and concepts.

Payloads for bugs?  Something I can drop?  Caltrops?  Something toxic?

Back to my roots, to where I’d been after my powers had manifested.  Only then, I’d been writing in a black speckled notebook.

Darker fabric?  Must talk to Glenn about costume style.  Butterflies are in, but can I complement them?  Need official word.

It was moronic to have a white costume.  Equally moronic to have butterflies.

What about containment foam?  If Dovetail can use it what does it take for me to get permission?

I’d pay homage to Atlas and push Defiant and Dragon to create something that would let me fly.  Pay homage to Skitter and settle on a middle ground in costume design, in combat effectiveness, weapons and utility.

I thought of Atlas, and added a note – jetpack?  With beetle wings?  Flight system?

I was nearly through the pad, and it was pushing four in the morning by the time I had the sketches and outlines at an acceptable point.

The costume Defiant and Dragon had given me was theirs, not mine.  The fighting style that had been dictated was Glenn’s and Chevalier’s.

This, this would be me.

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