Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus #3)

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Thursday, June 16th, 2011, 22:11

“Are you comfortable?  Is there anything I can get you?” Jessica Yamada asked.

“A… okay,” the staff employee said.  What had her name been?  Worthwhile?  No.  Worth-something.  She was elderly, and took more time than was necessary to go through the letters, “M… okay.  M, n, o, p, q, r,s t, u…”

A… M…

“Stop,”  Jessica said.  “I can guess.”

“I have to continue,” the older woman said.  “Patient’s right to communicate.  T, u, v, w, x, y… Y.  Third letter is Y.”

“We’ve been over this, Victoria,” Jessica said.  “You know that’s something I don’t have any power to give you.”

Victoria blinked three times, the signal for the alphabet.  The older woman started.  As Victoria’s right eye was the only one open, she started with the second half.  “M, n, o, p… P, okay.”

Victoria switched eyes, closing one and opening the other.  First half of the alphabet.

“A, b, c, d, e, f, g, h…”

Another blink.

“H.  Okay.”

“Phone?” Jessica interrupted, before the reading started again.

A blink.  Affirmation.

“I’ve explained you can’t phone her.  She’s gone to the birdcage-”

Jessica paused.  Her own heart rate was climbing, her breathing involuntarily quickening.  She felt a bead of sweat running down the back of her neck.  The old woman had stepped out of her chair, backing away.

“Stop that,” Jessica said, her voice firm.  She’d managed to keep her voice from trembling.

The sensation didn’t fade.

“She went to the birdcage because she wanted to,” Jessica said.  “And we let her because there were serious concerns about her unleashing an epidemic if she had another psychotic break.”

Three blinks.  To the old woman’s credit, she stuck to doing her job.  “A, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i… I, okay.”

“Victoria,” Jessica said, and she wasn’t able to hide the tremor this time, “if you want to communicate with me, I’m going to insist that you turn your power off.”

Victoria reduced the effect of her power, scaling it down to a general sensation of unease.

“Thank you.  Returning to our previous topic, Amy had to be contained somewhere.  Everyone involved agreed on that point.  There was too much danger, otherwise, with the possibility of uncontrollable, incurable plagues that could eat through plastic or metal.”

Jessica waited patiently as the staff member went down the list.  I.  D.  O.  N.  T.  C.  A.  R.  E.

I  don’t care.

“Others do care, Victoria,” Jessica Yamada informed her patient.  “Amy cared.  She knew her own limits and her own potential, for good or for ill.  It wasn’t an easy decision, for her or for the authorities, but that decision was made with everyone’s best interests at heart.”

Again, the letters.

N.  O.  T.  M.  I.  N.  E.

Not mineNot in my best interests.

“She didn’t feel that she could fix you, or that it was right to use her power on you again.”

Two blinks.  Negation.

“You… that’s not what you meant?”

Blink.  Agreement.  Three blinks to signal for the board.

A.  L.  O.  N.  E.

“Not entirely, Victoria,” Jessica said, her voice gentle.  “There are others who care about you.”

No blinks, now.  Long seconds passed.

“Back to my original question.  Is there anything we can do to make you more comfortable?”

B.  A.  T.  H.

“Excellent,” Jessica said.  “We’ll see what we can do.  Anything else?”

Two blinks.  No.

“I’ll be seeing you for a longer appointment next Tuesday, then,” she said.  “Tell any of the staff if you would like to get in touch with me before then.  I’m on-call, twenty-four-seven.”

One blink.

Jessica exited the room.  The door sealed shut as it closed behind her.

“Well?” the head nurse asked.

“Some headway,” Jessica said.  She took off her suit jacket and folded it over the nearest chair.  Her back was drenched with sweat, shoulder-blade to belt.  “Hard to endure.”

“She’s upset.  Understandably.”

“I know.  But I’ll take her on as a patient, and hopefully we can get her in a better head space.  Thank you again, for letting me overstep my duties.  It helps me to open a dialogue if I can offer her something she wants or needs.”

“You can’t offer her what she really wants.”

“But a bath is a good starting point.  Is it doable?”

“Yes.  We’re well equipped for disabled patients.  We’ll lower her in with hoists.”

“She won’t break?  Or tear?”

“No.  She’s far more durable than she appears.  For better or for worse, she retains her invincibility.”

“I see.”

“Who’s the next patient on your caseload?”

“Sveta.”

“Garotte.  I know you’ve heard the instructions about the protective safeguards a thousand times-”

Jessica sighed.

“-But I have to go over them anyways.  There are regulations, Jessica, as you well know.  You’ll be wearing a type-C reinforced protective suit.  The suits include both an inner and outer layer, the inner layer-”

“Has a button in the palm.  I can withdraw my fingers from the outer glove and press the button.  At random intervals, you’ll buzz me surreptitiously…”

“And we expect you to press the button to verify that you’re okay.  You can press it twice in the event of an emergency.”

“The damn thing has malfunctioned and interrupted three of my last seven sessions with her.”

“It’s what we have for the time being.  If you don’t verify your own safety or if you signal an emergency, we’ll employ containment foam through the sprinkler system.”

“And I’ll be stuck here for another hour, with another four pages of paperwork after the fact.”

“Is she your last patient for the day?”

“No.  I’m scheduled to see Nicholas after.”

“Sadboy.”

Jessica didn’t correct the head nurse.  She hated using the codenames; it reinforced the idea of the patients being less than human.  “Yes.  I’ll see him, then I’m done for the day.  I’m on rotation with the PRT for Friday-Saturday, then I have Sunday all to myself.”

“Any plans?” the head nurse asked.

“I’ve learned not to make any.  There’s always a crisis of some sort.”

They’d reached the changing room, and Jessica pulled on the protective inner-suit.  The suit fit close to her body, smelled faintly of someone else’s sweat, and consisted of a stretching mesh covered in fine chain link.  The entire thing was reinforced by a grid of metal bars, complete with oiled hinges at each joint, so she had a near-full range of motion.  Zipping it up, it went straight up her neck, the bars running vertically down her throat.  She couldn’t look down without getting jabbed in the soft flesh beneath her jaw.

It made it harder to get the outer suit on.  The entire thing was one piece, like footie-pyjamas, and the fabric was heavy, with alternating layers of insulated fabric and more chain mesh.

She liked to go into situations armed with knowledge.  When she’d been new to the job, fearing her first week of work at the asylum, she’d researched all of the protective measures, even running down the patents that were public access to see what they entailed.

Odd as it might have sounded, she’d stopped doing that as of late.  It wasn’t due to a growing confidence.  Just the opposite.  Now that she had a better grasp of what her patients were capable of, it was easier to hope the people designing the safeguards were doing everything they needed to.  It was better than researching it and knowing they weren’t.

The heavy fabric exterior suit fit her like hazardous materials gear, bulky, broad, leaving a great deal of empty space between her body and the fabric.  Protective airbags of more reinforced cloth inflated to fill that space.

She stepped into the dock, and the door behind her shut.  The next door opened.

The room was empty.  The wall had a mural painted on it, ocean waves and beautiful architecture that Jessica couldn’t place as belonging to any particular era or culture.  There was a short, translucent table littered with painting and drawing supplies, and what looked like a cat’s tiered scratching post, extending floor to ceiling, securely bolted to both.  Mirrors were fixed to the wall, to show that the room’s resident wasn’t hiding behind it.

“Come on out, Sveta,” she said.  She clenched her teeth and braced herself for the ambush.

Sveta had been waiting above the door.  Tendrils snaked around the neck of the protective suit, and cinched tight in a moment.

Even with her full knowledge of the suit’s protective qualities, Jessica felt her heartbeat quicken.

Deep breath.

Her breath caught in her chest as she heard the faintest, almost inaudible sound of metal creaking.

More tendrils had caught her legs and arms, and even lashed across the room to catch the only points available to hold, the two-inch diameter bolts that held the scratching post ‘bed’ to the ground.

“So sorry,” Sveta whispered.  “Sorry.”

Jessica felt her arm jolt as one set of tendrils lashed up the length of her right arm to catch her gloved fingers.  Each finger was pulled in a different direction, but the metal reinforcement in the outer glove held, and her hand wasn’t crumpled like tissue paper.

“Relaxation exercises, Sveta.  Don’t try to fight the instincts all at once, don’t worry about me…”

Sveta convulsed, contorted, and every part of her drew tighter.  Jessica heard something metal give way, felt a small component tap her shoulder, bouncing around the interior of the outer suit before settling in her boot.

Calm.  Sound calm.  “…Just focus on your extremities.  Flex them, release them, repeat.”

Another contortion.  Jessica forced herself to take a deep breath, simultaneously cursing whoever had let this defective equipment go back in the changing room.

“I’m so sorry,” Sveta said.  “I’m trying, but it’s making it worse.”

“Take your time,”  she replied, defying every instinct that was telling her to get out of this dangerous situation: to press the button, fight or panic.  Like Sveta’s, her instincts weren’t serving her best interests here.  Unlike Sveta, she could fight them.

Sveta contorted, and an airbag gave way in the suit’s midsection.

“Oh!” Sveta said.  She’d noticed, and the realization coincided with further constriction.  “Oh, I’m sorry, Mrs. Yamada!  No, no!”

“It’s fine,” Jessica lied.  Too many things were going wrong with the suit, all at once.  Why?  There had to have been an altercation between another staff member and a violent patient.  The only reason this many safeguards would be giving way would be if the suit had sustained recent damage.

Except it had gone unreported, and the suit had gone back on the shelf.

“Should have- we should have done this through the glass,” Sveta moaned.  “I’m sorry.  I like you.  I don’t want you to die.”

“We’re striving to socialize you, right?  That’s our goal?  We can’t do that without regular human contact.”

“I’m going to kill you.  I don’t want to but I’m going to.  I’ll-”

“Hush,” Jessica said, sounding far, far calmer than she felt.  “Take-”

She nearly said take a deep breath.  She corrected herself.  “-a few seconds and keep doing your relaxation exercises.  Flex your extremities, relax them.  Flex, relax, steadily work your way up, inch by inch.  Look at me.  I’m not worried.  I’m in this suit.  I feel safe.  Okay?”

“O-okay.”

“I want you to think of all the progress we’ve made since the start of the year.”

“But something popped in the suit just now.”

“We wear the same suits for multiple patients.  That was a safeguard to protect any patients that might collide with us.  It’s not meant for you.  Don’t worry.”

Jessica hated lying to her patients.

“It’s not- it’s okay?”

“It’s okay,” Jessica soothed.  “You remember our goal, right?”

“Christmas?”

“I think you’re well on your way to your goal.  That’s what you think of when you’re trying to be positive, right?  You can celebrate Christmas with a few other patients, people who you can’t hurt.  I just met one of them, I think.  A new patient of mine.  She’s someone who could use some friends.”

Like a dozen frog’s tongues, tendrils snapped across the length of the room to the ‘bed’, encircling it. In another second, as though each tendril were elastic bands stretched to their limits, Sveta had shifted there, her tendrils gripping the post as she hung from it.  Jessica was free.

Sveta was little more than a very pale face with thin tendrils streaming around it like hair.  Small organs dangled from the largest of the tendrils that extended from the back of her face.  A small symbol marked the girl’s cheekbone: a stylized ‘c’, in black.

It took Sveta a second before she relaxed enough to let the tendrils uncoil from the post.  The tendrils settled in the air, in a rough facsimile of where a person’s limbs might be.  She’d positioned herself so that the organs could rest on the ‘shelves’ on the post.

“I’m sorry,” Sveta said, eyes downcast.

“I’m fine.  I understand,” Jessica soothed.  She shifted position, and one tendril snapped out to catch her leg, gripping her around the knee, squeezing and twisting with a strength that could have torn every ligament in her knee and wrenched Jessica’s calf from her upper leg.  Sveta flinched, closed her eyes for a second, and the tendril moved back to the post.  The suit had held.  No damage done.

“Can… can you tell me about her?  The girl you just saw?”

“I can’t talk to you about my patients, just like I couldn’t tell them about you.”

Sveta clutched the pole harder.  “I understand.  Was she… was she a bad guy?  Like me?”

“Do you think you were a ‘bad guy’?”

“I killed people.  Yes.”

“It wasn’t you.  It was your power.”

“I still killed people.”

“I think that’s a good topic for today’s session.  But there’s a few things I want to cover first, before we get into the meat of it, so let’s put a pin in that topic for now.”

“Okay.”

“She was a superhero, I can say that much without betraying any confidence.”  And you’ll hear it from the staff sooner or later.  Better to hear it from me.  “There may be wiggle room.  Maybe I could convince one of the hospital staff to stop by, and she could tell you a bit about the new patient through the intercom?  If the patient gives consent?”

Sveta’s eyes lit up.  “Yes please.”

“I can’t make any promises.”

“I understand.”

“Now, have you been keeping that journal?”

Sveta snatched a notebook off of the small table with the art supplies, reaching out and bringing it to her faster than the eye could follow.  She passed it to Jessica with just as much speed and force.  Even with the air bags filling the void in the protective suit and offering a cushioning effect, Jessica had to take a step back to catch her balance.

“May I?”

Sveta nodded, bobbing the mask with the mass of tendrils behind it.

The bed-post contorted into an ‘s’ shape as the girl twined around it.  It indicated some kind of negative emotion.  Jessica paged through the recent entries.  The letters of the words were exaggerated, and they got more so as the writer got agitated.  Worries, daydreams about being human, the vividness of her imagination when she pictured places like she’d drawn in the mural, her day-long spell of depression after waking up from a dream where she’d been human, in bed with a boy…

Jessica closed the book.  None of this was so unusual, capable of explaining the sudden anxiety she saw now.  “Can I ask what’s bothering you?”

“I… why aren’t you scared of me?”

“Because I have no reason to be,” Jessica lied, meeting the girl’s eyes.

The truth is that it’s because I’ve spent more time in the company of monsters than Legend, she thought.  Trust me, honey, you aren’t the scariest I’ve run into, not by half.

Friday, June 17th, 2011, 10:15

“You’re not the person that was here last week,” the redheaded boy said, shutting the door behind him.

“We rotate.  The PRT doesn’t want any therapist developing a bond to the point that they could manipulate a cape.  By rotating through three or four for a given area, they can ensure that one therapist will be able to identify manipulations on the part of any of the others.”

“Doesn’t that kind of defeat the point?  Not letting us develop a bond, no trust?”

Yes, Jessica thought, but she said, “It’s not my place to say.  Is that what you’re hoping to get, here?  A one-on-one relationship?  A bond of trust?”

“And now it begins,” he said.  “Answering questions with questions.”

“An unfortunate fact of the job.  Would you like to sit?”

The boy let himself sink into the chair.

“What should I call you?” Jessica asked.  “I prefer to use real names wherever possible, but I understand if you’d prefer the confidentiality of a codename.”

“Clockblocker.  Dennis.  Whatever.  You get crucified, drawn and quartered if you betray our secret identities, right?”

“Nothing that graphic, but the penalties are severe, and they include extensive jail time, and forfeiting the credentials it took me eight years to get.  You strike me as someone who’s paying a great deal of attention to the workings of the system.  Where people are, how they’re operating.”

“I have to, don’t I?  You ignore that stuff, you get fucked,” Dennis said.

“That’s the second time in two minutes you’ve brought up consequences.  Is that something that concerns you?  Consequences?”

“In the last three months, my dad’s leukemia came back, Leviathan destroyed a third of my hometown, the Endbringer killed my best friend and teammate, and another of my teammates, the Undersiders abducted one of my teammates-”

“Shadow Stalker.”

“Yeah.”

“I talked to her after that incident.  Anyways, I’m sorry to interrupt.  I’m trying to frame it all in my head.”

“They left her so fucked up she went and broke her parole.  Um.  It’s all been unravelling.  People I care about and rely on are getting knocked around, screwed over by dumb luck or because they let their guard down.  Aegis, Gallant, Amy and Victoria, Battery, Shadow Stalker…”

“Did you care about Shadow Stalker?”

“She was a teammate.”

“I know.  But the way your thoughts seemed to connect there, it sounded like something more.”

Dennis shrugged.  “It makes me sound like a sleazebag if I say it, but I can get away with that here, right?”

She let herself smile a little, “Yes.”

“She was hot, and when you spend four or five hours a day with the same people, and you’re a guy, and the one girl in the group that’s around your age is that good-looking, maybe you look forward to seeing her.”

“That doesn’t make you sound like a sleazebag.  It makes it sound like a perfectly normal teenager with a mild crush.”

“Maybe?  Not really; I couldn’t stand her as a person.  It still sucked balls, hearing what I did about her going to juvie, on top of everything else.”

“Did you see yourself in her shoes, at all?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re very mindful of consequences and the dangers you’re facing.  Are you afraid you’ll suffer a similar fate?”

“I dunno.  No.  If I’m worried about anything like that, it’s that there’s a worse fate waiting out there for me.”

“A worse fate?”

“With all the stuff the capes bring to the table, there’s a hundred bad endings that are possible that wouldn’t have been possible thirty years ago.  You hear about what happened to Victoria and Amy Dallon?”

Victoria.  The vivid mental picture disconcerted her briefly.  “Um.  Yes I have.”

“Case in point,” Dennis shrugged.  “And there’s all the stuff that went down with the Slaughterhouse Nine, too.”

“Scary business.”

Dennis shrugged.

“Are you sleeping well?”

“Way I’ve been working, sleep isn’t a problem.  Head hits the pillow, I’m out.”

“And the stress of all of this, it’s not affecting your diet?”

“No.  I mean, my diet’s not great, but that’s just trying to work around shift schedules and crap, you know?”

“I know,” Jessica smiled.  “Work makes it hard on me too.  I was going to walk you through some coping methods for anxiety, but it seems like you’re getting by.”

“Too busy to think, really.  I prefer it that way.  I don’t know if anxiety’s the right word.”

“No?  What word would you choose?”

He paused.  “I dunno.”

“Take your time.  It’s not a big deal if you can’t come up with one.”

“It’s… I feel like there’s probably a word, in another language, but English doesn’t have it.  Not despair, but… that feeling you get when you’re losing?”

“You feel as though you’re losing?”

Dennis nodded, leaned back in the leather seat.  “We’re fighting a war.  The consequences don’t seem to hit the bad guys as hard.  We fight Leviathan, and people act like we won, because the casualty rates were lower than they’ve been in nine years.  Slaughterhouse Nine come, and again, there’s a lot of people who act like it was a victory because only half of them made it out of the city.  Nobody but me seems to notice that, hey, those guys still lived.  They escaped.”

“Maybe they share the same thoughts you do, but they don’t want to face that reality because it scares them.”

“Maybe.”

There was a long pause.

“Looking at the general notes from your last appointment, you gave the a-okay for him to mention that you were working on some coping mechanisms for your anger?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to keep working on that, or do you feel like it’s more under control?”

“It’s pretty much under control.  I was… my dad was dying, then.  Amy healed him.”

“I see.”

“I… I regret this.”

“Regret what?”

“Joining the Wards.  The rules, the bureaucracy.  It’s… fuck, I mean, I appreciate having the resources.  Guys to make the costume, even this.”

“Talking to me?”

“Sure.  Make sure my head’s screwed on right.  But at the same time, being stuck in a classroom after Leviathan attacks, because the rules say I have to be in school a certain number of hours a day?  It’s fucked.  I wonder if the villains are winning because they don’t have to worry about that stuff.”

“Could be.”

“I don’t get it.  I almost think I could be okay with things if I understood them.  Why the fuck do they get away with this shit?”

“I can’t give you the answers you want, and I’m afraid that answers to questions of that magnitude aren’t going to appear nearly as fast as we want them to.”

“I know.”

“But you’re very observant, Dennis.  I’ve already said as much.  I find that we often find what we’re looking for the moment we stop actively searching for them.  Perhaps spend less time looking for the answer, and keep an eye out for opportunities to learn the answer.”

“Psychobabble,” he said, smiling a little.

“Sorry,” she said, returning the smile with one of her own.

Friday, June 17th, 2011, 13:01

“Jessica?” Weld asked, peeking his head in the door.

“Come in,” she said.  “It’s good to see you, Weld.  It’s been a little while.”

Weld closed the door and settled in the reinforced chair she’d brought into her office in anticipation of the appointment.

“Have you picked a name?” she asked.

He chuckled lightly.  “I’m Weld.  That’s it for now.”

She nodded.  Studied him, at ease in his chair, hands folded across his stomach.

“So.  A lot’s happened,” she said.

“Endbringer, Slaughterhouse Nine.  Losing control of the city.  Did you come from out of town?”

“Yes.”

“Was it on the news?  What’s been going on here?”

“It has been.  I try to catch the eleven o’clock news, and it seems there’s a new story every night, detailing recent events in Brockton Bay.”

“What kind of picture does it paint?”

“Of?”

“Of the city.  Of us?  The villains?”

“Things look worse than they are, if you go by what’s on television.  It paints a positive picture of the local heroes, I have to say.  Not entirely undeserved, if you ask me.”

“Thanks for saying so,” Weld said.

“You don’t sound convinced.”

“I’m not.  It’s only been five days since the Slaughterhouse Nine fled.  Smoke’s clearing, and I’m not liking where we’re at.”

“Where are you at?”

“Villains who took territory before everything went to hell are still holding the territory after.  Us?  We’re not in good shape.  We lost Battery.”

“I heard.  I’m sorry.”

“We got hit harder, and while they’re picking up the pieces, nobody’s jumping to help us.”

“No?”

“Flechette’s going back to New York before too long.  Nobody’s replacing her, or any of the ones who died.  Maybe they think we’re cursed, or maybe it’s career suicide to try to help a city that can’t be helped.”

“Does that matter to you?  Career?”

“Some.  There was mention of me maybe climbing the ranks.  I’m marketable, but I’m a freak, too.”

She thought of Sveta.  “It sounds like you’re being unfairly harsh on yourself.”

“It’s how it was explained to me.”

“I see.  That’s unfortunate, that a colleague would make you out to be a freak.”

“Water off my back.  Honest.  It doesn’t bother me.”

“Is there anything-“

She stopped as his phone rang.

“Sorry,” he looked genuinely guilty as he reached for the phone, “Way things are-“

“I totally understand.  Please, go ahead.”

He answered.  “Weld here… yes.  Skitter?  With Parian.  I understand.  No, I get it.  We’ll see if we can track her.”

He was already out of her seat.  “If it’s okay-“

“Go.  You have a team to lead.”

“Flechette said the local villains in power just made a move on a Rogue friend of hers.  I’ll… could I wrangle a longer session next week?”

“That could be arranged.  Go,” she said.

He was at the door when she called after him, “and Weld, I want you to pick a proper name!”

Friday, June 17th, 2011, 18:01

“Fuck them!  Fuck her!”

“Lily-“

“Fuck!  Fuck!”  Lily paced.

“Lily, please, could you sit?”  Jessica asked.

Lily stopped, resting her hands on the back of the armchair.

“It’s clear something happened,” Jessica said.  “You ask me to come, and that’s totally, one hundred percent okay, but I can’t do anything to help until you explain what happened.”

“They got her.”

Jessica felt her heart sink.  “Who?”

“Parian.  Skitter got to her.”

“The Rogue your teammate mentioned.  Was she hurt, or killed, or-“

“Turned.”

“Turned?”

“She changed sides.  Ran into Skitter, with Ballistic wreaking havoc in the background.  Knew something was up.  Tattletale fucking with our heads or something.  Then Skitter goes into this good cop bad cop routine, but she’s using Ballistic as the bad cop, the idea that if we don’t go along with her plan, he’ll try to kill us.  Makes Parian an offer she can’t refuse.”

“Power?  Money?”

“Money.  Two hundred thousand dollars, so that Parian’s friends and family who were mutilated by the Slaughterhouse Nine could pay for surgery.  So Parian could go to school.”

“A lot of money.”

“And she asks Parian to leave.  And it’s… it rips my heart out, because she’s my one good friend here.  Because she’s more, I… I can’t remember if I’ve talked to you about it.  You PRT therapists all sort of blend into each other.”

“We’ve talked about it.  You had feelings for her.”

Lily folded her arms on the back of the chair, rested her forehead against her wrists.

“Did you tell her about those feelings?”

“No.  No I didn’t.  I was thinking about it, but now I can’t ever, because if it pushes her away, she’ll be totally, completely beyond my reach.  Completely on their side.”

“Do you think she reciprocated?”

“I don’t know.  Sometimes, I thought yes.  Other times, I thought yes, but not nearly as much as I had feelings for her.  And there were other times I thought definitely no.  But I couldn’t ask because by the time I got up the courage, the Slaughterhouse Nine had murdered most of her family and her friends, and the ones who weren’t dead were… altered.  Fuck, my feelings weren’t even on the third page of the list of priorities there.  It was about taking care of her, helping her.  It’s what you do for friends.”

“It is.  It sounds like she was lucky to have you.”

“And then Skitter waltzes in and… it’s like, she slithers right past your defenses.”

“How’s that?”

“I can’t even put it into words.  You run into her, and you can’t even look straight at her without feeling your skin crawl.  Like when someone’s got something wrong with their eye and your own eye starts watering… only with her it’s because of the bugs.”

“Okay.”

“And then she talks, and she sounds so idealistic, and naive.  I don’t know how you sound idealistic and naive with a swarm of cockroaches and bees crawling over your face, but she does.  And so you let your guard down.  And then she starts making sense.  And that was the point where Sab- where Parian started lapping it up.”

“Did she make sense to you?”  Jessica asked.

“I had a feeling about what was happening, said as much.  Now, I don’t know.  There’s only two good answers for it.”

Lily walked over to the door and picked up the satchel she’d brought into the office.  She returned to the chair and sat, plopping the satchel down on the coffee table.

“What is it?” Jessica asked.

“The thing that lets me know which of the two it was.”

“And what are those two answers?”

“Either my gut was right, and Skitter was just feeding us info that Tattletale prepared, just to fuck with us… or Skitter was right.”

“And this satchel contains the answer?”

“It does.”

“May I?” Jessica leaned forward.

“No.”

Jessica stopped.

“I can say no, right?  You don’t have the right to search my things.”

“You can,” Jessica said, leaning back.  “And I won’t touch it.  What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Lily said.  Her eyes were damp.  “Doesn’t matter.  Doesn’t change what happened with Parian.  Won’t change the choice she made.”

A tear fell free, and Lily wiped it away with her sleeve.

“Fuck, so stupid.  I go up against Leviathan, go up against the Slaughterhouse Nine, and this is what fucks with my head?  This is the moment I want nothing more than to go home, to go home and just crawl under the covers?”

“You could.”

“Can’t.  I… It’d mean I couldn’t do the costume thing again.  Not the same way.  Gotta tough it out.”

Lily didn’t look tough, Jessica observed  She looked like a heartbroken, homesick teenager.

She couldn’t say that, though.

Jessica stood from her chair and approached the girl.  When Lily realized what Jessica was doing, she gratefully accepted the offer of a shoulder to cry on.

Lily’s cell phone rang.  She pulled away, breaking the hug, but she didn’t answer the phone.  “Never fucking ends.  Didn’t think it would be like this.”

“Are you going to answer?”  Jessica asked.

“Can’t.  Not like this.”

“May I?  I’m not sure if it’s against the rules, but-“

“Yes.  Please.  But-” Lily paused, and the cell phone rang again before she spoke, “Don’t mention I was there?  With Parian?  I wasn’t supposed to be.”

Jessica nodded and answered.  “Mrs. Yamada answering for Flechette.”

Miss Militia here.  Could you please inform Flechette that Triumph has been hospitalized?  Anaphylactic shock.”

“Which hospital?”

“Oh god,” Lily said, eyes going wide.

The one attached to the PRT headquarters.  Flechette knows where.

“We’re in the building,” Jessica said.  “I understand if you’re busy, but could you contact me in my office, when you have a free moment?”

I will.

Jessica hung up and returned the cell phone.  “The hospital in this building.  It’s Triumph.”

Lily stood, pocketing the phone.  “What happened?”

“Anaphylactic shock,” Jessica answered.

“Skitter.”

Jessica didn’t answer.

Lily wiped the tears from her face.  She drew in a deep breath, then let it out slowly.  Her expression hardened, her shoulders squaring.  There wasn’t a trace of the emotion she’d shown just moments before.  “Do I look okay?  Presentable?”

Jessica nodded.

“Thank you.”  Lily was already moving, snatching the satchel from the table, striding for the door.  It slammed shut behind her.

Jessica sat in her chair and tried not to dwell on just why it bothered her that Lily had been able to switch personas so easily.  Did the career demand it?  Why couldn’t a teenager just be allowed to be vulnerable, at a time they felt vulnerable?

The phone rang five minutes later.

“It’s Miss Militia.  You wanted me to contact you?”

“Yes.  I just… I’ve seen half your Wards today.  They aren’t doing well.”

“I know,” Miss Militia said.

“They’re losing faith.”

“I know.”

Saturday, June 18th, 9:01

There was a knock on the door.

“Come in?”

“Hi.  I’m Kid Win,” the boy said.  He wasn’t in his suit, though.  He looked like he’d just come from the shower, and his brown hair was still damp.  He extended a hand and Jessica shook it.  “Clockblocker said we had a different therapist this week.”

“Protocols.  Can I ask how Triumph’s doing?”

“He’s okay.  Recovered.  Assault and some of the others are more upset over it.  We’re calling in the big guns.”

“That must be a relief.  To have others pick up the slack.  To deferring some responsibility, after having a heavy burden on your shoulders for some time.”

Kid Win shrugged.  “Dunno.  I am excited to see Dragon’s stuff.”

“I can imagine.”

A silence stretched on.  Jessica tried to get a grasp on this boy, reconcile him with the one filled with self-doubt that she’d read about in Mr. Camden’s files.

“Um.  I still don’t really get what we’re supposed to do here,” Kid Win said.

“We talk.  It’s safe territory.  A place where you can vent about your issues.”

“I kind of prefer to work through problems on my own.”

“It’s very common for tinkers to be introverts.  But sometimes we all need a person to bounce ideas off of.  Non-tinker ideas.  Sorry, it’s a rule I have.”

Kid Win smiled sheepishly, “I kind of subjected Mr. Kiles to a rant about types of modular equipment, a few days ago.  I think he needed therapy by the time I was done.”

“Do you have any ideas you want to bounce off me?  It’s been a rough month.”

Kid Win shook his head.

“Nothing?”

“I don’t know if this is me.”

“If what’s you?”

“Needing to bounce ideas off people.  Needing therapy.  All my problems so far, they’ve stemmed from me trying to fit myself into everyone else’s mold.  It’s only when I broke away from that, started thinking on my own, that things started to make sense, all the pieces of the machine working in unison.”

“Given your tinker background, I’m not sure I can tell: is that a metaphor, or a literal machine?”

“Metaphor.”

“Okay.  Your life didn’t start making sense until you stopped worrying about what others think.  But I’m not being judgmental, and I don’t intend to change your mind about anything.  I don’t want to make you conform.”

“I’m… I still don’t think I want the therapy,” Kid Win said.  “Can I opt out?”

“I’m afraid not.  Why don’t you want it?”

“I’m more comfortable going the other route.  I’d rather walk my own path and be a little screwed up, than walk everyone else’s path.  I’m okay with thinking in a way that’s outside of the norm.  I’ve been happier since I started down that road.”

“How does that impact your duties with the Wards?”

“It doesn’t.  I mean, I stick to the rules,” Kid Win said, with a measure of confidence.  “Funny, how it’s easier to do that when I’m being more unconventional.”

“I’m still not sure I understand.  Can you give me an example of what you mean by unconventional?”

“It’s like… if I did this therapy thing, and I mentioned how I’m not bummed and pissed off about what’s going on with the villains and all that, if I talked about how I’m actually happier now, when everyone else is miserable and stressed, I feel like you’d talk me out of it.”

“I don’t want to do anything like that.”

“If you ask me a question,” he asked, “Do I have to answer?”

“You wouldn’t get in trouble, no.  Is there a particular question you don’t want to answer?”

“It’s not that.  I… I guess I’m saying I’m done here.”  He reached into his pocket and withdrew a pair of headphones.  “No offense.  But I feel like having thirty minutes to kick back and take some notes on stuff is going to be a hell of a lot better for my mental health than talking.  No offense.”

She was offended, but she didn’t say so.

Saturday, June 18th, 11:06

“Um?  Hi?”

“Please come in.  Would you rather me call you Vista or Missy?”

“Vista.”

“Vista it is.  Nice to meet you.”

Vista sat down in the armchair.  It took her a second to get comfortable.  Her feet didn’t touch the ground if she sat all the way back, and she was forced to sit awkwardly upright if she couldn’t lean against the chair back.

“I heard they called in the big guns.”

“Dragon.”

“Pretty big as guns go,” Jessica said.

“Are you doing that on purpose?”

“What?”

“Talking down to me.”

“No.  I didn’t think I was talking down to you.”

“It sounded condescending.”

Jessica took a deep breath.  “What can I do for you, Vista?  Is there anything you want to share?”

“Have you been here?”

The non-sequitur caught Jessica off guard.  “I’m not sure I follow.”

“Have you been in Brockton Bay since this all started?”

“No.  I travel for work, and stay in hotels.  On the weekends, or when I’m not working, I stay in Boston.”

“How are you supposed to help when you don’t understand?”

The question might have sounded accusatory, but it rang as more curious instead.

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I’ve been trying to help the others, and a lot of the time I can’t.  So how can you do it, when you don’t even know?  When you have no idea what we’re talking about?”

“I went to school for a long time.”

“Does that teach you how to talk to someone when their mentor’s just been attacked?”

“Are you talking about Triumph?”

“Is it why you ask a lot of questions?  Because you don’t know?”

“I ask questions,” Jessica said, “Because only you can give your perspective on things.  I know a lot of what’s happened.  Some from research, some from your colleagues.  But the only opinion and viewpoint that matters to me when you’re in that chair is yours.”

“Hmph,” Vista huffed..

“Where do you stand?” Jessica asked.  “What’s your view on things?  Summing it all up?”

“Sucks,” Vista said.

“I can believe it.”

“When I go on patrol, I can’t go alone, not until I’m fourteen.  So I spend the most time with everyone.  I hear what they say, and we talk about everything.”

“If there are doctors and field medics, maybe you’re the equivalent of a field therapist?” Jessica suggested.

Vista wasn’t amused in the slightest.  “Don’t be condescending.”

“I’m talking the same way I would with anyone else.  I promise.”

There was a pause.  Jessica sat quietly, letting it stretch on.  In a pinch, a resounding silence could prompt a patient to open up.

Vista finally said, “Weld said I’m the team’s heart.”

“I can imagine him saying it.”

Vista gave her a dirty look.  “I couldn’t help Shadow Stalker, but Weld said she was beyond helping.”

Jessica nodded.

“…But I think I got through to Clockblocker.  For a while I thought he’d fly off the handle at Weld.”

Jessica almost replied, but kept her mouth shut.

“I feel like there’s two ideas and they’re playing tug of war with my head,” Vista confessed.  She gave Jessica a look, as though she were daring her to say something.  “Yeah.  One part of me, it’s like… I want us all to stay together.  Aegis died.  Gallant died.  Battery died.  Velocity died.  Dauntless died.  Browbeat died, Armsmaster retired and Shadow Stalker went to jail.  And now even after it’s all over, Triumph gets hurt?”

“I think I’d feel pretty spooked, after all that,” Jessica said.  “It’s a lot of people to be losing, in the space of a month.”

“I just… I want to do what I can to keep us together.  Keep people fighting.  But..”

“But what?”

“The other part of me?  The colder part that’s being very logical, very rational?  It says that won’t happen.  We won’t stay together.  Can’t.  One by one, horrible things will happen to us.  My friends will die, and if they’re lucky, they’ll die fighting. And I’m somehow okay with it.  What does it really matter when the world’s supposed to end in two years?”

“I… I’ve heard about that.  It’s pretty strictly limited to the PRT, though, and there hasn’t been any strict confirmation.”

“We don’t have very good precogs,” Vista said.  “Not ones that can see that far ahead and still make sense of it all.”

“Does it… are you bothered?  Looking at things that way?  Thinking that your friends will die violently?  That the world will end?”

“No.  I’m… very okay with it, when I think about it clinically.  It’s the way things are, isn’t it?  The way the world works.”

“I don’t think so,” Jessica confessed.

“That part of me, that feels like that?  It’s telling me I’m going to die.  It’s inevitable, it’s soon, and it’ll be horrible,” Vista said.  “Therapy that.”

Was she serious, or was it a challenge?

“Okay,” Jessica said, somber  “I’ll try.”

“Just like that?”  Vista’s eyes widened a little.

“Just like that.  Believe it or not, I’ve handled worse things than a young woman torn between fatalism and wanting to help her friends stick together.  I can’t tell you anything about your teammates, but I can arm you with some tools, so your field-therapy is more effective.  If that part of you is better equipped, maybe it’ll get a bit of an edge in that tug of war that’s going on inside your head.  Sound good?”

Vista nodded.

Sunday, June 19th, 17:39

Jessica fumbled to find the ringing phone.  She had to move the pizza box and the bag of chips to reach it, reclined back on her bed the second she hit the call button, muting the television.  The pants she’d put on only for long enough to answer the door and pay the delivery guy slipped to the floor.

“Yeah,” she said, suppressing a sigh. “No, I’m not busy.  Isn’t he Richmond’s patient, though?  He’s away?  Fuck me.  Okay.  I’ll be there in an hour.”

Monday, June 20th, 12:50

Jessica paced back and forth in her office.

Somehow, when she’d left after seeing the Wards on Saturday morning, she’d let herself believe that things were largely resolved.  Dragon had been en route.  Not just one suit, either.

When she’d heard, on Sunday, that the suits had left the city, unsuccessful in their mission, she’d allowed herself to believe that things, at least, hadn’t gotten worse.

She’d seen Clockblocker in the morning.  There had been a shift conflict with Weld having to watch Vista on her shift, and he’d rescheduled for the afternoon.

Now this.  She’d never felt more useless.  The Wards had intervened to stop a mad villain from attacking the local debate, and it had all gone tragically wrong.  They hadn’t finished tallying the dead.

The Wards were okay, at least.  Physically.

Nobody came to her office all day.  Too much to be done.

Waiting nervously, restless in her inability to offer any assistance at all in a crisis like this, she headed up to the roof and bummed a cigarette from one of the interns, smoking for the first time since grad school.

Tuesday, June 21st, 6:10

Jessica sat on the edge of the roof, legs dangling.  She was on her fifth cigarette.

“Mrs. Yamada?”

The voice startled her, because it didn’t sound quite human.  She turned around.

Oh.  Wow.

Eidolon.

“Could I ask for a few moments of your time?” he asked.

“I… yes.  I should warn you I predominantly work with juveniles.”

“I know.  I’m not looking for therapy.”

“Oh.”

He didn’t say anything as he crossed the rooftop.  Somewhere downstairs, the local heroes were gathering.  The Undersiders were present as well.  Another threat.  Flechette had been right.  It didn’t end.

She felt a pang of sympathy for her Wards.  Vista had asked her how she could dispense advice, when she hadn’t experienced it for herself.  The response that Jessica had been unable to frame was just this.  That if she did, if she found herself under that same pressure, she wouldn’t have the objectivity.  Besides, if she was unbalanced, how could she hope to offer any aid to another person?

It was a bittersweet thing that nobody had asked her to.  She wanted to help, but she was glad she didn’t have to, because she wasn’t sure of her own emotions, now.

Except Eidolon was asking.  One of the most powerful men in the world.

He sat down beside her.  He pulled his hood back, letting it fall around his shoulders, then undid the clasp for his mask. He set the glowing mask down on the edge of the roof, beside her cell phone and cigarettes.

He looked so average.  Heavy cheeks, thinning hair, a big nose, thick brows.  More ugly than attractive, but not so much that he’d draw attention walking down the street.

And still, she felt like it was hard to breathe, as though his very presence sucked the air away.  She felt like she might if someone had a gun to her head, with no intention of pulling the trigger.  It was there, devastating power that could end her existence in a heartbeat.  The fact that he didn’t plan to use it didn’t matter.

This, Sveta, she thought, is why I can be around you and be so calm.  Because I’ve been around monsters like this.

“I wanted to talk to you,” Eidolon said, sounding very normal, “because there are few I can trust to listen.  I might have found a priest, but it’s late, and there are so few good ones out there.  I’ve used psychometry to view the past few days of your life.  You’ll do what I need you to do.”

How am I supposed to respond to that?  “I… okay.”

“I’m losing my powers.  Slowly but surely.  If this goes much further, mankind may lose this war.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Against the Endbringers, there are really only two individuals who can stop them, drive them away.  Scion is one.  I’m another.  Each of us is worth a hundred other capes, if not more.  I’m not boasting when I say this.  But my powers are getting weaker every day, little by little.  Whatever vast, improbably deep well parahumans tap into to use abilities, I suspect mine is running dry.”

“And only Scion will be able to stop them, after you’ve lost your powers?  I’m sorry.  I’m thinking slowly tonight.  Been awake for a long time.”

“It’s fine.  You’re exactly right.  They really only need two or three critical victories, and it all ends.  And they will win more without me there.”

Jessica nodded.  I can’t process all this right now.

“When I fight, Mrs. Yamada, I feel as though my lost power is somehow within reach.  Reserves I have not yet touched, maybe.  Or a fresh well.  It is something, but it is there.  The problem is that I rarely get to truly fight.  Do you understand?”

“Yes.  I think so.”

“I hope that tonight is one of those moments.  I hope to fight, to fight seriously.  With the information we have about this threat, I can feel confident that the situation would be salvageable if I fail.  Even in the worst case scenario, this could be ended with a strategic missile strike.  In my absence, the heroes would have weeks to adjust, to change their battle plans and compensate, before the next Endbringer arrived.”

“You’re talking about dying?”

“Here, at least, I can fight this monster, and where I might never make the gamble against an Endbringer, I hope to fight this thing to the death.  Hers or mine.”

To the death.

He continued, “If I can find that untapped well of power, then it will be worth it.  If I can’t, then there’s no point to me existing anyways.”

“Surely you have something else to live for.”

He gave her a look that was both incredulous and pitying.  She felt a pang of sympathy for Vista, and how she’d reacted when she felt like she was being condescended to.

Maybe life doesn’t offer anything suitably interesting or profound to a man who’s been as powerful as Eidolon is, she thought.

“I…” Jessica said, “Why me?  What am I doing?”

“You know, now.  If I die, you can explain what happened.  But I’ve read you, and I don’t think you will tell others until the fight is over, and you won’t tell others what I planned if I succeed, tonight.”

She stared at him.

“If you were a priest,” he said, “I would have you say a prayer and bless my endeavor tonight.  I will settle for having you wish me luck.”

“Good…” she had to get her words in order, “Good luck.”

He nodded.

Then he took off.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 15 (Donation Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Darkness.  Almost a physical presence, bearing down on her as though she were deep underwater and the weight of all of the water above her was pressing against her head and shoulders.

Some of that was fatigue, some of it was hunger, some was thirst.  She had no idea how much time had passed.  She might have been able to guess from her period, but her body had decided such would be a waste of precious resources.  It hadn’t come, and she had no idea how many weeks or months it had been.

Darkness, so absolute she couldn’t tell if her eyes were open or closed.  As she breathed, it almost felt like the dark was pressing down on her, making exhaling harder with every breath.  It didn’t help that the room smelled like an open sewer mingled with body odor.

Reaching out, she fumbled, felt the dim warmth of skin.  An arm so thin she could wrap her hand around it, middle finger and thumb touching.  Her hand slid down the arm and her fingers twined with those of a hand smaller than hers.  The physical contact seemed to put the physical sensations of air on her skin into a kind of context.  The sense of pressure faded.

“I’m hungry,” the girl beside her spoke.

“I am too.”

“I want to go home.”

“I know.”

There was the sound of a key in the lock, and her heart leapt.

The light felt like knives being driven into her eye sockets, but she stared anyways.  A man, tall, tan and long-haired, entered the room, a lantern in one hand and a plate of food in the other.

He set down the food and then turned to leave.

“Thank you!” she called after him.  She saw him hesitate.

The door slammed shut after him.

“You thanked him?” The words were accusatory.

She couldn’t justify it.  Her heart was pounding.  She stared at the plate.  Soup and bread: enough food for one person, barely enough for two.  She could have said she did it in the hopes that he would feed them more often, but she wasn’t sure she would be telling the truth.

“Let’s… let’s just eat,” she spoke.

“I knew you were here when I was a block away,” Alan spoke.  “The number of lights on in these offices is asking for troublemakers to notice and come by.  And the doors were unlocked.”

Carol looked up in surprise.  Composing herself, she answered, “I’m not concerned.”

The man laughed, “No, I imagine you aren’t.”

“You’re back?”

“For a little while, at least.  The partners asked if I could come by in case we had to close up shop in a hurry.”

“In case the city is condemned?”

“That’s it.  What are you doing?  Are those the files from downstairs?”

Carol nodded, glancing at the crate of paperwork marked ‘1972’.  “We’ve been saying we would copy them over to digital format the next time business got slow.  It won’t get much slower than it is now.”

“The idea was that everyone in the office would pitch in,” Alan answered.

“Everyone in the office is pitching in.”

“Except you’re the only one here,” Alan said.  His brow creased in worry, “What’s going on?  Are you okay?”

She shook her head.

“Talk to me.”

Carol sighed.

He sat down on the corner of her desk, reached over and turned off the scanner.  “Talk.”

“When I agreed to join New Wave, Sarah and I both agreed that I’d keep my job, and I’d strike a balance between work and life in costume.”

He nodded.

“I felt like I had to keep coming, even after Leviathan destroyed the city.  Keep that promise to myself, keep myself sane.  This filing helps, too.  It’s almost meditative.”

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like to stay in the city, with everything that’s gone on.  I heard things in the news, but it really didn’t hit home until I came back.”

Carol smiled a little, “Oh, it hasn’t been pretty.  Addicts and thugs thinking they can band together to take over the city.  The Slaughterhouse Nine-”

Alan shook his head in amazement.

“My husband was gravely injured in the attack, you might have heard.”

“Richard mentioned it.”

“Head injury.  Could barely feed himself, could barely walk or speak.”

“Amy’s a healer, isn’t she?”

“Amy has always insisted she couldn’t heal brain injuries.”

Alan winced.  “I see.  The worst sort of luck.”

Carol smiled, but it wasn’t a happy expression.  “So imagine my surprise when, after weeks of taking care of my husband, wiping food from his face, giving him baths, supporting him as he walked from the bedroom to the bathroom, Amy decides she’ll heal him after all.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I.  But we can’t ask Amy, because she ran away from home while Mark called to let me know he was okay.”

“Something else happened?”

“Oh, quite a bit happened.  But if I got into the details of the Slaughterhouse Nine visiting my home, the ensuing fight destroying the ground floor, Bonesaw forcing Amy to kill one of her Frankenstein mutants and inviting her to join the Nine, I think that would derail the conversation.”

Alan opened his mouth to ask a question, then shut it.

“This is strictly confidential, yes?” Carol stated.  “Between friends?”

“Always,” he replied automatically.  After a moment’s consideration, he said, “Amy must have been terrified.”

“Oh, I imagine she was.  Victoria went looking for her after she ran away, returned home empty-handed.  I think she was even more upset than I was, with Amy taking so long to heal Mark.  She was almost inarticulate, she was so angry.”

“Your daughters are close.  The sense of betrayal would be that much stronger.”

Carol nodded, then sighed.

“Quite a lot to deal with.  I can understand why you’d need some quiet and routine to distract yourself.”

Carol fidgeted.  “Oh, that wasn’t even the worst of it.  Victoria’s been flirting with the notion of joining the Wards, and she went out to fight the Nine just a few days ago.  Apparently she was critically injured.  She was carried off for medical care and nobody’s seen her since.”

“Carried off by who?  Or whom?”

“The Undersiders.  Who have dropped off the face of the map, in large part.  I’ve tried finding them on my patrols, but all reports suggest they’ve spread over the city in an attempt to seize large tracts of territory.  It’s a big city with a lot of stones to overturn and dark corners to investigate.”

“So Victoria’s missing, now?”

“Or dead,” Carol said.  She blinked a few times in rapid succession, fighting the need to cry.  “I don’t know.  I was patrolling, searching, and I felt my composure start to slip.  I feel like shit for doing it, but I came here, I thought maybe if I took fifteen minutes or half an hour to center myself, I could be ready to start searching again.”

“I wouldn’t beat yourself up over it.”

“She’s my daughter, Alan.  Something’s happened to her, and I don’t know what.”

“I’m sorry.  Is there anything I can do?”

She shook her head.

“I could call some people, if we organized a search party-”

“Too dangerous when you’re talking supervillains and the numbers of armed thugs on the streets.  Even civilians are likely to attack first and ask questions later, if confronted.  Besides…” she picked up her cell phone from the corner of her desk.  She showed him the screen, “Cell towers are down.  No service.”

He frowned.  “I- I don’t know what to say.”

“Welcome back to Brockton Bay, Mr. Barnes.”

“Carol, wake up.”

Carol stirred.  She was sleeping so much of the time now.

There was a man in the doorway.  Her heart leapt in her chest.

Then he moved the lantern.  A stranger.

“Time’s up,” he spoke, his voice heavily accented.

“Don’t understand,” Sarah spoke, her voice thin.

“Where’s… where’s the other man?” Carol asked.  She felt almost ashamed she didn’t have a better name for him.

“Quiet,” the man snapped.  He moved the hand that wasn’t burdened with the lantern, and Carol could see a knife.  She gasped, or maybe moaned.  It was hard to tell what it was supposed to be, because it was involuntary and her voice caught, making the sound come out more like a yelp or a reedy shriek.  She shrank back.

“No, no, no,” Sarah squeaked, shaking her head.

Time’s up.  Sarah had to know what he meant, now.

They’d spent so long in the darkness, in their own filth.  They’d eaten so little, grown so weak, and now they’d die.  And the thing that upset Carol most was that they would never understand why.

“No!”  Sarah shrieked, her voice raw.

The light was so bright it momentarily blinded Carol.  She covered her face with her arms.  When she looked up again, the man was on his hands and knees.  And her sister… Sarah was standing.

Except standing was the wrong word.  Sarah was upright, and her legs were moving, but her toes were barely touching the ground.  She wasn’t supporting her own weight.  She advanced on the man, raising one hand.

Again, that blinding light.  It didn’t burn the man, nor did it cut him.  He reacted like he’d been punched instead, stumbling backward through the doorway.  She hit him again, over and over, wordless cries accompanying each attack.  Carol saw only glimpses of the man’s bloodied body in the split-seconds the light hung in the air.  He was being beaten, pulverized.

She couldn’t bring herself to protest.  For the first time in long weeks or months, she felt a flicker of hope.

Darkness reigned over them for a few seconds as Sarah stopped to catch her breath.

Carol tried to stand and found her legs were like spaghetti noodles.

She was so busy trying to maintain her balance that she almost didn’t see.

The man who’d brought them the food.  He stepped into the doorway and raised one hand.  A gun.

The report of the handgun was deafening after such a long time in the quiet room.

But they weren’t hurt.  Sarah had raised her hands, and a glowing, see-through wall stood between them and the man.

He’d tried to attack them?  Carol couldn’t understand it.  He was the one who’d taken care of them.  When he’d appeared, she’d been happy.  And now it felt like that had been ruined, spoiled.

She felt betrayed and she couldn’t understand why.

Again, the gun fired.  She flinched, and not because of the noise.  It was like she’d been slapped.

Then silence.

Silence, no hunger, no pain, no sense of betrayal.  Even Sarah and the wall of light she’d put together were gone.

A flat plain stretched out around her, but she had no body.  She could see in every direction.

A crack split the ground.  Once the dust had settled, nothing happened for a long time.

More cracks.

It’s an egg, she realized, just in time to see it hatch.

The egg’s occupant tore free from the crack, unfolding from a condensed point to grow larger with every moment and movement.

Others were hatching from the same egg, spreading out like sparks from the shell of a firework.  Each unfolding into something vast and incomprehensible within seconds of its birth.

But her attention was on the first.  She felt it reach out and connect with another that shared a similar trajectory.  Still more were doing the same, pairing off.  Forming into trios, in some cases, but most chose to form pairs.

A mate?  A partner?

Each settled into a position around the ruined egg, embracing their chosen companions, rubbing against, into and through one another as they continued to grow.

The egg vibrated. Or did it?  No, it was an illusion.  There were multiple copies of the egg, multiple versions, and they each stirred, deviating from one another until subtle double images appeared.

Then, one by one, they crumpled into a single point.  The egg at the center of the formation of these creatures was the last, and for the briefest of moments, it roiled with the pressure and energy of all of the others.

Then it detonated, and the creatures came alive, soaring out into the vastness of the void, trails of dust following in their wake, each with a partner, a companion, traveling in a different direction.

And she was back in the dark room, staring at the man.

The betrayer.

The memory was already fading, but she instinctively knew that whatever had happened to Sarah had just happened to her.

His gun was spent, which was good, because Sarah had fallen to the ground in the same instant Carol had, and the wall of light was gone.

Carol advanced on him, her emotions so wild and varied and contradictory that she’d seemed to settle into a kind of neutrality, a middle ground where there was only that confused sense of betrayal.

A weapon appeared in her hands, forged of light and energy and electricity.  Crude, unrefined, it amounted to little more than a baseball bat.

When she struck him in the leg, the weapon sheared through without resistance.  That’s good, her thoughts were strangely disconnected from everything else, because I can’t hit very hard right now.

He screamed as he fell to the ground, his leg severed.

She hit him again, then again, much like Sarah had with the other man.  Except this wasn’t simply beating him to a pulp.  It was more final than that.

When she was done, the weapon disappeared.  Sarah hugged her, and she hugged her sister back.

When she cried, it wasn’t the crying of a thirteen year old girl.  It was more basic, more raw: the uncontrolled, unrestrained wail one might expect of a baby.

There was a knock on the door.  She looked up.

It was Lady Photon.  Sarah.  “What are you doing here?  I’ve been looking all over.”

“I needed a few minutes to myself to think.  Get grounded.”

Lady Photon gave her a sympathetic look.  She hated that look.

“Why did you want me?”

“We found Tattletale.  In a fashion.  We made contact with her and struck a deal.”

Carol didn’t like the sound of that, but she wouldn’t say that out loud.  It would bother her sister, start something.  “What was she asking and what was she offering?”

“She wanted a two-week ceasefire.  The Undersiders won’t give any heroes or civilians any trouble, and we ignore them in exchange.”

“That gives them time to consolidate, get a firmer hold on the city.”

“Maybe.  I talked to Miss Militia about it, and she doesn’t think they’ll accomplish anything meaningful in that span of time.  The Undersiders have their hands full with white supremacists and some leftover Merchants, the Protectorate and Wards aren’t part of the ceasefire and they’ll be putting pressure on the Undersiders as well.”

“I’m not so optimistic,” Carol commented.  She sighed again.  “I would have liked to be part of that negotiation.”

“We didn’t know where you were.  But let’s not fight again.  The important thing is that Tattletale pointed us in the right direction.  We think we know where your daughters are.”

Daughters?  Plural?

Carol couldn’t put a name to the feeling that had just sucker-punched her.

“Give me thirty seconds to change,” she said, standing from her chair.

“Stand down,” Brandish ordered.

“Now why would I want to do that?” Marquis asked.  “I’ve won every time your team has challenged me, this situation isn’t so different.”

“You have nowhere to run.  We’ve got you where you live,” Manpower spoke.

“I have plenty of places to run,” Marquis replied, shrugging.  “It’s just a house, I won’t lose any sleep over leaving it behind.  It’s an expensive house, I’ll admit, but that little detail loses much of its meaning when you’re as ridiculously wealthy as I am.”

The Brockton Bay Brigade closed in on the man who stood by his leather armchair, wearing a black silk bathrobe.  He held his ground.

“If you’ll allow me to finish my wine-” he started, bending down to reach for the wine glass that sat beside the armchair.

Manpower and Brandish charged.  They didn’t get two steps before Marquis turned himself into a sea urchin, bone spears no thicker than a needle extending out of every pore, some extending twelve or fifteen feet.

Brandish planted her heel on the ground to arrest her forward movement and activated her power.  In an instant, her body was condensed into a point, surrounded by a layered, spherical force field.  It meant she didn’t fall on her rear end, and she could pick a more appropriate posture as she snapped back into her human shape.

Manpower wasn’t so adroit.  He managed to stop himself, slamming one foot through the mahogany floor to give himself something to brace against, but it was too late to keep him from running into the spears of bone.  Shards snapped against his skin and went flying.

Lady Photon opened her mouth to shout a warning, but it was too late.  Flashbang fell to one knee as a shard bounced off the ground near him, reshaping into a form that could slash across the top of his foot.  Brandish caught only a glimpse of the wound, primarily blood.  She didn’t see anything resembling bone, but Marquis apparently did.

There was a sound like firecrackers going off, and Flashbang screamed.

The needles retracted.  Marquis rolled his shoulders, as if loosening his muscles.  “Broke your foot?  How clumsy.”

Lightstar was the next to go down, as one splinter that had embedded in a bookshelf branched out to pierce his shoulder.  Fleur caught him before he could land on top of more of the bone needles.

Brandish shifted her footing, and the slivers of bone that scattered the ground around her shifted, some reshaping into starbursts of ultrafine needle points, waiting for her to step on them.  She knew from experience that they would penetrate the soles of her boots.

Lady Photon fired a spray of laser blasts in Marquis’ general direction, tearing into bookshelves, antique furniture and the rack of wine bottles.  Marquis created a shield of bone to protect himself, expanding its dimensions until it was taller and wider than he was.

He’s going to burrow, Brandish thought.  He’d done it often enough in the past, disappearing underground the second he’d dropped out of sight, then attacking through the ground, floor or rooftop.

“Careful!” she shouted.

Lady Photon spent the rest of the energy she’d gathered in her hands, spraying another spray of lasers at Marquis’ shield.  Then, as they’d practiced, she prepared to use her forcefield to shield Flashbang, Fleur and Lightstar.  Brandish and Manpower could defend themselves.

A barrier of bone plates erupted around one corner of the room, rising just in time to keep some of Lady Photon’s salvo from striking a closet door.  Marquis emerged from the floor a short distance away, driving a spike of bone up through the ground and then deconstructing it to reveal himself.

“What are you protecting?” Lady Photon asked.

“I’d tell you, but you wouldn’t believe me.”  He glanced around, “I don’t suppose we could change venues?  I’ll be good if you are.”

“Seems like we should take every advantage we can,” Manpower said.

“If you’re talking purely about increasing your odds of victory, yes.  But should you?  No, you really shouldn’t.”

This isn’t his usual behavior, Brandish thought.  His power let him manipulate bone.  If it was his own, he could make it grow or shrink, reshape it and multiply it.   It made him, in many respects, a competent shapeshifter.  His abilities with the bones of others were limited to a simple reshaping, and there was a nuance in that the longer his own bone was separated from his body, the less able he was to manipulate it.  Every second he was wasting talking was a second that the bone splinters he’d spread over the area would be less useful to him.  He was putting himself at a disadvantage.

Well, only in a sense.  They still hadn’t touched him, and two of their members were out of commission.  Three, if she counted Fleur being occupied with a wounded Lightstar in her arms.

But the fact remained that Marquis wasn’t pushing his advantage.  The way his power worked and his very personality meant he was exceptional when it came to turning one advantage into another.  Or turning one advantage into three.  It was in his very nature to trounce his enemies, to grind them into the ground without an iota of mercy or fair play.

Was he distracted?

If he was, it was barely slowing him down.  She felt something clutch her from behind, covering her eyes.  When she tried to tear it free, she found it hard, unyielding.

She dropped into her ball form and then back into her human form, taking only a second to break free of the binding.  She caught the offending article in one hand before it could hit the ground.

It was a blindfold of solid bone, but it had been a skull of some sort beforehand.  Probably something that had sat on a bookshelf behind her.  Stupid to overlook it.

In the seconds it had taken her to deal with the blindfold, Marquis had trapped Lady Photon, binding her in a column of dense bone that had likely sprung around her from the floor or ceiling.  From the glow that was emanating through the barrier, she was apparently trying to use lasers to cut her way out.  She was strong enough to do it in one shot, but she couldn’t do that without risking shooting a teammate if the shot continued through.

That left Marquis to duel with Manpower, striking the hero over and over with a massive scythe of bone that extended out from his wrist.  Manpower was strong, and he was durable thanks to his electromagnetic shield – sparks flew as the scythe hit home over and over.  Even so, the hero didn’t try to fight back.

It took her only a moment to realize why.  Each swing of the scythe was calculated so that if the movement followed through, it would strike either the crippled Flashbang or Lightstar.

And Flashbang can’t shoot because Marquis will just armor himself before the sphere detonates.  Lightstar is injured, Fleur needs her hands free to strike, and Lady Photon’s incapacitated.

“Brandish!”  Manpower shouted.  “Same plan, just the two of us!”

Right.  Their battle plan wasn’t useless, now.  Just harder to pull off.

This would take some courage.

She charged forward, manifesting energy in the shape of a lance, driving it toward Marquis.

He cast a glance her way and stuck one foot out in her direction.  His toes mutated into a jagged, uneven ripple of bone that stretched out beneath her.  Unable to maintain her footing, she had to cancel out the lance, using her hands to brace her fall.

Spikes of bone poked out of the ground in a circle around her, rising to form a cage.

She created twin knives out of energy, slashing out to cut through the bars.

The hardest part would be what came next.  Brandish threw herself in the way of the scythe’s swing.

Marquis’ weapon virtually exploded into its component pieces, blade, join and shaft flying past her.

“Careful now,” Marquis chided her.  “Don’t want to get decapitated now, do we?”

No longer on the defensive, Manpower charged the villain.

Marquis surrounded himself in plates of bone that resembled the petals of a flower blooming in reverse, and sank into the ground.

Any other day, Brandish would have followed him into the room below.  A wine cellar, it seemed.

Instead, she turned and charged for the closet, creating a sword out of the crackling energy her power provided, slashing through the plates of bone that had surrounded it, then drawing the blade back to thrust through the wooden door-

Marquis emerged between her and the closet door.  She plunged the sword into his shoulder without hesitation.  She could smell his flesh burn, the wound cauterized by the same energy that formed the blade.

“Damnation,” Marquis muttered the word, sagging.

She let him fall, and then pressed the sword to his throat.  If he gave her an excuse, she would finish him.

She stared down at him.  That long hair, it was such a minor thing, but there was something else about him that stirred that distant, dark memory of the lightless room and the failed attempt at ransom.  Her skin crawled, and she felt anger boiling in her gut.

It took some time for the others to recover, getting their bearings and ensuring their wounds weren’t too serious.

“What were you so intent on protecting?” Manpower asked.  “This where you stash your illegitimate gains?”

Marquis chuckled.  “You could say that.  The most precious treasure in the world.”

“Somehow I missed the news report where you stole that,” Lady Photon replied.

“Stole?  No.  It would be better to say a devoted fan and follower gave her to me.”

Her?”  Brandish asked.  But Lady Photon was already reaching for the door, pulling it open.

A girl.  A child, not much younger than Vicky.  The girl was brown hair, freckle-faced, and clutched a silk pillow to her chest.  She wore a silk nightgown with lace at the collar and sleeves.  It looked expensive for something a child would wear.

“Daddy,” the girl’s eyes were wide with alarm.  She clutched the pillow tighter.

“Brigade, meet Amelia.  Amelia, these are the people who are going to take care of you now.”

Brandish was among the many faces to turned to stare at him.

He chuckled lightly, “I expect I won’t last long without medical care, so I’ll hardly be turning the tables on you and making a break for it.  You’ve won, I suppose.”

“What do you mean by taking care of her?”  Lady Photon asked.

“I have enemies.  Would you like to see her fall into their hands?  It wouldn’t be pretty.”

“They don’t have to know,” Manpower spoke.

“Manpower… do try to keep up.  The dumb brute stereotype persists only because people like you insist on keeping it alive.  They’ll always know, they’ll always find out.  You put that girl in foster care and interested parties are going to find out.”

“So you want us to take her?” Brandish asked.  She couldn’t keep the incredulity off her face.

“No,” the girl said, plaintive.  “I want you!”

“Yes,” Marquis said.

“The motherfucker has a kid?” Lightstar muttered the question, as if to himself.  “And she’s, what,  five?”

“Six,” Marquis answered.

Six.  Vicky’s age, then.  She looks younger.

“She’ll go to her mother,” Lady Photon decided.

“Her mother’s gone, I’m afraid.  The big C.  Amelia and I were introduced shortly after that.  About a year ago, now that I think on it.  I must admit, I’ve enjoyed our time together more than I’ve enjoyed all my crimes combined.  Quite surprising.”

His daughter, Brandish thought.  The resemblance was uncanny.  The nose was different, the brow, but she was her father’s daughter.

The idea disturbed her.

She couldn’t shake that dim memory of the nameless man she’d killed on the night she got her powers.  She hated Marquis in a way she couldn’t articulate, and if the memories that recurred every time she crossed paths with him were any clue, it was somehow tied to that.

She wondered if it was because she liked him on a level.  Was her psyche trying to protect her from repeating her earlier mistake?

“Little close for comfort, Brandish dear,” Marquis spoke.

She looked down.  She’d unconsciously pressed the blade closer.  When she lifted it, she could see the burn at the base of his throat.

“Thank you kindly,” he spoke.  There was a trace of irony there.

That cultured act, the civility that was real.  Marquis was fair, he played by the rules.  His rules, but he stuck to them without fail.  It didn’t match her vision of what a criminal should be.  It was jarring, creating a kind of dissonance.

That dissonance was redoubled as she looked at the forlorn little girl.  Layers upon layers, distilled in one expression.  Criminal, civilized man, child.

“You can’t take him away,” the girl told them.

“He’s a criminal,” Brandish responded.  “He’s done bad things, he needs to go to jail.”

“No.  He’s just my daddy.  Reads me bedtime stories, makes me dinner, and tells me jokes.  I love him more than anything else in the world.  You can’t take him away from me.  You can’t!”

“We have to,” Brandish told the girl.  “It’s the law.”

“No!” the girl shouted.  “I hate you!  I hate you!  I’ll never forgive you!”

Brandish reached out, as if she could calm the girl by touching her.

The girl shrank back into the closet.

Into the dark.  She felt as if she was separated from the child by a chasm.

“Let’s call the PRT,”  Manpower said.  “We should get Marquis into custody stat.”

“Wouldn’t mind some medical treatment, if you could rush that?” Marquis asked.

“…And medical treatment,” Manpower amended his statement.

Brandish walked away.  The others would handle this.  She would wait outside to guide the responders into the manor, past the traps Marquis had set in place.

She was still waiting when Lady Photon came outside, holding the little girl’s hand.  Lady Photon seated the girl in the car and shut the door.

Lady Photon joined Brandish on the stone stairs.  “We can’t let her go into foster care.  It’s not just the danger his enemies pose.  Once people found out she was Marquis’ child, they’d start fighting over who could get their hands on her.”

“Sarah-” Brandish started.

“Then they’ll kidnap her.  They’ll do it to exploit her powers, and she’s bound to be pretty powerful if she inherits anything like her father’s abilities”

“Then you take care of her,” Brandish replied, even as she mentally prayed her sister would refuse.  There was something about the idea of being around Marquis’ child, that uncanny resemblance, having those memories stirred even once in a while, even if it was just at family reunions… it made her feel uneasy.

“You know Neil and I don’t have that much money.  Neil isn’t having luck finding work, and all our funding from the team is going into the New Wave plan, which won’t happen for a few months, and we have two hungry mouths to feed…”

Brandish grasped her sister’s meaning.  With a sick feeling in her gut, she spoke the idea aloud.  “You want Mark and I to take her.”

“You should.  Amelia’s Vicky’s age, I think they would be close.”

“It’s not a good idea.”

“Why are you so reluctant?”

Brandish shook her head.  “I… you know I never planned to have kids?”

“I remember you saying something like that.  But then you had Vicky.”

“I only caved to having Vicky because Mark was there, and I had to think about it for a while.”

“Mark will be there for Amelia too.”

Brandish could have mentioned how Mark was tired all the time, how his promise had proved empty.  She might have mentioned how he was seeing a psychiatrist now, the tentative possibility of clinical depression.  She stayed silent.

“It’s not just that,” she said.  “You know I have trouble trusting people.  You know why.”

The change on Lady Photon’s face was so subtle she almost missed it.

“I’m sorry to bring it up,” Brandish said. “But it’s relevant.  I decided I could have Vicky because I’d know her from day one.  She’d grow inside me, I’d nurture her from childhood… she’d be safe.”

“I didn’t know you were dwelling on it to that degree.”

Brandish shrugged and shook her head, as if she could shake off this conversation, this situation.  “That child deserves better than I can offer.  I know I don’t have it in me to form any kind of bond with another child if there’s no blood relation.”

Especially if she’s Marquis’.

“She needs you.  You’re her only option.  I can’t, and Fleur and Lightstar aren’t old enough or in the right place in their lives for kids, and if she goes anywhere else, it’ll be disastrous.”

Brandish decided on the most direct, clear line of argument she could muster, “I don’t want her.  I can’t take her.”

Brandish glanced at the kid that they’d stowed in the team’s car.  The child was standing on the car seat, hands pressed against the window.  Her stare bored into Brandish as though little girl had laser vision.

The window was open a crack, Brandish noted.  The girl could probably hear everything they’d been saying.  Brandish looked away.

Lady Photon did as she’d so often done, ignoring reason in favor of the emotional appeal.  “You grew to love and trust Mark.  You could grow to love and trust that little girl, too.”

Liar.

Brandish stared at the teenaged girl.  Amy couldn’t even look her in the eye.  Tears were streaming down the girl’s face.

“Where’s Victoria?”  Brandish made the question a demand.

“I’m so sorry,” Amy responded, her voice hoarse.  She’d been crying long before anyone had showed up.

Brandish felt choked up as well, but she suppressed the emotion.  “Is my daughter dead?”

No.

“Explain.”

“I- I don’t- No-” Amy stuttered.

She could have slapped the girl.

“What happened to my daughter!?”

Amy flinched as though she’d been struck.

“Carol-” Lady Photon spoke, her voice gentle.  “Take it easy.”

They stood in the mist of a ruined neighborhood.  Amy had stepped outside within a minute of their arrival, blocking the door with her body.  There was no resistance in the girl, though.  It was more like the obstruction was a way of running, of forestalling the inevitable.

The girl hugged her arms against her body, her hands trembling even as they clutched her upper arms.  Her teeth chattered, as if she were cold, but it was a warm evening.

Was the girl in shock?  Carol couldn’t muster any sympathy.  Amy was stopping her from getting to Victoria.  Victoria, who she’d almost believed was dead.

“Amy,” Lady Photon spoke, “What’s going on?  You won’t let us inside, but you won’t explain.  Just talk.”

Amy shivered.  “I… she wouldn’t let me help her, she was so angry, so I calmed her down with my power.  She’d been hurt badly, so I wrapped her up.  A cocoon, so she could heal.”

“That’s good.  So Victoria’s okay?”  Lady Photon coaxed responses from Amy.

Of course she’s not okay, Brandish thought.  What about this situation makes you think she could be okay?

“I… I had to wait a while before I could let her out, so I could be sure she had healed completely.  I-“

Amy stopped as her voice cracked.

“Keep going,” Lady Photon urged.

Amy glanced at Brandish, who stood with her arms folded, stone-faced.

If I change my expression now, if I say or do anything, I’ll lose it, I’ll break, Brandish thought.  Her heart thudded in her chest.

“I didn’t want her to fight.  And I didn’t want her to follow, or to hate me because I used my power on her again.”

Again?

“So I thought I’d put her in a trance, and make it so she’d forget everything that happened.  Everything that I did, and the things that the Slaughterhouse Nine said, and everything that I said to try to make them go away.  Empty promises and-“

Her voice hitched.

“What happened?” Brandish asked, for the Nth time.

“She was lying there, and I wanted to say goodbye.  I- I-“

Something in Amy’s voice, her tone, her posture, it provided the final piece, clicking into place, making so many things suddenly come together.

Brandish marched forward, fully intending to walk right past Amy.  Amelia.  His daughter.  She could never be my daughter because she’d never stopped being his.

A cornered rat will bite.  Amy realized what Brandish intended and reached out, a reflex.

A weapon sprung into Brandish’s hand.  Not so dissimilar from the first weapon she’d made, an unrefined bludgeon of raw lightstuff.  She moved as if to parry the reaching hand and Amy scrambled back out of the way, eyes wide.

Where to go?  Brandish glanced to the rooms to the left, then down the hall in front of her.  She looked back and saw Amy with her back to the wall.  She moved toward the staircase, glanced back at Amy, and saw a reaction.  Fear.  Trepidation.

Before Amy could protest, Brandish was heading up the stairs, taking them two at a time.

“Carol!”  Amy shouted, scrambling up the stairs.  There was the sound of her falling on the stairs in her haste to follow,  “Stop!  Carol!  Mom!

Only one door was still open.  Brandish entered the room and stopped.

She didn’t move as Amy’s spoke from behind her.  “Please, let me explain.”

Brandish couldn’t bring herself to move or speak.  Amy seemed to take that silence as assent.

“I wanted to see her smile again.  To have someone hug me before I left forever.  So you wouldn’t have to worry about me anymore.  I- I told myself I’d leave after.  Victoria wouldn’t remember.  It would be a way for me to get closure.  Then I’d go and spend the rest of my life healing people.  Sacrifice my life.  I don’t know.  As payment.”

Lady Photon had made her way upstairs.  She entered the room and stopped just in front of Brandish.  Her hands went to her mouth.  Her words were a whispered, “Oh God.”

Amy kept talking, her voice strangely monotone after her earlier emotion, as if she were a recording.  Maybe she was, after a fashion, all of the excuses and arguments she’d planned spilling from her mouth.  “I wanted her to be happy.  I could adjust.  Tweak, expand, change things to serve more than one purpose.  I had the extra material from the cocoon.  When I was done, I started undoing everything, all the mental and physical changes.  I got so tired, and so scared, so lonely, so I thought we’d take another break, before I was completely finished.  I changed more things.  More stuff I had to fix.  And days passed.  I-“

Brandish clenched her fists.

“I lost track.  I forgot how to change her back.”

A caricature.  A twisted reflection of how Amy saw Victoria, the swan curve of the nape of the neck, the delicate hands, and countless other features, repeated over and over again throughout.  It might even have been something objectively beautiful, had it not been warped by desperation and loneliness and panic.  As overwhelming as the image and the situation had been in Amy’s mind, Victoria was now equally imposing, in a sense.  No longer able to move under her own power, her flesh spilled over from the edge of the mattress and onto the floor.

“I don’t know what to do.”

Betrayal.  Brandish had known this would happen the moment Sarah had talked about her taking the girl.  Not this, but something like it.  Brandish felt a weapon form in her hand.

“Please tell me what to do,” Amy pleaded.

Brandish turned, arm drawn back to strike, to retaliate.  She stopped.

The girl was so weak, so powerless, a victim.  A victim of herself, her own nature, but a victim nonetheless.  A person sundered.

And with everything laid bare, there was not a single resemblance to Marquis.  There was no faint reminder of Brandish’s time in the dark cell, nor of her captor.  If anything, Amy looked how Sarah had, as they’d stumbled from the house where they’d been kept, lost, helpless and scared.

She looked like Carol had, all those years ago.

The weapon dissipated, and Brandish’s arms dropped limp to her sides.

“I’m sorry,” the digitized voice spoke.

Carol watched Amy through the window.

Amy seemed to have changed, transformed.  Could Carol interpret that as a burden being lifted?  Relief?  Even if it was only because the very worst had come to pass, and there was nothing left for Amy to agonize over?  There was shame, of course, horrific guilt.  That much was obvious.  The girl couldn’t meet anyone’s gaze.

“Everyone’s sorry,” Carol spoke, her voice hollow.

“You were saying something about that before,”  Dragon said.  “Are you-?”

She left the question unfinished, and the fragment of it on its own was a hard thing to hear.

Carol stared as Amy shuffled forward.  The cuffs weren’t necessary, really.  A formality.  Amy wasn’t about to run.

“It’s your last chance,” Dragon prodded.

Carol nodded.  She pushed the door open and stepped into the parking lot.

Amy turned to face her as she approached.

For a long minute, neither of them spoke.

Prisoner 612, please board for transport to the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center,” the announcement came from within the truck.

The armed escort would be waiting.  No court- Amy had volunteered, asked
to go to the Birdcage.

Carol couldn’t bring herself to speak.

So she stepped forward to close the distance between herself and Amy.  Hesitant at first, she reached out.

As if she could convey everything she wanted to say in a single gesture, she folded her daughter into the tightest of hugs.

She couldn’t forgive Amy, not ever, not in the slightest.  But she was sorry.

Amy swallowed hard and stepped back, then stepped up into the truck.

Carol watched in silence as the doors automatically shut and locked, and remained rooted in place as the truck pulled out of the parking lot and disappeared down the road.

Numb, she returned to the office that looked out on the lot.  Dragon’s face displayed on a computer screen to the left of the door.  The computer chair was unoccupied.

“That’s it?” Carol asked.

“She’ll be transported there and confined for the remainder of her life, barring exceptional circumstance.”

Carol nodded.  “Two daughters gone in the blink of an eye.”

“Your husband decided not to come?”

“He exchanged words with her in her cell this morning.  He decided it was more important to accompany Victoria to Pennsylvania.”

“I didn’t realize that was today.  If you’d asked, I could have rescheduled Amy Dallon’s departure.”

“No.  It’s fine.  I prefer it this way.”

“You didn’t want to see Victoria off to the parahuman asylum?”

“Victoria is gone.  There’s nothing of her left but that mockery.  Mark and I fought over it and this was what we decided.”

“I see.”

“If it’s no trouble, could I watch?”

“What are you wanting to watch, specifically?”

“Her arrival?  I know the prison is segregated, but she’s still-“

“It isn’t.  There’s a bridge between the male and female sections of the Baumann center.”

Carol nodded.  “Then I have to see.  Please.”

“It’s going to be the better part of a day before she arrives.”

“I’ll wait.  If I fall asleep, will you please wake me?”

“Of course.”

Dragon didn’t venture a goodbye, or any further condolences.  Her face disappeared from the screen, replaced by a spinning logo, showing the Guild’s emblem on one side and the Protectorate’s shield on the other.

Carol waited patiently for hours, her mind a blank.  She couldn’t dwell on the past, or she’d lose her mind.  There was nothing in the present, and the future… she couldn’t imagine one.  She couldn’t envision being with Mark without Victoria.  Couldn’t imagine carrying on life as Brandish.  Perhaps she would continue filing.  Something simpler than criminal law, something lower stress.  At least for a little while.

For an hour or so, she occupied herself by reading the pamphlets and the back covers of books.  Reading a novel was too much.

Somewhere along the line, she nodded off.  She was glad for the sunlight that streamed in through the window, the glare of the florescent bulbs overhead.  Recent events had stirred her old fears of the dark.

It didn’t feel like hours had passed when she was woken by Dragon’s voice.  “Carol.”

She walked over to the screen.

It was a surveillance camera image.  The camera zoomed in on a door.  An elevator door, perhaps.  It whisked open.

“Would you like sound?”

“It doesn’t really matter.  Yes.”

A second later, the sound cut in.  An announcement across the prison PA system: “-one-two, Amy Dallon, AKA Amelia Lavere, AKA Panacea.  Cell block E.

Carol watched as the girl stepped out of the elevator.  She pulled off a gas mask and let it drop to the floor.  A small crowd was gathering around her, others from her cell block checking out the new resident.

How long would it take?

She would have asked Dragon, but her breath was caught in her throat.

He appeared two minutes later, as a woman who must have been the self-imposed leader of Cell block E was talking to Amy.

He looks older.

Somehow Carol had imagined Marquis had stayed as young and powerful as the day they’d last fought.  The day she’d met Amy.  But there were lines in his face.  He looked more distinguished, even, but he looked older.

Not the bogeyman that had haunted her.

And that’s Lung behind him.

Was Lung an enforcer for Marquis?  It was hard to imagine.  Or were they friends?  That was simultaneously easier and harder to picture.  But it was somehow jarring, as if it instilled a sort of realism in an otherwise surreal picture.

Lung and Marquis moved forward, and the women of the cell block moved to block Lung’s advance, letting Marquis through.

Marquis stopped a few feet away from his daughter.  Their hair was the same, as were their eyes.

The day I cease seeing her as his daughter and see how she could be mine, he takes her back, she thought.

“I’ve been waiting,” he spoke.

That was enough.  She had the answer she’d wanted, even if she hadn’t consciously asked the question.

She left the office, stepping outside into the too-bright outdoors, leaving the reunion to play on the screen.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.10

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Arcadia high was the school every kid in Brockton Bay wanted to attend.  A big part of that was the fact that everyone knew that the Wards attended Arcadia, and attending meant that any one of your classmates could be a superhero or superheroine.  To anyone else, you could just as easily be one, too.  It wasn’t a rich kid’s school like Immaculata, but it was a good school.  Every classmate treated other classmates with the utmost respect.  Both the students and the school itself maintained a certain status and pride as a consequence.

Now it was something else, and it inspired entirely different feelings.  The front gate looked like it had aged a thousand years, the sharp corners of the cut stone had rounded off, the ivy that once wound around it had withered.  The windows of the building were all shattered, empty of glass, and the fields were a patchwork of overgrown grass and mud.  With the faint tendrils of colored mist that surrounded the grounds, it looked like a prime location for a horror movie.

I had little doubt I was in the right place.

Panacea’s the healer, top floor.  Jack is the slasher, the blond girl the chemist-tinkerPanacea’s the healer on the top floor, Jack is the slasher, the blond girl is the chemist.

I recited the words as a refrain, as if I could hold the names and identities of the major players in my short-term memory by constantly reminding myself of who they were.

The school was on a hill, meaning the water that was producing the miasma was far enough away that only traces of it reached this far.  The little vapor that got to the school was held at bay by the stone wall that ringed the school.  The design suggested it had been intended more for aesthetics than for utility, but it was serving a purpose nonetheless.

Panacea’s the healer, top floor, Jack is the slasher, the blond girl the chemist-tinker.  Panacea is the healer, top floor, Jack is the slasher, the blond girl is the chemist-tinker.

It seemed like the mechanical spiders had lost track of me.  They would probably give up the chase and return to their master, but it was one less thing to worry about for the time being.

Jack and the tinker would have gone in through the ground floor.  I decided to land on the roof.  The second I was on terra firma, I reached for my phone to check.  No signal.

I needed to signal someone about what was going on.  I was woefully underequipped, and I doubted my ability to win this alone, especially when my opponents weren’t as disadvantaged as I was.

I could use something like a giant nine crafted out of bugs floating over the school to signal that the pair was here… but there was no guarantee that someone would come.  There was also the possibility that it would lead to the good guys dropping another bomb on us.  That would get the healer and maybe even me killed.  Panacea had to survive, or everyone in the city would die in the aftermath of Bonesaw’s miasma.

Panacea is the healer, she’s on the top floor, Jack is the slasher, the blond girl is the chemist-tinker.

I tenderly touched the cut on my face.  Jack must have pulled back as I used the tinker as a shield, because the cut was fairly shallow.  It was long, though, and my fingertips were wet with blood after I touched my hand to it.  I couldn’t distinguish the blood from the black fabric of my gloves, so I couldn’t tell how much it actually was.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

There was a door on the rooftop, and I used my knife to pry the doorknob partially off, then gave it a firm kick to remove it.  The lock was built into the handle, and it didn’t take long to figure out how to open it when I could see the internal mechanisms.  It wasn’t exactly high security, more intended to keep kids from getting onto the roof than keeping people on the roof from getting in.

Just past the door was a set of stairs that led down into the top floor of the building.  It looked like a janitorial closet.  I sent Atlas down to check before venturing down myself, and I began distributing my swarm through the school.  I prepared silk lines across doorways and hallways to inform me of others passing through, placed ants, earwigs, centipedes and pill bugs on the walls to give me a sense of the layout, and sent flies to scan the interiors of each room to see if I couldn’t find anyone.

Again, I repeated the refrain in my head, reminding myself about who was in the building.  I wasn’t sure it was helping, but I didn’t want to get tricked again.

There were two hallways and three classrooms my bugs couldn’t enter without dying on the spot. That marked out a relatively small area that the Nine could be.

The biggest issue was that I couldn’t find Panacea.  Did that mean she was in close confines with the enemy?  It wasn’t a good thought.

As I laid silk lines across possible entryways to alert myself about enemy movements, I was careful to check each area before I advanced further into the building.  My eyes searched for details while my swarm scanned the walls and the ground.

I was a short distance away from the Nine when I saw a wet spot on the wall, complete with discoloration of the paint.  I sent bugs in, and they felt shards of glass on the floor around the patch.  I wouldn’t have said that the swarm smelled anything, but there was something heavy in the air as flies beat their wings, the muscular action simultaneously drawing oxygen in.  Whatever it was, it was dense, cloying, odorless and colorless, only extending a dozen feet around the spot.

I backtracked and picked a different route.  My pace slowed to half of what it had been as I searched for other telltale details.  Twice, I found similar traps, both with that odourless smoke, and twice I had to change my route.

I paused outside the bug-killing zone.  Flies had ferried spiders to me, and I started organizing them to produce lengths of silk cord.  I left them behind while I creeped closer and listened in.

“…minds do think alike.  I did something very similar for Siberian.”  A girl’s voice.

“Shut up.  We’re nothing alike.”  Another girl.

“We could be!  Haven’t you ever wanted to start over?  I could make you younger!  We’d be the same age!  And wear matching outfits!  Oh!  I could do plastic surgery, we could be twins!”

“Did- did you do that to yourself?  Make yourself young?”

“No.”  A male voice.  “Rest assured, Bonesaw’s immaturity is genuine.  Both an asset in how it makes her that much more creative, free in her ways.  A detriment in other ways.”

“Doesn’t… that bother you?  Him saying that about you?”

“Jack knows what he’s doing.”

“I do.  I know a lot of things,” Jack spoke, his voice smooth, almost seductive.

“Don’t.  I know you’ve got a silver tongue.  I don’t want to hear it.”

“You prefer the alternative?”  Jack asked, his voice cool.

I could picture him holding that knife of his, the threat all too clear.

There was a long pause.

He spoke, “I suppose not.  So let’s dialogue.”

“Go ahead,” Panacea’s voice was small, almost defeated.

“What’s holding you back?  You’re capable of so much, of changing the world, of destroying it, but you’re so very small, Amelia Claire Lavere.”

His voice was almost mocking as he said her name.

“That’s not my name.”

“It’s the name you were born with.  Imagine my surprise when I found out your relation to Marquis.  In my last visit to Brockton Bay, I crossed paths with each of the major players.  I met the man.  I must tell you, Amelia, he was a very interesting character.”

“I don’t really want to know.”

“I’m going to tell you.  And I have another motive, but I’ll get to that in a moment.  Marquis was a man of honor.  He decided on the rules he would play by and he stuck to them.  He put his life and limb at risk to try to keep me from killing women and children, and I decided to see if I could use that to break him.  I admit I failed.”

“He killed Allfather’s daughter.”

“No, Amelia, he didn’t.”

There was a pause.

“Did you kill her?”

“No.  What I’m saying is that Marquis would not have killed the girl, even under duress; that was one of the rules he set for himself.  If he was going to violate that rule, he would have done it when I’d tried to break him.”

“Allfather put a contract on my head before he died, because of what Marquis did.  Because- It’s how I found out he was my dad.  A letter from Dragon to Carol.”

“Carol… Ah yes, Brandish.   Well, I suspect either Dragon was manipulating you, or your father was manipulating Dragon in an effort to get a message to you.”

“A message.”

“That he’s there, that he exists.  Perhaps he sought to ensure he wasn’t forgotten by his child.  He was an old-fashioned individual, so it makes sense that he’d seek immortality through his progeny.”

Bonesaw piped up.  “That’s stupid.  Why do something like that when someone like me could make you immortal for real?”

“Shush, now.  Finish sewing yourself up while Amelia and I talk.”

“Okay,” Bonesaw said.  Her voice overlapped with Panacea saying, “Stop saying that.  It’s not my name.”

“Isn’t it?”

There was another silence.

“You’re your father’s daughter.  Both of you are bound up in rules you’ve imposed on yourselves.  His rules defined his demeanor, the boundaries he worked within, the goals he sought to achieve and how he achieved them.  They were his armor as much as his power was.  I would guess your rules are your weakness.  Rather than focus you, they leave you in free fall, nothing to grasp on to except your sister there, and we both know how that has turned out.”

Sister.  I made a mental note of that.  There were four people in that room.

“I- how do you know this?”

“Our emotion reader picked up on some.  I’ve figured out the rest.  As you might expect, I’m rather familiar with damaged individuals.”

Bonesaw giggled.

I didn’t like the way this was going.  I looked down the hall to see the doors.  Each door had once had a window on the upper half, but there were only slivers left, the rest scattered over the floor.  In an ideal world, some distraction would present itself, or the conversation would become a heated argument and they would distract each other.  I could rise from my crouching position, step forward, aim my gun and fire.  Unload the gun’s clip on Jack and Bonesaw.

Or I’d miss, resulting in the messy deaths of Panacea, her sister and I.  I really needed that distraction if I was going to do this.

“I’m not… not that type of damaged.  I’m not a monster,” Panacea protested.  As an afterthought, she added, “No offense.”

“I’ve been called worse.  I almost relish being called a monster.  As though I’ve transcended humanity and become something from myth.”

“Myth.”

“And according to Cherish, it may well be a destruction myth.”

“What?”

“She recently informed me that the world is going to end because of me.  Not quite sure how or when.  It could well be that I’m the butterfly that flaps his wings and stirs a hurricane into being through a chain of cause and effect.”

“I don’t want the world to end,” Bonesaw said.  “It’s fun.”

“It is.  But I expect it won’t end altogether.  There’s always going to be survivors.”

“True.”

“And it makes for an interesting picture.  After everything’s gone, there’ll be a new beginning.  Who better to craft the remains into a new world than you and Mannequin?”

“And Amelia?”

“And Amelia, if she so chooses.  We could be like gods in a new world.”

“You’re crazy,” Panacea muttered.

“According to studies, clinically depressed individuals have a more accurate grasp of reality than the average person.  We tell ourselves lies and layer falsehoods and self-assurances over one another in order to cope with a world colored by pain and suffering.  We put blinders on.  If we lose that illusion, we crumble into depression or we crack and go mad.  So perhaps I’m crazy, but only because I see things too clearly?”

“No,” Panacea’s voice was quiet.  “Um.  You’re not going to kill me if I argue, are you?”

“I’m liable to kill you if you don’t.”

“It’s not that you see too clearly.  I think your view is warped.”

“Over the course of millions of generations that led to your birth, how many of your ancestors were successful because they were cruel to others, because they lied, cheated, stole from their kin, betrayed their brothers and sisters, warred with their neighbors, killed?  We know about Marquis, so that’s one.”

How many were successful because they cooperated?  I wondered.

Jack probably had a rebuttal to my question, but I wasn’t about to speak up to hear it, and Panacea didn’t ask.  She fell silent.

I was tensed, ready to move and shoot the second an opportunity arose.  Anything would suffice.  Anything would do.

I visualized it, the steps I’d take to open fire, and I realized that the shards of glass on the ground between me and the door could provide them with a half-second of warning.  Slowly, carefully, I began brushing the shards aside, keeping my ears peeled for some clue about a key distraction.

“Survival of the fittest, it sounds so tidy, but it’s really hundreds of thousands of years of brutish, messy, violent incidents, billions of events that you’d want to avert your eyes from if you were to see them in person.  And that’s a large part of what’s shaped us into what we are.  But we wear masks, we pretend to be good, we extend a helping hand to others for reasons that are ultimately self-serving, and all the while, we’re just crude, pleasure-seeking, conniving, selfish apes.  We’re all monsters, deep down inside.”

Again, one of those pauses that suggested something was going on that was visual and out of sight, rather than something I could overhear.  Jack offered a dry chuckle.  “Did that hit home?”

“I’m… not that kind of person.  Not a monster.  I’d kill myself before I became like that.”

“But you see how you could be like us.  It wouldn’t even be very hard.  Just… let go of those rules of yours.  You’d get everything you ever wanted.”

“Not family.”

Yes, family.”  Bonesaw cut in.

“You guys kill each other.  That’s not family.”

“You’re derailing our conversation, Bonesaw,” Jack chided the girl.  “Amelia, when I say you could have everything you ever wanted, I’m telling you that you could live free of guilt, of shame, you could have your sister by your side, no more doubts plaguing you, no more feeling down.  Haven’t you laid in bed at night, wondering, praying for a world where you could have something like that?  I’m telling you that you can have those things, and I promise you that the transition from being who you are now to being who you could be would be much quicker than you suspect.”

“No.”  The defiance was half-hearted.

“Amelia, you could let yourself cut loose and love life for the first time since you were young.”

And just like that, her resistance crumbled.  “I’ve never felt like that.  Never felt carefree.  Not since I could remember.  Not even when I was a kid.”

“I see.  From your earliest memory, what was that?  In Marquis’s home?  No?  Being taken home by the heroes and heroines that would become your false family?  Ah, I saw that change in expression.  That would be your earliest memory, and you found yourself struggling to adjust to your new home, to school and life without your supervillain daddy.  By the time you did figure those things out, you had other worries.  I imagine your family was distant.  So you struggled to please them, to be a good girl, not that it ever mattered.  There was only disappointment.”

“You sound like Tattletale.  That’s not a compliment.”

“My ability to read people is learned, not given, I assure you.  Most of the conclusions I’ve come to have been from the cues you’ve given me.  Body language, tone, things you’ve said.  And I know these sorts of things and what to look for because I’ve met others like you.  That’s what I’m offering you.  A chance to be with similar people for the first time in your life, a chance to be yourself,  to have everything you want, and to be with me.  I suspect you’ve never been around someone who actually paid attention to you.”

“Tattletale did.  And Skitter.”

I startled at that.

“I meant on a long-term basis, but let’s talk about that.  I imagine they were telling you ‘No, you aren’t.  You can be good.'”

“Yeah.”

“But you didn’t believe them, did you, Amelia?  You’ve spent years telling yourself the opposite.  You’re a bad person, you’re destined to be bad, by circumstance and blood.  And even though you didn’t believe them, you’ll believe me when I tell you no, you aren’t a good person, but that’s okay.”

“It’s not.”

“You say that, but you believe me when I say it.”

There was another pause where Panacea didn’t venture a response.

“Isn’t it unfair?  Through no fault of your own, the blood in your veins is the blood of a criminal, and that’s affected how your family looks at you.  You’ve been saddled with feelings that aren’t your fault, and doomed to a life without color, enjoyment or pleasure.  Don’t you deserve to follow your passions?  A decade and a half of doing what others want you to do, doing what society wants you to do, haven’t you earned the right to do what you really desire, just this once?”

“That’s not really that convincing,” Panacea spoke, but she didn’t sound assertive.

“I know.  So I’ll offer you a deal.  If you indulge yourself, we’ll surrender.”

“What?”

“I won’t even make you do it now.  Just look me in the eye, and honestly tell me you’ll do it. Drop all of the rules you’ve set yourself.  I don’t care what you do after, you can wipe your sister’s memories, you can kill yourself, you can run away or come with us.  And your side wins.”

“Aren’t we winning anyways?”

“Up for debate.  I’m really quite thrilled with the current situation.  Very enjoyable, and we’ve certainly made an impact.”

“This deal is a trap.  You’ll make me do it and then you’ll kill me.”

“I could, but I won’t.  Do you really have anything to lose by trying?  If I’m going to kill you, I’m going to kill you regardless of what you say or do.  Three and a half words: ‘I’ll do it’, and we leave the city.”

I almost stood right then, to open fire before she made a decision one way or another.  I had to convince myself to wait, that no matter what they were saying, they wouldn’t leave right this instant.

Then I heard the sound of glass crunching in time with someone’s footsteps.

With the length of time I’d waited for an opportunity, I was going to take what I could get.  My heart pounded, my hands shook even as I gripped the gun as hard as I could, but I let out a slow breath as I drew myself smoothly to a standing position and stepped into the doorway, pointing the gun through the window frame in the door.

They hadn’t heard me move.  It left me a second to take in the scene and make sure I was shooting the right people.

They were in a music room that had been arranged with seats on a series of ascending platforms, backed by windows that had exploded inward, scattering the area with glass shards.  At the bottom ‘floor’, there was a podium waiting for the teacher.  Jack was walking up the steps to approach a girl.  I knew he was Jack because he was the only male present.  He was wreathed in thin white smoke, wore a light gray t-shirt marked with blood stains and black jeans tucked into cowboy boots.  A thick leather belt had a variety of knives, including a butcher’s cleaver, a stiletto and a serrated blade.

His teammate Bonesaw, was standing in the corner of the room just to my right.  I could see the edge of a dress, an apron with tools and vials in the pocket, long blond hair curled into ringlets, and that same shroud of smoke around her, moving out to fill the room.  The rest of her was obscured by the wall to my right and the shelves that stood behind the podium.  It put her in an awkward spot for me to shoot.  If I’d known she was there, I would have crawled over to the door at that end, gunned her down at point-blank.

Panacea stood at the far end of the room, at the highest point. She had brown hair that was blowing slightly with the breeze that flowed in through the glassless windows behind her, topped with a flat top cap.  Freckles covered her face, and she was dressed in a tank top and cargo pants.  More than anything else, she wore a look of fear on her face that marked her as the victim, not the threat.

And process of elimination meant the thing beside her was her sister.  I would have called it a coffin, but it was clearly made of something living.  It resembled a massive growth of flesh that had been shaped into a vague diamond shape, gnarled with horny callous and toenail-like growths that protected it and reinforced it at the edges.  On the side closest to me, a girl’s face was etched into an oversized growth of bone.  It was unmoving, decorative, with locks of long wavy hair that wrapped around the sides of the diamond.  The ‘sister’ floated a foot over the floor.

It was so startling to see that I nearly forgot what I was doing.  I drew in a short breath, then let slow breath out as I aimed the gun at Jack and squeezed the trigger.

I’d mentally planned to unload the gun on Jack and Bonesaw, but I’d forgotten about the recoil.   At the same time Jack was struck down, my arm jerked up, and my mental instruction to fire nonetheless carried through.  The second bullet hit the ceiling.

I whipped the door open and turned to my right to fire on Bonesaw, but my arm was numb, and her reflexes were sharp.  She was already opening a door at the other corner of the classroom before I could shoot, making her way into the hallway.

I had a split second to decide if I should chase her or go after Jack.  I glanced at Panacea, saw her staring.  As if the eye contact snapped her out of a daze, she lunged toward Jack, one hand outstretched.  She stopped dead in her tracks as he lashed out blindly with the knife.  Reversing direction, she went for her sister instead.

Jack hadn’t been incapacitated.  Aside from the impact of the gunshot, he didn’t even seem wounded.  He was on his feet in a flash, spinning a hundred and eighty degrees to face me, his knife in motion.

I ducked back through the door, the knife delivering a glancing blow to my back.  It failed to penetrate my costume.

Oddly enough, moving into the hallway and putting my back to the wall made me feel like I’d committed to fighting Jack, even if I might have been in a better position to go after Bonesaw.

“Wake,” I heard Panacea speak.  She said something else that I missed.

I felt a jolt, but it wasn’t physical.  It shook me on an emotional level.  My voice abandoned me, not that I wanted to speak.  I felt as if I stood on the very edge of the grand canyon and any movement, even one to step back onto solid ground, was guaranteed to send me falling to certain death.

The levitating construct of flesh slammed through the door and the door-frame that Bonesaw had used to make her exit.  The mask of bone drew upward like an opened lid, to reveal a clear sphere, containing vitreous fluid and a teenage girl with blond hair.

Her eyes were open, but she looked half asleep, her hair fanned out around her, floating in fluid that seemed thicker than water.  Her arms were outstretched, but her hands and lower body were hidden by the meat that surrounded her.  The edges of the shell that were unfolding around her were curved forward like the horns of a bull.

If the sister had come after me, I wouldn’t have been able to fight back.  Like a deer in the headlights, I stood there, unable to think or compel my body to move.

She rotated in mid-air slowly, as if getting her bearings.  As ponderously as she had moved one moment, she went tearing after Bonesaw in the next, slamming through walls as momentum carried her too far and as she turned a corner too tight and sheared through the drywall, tile and window frames.

I could hear Bonesaw laughing with childlike glee as she fled.

“Not smart, not smart, either of you,” Jack chastised us.  “See, with Victoria gone, you’ve left me here with a hostage.”

I stood with my back to the wall, gun in hand.  Ten bullets in here, four spent, if I’d counted right.  I’d always sort of rolled my eyes at how movies treated guns and counting bullets, but it was harder than I’d thought.  The shock and disorientation that came with firing a gun tended to disrupt even basic arithmetic.  I couldn’t remember how many times I’d fired during the fight in the parking lot.

“I’ve been turning every microbe that touches my skin into an airborne plague, Jack,” Panacea spoke, her voice low.  “You should be dead now.”

“And me?” I called out, feeling a pang of alarm.

“I didn’t know you were there.  You should be dead too.  Sorry.”

“A benefit of little Bonesaw’s smoke,” Jack answered.  “If I recall correctly, it’s something of a safeguard in case she accidentally deploys a concoction she hasn’t immunized herself or the rest of our team against.  The fact that it works against bugs and small rodents is a side benefit, rather than the intent.  Bonesaw’s work has made us members of the Nine more or less immune to disease anyways.”

“And the gunshot?”

“Subdermal mesh.  There’s more protection around the spine and organs, and you landed that shot pretty close to my spine.  It hurts quite a bit.”

“Skitter!  I don’t care if I die,” Panacea called out, “I’d rather live, if only to turn Victoria back to normal, but… just don’t worry about the hostage part.  If I have to die so you can kill this fucker, I will.”

It isn’t that simple.  Killing a monster like Jack or Bonesaw?  That was one thing.  I could push myself to do it.  Killing a bystander in the process?  That was something else entirely.

Jack seemed to be able to interpret my pause.  “I suspect, Amelia, that she is worried about the hostage.  The monster that dwells in Skitter’s heart is very similar one to yours.  It’s a lonely thing, desperate for a place to belong, and the only thing it wants to be brutish to is her.”

“Don’t pretend you know me, Jack,” I called out.  “You already tried to fuck with my head, you guessed wrong.”

“I had bad information.  Cherish has her uses, but she was never going to be a long-term member of the group.  The people who can are truly special.  Bonesaw, Siberian, me.  Perhaps Mannequin, but it’s hard to say.  He’s not terribly social, but he’s been with us for some time.”

I stayed silent.  I could hear his voice changing in volume as he spoke.  Was he moving?

There were two doors leading into the classroom.  Was he moving toward one, aiming to leap out and strike at me?  I glanced down the length of the hall.  Bathroom, janitorial closet, another bathroom, storage room… it made sense that there wouldn’t be other classrooms adjacent to a music room with minimal soundproofing.

“You two have your differences, of course.  Amelia, you’re burdened by guilt, as you’re burdened by your rules and so much else.  I’d like you to think again about how nice it would be to be free-”

“No,” Amelia’s interruption was curt, almost defensive.

“Alas.  Well, while I’m interpreting you two, I’d say Skitter is driven by guilt.  What makes you feel so guilty, bug girl?”

He’s trying to distract me.

I scampered along the length of the hallway, keeping low enough that I wouldn’t be visible from the window while I moved to the point just beyond the effects of the bug-killing cloud.  I could send bugs after Bonesaw and the sister -Victoria, was it?- but Bonesaw would still have that cloud of smoke around her.  I doubted my ability to achieve anything on that front.

“There’s always some guilt related to family.  Tell me, what would your mother think, to see you on an average day?  Or can’t you remember her with the miasma?  I’d almost forgotten.”

Even if I couldn’t remember her face, who she was, or even where she was, I could feel a pang of regret that knotted in my gut.  I grit my teeth to remind myself to keep from opening my mouth and grasped the cords that my bugs had threaded together.  I looped them around Atlas’ horn, and then I ran down the hallway, still keeping low.

Just to check, I tried bringing bugs into the hallway.  The smoke was still present, if thin.  They still died, just a little slower than before.  I returned them to their previous location.  No use wasting them for nothing.

“Skitter,” he called out in a sing-song voice.  With the acoustics of the hallway, I couldn’t pinpoint his location.  “Aren’t you going to reply?”

Just as I was trying to locate him, he was attempting to do the same for me.

I decided to give him what he wanted.

“You’re pathetic, Jack.”

I’d intended to provoke him, and I’d succeeded.

I’d also intended to pull the silk cord taut as he stepped into the hallway, tripping him.

Instead of opening the door, he leaped through the open window in the upper half of the door, tucking his knees against his chest.  He landed with a short roll, spotted me, and slashed.

I brought my arms up around my face to protect it.  The feeling of the silk cord’s weight dropped to virtually nothing as the slash cut it.

I’d been given tips on fighting, even if I couldn’t remember by who or by whom.  Catch them off guard.  My arms around my face, nearly blind, I charged him.

He caught me in the side with a kick, but I had enough forward momentum that I crashed into him anyways.  We fell to the ground, and I reached for the smoking vial that hung around his neck.

Jack already had the stiletto in one hand.  He jabbed it toward my face, my eye, and I jerked my head back out of the way, abandoning my attempt to get the vial.  Using one elbow, he shoved me to one side, then flipped over, simultaneously reversing his grip on the knife in his other hand and driving it down toward the side of my head.  I rolled with the momentum he’d given me to escape before it could pierce my ear or my temple.  He was already following up, slashing both knives at me, one after the other.

He knew how to fight, of course.  He’d said he’d been at this for a while.

Hated this.  Hated fighting without knowing enough about my opponents.

I tried to get my feet under me, but it was slow and awkward as I was unable to use my hands.  I had to wrap my arms around my head to shield my face against the continued flurry of slashes. Jack had a knife in each hand now, and he wasn’t giving me a half second between cuts, if that.

My forearms and hands didn’t cover enough of my head.  I could feel the cuts nicking my ears, slashing through my hair by my temple.  A few slashes made their way through gaps between my arms and fingers.

Blindly, I rushed for the classroom.  Needed a second to breathe, to think, before I was whittled down to a bleeding ruin.  I could hear footsteps behind me.  I felt a hand seize my shoulder.  I whirled and knocked it away, felt another knife slash crossing the back of my head.  I had blood in my eyes, my ears were a bloody ruin, and cuts burned like fire around my scalp and neck.

A shout.  Not Jack’s.  I heard it again, the same words, but I couldn’t make them out.  There was blood in my ears.

I stumbled into the classroom, and Panacea was at my side in a moment.

“Fix me,” I gasped.  I couldn’t tell where Jack was, and I was hurting enough that I couldn’t think to strategize.  He hadn’t followed.  “Fast!”

She touched my forehead, and I could feel the cuts knitting together.

But there was another injury that wasn’t mending.

“The red miasma took away my ability to recognize people.  I don’t know anything about the people I’m fighting.  Fix my brain.”

“I don’t- I can’t.”

“If you don’t fix me, Jack could win, and billions could die.  If you don’t cure whatever it is that Bonesaw’s done with this miasma, I and tens of thousands of others could die of a degenerative brain disease.”

“You don’t understand.  I can’t cure brain damage.”

My heart fell.

“I- my- the last time I did it, the last time I broke my rules, everything fell apart.  You’re asking me to do the exact same thing Jack was.  To break my rules again.”

“They’re just rules.”  Where was Jack?

“They’re the only thing holding me together.”

He’s getting away.  This stupid girl.  “You were willing to die if he took you hostage.  I’m asking you to sacrifice yourself in a lesser way.  Fall apart if you have to.  But undo what Bonesaw’s started.”

“This is worse than dying,” she said, her voice quiet.

“Ask yourself if it’s worse than the slow, degenerative death of thousands and the potential end of the world.”

She stared at me.

Even as she looked at me, aghast, I felt something awaken in my mind, barriers crumbling.

“This is bad.  Every second is time you’re suffering more permanent damage.”

“That’s not a huge priority.  I’m more worried about Jack, and all the others who got hit harder by this stuff than I did.”

“It’s a parasite that’s producing the improperly folded proteins.  I can stop it, and I think I can make them create a counter-agent that counteracts the proteins and promotes healing in the brain.  Can’t make them fix the lesions, but I can promote plasticity in the brain and new connections to old information.”

Her voice was so quiet I barely heard it.

But I could remember the others; I remembered Tattletale and Brian.  Rachel.  I could remember Alec and Aisha.  The dogs.  Our enemies.  My dad.  My mom’s face popped into my mind’s eye and I could feel a relief as I let go of an anxiety that I hadn’t been consciously aware of.

“The parasites will replace existing parasites over time, and they’ll die if it gets cold, now.  Or if you raise your blood alcohol content.  Get drunk after a week or two to clear them from your system, and don’t drink tainted water.  If everyone clears them from their systems, the miasma’s effects will be gone by the end of winter.”

“They’re probably what she seeded all over the area, before using the catalyst.”

“I’d believe it.”

“And the damage, can you reverse it?”

“The minor damage, yeah.  But I can’t do anything for the people with more serious brain lesions unless I attend to them directly.  There’s other healers out there, I know they’re not as good, but maybe they can do something to fix that.”

I nodded.

Precious seconds passed.

“Let me know the second I can go,” I said.  “Jack’s going to attack, or pull something.”

“Trying to engineer a large-scale solution to help as many people as soon as possible.  The parasites will leave your body through your sweat, spit and urine, and enter the local water supply to override the others, and anyone you cure will cure others in a sort of reverse-epidemic.  I have to make sure this is engineered right, or nobody’s going to get cured.  If I screw it up, it could be worse than what Bonesaw did.”

My leg bounced on the spot with anxiety and anticipation.  Jack was up to something and I was sitting there.

I tried to distract myself with a change of subject, “Where did you get the material for what you did for Glory Girl?  That sarcophagus thing.  You have to use living material, so…”

“They weren’t human.”

“That’s not that reassuring.”

“I used pheromones to lure stray cats, dogs and rats to us, then I knit them together.  Victoria didn’t have enough body fat to stay warm, and she was wearing out faster than I could get her nutrition.”

“She’s going to return to normal, though?”

“Just a little more time.  I have to ensure she’s totally together inside the cocoon, then disconnect her from it, and make sure she reaches a physical equilibrium afterward.  Once I know she’ll recover…” she trailed off.

“Amy-”

“Go.  You’re done.  Go after Jack.”

I hesitated.  There was a look in her eyes, dark.  She wasn’t meeting my gaze.

I turned and ran.  Atlas was waiting on the rooftop as I ascended the stairs.

Too much time lost.  My body was a counter-agent for Bonesaw’s prion generators, but I had to find Jack and Bonesaw.  I could scout the area with my bugs, vaguely sense the areas they’d traveled by seeing what spots murdered my bugs on contact, but I still had to track their movements.

Glory Girl was hovering over the school, searching for Bonesaw.  The ‘cocoon’, as Amy had called it, was damaged much as the school gate had been, but Glory Girl was still intact inside.

The fact that she was looking made it very possible that we were facing the worst case scenario.

The bug-killing smoke extended outside of the school gates.  It was hard to verify if they’d gone that way and corked the flow of the smoke or if it was traces from before.  My only resource and means of detecting it was my bugs, but testing it meant killing them by the dozens, if not hundreds.

If they stayed on the grounds and I left, it could mean something ugly for Amy and Glory girl.  Conversely, if they’d left and I stayed, it could mean disaster for everyone else.

I left, flying Atlas in an ever-expanding circle, reaching out with my bugs to scan the surroundings.

With a mixture of relief and fear, I realized that Bonesaw’s extermination smoke was stronger a half mile away.  I’d been lucky enough to guess right.

They’d split up.  Two trails, extending down different streets.  My bugs felt around to see where the death-zone was, a few dropping dead each time, their numbers whittling down.  It was like a game of battleship, with constantly moving ships and limited ammunition.

Three trails.  I stopped in mid-air.

Three?

I gave chase to the nearest one, abandoning Atlas to pursue the subject into an alley, through a hole in the wall and into a derelict building, past a pile of rubble… this wasn’t right.  It was too nimble, moving through spaces too small for even Bonesaw.

And before I even returned to Atlas, there were a half-dozen trails in total that were branching out around us.  In another few minutes, there were a dozen.

Our group had used this method some time ago, using Grue’s power to slip away from the bank robbery.  But how were they doing it?  It wasn’t just the wind carrying the gas down misleading alleys.  Were there living creatures carrying vials of the stuff?

Mechanical spiders.  They’d found their maker, and Bonesaw was using them to distribute the vapor and cut off my swarm sense.

They’d escaped.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Wards!”  Weld hollered.  “Crawler and Mannequin, like we discussed!  Close ranks around Victoria!”

His words broke the spell that the scene had over Vista and Flechette.  Surprising that there were so few Wards here, on a level.  Kid Win wasn’t in sight, nor was Chariot, and Clockblocker was under the sway of his own powers. Shadow Stalker, Aegis, Gallant and Browbeat were dead or gone.

The final sorta-maybe member of their group, Glory Girl, was being eaten alive by Crawler’s acid.

Vista and Flechette moved to positions just behind and to either side of Weld.  The group blocked Crawler’s view of Glory Girl.

Miss Militia directed the adult heroes with a series of short commands and hand signals.  Ursa and Assault led the way with Miss Militia, Prism, Battery and Triumph following, clearly aiming to flank Crawler and close the distance between them and Mannequin.

Crawler spat, and Vista used her power, reducing the distance the spit traveled to a tenth of what it might have been.  Crawler leaped, and she widened the distance between him and everyone else so he stood in the midst of a clearing.

Flechette fired a bolt straight into Crawler.  It penetrated his face and stuck there.  Little surprise on that front; I’d seen her stick Leviathan with one of those giant needles.  Crawler’s face bubbled around the wound where it was rejecting the foreign object.  Almost imperceptibly, it began to slide out.

He rumbled with a low, guttural laugh, mocking.  Was he enjoying himself?  He was a masochist, and it was the rare thing that could hurt him.

Miss Militia interrupted his gloating with a shot from a rocket launcher.  His claws dug deep into pavement as he resisted being knocked over.  She used her power to reload the rocket launcher and shot him again, uprooting him.  Triumph used a full-power shout to send Crawler sliding across the clearing Vista had made.  Vista widened the distance by stretching the landscape.

Prism and Battery went after Mannequin.  Prism split into three copies of herself, complete with fireproof suit, closing in as Battery used her power to cross the distance and trade blows.  I was only peripherally aware of Prism, given how she was based in New York, but seeing her in action reminded me of how she operated.

She was a self-duplicator, always producing two other versions of herself, but there were nuances.  So long as one duplicate lived, she would survive whatever happened to the others, but they didn’t last long.  She could also expend them to enhance herself.

It made her an effective partner for Battery.  Both were all about the setup followed by execution.  Prism formed her duplicates and spread them out while Battery attacked, then drew her duplicates back into herself in a flash of light before delivering a crushing strike.

Mannequin was holding his own.  The hits that did land seemed to have little effect, as he went limp and bent with them.  It seemed he was keeping to the old adage of a supple willow bending in a hurricane that topples a sturdy oak.  Even when Battery was moving at super speed, he was quick to take the advantage of a kick that went too high or a sweep aiming to knock his feet out from under him.  He ducked beneath the former and hopped over the latter, then using his grappling-hook hands to haul himself a distance away.

He managed to get close enough to cut down two of Prism’s duplicates, then pointed his hand at her third self, extending a blade from the base of his hand and firing it like a harpoon.  Battery used up her charge and swept it aside before it could strike home and finish off the heroine.

Ursa, Triumph and Assault were getting into the thick of things with Crawler while Miss Militia and Flechette aided them from a distance.  Ursa was creating forcefields in the rough shape of bears, two at a time.  Weld stood, defending the two female members of the Wards.  Glory Girl was looking worse for wear with every passing second.

“Weld!”  I shouted, drawing the beetle as close as I dared with the heat and smoke beneath me.  “What can I do!?”

“More bombs on Mannequin!”  He shouted.

“I’m out!”  I replied.

“Then get out of here!  You’ll be one less person we have to protect!  Our front line’s pretty thin!”

Weld half-turned to glance back at Glory Girl, and I could see his expression change as he saw how bad she was.  It was reaching the point that we might have to leave her for dead. There were spots where the muscle had necrotized enough that I could make out her internal organs.  If the redness was any indication, the acid was extending to her vitals.

“Evac Victoria and Cache on your way out!”

Evac.  The last time I’d had a scale to check, months ago, I’d weighed a hundred and eighteen pounds.  With my gear, my costume, maybe that added up to one hundred and twenty.  I had my doubts the beetle could manage me if I was even ten pounds heavier.  How could I carry someone larger than me, in addition to myself?

Maybe I didn’t have to.

Had to think out of the box.  If I could get her out of here, and if the beetle could manage her, I could remotely pilot it to Amy.  Those were two pretty huge ifs.  No, couldn’t pin my hopes on that.

I saw Cache using his power on himself.  He was barely able to crawl, but he surrounded himself in his dark geometry, disappearing as it condensed down to a point.  He’d taken himself out of this dimension.  I wasn’t sure if it was a journey of no return or a way to get some respite.

But his use of his power gave me another idea.  Glory Girl had powers too.

“Can she fly!?”  I shouted.

“What?”  Weld asked.  He glanced up at me, then turned his attention back to the fight.  His body was tensed and ready to act the second Crawler made a move for his teammates.

“Ask her if she can fly!”

“She’s insensate!”

“Try!”

He turned back to the superheroine and said something I couldn’t make out.

If she responded, I didn’t hear it.

Weld extended his arms into two long poles.  They extended ten feet, then fifteen, then thirty.  Reaching back, he caught Glory Girl with the ends, bending the tips to encircle her body.

“Wait!” I said.

He glanced up at me, then over at Crawler.  The villain was spitting at Assault, who slid on the ground to evade the spray.  Crawler took advantage of the gap in the defensive wall to stampede toward Vista and Flechette.  Vista increased the distance, but not as fast as Crawler crossed it.

Under pressure, choosing the protection of his teammates as his top priority, Weld ignored my plea for a moment to think.  He twisted his entire body to haul Glory Girl into the air, throwing her at me like a catapult might throw a boulder.

I changed my orientation so I’d be ready to catch her.  Rather than try to wrap my arms around her, I moved so we were racing alongside her as she arced through the air.  It gave me only a second or two to make the call about grabbing her.  I didn’t want to get that acid on me.

I grabbed at the two things that seemed safe – the intact portion of her lower costume and her hair.  I pulled back, hauling on both, but the beetle wasn’t able to offer the necessary lift.

She was insensate with pain, and she struggled at what I was doing to her.  I momentarily wondered if she’d hit me or the beetle with one of those punches that could crush stone. Worse, if she grabbed me and I couldn’t break away, I’d plummet to the ground with her.

“Fly!” I screamed the word.  “Lift up, Glory Girl!”

Her face was melting on one side, her eyes a ruin, her ear and the surrounding area of her head a bloody mess.  I wondered if she could even hear me.

I was getting dragged down.  How long before I had to make the call about letting go?  It would mean letting her fall back into the burning city street.  Maybe her forcefield would protect her, but the acid would continue to eat into her, until it got at something especially vital.  She would die, slowly and painfully.  Burning to death would almost be a mercy.

“Rise!  Fly!”  I shouted.

She began to lift up.  I took the opportunity to let go of her hair, grabbing at the one hand that wasn’t covered in acid.  I pulled on her hand, and she followed my lead.

We moved as fast as my beetle was able.  I knew she could fly faster, would have compelled her to even push me and the beetle forward if I thought I could have handled the navigation.  As a group, we passed over a red scaled wingless dragon that I took to be Genesis, wading through the flames on her way to the site of the battle.

My beetle needed a name.  Had to have a better way of referring to it.  A hercules beetle, but bigger, a giant.  I thought about Hercules, about the myth; Hercules had borrowed the burden of the giant who carried the world.  Atlas.

“Come on, Atlas,” I urged him, “Faster.”

Dumb to talk to him, when I knew for an absolute fact that he couldn’t understand me.  Maybe I was talking to myself.

We found my teammates still clearing a path through the edge of the area.  They were all walking, the dogs in a formation around them, Bitch holding up the distant rear with Bastard.

I landed.  Glory Girl didn’t have the strength to stand, and collapsed like a rag doll.

“Holy shit!”  Regent said, as he saw the extent of the damage.

Amy went white as a sheet.

“Heal her!  Just don’t touch the spots where the acid hit her!”

“I don’t know- what happened?”

“Crawler spit on her, then knocked out her forcefield.  Move!  Fix your sister!

She staggered forward and reached out toward Victoria.

“No,” Victoria mumbled.

“You’re dying,” Grue spoke.

“No,” Victoria repeated herself.  “Not-”

She coughed sharply and mumbled in the same breath, and didn’t bother trying to correct herself.

“Do it anyways,” Tattletale said.

Victoria swung with her good hand, slamming it into the sidewalk.  Cracks spiderwebbed out from the impact site.  She coughed.  “No.”

“If she hits me, she’ll kill me,” Amy said.

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  “If she doesn’t want help, you shouldn’t give it.”

“She’s not thinking straight.  What I did-”

“Doesn’t matter,” Tattletale said.

Amy shook her head, talking over her, “She’s always been emotional, passionate, unrestrained, and she’s channeling all this new emotion into hate, because it’s the closest equivalent.”

“New emotion?” Regent asked.  “You mean you mindraped her.”

Amy looked like she’d been slapped across the face.  I wasn’t surprised, but hearing it said out loud was unsettling.

“Seriously?”  Imp voiced the incredulity that everyone else seemed to be feeling.

“It was an accident,” Amy said.

“How do you do that by accident?”  Imp asked.

“Enough,” Tattletale cut in.  “Victoria, listen, I’m going to pour some sterile water over you, and hopefully it’ll flush some of the acid away, okay?  I don’t know what else we can do for you.  I know you can’t see, so don’t be surprised when it happens.”

Victoria turned her head slightly, but she didn’t respond.

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  She didn’t have water in her hand.  Instead, she grabbed Amy and shoved her in Glory Girl’s direction.  Amy looked at her, scandalized and horrified, but Tattletale only mouthed the word ‘go’.

Amy knelt by her sister and touched her hand.  Glory Girl’s back arched as if she’d been electrocuted, and then she went limp.  Paralyzed, unable to resist.

“I’m sorry,” Amy said.  “So, so sorry.  Oh god, this is bad.”

None of the rest of us spoke.

“I can’t- can’t figure out what this venom is.  I can’t touch it to see if it’s organic, um, I can only see what it’s doing.  At least part of it is enzymes.  It’s denaturing proteins in her cells and using the byproducts to build more enzymes, and it’s breaking down lipids as a side effect, shit.  Oh god, and there’s more to it.  The fluid the enzymes are swimming in is some kind of acid.”

“Can you fix her?”  Tattletale asked.

“So much to do,” Amy mumbled, “Have to counter the acid with some kind of physiological byproduct, have to stop the enzymes from liquefying her entire body, and repair the damage.  Trying to make some kind of firebreak to stop the spread of the venom, withdraw the proteins the venom is using to propagate itself.  There isn’t enough tissue in her body for everything I need to do to fix her.”

“Fixing her body and healing all the damage can come later,” Tattletale said, as if she were reassuring Amy.  “For now, keep her alive and fix what you did to her head.”

“I have enough to manage without worrying about that.”  There was a note of desperation in Amy’s voice.

“It’s as much a priority as anything else.  I said it before, if you don’t do it now-”

“Shut up,” Amy snapped.  “I need to focus.”

We watched her work.  The dissolving began to slow, then fix.  The wounds weren’t closing, but the necrotized edges of the ruined flesh was turning from black to crimson.

“You going to go back?”  Tattletale asked me.

I shook my head and glanced over to where the clouds was glowing orange with the reflected flames.  “Nothing I could do.  Too much fire, it cancels out my power, and it’s dangerous for Atlas.”

“Atlas.  I like that.”

I shrugged.

I turned to Amy.  “Do you want me to bring bugs?  Maggots eat only dead flesh, which might be helpful if-”

“No.  I can handle that.”

“Or I could get some of the more useless bugs, like the ones you used to make Atlas, for raw material.”

Amy turned to give me an incredulous look.

“You said you didn’t have enough tissue to patch everything together.  If you wanted to put together a placeholder…”  I trailed off.

“Nice,” Regent said.  “She could be a human-spider hybrid.  Add some insult to injury with the mindrape thing.”

I could see Amy tense.

“That’s not what I’m saying,” I told him.  “Amy was saying the enzymes were dissolving proteins and other stuff.  The bugs would be a source of protein, vitamins, carbs…”

“I’m a little surprised you know that,” Grue commented.  He didn’t take his eyes off of Amy and Glory Girl.

“My power tells me some of it,” I said, “And I did some reading after we took over our territories, trying to research that stuff.  It was an idle thought, but I was thinking that if we got into a food shortage, I could feed my people with bugs.”

Imp made a gagging noise.

“Wow,” Regent said.  “See, you just started off by making me think you were warped and creepy because you were suggesting Panacea turn Glory Girl into some sort of bug-borg, and now you’re making me think you’re creepy and weird because you wanted to feed bugs to people who aren’t your enemy.”

“It was just an idea,” I said, maybe more defensively than I should have, “And bugs are nutritious.  People all over the world eat them.”

“Have you?” Grue asked.

I shook my head, “But I would have tried them first, if I decided to go ahead with that plan.”

“Please,” Amy cut in.  “Can you?”

I turned to her.  It took me a second to realize what she meant, after the line of questioning from the others.

“Yeah, of course,” I told her.  I began calling a swarm to me.  I’d already exhausted the surrounding area of most, and the ones I hadn’t already called forth were buried in the deepest recesses and most awkward areas, where it was so inefficient and time-consuming to bring them to me that I’d left them where they were.

It took some time to bring them to the area.

“How was the battle going?”  Grue asked.

“The heroes seemed to be managing, but I don’t know how things are going to turn out,” I said.  I looked at Shatterbird, who floated above us.  “We could use her help.”

“Don’t trust myself to control her if she’s too far away,” Regent spoke.

I made a face.  “Right.  But she could carry you?”

“She almost dropped me once before.  It’s pretty hard to hold on to someone, especially without the leverage you have when you’re on the ground.

The first bugs were arriving in front of Amy.  She began dissolving them into their constituent parts and pressing them into Glory Girl’s abdomen.  When she raised her hand, they were gone.  She held her hand out for more to gather while keeping one hand on Glory Girl.

Minutes passed before Amy stood and wiped her bloody hands on her pants.  “Done as much as I can.”

Glory Girl didn’t look ‘done’.  Scars crawled across her body, angry-looking, surrounded by burns from the acid and flames.  Her skin in areas where the flesh had melted away was so new and stretched so thin that it was translucent, and there was little to no body fat to pad the area between skin and muscle.

“Fix her,” Tattletale said.  “You know what you did to her, you know it was wrong, undo it and walk away.”

“Can’t,” Amy shook her head, “I said I’ve done as much as I can, but there’s so much more I need to fix.  The parts I made with the bits I took from bugs will need to be replaced with real flesh.”

“That’s her choice.  You saved her life, good on you, but you need to let her make the call.”

“Why do you care so much?  You’re a bad guy.”

“Oh yeah,” Tattletale replied in a dry tone, “I’m evil, right?  Maybe that’s all the more reason to listen if I’m saying that something’s fucked up and wrong?”

Amy shook her head, “She needs to eat, and I need to rest.  I can speed up her digestion, like I did with breaking down the bugs inside her.  But I need so much material that it’s going to take a lot of food if I’m going to get everything she needs.  One night, and I can make her normal.”

Tattletale shrugged, “That’s fine.  Just undo what you did first.”

“If she fights me and doesn’t let me finish-”

“That’s her choice.”  Tattletale repeated herself.

“No!  That’s- that’s not her.  That’s the change I made doing the talking, or the aftermath of it.  Even if I removed all the neural connections that have been made since, there’s so much more in the emotional cocktails and hormonal balances.  She’s channeling it into anger instead of… instead of love.”

Love.  The implications were so fucked up.  It was the sort of thing Heartbreaker did.

She hugged her arms against her body.  There were tears in her eyes.

“You need to fix her mind now.  For you, not for her.  Maybe she’ll forgive you at a later date, when she’s thinking clearly again,” Tattletale said.  “Maybe then she can approach you, you two can start interacting again, you rebuild that trust over months or years, and you can finish healing her body when she gives you her permission.”

“Or I can fix her now, undo what I did and then walk away forever, because I don’t deserve forgiveness and she shouldn’t have to live like this because- because a wrong I committed fucked with her focus or made her too aggressive or-”

“It wasn’t like that,” I said.  “She didn’t have time to react.  I was watching.  These injuries Crawler inflicted were not your fault.”

“Doesn’t matter.  She would have reacted sooner if she’d been getting enough sleep, if her emotions weren’t off kilter.”

“Amy-” I started.

She shook her head so violently that I stopped mid-sentence.  “I can almost feel right about this.  I patch things up, and then I go.”

Amy bent down and touched her sister.  Glory Girl stirred and sat up.  With Amy’s help she stood.

“You’re lying to yourself,” Tattletale said.  “And you’re making things worse.”

“Just- I’m just keeping her complacent.  I’m okay with it if she doesn’t forgive me for it.  Don’t deserve it anyways.  I do this, and then I’ll go somewhere I can be useful.  Only reason I haven’t made more of myself and my power is because of the rules and regulations about exploiting minors with powers.  Either go into government or don’t work at all, and didn’t want to go into government because they would have made me a weapon.  And because I needed to be with my family.”

She smiled, but it wasn’t a happy expression.  “Burned that bridge.  But I’m sixteen now, I can get a job somewhere, start making a real difference with my power.”

“And the last thing you’ll do for your family is this?  Hypnotizing your sister when she’s already mad at you for assaulting her and fucking with her head?”  Tattletale asked.

“The last thing I’m going to do is fix her.”

“A means to an end.”  I stepped forward a little. “Trust me when I say I’ve been down that road.  I don’t recommend it.”

“You don’t understand.”

“Wasn’t it only a little while ago that you admitted you couldn’t figure out what you needed to do to put things right?  You asked me to make the call.”

“Because you had the experience in making calls on morality in dangerous situations, situations where I can’t even think straight,” Amy said.  Her voice hardened a little, “But I have the impression that you don’t have that same expertise when it comes to family.”

I thought of my dad, and it sat heavily enough in my mind’s eye that I couldn’t formulate a response.

Grue formulated one for me.  “You’re one to talk.”

“I’m trying to fix this!”  Amy raised her voice.  “Why are you making this a thing?  Why do you even care?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “I talked about it with Grue, Bitch and Regent.  We were considering offering you a place on the team.”

I looked at Tattletale in surprise.  I glanced at Bitch.  Even her?

Amy scowled, “As if.  You’re such hypocrites.  Regent mind controls people all the time!”

“Regent mind controls the monsters, the bad guys,” I said.

“Taking advantage of bad people for selfish ends.”

“What you’re doing is selfish,” Tattletale cut in.  “You think you’re doing it for her, but you’re only doing it to soothe your own guilt.”

“No,” Amy said, as if that was that.

She glanced at me.  “Thank you for bringing her to me so I could help her.  Um.  I don’t want it to be a nasty surprise, so you should know I didn’t give the bugs I designed any proper digestive systems.  They’ll starve to death before the week’s over, but the Nine will be gone by then.  If they aren’t, we’re all fucked anyways, aren’t we?”

I looked down at Atlas, then back to her.  I clenched my fists.  “I’m using them to help people.”

“For now, sure.  In the future?  I couldn’t be sure.  So I put a time limit on them.  Let’s go, Victoria.”

“Hey!”  I shouted.  My swarm stirred around me as the pair turned to walk away.

“No,” Tattletale said, putting a hand on my shoulder.

“But she-”

“She’s not thinking straight.  We’ve all been there.  You don’t want to start a fight.  We’ve got other enemies to focus on without making more.”

I was pissed off enough that I wanted to hit someone.  I couldn’t even articulate the entirety of why I was so angry.  I’d gone out of my way to be nice to her, to empathize, to save her sister, and save both of their lives.  And this was how she repaid me?  A slap in the face, a final gesture to make her distrust for me as blatant as possible?

“I could try,” Grue said, “I’ve seen her power, but I don’t get the full picture, I might kill it.  Or fuck it up somehow.”

“Please,” I said.

He raised one hand and created a wave of darkness.  It passed over the two girls.

I brought Atlas to Grue, and he laid one hand on the shell.  I could feel shifting in Atlas’ mandibles, head, thorax and abdomen.

The shifting stopped the same instant I saw Glory Girl spear straight out of the top of the cloud of darkness, flying high with Amy in her arms.

“Did you finish?”  I asked.

“Couldn’t say,” he sighed.

I searched Atlas with my power, trying to get a feel for his physiology.  As with all the other instances, everything about him was invisible if I wasn’t looking specifically for it, a black hole in the database of knowledge my power provided.  He was created, and there was no genetic blueprint that my power could decrypt and analyze to figure out what part served a given function.

When I reached the area Grue had affected, I found it even darker, untouchable.  The nervous system wasn’t something my power could interface with.

“I had to model it off of something, and I get the feeling I don’t have the same innate knowledge that Panacea does,” Grue told me.  “The only thing I have any knowledge about is myself.  I don’t know if it’s going to work, but he has a human digestive system.  Or something close to it, that worked with his body.  Near as I can figure, everything connects to what it’s supposed to.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Really.”

Tattletale was still watching Glory Girl and Amy disappear.  She glanced down at Atlas, “You’ll have to figure out a diet that gives him every nutrient he needs, and pay a hell of a lot of attention to him.  If you give him something his body can’t process, it could poison him like that.”  She snapped her fingers.

I nodded.  It was still better than nothing.

Sundancer was still clearing a path.  I climbed on top of Atlas and rose above the ground, swaying a little in midair as I tried to control his flight enough to hover.

“Go,” Grue said.

“What?”

“Scout, search.  Check on the fight.  You’re restless.”

“Don’t like how that thing with Panacea ended.”

Grue shook his head, “Me either, but we should focus on what we can do in the here and now.”

“And I’m restless because I’m frustrated.  There’s nothing for me to do here.  I can’t handle the fire, can’t do anything if I’m with you guys.”

“Search for Jack and Bonesaw so we can put them down,” Regent said.

I shook my head.  “They disappeared.  Literally.  I’m not sure if they’re dead or if they found a hiding spot.”

“That’s something we can work on,” Tattletale said.  “Siberian was heading to a destination, right?  Heading southeast?”

“Sure.”

“Did you see what direction Jack and Bonesaw were headed?”

I nodded.  “Northeast from a point a few blocks that way.”  I pointed.

“Then I think I know where they went.  It’s quite obvious when you think about it.  A place they could have researched in advance, unoccupied by anyone of consequence, capable of withstanding hits from virtually anything, supplied with food and water…”

Obvious?  Maybe only to Tattletale.  Still, with her hints, I could follow her line of thought to its conclusion.

“The emergency shelters for Endbringer attacks,”  I finished for her.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Me?”  Tattletale quirked an eyebrow.

“Sure,” Chariot said.  Just behind and to one side of him, Glory Girl was glaring at Tattletale.  She looked like she was ready to hit people.  It was the kind of latent hostility I was used to seeing in Bitch.

“Not terribly fair to my teammates, if it’s just a one-on-one conversation.”

“Are you going to take this or not?” Chariot asked, his hand still extended in her direction.

“No real point,” Tattletale shrugged.  She tucked her hair behind her ear and turned her head.  “Already have one.”

Battery stepped forward, glancing over at our team, “This one is already set to the encrypted channel, it’s faster if-”

Tattletale interrupted, “Uplink three-three-five, encryption forty-two mod three-four-two-one-zero-zero-six-six-three-one-zero-”

“You have access to our channel,” Battery growled, interrupting Tattletale’s spiel of numbers.

Tattletale shrugged.  “Have for a while now.”

Battery raised one hand to her ear.

“Yeah, Battery,” Tattletale grinned, “Let’s do as the Director says and get down to business.”

Battery drew a phone from her belt and tapped her fingers on the keypad for a moment.  She gave Tattletale a dark look as she held the phone out.

A woman’s voice said, “Not like you to tip your hand, Tattletale.”

“Director.  Are we really going to pretend you didn’t know I was listening in?  You’ve been putting out misleading details to screw with my information gathering.  Done quite a good job of it, if I may say so myself.  Very subtle, all of it just right enough that even I was thrown off.  Couldn’t trust much of it.”

“Thank you.”

“And you did catch me off guard here.  I didn’t expect you to contact me.”

“You’ve been busy, your groups.  Fighting Burnscar in the Docks, I gather that didn’t go so well,” the Director said, pausing.

I didn’t even want to think about that.  I hadn’t been back to check on my people or my territory since then.  We had been busy.

“Then you ambush the Nine, capturing two, one of whom you enslaved, but you lose one of your own in the process.  You mount a rescue attempt.  I take it that you were successful?”

“Grue’s here,” Battery informed her.  “But he looks different.”

“So they were successful.  And now we find the Undersiders mounting a pincer attack, with this group targeting Siberian?  I suspect you’re crossing the threshold of fearlessness and entering into foolishness.”

That last comment nettled me.  I spoke up, “The Nine don’t really leave you alone once you’ve scored a win.  We had to seize our advantage.”

“I see.”

“And she has a weakness.  Siberian, I mean,” Tattletale said.

“Do tell?”

“She’s a projection.  Like Genesis is, as I’m sure you’re aware.  Like Crusader’s duplicates.  A quirk in reality that draws from her creator’s brain to create a body complete with all the physiological substructure.  Which is largely for aesthetic effect, and I’d guess it gives her real self something the brain is familiar with controlling anyways.”

“And the controller is vulnerable?”  There was a note of interest in the Director’s voice.

“Particularly vulnerable.  She can’t extend her invincibility over her real body.”

“I’m not sure I believe this.  The Nine would have discovered this and I doubt the baser members could resist taking advantage of such a weakness.”

“The power has range.  I suspect the creator can stay miles away and still manage some control, but ventures closer for voyeuristic purposes or because it offers more control and faster response times.”

“Much like Regent, hmm?”

Tattletale paused.  “So you know that.”

From the tone of the conversation, I would have expected a ‘No, you just told me.‘, but Tattletale wouldn’t have done that.  More likely that her power confirmed her thoughts.

“Shadow Stalker debriefed us.  What do we know about this woman who controls-”

“Man.  The person who projects Siberian is male.  But he creates a female body.  I think it’s tied into his trigger event.  Someone he lost.  If I had to guess, he sought revenge for her, but something happened.  A side effect of the power, or just a seriously unhinged mental state… he lost it.”

“I see.  Thank you for the information.  Unfortunately none of those possibilities are narrow enough that we can use them to track him down.”

“Not in the short-term.  In the long-term-”

“I don’t intend for there to be a long-term, Tattletale.  This ends today.”

Tattletale paused.  “What did you do?”

“Hmm?”

“You’re planning something.  Something you’re wanting to keep a secret, and it’s big.”

“Tattletale, you’ve been observing and gathering information on the PRT for some time now.  Do you think I’m a stupid woman?”

Stupid?  No.  Genius?  No.”

There was the sound of a dry laugh from the other end of the phone.  “No, I admit that’s true.  But I’d like to think I’m resourceful.  I’m fighting in a ring where my opponents are bigger, stronger, smarter, faster and better equipped than I am, and the cost of failure on my end is far greater than it is for any of you.  You understand?  I’m competent, and I wouldn’t waste my time trying to pull the wool over your eyes.”

“So?”

“No secrets.  I’d planned to bait you here with the same subtle offers of information you praised me for earlier, but you’re here anyways, so I’ll tell you what I’m planning.  In a matter of minutes, we firebomb the area where the main group of the Nine are situated.”

“That’s insane,” I spoke.

“Was that Skitter?”

“Yeah,” Battery replied.

“It’s necessary, Skitter,” the Director told me.

“It’s breaking the rules between capes.  The same rules that hold things together in an Endbringer event.  We’re fighting a common enemy.”

“True, but not the full story.  We made no agreement of cooperation, and so there can be no betrayal here.”

“My teammates are there, fighting the Nine, and they’re doing it for this city.  You’d be punishing them for that.”

“Legend did warn them that they shouldn’t.  He was told to, I quote, ‘suck shit’.”

That would be BitchOr maybe ImpProbably Bitch.

Tattletale quirked an eyebrow, “Did he specifically tell them they shouldn’t because you’re bombing the neighborhood?”

“Would you believe me if I said he didn’t get the chance?”

“I’d say fifty percent of it is that he didn’t get the chance, and fifty percent is that he didn’t try that hard.”

The Director offered a noncommittal ‘mm hmm’ in reply.

“And you’re telling us this because?”

“Because we’ve studied you.  We know what you prioritize, and I believe that you’ll enter the fray to save your teammates.”

“Or we could phone them.”

“Do you want to try?”

Tattletale glanced at me and Grue.  “No point, I guess.  You’re blocking unofficial communications in the area.”

“Yes.  We have to hamper communication between the Nine if we want to catch them off guard.  You understand.”

“I do, and that’s totally the entire reason you’re doing that,” Tattletale said.  She glanced over in the direction of the fighting.  “How long before the area is bombed?”

“Can’t say.  On the record, as with your teammates, we’re forbidding you from entering the area, but I expect you’re doing so anyways.  Against my recommendation.”

“Absolved of blame,” Grue spoke.  His voice was tight, his body tense.

The Director ignored him.  “The moment I heard you were in the picture, I told my subordinates to change the time.  They’ll inform me about the new time of attack as soon as I’ve hung up.  It’s not a perfect solution, but perhaps your actions from this point will reveal something about your power and its limitations.  But please understand that we just can’t risk that you’ll inform the Slaughterhouse Nine about the scheduled attack.”

“And there’s a chance we’ll be collateral damage, out of the picture and out of your hair after the Nine are gone.”

“How sad, that you see monsters where none exist.”

“Right.”

“It was nice to finally talk with you, Tattletale.  You should go help your teammates, if you’re going to.”

“Fuck you, Piggot.”

There was no response, and Battery deemed the conversation over, putting away the phone.

In the brief period of silence that followed, while we got ourselves ready, a voice broke through, “Victoria-”

“Don’t,” Glory Girl snapped.  “I didn’t tell anyone what you did, but that’s the last nice thing I’m going to do for you, understand?  We’re not teammates.  We’re not sisters.  We’re not friends.”

“I’m sorry, Amy,” Tattletale said, “But we’ve got to go.”

We were moving a minute later, leaving the squad of heroes behind.  Looking over my shoulder, I could see them getting in formation, clustering around Cache, who was regaining consciousness.  Only Glory Girl stood apart, her arms folded.

Wasn’t quite sure about the story there, but I was getting a sense of it.

I could feel Amy tapping my arm.

“What?” I had to raise my voice to be heard.

“Drop me off,” she spoke into my ear.

It took a few seconds to get the message to Grue and come to a complete stop.  Tattletale stopped Bentley a hundred feet ahead.  Trickster and Sundancer looked back with mild curiosity.  Their costumes didn’t reveal much about their expressions.

“Not thinking straight,” Amy said, “Not enough to go into a situation like this.  Don’t want to get bombed.  Um.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “Still willing to help?”

She nodded.

“I’m going to send you the bugs I can’t use.  If you want to make more bugs that can relay my signal, that’d be great.  If you can think of something else… I need firepower.”

“And we’re going to be short on mobility if we need to make a run for it,” Grue said.  “Too many of us for two dogs that can carry people, unless we’re lucky and Genesis picked a form that works.”

We’d sent Regent’s group out with Shatterbird, Imp and Ballistic, with the idea that Genesis would meet them there.  They’d taken one of Coil’s trucks, since Bastard wasn’t old enough, big enough or trained enough to carry a rider.

“What am I supposed to make?”

“Figure it out, Amy.  If you can’t think of anything, the relay bugs are excellent.  Really.”

“Okay.”  She let me help her down.

“Skitter,”  Tattletale called out, “We should be close enough.  Want to pass them a message?”

I nodded.  I had six of the relay bugs, and it took only a minute to set them up so they formed a chain, extending my reach for an additional six city blocks in one direction.  Eight and a half in total.

I swept them outward, and the one at the furthest point lagged behind.  Still, it gave me the opportunity to cover a wide area.  Bugs mobilized throughout, and I began funneling the less offensive ones back toward Amy.  No-see-ums, earthworms, caterpillars and roughly half of the houseflies in the area began filtering back.  I maintained some of the dragonflies and other mobile bugs for the sake of getting a feel for the area.

I could sense Regent’s group, running to cover.  Ballistic was bombarding Crawler, relying on the impacts to drive the brute back.  Crawler was fast -and he was agile, with preternatural reflexes- but Ballistic was unloading on him with projectiles that moved faster than sound.  Crawler dodged only two in three, and Ballistic followed up on any successful hits with a series of shots to pound Crawler into the nearest available surface and pin him there.  Genesis had formed a body that was winged.  It resembled a pterodactyl with arms, a griffon or something in that vein.  She was making an effort to drop large chunks of rubble onto Crawler.  He was strong enough that it barely slowed him down, but time he spent hauling a section of wall off of himself was time for Ballistic to get his hands on material for another shot.  Shatterbird offered support with a constant hail of glass to harry Crawler and keep him from finding traction on the pavement.

Jack, Bonesaw, Mannequin… I found the former two in a parking lot.  My bugs sensed what I judged were Bonesaw’s mechanical spiders, tearing cars apart and converting the components into more spiders.  There was a group of people with her, shuffling behind them.

Mannequin was MIA.  That was bothersome.  He was able to detect and avoid my bugs, which meant he was a factor I had to keep in the back of my mind.

“Found them, except for Mannequin.  Amy?  Be careful.  I don’t know if Jack’s team is going to break the rules they set, but Mannequin could come after you.”

I was so used to dealing with my teammates, people who were experienced in this sort of thing, that I hadn’t expected much more than confirmation.  She looked legitimately scared at the prospect.

“Here,” I directed a ladybug into my palm and extended it towards her.  “Crush it, and I’ll come.  Or transmit some signal with my power.  You have my backup, understand?”

“Okay.”  She took it, but she didn’t look reassured.  The first bugs were flowing into her cupped hands.  I could feel nervous systems intermingling, two bugs becoming one, and that strange hollowness that told me I didn’t have a complete grasp on how they functioned, that there was a part of them that was beyond the reach of my power.

I drew out words with my bugs, on a surface of wall where Regent would be able to see.  ‘Evacuate.’

He ran his fingers through the bugs.  After a moment’s thought, I gathered them into a square, organized by rank and file.  It took me two tries, but I managed to make them move to form letters, then regroup.

He dragged his fingertip through the bugs to spell out a reply.  ‘Can’t.  We run we can’t keep crawler down’.

‘We’re coming,’ I wrote to him.

“Let’s go!”  I called out.  Tattletale turned in her seat and kicked Bentley to get him going.  Grue did the same for Sirius.

Having gathered as many bugs as I could, I drew my relay bugs back and spaced them around the perimeter of my own range, effectively extending it by a block in every direction.

“Have to stall Crawler long enough to make a run for it!”  I shouted.

“Have to do it in the next eight minutes!”  Tattletale called out.  Grue was getting Sirius to keep pace with Bentley, who was brawnier and slower.

“Bomb hits then?”

“Sometime after then.  Could be eight minutes and ten seconds, could be fifteen minutes!”

I swore under my breath.  Eight minutes made for a deceptively small amount of time.

The heroes were gathered.  I couldn’t set them apart.  With few exceptions, they each wore an identical costume with full body coverage.  There were subtle differences in height  and body shape, which let me identify the people at the extreme ends of the physical spectrum: Vista, who was the smallest, and Triumph, the most musclebound.  Weld wasn’t in the concealing costume, presumably to retain more of his shapeshifting capability.

Vista, Clockblocker, Weld, Flechette, Triumph, Miss Militia, Assault… Glory Girl, Battery, Cache and the ghostly bear were joining them.  That left two more I couldn’t place.  They moved in formation.

Might as well do what I could to help.  I drew out arrows and words on the ground, with names by each arrow to point them to Jack, Bonesaw and Crawler.  With the arrow length, I tried to indicate how far the distance was to each of the enemies in question.

They spent about ten seconds discussing it, then broke into a run, going for Jack and Bonesaw.  Good.

We reached the scene of the ongoing fight with Crawler.  Sundancer was off the dog and on the ground the second we could see him, creating her orb and increasing its size.  She was fireproof, but she didn’t have the ability to grant that benefit to others.  Once she was standing, the orb was free to grow.

There wasn’t much my bugs could do.  They settled on Crawler and found his flesh impenetrable.  I began preparing web nets, drawing lines of silk between my airborne bugs.  Amy’s relay bugs had afforded me the chance to pick up far more bugs than I otherwise might have.  My attention flickered over my swarm.

Nearly a million spiders.  They were only a relatively small percentage of the swarm itself.  I had more ants, termites, flies, aphids, gnats and beetles to form the bulk of my army.

I sent the more useless ones toward Amy.  Not so many that I overwhelmed her, but enough that she always had more at hand.

He’s big, he’s strong, he’s ridiculously tough, but he’s no Leviathan.

My spiders began weaving their threads into braids, the flying bugs directing them in and through loops of silk as the threads spooled out.  Where bugs couldn’t hover, they directed their flight into tight corkscrews to slow themselves.

I wondered if this was the most bugs I’d ever controlled.  The buzz of my power thrummed through me to the point that I was barely aware of myself and where I was standing.  It wasn’t just the number of  bugs, but the number of instructions.  Spiders were spooling thread, organizing by the amounts they had remaining.  Flying bugs were gathering in formations, carrying the slower bugs forward and maneuvering the spiders to spin webs.  Smaller bugs, the useless ones, I directed to Amy and formed into dozens of decoys.  Millions of instructions a second.

Estimates said that insects outnumbered people by two hundred million to one in worldwide population.  Part of that distribution was biased toward rainforests and other areas humans left uninhabited.

At the end of the day, that was just insects, and there were more creatures under my sway than the six-legged variety.  I could feel them in the earth, in the walls, beneath the pavement, even.  Even from the weeks after I’d left the hospital, I’d dismissed them as background noise, just sources to draw from in amassing my swarms.

Now, it felt different.  My range was extended, and it wasn’t because I was distracted, cornered, trapped.  As Crawler noticed us and shifted his position to keep us all in line of sight with his innumerable eyes, I had a few moments to think, to experience my power at its best.

We were so small.  Even in the scope of a single neighborhood, my power extending for roughly a thousand feet in every direction, it made us all seem tiny.  Even Crawler.

“Don’t use your orb on him,” Tattletale cautioned.  “Won’t do us any favors, and it’ll only make him stronger for the future.”

“Then what should I do?”

“There’s no civilians here.  Legend and the others have evacuated.”  I told her.  “The buildings are empty.

She nodded, apparently grasping my meaning.

“You go high, ‘Dancer, I go low?” Grue asked.

She nodded.

I held back as they advanced, ready to make their move.  Ballistic caught Crawler with a projectile, and the monster went sliding.  Shatterbird hit him with a wave of glass to keep him down, and Genesis swooped down to smash him over the head with the wreckage of a small car.

It did surprisingly little to keep him down.

Grue and Sundancer made their moves, Grue swamping Crawler in darkness while Sundancer brought her orb around into the face of the building.  With her miniature sun, she sheared through the concrete and metal, zig-zagging the orb through one floor.

The supports obliterated or melted, the building crashed down to the street with enough force that the rolling cloud of dust and was enough to drive us back.

He had to weigh several tons, but the building had him beat in that regard.

We hurried to gather.  Genesis landed.

“One minute, forty-five seconds,” Tattletale said, “More if we’re lucky.”

“Until?”  Regent asked.

“They’re bombing the area,” I explained.

Tattletale, Sundancer and Trickster found seats on Bentley’s back.  Bitch climbed up behind me.  Imp materialized, for lack of a better word, dropping the effect of her power.  That left her and Ballistic.

“Three people, two fliers?” Tattletale asked.

“Can carry one,” Regent said.  “Too tired to carry more.”  Shatterbird landed and wrapped her arms around him.

“I can try to carry the others,” Genesis’s voice sounded very normal considering her gargoyle-like face.  Bitch handed her a length of chain.

“One minute and fifteen seconds.  Not sure if it’s paranoia or my power, but I think the bomb’s going to hit closer to the deadline than not.”

Genesis gathered the chain into a loop.  As Imp and Ballistic found their seats and Genesis made motions to take off, there was the sound of shifting rubble.

“Damn it!”  Grue swore.  “Go!  Go!’

One minute, give or take.

We ran.  There was the sound of more rubble shifting out of place, and then a guttural laughter.  It sounded more like it came from multiple gargantuan people laughing in sync than it did from the one monster.

“More!”  His voice was even more unnatural, a jumble of individual sounds that only barely came together into something like a word.  Not so different from when I spoke through my swarm.  “Fight me!”

The impacts of heavy footfalls were audible as Crawler broke into a run, giving chase.  They were even tactile.  He was more than a hundred feet behind us, but I could feel his impacts shake Sirius.

As my bugs struggled to catch up, my swarm sense felt Crawler stop, rearing up on his two hindmost legs.  He caught at one corner of a building and tore, twisting his body to throw a chunk of brick.

“Look out!”  I shouted.

My words were too slow.  The rock collided with Genesis, catching one wing.  She collapsed to the ground, and both Ballistic and Imp fell the fifteen or so feet to the ground.  Imp shrieked as she landed.

No.

Crawler’s pause to grab concrete had bought me time to get my bugs into position.  They swept over Crawler, laying down braided ropes of silk joined by adhesive lines and thin gossamer.  Even caterpillars began offering their assistance, using the silk they produced for cocoons.

He was a big guy, but it was a lot of silk.

I could see how it hampered his movements.  There was even something approximating surprise on his face as he dropped down so all six legs were firmly on the ground, and his forelimbs didn’t extend as far as he’d expected.  He tried to run and found himself hampered further.

Crawler sported two or three tons of physical prowess, and his power had fine tuned him into a physical specimen like few others.  My bugs had millions of years of evolution to refine the quality of their silk and their ability to produce it.

For now, at the very least, I had the advantage.

“Genesis, can you run?”

Fuck.  No,” Genesis spoke.  “Made these claws for grabbing.”

True enough, her forelimbs and rear limbs were more like clawed hands than feet or hooves.

“Imp, Ballistic, run!”

It wasn’t enough.  We had too much distance to cover before we could be sure of our safety.  Or of Imp and Ballistic’s safety, anyways.  Even with another two minutes, or another five- well, people weren’t that fast as a rule, and neither Imp nor Ballistic were runners.  It looked like Imp had hurt herself in the fall.

“Tattletale!”  I shouted.  “Take Imp!  Bentley’s strong enough to take four!”

“Got it!”  She cried, steering Bentley around and their group scooped up Imp, pulling her up onto Tattletale’s lap.  Four people, but three of them were girls in good shape.

Sirius wasn’t as strong, and Grue was heavy, Bitch wasn’t exactly slight, and Ballistic was built like a football player.  Between the four of us, I doubted Sirius had it in him.  Not if we wanted to move fast.

“Grue!”  I called out.

“Don’t you fucking dare!”  He turned his head around.

I disentangled from Bitch’s grip, avoided Grue’s clutching hand and slid to the ground.  I didn’t land with both feet under me, so I tipped over and rolled.

“Ballistic, take my seat!”  I shouted, as I got my feet under me.  I glanced behind me at Crawler and broke into a run.

“Skitter!”  Grue barked the word.

“Just go!  I have a plan!”

Easier to lie when I was shouting, my face hidden.

They picked up Ballistic and bolted.

I was left behind in moments.

“Run, little girl!”  Crawler’s broken voice carried, a rumble so low I could feel it.  “I’ll get free!  I’ll catch you!  I’ll hold you down and lick your skin until it melts!  I’ll pluck your eyes out with the tip of my tongue!  I have your scent and you cannot ever stop me!  You cannot ever escape!”

Even the practiced motions of running couldn’t take the edge off.  Running had been my reprieve for so long, my escape long before I’d had costumes and the distractions of everything that was involved there.  It wasn’t doing anything to help the panic that was taking hold of me.

I wracked my mind for something, anything that might serve as an option.  Sewer?  Could I get down into the sewer or storm drain?

It was a possibility, though with the structural integrity of the city being what it was, it could just as easily be suicidal.

My bugs.  Could I lift myself up the same way I’d lifted up the small tools?  More silk, millions more bugs?

I couldn’t take the chance it wouldn’t work.

The one minute mark had surely passed.  I was on borrowed time, now, trusting my fate to luck.

Could Genesis form a new body in time?  It took her minutes, and I didn’t have that time to spare.  She would have to find me, too.

No.  Genesis couldn’t help.

And the heroes?  I searched in the direction of Jack and Bonesaw.  The heroes were fending off a group of people.  The group was larger than it had been the last time my focus was on them.  She was recruiting civilians?

The heroes were falling back, gathering in formation.  Cache was using his power, if I was judging right.  I felt some of my bugs disappear from existence as he used his power on members of his team.  Putting them in some extradimensional compartment.  The others around him, one member of the Wards, Ursa and Weld.

The good guys were preparing for an imminent bombing run.  Jack and Bonesaw were making a run for it, too.  They’d sensed something was wrong from the way the heroes were acting.

Their chances were about as good as mine.

Amy.  She was turning to run.  The others crossed her path, shouted a warning.

She used her power on the bug she was touching, making a final, haphazard connection.

My grip over the relay bugs had been tenuous.  This wasn’t much better.  One bug, and I couldn’t sense enough about it.  I didn’t have that innate grasp of its biology, of how it operated, or the instincts that drove it.

It would have to do.

I chanced a look over my shoulder and regretted it.  Crawler was bound tighter than ever, caught by my bugs, but the look threw me off-balance.  I stumbled, nearly falling over.

I managed to keep my feet under me, righting myself, but the movement of my leg made me aware of the strain.

Come on, come on.

We met each other halfway.  Listening to my power, it turned in midair, so its back was to me.  It skidded on the ground.

Six and a half feet long, five feet across and five feet tall.  A giant beetle.  It looked like she had used a Hercules beetle as a starting point, but built it broader, with larger, longer legs and two forelimbs with what looked like praying mantis style blades.  Sporting a black shell that looked almost ragged, the tips a gray-white, it also featured a single large horn that curved overhand, pointing down at the ground.

“Please,” I prayed.  I swung one leg over its thorax and gripped the horn.  It was an awkward posture, making me feel like I’d fall forward and face-plant on the ground with the slightest excuse.  “Come on.”

It ran on the ground, slower than me.  Its shell parted behind me, revealing an overlarge, complicated set of wings.  They began to beat, thrumming with sixty or seventy flaps a second, powered by an efficient machine of what I took to be a combination of biological hydraulics and musculature.

“Come on,” I begged it.

I felt it begin to lift.  I even pushed with my toes, as if that could give it what it needed.

We accelerated, my hair whipping behind me as we gained a dramatic boost in speed.  But our trajectory was almost directly forward, not up.  I kicked at the ground as we landed, as if that could lift us into the air.  It wasn’t working.

It dawned on me why.

My bugs normally had ingrained knowledge of how to function.  This was a new lifeform.  It had all the necessary parts.  Amy had probably scaled everything up, given it every advantage in design I could want, counteracting all the problems that came with being proportionately larger.

But at the end of the day, it didn’t know how to fly.

I used my power to control every movement.  I felt it accelerate again, and tilted our orientation.  I felt myself shift slightly as I found myself almost directly on top, my legs gripping the underside of his thorax, and I overcompensated.  We both crashed to the ground.  A ten or twelve foot drop for me.  My armor absorbed the worst of the impact, but I felt my forehead hit pavement.  I always thought of the concussion I’d suffered whenever I took a blow to the head.

“Come on!”  I growled the words, scrambling to my feet.  “Don’t be hurt, don’t be hurt.”

He was okay.  I could examine him with my power, I just couldn’t comprehend him in the same natural, instinctive manner.  It took attention, focus.  With my direction, he used a flutter of his wings and the points of his scythe-tipped claws to flip over so he was ready as I reached him.  I mounted him and tried again.  We repeated the takeoff process, faster this time.

We lifted off on the first try.  I controlled my breathing, focused my attention on him, tried to avoid that same reflexive compensation that came with a shift of my balance.

When I account for the wing compartments and the amount of space that the wings take up at the back of the shell, He’s not much bigger than a motorcycle.

Relating him to a motorcycle helped, giving me the confidence to lean gently into the turns he needed to make in shifting with the air currents.

A laugh bubbled out from between my lips, one part hysteria to two parts relief and three parts exhilaration.  I was higher up than some six-story buildings and I’d barely realized it.

Amy had heard what Grue said about our possible shortage of transportation and my lack of firepower.  She’d supplied something to serve in the time allotted, with the resources I’d provided.  She’d put this together in minutes.

Growing confident in the mechanics of flying, I swooped us down.  We were faster than the others on the ground, and we passed them with ease.  I loosened my deathgrip on the horn to extend one arm out to one side.  A wave, a salute.

That done, I pulled up.

Crawler, still bound, was unable to tear through the silk as fast as the millions of spiders were connecting it.  If there was only a way to stop the bombing, I could do something to pin him down, buy time for the heroes to arrange more permanent accommodations.

But there wasn’t.  I could feel the effects as Clockblocker froze Cache in time, then froze himself.  His suit, at least.  It was only the four of them – Clockblocker, Cache, Ursa and Weld.

The bomb was about to hit, and I could only guess if we were going to be out of the blast zone.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.3

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“They’re not answering,” Tattletale reported, as she lowered the phone from her ear.  “They’re already engaged.”

“You fucking idiot.  I swear,” Trickster stabbed one finger in her direction, “If Ballistic dies because you fucking gave it away-”

I could see Tattletale’s eyes narrow, “My power told me there was a damn good chance she’d just run for it.  Eighty, ninety percent.”

“Well, your power was wrong, wasn’t it?” Trickster retorted.

Tattletale ignored him, looking at me, “Anything?  Can you find him?”

I shook my head.  “No.  I think he might be in a vehicle, so he can keep up with Siberian.  I realized it late, I haven’t been looking for one this whole time, but I’m sweeping the area now.”

“Shouldn’t we go?” Sundancer asked.  “We can go help Ballistic and your team.”

“Would love to,” Grue said, “But Bitch warned us about using her dogs past the fifteen minute mark.  It’s wearing off, they’re getting smaller and weaker, and if it gets to the point that they’re not comfortable carrying the load, they may lash out.”

“How many minutes has it been?”  Trickster asked, glancing at Bentley.

“Long enough I wouldn’t risk it,” Grue said.

I looked at Sirius.  I hadn’t noticed while we’d been riding him, but he was smaller.  His exterior tissues were fitting looser, in the same way skin tended to hang loose on someone who had been morbidly obese and recently lost weight.

And just to his left, I could see Amy backing away, holding her hand.

“Amy,” I spoke.

She startled as if I’d slapped her.  Everyone’s eyes turned to her.

“You okay?”  I asked.

“No, I’m not okay.”  Her head trembled a little as she turned to glance at the others.  She returned her attention to me.  “She bit off my fingers.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  I raised my hands to show her I wasn’t armed.  “We tried to get to you as fast as we could.”

“My fingers,” she moaned, as she looked at her hand.  “I ran as fast as I could, but it wasn’t fast enough.  She kept catching me.”

“I know.  There was nothing you could have done,” I said.

“It’s not right,” Amy shook her head.  She was still backing away. “This isn’t the way things should be.  Superpowers and Endbringers and things like Siberian… it’s so fucked up.  We- there should be a way to fight back, but there isn’t, so much of the time.”

“There is,” I said.  “It’s hard to find, but there’s always a way.”

Tattletale turned her head, “Hey, Amy, listen.  Can I ask you a quest-”

“Don’t,” Amy snapped, shifting gears from self-pity to fury in a heartbeat.  “Don’t talk to me.  Don’t even look at me, you bitch.”

“This is important.”

“What part of what I just said did you not understand!?”

“You’d think we didn’t just save your life,” Trickster said, folding his arms.

“You did it to delay Siberian.  Or so she said,” Amy replied, glancing at Tattletale.

“It was one of the reasons,” Tattletale started, “Skitter-”

“Shut up!”  The words were a screech as they came out of Amy’s mouth.

Tattletale turned a hundred and eighty degrees, so her back was to Amy, and looked in the direction of Grue and I.  “I’m done.  No point, fuck it.  I’m going to try calling the others again while you handle this.”

There were a few long seconds of tension as we all stood there, Tattletale a short distance away, phone to her ear.

I decided to break the silence.  “How are your fingers?  You’re using your power to keep the bleeding down?”

Amy glanced at her hand, and a dark look crossed her face.  “Yeah.”

“I’ve got bandages, if you want them.  Only the most basic first aid supplies, but maybe they’ll help?”

“Okay.”

I got the small kit from my utility compartment and approached her.  She kept still while I got out the disinfectant, bandages and tape and covered the fingers Siberian had shortened by one segment.

“How can you even be teammates with her?”  Amy asked me.  “Are you friends?”

“We are.”

“Everything that happened to me, it’s like it all snowballed out from the moment you assholes robbed the bank.”

Me too.  I’d met and ultimately joined the Undersiders because of Tattletale, and everything had followed from that.

“She didn’t plan that.  It might have started that way, but she wasn’t the cause of everything that followed,” I said.  I wondered if I was trying to convince myself.

Amy glared down at the ground.  A quick glance showed that Grue, Trickster and Sundancer were all trying to avoid engaging in this conversation.

She spoke at a low enough volume that I doubted the words were reaching the others.  “I’ve had nightmares about her.  Not saying I take back how I shouted at her, but she brought up shit, and the fact that Victoria heard it, I couldn’t shake it.  It affected the way I thought, the way I acted.  Victoria knew something was up, she respected my privacy, but she had suspicions.  If Tattletale hadn’t said anything, I could have dealt with Bonesaw coming to my house and fucking with me, getting me to break my code.  Or Bonesaw might not have come at all.  I don’t know.  Victoria would have listened to me, maybe.  Given me the benefit of the doubt.”

“We didn’t expect you to be at the bank.  We were cornered, Tattletale used the power she was given to get us out of that spot.  I’m sorry it happened.”

“She was the catalyst in my whole life falling apart.  Tattletale was.”

“Maybe.”

“And you can be friends with her, and you still think of yourself as a good person?”

“I… don’t know that I do think of myself that way.  I’ve probably done more damage than good, by trying to help others.”  Dinah, the people in my territory, now Brian.

“But your intentions were good, then?  You were trying to help?”

“Yeah.”

“Then tell me what to do.”  She didn’t meet my eyes.  “I don’t know anymore.  I’ve spent so long helping others, and I’m so scared, I feel numb.  My brain isn’t working.  Can’t think straight.  I-  I just don’t know anymore.  I’m not making any promises, I won’t fight, won’t face the Nine, don’t want to talk to Tattletale, but…” she trailed off, unable to finish her thought.

I swallowed.  I couldn’t even manage with myself, and now she wanted me to guide her?

“Okay,” I said.  My mind was going a mile a minute.  She was one of the most powerful parahumans native to Brockton Bay.  How was I supposed to use her?

One idea crossed my mind, and I hated myself for thinking it, for the stark fear I felt at the thought.  “Okay.  I won’t ask you to face the Nine.  But you can give us the ability to go after them, to fight them.  There’s this part of the brain that Bonesaw called the… Corona something.  Corona potential?  Can you access mine?  Tweak my power, give me more range?  As much as you can.”

The mental image of Bonesaw cutting through my skull with her saw was so real I could almost feel the sensation of it.

But we had to stop Siberian.

“I can’t affect brains.”

“You can’t-”  I sighed.  We all had our limitations and barriers.  I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed.  I didn’t argue the point.  “Fuck.  Okay.  The dogs.  Can you charge them up?  Figure out how Bitch’s power is affecting them, and either make them big again or keep them from getting any smaller?”

She glanced at Sirius.  I’d gotten so used to them I’d nearly forgotten just how horrifying they were to look at.

“I’d have to touch them.”

“Yeah.  They’re not as bad as they look.  They’re regular dogs, it’s only appearances and size.”

“Regular dogs still bite people.”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t want to lose more fingers.”

“I know.  You don’t have to.  Let me think.  We can come up with another way for you to contribute.”

“Can you grow us wings?” Trickster asked, in a wry tone.

“I can’t generate flesh from nothing, and it’s slow to convert something into a part your body won’t reject.”

“Of course,” Trickster said, with a note of sarcasm.

Not helping, I thought.  Amy was willing to do something.  It was useful.  We didn’t need to discourage that.

Before I could finish my thought, I saw Amy walk up to Sirius and offer him one hand to sniff.  She flinched as he moved his head, pulling her arm away.

I joined her side, and put one hand on the side of Sirius’ neck, digging my fingertips into a meaty cord of muscle.  I scratched with enough force that I might have left tracks in normal skin.  “Hey, boy.  You’re a good dog, aren’t you?  Yes you are.”

His bone-crusted tail lashed behind him in something approximating a wag.

Amy put out her hand again, and Sirius sniffed it.  Gingerly, she laid her hand on the length of his snout, running her fingers over calcified muscle, bone spurs and braided lengths of muscle and other tissue.

“The hell?” she muttered.  “Can’t wrap my head around this.”

“You can’t make him bigger?”

“No, I don’t think I can.  Can’t make something from nothing.  But I think I can stall the shrinking.  Whatever I do might get undone the second he’s back in range of Hell- of Bitch.  It’s hard to describe.  I can see the aftermath of what she does, but not the process.  It’s like the tissue grows, then it dies as it gets pushed out of the core, but some of it stays functional… there’s a normal dog inside there?  Intact?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.  Think I’ve got it.  He’s not going to shrink anytime soon.”

I signaled Tattletale to return.  “Thank you.”

She walked over to Bentley, giving Trickster a wary look as she walked by him.  I joined her, in part to give Bentley the reassurance that this angry stranger wasn’t so dangerous.

“There,” Amy said.  “You’re going to save your friends?”

“And if we can, we’re going to put down the Nine.  We figured out Siberian’s weakness.”

Her eyes widened slightly at that.  “What?”

“What did you think we meant when we were talking about her other self?”

“A secret identity?  I- I wasn’t really paying attention.”

Tattletale climbed up onto Bentley’s back, studiously ignoring Amy.

“Kind of a secret identity.  She’s a projection,” I said.  “Like Crusader has with his duplicates.  Best case scenario, we can find her real body and put her down.”

“Just like that?  You’ll kill her?”

“Ideal world,” I said.  Grue had climbed up onto Sirius’s back, and he offered me a hand up.  “Won’t know if we’re capable until it happens, but I’d like to think we have the courage.”

“But you’re risking your lives.”

“Yeah.”  I got settled and wrapped my arms around Grue’s body.  He didn’t react or protest.  My head just inches from his back, I turned to look down at Amy, “See, it helps that we’re pissed.”

“I’m pissed too,” Amy said.

I offered my hand to her, in case she wanted to climb up behind me and join us, but she stepped away.

“But you’re more scared than pissed,” I said.  She looked away.

“We should get going,” Trickster said, as Sundancer got in position behind him.  We were all seated and ready to head to the rescue.

“One second,” I told him.  “Amy.  Listen.  It’s okay.  I’ve thought of another way you can help, and it doesn’t put you in any danger.”

“What is it?”  She still didn’t meet my eyes.

“You’re going to cut loose with your power.  I can feed you the raw materials, you do what you can.  You know how my power works?”

“Pretty much.”

“Send the bugs my way when you’re done with them, then.”

“You’re a villain, you know.  You’re asking me to betray the family I grew up with if I’m helping you.”

I stared at her.  We were so similar in such different ways, but I couldn’t even begin to comprehend her train of thought.

Why were the people who clung so fiercely to the notions of right and wrong the very same individuals that had the worst grasp of what they meant?

Maybe I wasn’t one to talk.

“I don’t think you’re one to talk about betraying family,” Tattletale spoke.

I could see all the color drain out of Amy’s face.

“Hey, Tattle,” I started.

“No.  Sorry, Skitter, but it’s my turn to talk now.  We’re short on time, and we really should leave now, but if we leave it like this, you’re going to be distracted.”

I shut my mouth.

“Amy?  I know what you did.”

“Don’t you dare-” Amy started.

“You fucked up.  You crossed one of the lines that’s reserved for the real monsters.  You know it, I know it.”

Amy’s face crumpled.  I didn’t have a better way of describing it, the way her expression twisted, going from plain to almost inhuman from emotion alone.

I almost spoke up.  I wasn’t sure why I didn’t.

“You think you’re the lowest of the low, that you’re scum.  You despise yourself.”

Amy couldn’t even mount a response.

“You’re wrong.  You’re not there.  Not yet.”

Amy looked up at Tattletale, wide-eyed.  The look was utterly defenseless.  I was put in mind, for just an instant, of just who Tattletale could have been.  I had a mental image of her as a cult leader, tearing people down with an almost surgical precision, then molding them into who she wanted them to be when they were emotionally and mentally unable to mount a defense.

“Not yet?” Amy asked.

“Not yet.  You shouldn’t hate yourself for what you did in a moment of desperation.  Hate yourself for what you do after.  Hate yourself for your cowardice, your refusal to step up and help at this moment, right now, your refusal to participate in this world that you never even tried to understand.  That’s a conscious call you’re making, and you know it’s the wrong one.”

Amy hugged her arms to her chest.  She shook her head a little, as if she was denying what Tattletale was saying.

Tattletale went on.  “You need to make the right calls, and you need to start now, because you’re approaching the point of no return.  You start making amends, you start doing your part, and you undo what you did, and you do it ASAP, because if you don’t, you’re going to hit the hard ground at the bottom of that slippery slope.”

“But-”

Tattletale didn’t give Amy a chance to finish.  She kicked her heels and Bentley charged off.

Grue moved to follow, and I turned to Amy, “If I send my bugs to you, will you-”

“I’ll-  I’ll come.”

I blinked.

She stuck her hand in my direction, and I caught it, helping her up to a seat behind me.  Sirius shook slightly, as if he could shake us off.  Were we too heavy?

Apparently not.  He bolted after Bentley, and we were off, Amy clinging to me like her life depended on it.  I suspected that had little to do with the fact that we were riding on one of Bitch’s dogs.

The clawed feet of the dogs pounded pavement as we made our way towards central downtown.

I could feel the sensation of Amy doing something to interfere with my powers.  It began to get worse, reaching a peak, and then getting worse.  Just when it had reached the point where I was going to tear her hands from around me and let her fall off Sirius’s back, it began to clear up.

I could feel the bugs, but they weren’t anything like what I’d seen in Brockton Bay.  Superficially like dragonflies, with fatter bodies.  I couldn’t grasp every process in their body, making them feel strangely hollow and artificial.  What I could feel was a kind of echo in my power.  It made control harder.

She had to have a reason for doing what she was doing.  I tried directing them to move, and they took off.  No problem on that front.

I couldn’t ask what she’d done, because we were moving fast enough that the wind in our ears would drown out my voice, and the run was jarring enough that I worried I would bite my tongue if I tried talking.

Instead, I experimented.  I tried operating their bodies, engaged in the usual practices for injecting venom, nothing.  They weren’t weaponized, I was almost sure.  I even placed some aphids on them to get a feel for their exteriors.

It was only when I moved them out to either side of me that it dawned on me what the echo was.  Experimenting, I sent them to the limits of my range to confirm my suspicions.

Whatever signal my power sent to my bugs, these bugs were there to intercept it and transmit it to their immediate area.  Each extended my range by three hundred or so feet around them.

Letting go of Grue with one hand, I patted Amy’s hand and then reached back to give her a thumbs up.  I set more dragonflies and other various bugs down on the backs of her hand.

In another minute, I had four more relay bugs.  I paired them up and sent them forward, so one relay could transmit to the next.  Two extra city blocks of range.  I started gathering a swarm with the bugs in question.

Amy had balked at the idea of outfitting me with altered bugs.  Had she maybe settled on these, because she thought they wouldn’t give me as much offensive potential?

I had them in place for less than ten seconds before I found a moving vehicle.  It was a truck with plastic sheeting over the windows, four-wheeled, with a compact rear.  A small moving truck?  It was moving faster than was safe, veering wildly as it to get through the water and over the damaged streets, and it was heading straight for central downtown.  Straight for the others.

“Found him!”  I hollered, at the top of my lungs.  Tattletale looked over at me, and I signaled, extending my arm to the ten o’clock position.

I felt strangely calm as I shifted my focus to the attack.

If it came down to it, I’d have to kill the man.

My bugs clustered on the ‘windshield’ of flapping plastic, gathering in heavy numbers.  The faster moving dragonflies and hornets began to pelt the plastic, attempting to drive themselves through it.  Most died in the process.

He swerved sharply to try to throw the bugs off, but there wasn’t enough in the way of momentum or wind.  My other flying insects began to ferry larger black carpenter ants onto the windscreen, to use their sharp bites to penetrate the plastic sheeting.  We were making holes, but the attempts of my swarm to worm their way through the holes and open them enough for the more dangerous bugs to get inside were stymied by the wind and the flapping of the plastic.  Every movement, however small, threw off my ability to track where the existing holes were.

We had a bead on him, and the dogs were better suited for rough terrain than the moving vehicle.  It was only a minute before we caught up.  As I’d guessed, a white moving van with a giant icon of a hand on the back with the words ‘Haul It!’

I might have found it amusing if the circumstances were slightly different.

He noticed us shortly after we noticed him.  Siberian flickered into existence on top of the vehicle, standing, her legs shifting to adjust her balance as it hit a crack in the pavement and rocked slightly to one side.  I heard Amy shriek as she saw Siberian.

Tattletale veered left, hard, and Grue turned us right.  We each cut into side streets, running parallel with the truck.  Bentley was lagging slightly behind, but I caught a glimpse of the other group as we made our way past a major intersection.  Two blocks away, slightly behind us.

I heard an explosion, and Amy clutched me tighter in reaction.  Glancing down, I could see her arms around my ribcage, the hand with the maimed fingers held slightly off and away so it wouldn’t get bumped or jostled.

Trickster was handling the opening salvo.  The objects he was swapping for grenades weren’t even close in size -signs and traffic cones- so the timing was horribly off.  Siberian didn’t move from her perch.

Grue steered Sirius into a sharp left, and the dog’s claws skidded for a grip on the flooded street before we turned.  We got one block and then turned right, putting us directly behind them.

I could see Siberian tense, as if intending to jump, but another explosion from Trickster kept her in place.  She was protecting the truck, surrounding it with her forcefield.  I wasn’t sure how it was able to interact with the road, but a grenade going off under the front of the truck failed to achieve anything.

There would be nothing to stop her from staying there until the truck reached
the other Nine.  It would out Siberian’s real nature to any of the Nine who didn’t know, and that wasn’t a total loss, but it also meant our teammates would be blindsided by her arrival.

I felt something bump my hands.  Grue was holding the chains that led to Sirius’s muzzle.  He bumped my hands agan, and I took hold of them.

With his own hands free, leaning hard against me for support, he reached out and buried Siberian and the truck in a carpet of darkness.  Following, we soon plunged into the wake.

The second we were out of sight, I shifted our position so we were running in the left hand lane, rather than the center of the road.  Didn’t want Siberian guessing our position and pouncing on us.

I could sense the surroundings with my bugs, but my power was diminished.  I was aware of Grue, Amy and Bentley, of Tattletale, Trickster and Sundancer a short distance away, keeping pace.  I could see Siberian and the truck.

I couldn’t detect any sign that Grue was projecting anything with Siberian’s power.  Whatever she was doing to the truck, it was protecting her from him.

The upside was that the driver was blind.

I could tell because he drifted.  It was gradual at best, but he veered slightly to the left.  With no point of reference, he didn’t know he needed to correct.  A moment later, he smashed into the face of a tall building.  Siberian’s power meant the truck took no damage, and the driver corrected course, but soon enough, he began to veer again.

This wasn’t getting us anywhere, and we were running the risk that he’d hit someone, crash into or through an inhabited area.

Through my swarm, I could feel Tattletale waving.  Grue hadn’t swamped her in darkness, so there was nothing hampering her progress.  What did she want?

More to the point, how the hell were we supposed to communicate?  I reached a block ahead of her and formed my bugs into a word.  ‘WHAT?’

She tapped her hand to her eye, then to the top of her head.

Again, I formed my bugs into a word.  ‘WHAT?’

She tapped her head a few more times.

I was disappointed that a girl with superpowered intuition couldn’t come up with a better signal.  What did she want?  Eyes could mean see, head could be about thinking?  Her power?

She reached back over Trickster’s shoulder with one hand while holding the reins with the other.  My bugs had to settle on her finger to follow her gesture.  Pointing?  She was pointing behind him.  At Sundancer.

Eyes, brain, Sundancer.

She wanted to see, to use her power, to use Sundancer?

Tattletale was waving now.  The opposite of a beckoning gesture.  A scooping motion, as if to push us away.

She wanted us to go away?  To get back?  She wanted to deploy Sundancer’s power.  That made sense.  And she wanted to be sure we were out of the line of fire?  She could only do that if she saw us, and she could only use her power if she could follow what was going on.

From my seat behind Grue, I steered Sirius around another corner, then brought us up behind Tattletale’s group.  We gradually caught up.

“Do it!”  I shouted as we began to pull alongside them.  Siberian would be out of range of Grue’s darkness in moments if Grue wasn’t behind her, replenishing and extending his power.

“Where is she!?”  Tattletale shouted.  Sundancer was leaning back, her hand out to one side.  The orb she was creating was small.

I pointed.

The orb was getting larger.  The size of a baseball, a beachball, an armchair.  As it grew, it drifted farther away, higher.

By the time it was directly overhead, it was large enough to swallow up my bedroom whole.

“Gotta stop them!”  Tattletale called out, “We blindside them!”

“Civilians!?”  Sundancer cried out.

“Some!”

“Let me know-”  She grunted as Bentley stumbled over a pothole.  “Let-”

“Got it!”  I replied.

I tracked the people in nearby buildings, and kept my arm extended to point at Siberian.

“Got to use my power again!”  Grue shouted.

“Signal us!”  Tattletale called out.

We pulled right, plunging into the darkness.  It was thinning out, and faint shafts of light were piercing through.We crossed the road behind Siberian, and Grue blasted them with darkness, replenishing the effect.  We continued across the street, moving behind cover.

Only a few people in the upcoming area.  We had to be close to Regent’s group.  Time was short.

I drew images with my bugs to point her in the right direction, and then formed the word with my bugs as the other group continued forward.  ‘NOW’.

We passed out of the darkness just in time for me to catch sight of the orb.  It was larger now.  Large enough that when it fell, it had to be touching both of the sidewalks on the four lane road.  Even with a building between us and the impact zone, I could feel the wave of heated air, and I saw the billowing steam.  Grue took the reins and guided Sirius away before it could reach us.

Sundancer hadn’t hit Siberian.  She’d dropped the orb straight into the road a hundred feet ahead of them, and she’d plunged it down, hard.

My bugs died as Siberian approached the impact site, burned up by the heated air.  I could imagine what had happened.  The miniature sun would have burned a hole into the ground, melted or even vaporized pavement.

Affected by Siberian’s power or not, they were still affected by gravity.

I couldn’t say what would have happened in the long run.  Had they hit the wall or floor of the pit and used Siberian’s power to make it as invulnerable as they were?  Or had they plunged through it, burying themselves some distance underground.

A nearby building was burning.  I saw Sundancer forming another orb near the site, I wasn’t sure what she was doing, but the flames on the building were shrinking and dying out.

This wasn’t a victory.  It was a stall.  We couldn’t stop Siberian so long as she was able to grant invulnerability to her other self, but we could keep her from reaching her teammates in any meaningful amount of time.

It was interesting, I had to note, that she was affecting the truck and not her maker.

A limitation?  A drawback?  Could she not use her power on her real body?

Clouds of white steam intermingled with the black tendrils of Grue’s darkness.  We stopped running, but we didn’t approach.  I focused my power on the bugs in the ground.  Ants, earthworms.  Was she tunneling?  No.  As far as I could tell, the ground was intact.  She wasn’t moving.

“What did you do?”  Amy whispered from behind me.

I didn’t have the breath to explain.

“Drop the darkness?”  I asked.

Grue nodded.  The darkness cleared, but the steam didn’t make it any easier to see.  I saw the shadowy silhouette of Tattletale, a distance away.  I practically had to peel Amy off of me to get to my cell phone.

“Tattletale?” I asked, the second she picked up.

“She’s still down there.”  Tattletale replied.

“Why?  Hurt?”

“Don’t know.  Planning her next move?  Don’t get the impression she’s tunneling.”

“My bugs don’t either.  Hey, I’m wondering if Siberian can affect her real self?  Why doesn’t she just grab him and run?”

“Good question.  But that’s not our real concern.”

“What is?”

“Them.”

It took three or four seconds before I saw them arrive, stepping through the mist to stop a distance from the hole.  Identical costumes, all-concealing, with gas mask filters on the front and tinted panes for the upper faces.  Each was color coded.  Four flew, one using a jetpack.  One was on the ground, a style of super-speed I recognized as Battery’s.  Rounding out their group was the ghostly image of a bear.  Ursa something, from Legend’s squad.  She had three forms, or she duplicated herself into three states, or something.  I wasn’t sure about the naming convention.  One for the big bear, one for the small, and one for the woman.

“Legend, Battery, Cache,” Tattletale rattled off names through the phone, “Chariot, Glory Girl.”

Amy squeaked, barely audible, a failed attempt to speak.

The flying man in the lead pointed his hand towards Tattletale.  If that was Legend, one laser blast could take all of them out.  I wasn’t sure if he’d spotted us through the mist and smoke.

“Want me to use my power?” Grue asked.

“No,” Tattletale’s voice came from my phone.  “Skitter?  Inform them.”

I drew words out with the flying insects, big and bold, with an arrow pointing down at the crater.  ‘SIBERIAN + HER CREATOR’

Legend snapped his head from the words to us.

Shit,” Tattletale said.  No sooner was the word out of her mouth than Siberian came tearing out of the hole, truck held over her head.  A section of the street was torn free and flipped through the air.  Legend blasted it out of existence with an indigo flash of light.

“Cash!”  Legend bellowed the word.  He began pelting Siberian with lasers.  Beams capable of leveling buildings, and she ignored them.

Cash?  I saw the man in the black costume raising his hands.  Dark lines began to surround Siberian and the truck, forming complex geometric angles.

In the blink of an eye, as Siberian reached the peak of her leap, panes of glossy black material snapped into place between the dark lines.  The resulting geometry contracted as if he meant to squish Siberian.  It shattered instead.

She hit the ground in a crouch, holding the truck in one hand, and the man in the black robe staggered, blood gushing from his nose.  Legend caught him before he could collapse.

Cache.  Right.  I was dimly aware of him, though I’d never seen his picture.

Siberian charged the heroes, and they cleared out of the way in an instant.  The one in power armor -Chariot- slid across the ground with the aid of his jetpack and built-in roller skates. Legend and the one in red, Glory Girl by process of elimination, took flight.  Ursa whatever leaped to one side.  They were the mobile group, the group that was able to get here fastest.  They’d seen the sun appear, they’d seen it hit, and they’d come to step in.

Siberian didn’t stop to engage the enemy.  She continued on her course, charging through the ground floor of a building as she swung the truck in a lazy back and forth arc.  I could see the roof buckling as vital supports disappeared.

Legend handed Cache to Ursa and gave chase.  I could see Chariot raising his hand to his right ear, pausing.

He, Battery and Glory Girl turned and advanced towards Tattletale’s group.

“Can we go?”  Amy asked, from behind me.  “I didn’t- I didn’t think-”

There was a pause.  We could fight.  My power would be largely foiled by those suits, but Grue had his power.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “Come here, and bring Amy.  They want to talk.”

Amy pulled back, and I grabbed her wrist.  Before she could hop off Sirius, Grue was directing the dog across the road.

Chariot and Glory Girl pulled off their helmets as we arrived.  Chariot was black, his narrow, triangular face largely covered in power armor.  He had the scruff of a weak teenage beard on his chin.

Glory Girl bore little resemblance to any of the last times I’d seen her.  There were dark circles under her eyes.  She stared at me.  No- at Amy.  The glare seethed with raw, seething hatred.  It made every line of her face hard.

“You’ve joined them, now?”  She spoke, breaking the brief silence.

“I just wanted to help against the Nine,” Amy said.  Her voice was small, defeated.  “Can I-”

“If you open your mouth and ask if you can use your power on me, I won’t be held responsible for what I do,” Glory Girl growled.

“Don’t hate me, please.  I don’t care what you think of me, but hate is too close to…”  Amy trailed off.

“Too close to what?” Glory Girl asked.  She shrugged.  Anger gave an edge to her words.  “Aren’t you going to say it?  Can’t you admit what you did?”

Amy hung her head, and her forehead rested between my shoulders, hair hanging down.  She shook her head, but I doubted Glory Girl could see it.

“Let’s put vendettas aside,” Chariot spoke.  He smirked.  “We have bigger fish to fry.”

“The Nine,” Trickster spoke.

“The Nine,” Chariot said.  “But it’s not my place to talk tactics.  I’m just the rookie.  The messenger.”

He extended one hand toward Tattletale.  There was an earbud in his palm.

“The Director of the PRT would like to have a word with you.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 11h

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Amy sat on her bed, staring at the piece of paper in her hands.  The header at the top was stylized, a silhouette of a superhero with a cape flowing, with a script reading ‘The Guild’ extending to the right.

Mrs. Carol Dallon.  Brandish,

Let me open by stating my condolences for the loss of your brother-in-law, nephew, and your husband’s injury.  I have heard New Wave is currently considering disbanding, and you have my best wishes, whatever route you end up taking.  We have too few heroes and heroines to lose them, and even fewer of the truly good heroes and heroines who set the standard for everyone else, parahuman and human alike.  If finances ever become a concern, know that all you need to do is ask, and we will find you employment among the Guild’s uncostumed staff.

Knowing what you have been through as of late, it is with a heavy heart that I send you this message with further bad news.  Marquis, interred in the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center, confided to another inmate that he fears for his daughter’s life.  I have checked the facts to the best of my ability, and the details I have been able to dig up match with his story.  I must warn you that Allfather may have arranged for Amy Dallon to be murdered at some future date, in revenge for his own daughter’s death at Marquis’ hands.

She had to stop reading there.  The paper had been on Carol’s bedside table, and Amy had found it while collecting a change of clothes for Mark a week ago.  Carol had probably been reading it to him late the previous night, and maybe forgot to put it away due to a mixture of exhaustion and the distractions that came with waking up each morning to a disabled husband and a ten-year career in jeopardy.

Amy knew she shouldn’t have read it, but the header had caught her attention.  With her family’s fate uncertain, she had found herself reading, to see if they were joining the Guild, if something else had happened that could distract them from this.

Now that door was open, and she could never shut it again.  She didn’t care so much about the possible hit on her.  No.  What shook her was that she now knew who her father was.  She even suspected that, like Tattletale had told her months ago, she’d always known.  She just hadn’t dug for it, hadn’t put the pieces together.

Marquis had been an aspiring crime lord in the bad old days of Brockton Bay.  It had been a time when the villains had been flocking to the city to profit off the booming tech and banking sectors, to recruit mooks and henchmen from the city’s unemployed dockworkers.  It had been an era when the heroes hadn’t been properly established, and the villains had been confident enough that some didn’t give a second thought to murdering any heroes who got in their way.  Marquis included.

The bad old days were how Carol and Mark referred to that time.  There were more heroes now, and there was more balance between the good guys and the bad, but things were arguably worse now.  Everything was in shambles.

Marquis had been an osteokinetic.  A manipulator of both his own bone and, provided some was exposed, the bones of his enemies.  He’d been notorious enough that she’d heard about him despite the fact that he’d been arrested more than a decade ago, that the city and the public had remembered him.  He’d lived in the outskirts of the city, residing in a large house in the woods, just beneath the mountains.

She thought maybe there was something familiar about that idea.  Was it imagination when the vague image of a house popped into her mind?  The study with the black leather chair and countless bookshelves?  Or was it memory, something recalled from her early childhood?

To all reports, the man had been heartless, callous.  Wasn’t she?  She couldn’t bring herself to care anymore when she went to the hospitals to heal the injured and sick.  It was a chore, something she made herself do because people wouldn’t understand if she stopped.  There were only so many people she could heal before she became desensitized to it.

What else did she know about Marquis?  She vaguely recalled Uncle Neil talking about the man when he’d been talking to Laserdream about villain psychology.  There were the unpredictable ones, the villains who were hard to stop because you couldn’t guess where they’d strike next, but who were less practiced in what they did and made mistakes you could leverage against them.  There were also the orderly ones.  The ones who were careful, who honed their methodology to perfection, but they repeated themselves, showed patterns that a smart hero could use to predict where they struck next, and often had rules or rituals a hero could turn against them.

Which wasn’t to say that one was smarter than the other, or that one was better.  Each posed problems for the local authorities and capes.  Marquis had fit into the latter category, the perfectionists, the pattern killers.  He’d had, as Neil explained, a warped sense of honor, underneath it all.  He didn’t kill women or kids.

Not hard to pull the pieces together.  She could remember how quickly Neil had dropped the subject when he realized she was listening.  He hadn’t outright said that they’d caught Marquis, but she could imagine that the weaknesses that Neil had been outlining had been what they’d used.  Send Lady Photon, Brandish and Fleur against the man.  Add the fact that Amy had been there, a toddler, and Marquis had been too concerned about collateral damage to go all out.

It was him.  She didn’t want it to, but it all fit together.

It was all so fucked up.  She was so fucked up.

There was a knock on her door.  She hurried to hide the paper.

“Come in,” she said, trying to compose herself in the span of one or two seconds.

Carol opened the door.  She was pulling on the gloves for her costume.  “Amy?”

“Yeah?”

Carol took a few seconds before she looked up from her gloves and met Amy’s eyes.  When she did, the look was hard, accusatory.

“There’s word about some strange howling near the Trainyard.  Glory Girl and I are going on a patrol to check on it.”

Amy nodded.

“Can you look after Mark?”

“Of course,” Amy said, her voice quiet.  She stood from her bed and headed to the door.  Carol didn’t move right away.  Instead, Amy’s adoptive mother stayed where she was, staring at Amy.  Amy reached the door and had to stop, waiting for Carol to speak.

But Carol didn’t.  The woman turned and left the doorway, Amy meekly following.

They don’t understand.

Mark was in the living room, sitting on the couch.  No longer able to don his costume and be Flashbang, Mark could barely move.  He had a form of brain damage.  It was technically amnesia, but it wasn’t the kind that afflicted someone in the movies and TV.  What Mark had lost were the skills he’d learned over the course of his life.  He’d lost the ability to walk, to speak full sentences, hold a pen and drive a car.  He’d lost more – almost everything that let him function.

What little he regained came slowly and disappeared quickly.  It was as though his brain was a shattered glass, and there was only so much he could hold in it before it spilled out once again.  So they’d patiently worked with him, helping him to hobble between the bedroom, living room and bathroom.  They’d worked with him until he could mostly feed himself, say what needed to be said, and they didn’t push him to do more.

Victoria was in costume as Glory Girl, but she was unclipping a bib from around his neck, something to ensure he didn’t stain his clothes while he ate.  Amy’s adoptive father turned and smiled gently as he saw the other two members of his family.  It was all Amy could do to maintain eye contact, smile back.

“Ready, mom?” Victoria asked.

“Almost ready,” Carol said.  She bent down by Mark and kissed him, and he was smiling sadly as she pulled back.  He mumbled something private and sweet that his daughters weren’t privy  to, and Carol offered him a whispered reply.  Carol stood, then nodded at Victoria, “Let’s go.”

They left without another word.  There was no goodbye for Amy, no hug or kiss.

Victoria can’t even meet my eyes.

The slight hurt more than she’d expected.  It wasn’t like it was something new.  It had been going on for weeks.  And it was fully deserved.

Amy felt her pulse pounding as she looked at Mark.  Made herself sit on the couch next to him.  Does he blame me?

It was all falling apart.  This family had never fully accepted her.  Being in the midst of a family that all worked together, it was hard to preserve secrets.  Amy had learned a few years ago, overhearing a conversation between Carol and Aunt Sarah, that Carol had initially refused to take her in.  Her adoptive mother had only accepted in the end because she’d had a job and Aunt Sarah didn’t.  One kid to Aunt Sarah’s two.  When she’d taken Amy in, it hadn’t been out of love or caring, but grudging obligation and a sense of duty.

Mark had tried to be a dad.  He’d made her pancakes on the weekends, taken her places.  But it had always been inconsistent.  Some days he seemed to forget, others he got upset, or was just too distracted for the trips to the ice cream store or mall.  Another secret that the family hadn’t kept – Mark was clinically depressed.  He had been prescribed drugs to help him, but he didn’t always take them.

It had always been Victoria, only Victoria, who made her feel like she had a family here.  Victoria was mad at her now.  Except mad wasn’t the right word.  Victoria was appalled, seething with anger, brimming with resentment, because Amy couldn’t, wouldn’t, heal their father.

They’d fought, and Amy hadn’t been able to defend her position, but still she’d refused.  Every second that Victoria and Carol spent taking care of Mark was a second Amy felt the distance between her and the family grow.  So she took care of Mark as much as she could, only taking breaks to visit the hospitals to tend to the sick there.  She’d also needed a few to process the letter she’d received.

The letter.  Carol wasn’t angry in the same way Victoria was.  What Amy felt from her ‘mother’ was a chill.  She knew that she was only justifying the darker suspicions Carol had harbored towards her since she was first brought into the family.  It was doubly crushing now, because Amy knew about Marquis.  Amy knew that Carol was thinking the same thing she was.

Marquis was one of the organized killers.  He had his rules, he had his code, and so did Amy.  Amy wouldn’t use her power to affect people’s minds.  Like father, like daughter.

“Do you need anything?” she asked Mark, when the next ad break came up.

“Water,” he mumbled.

“Okay.”

She headed into the kitchen, grateful for the excuse to leave the room.  She searched the dishwasher for his cup, a plastic glass with a textured outside, light enough for him to lift without having to struggle with muscle control, easy enough to grip.  She filled it halfway so it wouldn’t be as heavy.

Tears filled her eyes, and she bent over the sink to wash her face.

She was going to lose them.  Lose her family, no matter what happened.

Which meant she had to go.  She was old enough to fend for herself.  She would leave of her own volition, and she would help Mark as a parting gift to her family.  She just had to work up the courage.

Drying her face with her shirt, she carried the mug into the living room.

The TV was off.

Had Mark turned it off because he’d wanted to sleep?  Amy was careful to be quiet, stepping on the floorboards at the far sides of the hallway so they wouldn’t creak.

A girl stood in the living room, five or so years younger than Amy.  Her blond hair had been curled into ringlets with painstaking care, but the rest of her was unkempt, filthy.  She stared at Mark, who was struggling and failing to stand from the couch.

The girl turned to look at Amy, and Amy saw that some of the dirt that covered the girl wasn’t dirt, but crusted blood.  The girl wore a stained apron that was too large for her, and the scalpels and tools in the pocket gleamed, catching the light from the lamps in the corner of the room.

Amy recognized the girl from the pictures that were hung up in the office.

“Bonesaw.”

“Hi,” Bonesaw gave a little wave of her hand.  A wide smile was spread across her face.

“What- What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to see you.  Obviously.”

Amy swallowed.  “Obviously.”  Was it possible that Allfather had arranged for a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine to murder her?

Amy’s eyes roved over the room, looking for Bonesaw’s work.  Nothing.  She looked over her shoulder and a shriek escaped through her lips.  A man was not two feet behind her, tall and brutish, his face badly scarred and battered to the point that it was barely recognizable as human.  A long-handled axe sat in one of his massive, calloused hands, the head resting on the floor.  Hatchet Face.

“Runnn,” Mark moaned, urging her.  She didn’t give it a second thought.  She dashed for the front door, threw it open with enough force that a picture fell from the wall.

Hatchet Face stood on the other side, blocking the doorway.

“No,” she gasped, as she backed towards the living room, “No, please.”

How?  How had he gotten there so fast?  She turned around and saw he was still there, still in the hallway.

There were two Hatchet Faces?

Then the first one exploded into a cloud of white dust and blood spatters, momentarily filling the room.  Amy could hear Bonesaw’s giggling, felt her heart sink.

“Get it?  You figure out what I did?  Turn around, Hack Job.”

Amy had figured it out, but Bonesaw’s creation demonstrated anyways.  He turned his back to Amy, and she saw what looked like a tumorous growth on the back of his head, shoulders and arms.  Except the growth had a face, vaguely Asian in features, and the lumps inside the growth each roughly corresponded with organs and skeletal structure.  The jaw of the figure that was attached to the back of Hatchet Face’s body was working open and closed like a fish gasping for air.  The stitches were still fresh.

“You mashed them together.  Oni Lee and Hatchet Face.”

“Yes!  I can’t even begin to tell you how hard it was.  I mean, I had to conduct the operation from a remote location, using robots, because I would lose my Tinker powers if I got too close to the big lug.  And I had to fit their bodies and nervous systems together so that they could use their powers without messing up the other.”

“Oh god,” Amy mumbled.  Is this what she’s going to do to me?

“Had to add in a control frame and perform a spot lobotomy so Hatchet would obey me, you know.  He didn’t lose much.  Was never very bright.”

“And Oni Lee?” Amy was almost afraid to ask.

“Oh, I barely touched his brain.  He suffered some moderate brain damage from his close brush with death, but I revived him.  His brain’s more or less intact, even.  He can’t control his body, but he’s alert and aware, and he feels everything Hatchet does,” Bonesaw smiled wider.

“That’s horrifying.”

“It’s not a perfect mesh.  I only just started doing these mash-ups.  Still practicing.  Hatchet’s power isn’t working as well anymore, and I’m worried about physical wear and tear as they teleport, but it’s still one of my better works.  Took me four whole hours.”  Bonesaw clasped her hands in front of her, shifting her weight from foot to foot, waiting expectantly.

Amy swallowed.  She didn’t have words.

Bonesaw smiled.  “I thought you’d appreciate this more than anyone.”

“Appreciate this.”

“You’re the only other person who works with meat.  I mean, we’re different in some ways, but we’re also really similar, aren’t we?  You manipulate people’s biology, and I tinker with it.  The human body’s only a really intricate, wet machine, isn’t it?”

Others were entering the room now.  From the kitchen, a woman, the structure of her face altered into something that was more rat-like than human, conelike, ending in a squashed black nose that had staples around it.  Bonesaw had added a second set of teeth, all canines, so that the woman would have enough as her jaw was stretched forward.  Drool constantly leaked between her teeth in loops and tendrils.  She was pale, except for her face and patches all down her body, where patches of ebon black skin were stapled in place.  Her hair was long, dark, and unwashed, but most unnerving of all were her fingers, which had been replaced by what looked like machetes.  The clawtips dragged on the hardwood as she stumped forward on feet that had been modified in a similar way, no longer fit for conventional walking.

The third was another Frankenstein hodgepodge of two individuals, emerging from the hallway where the amalgamation of Oni Lee and Hatchet Face -Hack Job- had exploded.  The lower half was a man who must have been built like a gorilla in life, rippling with muscles, walking forward on his knuckles.  His upper body grew up from the point the other body’s neck should have begun, an emaciated man with greasy brown hair and beard, grown long.  He was not unlike a centaur, but the lower half was a brutish man.

Then there were the other things.  They weren’t alive.  Spidery contraptions of scrap metal, they lacked heads, only consisting of a box half the size of a toaster and spindly legs that moved on hydraulics, each ending in a syringe or scalpel.  A dozen of them, climbing onto the walls and floor.

“Murder Rat used to be a heroine, called herself the Mouse Protector.  One of those capes who plays up the cheese, no pun intended.  Camped it up, acted dorky, used bad puns, so her enemies would be embarrassed to lose to her.  Ravager decided she’d had enough, asked the Nine to take Mouse Protector down.  So we took the job.  Beat Mouse Protector, and I took her to the operating table.  The other Nine tracked down Ravager and collected her, too.  Just to make it clear that we don’t take orders.  We aren’t errand boys or errand girls either.  Now Ravager gets to spend the rest of her life with the woman she hated, making up.”

Amy swallowed, looking at the woman.

“The other, I’m trying to figure out a name.  The one on the bottom was Carnal.  Healer, tough, and healed more by bathing himself in blood.  Thought he had a place on our team, failed the tests.  The one on the top was Prophet.  Convinced he was Jesus reborn.  What do you call a mix of people like that?  I’ve got a name in mind, but I can’t quite figure it out.”

“I don’t know.”

“So you’re bad at names too?” Bonesaw grinned.  “I’m thinking something like shrine, temple… but one with multiple floors.  Um.”

“Pagoda?”

“Pagoda!  Yes!”  Bonesaw skipped over to her creation, wrapped her arms around one of his, “Pagoda!  That’s your name, now!”

None of the three monsters moved or reacted.  Each stared dumbly forward, Murder Rat drooling, the others appearing to be in a daze.

“That’s good!”  Bonesaw smiled at Amy, “I knew we’d make a good team!”

“Team?”  What could she say or do to escape?  Failing that, was there anything she could use to kill herself, so Bonesaw couldn’t get her hands on them, turn them into something like those things?  In the worst case scenario, she could use her power on Mark before finishing herself off.

Except she wasn’t sure it would matter.  Amy was incapable, but there was nothing saying Bonesaw couldn’t raise the recently dead.

“Yes, team!  I want you to be my teammate!”  Bonesaw was almost gushing.

“I don’t-” Amy stopped herself, “Why?”

“Because I always wanted a big sister,” Bonesaw replied, as if that was answer enough.

Amy blinked.  Sister.  She thought of Victoria.  “I make a pretty shitty sister.”

“Language!”  Bonesaw admonished, with surprising fierceness.

“I’m sorry.  I- I’m not a very good sister, I don’t think.”

“You could learn.”

“I’ve tried, but… I’ve only gotten worse at it as time passed.”

Bonesaw pouted a little.  “But think of the stuff we could do together.  I do the kludge, the big stuff, you smooth it over.  Imagine how Murder Rat would look without the scars and staples.”

Amy looked at the onetime heroine, tried to picture it.  It wasn’t any better.  Worse, if anything.

“That’s only the beginning.  Can you even imagine the things we could make?  There’s no upper limit.”

There was a beep from the answering machine.  It began playing a message.  “Amy, pick up!  We’re looking at dealing with Hellhound, and there’s injured.  Call Aunt Sarah or Uncle Neil over to look after dad and get over to the-”

The message cut off, and there was the sound of a clatter, a distant barking sound.

“I don’t think I have it in me to do stuff like that,” Amy said.  If nothing else, I can’t disappoint Victoria any further.

“Oh.  Oh!”  Bonesaw smiled.  “That’s okay.  We can work through that.”

“I- I don’t think we really can.”

“No, really,” Bonesaw said.  Then she snapped her fingers.

Hack Job flickered into existence just in front of Amy, and there was little she could do to escape.  She cried out as the man’s massive hand smashed her down onto her back, a few feet from Mark.

Mark struggled to stand, but Murder Rat darted across the room to light atop the back of the couch and press one of her three-foot long claws against his throat.

Amy was pinned.  She tried to use her power on Hack Job through the contact he was making with her chest and neck, only to find it wasn’t available.  She couldn’t sense his body, the blood flowing in his veins, or any of that.  Even her own skin felt quiet, where she normally felt the pinprick sensations of innumerable, microscopic airborne lifeforms touching her.  She’d barely even realized that was happening until it stopped.

“Jack’s taken me on as his protegé.  Teaching me the finer points of being an artist.  What he’s been saying is that I’m too focused on the external.  Skin, bone, flesh, bodies, the stuff we see and hear.  He’s told me to practice with the internal, and this seems like a great time to do that.”

“Internal?” Amy replied.

“It’s easy to break people’s bodies.  Easy to scar them and hurt them that way.  But the true art is what you do inside their heads.  Do you have a breaking point, Amy?  Maybe if we find your limits and push past them, you’ll find yourself in a place where you’ll want to join us.”  A wide smile spread across Bonesaw’s face as she settled into a cross-legged position on the floor, facing Amy.

“I- no.  Please.”

“You’re a healer, but you can do so much more.  Why don’t you go out in costume?”

Amy didn’t respond.  There was no right answer here.

“Are you afraid to hurt someone?  That could be our first exercise.”

Amy shook her head.

“Murder rat, come here.  Hack Job, back off.”

Hack Job let go of her, and she tried to scramble away, but Murder Rat pounced on her, pressing her down against the ground.  The woman smelled rank, like a homeless person.

“So here’s the lesson,” Bonesaw said, “Hurt her, take her apart.  If you go easy on her, or if you leave her in a state where she can move, she’ll cut you, and then she’ll cut a body part off that man on the couch there.”

Murder Rat placed a blade against her cheek, scraped it down toward her chin, as if giving Amy a close shave.

She reached up and touched the woman’s chest.  Without Hack Job touching her, her power was coming back quickly.  She felt Murder Rat’s biology snap into her consciousness, until she could see every cell, every fluid, every part of the woman.  The two women.  She could see Bonesaw’s work, the integration of body parts, the transfusions of bone marrow from one woman to the other, the viruses with modified DNA inside them, skewing the balances and configurations until she couldn’t tell for sure where one woman started and the other began.

She could also see the metal frames inside the woman, interlacing with the largest bones of her skeletal system, the needles in her spine and brain.  Bonesaw’s control system.  There was something around the heart, too.  Metal, with lots of needles pointing inward.  She was rigged to die if the control frame was ever disabled.  The woman, no, the women, were awake in there.  One and a half brains contained in a synthetic fluid in her skull.

She targeted the ligaments at the woman’s shoulders and hips.  Cutting them was easier than putting the things back together again.  Dissolve the cells, break them down.

The woman collapsed onto a heap on top of her.

“Excellent!  Pick her up, H.J.”

Hack Job picked up the limp Murder Rat, put her down a short distance away from Amy.  Bonesaw walked over to her creation and propped up Murder Rat so she had a view of the scene.

“I’m surprised you didn’t kill her.  The healer, letting someone suffer like that.  Or are you against mercy killing?”

Again, there was no answer she could give that wouldn’t worsen her situation.

“Or are you against killing in general?  We can work on that.”

“Please.  No.”

“Pagoda.  Your turn.”

Pagoda approached with an awkward lurch, and Amy managed to stand and run.  She got halfway to the front door before Hack Job materialized in front of her, barring her way.  He pushed her, and she fell.  Pagoda lurched over to her and pressed her down.

“I use my creations to collect material for other work.  It’s a circle, using them to get material for more creations.  Having the Nine was essential to get things started, and to help get things going again if a hero managed to put down a few, but now I’m in good shape.  I stick around because they’re mostly fans, and they’re kind of family.  I want you in my family, Amy Dallon.”

“Please.”

“Now, I’m willing to make sacrifices to see that happen.  Same thing as with Murder Rat.  You don’t stop Pagoda, I’ll have him hurt the man on the couch.”

Amy used her power on Pagoda, felt his body, much the same as Murder Rat’s in so many respects, though the metal frame with the needles in his spine was different.  She reached for the ligaments at his shoulders and hips, separated them.

The first had grown back before she’d started on the third.

“He heals,” Bonesaw informed her.  “Two regenerators in one.  There’s only one good way to stop him.  Try again.”

Pain.  She inflicted pain on Pagoda.  No reaction.  She’d have to reach into his brain to make it so he really felt pain again.  She tried atrophying his muscles, with no luck.  Anything she did was undone nearly as fast as she could inflict it.

“Five seconds,” Bonesaw announced.  “Four.”

Sending signals to his arms to get him to move.  No.  The metal frame overrode anything she could do with her power to control him.

“Three.”

Amy used the only option available to her.  She disconnected him from the metal frame that Bonesaw used to control her subjects.  She could sense it as the metal shifted into motion around his heart.  Not needles, as there had been for Murder Rat, but small canisters of fluid.

“Two… one… zero point five… Ah, there we go.”

Pagoda lurched backward and broke contact with Amy, her power no longer giving her an insight into what was happening with him.  He sat down, using one hand to prop himself up.  A moment later he slumped over, his eyes shutting.  His breathing stopped.

“A chemical trigger for something I already put in his DNA, when I was patching his regeneration abilities together.  Reverses the regeneration so it does the opposite, starting with the heart.”

Amy looked at her hand.  She’d just taken a life.  A mercy, most probably, but she’d killed.  Something she had promised herself she would never do.

She shivered.  It had been so easy.  Was this what it was like for her father?  Had she just taken one more step toward being like him?

“Ready to join?” Bonesaw asked, looking for all the world like a puppy when her master had the leash out, ready for a walk.  Eager, brimming with excitement.

“No,” Amy said.  “There’s no way.”

“Why?  Whatever’s holding you back, we can fix it.  Or we can break it, depending.”

“It’s not- don’t you understand?  I don’t want to hurt people.”

“But we can change that!  We’re not so different.  You know as well as I do that anything about anyone can be changed if you work hard enough.”

“Then why don’t you change?  You could be good.”

“I like the other members of the Nine.  And I couldn’t make anything really amazing if I was following rules.  I want to make something even more amazing than Hack Job, Murder Rat or Pagoda.  Something you and I could only make together.  Can you imagine it?  You could use your power, and then we could make one superperson out of a hundred capes, and all of the powers would be full strength because you helped and we could use it to stop one of the Endbringers, and the whole world would be like, ‘Are we supposed to clap’?  Can you picture it?”  Bonesaw was getting so excited with her idea that she was almost breathless.

“No,” Amy said.  Then, just to make it clear, she added, “No, it’s not going to happen.  I won’t join you.”

“You will!  You have to!”

“No.”

“I have to do like Jack said.  He said I won’t be a true genius until I’ve figured out how to get inside people’s heads.”

“Maybe- Maybe you won’t be inside my head until you realize there’s no way I’m going to join the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

Bonesaw frowned.  “Maybe.”

Amy nodded.

“Or maybe I need to figure out your breaking point.  Your weak spot.  Like that man there.”  Bonesaw pointed at Mark. “Cherish said you sleep here, and you’ve been around him for a while… so why haven’t you healed him?”

Amy shivered.

“Who is he?”

“My dad.”

“Why not fix your dad?”

“My power doesn’t work on brains,” Amy lied.

“You’re wrong,” Bonesaw said, stepping closer.

“No.”

“Yes.  Your power can affect people’s brains.  You have to understand, I’ve taken twenty or thirty people apart to figure out how their power works so I can put them back together again the way I want them.  I’ve learned almost everything about powers.  I’ve induced stress of all kinds on people until they had a trigger event, while I had them on my table and wired to computers, so I could record all the details and study their brains and bodies as the powers took hold.”

Twenty or thirty people she’s taken apart.  However many others she’s tortured to death.

Bonesaw smiled, “And I know the secrets.  I know where powers come from.  I know how they work.  I know how your power works.  You have to understand, people like you and me?  Who got our powers in moments of critical stress?  The powers aren’t meant for us.  They’re accidents.  We’re accidents.  And I think you could see it if you were touching someone when they had their trigger event.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You don’t have to.  What you need to know is that the subjects of our power, the stuff it can work on, like people?  Like the fish lady in Asia?  The boy who can talk to computers?  Our powers weren’t created to work with those things.  With people or fish or computers.  It’s not intentional.  It happens because the powers connect to us in the moments we have our trigger events, decrypt our brains and search for something in the world that they can connect to, that loosely correlate with how the powers were originally supposed to work.  In those one to eight seconds it takes our powers to work, our power goes into overdrive, it picks up all the necessary details about those things, like people or fish or computers, sometimes reaching across the whole world to do it.  Then it starts condensing down until there’s a powerset, stripping away everything it doesn’t need to make that power work.”

Amy stared.

“And then, before it can destroy us, before we can hurt ourselves with our own power, before that spark of potential burns out, it changes gears.  It figures out how to function with us.  It protects us from all the ways our power might hurt us, that we can anticipate, because there’s no point if it kills us.  It connects with our emotional state at the time the powers came together, because that’s the context it builds everything else in.  It’s so amazingly complicated and beautiful.”

Bonesaw looked down at Amy.  “Your inability to affect brains?  It’s one of those protections.  A mental block.  I can help you break it.”

“I don’t want to break it,” Amy said, her voice hushed.

“Ahhh.  Well, that just makes me more excited to see how you react when you do.  See, all we have to do is get you to that point of peak stress.  Your power will be stronger, and you’ll be able to push past that mental block.  Probably.”

“Please,” Amy said.  “Don’t.”

Bonesaw reached into her apron and retrieved a remote control.  She pointed it at Mark, where he sat on the couch.  A red dot appeared on his forehead.

“No!”

One of Bonesaw’s mechanical contraptions leaped across the room, its scalpel legs impaling the suede cushions on either side of Mark.  One leg, tipped with a syringe, thrust into Mark’s right nostril.  He hollered incoherently, tried to pull away, only for two mechanical legs to clutch his head and hold him firm.

Amy’s screams joined his.

“I’m doing you a favor, really!”  Bonesaw raised her voice to be heard over the screams.  “You’ll thank me!”

Amy rushed forward, hauled on the metal leg to pull it from Mark’s nostril, pulled at the other legs to tear it from him and then hurled it away.  Lighter than it looked.

“Now fix him or he’ll probably die or be a vegetable,” Bonesaw told her.  “Unless you decide you’re okay with that, in which case we’re making progress.”

Amy tried to shut out Bonesaw’s voice, straddled Mark’s lap and touched his face.

She’d healed him frequently in the previous weeks, enough to know that he was remarkably alert in a body that refused to cooperate or carry out the tasks he wanted it to.  Not so different from Bonesaw’s creations in that respect.  She’d healed everything but his brain, had altered his digestive system and linked it to his circadian rhythms so he went to the bathroom on a strict schedule, to reduce the need for diapers.  Other tune-ups she’d given him had been aimed at making him more comfortable, reducing stiffness and aches and pains.  It was the least she could do.

Now she had to focus on his brain.  The needle had drawn ragged cuts through the arachnid layer, had injected droplets of acid into the frontal lobes.  More damage, in addition to what Leviathan had inflicted with the head wound, and it was swiftly spreading.

Everything else in the world seemed to drop away.  She pressed her forehead to his.  Everything biological was shaped in some way by what it had grown from and what had come before.  Rebuilding the damaged parts was a matter of tracing everything backwards.  Some of the brain was impossible to restore to what it had once been, in the most damaged areas or places where it was the newest growths that were gone, but she could check everything in the surrounding area, use process of elimination and context to figure out what the damaged areas had tied to.

She felt tears in her eyes.  She had told herself she would heal him and then leave the Dallon household.  Actually doing this, fixing him, taking that plunge, she knew she would probably never have found the courage if she hadn’t been pushed into it.

It wasn’t that she was afraid to get something wrong.  No.  Even as complicated as the mind was, she’d always known she could manage it.  No, it was what came after that scared her more than anything.  Just like finding out about Marquis, it was the opening of a door she desperately wanted to keep shut.

She restored his motor skills, penmanship, driving a car, even the little things, the little sequences of movements he used to turn the lock on the bathroom door as he closed it or turn a pencil around in one hand to use the eraser on the end.  Everything he’d lost, she returned to him.

He moved fractionally.  She opened her eyes, and saw him staring into her eyes.  Something about the gaze told her he was better.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured.  “I’m so sorry.”  She wasn’t sure what she was apologizing for.  For taking so long to do it, maybe.  Or for the fact that she would now have to leave.

His attention was on his hands.  She could feel it through her contact with him, the power he was just barely holding back.  And Bonesaw?  The little lunatic was somewhere behind her.

She drew Mark’s hands into his lap, between her body and his, where Bonesaw would be less likely to see.

An orb of light grew in his hands.

“It worked!  Yes!” Bonesaw crowed.

Mark flicked his eyes in one direction, offered the slightest of nods, his forehead rubbing against hers.  Amy flung herself to one side as Mark stood in one quick motion, flinging the glowing orb at the little girl.

Hack Job flickered into existence just in time to have to orb bounce off his chest.  It exploded violently, tearing a hole into his stomach and groin.  The villain flew backward, colliding with Bonesaw.

But two more copies of Hack Job had already appeared, and the scalpel spiders were responding to some unknown directions, leaping for Mark and Amy.

Amy grappled with one spider, struggled to bend its legs the wrong way, cried out as the scalpels and needlepoints of the other legs dragged against her skin.

A blast sent her tumbling, throwing her into the couch and dislodging the spider.  Mark could make his orbs concussive or explosive.  He’d hit the spider with the former, nothing that could seriously hurt Amy.  She climbed to her feet, picked up the oak side-table from beside the couch and bludgeoned the spider with it.

More explosions ripped through their living room as Mark continued to open fire, hurling the orbs with a ferocity that surprised Amy.  When Hack Job tried to block the shots with his bodies, Mark bounced them between Hack Job’s legs, off walls and off the ceiling.  Almost as if he could predict what his enemy would do, he lobbed one orb onto the couch.  It exploded a half-second after one of Hack Job’s duplicates appeared there.

More duplicates charged from either direction, and Mark dropped a concussive orb at his feet, blasting himself and one of the duplicates in opposite directions.  He quickly got his footing and resumed the attack, fending off one duplicate that turned his attention to Amy, then going after Bonesaw.

Bonesaw had retreated into the hallway that led into the bedrooms at the back of the house, the basement and the kitchen at the side.  Mark threw an orb after her, obliterating the hallway, but Amy couldn’t see if he’d struck home, not with the clouds of dust that were exploding from Hack Job’s expired duplicates.  Between the time it had taken to create the orb, throwing it and the lack of a scream after it had gone off, Amy knew Bonesaw would have gotten away.

There was an extended silence.  Bonesaw and Hack Job were gone, leaving only Pagoda’s body and the limp Murder Rat.  Long seconds passed as the dust settled.

“That woman.  Can you help her?”  Mark’s voice sounded rough-edged.  It hadn’t been used in its full capacity for a long few weeks.

“Her mind is gone, and not in a way I think I could fix,” her voice was hushed.

“Okay.”  Mark walked over to Murder Rat and adjusted her position against the wall until she was more horizontal, almost lying down.  He crossed her claws over her chest, and then formed an orb of light the size of a tennis ball.

“Rest in peace, Mouse Protector,” he said.  He placed the orb of light in the gap where two claws crossed one another, just over her heart, then stepped away.

There was a small explosion and a spray of blood.

“I’m sorry,” Amy said, “So sorry I didn’t help you sooner, that-”

Mark stopped her with a raised hand.  “Thank you.”

She didn’t deserve thanks.

“Are you okay?” He asked.

She looked away.  Tears were welling out.  “No.”

“Listen.  Sit yourself down.  I’m going to call your mother and sister, make sure they’re all right after dealing with Hellhound, let them know what happened.  Then I’ll call the Protectorate.  Maybe they can help guard us, in case Bonesaw comes after you again.”

“She will.  But I- I can’t sit.  I’m going to my room.  I’ll pack so we leave sooner.”

“You sure?”

She nodded.

“Shout if anything happens.”

She nodded and turned to go, picking her way through the destroyed hallway.  The floorboards that looked like a giant-sized version of pick-up-sticks.  She was only halfway when she heard Mark on the phone.

“Carol?  It’s me.”

Her face burned with shame.  She made her way to her room and began packing her things into a gym bag.  Clothes, toiletries, and other things, mementos.  A small scrapbook, a memory card filled with pictures of her, her cousins and her sister.  She found a pad of post-it notes and scribbled out a few words.

I’m sorry it took me so long to help Mark.

Good bye.  I love you all,

Amy.

She wouldn’t be coming back.

Amy opened her bedroom window and climbed out, pulling the bag out behind her.

It would be better this way.  Maybe, after weeks or months, she could stop worrying, stop waiting for the other shoe to drop, for everything to fall apart in the worst way.  She’d already had to face finding out about Marquis.  She’d taken a life.  She’d broken one of her cardinal rules.  She wasn’t sure she could take any more.

She just had to get away.

Amy cursed the curfew as she saw the figure in the air above her.  When people weren’t allowed out on the streets after dark, it made those few who did venture out that much more visible.  Not what she’d wanted, not when she was trying to avoid this exact conversation.

It was even more problematic when she walked at maybe three or four miles an hour, limited to following the paths the roads and alleys allowed her, when her sister could fly at fifty miles an hour.  She should have hid, instead of trying to make some distance.

Victoria stopped midflight and hovered in the air, five feet above the ground and five or six paces in front of her.

“I was just at the house.  I don’t even know what to say,” Victoria spoke.

“Pretty self-explanatory.  One of the Nine came, house got trashed, I healed Mark.”

“Why?  Why heal dad now, when you couldn’t before?”

“I only did it because I had to.”

“That’s what I don’t get.  Why couldn’t you?  You’ve never explained.”

“I can’t tell you.”

“So that’s it?  No explanations?  You just up and leave?” Victoria asked.

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

Amy looked away.

“We could get you a therapist.  I mean, Mom was setting aside money for Dad’s care, we could use that to give you someone to talk to.”

“I… a therapist wouldn’t be able to help.”

“Geez, what’s going on?  Amy, we’ve been together for a decade.  I’ve stood by you.  I’d like to think we were best friends, not just sisters.  And you can’t tell me?”

“I can’t.  Just let me leave.  Trust me when I say it’s better.”

“Fuck that!  I’m not about to let you walk away!”  Victoria floated closer, reaching out.

Don’t touch me,” Amy warned her sister.

Looking lost, Victoria stopped and spread her arms.  “Who are you, Amy?  I don’t even recognize this person I’m looking at.  You go berserk at the bank robbery over some secret I’ve totally not gotten on your case about.  You apparently say something to Skitter that causes this huge commotion in the hospital after the Endbringer attack.  You… I don’t even know what to say about your reaction to Gallant’s death, the way you distanced yourself from me at a time when I was hurting the most.”

Amy looked down at her feet.

“And most of all, you just leave dad to suffer, when you could have healed him?  You lash out at me, here, when I’m trying to mend fences and be your sister?”

“You want to know who I am?” Amy asked.  Her voice sounded hollow.  “I’m Marquis’s daughter.  Daughter of a supervillain.”

“Marquis?”

Amy nodded.

“How did you find out?”

“Carol left some paper out.  I think it’s under my pillow, if you want to look for it.”

“You have his genes, but you’re Carol and Mark’s daughter,” Victoria replied, her voice firm.  “And they’re going to be worried.  Come home.”

“They don’t care.  They don’t love me, not really.  Trust me, this is better for everyone.”

I love you,” Victoria said, stressing the ‘I’.  She dropped to the ground and stepped closer.

“Don’t touch me!”

“Idiot,” Victoria grabbed her sister by the shirt collar and pulled her into a painfully tight hug.

“Don’t,” Amy moaned into her sister’s shoulder.

“All of this?  We’ll work it out.  As a family.  And if your idea of family means it’s just you and me, then we’ll work it out together, just the two of us.”

All it took was one moment of weakness, and she was weak.  At the end of her rope, desperately lonely, haunted by her father’s shadow, her shame at being unwilling and unable to help Mark until now, the idea that one of the Slaughterhouse Nine thought she belonged with them?

She was losing everything so quickly.  Victoria was all she had, and it was the choice between abandoning that for everyone’s good and keeping Victoria close.

She felt Victoria’s body more acutely than she felt her own.  Every heartbeat, every cell brimming with life.

Like a flame at the end of a long fuse, leading to a stick of dynamite, her power traveled from the side of Victoria’s neck to her brain.  It was barely a conscious action on Amy’s part.

Victoria let go of her, pushed her away.  “What did you just do?”

Amy could see the revulsion slowly spreading across Victoria’s face.

The magnitude of what she’d just done hit her with a suddenness and pain she likened to a bullet to the chest.  “Oh god.  Please, let me undo it.”

She reached out, but Victoria stepped back.

“What the hell did you do?” Victoria asked, her eyes wide, “I felt something.  I feel something.  You’ve used your power on me before, but not like this.  I- You changed the way I think.  More than that.”

Tears welled at the corners of Amy’s eyes.  “Please.  This is what I was afraid of.  Let me undo it.  Let me fix it and leave, and you can go back to Mark and Carol and you three can be a family, and-”

“What did you do!?”

“I’m sorry.  I… knew this would happen.  I was okay so long as I kept following my own rules, didn’t open that door.  Bonesaw forced me to open it.”

“Amy!”

“You have to understand, for so long, you were all I had.  I was so desperately lonely, and that was at the same time I was starting to worry about my dad.  I got fucked up, my feelings got muddled somewhere along the line, and it’s like… maybe because you were safe, because you were always there.”

“You have feelings for me,” Victoria answered.  She couldn’t keep the disgust out of her voice, she didn’t even try.  “That’s what Tattletale was using as leverage, wasn’t it?”

Amy couldn’t meet Victoria’s eyes.  She looked at her hands, appalled at what she had just done.

“And Gallant?  I was thinking you secretly liked him, but-”

Amy shook her head.  “I hated him.  I felt jealous because he had you and I never could… but I never acted on those feelings.  I never acted on any of my feelings, until just now, and all I want to do is to take that back.”

“When I was at the lowest point in my life, when the boy I thought I might marry someday was dead, were you secretly elated?  Were you happy Gallant died?”

“No!  Vic- Victoria, I love you.  I wanted you to be happy with him.  I just… it hurt at the same time.”

“Oh my god,” Victoria whispered, the revulsion giving way to something worse.  Realization.

“I- I tried to keep things normal between us.  To act like your sister, keep it all bottled in.  It’s just tonight was such a nightmare, and I’m so scared, and so tired, and so desperate.  Bonesaw forced me to ignore all the rules I was imposing on myself.  All the rules I was using and following so I wouldn’t do anything stupid or impulsive.”

“Anything stupid.  Like what?  What did you do?”

Amy’s voice was a croak as she replied, “…make it so you would reciprocate my feelings.”

She chanced a look at Victoria’s face, and she knew that the horror she saw in her sister’s expression didn’t even compare to what she felt.

“Please.  Let me fix it.  Then I’ll leave.  You’ll never have to see me again.”

“What in the world makes you think I’d let you use your power on me again!?”  Victoria shouted, taking to the air, out of reach.  “Who knows what you’re going to do to me!?”

“Please?” Amy begged.

“I can find someone else to fix it.  Or maybe, at the very least, I can show some fucking self-control and realize it’s my sister I’m having those feelings about.”

“You can’t.  I- Oh fuck.  You’re underestimating what I did.  Please.  If you never ever give me anything else, if you never talk to me or look at me again, just let me fix this.”

Victoria shook her head slowly, then scoffed.  “Good job, Amy.  You just did an excellent job of taking every instance of me defending you, every instance of my giving you the benefit of a doubt, and proving me fucking wrong.  You were worried about being as fucked up as your dad?  Congratulations, I’m pretty goddamn sure you just surpassed the man.”

With that said, Victoria was gone, flying into the distance.

Amy sank to her knees on the flooded street.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 11a

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

A howl tore through the air.  It wasn’t the howl one would expect from a dog.  It was ragged, with a guttural undertone that hinted at the size of the one doing the howling.

Before the howl had even finished, more took up the cry in answer.  A second howl, then a third.  More joining in, all at once.  Seven or eight.

Bentley raised his head and joined them, his tail wagging on his undersized hindquarters, almost prancing on the spot in his excitement.  Water splashed around paws as wide around as bike tires as he landed, spraying Bitch.

His enthusiasm was infectious.  She bared her teeth in a wide grin, then whooped, adding her voice to the cacophony.  She hopped up his side, gripping ridges of hard muscle and bony growths so she could throw one leg over his other shoulder.  A spike of bone scratched her upper thigh, beneath her skirt, but she didn’t care.  It was nothing.

“Go, Bentley!” She urged him.  He surged forward like an arrow loosed from a bow.

She could feel the heat of his body underneath her, the rippling movements of his muscles as he ran.  She could smell him, like dog breath and the coppery tang of blood, that faint sweet smell of meat on the verge of going bad.  She could smell herself, her body odor.  She hadn’t washed in two days, but she liked her own smell.  She liked that her belongings and her place all smelled like her.

It wasn’t that she wouldn’t take care of herself.  She would, just like she took care of her dogs.  Just as she groomed each of them twice a week or more, she would tend to herself.  But what did some scruff on her legs matter when she was treading down flooded streets or caked in mud up to her knees half the time anyways?  What did some body odor mean, if she didn’t even like the people who were around to be offended by it?

Barker, Biter and the others would be at the locations she had assigned them.  She had given them the most menial of tasks.  Grooming the dogs, feeding the dogs, picking up shit, checking the dogs for sores, cuts, ear infections and ticks like she’d showed them.  She had a good number of dogs in her care, now.  Most had been taken from kennels that hadn’t been in a state to help the animals since Leviathan attacked.  She was eagerly anticipating the moment someone complained.

Barker or Biter would be the ones to whine about the task first.  They had powers.  They had expected to be in charge, to be her lieutenants.  The looks on their faces when she’d given them their tasks had made her day.  Nothing like putting someone in their place.

If they didn’t complain by the time they were through checking and taking care of all of her dogs, maybe they would start when the next batch arrived from the shelters, and they were told they had to do all of those dogs on top of starting afresh with all the ones they had done before.

The moment someone did complain?  Or if they let one tick, one rash or one ear infection slip?  She could make an example of them.  Humiliate them, scare them, insult them.  If she did it well enough, they’d leave.

If she did it really well, they would all leave.

Then she could be alone for a while, alone with her dogs.  Nobody would be able to nag her about the fact that she hadn’t given the henchman thing a try.  Fuck it.  She already had all of the assistance she needed.  The best, most loyal kind.

Lucy appeared from a nearby street, making her excitement known with a noise that was half bark and half something else.  She ran alongside Bentley.

“Good girl!”  Bitch laughed, “Come on!”

Lucy responded by huffing out a noise that might have been a bark.  Her footfalls splashed out of sync with Bentley’s, and they were soon joined by others.  Ink, Magic, Roxy, Buddy, Bruno and Socks.  None of the others were as large as Lucy and Bentley.  This would be their first run.  A taste of her power.  She would give them a little more each time, keep an eye out for the ones who listened, give more training to the ones who needed to be kept in line by the bigger and more obedient dogs.

But this was her territory.  Her space.  Finally a place where she could do what she wanted.  Here, she was free, and that meant she could be dirty.  She could go where she wanted, hurt anyone who got in her face.  She could roam free with her dogs and try her power on them without worrying about people getting hurt.

Which wasn’t to say that people wouldn’t get hurt, of course.  Just that it was her territory, and she was allowed to make the call.  Anyone who hadn’t gotten the message already deserved what they got.

Bentley and the rest of her pack drew towards the source of the howling.  Sirius stood outside an apartment block, filling the evening with that mournful, haunting sound that carried through the air.

She hopped down from Bentley’s back, and used the back of her hand to wipe away some of the sweat, mucus and blood that had transferred from his back to her inner thigh.  “Sirius!  Good boy!”

He wagged his tail, and the tip of it made trails in the water.

“Sirius, guard!” she pointed toward the front door of the building.  “Bentley!  Guard!” She pointed at the little emergency exit at the side.  The two dogs moved to their respective positions.

“Sit!”  Her dogs all sat.  She noted Magic was a little slower than the rest to obey.  Would Magic have listened if the other dogs hadn’t been here?  If she hadn’t been following along with the others?  Bitch made a mental note.

“Stay…” she ordered, drawing out the word.  She could see the group of dogs freeze.

She had a routine with her dogs.  The first priority was making sure they were healthy.  That meant grooming and possibly shaving them, getting their records and shots updated if they hadn’t come from the shelter, cleaning their ears, and ensuring they were kept away from the other dogs so she could check the color and consistency of their shit and track any changes.  Shit revealed a lot about the dog it came from, from the obvious of diet to general health to mood.  An unhappy dog had unhealthy shit.

The second step was training, and every dog got some dedicated attention.  ‘Sit’ was the first command they learned, followed closely by ‘stay’, ‘off’, ‘fetch’ and ‘come’.  Depending on the dog, it could take a couple of days before they had it down solid.  These commands were absolutes.  If a dog didn’t listen to each of those, it wasn’t allowed to go out, and it didn’t get any use of her power.

Once a dog had those commands down, it opened the door to other orders.  A dog that would stay put while she demonstrated with another would be that much more inclined to follow suit.

If only humans were as reliable, as easy to train.

“Dogs, attack.”  The word was quiet, but every dog present was waiting for it.  Bentley and Sirius stayed at their positions, but the rest of the dogs surged into the building, the larger ones leaping through the boarded up windows, the smaller ones surging in the front door.  Growls and barks that were twisted by the unnatural shapes of their throats overlapped into a single noise.

She waited outside the building, one hand on Bentley’s neck.  He wanted to go, she knew it from the tension, but he was obedient.  Good.  This was a test for him.

Another howl sounded, far away, startling her.  If her dogs were here with her… oh.  Only one dog would be elsewhere.  She listened as the howl came again.  Yes.  Angelica’s howl reflected her size and the degree to which Bitch had used her power on her.  More than Bentley, Sirius and Lucy.

She whistled for them to come back, long and loud, and her dogs came tearing back through the building.  She checked, and she couldn’t make out any blood that didn’t belong to the dogs.  Good.  Better to terrorize and inflict light wounds than to maim or murder.  If the people in that building stayed in her territory, she would be surprised.

She climbed onto Bentley’s back, then whistled twice.  Come.

A jerk of the chain collar around Bentley’s neck and a kick to his sides spurred him into action.  The others followed, some yipping or barking with excitement.

Did other people experience anything close to this?  Did Taylor, Brian, Lisa or Alec?  She felt like she was one with Bentley as she caught quick breaths between his jarring footfalls.  Water splashed onto her skin and his.  Her legs pressed against his body, and she could feel the expansion and contraction as he huffed out breaths.  She trusted him, and he trusted her absolutely in return.  It varied from one dog to the next, but the same was true with the others that were following in Bentley’s wake.  They believed in her, and if they didn’t love her yet, she knew it would come in time, with her patience and continued care of them. What did Lisa have that compared to that rush, this security?  What did the others have?

Why, Bitch wondered, are they happier than me?

Unbidden, the answers came to mind.

She remembered living with her mother.  She couldn’t even remember the woman’s face, but that was little surprise.  Mom had worked anywhere from three jobs to none, but she spent little time in the apartment.  When she was home, she was either drinking in her room or partying with friends.  Little Rachel’s questions or attempts to get attention were met with anger, rejection.  She would be pushed away or locked in her room.  Better to stay quiet, watch for an opportunity.  If her mother passed out drunk, bills could be taken from her wallet, secreted away for later purchases of bread, peanut butter and jam, milk and cereal or orange juice at the corner store.  If there was a party, and if she was successful in keeping from getting underfoot, she could often snatch a bag of chips, a box of ribs or chicken wings, to eat under her bed or on the roof.

So she got by.  Until the day her mother didn’t come home.  The food in the cupboards had disappeared, even the cans of pineapple, pears and nuts in foul-tasting syrup that had been left behind by the apartment’s previous residents.  Desperate, terrified to leave the apartment in case the fifteen minutes she spent looking for food were the same fifteen minutes her mother stopped by, she’d turned to trying to cook the rice, standing on a chair to reach the sink and stove-top.  After pouring the rice into the water that had been sitting on the hot stove, she’d accidentally brought her arm down on the arm of the pot, and tipped it all over herself.  In retrospect, it was a blessing that she hadn’t known that the water should be boiling.  Still, it was hot enough to turn her skin pink and leave her screaming enough to drive the neighbors to call nine-one-one.

Then the foster homes.  Home one, where the parents were kind, but lacked the patience to deal with a little girl who child protective services had labeled a borderline feral child.  Her foster-sister there had been a mongoloid that stole things, breaking or ruining what she couldn’t take for herself.  Rachel had responded the only option she could think of, attacking the girl who was three years older and fifty pounds heavier, leaving the girl bloody and sobbing.

They found a new home for her rather quickly, after that.

Home two, where the parents were not kind, and she had four foster siblings rather than the one.  Three years there, a long series of lessons on what she’d done to the idiot sister from the first home, taught with the roles reversed.  An education in violence of every kind.

Unable to keep the feelings bottled up within her, she screamed until she couldn’t breathe any longer.  Then she took a deep breath and screamed again.  Even though she screamed until it hurt, it was tiny and insignificant compared to everything she wanted to convey.

Home three had been the breaking point.  Two foster siblings, a single foster-mother.  She’d overheard her caseworker saying that the new foster-mother would be a disciplinarian, the only person that might be able to turn Rachel into a civilized human being.  Bitch’s opinion, years later, was that this had been a retaliation, a punishment inflicted on her by the caseworker for the countless trips to school or the home to deal with Rachel.

She hadn’t believed that her foster mother could be more of a disciplinarian than her second set of foster parents.  Realizing the nature of her situation had been unpleasant.  The foster-mother brooked no nonsense, and had a keen eye for every failing and mistake on her children’s part, quick to punish, quick to correct.  If one of her children spoke with their mouths full, she would snatch that child’s plate away and dispose of the contents into the trash can.  Never the carrot, always sticks.  Rachel was made to attend school, then after-school make up classes, with piano every other day, as if she couldn’t be bad if she didn’t have the time.

But Rachel hadn’t been equipped for these things, would never be equipped for school or manners or piano.  She fought back, challenged her foster-mother’s authority at every turn, and when she was punished for this, she fought back twice as hard.

She might have gone insane if it wasn’t for Rollo.  She’d stumbled onto the mangy, hostile puppy in an alley between her after-school classes and home.  After earning his trust with scraps of her lunch over the course of days and weeks, she brought him home and chained him up at the very back of the expansive backyard, out of sight of the house.

She had stayed quiet when her foster-mother complained about the neighbor dog’s barking, feeling a confused mixture of smugness and terror every time it came up.  Her lunch money went towards buying the dog scraps of food, guessing at what he needed, and this sacrifice of her lunches coupled with the frequent lack of dinner left her getting headaches and her stomach growling constantly during school.  She would wake up at four in the morning to visit him and play with him, and the lack of sleep left her so tired she would drift asleep in the middle of class.

But a dog couldn’t be chained to a tree, not for twenty-two hours out of every day.  She’d seen him grow increasingly agitated and unhappy, to the point that she couldn’t play with him without him hurting her.  So she’d untied him to take him for a walk.  He’d slipped free and headed for the house.  Her blood running cold, she’d chased after him.

When she caught up to him, she found him in the pool; she couldn’t swim, and he couldn’t climb out.  She’d pleaded with Rollo to come out of the pool, tried to run around the pool’s edge to get to him so she could pull him free, but he’d been scared, and swam away from her.

Then the plastic cover of the pool began to slide closed.  When Rachel had looked to the house, she’d seen her foster-mother standing on the other side of the sliding glass door that opened into the backyard, her finger on the switch.  Slowly, gradually, despite her screams and banging on the locked door, the cover had slid over Rollo’s head, trapping him.  For nearly a minute, there was the bulge beneath the cover of Rollo’s head as he swam in tight circles, his sounds of distress muffled.

Her foster-mother’s punishments always matched the crimes.  There could be no doubt Rachel knew the dog from her pleading and shouts, and having a dog was against the rules.  Or maybe it wasn’t even that.  Maybe it was the fact that she was making a disturbance at five in the morning, or the realization that the barking that had plagued her foster mother for so long was Rachel’s fault.  Whatever the reason, the dog was to be disposed of, much in the same way as a plate of dinner was thrown out for holding a fork the wrong way or sitting at the table with her legs too far apart.

She’d woken to her power in that moment of panic.  Fed by her power, Rollo had grown enough to tear through the cover.  He’d then torn through her foster mother.  The shrill screaming of her foster siblings indoors had drawn his attention, and he went after them too, pouncing on them like any excitable dog might do with a mouse or rabbit.  He’d torn through door frames and walls, and an entire section of the house and collapsed in on her foster family.  In one fell swoop, she lost the closest things she had to a home and family.  It hadn’t been perfect, it had been nightmarish at times, but she’d had so little for so long, she found herself clinging to the scraps she did have.  She ran, then, and she kept running for a long time after that.

Her breath hitched as she drew in a breath.  She shook her head violently, to shake away the tears.  She had stopped screaming, but her dogs were making up for it as their voices had joined hers and continued long after she’d stopped, almost drowning out Angelica’s howls.

So many bad memories.  Memories she wished she could purge from herself, scour from her brain with fire and bleach and steel bristled brushes.

She was unhappy because humans were pack animals, she decided.  Taylor and Lisa and Brian could smile and laugh because they had their pack, they had their family members and they had each other.  Alec was more of a loner, but he could still joke and laugh with Brian.  They had their pack, their dynamic.  She wasn’t really a part of it.

Bitch knew that she wasn’t a lone wolf by choice the way that Alec was.  There was a void there, some part of her that craved that human connection because she was a human and that’s what humans needed.  The way things had played out, things she had no control over, she’d never had a chance to figure out how to deal with people, how to invite them in to fill that void.  Friendships and family, conversations and jokes, being close to others and knowing when to speak up and when to stay quiet?  They were treacherous things, littered with complicated nuances, bad associations and worse memories.  Even if she somehow got something right, she always managed to fuck it up sooner than later.  Easier to leave it alone, easier to stay back and not try.  And if they got in her face, if they challenged her and didn’t let her keep them at arm’s length?  It was easier to fall back on what worked and what she knew than it was to try to guess how to respond.  Violence.  Threats.  It earned her respect, if nothing else.

Then Taylor had made overtures at friendship.  Taylor had invited herself into that place, that void, and had stayed when Bitch fucked up.  The scrawny kid had stood her ground instead of running when Bitch called her out on something.  And maybe, just a little, in some small way, Bitch had gotten a glimpse at what she’d been missing out on.

Only to find out it was a ploy.  An act, so that Taylor could get the group’s confidence.

And now the others had forgiven her?  So easily?  She could see them fawning over the little traitor.  And there was nothing she could do about it.  They liked Taylor more.  They would keep Taylor on the team and make Bitch leave if it came down to it.  She knew it in her gut.

So she’d done something stupid.  She’d tried to get rid of her teammate, and she’d done it in a way that haunted her.  More than anything, more than all of the people she’d hurt, the people she’d accidentally killed, or the days she’d scrounged in the trash for food when she’d been homeless, wandering the cities on her own, she hated herself for what she’d done to Taylor.  She had acted like the people who haunted her memories, using what should have been a position of trust to try to hurt someone.

And she didn’t know what to do about it.

A gunshot startled her from her thoughts.

“Go!” she shouted.  “Go!”

More cracks of gunfire echoed through the night as her pack arrived on the scene.  Angelica was there, her form hulking and rippling with muscle to the point that she couldn’t move as fast as she otherwise might.  That was fine.  Angelica couldn’t move as fast these days, anyways.  Not since Fog had hurt her.  She was more comfortable like this; she was big, strong and able to move without pain.

Angelica flinched and backed away as the shots came, striking her flesh.

There was another shot, and Bitch saw a flash from the window, a glimpse of a face.  Her face twisted with rage.  “Attack!”  her voice was shrill.  She leapt off Bentley’s back so he could go too.  “Fetch them!  Fetch!  Go, go!’

As they’d done at the previous location, her dogs tore through the building.  This time, though, they came back with people in their jaws.  Arms, legs and torsos in fanged grips.  Men, women and children.  Some screamed where the dogs didn’t know their own strength and bit too hard.

She found the man she’d seen in the window and stalked over to him.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” the man repeated the word.

“You insulting me?  You trying to act big?’

“What?”  The man’s eyes widened.  Was he staring at her, challenging her?  Was it a fear response?  Was he rallying to fight, trying to get a wider sense of his surroundings?  She could only guess.

“No,” he said, his eyes moving around, as if searching for help.

Defiance?  Sarcasm?  A lie?

“I don’t think you realize how badly you fucked yourself.  You.  Shot.  My.  Dog.”  She looked at Angelica.  Her baby wasn’t acting too hurt, but he’d shot her.  He could have killed her, if the bullet landed in just the right place.

She kicked him in the face, and his head rocked back.  Blood fountained from his nose.

“I didn’t know,” he managed, huffing out air, blood spraying at his words, where it had run down to his lips.  “Didn’t know she was yours.  She was scary, I- I reacted.”

Was he lying?  She couldn’t tell.  She’d grown up with so many good liars, it felt like everything that sounded honest was a lie.  If he was lying, and it was obvious, she’d look weak if she fell for it.  Others might not get the message about this being her territory, about her dogs being off-limits.  If he wasn’t lying… well, he’d still shot Angelica.

Nobody hurts my dogs.”

“Please.  I have a wife, kids.”

As if family somehow made you better than someone else?  The idea nettled Bitch.  Life experience had taught her that it was all too often the opposite.  People were assholes, people were monsters.  The exceptions were all too rare.  Far too many of those same people started a family just because they thought it was what they should do, and then they were assholes and monsters to a captive audience.

She kicked him again, in the stomach.  He screamed as the kick made his arm, still in Ink’s jaws, wrench the wrong way.

“Angelica,” she ordered.  She kicked him in the stomach again.  “Paw!”

Angelica stepped forward and placed one paw the breadth of a truck tire down on the man’s pelvis.  He howled in agony, his words rapid, desperate and breathless, “Heavy oh god please stop please let me go make it move itscrushingme!”

She looked at him with distaste.  It bothered her that the only time she could be absolutely sure what someone meant, what someone wanted, was in circumstances like this.

“Angelica,” she ordered, ducking beneath Angelica’s outstretched limb, kicking him in the kneecap, “Take it.”

Angelica bent and gripped the man’s legs in her teeth, twisting his body further.  His body was pressed to the ground by her paw, his arm and legs pulled up and away from it.

She stepped close to Angelica, burying her face in the slick muscle and hard tissues that layered the dog, wrapping her arms as far as they would go around Angelica’s shoulders and neck.  Just as her dogs came to trust her as she cared for them, fed them, and nurtured them, she grew closer to them as they shared experiences with her, as they learned and accepted their training.  Angelica was one of the dogs she was closest to.  The only dog she was this close to.  Brutus and Judas had passed, the only dogs she had been with for years.

Her heart broke a little every time she thought about it.

And this man?  This family man?  He’d thought he could take Angelica away from her?

Without looking at him, her head still pressed to Angelica’s neck, she gave the order, “Hurt him.”

She felt the vibration rattle through Angelica’s head and neck as bone snapped and crunched between her teeth.  The man shrieked, there was no better word for it, and others in the vicinity echoed his shrieks with their own.

She gave the hand signal and an order, “Drop him.  Dogs, drop them!”

Angelica let the man drop.  His shins were cracked, the ends of his legs bent at odd angles.  One by one, the other captives were dropped to the ground.  Each of the man’s noises of pain was a little smaller and quicker than the last.

“Why can’t you fuckers get it through your skulls?” she called out.  “This is my territory!”

“We didn’t know,” someone said.  A woman who was clutching a bloody arm to her chest. Her daughter beside her.

“You fucking challenging me on this?”

“No!  No.  We- we just… how were we supposed to know?”

“Are you retarded or something?  It’s obvious,” Bitch couldn’t believe the woman’s stupidity.

“How were we supposed to know!?” the woman raised her voice, sounding plaintive.

“The howling.  If you can hear the howling, you’re too fucking close.  Leave.”

“You could probably hear that halfway across the city!”

“No fucking shit,” Bitch retorted.  The woman was challenging her authority.  She had to respond to it, or the woman would keep talking, Bitch would say or do something that made her look stupid, and others would stand up to her.  Best to stop that sooner than later.  “Socks!  Come!”

The woman shrank back, clutching her daughter, as Socks advanced to Bitch’s side.

“Stop,” a voice ordered.

Bitch turned and saw two capes.  From New Wave, weren’t they?  Brandish and Glory Girl.

Brandish spoke, “Glory Girl, call your sister.  At least one of those people needs medical attention, fas-”

She stopped as Bitch whistled as hard as she could.  Barking and snarling, her massed dogs charged the heroes.

After being ambushed and taken captive by the ABB, she’d learned her lesson.  Hit first, assess the situation later.  Besides, what was she going to do?  Talk to them?

Brandish flicked her hands out, and beams of light drew into vague sword shapes.  As the dogs stampeded towards her she flicked them out to double the length.  They drew closer, almost reaching her, and she reconsidered, banishing the weapons to condense herself into a beachball-sized ball of orange-yellow light. The dogs hit her, there was a spray of sparks, and the ball was sent careening down the street and through the wall of a building.

Glory Girl was flying over the stampeding dogs, a cell phone pressed to her ear, in Bitch’s general direction.  Ink and Bruno leaped to the side of a building and then leaped from that point toward Glory Girl.  She struck Socks across the head, sending him flying to the ground, and Bruno slammed into her, knocking the phone from her grip.  She brought her knee up into the dog’s side and pushed herself away before he could drive her down into the ground.

The heroine went for Bitch, who had only Angelica at her side.  Angelica positioned herself between enemy and master, and Glory Girl hit the dog broadside.  Angelica barely reacted, turning instead to snap at Glory Girl.  Her teeth rebounded off the heroine’s outstretched arm, and Glory Girl darted backward, to hover in the air.  Catching her breath?  Watching the situation?

That wasn’t how you were supposed to fight.  Bitch whistled hard, then shouted, “Magic, Lucy, Roxy!  Come!”

As the three dogs barreled toward her, she used her power.  She felt it extend outward like a vibration from deep inside her.  She felt that power shudder and reverberate, as if to let her know it was making contact with them.  She could see the effect.  Could see them grow larger, see bone and muscle swell and shift.

“Attack!”

In moments, Glory Girl was contending with four dogs.  Angelica advanced implacably, Bitch following at a walking pace.  The other three were attacking from every direction, cutting off escape routes, leaping onto the side of the building, leaping down, running behind her, or flanking her from the sides.

“Mom!” Glory Girl shouted, a note of panic in her voice.

“Run!” Brandish called out her response.  She was facing much the same situation, unable to attack with the relentless pressure the dogs were putting on her.  Instead, she changed herself into that ball form where she couldn’t be touched or hurt, flying away with every hit she took, or controlling the direction so she could make her way for an escape route.  She managed to find enough pause to lash out at one dog and shout, “Get the wounded!”

Glory Girl caught Roxy around the snout as the dog lunged for her, and threw her down at Lucy.  She used the momentary reprieve this granted her to fly straight for the man who’d shot at Angelica, who lay in a heap on the ground.

She stopped mid-flight.

A woman stood over the man’s mangled body, her long hair blowing slightly in the wind.  Which seemed wrong.  With the light rain, her hair should have been wetter.

Glory Girl looked over her shoulder to see the dogs, looked back to the injured man and the woman, and then flew straight up, disappearing into the gloom of the night sky.  She’d left him behind.

The barking and snarling ceased as the fight drew to a close.  Each of the dogs returned, and Bitch noted a few injuries.  A shattered plate of bone here, a gouge where Brandish’s blades had made contact there.  Surface damage.  It was only the damage that penetrated deep, past the layers her power applied, which risked hurting the dogs or doing permanent damage.  Nothing so serious.  Bitch breathed a sigh of relief.

She stalked forward, her dogs joining her to form a loose circle around the woman.  The crazy bitch was naked from head to toe, and her skin and hair were painted in alternating stripes of white and black, like a zebra… no.  Paint would have washed off, and dye wouldn’t be so crisp around the edges.  It was a natural coloring.

When the woman looked up at Bitch, her eyes were yellow and bright, reflecting the ambient light like the eyes of a dog or cat might.  She smiled, and there wasn’t a trace of tension in her body, as though she’d just woken up in a safe place.

“Who the fuck are you?”

The woman didn’t reply.  She crouched down beside the man, then shifted her position so she was sitting sideways, her legs stretched out beside her.  Her fingertips traced the man’s injuries, almost lovingly.

“Answer me,” Bitch ordered.

The woman reached over and pressed her index and middle fingers to the man’s eyes.  Pressing down, she penetrated the orbs, sliding her fingers down until they were two knuckles deep.

“Hey!  Fuck off!”

The woman removed the fingers.  Vitreous fluids and blood flowed from the open wounds in the man’s eye sockets.

The woman turned towards her.  She didn’t meet Bitch’s eyes, instead looking down at Bitch’s feet.  It struck Bitch that the woman was making herself small, was being inoffensive.  It made her feel better, strangely.

Slightly calmer, her words measured, she called out, “I’m going to ask you again.  Who the fuck are you?”

“Siberian,” the woman spoke, her voice barely above a whisper.  Barely audible.

“What the hell are you doing here?  This is my territory.”

“I’ll leave soon.  I just wanted to talk.”  Again, the whisper.

Talking, always talking.  “Not interested.  Go.”

Siberian looked down at the man, who was still writhing and twitching, making small noises of pain.

“Go!”  She shouted.  The woman didn’t budge.  Bitch glanced at her dogs to see who was the biggest, the least injured.  Lucy.  “Lucy!  Attack!”

Lucy pounced on Siberian.  Bitch saw Siberian stretch out her arm, saw Lucy’s jaws clamp down on the limb.

There was no reaction.  Lucy tugged, the full force of her body behind the movement, and the woman didn’t move a hair.

With great care, Siberian stood.  She looked at Lucy, her bright eyes roving over the dog’s face and the length of the dog’s body.

“Beautiful,” she whispered.  She pressed her lips against Lucy’s nose in a kiss, as if uncaring that the dog had seized her arm between jaws that could crush a motorcycle.  Lucy snorted in response.

Then she looked at Bitch.  This time, she made eye contact, and despite her whisper, there was no-nonsense in her tone.  “Your dog lets go of me now, or she gets hurt.”

The confidence in the tone, the authority, the fact that the woman’s eyes didn’t waver in the slightest, they made it abundantly clear to Bitch that the woman was telling the truth.  She was certain enough about it that it was worth weakening her position here.  “Lucy, off.  Come.”

Lucy let go and backed off, moving to Bitch’s side.

“They’re beautiful,” Siberian whispered, looking at the dogs.

Bitch nodded mutely in response.

Siberian approached her, walking with a great deal of care.  There was grace in her movement, and she walked on her tiptoes, each foot carefully placed a measured distance in front of the other.  Her eyes shone through the curtain of her white and black hair.

Bitch felt a moment’s trepidation.

“What…” She regretted opening her mouth the instant she did, but it was already too late.  “do you want?”

You.”

“I don’t understand,” she tried to inject more confidence into her answer.

“They told me I should pick someone.  Someone they can test.  I read about you, I heard about you.  I want you on our team.”

“Team?”  She hated the short answers that were coming out of her mouth, the way that they were uncertain and they put her on weaker footing.

The woman’s response carried over the flooded street, through the growls that slowly ratcheted up from the dogs as the stranger approached their owner, “The Nine.  We have only eight, not enough.  So some of us are picking people.  Then we test them.  I picked you, and I like what I’ve seen.  I’ve been watching you for weeks, now.”  She smiled again.

Has to be a lie, Bitch thought.  Her dogs would have noticed someone following her, wouldn’t they?

The woman was only a few paces away.  The question was, should Bitch retreat and put herself in an even weaker position, or did she stand her ground?

She stood her ground.  The woman stepped closer, within arm’s reach, then another two paces, until her chest pressed against Bitch’s body.  She met the woman’s gaze, unflinching, until Siberian wrapped her arms around her, holding her close, resting her chin on Bitch’s shoulder.

Aren’t you tired of pretending?”, the woman whispered in her ear.

“What?”  Bitch tried to pull away, so she could ask the woman the question to her face, but the limbs were unmoving, more resisting than steel bars would have been.

“Acting like one of them.  Playing and losing their games, decorating yourself in their clothing and their symbols, following their rules?”

“I-” Bitch paused, “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The pause was telling.  She knew it was telling.  The woman understood her, she knew.

The woman understood her.  The thought clicked.  The way the woman moved, her body language, everything, she was making sense to Bitch in a way that so few people did.

The idea left Bitch shaken.  How?  Why?  Was it some power?  From the start, she’d known what the woman wanted to express as easily as she did with her dogs.

“You’re an animal, Bitch.” The woman gave special treatment to that last word.  Bitch stiffened.  The woman pulled away, one hand remaining to caress the side of Bitch’s face.  Her eyes were lowered again, Bitch noted.  She was smiling lightly, her lips pressed together, teeth hidden.  Playful, gentle.  Bitch let herself relax.  It hadn’t been meant as an insult.  The body contact was intrusive, but she could grit her teeth and bear it, at least until she figured out who this person was and how she could fight back.

“We’re all animals,” Siberian murmured.  She walked over to Bentley, and Bitch hurried to give the dog the hand gesture for ‘stay’, then ‘off’ before the woman moved to touch him.  “Some more than others.  You and I, more than others.”

“Philosophy shit?”

Siberian smiled, her hands tracing Bentley’s snout, the exposed muscles and horns.  “Philosophy shit.  Yes.  Touché.  An idea given meaning because people think it should have meaning.  But it’s just words, isn’t it?”

“Sure.”

“Join me.  Stop pretending to be like them.  You know you’re bad at it.”

“I’m fine where I am.”

“Mmm,” the woman smiled, her eyes lowered.  She clasped her hands together and pressed them to her chin, squishing her breasts up against her chest.  She turned, taking in the neighborhood, assessing Bitch’s territory.  “Maybe for now.  You have freedom to run, to do as you like.  It’s nice.  But you’re going to chafe at it sooner or later.  You’re going to realize that you’re still in a cage they made.  You’re still following their rules, in the end.”

Bitch looked around the empty, flooded streets as Siberian was doing.  She didn’t answer.

“Maybe you can be happy like this.  A dog, collar around your neck, a fenced in territory.  You’ll never really understand what they’re all talking about.  The best you can hope for is a pat on the head when you’re good, when you do as you should, maybe some companionship whenever you’re a good girl.  But maybe that’s what you want.

“As opposed to what?”

“Being wild.  Being free.  Truly free.  It’s exhilarating,” Siberian breathed.

Bitch frowned.  Words that sounded nice, but that was all they were.  Just words.

“I’m going to give you two presents, Bitch,” Siberian whispered.  “One will be waiting for you when you go back to your… what do you call it?”

Bitch didn’t answer.

“Let’s call it your den.  I like that.”

Siberian closed the distance to Bitch with a surprising speed, her steps less controlled, carrying her long distances forward as she zig-zagged over the flooded street.  Before Bitch could react, or before the dogs could step in, she was next to Bitch, stopping.  Siberian put a hand on her collarbone.  Bitch was lifted into the air and pushed down into the water, soaked, landing hard enough that the air was forced out of her lungs.

As she struggled to breathe, Siberian whispered, “The second gift is special, a treasure for a kindred spirit.”

Bitch coughed, struggled, but she couldn’t move the hand.

“As of this moment, you’re the only one to hear me speak and live afterwards.”

She kissed Bitch on the forehead, like a mother would with a child.  Bitch tried to twist away, and only succeeded in getting water in her eyes and nose.  She sputtered as she struggled to draw air into her empty lungs.

When she could see again, Siberian was gone.  Her dogs were looking up at a nearby rooftop.

Shaken, she gestured for Bentley to come to her, and climbed up onto his shoulders.

Coughing, snorting water from her nostrils, she gave the order, “Home.”

Her thoughts were chaotic as she rode Bentley down the streets, a dull roar of too many things all at once, all too important to be ignored.  At the same time, she didn’t want to think about them, didn’t want to put those pieces together, because she wasn’t sure she liked where they would lead.

The gift Siberian left her.  Some of her henchmen were at her den.  More important, some of her dogs were there.  Every minute the trip took left her more worried.

She hopped off Bentley as they arrived at the building, shoving the doors open.

Blood.  Trails leading to Barker and Biter, who were on the ground floor, unconscious, still breathing.  One of the girls, the one with veterinary training that Coil had sent to her, was sitting in one corner, nursing an arm that dangled at the wrong angle from the elbow, sobbing.

This was recent.  Siberian had done this in the time it took Bitch to get here.

More blood, one of the boys, a dog groomer with years of experience, lying beside the kitchen counter, his shirt wadded up and pressed to his face.  Around the shirt, she could see the four parallel tracks where Siberian’s fingernails had left gouges running across his face.

None of the dogs were hurt.  She had to double-check them to see.  Most were cowering in the corners.  Some had retreated up the stairs.

The blood had a pattern to it, as though Siberian had painted a picture with the spray.  A line drawing from each of the injured to the center of the room, where a box sat, faintly dusted with flecks of blood.

She was nervous as she opened it, but she couldn’t not.

A furry bundle tried to escape, and she stopped it.  It bit for her fingers.  She pulled her hand back, gripped it by the throat and forced it down to the ground, making her dominance clear.

A husky puppy?  No.  The physical makeup was wrong.  The smaller ears, longer limbs, and markings around the jowls and muzzle.

wolf pup. Where had Siberian found this?

There was a card in the bottom of the box, stained with urine.  Bitch picked it up with the very tip of her finger and thumb.  She’d never properly learned how to read, so she had to work out the individual sounds, moving her lips to try to piece it together.

“Ah… air yoh… you.  Air you a…”  That letter, she didn’t recognize it.  After it was… “oll… wolf.”

She gave up.  She could guess, anyways.

Are you a wolf, or are you a dog?

The rule was to call Coil at a time like this.  To let him know what had happened.  She found her phone in one of her jacket pockets and she fumbled with the keypad to find him in her contacts.  Her finger hovered over the button.

What was she holding on to?  Who was she protecting?  Her friends?  Were they really her friends?  It wasn’t that she wanted to betray them, she wasn’t about to repeat that mistake, but…

She couldn’t articulate the thought, but it was Taylor’s face that flashed into her mind’s eye when she put the phone away.

Maybe she would see what this test was about.  She wasn’t about to back down.  But in the end, she‘d make the call about where she went and what she did.

“You,” she told the man with the gouges in his face, “Go to a doctor.  Take anyone here that needs it.  But I don’t want you telling Coil, I don’t want you using his doctors.  Got it?’

The man looked up at her, staring for long seconds.  Finally, he nodded.  She didn’t know if he would, or if he’d be able to hide it, but if he did inform Coil, it would at least be an excuse to get rid of him and the others.

She looked down at the wolf pup, who was still struggling to bite at her fingers.  She let it go, waited until it tried to attack her again, and pushed it down onto its side once more.

“Little bastard,” she smiled.

Almost without thinking about it, she used her power.  Just the smallest amount.  She felt almost none of the vibrations or shudder she experienced as a visceral feedback on her power with the other dogs.  It was only when she saw his skin splitting that she realized it was actually working.  Faster, quicker, with so little of the temporary exhaustion she so often experienced on her end.

Was it easier with him?  What did that mean?

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Sentinel 9.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I’m a tinker.  I’m supposed to be smart.

So how can I have been so stupid?

Ballistic raised one hand and pointed at Kid Win.  He waited until Kid Win moved before kicking at the uneven, rubble-strewn ground, sending a spray of concrete and wood fragments flying like a hail of bullets.  It only grazed the teenage hero mid-leap, lacerating the side of his stomach, hip and thigh, chipping his armor.  It still hit hard enough that it twisted him in midair.  He landed on his back atop the rubble that covered the ground, grunted.

“Hey!” Ballistic bellowed, “Little girl!”

Kid Win saw Ballistic pointing at Vista.  The villain, between his build and armor, had the frame of a football player, a dramatic contrast to the young heroine.  He pointed at her, paused long enough for her to bend the ground into a semblance of cover, then launched a chunk of concrete at her.

The concrete flew at an angle that wouldn’t have hit the girl anyways, struck the barrier and shattered, sending debris careening onto and into the girl.  Vista screamed and fell backwards, part of her barrier crumbling to land on top of her.

He’s telling us exactly where he’s going to attack next.

Kid Win looked up, saw Sundancer with her orb hovering a good fifteen feet off the ground, keeping it away from the walls of the building and the corpses that were hung above them.  Even though it was fifteen feet up and thirty feet away, he could feel the heat of it prickle his exposed skin.  He knew from the Endbringer fight that she could make it bigger, move it faster.

As the burning sphere drifted forward, staying at roughly the same height, Flechette and Glory Girl were forced to scramble away.  Shadow Stalker leaped off of the top of the wall and into the alleyway next to the building to get away from the heat.  Only Vista remained where she was, caught under debris that she was striving to shrink down and push away.

It dawned on Kid Win.  Sundancer and Ballistic, at the very least, were holding back.  Because they were strong enough that going all out would leave corpses.

The revelation didn’t make him feel any better.  In fact, it was just the opposite.  If these guys got desperate or panicked, they might stop being so polite about it.

Trickster and Genesis were tangling with Weld and Clockblocker – Clockblocker was putting paper in the air, freezing it to give himself footholds to go after his flying opponent.  Any time Genesis moved to attack, Clockblocker set paper in her way, edge towards her, or he tried to duck in close enough to touch her.  Giving up on more physical means, she exhaled a cloud of the choking smoke.  Clockblocker and Weld both worked together to minimize the spread of the cloud, using paper and plywood, freezing it in place with Clockblocker’s power.

Kid Win decided they had a handle on that.  It was up to him to help against Ballistic and Sundancer.

As he climbed to his feet, breaking into a run before he was even standing straight, he raised his spark pistol and fired off a series of oversized blue sparks at Ballistic.

Trickster managed to teleport him again, swapping his position with Ballistic’s.  The forward momentum of his sprint was enough to get him out of the way of his own gunfire.

His spark pistol sported a small power core that used spatial warping technology to magnify and then reabsorb a steady electrical current.  The barrel was wired with a helix-shaped electromagnetic rail, based on some of Armsmaster’s old data on the ‘hard’ light Purity and Dauntless created.  Nanomolecular, ionically charged rifling on the barrel’s interior was arranged to guide the fired charges into a rough elliptical shape, which sustained their shape and consistency the longest.

In laymen’s terminology, it was not unlike a power bar that was plugged into itself, with a small addition that made each revolution of the current larger than the one before.  An attached battery kept the current going.  The shots themselves were ‘hard’ electricity condensed into balls, which meant they had a physical impact to them, due to how they carried and transferred kinetic energy.   Given how the weapon charged, waiting a few seconds between shots meant the next shot hit harder, up to a limit.

I can make something like this, which is brilliant, then I go and dismantle my fricking hoverboard to get parts for a project I never even finish.  Idiot.

Ballistic marched towards Vista, who was trying to climb to her feet.  He was intercepted by Glory Girl, who slammed him into a wall.  She punched him, drove her knee into his gut, then slammed him against the wall again, to keep him off-balance and hurting.

Ballistic slumped against her and grabbed at the collar of her costume for support.  A second later, Glory Girl was a blur, disappearing into the skyline.  His attacker gone, Ballistic fell onto his hands and knees with a grunt.

Flechette threw a handful of darts at Sundancer, pinning the girl against the wall.  Somehow Flechette had avoided Trickster’s attention.  How?  Kid Win turned to look, saw that she was standing so her body blocked Trickster’s line of sight to both the darts and his teammate.

So he can only teleport what he sees?

Kid Win moved to mimic Flechette’s technique, running to a position where he would be between the injured Ballistic and Trickster.  He cocked his spark pistol.

He was nearly lined up for his shot when his gun disappeared from his hand, an awkwardly sized piece of wood taking its place.  A second later, his mask and visor cracked against a hard surface.  He had to grip the wall to steady himself and keep from falling.  He’d been teleported.

Then the wall moved beneath his hand, and he heard Clockblocker shout, “Get down, Kid!”

He let himself fall, simultaneously realizing he had been leaning against Genesis, in her gargoyle-like form.  Weld slammed into the villainess, his left hand in the form of a heavy miner’s pick.  It did a surprising amount of damage, but she didn’t seem to care.  She gripped Weld around the face with a claw, raked his chest twice with criss-crossing slashes of her other hand, leaving deep gouges in the metal.  The same noxious black smoke that she had been breathing began to billow out of the hole the pick had made in her chest.

Clockblocker charged, but Genesis shoved Weld so the two heroes stumbled into one another, delaying them long enough for her to leap into the air.  She beat her wings to keep herself aloft and out of reach.

Kid Win unslung his laser rifle and fired at the villainess.  His first shot grazed her, as one flap of her wings carried her higher into the air, but the next two hit the mark.  One struck her in the shoulder, leaving a hole large enough to fit his hand through, the other struck her in the side of the head, doing a similar amount of damage.

Genesis dropped from the sky, exploded into a mess of dark smoke and pebbles as she struck the ground.

Feeling a moment’s panic, he checked the settings on his gun.  Normal levels, no anomalies.  It could heat metal and other inorganic materials, cut through more fragile materials, but against a person, it wouldn’t do more than hurt and maybe leave the mildest kind of burn.

That’s her power, he reminded himself, you didn’t kill her.

But his gun had done a surprising amount of damage.  Was it some interaction with how she pulled her new shapes together?  A specific wavelength, a weakness to lasers?

He wasn’t about to complain.  He wheeled around, fired on the other villains.

An injured Ballistic opened fire on Vista, discharging a series of pieces of rubble at an angle.  It struck the ground just in front of the girl and fallout from the impacts showered her.  Each shot drove her back further, buying him a chance to limp to Sundancer’s side.  He touched the darts that were fixing her to the wall, sending them flying into Weld’s face.

“Fuck!” Weld cursed, the metal spikes of the darts jutting out of his jaw, cheekbone, eyebrow and forehead, “Takes forever to get my face right after something like this!”

Trickster’s teleportations had placed the enemy’s group in the interior of the building, with the Wards surrounding them.

Surrounding one’s enemy wasn’t quite an advantage when the enemy could teleport, but for a moment, they all paused where they were, various weapons at the ready.  It was the kind of momentary peace that fell when everyone was waiting to react to what the others were doing.

A wind blew past them, and Kid Win blinked as a fat droplet of water spattered against his visor.  It was starting to drizzle.  He glanced up at the corpses where they hung on the walls of the building.

“The water’s going to wash away the evidence if you don’t let us go and hurry to check on the bodies,” Trickster spoke.

“Crime scene techs can’t get here in time with the roads like they are,” Weld spoke.  “And we’re not allowed to touch the evidence anyways.  Rules.”

“Rules?  You shouldn’t sweat those things so much,” Trickster chuckled, “Here, I’ll help you out.”

Weld disappeared, and the burned corpse flopped to the ground.

“Shit!” Clockblocker shouted, running forward.

Weld dropped from the wall for the second time in a matter of minutes as the restraints intended for the woman’s corpse tore free of the concrete.  Vista reshaped the wall to ease his descent.  Kid Win raised his laser rifle to fire at Trickster.

Dumb.  He regretted it the second his finger left the trigger.

As he predicted, he found himself somewhere else in the blink of an eye, and the impact of his own gunfire slammed into his back, intensely hot.  He threw himself to the ground at the base of the building, where water pooled, rolling so his back was submerged.

It’s not lethal, can’t do any permanent harm, you had it vetted, tested on pig meat.

The balance of the fight had abruptly shifted.  Clockblocker, Flechette and Vista were where the three Travelers had been, and vice versa.

“Nuh uh uh, kiddo,” Trickster spoke, as the gap in the wall began closing behind his group, “Up you go.”

The flayed corpse appeared in Vista’s position.

No!  Kid Win turned, saw Vista on the wall.  She’d gotten tangled in the loops of wire that had been holding the corpse up.  The metal wire was coiled around a shattered part of the wall, and more than one wire had caught around her neck.  Another looping of wire bound her body, one of her arms caught against her side.  She struggled to pull at the wire on her neck with her free hand, but it was little help.  The wire pulled so tightly against her throat that Kid Win feared it would cut her skin.

“Trickster!” Sundancer cried out, horrified.

“Just run!” was the villain’s only reply.  The three villains started running, leaving the building behind, their footsteps sloshing and splashing.

Kid Win raised his laser pistol, aimed carefully, then fired, landing the shot a half-foot to the right of Vista’s throat.  The wires heated and split, freeing her, and she dropped a foot before catching on more wires.  Nothing dangerous, this time, but it was a fair distance to fall and one slip could see her getting cut on the wire, strangled or cracking her head open as she fell.

Shadow Stalker materialized behind Trickster, catching him around the throat in a headlock.  She used one foot to kick his feet out from under him, and then forced him face first into the water.

Kid Win hesitated.  Help her or help Vista?

Vista.  Shadow Stalker would say she could handle herself.  Made a point of trying to.

He fired more shots to free Vista, missing the wires one or two times.  The heroine, for her part, focused on angling the wall beneath her to allow herself to slide down instead of falling the full distance.

Ballistic shot Shadow Stalker, driving her back.  The attack had left a gaping hole just below her heart, the edges wispy.  The gap closed, but the attack had separated her from Trickster, and hurt her badly enough that she crumpled to the ground, a hand to her chest.

Kid Win fired a salvo at the retreating villains, grazed Ballistic.  Sundancer turned, directing her orb between their groups.  She dropped it into the water.  Massive clouds of heated steam rose where the orb met water, obscuring the battlefield.

By the time it cleared, the villains were gone.

It took a minute to check that none of them had suffered any permanent damage.  After some debate, they moved the bodies to a more secure, dry spot, inside the building. Glory Girl managed to make her way back two minutes after the Travelers were gone, helped with the last body that still hung on the wall.  By the time they were done, the rain was pouring down.

Kid Win stared down at the corpses, an ugly feeling in his gut.

He was dumb, easily distracted, prone to leaving his projects unfinished, and it was moments like this that this knowledge hit him particularly hard.  His dad had made him get tested, and the doctors had labeled him with ADD and dyscalculia.  He held to the opinion that the ADD diagnosis was way overused – he liked to think that he was just a daydreamer, prone to getting lost in his thoughts.

The dyscalculia was something concrete that he couldn’t deny or explain away.  He couldn’t keep numbers in his head, couldn’t make the most basic intuitive leaps or connections with them.

All of that had been before he got his powers.  Nothing had changed, except that now he could visualize something, instinctively know how he could put it together.  His disability or disabilities put him a step behind the rest.  His daydreaming was worse, because his thoughts were so damn interesting, now.  He couldn’t take reliable measurements without using computers to do it.  Couldn’t finish half his projects without feeling compelled to move on to something else.

The PRT staff insisted he was exceptional with antigrav and guns, had it even marked in his file, but he knew it wasn’t so true.  He finished his guns because they were simple, in their own way.  It was easy enough to take three half-finished gun projects and mash them together.  Create something with multiple settings, even.  As far as he was aware, he was the only Tinker in the PRT’s records that didn’t have a defined specialty, gimmick or trick.  He was increasingly worried that his special talent as a tinker was being able to occasionally make something despite his learning disability.  Which would suck, if it were true.

There were exceptions.  He’d finished bigger projects.  His hoverboard, driven by the idea of how awesome it would be to fly.  Even then, it had been a chore.  Monumentally stupid of him to dismantle it.  The idea and motivation driving the action had been good: he was graduating the Wards in a little while, he’d be expected to change his name and adjust his methods, because an adult calling himself Kid Win was lame.  He’d had an idea about a harness with a floating array of turrets that could fire different munitions depending on what gun he holstered in the main slot.  Self adjusting and adaptive the way his Alternator Cannon was.  Except he’d gotten frustrated at a snag in the testing, put it down to take a break and hadn’t picked it up again in six days.  His hoverboard had effectively been destroyed for no reason, when it might have made the difference in getting the Travelers into custody.

His Alternator Cannon was the real gem.  It had been the result of a medication the PRT’s doctor had prescribed, which he’d been forced to stop after two weeks when he began to get increasingly dizzy, anxious and nauseous.  While he’d been taking the pills, he’d been focused, had a glimpse, maybe, of what he could do if it weren’t for his distractibility and daydreaming.  When Piggy had spoken of destroying the thing, the mere thought had been crushing.  Then Leviathan had destroyed it for real, maybe the only truly brilliant thing he’d be able to make.  He harbored fears it might even the only brilliant thing he’d ever be able to make.

He wasn’t the worst hero ever, he knew that.  He had things he could do.  He could let the worries and the dozens of unfinished projects alone, most days.  That changed when his team got thrashed.  Thoughts like that had been plaguing him since the Endbringer event a week ago.  He couldn’t shake the notion that he was in the running for the weakest member of the team.  The notion that he was dumb, second-rate.  That this loss, here, was his fault, because he had dropped the ball.  The people of this city deserve a better hero, a more focused one.

Weld spoke, disturbing him from his thoughts, “I just got a message.  PRT is on their way.  We head back now.”

Hearing the unenthusiastic replies of his teammates, Kid Win realized that the rest of the team wasn’t in any better of a mood than he was.  Losing had a way of doing that.

Strangely comforting.

“Got word from the Protectorate.  They’re handling the case with the bodies, we’re not to touch it or get involved in any way,” Weld spoke, folding his arms.  He had what looked like acne – blisters of extra-shiny metal on his face where the remainder of the darts hadn’t yet been fully integrated into his ‘skin’.  He reclined in an expensive, custom-made office chair, capable of supporting his dense, heavy body.  Everyone else had found seats in the central room of their headquarters.  Everyone, that was, except for Glory Girl, who had gone home.  She wasn’t yet an official member of the team.

“No word on what’s going on?” Clockblocker asked.

“They’re staying quiet on the subject,” Weld spoke.

Vista leaned forward, “Maybe a serial killer?”

“We should focus on what we do know,” Weld shook his head. “As far as tonight’s patrols-“

“Actually,” Kid Win cut in, “Sorry.  But I have one theory.”

“What?” Clockblocker asked.

Kid Win glanced at Weld, checking to see if their leader was ok with it.  Weld didn’t say anything, which he took as assent to continue.

“There were two other crime scenes, right?  Any idea if there were the same number of bodies at each crime scene?”

“Same number-” Weld raised an eyebrow, “Why… Oh.  Shit.  I think I follow.”

Smarter than you’d think, given his brute-force power and his appearance, Kid Win realized.  Or I’m just that bad with numbers.  The connection took me twenty minutes to make.

“Three crime scenes with three bodies each.  So it’d be nine bodies?” Clockblocker asked, “Each killed in some different way?  I don’t see what killer that would fit with.”

“Not one killer,” Kid Win answered, “Nine bodies, each for different killers.”

“The Slaughterhouse Nine,” Clockblocker leaned back in his seat, groaning, “Fuck, that’d be all we needed.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time they’ve arrived at a location in the wake of an Endbringer event,” Flechette pointed out.

“Maybe it’s them,” Weld conceded, “And maybe the Protectorate figured that much out, with the clues they have from the other two scenes.  It could be someone or something else.  Either way, it’s not our case, not even in our league, and we should stay as hands off as we can manage.  We need to talk about patrols and tonight’s duties.”

“The grunt work,” Flechette offered a literal grunt to punctuate the statement.  Kid Win and Clockblocker chuckled.

“Vista’s due for a patrol, and as a young member, she has to go with someone.  Lily?”

Flechette smiled a little, “Quick to make me pay for the snark, huh?  No, it’s cool, I’ve been wanting a chance to shoot the shit with Vista.”  She extended her fist, with index finger and thumb extended to form a gun, mock fired it at her junior teammate.  Vista rolled her eyes.

“Clockblocker, you and I will handle the night’s shifts after that.  Your call if you want to patrol with me or not, we can cover different routes and go for a wider area if you’d rather.”

“Alright.  We’ll figure it out.”

“Leaving Shadow Stalker.  You okay with the late-night, Sophia?”

“Yeah, fine,” Sophia didn’t look up from her laptop.

“And me?” Kid Win asked.

“Special duty, tonight,” Weld smiled, “You’re recruiting.”

“Recruiting?”

“There’s a kid calling himself Chariot.  Been racing around the city with a powered suit that lets him move a hundred miles an hour.  Assault finally caught up with him last night, brought him into custody.  Wound up calling the kid’s mom, got him to agree to talk to our recruiter.  You.  You’ll be meeting the kid in his home.”

“Why me?”

“Shared interests.  You’re both tinkers.  You have the best idea of how he thinks.”

Kid Win nodded.  He couldn’t quite put his finger on what he was feeling.  A measure of excitement at the idea of getting to talk to another tinker that wasn’t Armsmaster?  Sure.  Fear?  Would he be replaced by a new tinker?  It was an immature thing to be spooked about, he knew that, but that didn’t make it any less real.

“Cool,” he spoke, by way of agreement.

“You convince him, it’ll look good to the guys upstairs,” Weld informed him.

Right.  Great.  Pressure.

“Now, onto a more serious topic.  I’m seeing that this team is really disorganized, these days.  I have no problem handling the brunt of the paperwork, it gives me a degree of insight into what’s going on that the files don’t.  I don’t even mind cleaning up the kitchen and showers here when the janitors are off duty.  But we really need to communicate.  Last night Flechette went on patrol and ran into a situation with Parian she should have been briefed on.  It could have turned hostile.”

“Sorry,” Vista muttered.

“It turned out okay,” Flechette smiled a little.

“Right.  It’s okay, it’s understandable, given all we’re trying to handle,” Weld reassured her, “But we can’t miss out on details and updates on the overall situation.  The Protectorate have their hands full with the gang wars between Fenrir’s Chosen, Purity’s group and Coil,  they’re now dealing with this serial killer or serial killers, and they’re still updating the records.  So here’s what we’re going to do, I’ve checked it with Piggot, she agrees.  I’m picking up an extra patrol shift, and I’ll be adjusting your patrol shifts down by twenty minutes each, moving them around slightly.  With the downtime that creates, we’re going to have meetings like this, every day.”

Pausing, Weld glanced at Clockblocker, as if expecting a response.  When Clockblocker only nodded assent, Weld’s eyebrows rose a fraction in surprise.  He continued, “Gives us a chance to talk about our recent patrols, fears, concerns, ideas.  Or hell, just talk, because I’m seeing this trend where we only see each other in passing, while patrolling or in class, and some of you are going out of your way to spend time together and hash stuff out, even at the detriment of stuff like school.”

“You’re talking about class, earlier,” Clockblocker said.

“More or less.  Not saying it’s a bad thing, but we can restructure our schedules, make time for it, instead of detracting from an area we need to pay attention to.”

“Sure,” Clockblocker agreed.  Was there a note of irritation in his voice?  Kid Win couldn’t tell.  Dennis was playing along, at least.

“Now, about the paperwork you guys have been submitting, there’s been a few recurring problems…”

Kid Win sighed and settled into his seat.  This was going to be a little while.

The building was ugly, had trash piled up on either side of the front door, a sour smell wafting out from it.  The water level wasn’t so bad here, and the building was almost entirely intact.  The only sign of damage was the boarded up windows on the first and second floors where the glass had been knocked out of the window frames.  Red brick, it seemed like the usual sort of tenement building one would find in the Docks.

He stepped inside.  A Hispanic boy in the front hall whistled sharply as Kid Win stepped inside, while a group of Asian-American boys and girls in dirty clothing ran around him, screaming at a ear-piercing volume as they continued a game, some pointing and hooting at the superhero.  Occupants aside, it was dark, with only two dingy lightbulbs and no open windows.

It’s nine o’clock at night.  Don’t these kids have a bedtime?

He checked the folded paper he had in his hand, found the room number, and headed up the stairs.  A morbidly obese, older man sat halfway up the stairs, maybe a babysitter for the kids.  Kid Win hoped the man was a babysitter, because the man was white and the kids weren’t, meaning he probably wasn’t family.  If he wasn’t getting paid, there was only one uncomfortable explanation for why the man would be willing to tolerate that yelling and squealing.

Or maybe he’s deafLet’s go with that.

The fat old man didn’t budge an inch as Kid Win approached, forcing the boy to squeeze by.  He made his way up, ignored a gang of fit twenty-something Asian guys who were standing guard in the hallway on the second floor.  On the third floor, he headed past people who were sleeping on blankets in the hallway, found apartment 306.

The door opened a second after he knocked.  A tired looking Hispanic woman greeted him, “You’re the superhero, I take it?”

“Yes.  Kid Win,” he extended his hand.  She shook it firmly.

“Ashley Medina.  My son’s back through here.”

There was a sense of pride in the narrow apartment, Kid Win saw.  An undercurrent of aesthetic taste, matching knick-knacks and furniture.   There were marks of a vacuum cleaner’s recent run over the carpet and both kitchen counters and dining room table were immaculately clean in a way that suggested she’d gone to some effort to clean up.  In a building like this, though, there was only so much you could do.  There was a water stain on the ceiling, dark brown marks on the carpet under a small rug, maybe from a previous occupant.

“If you’ll wait here, I’ll get him.”

Kid Win sat on the sofa.  He noticed the cathode ray tube television was missing its screen, had been gutted.  Quite likely for parts.  The toaster was a goner, too.  Only the wireless modem in the corner of the kitchen had survived, green lights blinking.

He has priorities, at least, Kid Win thought, with mild amusement.  Gotta have an internet connection.

When Chariot arrived, Kid Win stood, offered a hand.  There was a delay before the kid shook it.  He was lanky, with big ears and close shorn hair that made him look slightly goofy, but he had a wary look in his eye.  He wore a t-shirt and jeans that were stained with grease, had lots of little cuts and stains on his fingers, hands and forearms.

Been thereSubstandard tools, not enough parts.  I can use that.

“Please sit,” Chariot’s mother said.

Kid Win obliged.  Chariot was the last to take a seat.  Was he reluctant, something else?

“Chariot, is it?”  Kid Win ventured.  God, hope I don’t fuck this up.

“Mm,” was the noncommital reply.

“Just to give me an idea, on a scale of one to ten, how interested are you, in maybe joining the Wards?”

“Ten’s high?”

“Ten’s a lot of interest.”

“Four.”

“Trevor!” Chariot’s mom admonished, “They offer funding, education-“

“We do,” Kid Win interrupted.  If mom pushes, this guy’s only going to get less interested.  Shit, a four is low.  Maybe if I do the talking… “It’s good money, with room for better money.  Especially for a tinker like you or me.”

“How’s that?”

“The guys in charge want tinkers.  They really want tinkers, both because they want us in a position where we won’t be making trouble for them, and because and they want the kind of stuff we can create.”

“I’m not giving up my stuff.”

Kid Win paused.  This is like looking into a mirror to a year and a half ago.  “Look, I can see your TV, your toaster.  Chances are you’ve gone to the Trainyard or a scrapyard to find some stuff.  Old batteries, car parts, chains, good metal, whatever.”

“He wanted to go to the Trainyard,” Chariot’s mother cut in, “I told him no, caught him trying to sneak out.”

Chariot scowled a little, looked away.

This would be easier without her here.  “I get it.  Been there.  You’re hungry to use your power, but more than any other kind of cape, you’re facing a hurdle in terms of the entry-level resources you need.  This is where the team would support you.  You get funding, a lot of funding, to put your stuff together.”

Kid Win reached into his belt, retrieved a compact disc.  He placed it on the glass coffee table, then withdrew a set of small tools from the other side of his belt.  He dismantled the object and began laying out the components one by one.

Chariot reached for the nearest component, and Kid Win moved to block the boy’s hand.  “Don’t touch, please.  Look only.  Trace oils and static charge could damage something.”

The boy gave him an annoyed glance, bent over the table to look closer at the chips.

“What’s this crystal?”  Chariot asked.

“3D computer chip.  Uses light instead of electrical current.  They’re made by this Protectorate tinker down in Texas.  She gets funding to produce a set number every month, in addition to her regular pay.  So long as you’re in the program, you can put in an order for her stuff, with the specs you want.”

“And this metal threading, gold?”

“Gold, for maximum conductibility.”

“That’s a camera, this would be the power source, that part does something with wavelengths, and this reads energy… but I’m not getting it.  What does this do?”

Kid Win quickly slipped the pieces back together, turned the compact device over, then pulled out his smartphone.  Touching the screen, he activated the compact device.  It floated above the coffee table.  He turned his smartphone around to show them the image it was streaming from the device’s camera.

“So much effort, for a video camera?” Chariot’s mother commented, “My tax dollars are going towards this?”

The dumbfounded look Chariot gave his mother put Kid Win in the awkward spot of having to suppress a smile.  This is a point for me.  If I asked him again, what would he say?  Five, six?

“You join the Wards, you get exactly what you need to reach your full potential as a Tinker.”  A small lie there.  Not like I’ve reached my full potential.  “And anything you make, the PRT buys the rights from you.  If you’re willing to give up that much, you can do well for yourself.”

“You’re talking money?” That had piqued Chariot’s interest.  He leaned forward, elbows on his knees.

“I maybe shouldn’t, but I’m going to tell you what I’m getting out of it, because it’s almost definitely going to be the exact same for you.  I get paid, but the money goes straight into a trust.  I’ve made enough to pay for my college education, and every dollar I earn beyond that is going to be waiting for me as a cash award, if and when I graduate from a four-year postsecondary program.  I’m getting four hundred dollars in allowance each month, just to mess around in my workshop, all my materials are paid for, and I currently have about two thousand dollars sitting in the bank, right now, from that.  Once I turn eighteen?  I make more.  It automatically transitions to a job with good pay, working with the Protectorate, and the hours will be totally flexible around any classes I take.”

“But he’s risking his life,” Chariot’s mother spoke.  Chariot frowned.

“He is.  There are responsibilities.  But honestly?  There’s zero way he’s going to be able to go out and try out any of the stuff he’s made without running into trouble.  People are going to pick fights, just because he has powers.  If he tries to hang out in a workshop he establishes on his own, they’re going to find him, strong-arm him into putting something together for them.  Not just villains, either.  Heroes too.  Being a tinker doesn’t just make you a target.  It makes you a resource.  It’s why pretty much every tinker out there is a member of a larger, more powerful team.”

“Then Trevor could just not use his powers?” she spoke.

“Sure,” Kid Win folded his arms, leaning back against the back of the couch.  “What do you think, Chariot?  You think you could keep from using that power of yours?  Be normal?”

Chariot frowned, looked down at his scratched-up hands, “No.”

Kid Win nodded in agreement, “It’s a part of you, Chariot, a part of how you think, now.  I’m telling you this is the best option.  The safest.  Having a team means you’re protected, free to do what you need to do.”

Chariot’s expression indicated clear interest.  Then he frowned, “I don’t want to give up my stuff to others.  It’s mine.”

Something struck Kid Win as off about the reply.  What was it?   It was out of tune with the flow of the conversation, didn’t quite match up with Kid Win’s own experiences being recruited.  Maybe it sounded forced?  But why would Chariot fake reluctance?

He pushed forward, anyways, “I get that, really.  But it’s only given away in name.  You still get to use it, you just can’t give it away or sell it to others.  The benefit is that you gain access to all the stuff and plans other PRT tinkers have made.  I can’t show you any more of that than I have, but the fact is, you’d be able to look at my blueprints as easily as I could look up yours, get inspiration…

“…Or you could look at the sort of stuff Dragon makes.”

Chariot’s eyes lit up.

“Tell me you’re not interested, now.”

“I’m… kind of interested.”

Again, that vibe.  Pretending he’s not as interested as he is.

“They can’t force you to join, but they do want you on the team.  There’s no negotiating.  You’d get the same I get, pretty much, so if you’re holding back or trying to fake like you don’t want to join when you do, you’re just wasting your time and mine.”

“I’m not,” Chariot replied, defensive.  “It’s only… this is a big deal.”

“It is.  So take my card.  Call me if you have any questions, or if you want me to pass on word that you’re joining the team.”

Kid Win fished in his belt and then handed his card to the boy.  Black with white lettering and his starburst-gun emblem on the back.

“Okay,” Chariot replied.

“Talk it over with your mom.  Get back to us.”

“Thank you,” Chariot’s mother spoke, standing.  Kid Win stood as well.  He shook her hand again.

“Not a problem,” Kid Win replied.  He punched the boy lightly on the shoulder as he stood, “Join.  It’d be good to talk shop with someone else that gets this stuff.”

Chariot nodded.

The mother led Kid Win to the door, and he headed out the building – the fat man from the stairwell was gone, and only the Hispanic boy by the front door was still in the hallway.  Kid Win stepped outside.

Something’s off with this scenario.

He tapped his foot a second, then stepped around the building and into the alleyway.  He retrieved his smartphone, and used it to send the hovering camera up to the third floor, checked in the windows where the apartment would be.  The boy was leaving the bathroom, going into his room.  Kid Win moved the camera to the next window over, the boy was sitting down at his computer, turning it on.

Straight to the computer.  Hm.  Kid Win pocketed the hovering camera, then turned his attention to the smartphone.  According to the phone, there were three wireless modems in the building.  One was named with a string of violent swear words, the other was on its default settings.  Both were unlocked.  He chose the third, locked connection, clicked a button on the screen to have his phone decrypt the password.

Fifteen seconds later, he could see someone online.  Kid Win watched the white text scroll by with details on the connection’s activity.

Google docs – pages of technical stuff, the boy was adding notes on gold wiring, shortform notes on antigravity, 3D crystals.  The next page the boy visited, five minutes later, was an email account.

Twenty seconds later, an email was sent.

To: C1298475739@cryptmail.com

Guy from wards came.  I’m in.

Kid Win stared at the screen for a long while.  Cryptmail.  That wouldn’t be an agreement with the PRT.

“So someone got to you before we did,” he muttered to himself.  He tapped the armor over his ear twice to open a communications channel, “Console?”

“Weld here, manning the console.”

“Do me a favor, call everyone back to the base for a quick meeting?  And maybe call Piggot?”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Sentinel 9.3

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Welcome to Parahumans 103: Theories and Patterns.  I see we have a packed auditorium, and according to the enrollment list, we have no less than three hundred students taking the TV course.  A bump up from the last two trimesters, so I must be doing something right.”

Clockblocker looked around the room.  Six PRT uniforms sat in the front row, helmets off, three with notebooks open on the desks in front of them.  Weld and Flechette sat in the desks closest to the door, exchanging murmured words as the professor on the screen began going over the course syllabus.

Glory Girl sat just in front of him, wearing a black, long-sleeved shirt, arms folded on her desk, chin resting on the back of one hand.  Vista, odd as it was, sat beside the other heroine, had been the only one to offer any conversation.  When Glory Girl hadn’t seemed interested in talking, Vista had instead offered her silent company.  Clockblocker wasn’t exactly sure how Glory Girl had gotten into the Wards headquarters to attend the screening, but she was here, uncharacteristically quiet, much in the same way that Vista had been this past week.

Kid Win sat to Clockblocker’s right, fidgeting by taking apart his pen and putting it back together, his eyes not leaving the screen.  Shadow Stalker was sitting as far away from everyone else as she could manage, at the back corner of the room.  She sat sideways in her seat, back to the wall, her feet resting on the seat next to her.  Her attention was directed entirely at the keys and screen of her cell phone, rather than the projector screen at the front of the room.

Only thirteen people present, altogether.

“…for disability and pregnancy accommodations, the course syllabus gives you all the details you need on who to contact.  If you aren’t already, you’re going to be sick of hearing all that by the time you graduate.  We’re required to go over it in the first class of every class we teach.

“So.  Let me start off by addressing and banishing some assumptions you may have.  This is not an easy class, and anyone who took Parahumans: History and Society or Parahumans: Case Studies and Powers will be aware of this.  Even for those of you who emerged triumphant from the previous two semesters should know that PARA-103 may be something of a shock to you if this is your first year of University.  Here, primarily, I will be looking for creativity, problem solving and research abilities.  Skills and abilities that, frankly, aren’t stressed enough in high school.

“For this class, I want you to think.  Parahumans.  People with powers.  They’ve been around for nearly thirty years.  Where did they come from?  Why are they here?  It’s common knowledge that parahumans are ordinary individuals who gained abilities.  It is too easy, however, to assume that this is the sum total of our knowledge.  I want you to think further on the subject.  For example, why does virtually every parahuman ability have some application in confrontation and combat?  Is this the nature of humans, to turn any progress to violent ends, be it science or superpower?  Or is it by design, an individual’s hand at work?

“With the destructive potential of these abilities, why do so very few individuals perish in the chaotic and unpredictable emergence of their talents?  For the first two or three weeks of the class, we’ll be talking about these most pivotal moments in a given parahuman’s existence, these trigger events, when an individual first gains their powers, typically through some form of trauma.

“Throughout the course, we’re going to be looking at correlations and patterns, both in relation to trigger events and other things.  For example, how does the nature of the trigger event shape the power?  A study by Garth and Rogers suggests that psychological stress leads to a higher prevalence of mentally driven powers.  Tinkers, thinkers, masters, shakers.  The more physical violence that is involved, the higher the bias towards physically driven powers.  Garth and Rogers suggest a sliding scale, but it may not be that cut and dry.

“A followup study by Garth touches on what we know about cape ‘families’.  If one individual in a family has powers, it is far more likely that others will as well.  Almost always, this trend is either descending or lateral, it seems to transition from parent to child, or one sibling to another, but not from child to parent.  We’ll talk about the theories on why.  For those of you wanting to read ahead, take a look at Garth’s notes on the Dallon and Pelham families in chapter nine.  We can surmise that the different scenarios leading to trigger events may be directly related to the differences in powers, even among closely related members of a cape family.  Similar trigger events and related individuals, similar powers.  The more distant the relation and the more varied the trigger events, the more drastically different the powers they possess in the end.”

Clockblocker glanced at Glory Girl, to see if the mention of her family had stirred her interest.  She hadn’t budged an inch.  Was she asleep?

He couldn’t help but sympathize.  This is a monumental waste of time.  I could be out there, helping people.  Or spending time with my family.  The Protectorate was coordinating shifts so the Wards could collectively get at least some education in the meantime, on Piggot’s orders.  Except this wasn’t useful, this wasn’t applicable to the ongoing crisis right here, right now, in this city.  Cooped up in a PRT conference room, learning stuff that didn’t apply to actual field work.

Hell, it was on videotape, a recording of last year’s lectures.  Why couldn’t they watch it in their off hours?  It was just a fucked up set of priorities enforced on them from the people in charge.

He shifted restlessly, annoyed, angry.

“Trigger events are a crucial element for study, because the timing, nature and spread of these emerging powers may provide a clue as to where these parahuman abilities come from.  More women than men have powers, for example, and there are more powers in undeveloped countries than there are in industrialized ones – Some of you may remember me mentioning this fact in the 101 class, when I was talking about the witch burnings in The People’s Republic of Uganda.

“Another pattern we will be exploring is the apparent effect of multiple trigger events occurring in the same time and place.  There is a very strong correlation between coinciding trigger events and individuals displaying three or more powers rather than one or two predominant ones.”

“Hey, Flechette,” Kid Win called across the room, “You’ve got a bunch of powers, right?”

She turned in her seat, “Sure.”

“Anyone else get powers at the same time you did?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Could someone nearby have gotten their powers, without you knowing?  Way things played out?  Did any capes show up around the same time as you?”

Flechette frowned, “Yeah.  A rather persistent villain.”

“Worth thinking about.”

Weld turned around, “Critical thinking and applying this stuff is good, but let’s not forget the lecture.  Or the other people in the classroom.”

Is he trying to get people to dislike him?  Clockblocker wondered.

The professor on the screen was answering a student’s question, “…I think Eidolon expresses a single power.  But thank you.  Good question, and good lead-in to the next section of the course we’ll be discussing.  After we wrap up on trigger events, we’re going to be moving on to what we call ‘outliers’.  Parahumans or parahuman-related elements that deviate from the norm.  Any guesses?”

“Scion.” A student on the TV spoke.  The camera shifted to him late, and by the time he’d responded, the professor was pointing to another.

“Endbringers.”

“Nilbog.”

“I wouldn’t suggest Nilbog, but we can debate the point later,” the professor spoke, “Perhaps a subject for a course paper.  Scion, yes.  Endbringers?  Yes.  We have no reason or evidence to suspect they gained powers by normal means.  Another group you may or may not be familiar with are what the PRT terms Case Fifty-Threes.  Often the ‘monstrous’ parahumans, we’ll get into more depth on the subject.”

Clockblocker glanced at Weld.  The boy was digging through his canvas backpack for something.  Was he one of them?

“Weeks five and six, assuming we’re on schedule, we’ll pull all earlier material together and discuss the beginnings of the parahuman phenomenon.  Not for the individual, as with trigger events, but as a whole.  Where do capes come from?  There is the patient zero theory, typically working under the assumption that Scion is the source of these abilities.  This, however, raises questions about where Scion came from.  The theory is corroborated by the case of Andrew Hawke, who came into contact with Scion on the very first sighting of the hero, only to manifest powers of his own… but there are others who manifested powers without ever coming into contact with Scion or entering a location where Scion had visited.”

“There’s the viral theory, supposing some advanced virus, though it is flimsy at best in justifications, with no identified culprits, method of transmission or explanation as to how it provides the actual powers.  The genetics theory is popular, but has been thoroughly debunked.  We’re going to talk about how it was debunked…”

Clockblocker felt a vibration at his wrist.  He reached inside his glove to get his cell phone.  A text.

From: Mom

Dad’s not doing well.  You may want to come by the hospital.

He stood, and Weld turned to give him a look.  He ignored the metal skinned boy, headed for the back door of the classroom, his keypad beeping as he dialed the number.  It was ringing as he closed the door behind him.

“Mom?”

“Dennis.”

“How bad is it?”

“As bad as last weekend.  Worse.”

He closed his eyes.  More statement than question, he said, “He’s not getting better.”

“No.”

“Okay.  Do you need me there?  I can use my power, buy the doctors time to think or get prepared if there’s a crisis.”

Her voice was tight.  “No, Dennis.  It’s not that kind of situation.  They’ve got him on a respirator, and the doctors don’t have much hope he’s going to be able to breathe without it, again.  The antibiotics can’t fight the infection on their own.”

“So he’s going to die.”

“I’m sorry.”

“A few hours?  Days?  A week?”

“The doctor says it’ll be the next few days.”

He clenched his fist, relaxed it.  Not fair.

“Hey, mom?  Listen, I’ve got to run.”

“Come by, Dennis.  Before it’s too late.”

“I’ll try.”

“I love you.”

“Love you too.”

He hung up, paused to compose himself.

Not fair.

Stepping back inside the classroom, he returned to his seat, but didn’t sit down.  Instead, he stepped up a little further to where Glory Girl sat and touched her shoulder.  When she raised her head, he pointed to the door.  She nodded, stood.

When they were both in the hallway, he spoke, “Sorry to pull you away from that.”

She shook her head, golden curls swinging, “Not missing anything.  I’ve already taken this class.”

“Oh.  Then why are you here?”

“New Wave may be disbanding.  My mom suggested that if I wanted to keep being a hero, I should consider joining the Wards.  So I’m here, checking things out.  Your leader and director okayed it.”

“Are you?  Joining?”

“Don’t know.  They’re willing, if I agree to some extra rules and stipulations.  They’d be putting me on probationary membership, like they did with Shadow Stalker.  I came by to get a sense of things, see if it’d be worth going through the hassle instead of going solo.  I thought maybe I was ok with doing it until I saw the portraits in the lobby.  Now I’m not so sure.”

Clockblocker nodded.  She didn’t need to explain.  Where the Wards’ portraits hung in the lobby of the PRT offices, the portraits of Aegis and Gallant had been reprinted in black and white, surrounded with thick black frames.  One was apparently in the works for Browbeat, who had been too new to even have an official costume, let alone a portrait.  They had been repositioned to be just above the front desk and below the PRT logo, with wreaths and flowers beneath, tokens from the PRT employees.  The building wasn’t open to the public, and was surrounded by PRT squads, but the public would get their chance to pay respects.

Glory Girl had lost three people she was close to on that day.  Gallant – Dean when out of costume – was a loss she shared with Clockblocker.  Her boyfriend, his friend.

“I know it’s crass, I know you guys have rules,” he spoke, “I’ll understand if you get angry.  But… my dad has leukemia.  He was a few days into some pretty rigorous treatments when Leviathan came.  He got hurt when one of the waves hit, and some infection got at him through the wounds.  He has pretty much no immune system, doesn’t have the strength to fight it off.”

“You want me to ask my sister to use her power on him.”

“Please.”

“Okay.”

The response startled him.  He looked up at her, caught off guard.

She explained, “I’m not promising anything.  Like you said, Amy has her rules about taking requests.  But I’ll see if I can convince her.  Again, no promises.”

“Thank you,” he said, “Really.”

“And if you want to pay me back, maybe tell me about Gallant sometime.  Share some stories I wouldn’t get to hear otherwise.”

“For sure.”

The door opened, and Weld stepped out into the hall, followed closely by Vista.  Clockblocker felt a pang of annoyance, bit his tongue before he could say anything.

“Everything okay?” Weld asked.

I could tell them, Clockblocker glanced at Vista, but the rest of the team would find out.  They don’t need another thing to worry about.

“Things are okay,” Clockblocker spoke, carefully.

“We paused the video, waiting until you guys are ready.”

“Alright,” Clockblocker replied.  He added, “Thank you.”

“I’ll trust you have reason for this,” Weld smiled slightly, showing a row of white metal teeth, “But don’t take too long.  You’re on patrol at two this afternoon, and that doesn’t allow us much leeway for delays if we want to finish watching.”

“Alright,” Clockblocker repeated, his tone growing impatient.  He watched as Weld returned to the classroom, shutting the door behind him.  To the closed door, he muttered, “Tool.”

“He’s trying,” Vista piped up.  “It’s hard to be leader, but he’s working hard.”

“That’s my whole problem with him,” Clockblocker answered, annoyed, “He gets on our case about patrols and training and paperwork, then turns around and says he’s not asking us to do anything he isn’t doing himself.  Except he only sleeps one or two hours a night, he barely eats, doesn’t need to use the washroom or shower.  He’s got no friends or family here to look after.  He can afford to work hard.  He’s a f…rigging robot.”  He censored himself for his junior teammate.

Vista shook her head.  “That robot, and he’s not really a robot, by the way, is doing as much paperwork as the rest of us put together.  He only makes us do the paperwork he can’t do himself.  Even if he doesn’t have to.  That gets brownie points from me.”

His temper flared.  “What, are you channeling Gallant, here?  Standing up for…” he trailed off before he could finish.  Realized who he was talking to.  “Shit, no, I…”

Vista just stared at him.  After a second, her eyes got shiny, and she looked down at the ground, an angry expression on her face.   She wheeled around and ran down the hallway.

He moved to chase her, stop her, but the hallway folded together, letting her reach the end in two strides, snapping back to its full length as she passed along it.  She rounded a corner in the distance.

He looked at Glory Girl, his voice small, “I’m sorry.”

She answered him with only a glare.  He wondered if she would hit him.

She relented, looking in the direction Vista had run off.  “It’s okay.  We’re all worn down, at the end of our ropes, and you’re worrying about your dad on top of that.  You get one pass from me.  One.”

He nodded.

“But you’d better go after that girl and apologize.  Because the way I heard it from Kid Win, you were the one who told everyone else to be extra nice to her, because she was taking it hard.  You convinced Shadow Stalker to play nice, and from what Kid Win said before class started, that was a pretty big deal.  Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know your team like you do, but I’d guess that if you don’t fix this, your team won’t forgive you for a long time.”

“Yeah,” he swallowed.  Was she using her power?  He was getting a bad vibe from her.  Like he was locked in a cage at the zoo with a murderous jungle cat.

She poked him in the chest with a finger.  “A real apology.  You own up to what you said and did, acknowledge that it wasn’t fair of you to say, and you promise to do better in the future.  That probably means you should cut Weld some slack, because Vista wants you to.”

“Okay.  Right, okay.”

She pushed his shoulder, making him stumble in the direction Vista had gone.  Easy to forget how strong she is.  “Now go.”

He ran.

Definitely don’t get the sense I’m forgiven, there.

He checked two empty rooms and made one nervous check of the women’s bathroom before he found Vista halfway down the stairwell at the rear of the building.  She had one leg up on a higher stair than the other, her hands clasped around her knee.  She turned her head partway, acknowledging that someone was there, then wiped at her eyes with the sleeve of her costume.

“I’m sorry,” he spoke to her back.

“You’re a jerk.”

“I am.  I’m the worst jerk.”

Vista twisted around to look up at him, “You said that in front of Glory Girl, too.  He was her boyfriend.”

“I know.  She said she understood and that it was okay, but I don’t know how true that is.  Before I figure that out and work out how to make it up to her, I want to make sure you’re okay.”

She hung her head.

It was a long time before she spoke.  “He was the reason I looked forward to coming here every day.”

He walked down the stairs and sat down next to her.  “Yeah.”

“I knew I didn’t have a chance with him.  He was way older, he was rich, handsome.  He was dating Glory Girl, or they were just getting over a breakup, or he was starting to patch things up with her for the millionth time.  There was never a good time to talk to him one on one, unless we were out on patrol together, and I dunno what I would have said if there had been a chance.”

“He liked you.  He was fond of you.”

Vista gave him a sidelong glare, “Are you lying to me?”

“No!  No.  I’m saying he actually enjoyed doing patrols with you.  Never had an unkind word to say about you-”

She interrupted, “He didn’t have an unkind word to say about anybody.”

“Not exactly true.  When Piggy caught on to the fact that Shadow Stalker was doing solo patrols every night, made us take turns going with her, he had a few things to say.  About both Piggy and Shadow Stalker.”

Vista smiled slightly.

“He enjoyed your company, Missy.  There were little signs, but I believe it.  When Triumph or Aegis assigned him a patrol shift with Kid Win, Browbeat or just about anyone else, it was ‘okay’, or ‘yes sir’.  But when it was with me or you, it was ‘great’ or he’d just smile really wide, like it had made his night.  It sounds dumb when I say it out loud-”

“No. I kind of noticed that too.  I thought it was wishful thinking.”

Clockblocker sighed, “He was a good guy, and it’s shhsss…ucky-”

“You can swear around me, Dennis.  I’m thirteen, not eight.”

He smiled a little behind his mask, feeling embarrassed.  “Okay.  Sorry.”

More seriously, he admitted, “It’s shitty of me to snap at you for doing what he would do.  Glory Girl said I should let the grudge toward Weld go, partially for you, and she’s right.  You’re right.  I was, am, angry.  At the pointlessness of what happened, what’s still happening out there.  I get frustrated and angry when I’m here, because I feel like I should be out on the streets.  I get pissed off when I’m out on patrol because I feel like I should be with my family… but when I’m with my family, I feel frustrated and helpless because I can’t do anything there…”

He stopped himself before he admitted the full extent of his difficulties back home.

“…I was taking it out on the new guy, when he probably doesn’t deserve it.”

Vista let her head rest on his arm.

“I miss the old Dennis.  The guy who picked a sorta rude codename and announced himself in front of the news so Piggy and the other people in charge couldn’t really make him change it.  Because it was funny.  Because he liked pushing the limits and because he saw this all as something fun.  The new Dennis is so angry.  Now I guess I get why.”

“Aren’t you?  Angry?  At everything that’s going on?  At the unfairness of what happened?”

She shook her head, which amounted to rubbing her head against his shoulder.  “Yeah.  But you can’t let it consume you.  If you really don’t like Weld, you don’t have to force yourself to get along with him.  But don’t stay like this.  Don’t stay angry.”

He nodded.  It wasn’t so easy, though.  Letting things go, relaxing, he couldn’t help but feel like he’d fall apart if he did.  He couldn’t get his hopes up about Panacea’s willingness to help his dad – and facing any of that head on, without a buffer of smouldering fury?  It might leave him unable to serve and protect the people who really needed it.  He felt his pulse quicken a step at the thought of it.

He hedged his answer, “I’ll work on it.  Sorry if that’s been bothering you.”

“It’s okay.  I’m tougher than I look.”  She bumped one fist against the armor that covered her chest.

“And I’m sorry, again, for saying what I did.  You’re good people, Missy.”

“Want to go back to class?” she asked.

“If you’re okay?”

She nodded.

When they returned, the Wards and Glory Girl were out in the hallway.  The PRT officers were rushing out of the room, pulling their helmets on.

“You’re back,” Weld informed them, “Just in time.  Class is cancelled.  We’ve got trouble.”

The scene was set up in the husk of a building.  Walls loomed on three sides, but there was no roof remaining.  The floor was uneven, composed of layers of broken boards, shattered drywall and chunks of concrete.

“There’s two more crime scenes like this?” Clockblocker asked, eyes wide.  He craned his neck upward to look above them.

“Yeah,” Weld spoke.

“It’s the middle of the day,” Kid Win spoke, “Broad daylight.”

Clockblocker looked at the overcast sky above.  Not quite daylight. And people weren’t around.  It was still ballsy, and more than a little scary.

On each of the three interior walls of the older building was a body, twenty feet above the ground.  Each had received a different kind of treatment.  To their left was a corpse that had been flayed, the gender no longer identifiable.  Directly opposite their group was the corpse of an obese woman, charred black.  Completing the scene was the body of what appeared to be a homeless man, or one of the people who’d been rendered homeless by the recent disaster, judging by the layers of clothing he wore.  His limbs had been severed at each joint, then reconnected so each was joined by a short, foot-long length of chain.  Nails placed through the chain kept him in position, head hanging, a macabre puppet with an overlong body.  The chains jangled and swung in the wind.

Occupying the same building as the corpses was a familiar group.  Trickster, Sundancer and Ballistic stood beneath the corpses.  A winged figure that might have been a gargoyle, demon or dragon was clutching to the sides of an empty window frame with three talons, the other reaching toward the homeless man.  Genesis.

“Pardon the cliche, but this isn’t what it looks like,” Trickster spoke.

“I believe you,” Weld spoke, “I’ve read your file, and this isn’t your M.O.”

“Excellent, excellent.  I commend you,” Trickster tipped his hat, “Then we’ll be on our way?”

“No.  But if you come into custody-”

“You’ll arrest us for any number of other criminal charges we’ve got waiting.  And you can’t promise that one of your superiors won’t try to stick us with the blame for this.”

Weld frowned.

“Let us go.  Whatever happened here, it deserves your full attention.  You should be trying to find and capture the real criminals.  This guy here was still alive when we arrived.”  Trickster pointed at the man with the chain limbs.

“Can’t do that.  You’re still suspects, regardless of how much this deviates from your usual methods.”

“A shame,” Trickster bowed.

In the blink of an eye, Weld disappeared, and Genesis loomed in his place, eight feet tall and nearly as broad across the shoulders, a body of pebble-like scales, heavy with muscle, a short tail and broad bat wings sprouting from her shoulders.  She spun to face the rest of the Wards as Weld fell from the window.

Ballistic turned on the fallen captain of the Wards, unloading a barrage of debris and rubble to keep the metal skinned boy off-balance and on the defensive.

Clockblocker lunged for Genesis, hand outstretched.  He was mere inches away when Genesis disappeared from in front of him.  Or, rather, Clockblocker had been moved somewhere else.  A lack of proper footing made him stumble, and he nearly collided with one of the dilapidated walls of the ruined building.

As he spun in place, catching a glimpse of Genesis exchanging blows with Glory Girl, he had his position swapped yet again.  He found himself once more with his back to the brawling pair.  One of them bumped into him, and he sprawled.  If only he’d been able to tell if it were Genesis or Glory Girl that bumped into him; had he known, he might have used his power, taken Genesis out of the fight.

Annoying.  He climbed to his feet, wary of more teleportation hijinks.

Kid Win wheeled on the spot to raise a square-nosed pistol and fire what looked like a brilliant blue flare at Trickster, but the teleporter swapped positions with him.  Kid Win ducked the moment he was teleported, but he still got grazed by his own shot, blue sparks showering off his armored costume, small arcs of electricity dancing briefly around the metal joins.  Sundancer created her flaming ball – small, but still far too bright to look at – and sent it after Kid Win.  The young hero scrambled for cover, dropping his gun in his hurry to get away from the superheated orb.  Flechette moved to shoot, then reconsidered, threw a handful of darts at Trickster instead.  The darts disappeared in midair, and splinters of wood and small stones dropped straight out of the air where they had been.

Really fucking annoying, Clockblocker revised his summation of the teleporter.

Shadow Stalker had positioned herself on the ragged top of the wall where the roof had crumbled away, high above the skirmish, cloak billowing.  She fired a shot at Ballistic and Sundancer, reloaded as Ballistic sent a piece of rubble flying through her shadowy form, then fired again.  The Travelers had body armor, so she wasn’t doing more than distracting them.  The needles of the tranquilizer darts wouldn’t pass through the durable armor or material.

“Red rover!” Vista shouted, “Go!”

Good girl.  Clockblocker dashed for Trickster, and the distance between them compressed to a matter of feet, the highest points in the uneven ground flattening to make running easier.

Trickster swapped him with Vista, placing him several feet back.  Ahead of him, he could see the girl where he’d just been, within a few feet of the teleporter.  Clockblocker found his footing, darted forward once more.  Again, Vista’s powers helped close the distance.  Kid Win, Flechette, and Vista joined him in charging the enemy, so that Clockblocker wouldn’t be set too far back if he was teleported to their locations.

Sundancer moved the orb in between them and Trickster, igniting a few of the pieces of wood that were exposed and above the water.  Vista responded by raising her hand to shrink it dramatically.  Weld ducked one of Ballistic’s attacks, then charged for the orb, striking it out of the air with one fist.  The blow dispersed it enough that Sundancer couldn’t draw it back together, and a wave of hot air washed over everyone present.

Weld, for his part, staggered back, his hand glowing white-hot.  He flexed his glowing hand, and it moved slowly, stiffly.  Even as far down as his elbow, the metal of his arm was an orange-red.

Clockblocker didn’t get a chance to see if Weld was okay.  He charged around his team leader, using the metal boy’s broader body to put himself in Trickster’s blind spot.  From this position, he tried to charge and tag the villain.

An instant before his hand could brush against Trickster, the villain was gone, and Weld was in front of him.  His hand touched the metal of Weld’s back.

He breathed a sigh of relief when Weld turned around.  Only the fact that he’d expected something along these lines had allowed him to turn his power off in time.  Spinning around, Clockblocker reached for the space Weld had just vacated, but Trickster was already swapping places with Glory Girl to place himself as far away from the thick of the fighting as he could get.

I can’t keep track of this guy.

Clockblocker looked around to survey the situation.  His group was sandwiched between the Travelers, now.  On one side, Sundancer and Ballistic crouched in the far corner of the building.  Trickster and Genesis stood on the other side, atop the rubble that spilled across the building’s entrance and onto the flooded street.

Genesis inhaled, chest expanding, and Weld was the first to react, stomping one foot hard into the rubble underfoot, using his foot to raise a large, ragged piece of plywood.  With his hands, he forced the large wooden board into a standing position, placing it between himself and Genesis.  Kid Win, Flechette and Vista wheeled on Ballistic and Sundancer.

Weld’s piece of plywood served to block the worst of whatever it was that Genesis exhaled.  From what Clockblocker could see around the plywood, it was a dark, gray-black vapor.  Wisps billowed around the edge of the board and drifted their way – it had a bitter smell and taste, like ashes mixed with something foul.  Even inhaling a trace of it through the air holes of his mask forced barking coughs from his lungs.  His teammates seemed to be in rougher shape, Vista falling to her hands and knees.  The changer’s exhalation hadn’t even reached them directly.

So, that’s what a changer nine brings to the tableDifferent forms, each with their own powers.

Weld staggered as Genesis lunged forward, and Clockblocker ducked low under Weld’s arm, planted a hand against the plywood.  He felt his power snap out to encompass the material, and he fixed it in place, cutting it off from the flow of time.

A second later, he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.  Weld, standing over him, gave him a quick smile and an offered hand.  He returned it with the briefest of nods and took Weld’s hand to stand straight.  Together, the pair of them stepped back and away, to see Genesis rising into the air with heavy flaps of her bat-like wings, inhaling to prepare another blast of the noxious smoke.

He felt oddly calm as his group squared off against the villains with some of the highest power ratings in Brockton Bay, beneath the grim display of the three hanging corpses.  He reached into the slot of the armor at his side and withdrew two sheaves of paper.  Moving his thumbs in one direction, he fanned out the papers, holding them like anyone else might hold a pair of knives.

He realized what it was, this calm.  Whatever else it was, this fight was a refuge from that feeling that had plagued him since the fight with Leviathan ended.  The feeling that he was always in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, in the face of a city in crisis and a dying father.  This, right here, was where he was needed.

This is what I’m here for.

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