Interlude 26a

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Theo exhaled slowly.  He hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath.  Inhaling again, the smell of shit and blood was so heavy on the air it choked him.  His suppressed cough was almost a grunt, almost a gag.

His eyes returned to the two bloodstained spikes that had been stabbed into the wall.  It was the space where Nilbog had been crucified, apparently.  Something dangled from one of them.  A tendon, maybe, a vein, or a strip of meat.  The goblin king had been torn down with enough haste and enough force that some part of him had been left behind.

He’d spent some time staring at the metal spike with flesh dangling from it.  The others were busy.  It made sense to take the time to strategize, to get equipment and gear in order, familiarize himself with every tool and technique this squad of capes had on hand.

Thing was, Theo didn’t want to, even as he knew it was the smart thing.  The others seemed to recognize that and weren’t pushing him, weren’t approaching.  Maybe they’d brush it off as a kind of meditative thinking, a mental preparation for the fight that was to come.  Maybe they’d see it for what it really was.  Avoidance.

Staring at the wall and trying not to think about anything was easier than looking down, seeing the dead members of the Slaughterhouse Nine, and maybe seeing Aster in the mess of bodies.

Being silent was easier than having to look the others in the eyes and pretend he was alright, risking that they’d offer some gentle, kind condolences, and he’d have to be stoic in the face of it.

Men weren’t supposed to cry.  It would be disastrous, shattering their image of him, creating too much doubt at such a crucial juncture.  He could imagine how they’d react.  Some of them would be awkward.  Defiant, maybe, would avert his eyes.  Bitch might say something harsh.

Revel, probably, would be nice about it.  Offer a pep talk, a hug, heartfelt words.  Tecton would be much the same.  Parian and Foil, even, might be kind, if he went by descriptions Weaver and others had offered of them and the little clues he’d seen in interacting with them.

The moment he pulled himself together, if he could pull himself together, Chevalier would be at his side, all business, outlining the situation in clear, defined ways.  Framing it all into plans and setups that would put less stress on Theo, no doubt, but not in such a way that anyone could say anything about it.

Hoyden?  Hard to say.  She lived with this wall that she’d erected around herself.  Layers of defenses, in bravado or being snarky or being sarcastic or aggressive or avoiding the situation.  In combat situations or real life, Theo suspected there were very few things that really got to the heart of Hoyden.  When they did, they hurt.  How would she react to someone being vulnerable?

And then there was Weaver.

She was in the periphery of his vision, sitting on a computer case, staring down at the floor.  As ever, her mannerisms were peculiar.  She was so still.  If it weren’t for the bugs, or the fact that her head would periodically move, as if she were looking over the dead, he might have thought she’d stopped, like a machine with the battery removed.

She would be assessing who was dead, who wasn’t, planning and adjusting her expectations for the coming fight, quite possibly.  Probably.

In the midst of that, was Weaver thinking about Aster?  The fact that she, either by aiming a gun and pulling the trigger or by giving the order to Revel and Foil, had killed a toddler?

Weaver was a hard person to deal with.

Taylor, not so much.

If that was all it was, he wouldn’t have worried so much.

There were other possibilities, ones that troubled him.  What if he approached them, and nobody offered condolences at all?  What if they accepted it as a cost of doing business, a necessity in dire circumstances?

What if he did show emotion, and none of his allies offered any emotional support at all?

Kayden had been the closest thing he had to a mother.  If it hadn’t been for Jack’s game, then Theo suspected he might never have rated.  He wasn’t her first priority.  That would be Aster.  Not her second.  That was her mission, nebulous as it had been in recent years.  He hesitated to believe that he’d even rated third place.

He struggled to convince himself he placed fourth or fifth, even.

But she’d been there.  She’d shown kindness, had stepped between him and Father when the situation demanded it.  There had been gentle moments, like the time they’d been watching television one morning and a cape had talked about how tinkers were their least favorite type of opponent to fight, and he and Kayden had laughed, because Kayden and her group had run into Leet just a week before.

Stupid things, in the end.  Nonsensical.  But stupid, nonsensical things were sometimes the most important.

He’d never had friends, before he got his powers.  Even now, he wondered if he’d have really formed the friendships he had if they’d chanced to meet in some universe where powers didn’t exist.

Being alone as often as he had, Theo valued the connections he had made.  Even connections with Justin, Dorothy and Geoff.  Crusader, Night and Fog.

On the flip side of that same coin, he felt the betrayal of Justin leaving him behind.

Above all, he felt the quiet, perpetual horror of knowing that Crusader was still screaming, his throat never going raw, as Gray Boy’s loop continued without cease.

Kayden would be standing a short distance away, stoic, trying to keep from slowly going insane as Justin’s screams continued without end.

He’d lost people who were important to him, in maybe the most horrible way possible.  He’d lost his father, and Kayden, Justin, Geoff and Dorothy, and now Aster.  He’d lost them to violence and stupidity and madness, and he could see the allure in how the others seemed to be functioning, bottling it all inside.

He could see the twisted logic of it, even.  As if there was a binary to everything, every enemy was somehow a twisted mess of emotion, layered by a seeming calmness, while every ally seemed to be cold inside, with only an act on the surface.

He looked down at his mask.  A metal face with lenses over the eyes.  Stoic, expression neutral, or a little stern.  He’d chosen it at first because his real face was a little too round for a mask, but the PR teams had wanted to get more faces on the team.  He’d compromised, and hadn’t given his mask much thought beyond that.

Except time had passed, and he’d found himself wondering if he liked the message it conveyed.  By necessity, capes went down a road where they had to become cold and unflinching.  They had to become numb, had to inure themselves to hard decisions.  It jarred, to wear a mask that seemed to symbolize that transition, that while wanting nothing less than to walk down that road.

Back in Brockton Bay, New Wave had tried to start something, capes without masks.  It had been disastrous.  The message had been lost in the ensuing celebrity, and that had only intensified after one of the core members of the group was found and killed in her civilian identity.

He wondered if they’d been right to try.  If capes really needed to just… drop the mask.  To cry and let the feelings out.  So many got their powers through trauma, but they bottled themselves up, erected defenses, developed coping mechanisms.  If New Wave’s idea had taken off, would things be better?

Didn’t matter.  Here they stood.

He could make it through this, save the world.  They could find the source of the Endbringers and defeat them, could clean things up, get things in order and stop all of the real monsters… he could go to college, get a career and find a girl and marry her, and at the end of the day, Justin would still be screaming.

Aster would still be dead.

The ugly decisions would have been made.

He stared up at the bloody spikes in the wall, an image that would be burned into his mind’s eye, remembered as the point he stood at the threshold.  A mirror to where he’d been in the beginning, when he’d met Jack.

Bitch paced around the edges of the room, impatient.  She’d had to shrink her dogs to get them to an appropriate size, and was keeping them small in case the portal wasn’t accommodating enough.  Here and there, she barked out orders to get the animals away from the bodies.

It grated.

“None of those invisible fucks,” she said.

“Okay,” Weaver answered.  Her voice was quiet.

Theo almost took her voice as a cue to reevaluate how she was reacting to what had just happened, then stopped himself.  Losing battle.  No point.

Then, for some bizarre reason, Bitch approached him.

A sleek Doberman nudged at his gauntlet with its nose.  He looked down and then scratched it behind the ear.  It didn’t matter if the dog bit him – he was wearing a gauntlet.

When he looked up, he could see Bitch staring at him.  Her face was barely visible behind her hair.

“Can I help you?” he asked.  His voice came out harder than he intended.

She didn’t seem to notice or care.  “You’re her friend, aren’t you?”

I don’t want to talk about Weaver.

He didn’t venture an answer.  He couldn’t say yes, not honestly, but he suspected Weaver had a different answer to the question.

“You’re both acting different.  I can see it.”

“Kind of warranted, in this situation,” he said.  “In case you didn’t notice, the last few members of my family just got killed.  I just need a bit of time alone to think.”

His voice had almost broken.  Couldn’t break down.  Not like this, here, with her.

She hadn’t taken his hint.

“They were buttholes, weren’t they?  Purity and her gang.  The nazis.”

The dog nudged his hand again.  He gave it a more intense scratch before answering, “White supremacists.  They… weren’t the best people ever.  But they were still my family.”

She kept looking at him, almost glaring.  She didn’t answer or elaborate, leaving the conversation to die.

Go away.  I don’t want to hit you.

He kept silent, hoping she would just leave.  Willing her to leave.

“Stay, Huntress,” she ordered.

Then she walked away, leaving the dog at his side.

Theo scratched the animal under the collar, and watched it crane its head to one side, enjoying the contact.

It helped, oddly enough.  Having contact with another living creature without all of the issues and hassles of dealing with people.  No judgement, no worries, just… this.  Being alone without being alone.

His father had always preferred cats, and the creatures had never been easy to bond with.  This was nice.

Theo sighed.  He glanced at Weaver in his peripheral vision, and saw that there was a dog sitting next to her.  A mutt, at a glance.  The animal was resting its chin on her shoulder.

She saw him looking, glanced at Bitch, who was walking with her husky puppy following behind her, then shrugged.

He lowered his eyes from Weaver… no, from Taylor, then scratched Huntress again.

“We have the coordinates.  Waiting for a charge,” Defiant announced.  He was already flanked by the Dragon’s Teeth he’d brought with him.

“All gather,” Chevalier ordered.

Bitch snapped her fingers twice, and her dogs returned to her.

Theo raised his hands to his face to rub his eyes, and he felt damp on one cheek.  One tear, fresh.  He wiped his face, glancing around to check if anyone had seen it.  No, not judging by the angle.

He donned his mask.

Golem now, Golem thought.

“We need to decide who goes where,” Defiant said.  “The first teleportation marked coordinates on Houston.”

Weaver spoke up, “I noted Shatterbirds and Burnscars leaving, some Damsels, bunch of others I didn’t catch, but they had weapons and I’m thinking Winter or Crimson.  There were some I parsed as hostages, but it’s only in retrospect that I’m thinking they were Nice Guys.”

“The second group made their way to New York.”

“Bonesaw and a captive Nilbog that’s apparently rigged to create things on demand,” Weaver said.  “Crawlers, Breeds and a handful of others I didn’t identify.”

Chevalier reacted to that, flinching.

His city, Golem thought.

“And the last group headed to Los Angeles.”

“Jack’s group?” Golem asked.

“Yes,” Weaver said.  “He brought the Siberian, Hookwolf, Gray Boy, all eight Harbingers, and there are Psychosomas and Nyxes.  One or two others I didn’t place.”

“Los Angeles?” Chevalier asked.  “What area?”

That area,” Defiant answered, looking at the computer.

Chevalier nodded slowly.

Golem stared at the screen.  He could see the satellite image, the concentric circles that marked the area around the blinking blue dot.

“Charge prepared.  We can send one group at a time.  They’ve already got a twelve minute headstart.  It’ll be another eight minutes before we can send the second group, eight minutes after that before we can send the third.”

“The first group to arrive can call for help and get support to the other locations,” Chevalier said.

“Then why split up?” Weaver asked.  “We should all hit Jack’s group, trust others to help in New York and Houston.”

“Everyone else is closer to New York,” Chevalier said.  “But Houston…”

“We can call in favors,” Weaver said.  “Moord Nag’s apparently on board, though we don’t know why.  Cauldron’s on board.  If we can get Tattletale in contact with them, that’s handled.  But we can’t do that unless we leave.”

“That’s my city,” Hoyden said.

“I get that,” Weaver replied, “But we’re doing nothing constructive if we split up, and we’re definitely doing nothing constructive as long as we sit here.”

“Once we leave,” Defiant said, “We break the configuration cell and everything here breaks down on a Euclidean level.  There’s no going back, changing our mind.”

“I get that,” Weaver said, “But two or three of us aren’t going to do anything special.  We need big guns.”

Golem closed his eyes.

There she is.  Weaver.

“She’s right,” Chevalier said, looking at Hoyden.  “We’ll send every set of reinforcements we can, but it’s not worth what it costs us, to break up our group.”

“Shit,” Foil said.

Hoyden had gone stiff, bristling for an argument.

“I’m not saying we should abandon Houston,” Weaver said, before Hoyden could speak.  “Defiant, can you postpone the collapse of this area?”

“Yes, but I don’t feel comfortable doing it,” he responded.

“I think you should,” she said.  “Toybox left enough stuff behind.  Use it.  Stay behind, arm yourself, then throw everything but the kitchen sink at them.  You remember how the scar formed in Brockton Bay?”

“Mm,” he said.  “Tinker technology takes time to understand, to prepare.  Too dangerous otherwise.”

“There’s a solution to that.  I’ll point the way.”

Defiant hesitated.

Golem looked around the group, saw the expressions on faces, saw how even Hoyden had relaxed a fraction.  Even the Dragon’s Tooth officers that accompanied them were a little more at ease.  There were no answers in this situation, but there was a possibility.  An option, vague as it was.

“Okay,” Defiant said.

Then, without so much as a farewell or a ‘good luck’, he hit the enter key.

Golem appeared a full four feet above the ground.  He hit the ground and let his legs sink in, absorbing some of the fall.  A second later, he pushed himself out.

Just the use of his power gave him a sense of the area.  Touching the pavement gave him a sense of how all of the pavement around him was organized.  It had been folded into itself, folded around, thinned, thickened, bent at right angles.

Looking around, he could see how the buildings had been altered.  Textures had been removed, similar materials blended into one another, everything fortified, thickened, weaponized.

All around them, the buildings were like tombstones.  Windowless, angular, all expression and human touches removed from them.  Spikes studded corners and blocked alleyways, criss-crossed in front of doors, and carpeted pathways.  Some were metal, others camouflaged.

They’d figured out how to fight Tohu and Bohu during the Los Angeles attack.  The trick was responding quickly, stopping them before Tohu had her masks and Bohu managed her influence.  They’d won, for lack of a better term, managing the fight without the casualties they’d seen in the prior attack, but they’d still lost a chunk of the city in the time it took them to beat and batter the towering Bohu into submission.  Now Santa Fe Springs and all of the neighboring districts were uninhabitable, due to the traps that riddled it, the way the infrastructure had been completely and totally compromised.

Easier to found a new habitable area than to try to fix this, routing new pipes and power, managing traps both subtle and blatant.

Those same traps would be a problem here, but they weren’t entirely incapable.  They’d dealt with this before.

Bitch’s dogs grew abruptly, then shook, sending blood and bits of flesh and bone everywhere.

“HQ, come in,” Chevalier murmured.  He continued to speak, delivering the information about Jack and the target areas.

“Area’s empty,” Weaver said.

“A trap,” Golem responded.  “Has to be.”

“Has to be.  Why else come here?”  Foil asked.

“Nyx illusions,” Tecton said, “He doesn’t know we’re aware of who he brought, so he’s set them up to stall us.”

Nyx.  Her gas is concentrated into solid shapes that move at her will.  Break that shape and it becomes a cloud of poisonous gas.

“Not that easy,” Weaver said.  “Maybe he knows we know, and it’s a double-bluff.”

“Parian?” Weaver asked.

Parian nodded.  She unfurled the bundle of cloth from her back, then quickly shaped it into a roughly humanoid shape.

A moment later, it was stomping ahead, forging the way.

Golem fell in step beside Tecton.  Every footfall on a surface concentrated his awareness, informing him of every surface of a matching material in the area.  Lightning flashes in his consciousness, showing the landscape around him.  He deliberately stepped on other materials to inform himself on concrete, on brick, on steel and glass.  His heavy boots made for a rhythmic sound, accompanied by the sounds of Chevalier and Tecton’s own heavy footfalls, and the rougher patter of the mutant dogs.

Stop.”

A girl’s voice, over the comm system.  Not Tattletale.

Golem, tell them to stop.  Now.”

“Stop,” he said.

A second later, he wondered if he should mention this phantom voice.  A trick on Screamer’s part?

Thirty one,” she said.

“Thirty one?”

More uses of my power.  I’ve been testing it, straining it, figuring out my limits.  I can’t make promises.  Might be less.  Might be able to squeeze out more.  But it’s the best I can give you.

The numbers clued him in, belatedly.

Dinah Alcott.

There’s bigger problems,” she said.  Her voice was quiet.  “In two minutes, everyone but you dies.  Seventy-two percent chance.

He stopped short.

“Golem?”  Hoyden asked.

“Solution?” he asked, he raised a hand.

Can you think in abstracts?”

“Abstracts.”

“You’re… kind of scaring me, Golem my boy,” Hoyden said.

“He’s talking to someone in the comms,” Weaver said.  “Tattletale?  Not Tattletale.”

Red means forward, left, attack, team.  Blue means back, right, retreat, solo… I can only ask a certain number of questions a day.  Ask, I can narrow it down, but it’s less help I can give later.

One keyword, and he had to figure out what option it led to.

Blue, Tecton.  Retreat.”

“Back up,” he said.

Collectively, they retreated several steps.

A moment later, one small group of the Nine appeared, pushing their way through solid doorways, leaving colored smoke in their wakes.

Each was young.  Teenagers.  Each had a matching mask, a snarling face, complete with fangs and glowing dots in the dark eye sockets.  Their clothing flowed, with hoods peaking above their heads.  Each carried a different improvised weapon.  A fire axe.  A two-handed shovel.  A makeshift spear.

“Harbingers,” Weaver said.  “Don’t let them get close!  Finish them quickly!”

“Color,” Golem whispered.

Blue.”

He went with his instincts more than anything else.  “Retreat!  Run!”

Parian’s doll reached out, and the Harbingers slipped out of the way of the hands, dodging by virtual hairs as they spun in tight circles, ducked and rolled.  It was like the thing was moving in slow motion, but it wasn’t.

A fire axe and two kitchen knives slid through the creature’s body, severing seams.  It deflated explosively.

Foil opened fire with her crossbow, aiming so it was on a path to hit two of the enemies, and the Harbingers dodged the shot.

She’s not supposed to miss.

Tecton shattered the ground, but it didn’t make the slightest difference.  The Harbingers didn’t slow down.

They turned to run, belatedly.

Hoyden and Chevalier held their ground as others mounted dogs or took flight.  Golem ran his fingertips along the panels at his armor, feeling the connections to the various substances around him flare, touched the one for pavement.

He thrust his hand inside.  A small hand, emerging as fast as he could shove his hand inside the panel.  He reached for the closest Harbinger’s foot.

The young villain pulled his leg up out of the way, virtually spinning as he stepped to the side, planted the same foot on solid ground, then resumed his forward momentum.  No luck.  It was like Harbinger could see it coming.

Weaver’s bugs were swarming the Harbingers, but they took to spinning, relying on the movement of their hoods and the flowing black clothes to drive the bugs away, batting them aside.  Even the threads seemed to fail to do anything substantial, getting caught up in the approaching villains as they moved.

Like whirling dervishes, they closed the distance.

He thrust his hand into the pavement again, and this time, he created a platform like the one he’d fashioned in Ellisburg.  Raising them up off the ground, out of reach.

If there was any difficulty getting down and resuming their search for Jack, he’d deal with that when they weren’t all about to be murdered.

The Harbingers scaled the sides of buildings as if they were running across horizontal terrain.  Weapons, fingers and boots found traction in the surfaces, and they climbed with an easy, almost eerie ease, as though they were almost floating.

Climbing faster than the hand was rising.

Three reached the top of the building, and as if they’d coordinated, planned this well in advance, they set foot on the edge of the rooftop and kicked off.  They ignored the bugs that plagued them as if they weren’t even there, weren’t binding them with silk.

They flipped heel over head, their backs to Golem, Hoyden, Tecton and Chevalier, the two Dragon’s Teeth.  Rachel, Parian and Foil were on the dog’s backs, and Weaver was airborne.

The Dragon’s Teeth aimed containment foam at the three Harbingers.  The clones pulled off their flowing jackets with sleeves that almost covered their hands, catching the foam, then landed.  One swept the bundle of foam to try to knock a D.T. officer off his feet.  The officer hopped up, then struck out at the Harbinger clone.

No use, Golem thought.  A mistake.  Harbinger caught the arm, almost effortlessly turned around, pulling him in the direction of the turn.  A little push, and the soldier fell.

He’s okay,” Dinah said.  “Blue!”

Run, retreat.  As if there was a place to go.

Two attacks struck in concert, a kitchen knife and a fire axe, and a heavy piece of Tecton’s armor was decimated, one gauntlet ruined.

No use.

One more landed on the heel of the hand.

Revel opened fire with a dozen orbs, but the enemy avoided them with an almost casual ease.  She reprogrammed them, altering the orbs’ properties, and this time they homed in on their targets.  The Harbingers dodged them, used the changed trajectories to lure them into nearly striking the D.T. officer and Chevalier.  She stopped, hanging back.

Chevalier swung his sword, pulled the trigger mid-swing to shoot at one Harbinger that stood on a fingertip of the reaching hand-platform.  Both attacks missed.

The Harbinger closest to him stepped close, almost casually, and drove a paring knife through a slit in Chevalier’s visor.

His good eye, Golem realized.

Nobody had figured out Harbinger’s power, before Harbinger disappeared off the face of the planet.  It was an ugly reality that such questions weren’t always answered.  The best guess suggested a hyperawareness of space and the movements of their own bodies.

But being able to figure out that Chevalier was half-blind, being able to blind his good eye?

One stepped close, holding a ball-peen hammer in each hand.  He closed on Golem, invading his personal space, until their noses were touching.

Golem tried to wrap the Harbinger in a bear-hug, felt only the faint drag of cloth against the metal of his gauntlets, empty air.  His intended target had ducked low.

He drove a knee forward.  Tight, contained movements, give them as little to work with as possible.

No contact.  Of course.

He was rewarded with a swat of the hammer against his mask, shattering one lens.  He’d thought he was out of reach, but the boy held only the very end of the hammer between index and middle finger.  He tossed the hammer in the air, letting it spin head over end.

Golem struck at the flying hammer, but another strike of the hammer caught his arm.  His fingertips fell short, and the handle of the weapon rolled over the back of his hand.  The Harbinger caught it, then thrust it forward in the same motion, driving the top of the hammer against Golem’s nose.

“Don’t kill him,” another Harbinger said.

“I know,” was the reply.

They didn’t even sound winded.

None of the others were doing demonstrably better.  The remaining D.T. officer was holding his own, but the others were being slowly, systematically beaten.

He’s dragging it out.  They’re making this into a game.

No use letting this go on.

He retreated, only to find one Harbinger sticking a foot out, planting a foot on the small of his back.  He was pushed forward, then promptly struck in the abdomen.

Rather than try to defend himself, he tucked his chin to his collar-bone, let himself fall, and thrust his hands into the armor panels for pavement.

Double-thrust, one hand extending from the other, pushing Chevalier off the hand.

Another motion, simultaneous, to bring a hand of stone out of the wall behind Chevalier.  It emerged slower, but it formed a shelf, and Chevalier landed on that ledge.

The Harbingers could dodge, but his teammates were valid targets.

Another thrust, this time for himself.

Selfish, maybe, but he couldn’t save anyone if they were interfering with him.

One struck at his leg as he launched himself off the hand.  It altered his trajectory, put him on a course where there wasn’t anything nearby to catch himself with.

Two hands, into brick.  One connected to the other.  While they were new, he could move them.  Trouble with having them against the side of his body was that he couldn’t get a full range of movement like he could get with his arms.  No matter.  He caught himself by the mask, then pulled himself closer to the building.

Another hand, another shelf.

Hoyden exploded, but the Harbingers didn’t get hurt.  They spun, spreading the damage around like a person might roll to absorb a fall, ducking and sidestepping to put themselves at the periphery of the effect.

Scion’s closing in,” Dinah said.  “Blue, Golem.  It’s still blue.  I can’t use my power too many times today, but your numbers are getting worse and the answer keeps turning up blue.  Retreat, go right, go solo or go back.

Someone needs to intercept Scion,” Weaver said, over the comm system. “We can’t have him get involved.

You go,” Chevalier said.

Golem searched the sky, then spotted Weaver at the fringe of the battle, surrounded by a cloud of bugs.

She took off.

Golem grit his teeth.  More immediate things to focus on.  He tried to launch Tecton to freedom, but the Harbingers intercepted him, driving Tecton out of the way in the same instant the hand appeared.

The D.T. soldier managed to deliver a glancing blow.  Golem couldn’t tell if it was intentional or not, because the hit was followed by the D.T. soldier being caught with a length of cloth wound around one wrist.

Tecton stepped in, drawing attention and striking out with his gauntlets, one damaged and one intact.  It bought the D.T. soldier some room.

Golem took the opportunity to launch the soldier to safety.

There were others on the ground, approaching.

One of these bastards could probably take us apart.  Eight of them, we can’t hurt them, we’re losing time, burning resources.

Tecton glanced at Hoyden.  A communication seemed to pass between them.

They struck the palm of the hand, and the entire thing shattered.

Hoyden, Tecton and five of the Harbingers descended with a shower of rubble.

Hoyden and Tecton broke their fall with uses of their respective powers.  Hoyden hit the ground to generate an explosion.  Tecton punched the earth with his piledriver in the instant he reached solid ground.

The Harbingers didn’t have that ability.  A five-story drop.  People had died or been seriously hurt after a three-story drop.

Nobody told them that.  In the midst of the thin cloud of dust and the chunks of debris, the Harbingers moved without wincing or giving any sign of pain, their black-clothed forms rising from the ground like spectres.

“Talk to me, Dinah,” Golem said.

Situation’s getting worse.  Numbers are getting worse, across the board.  I’m not asking any specific questions, but I can sense it, just… the big picture.  It’s not working.

There’s an answer here, and we can’t see it.

“Blue… Backwards, go right, retreat, solo?  What’s that last one?”

Abstracts.  Nothing specific.  It’s only as meaningful as it helps you come to the right decision.

He stared at Hoyden and Tecton, surrounded by the eight Harbingers.

“If I leave… how does that change the numbers?”

Success.”

“Chances for Tecton and the others?”

Better than they were.

This was hell, Golem mused.  This was the nightmare that had driven Weaver from her home city, drove her to surrender.

The right path, but god damn, did it look ugly.

He bit his lip, then formed another pair of connected hands to launch himself skyward.  He reached the apex of his flight, then created a shelf to land on.  He did it again, and this time the shelf he created was just at the edge of the roof.  He stepped over onto the rooftop, then broke into a run.

“Saving Tecton, red or blue.”

Golem, we didn’t get a chance to go over this earlier, but you need to know… I can’t ask that many questions.  I’ve been saving my power for the last big confrontation.  Tattletale said this is the time to act.  I used my power twice to answer big questions earlier today.  Another three to figure out who I needed to talk to, and that told me-

“I’m the best partner for you?”

Right now, yes.  Listen.  Twenty-six questions left.  We haven’t even found Jack.  I can’t figure it out.

He stood on the rooftop, then extended his arms out to either side.

She couldn’t read his mind, so it was only identifying options.  Everything to the left of his nose was blue, everything to the right was red.

“Red or blue.  Now.”

Blue.  Twenty-five.

“Jack’s to my left,” he said.  He turned ninety degrees.  “Again.”

“Blue.  I’m-  My power’s getting fuzzier.”

Scion.

He looked up at the sky.  Weaver with her swarm was there, forming a great wall across the sky, as if to draw attention to herself.  Scion was approaching, a ray of golden light streaking across the overcast sky above.

Scion shut down precog abilities.

He felt something knot in his stomach, an ugly feeling, ominous.

“Let’s get as much use out of it as possible.  Saving Tecton and the others… Red or blue!”

“Red.  Twenty-three.”

He hesitated.  “It’s not me going back?”

“No.  I don’t think so.  I just asked and it said no.”

Break it down.  Attack, left for blue.  Group, forward for red.  “Again.”

“Golem, we can’t waste questions like this.  We-“

“Please.”

“Red.”

Group or forward, he thought, assigning colors to each option.  “Again.”

“Blue.  Somewhere between eighty and ninety percent chance.  I- I’m going blind here, Golem.”

Group.

Group, but not returning to join the others?

He went with his gut.

“Tattletale, are you listening?”

Yes.”

“Reinforcements.  Call in the big guns.”

“With Jack close?  That’s against the quarantine.”

“Dinah, does it improve our chances, everyone’s chances, as far as this end of the world scenario?”

Yes.  A lot,” she sounded genuinely surprised.  “Twenty.”

Cauldron’s refusing aid,” Tattletale said.  “They said it’s because Scion’s presence is blocking their clairvoyant.  They’re lying.

High above, Scion reached a stop, hovering in front of Weaver, who hung in the air in turn, using her flight pack.

Golem tore his eyes away from the scene.  He glanced down at the street, where Bitch, Parian and Foil were reinforcing Tecton and Hoyden, backing them up as the Harbingers approached.  One Harbinger threw something, and a dog dropped like its heart had stopped.

He shook his head.  He could watch forever, but they were better served by having him elsewhere.

The sooner he got Jack, the better.

“Jack is southwest of my location,” he reported.  “Heading off solo on precog advisement.”

He bolted, running.  His power bridged gaps between buildings.  He set his foot down on the corner of one rooftop, then vaulted himself over a trap that he sensed just a foot in front of him.  His landing jarred it into motion, provoking a deadfall, a slice of building that toppled and dropped onto the narrow street below.

Another hand broke a row of spikes that lined the edge of another rooftop.

Once, he’d been fat.  Once, he’d been out of shape.  Two years and a mission had given him the chance to remedy that.  He wasn’t conventionally fit, still had a bit of stockiness to him, but the fat was gone.  He had muscle.  Running with Weaver had made this doable.

Twenty more precog answers.

“Numbers if I stay on the rooftops?”

Twenty to thirty percent chance of injury or being taken out of action.

“If I’m on the ground?”

Fifty-something.  Eighteen questions left.

Her numbers were getting less accurate, the picture of the situation cloudier.

Too many powerful individuals in the area, too many chances of disaster, too many unknowns.

He set foot on one rooftop that had changed less than most, and the lightning flash was a staggered one, as his feet first touched gravel, then the material of the rooftop beneath that gravel.

The next rooftop wasn’t made of either material.  It wasn’t made of brick or concrete.

He created two hands, chaining them together, and extended the hand into the building.

It detonated into a massive cloud of smoke.

He launched himself away to avoid it, but it wasn’t enough.  The smoke flowed towards him like a wall, too vast to avoid.

Too vast to avoid so long as he remained on the rooftop.  He shoved himself off, created more hands to form a series of ledges that might serve as a staircase.

The smoke still loomed.

He got as close to the ground as he could, then launched himself to safety.

Golem was panting as he rested on the ground.  Psychosoma’s monsters emerged from the smoke, one using the same ledges he’d created to descend, the other crawling on the outside of the building.  Homeless, to look at them, twisted into monstrous shapes.  False shapes.  He could deal enough damage and break the effect, and they’d be human again, unhurt.

Simpler than it sounded.  If he broke the effect for one, the other would tear the freed victim apart.

Golem rose to his feet, backing away as swiftly as he could.  He was out of reach of the smoke, but these things, they were a distraction, a speed bump.

He waited, dropping into a fighting stance as they approached.  They broke into runs, charging him blindly, two figures so thin they didn’t look real, their fingers and feet twisted into claws as long as his forearm.

They plummeted into a pit in the middle of the road.

Golem rose from the fighting stance, then hurried on.  His footsteps continued to mark the surfaces around him, making it clear where there were more of Nyx’s illusions, more traps left over from the Tohu-Bohu attack.

His other enemies wouldn’t be so gullible.

“Left or right?” he asked.  He had a mental map of the surroundings.

Left.  Somewhere around a ninety percent chance Jack’s in that direction.”

Each question narrowed down the possibilities.  From fifty percent of the area to twenty-five percent, then twelve and a half percent… now six percent.  It was a small enough slice that he didn’t need to wonder as much.  If he kept on this course, he could find his target.

Right route,” Dinah said.  “It’s… it’s really fuzzy, but I still feel like the bloody, ugly ends aren’t so close.

“A good feeling,” Theo said.

In a numbery way.

A numbery way.

“Status,” he said.  “Not a question.  Just… I need to know what’s going on.”

The others are… okay,” Dinah replied.  “Defiant just arrived in Houston with a giant robot that only has one arm and one leg, and we’ve got…”

Dinah’s voice continued, but he didn’t hear it.

Golem slowed to a walk as he saw his new surroundings.  The tombstones of Bohu’s area were still here, but they were scarred.

A thousand times a thousand cuts.

“Theodore,” Jack said.

Jack emerged, and he wasn’t holding a knife.  He held a sword, nearly four feet long.  A claymore.  His shirt was unbuttoned, showing a body without a trace of fat.  His beard had been meticulously trimmed, but that had easily been a day ago.  His neck had scruff on it.  Strands of dark hair fell across eyes with lines in the corner as he stared at Golem.

Golem had gotten this far.

Now what?

Jack let the blade’s point swing idly at calf-level, pointed off to one side.  Cuts gouged the road’s surface.  Theo let his fingers trace the panels on his armor.  Steel, iron, aluminum, woods, stone…

His second sense marked various items in the surrounding area that were made of the same substance, even marked the trap off to his left, but it didn’t touch any part of the sword.

“All on your lonesome,” Jack said.

“Yes,” Theo answered, sounding braver than he felt.

His finger touched other panels.  Brick, asphalt, concrete, porcelain…

The sword remained out of his power’s reach.  He’d put so much stock in being able to disarm Jack.

With each contact, he felt the accompanying flashes, tried to put together a mental picture of his surroundings.

Two false building faces, just a little ahead of him.  They had to be Nyx-made.  If he advanced, she’d break the illusion, and he’d be surrounded in the noxious smoke.  At best, he’d pass out.  At worst, he’d pass out and wake up to permanent brain damage and organ failure.  Or being in the clutches of the Nine.

Jack let the sword swing, and Golem tensed.  The blade didn’t come anywhere close to pointing at him, but Jack’s power cut shallow gouges into the surrounding brick, stone and pavement.

“Alone,” Jack said, again.

Because of you, Golem thought.

He clenched his fist.

Tears were forming in his eyes.  Ridiculous.  Wasn’t supposed to be what happened in this kind of situation.

Jack, in turn, smiled slowly.  “Quiet.  I was thinking that after all this time, we could have some witty banter.  You can scream your fury at me, curse me for killing your loved ones.  Then you do your best to tear me apart.”

“No.”

“Oh!” Jack smiled wider.  “Show mercy, then?  Walk away from the fight and show you’re the better man, rather than descending to my level?  I’ve been waiting for someone to pull that ever since I saw it happen in a movie.”

“This isn’t a movie.”

“No.  It’s very, very real, Theodore,” Jack said.  He paced a little, letting the sword drag on the ground.  The blade was white, Golem noted.  White, exceptionally sharp.

Mannequin-made?

Or was this Jack an illusion?  Nyx could imitate voices.  She could create the gouges in the walls by way of the illusory smoke.

Golem paced a little too, mirroring Jack’s movements.

“Well, I’m not sure what you expect, then, Theodore.  The fat little boy promised me he’d become the kind of hero that would put down monsters like me.  I gave you two years, and you’ve made it at least partway.  Did you change your mind on the killing part?”

“No.  I will kill you.”

“So tough!  So brave!  All of this from the-”

Stop talking, Jack.  You’re not that clever, not as sharp as you like to think.  You talked to me about keystones?  Bullshit.  You’re a sad, pathetic killer with delusions of grandeur.”

Jack’s smile dropped from his face.  He held the Claymore with one hand, the blade’s point touching the ground, and spread his arms.  His unbuttoned shirt parted, showing the whole of his bare shirt and stomach.  Showing himself to be vulnerable, exposed.

“Then do your worst, Theodore.  Because if you don’t, I will.”

Dinah,” he whispered.

With you.  Gray boy isn’t near.  Nyx and Hookwolf are.  Fifteen questions.  I had to use one to help the others.

He nodded slowly.

I don’t like the illusory building faces.  Too much poisonous smoke was needed to make that sort of thing, it had to be multiple Nyxes working in concert.  They’d be close, probably.

Which said nothing of the other threats that loomed behind the fog.  Psychosoma’s creations?

Golem reached up to his gloves, then tore off the protectors on his knuckles.  They fell to the ground.  Beneath were spikes.

“Nice touch,” Jack said.

Golem spread his arms.  “What do you-”

Red.”

Mid-sentence, still talking, he let his arms fall, driving them into panels at his side.

Jack hopped back out of reach of the hands, seizing his sword.  He drew it back.

Blue.”

Golem created another hand.  Not to catch Jack, but to catch the blade.

It had backfired, if anything.  The hand caught the tip of the blade, but the sword slid free of the grip and flew around with more force.  Golem leaped back, letting himself fall, and let his feet slide into the pavement.  Two boots rose from the ground, shielding him as the slash caught the surface.

Weaver’s lessons.  Catching the enemy off guard by any means necessary, rolling with the punches, or rolling with the effects of the enemy’s attack.

Had to use Dinah’s ability, divide everything into two equally viable actions, so he wasn’t caught off guard.

Still prone, still shielded and out of sight, he reached into the ground with both hands.

Two hands, flattened, jabbed for Jack’s leg, stabbing at ankle and calf.  Jack backed away again before they made contact, slashed again.

This time, the slash caught a section of Golem’s armor that was sticking out of cover.  The cut made a mark nearly a foot deep in the ground, but it served only to split the pauldron in half.  A section of metal fell to the ground.

He created two connected hands of pavement, then whipped them to throw the section of pauldron at Jack.  The trajectory suggested it would fly a little to Jack’s left.

Golem jabbed one hand into the ground, and a flattened hand stabbed out from the spinning piece of metal, extending as the projectile flew.

Jack ducked, but Golem was already thrusting his other hand into the earth.  It jutted from the hand he’d created, doubling the length in short order.  More of a crude boomerang in shape than a chunk of metal.

It only clipped Jack, just barely.

“Clever boy,” Jack said.  “You-”

“Stop talking, Jack,” Golem responded.

For Aster, for Kayden, even for the others…

He thrust his hands into the ground, repeatedly, and they stabbed at the underside of Jack’s feet.  He leaped back out of reach and swung his sword the instant he touched ground.

The action cut through the remainder of the shield Golem had raised, but it also kept Jack in one place.  He caught the underside of Jack’s foot.  Jack stumbled as he pulled himself free of Golem’s grip.

He reached out to stab out with two interconnected hands, the same technique he used to launch himself.

But Jack evaded it, slid out of the way, almost as if he knew the strike was coming.

Golem moved to get into a position to strike again, and realized in the moment that it would take too long.

He was crouched, still, his hands remained buried, and Jack was already drawing his sword back.  He couldn’t mount a defense in time.

He braced himself.  With luck, his armor could take it.

The attack didn’t come.

No.  Jack laughed, instead.  His icy blue eyes were fixed at a point beyond Golem.

Golem chanced a look over his shoulder.

He saw a figure dropping out of the sky, trailed by what looked like a comet’s trail of black shapes.  Weaver.  Her course changed as she flew away, using the Bohu-warped buildings for cover.

And where she’d been, just moments ago, a dull gray light hung in the sky.

Scion.  Trapped in Gray Boy’s time-well.

Jack’s laugh rang through the area.

The figure inside moved, but only barely.  The well trapped powers within.  Kayden’s lasers wouldn’t exit the area.  Crusader’s duplicates wouldn’t be able to wander beyond the well’s limits.

And Scion didn’t appear to be any different.

“I’m sorry, my boy,” Jack said.

Golem whipped his head around.  Jack had backed up a short distance.

Jack chuckled, as if he still found something funny about the situation.  “Ah well.  I’m disappointed.  I’m not sensing it, your killer instinct.”

“I’m prepared to finish you,” Golem said.

“You’re prepared?  Maybe.  But not practiced.  No.  I don’t see this going anywhere interesting.  It’s about the ripples.  You remember our conversation?”

Theo nodded slowly.  The ripples from a butterfly’s wing.  The effects that extend out from any event. 

“You?  This?  It’s nothing.  What ripples extend from this?  You’re weak.  That?” Jack pointed at Scion, trapped in the sky.

Golem chanced another look.  Nothing had changed.  Scion remained fixed in place.

That interests me.”

He climbed to his feet, eyes on Jack’s weapon.

Jack reached into his belt, then drew a knife.

Golem tensed.  Faster than the sword, if not quite so capable of chewing through his armor.

But Jack didn’t attack him.  He struck at the building faces.

The surfaces dissolved into rolling clouds of smoke.  Golem vaulted himself back twice in quick succession to escape it, then continued to back away for good measure.

“You’ve failed to amuse me.  A shame your sister’s been shot, and there’s nothing interesting to do with the hostages,” Jack called out, his voice ringing along the length of the street.  With no details or features on the outsides of the buildings Bohu had altered, the voice carried in an odd way.

A shadow emerged.  Jack, riding atop a massive six-legged beast.

As Jack approached, he became more visible, and the nature of the beast became clear.  He stood on Hookwolf’s back, between the creature’s shoulders.

Other shadows appeared in the mist, and they, in turn, clarified as they approached.  Crawlers.  Mannequins.  Crimsons.  Others.

Done in by my dad’s lieutenant, Golem thought.  No way he was walking away from this.

“I suppose we’ll kill you,” Jack said.  “And you’ll just have to take me on my word when I say I’ll find something suitably horrific to do as punishment for your failing our little game.”

Theo raised a hand as a shield even before Jack used his power in conjunction with Hookwolf’s.  A hand of pavement, struck by a thousand slashes in a matter of a second, whittled to nothing.  Then he had only armor, and that, too, started to come apart.

The cuts that followed parted flesh.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Sting 26.6

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

The large box sat in between the benches and seats at the back of the Pendragon, beside a heavy device with an ornate looking gyroscope on the top.  I could feel the bugs within.  I instinctively knew what they were, how they operated, and could even pinpoint exact bugs in the swarm, among dozens of their kind.

I focused on them.  It was almost meditative.  I’d taken to focusing more on the conscious uses of my power, so I’d be more aware when I was making unconscious use of it.  There was nothing I could do about the fact that my passenger apparently had a hand in how my bugs were controlled, but I was trying to train myself to recognize it when it happened.

Rachel was focusing on her dogs in much the same way I was focused on my bugs.  Her hands ran over their bodies, fingers combing through their fur, tracing the lines in their athletic little bodies.  Bastard submitted to the touching without complaint or reaction.

I could sympathize with Rachel some, now.  We’d gathered our strike force together from among the people who I was familiar with and the people who were intact enough to fight, but my relationship to each of these people was iffy at best.  Focusing on our minions was easier.

Chevalier sat in a seat that put his back to Defiant’s chair, so they faced in opposite directions.  He was talking in a low voice that didn’t cut through the drone of the Pendragon’s engine.  Defiant responded without taking his eyes off the controls.

Revel leaned back her head back and resting against the vibrating outer hull of the Pendragon, eyes closed, lantern in her lap.  She looked almost meditative, to the point that I didn’t want to disturb her.

Tecton and Hoyden were talking in low voices.  Both were Protectorate members, now.  Tecton had passed the reins to Grace, and Hoyden was now the little fish in the big pond.  I didn’t want to interject.

Parian and Foil were holding hands, sitting with their arms pressed together, heads leaning to either side so that Foil’s temple sat against the top of Parian’s head.  Even now, it was hard to think of them as Undersiders.  Lots of mixed feelings in the background there.  I’d turned Parian onto this path, and in the doing, I’d done the same for Foil.  For Flechette.

There was a crash, and the Pendragon shifted, almost veering into a dive.  Defiant corrected the course.  “Passing over the wall!  One clinging to the top of the ship!”

Revel stirred.  “Do you want me to fly out?  I can escort us in.”

“No.  The Pendragon is built to take a beating.  We’re more secure with the ramp closed and everything sealed off.  Hold tight.  This is going to get worse before it gets better.”

There was another crash.  I debated sending my bugs outside, then rethought it.  No use, for much the same reason sending Revel out wasn’t going to change things.

Rachel looked exceedingly uncomfortable, and the dogs were reading her body language and getting anxious as a consequence.

I winced at the sound of tearing metal, followed by a sudden shift in the ship’s direction.  Something had been torn free.  Defiant corrected course again, compensating.

I wanted to say something to Rachel, to calm her or the dogs down, or simply to reach out and connect in the same way that the others in the craft were finding solidarity.  The problem was, I wasn’t sure what to say.  We’d separated, had walked different paths, and I’d betrayed her on a level.  I’d led her to believe she had a friend in me, and then I’d walked away.

She met my eyes, scratched Bastard at the top of his head, then asked, “What?”

“You’re okay?”

“Yup,” she said.  She didn’t look okay.  She stroked two different dogs, but I almost felt like the gesture was more for her sake than for the dogs.

“Not right now.  Just… in general?  Are you okay in general?  Living on the other world?”

“Yup,” she said.

I sighed, turning my attention back to the box.

“I’m hoping my dogs are okay,” she said, staring down at the metal floor.  “Been a while since I’ve been away from them like this.”

“You have people, right?  People you…” I let the sentence hang as I tried to recall whether trained was something appropriate for people and not dogs.  “People you trained, to look after your dogs.”

“Yeah,” Rachel said.

“Setting down!” Defiant called out.

There was another tearing sound, like nails on a blackboard scaled up to a volume that made it resonate in my bones.  Maybe the worst sound I’d ever heard.

Just that thought brought back recollections.  The dull, faint sound of an old doctor’s body hitting the ground, after Mannequin cut her throat.  My dad’s voice, crying my name, sounding very distant despite the fact that he was right next to me, in the moments before I killed Alexandria and Director Tagg.  The non-sounds Brian had made as he’d opened his mouth, noises so quiet they weren’t even whispers, as he hung in the refrigerator, post-Bonesaw, pre-second trigger event.

No, there were worse sounds than the screech of metal tearing.  Sounds I’d barely registered at the time, but nonetheless sounds that haunted me.

“Tattletale sent us some old guy to teach us how to butcher the bison,” Rachel said.  “None of the others are any good at it, and it’s harder without the dogs there to help haul it off the ground by its back legs.”

The Pendragon set down.

“Taking off will be harder than landing was,” Defiant said.  He didn’t flinch as a creature pounced on the glass of the ship’s windshield.

A heartbeat later, something hit the outside of the craft.  Something big.  The thing on top that was tearing at the metal struck again, no doubt peeling away at an armor panel.

“-And I’m thinking they’re probably getting hungry.  Fucking up good meat, not carving out the fatty bits.  Or they aren’t getting all the blood out.  You have to cut deep to bleed the motherfuckers.”

Distracted by the landing, some of the junior heroes were paying attention to Rachel now.

“What the hell is she talking about?” Hoyden asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.  Then I glanced at Rachel.  “Either of you.  Rachel, they’re going to manage fine.”

“They’re going to manage,” she said.

Defiant was already out of his seat.  He had approached the device he’d placed next to my box and managed to get it going just as Rachel finished speaking.

Every monitor in the Pendragon’s cabin flared to life.  Countdown timers appeared, white numbers on a black background, with fainter, smaller timers above and below.  I knew they would be the minimum and maximum times.  The one in the middle was only an estimate.

The craft was struck again, and a dent in the outer walls nearly knocked Tecton from his seat.  Everyone reached for something to hold on to, as the Pendragon nearly tipped over onto its side.  The dogs barked at the disturbance.

“There are forcefield generators,” Defiant said.  “But they take time to recharge.  We’ll hold out for as long as we can before using it, waiting until they are more numerous, and our options are limited.”

“Four minutes,” Tecton observed, looking at the monitors.

“We- I think so,” Defiant said.  “Plus or minus one minute and thirty seconds.  The forcefield generator is housed in the underside of the craft, to provide stronger defense from below.  It’ll last after the walls come down.”

“Defensive positions,” Chevalier said.

“Protecting the decoder is a priority,” Defiant said.

We stood from our seats, backing towards the center of the craft, the decoder and my box of bugs at our center.  I reached back and opened the box, letting the bugs flow out.

Without my even asking, Defiant opened the ramp at the back a fraction.  Like a flower blossoming, slowly at first, then with increasing speed, I could feel my awareness expanding.  I could feel the outside of the ship, the creatures that were gathering in ever-increasing numbers.  Every shape and size imaginable.

Three were making good headway against us.  I could identify the same creature, I was pretty sure, that had been pummeling the wall at the outer perimeter of Ellisburg.  It was a quadruped, and it moved with a surprising slowness as it paced away from us.  Strands of fur longer than I was tall hung off it, and its head was one armored plate with eyeholes, the edges flaring out and away from its head at the sides and back, allowing its long, pointed ears to freely move behind the plate.  It lowered its head in the direction of the craft and tested the ground with one scuff of a spike-studded hoof against the pavement.

I set bugs to attacking its eyes, driving them into ear canals in hopes of distorting its sense of direction.  It aborted the charge to shake its head violently.

“Possible incoming right in front of you, Tecton.  Any second now.”

“Right,” he said.  He held his ground.

“Might be worth moving,” I said.

He looked back at me.  “Aren’t we supposed to defend the decoder?”

“Switch,” Chevalier said, with no elaboration.  Tecton hurried to take up Chevalier’s position towards the nose of the craft, while Chevalier lowered his cannonblade in the direction of the bulge on the wall.

There were two more creatures that were gouging the hull.  One used oversized claws to pry at metal plates.  Another was drooling acid onto the roof.

I could sense the round-headed bald girl from earlier as well, one creature that moved with a startling speed as it scratched at the outer edges of the craft, one way, then the other, so the gouges in the metal formed hatch marks.  Burrowing, almost.  Burrowing very slowly.

Something howled, and it was loud.

The creations were piling around the craft, with a number gathering on the window over the cockpit.  Tecton tensed.

“The window is stronger than the metal,” Defiant said.  “Don’t panic.”

“It isn’t as flexible,” Tecton said.  “One good hit like the one that dented the wall there and it won’t hold up.”

“It’s designed to take rocket launcher hits head on,” Defiant said.

“That doesn’t mean it’s designed to take them from an angle,” Tecton retorted.  “My power gives me a sense of structural integrity.  I’m saying I’m worried.”

“Fine,” Defiant said.  He watched the ramp, not moving an inch.  “Be worried.”

The charger was incapacitated, its eyes devoured, eardrums perforated, with bugs crawling through the middle ear fluids that were pouring down its ear canals..  I diverted bugs to the thing that was clawing the armor plates off of the outer edges.

An instant later, the charger lunged forward.

No sense of direction, no ability to see, not even any balance, beyond what its four legs offered.

But it was big, and its target was big as well.

“Heads up!” I shouted.

It slammed into the side of the Pendragon, closer to the back than the location of the first hit.  The metal tore where two sections joined together, and a monitor fell to the floor, shattering.

Creatures began crawling through the gap.  Defiant moved his spear to the opening, then activated the gray blur.  He held it there, allowing them to die and be wounded on contact.

Golem used his power, raising a hand of metal to cover the opening.

Defiant lowered his spear and canceled out the blur.

The disintegration effect might have been worth keeping on hand, but I could understand if he was concerned about another impact knocking someone into the spearhead.

Creatures had hopped onto the charger’s back, and were helping guide it, babbling and screeching, tugging on its fur.  It followed their directions, retreating.

I directed my bugs to attack, stinging and biting each of them on the same general side.  They reacted, tugging and pulling away, and the charger changed direction.  Only his flank glanced the back of the craft, and he trampled through a crowd of the little bastards who’d congregated on and around the ramp.

The round-headed girl sat there, half-crushed, and then began to swell.

“Heads up!  Your left, Defiant!” I shouted.

She detonated, and gunk spattered the ramp.  I felt bugs die on contact.

The ramp began to melt like candle wax.

I moved bugs to the fray while Hoyden and Defiant advanced on the ramp.

The creatures came in as a singular mass.  Dozens at once, practically crawling over one another.  A spine glanced off of Defiant’s armor and came within inches of striking the decoder.  Foil swatted it out of the air.

Parian’s first doll joined Rachel’s dogs in reinforcing the space behind Hoyden and Defiant.  Hoyden kicked and punched at the creatures, and small explosions tore through their ranks.  One punch, two or three creatures dead.  One landed on her, claws extended, and then promptly flew away as another detonation of flame and smoke flared from the point of contact.  She was barely scratched.

If those claws were poisonous, though…

Still, she made for a competent front line, beside Defiant with his disintegrating spear.  Every movement of the spear was as precise as Hoyden’s explosions were erratic.  The blur effect cut through the enemy like butter, and in the rare occasions where the target did slip away or dodge the attack, Defiant followed up with jolts of electricity and darts.

The charger steered around and began to pick up speed.

“Chev, incoming!”

I tried to distract the charger again, targeting the riders, but it didn’t work.  This time, they pulled in different directions, or simply dropped off.  It continued on course.

It struck only two or three feet to the left of the first point of damage, and opened up the side.  The thing with claws on the roof, squinting against the steady damage my bugs were doing, hopped over and began to pry the gap open wider.

I moved a swarm over the gap, trying to hide the entryway, but it did little good.  Both Parian and Rachel shifted position to defend the opening.  Golem began trying to patch it up.

“Careful!” Defiant warned, glancing over one shoulder.  “Too much extra weight and we won’t be able to take off!  Containment foam instead!”

The perils of physics-defying powers.  Golem and Rachel both broke the laws of conservation of mass, and now we risked paying for that.  The Dragon’s Teeth stepped forward to take over.

I could see the charger turning around.  One creature was on its back, a heavily armored thing that had hard, multifaceted eyes like an insect.  My own bugs couldn’t damage the orbs.  It cheered in a high voice, urging the charger on, with some English words peppered in the midst of its gibbering.

One more minute to go.  If we were lucky, it could open any second.  If we were unlucky, it would take two and a half minutes.

Two crawled in through the crack in the side, clinging to the ceiling as they made their way in through the cloud of bugs.  I pointed, and Foil slashed at them with her rapier.  Tecton squashed another with his piledriver.

Over where another of the creatures had been trying to burrow into the side, a creature pushed it aside and spat.  The effect was the same as the exploding bubble-head girl from earlier, if less dramatic.  Looking at the exterior wall, I could see the hatch-marks appearing in the side as though they’d been drawn in marker, pale against the dark metal.  They spread, the effect broadening, until the hatch marks were drawn out in white and the surrounding area was paler.

Something punched through, then reached in blindly to scratch and claw.  Golem’s reaching hand broke the claw.

More spots were appearing, though.  Dents, gouges, acid…  I attacked the creatures that were doing the most damage, as far as I could identify them, but there were more waiting to take their places.

“Nilbog’s creatures!”  I spoke, raising my voice.  I spoke through my bugs outside.  “We mean no harm!  We will bring you back your king!”

Nothing but cries of rage and hate in response.  No use.

Thirty seconds, now.

The holes in the exterior opened enough for the creatures to start pushing through.  The acid burned them where they made contact, but that same contact opened the holes wide enough for others to follow.

The charger lunged, charging again.  There was really only one rider it was listening to, but that pilot was a tough one to hurt.

The thing screamed one word in English, twice in quick succession, its voice high,

“Jump!  Jump!”

The charger leaped.  The result wasn’t graceful, nor was it particularly on target.  What it did do was allow the charger to get one foot up on the side of the Pendragon, its upper body partially on the roof.  It kicked and struggled in its attempts to move forward, and found one leg caught in the tear it had made on its last charge.

It placed the foot on top of the hands Golem had raised to block the gap, and sheer weight tore them down.  It slumped, falling, and then brought the end of its nose inside the ship, dragging it against the tear in fits of thrusting, struggling to free both it and its leg, succeeding only in doing more damage.  Reinforced shafts and beams held against the damage, but could see how each wiggle was bending the thick bars.

“I thought you said this thing was tough!”  Foil shouted.

“It is,” Defiant said.

“Forcefield might be a good idea!”  I called out.

Defiant didn’t respond.  Hoyden had made her way down the ramp and was dishing out the hurt close-range.  She was keeping the melee threats on their heels with a constant, aggressive offense, while her secondary powers rendered her resistant to the damage that came from a distance.  Defiant was left to defend the opening himself.

I drew my knife and my handgun and advanced until I was just behind and to the left of DefiantHe shifted position a fraction, allowing for the extra assistance.

Who knew we’d get to this point, Armsmaster?  I thought.

Fighting side by side.  I used my knife to impale one creature in the neck, then kicked it back down the half-ruined ramp.

Two of the countdown clocks had hit zero.  The one clock remained.  The high end of Defiant’s estimation on the decoder’s progress.

“One minute,” I said.

“Maybe,” Defiant said.

Maybe?”

“We took the time this past year to find Dodge’s old exit points, talking to ex-customers of the-” he stopped, grunting as he swept the spear at one persistent spine-spitter, “-Toybox group.  Used it to get readings, test the decoder.  But this portal has different metrics, updated technology.  More recent tech.”

“It’s not a guarantee?”  Hoyden shouted the words, as explosions continued to rip out around her, tearing through the assembled creatures.  They were keeping a healthy distance, now, which meant her very presence was keeping a whole area clear of the blighters.

Nothing’s a guarantee, I thought.

“I never guarantee anything,” Defiant grunted, echoing my thoughts.  “Except for a select few promises I make to people I love and people I hate.”

Rachel’s dogs were tearing into the goblins as they made their way through the gap beneath the charger that had wedged into the gap, each dog biting their mouths down once or twice in quick succession before flinging the things away just so they could have their mouths free to bite others.  Their paws swept out to club and claw at the creatures.  Tecton and Foil guarded the space between dogs, striking out to catch the ones which slipped between the dog’s legs.

I plunged my knife down to stab one of the softer looking targets, then danced back to avoid the spatter of acid that flowed from the wound.

“I’m getting buried!” Hoyden shrieked.  She’d been targeted by some critters that were dissolving into a slurry as they burned, with tendrils extending out to draw in the wounded and dead.

They’re reincarnating, feeding on themselves to make more.

“Stop using your power!” Defiant ordered.

“I can’t!  They’ll kill me!”

I glanced over my shoulder at the clock, then whipped my head back around as a creature pounced, trying to wrap itself around my head.  I shot it, feeling a flare of relief that I hadn’t just been killed, mingled with a regret over the loss of the bullet.

“How is it not done yet!?” I shouted.  “Zero on the clock!”

Defiant didn’t respond.

“Defiant!  Do we take off!?”

The charger, still caught in the gap, found the leverage to strain against one of the reinforcing girders that maintained the craft’s structure.  It began to slide down, and Golem raised a stainless steel hand to keep it from stomping on the decoder.

The hand wouldn’t be strong enough.  If that thing shifted its weight any more-

“Defiant!” Tecton shouted.  “What are our priorities!?  Can we take off?”

“No,” Defiant responded.  “We stay.  Wait, cross our fingers.”

I glanced back to see Golem and Tecton exchanging a glance.  The creature struggled again, sudden, and the beams shifted further.  One more struggle like that, and the little hand wouldn’t hold it up.

A big hand, though, might cement our fate, take away our maneuverability.

“Saint,” Defiant said.

I glanced back at him.

“Don’t fuck us on this.  We need those Azazels.  We need an escape route.”

Saint?

The fact that Dragon was debilitated was another trick, an extremely ill-advised play against the heroes, capitalizing on our distraction with something greater.

“I’m going to fucking kill Saint,” I said.

“If we survive this fucking-,” Tecton said.  He grunted and fell on his armored rear end as a dog jerked to one side, accidentally body-checking him.

“Not a suicide mission,” Defiant said, carrying out only one half of a conversation we weren’t entirely privy to.  “Back us up, now.”

A pause.

Defiant spoke, and his tone of voice had changed.  He wasn’t talking to Saint.

“Toronto, Ontario.  Canada.  Yonge Street.  Just behind a place called Greenway.  I’ve commissioned a thinker-investigator calling himself Gleer to track them down.  If only some of us make it, do me a favor, and remember that Saint is the one who fucked with one of our biggest truces yet.  Saint took down Dragon, and he just left us to die.  The Azazels are apparently better deployed elsewhere.”

The charger bucked, and Golem created a large hand, not to catch the descending foot, but to divert its direction.  It crushed my empty bug box.

This much weight on the craft, the loss of so many external components… we wouldn’t be able to fly.

The roof came partially off.  More streamed in through the resulting gap, dropping down into the middle of the cabin.

Revel unleashed her lantern.  Spheres of light and flame flew out in every direction, burning through the ranks of the smaller creatures, zig-zagging to maximize contact between them.  The charger died, going limp.

A moment’s reprieve.

Defiant used a grappling hook from his glove to try to catch Hoyden, only for it to fly off in another blast of flame.

He tried again, but this time, he whipped the chain, so the length of it wound around her, then yanked her inside.  He signaled, and the forcefield went on.  In seconds, we cleared the few that had survived from the Pendragon’s cabin.

Creatures died as they made contact with the field.

Defiant dropped his spear, turning to the device that Dodge had set up.  Data appeared on the monitor.

“Give me a connect to Alcott,” he said.

Tattletale’s voice sounded through my earbud.  “You sure?  You know-”

“Time is of the essence.  Now.”

Righty-o.”

The rest of us exchanged glances.  Rachel was tending to her dogs, Parian was binding wounds with spare cloth and creating more constructs, and Golem was patching up the damage.  Not fixing anything, but barricading.

She’s on the line.

“Top half of the list, success?”

Zero,” Tattletale said.

“Last quarter?”

Yes.”

Defiant typed on the keyboard.  “That’s it.  Narrowing down possibilities.  Thank you.”

We waited, looking through the spaces where the barricades hadn’t yet gone up, at the creatures that waited.  Hoyden submitted to some bandaging on Parian’s part.

I watched the forcefield flicker.  It seemed to coincide with what Defiant was typing on the keyboard.  A strike of the enter key, and it flickered and went out.

“I’m taking it down early,” Defiant said.  “We need the power.”

Barely a minute.

The creatures approached hesitantly, then broke into a run.  I could see the dogs tense.

“Back up,” Defiant said.  “Now.  Huddle!”

We did, swiftly retreating until we were clustered around the center of the cabin, shoulder to shoulder, our backs to the device. My bugs filled the gaps.  The creatures, in turn, gibbered, squealed, screeched and roared.  They howled and stomped and drummed fists on chests.

Impacts made Golem’s hands bend, and I could hear a dozen points where they were grabbing at the plates of metal and straining to bend and peel them.  That horrible sound, in innumerable places around the craft.

And then silence.  Darkness.  Air rushed around us, equalizing throughout a vast, empty space.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire, I thought.

We broke the huddle, our headlights and flashlights going on.  Rachel’s dogs could be seen in the darkness, their eyes glowing red and orange in the reflected light.

“It seems we have company,” Jack said.

I could see the others startle.

“No, I’m not standing next to you.  Borrowing Screamer’s power to broadcast, to have a little chat.”

No.  Couldn’t afford to listen to him.  If any of us were problematic, or if it was someone listening in, anything he said could be the catalyst for the end of the world.

Problem was, Screamer was a bitch to shut down.  Ear plugs wouldn’t be any guarantee.  If she was forced to, she would use the vibrations of people’s bones to transmit words.

Jack continued, “I confess, I do like this part.  The chatting.  It’s safe to keep my distance, but it’s boring, really.  You challenge somebody, pit mind against mind, but how much do you truly get to know them?”

“Move,” I said.  “Fan out, find Screamer as soon as possible.”

My bugs flowed out in advance of the group.

“This, the conversation, it’s what turns a mindless killing spree into something more, an art.  Bonesaw is fond of telling me that true art speaks for itself, but really, there needs to be a relationship between the artist and audience, if only because there’s a lot of idiots out there.  Some people need it spelled out for them.  Hi Theodore.”

Golem clenched his fists.

The area was vast and empty.  Every surface was granite, rough but not so much so that it would be painful to walk on with bare feet.  The wiring was crude, small floodlamps strung out in strings, like oversized, colorless, exceptionally boring Christmas lights.  Wires had been stapled against the walls, fixing them in straight lines, but the excess draped loose at the bases of those same walls.

The lights were bright, but they only covered two-thirds of the area.  The spaces between those same lights were dark to the point of being almost pitch black, the afterimages in my vision making it look like things were moving in the shadow.

“Gray Boy is retrieving your sister this very moment, Theodore.”

Golem stopped in his tracks.

“Yes,” Jack said.  No elaboration.  Answering a question that hadn’t been asked.

“Can’t communicate with our people while we’re here,” Defiant said.

“Keep moving,” Chevalier gave the order.

Jack spoke, his voice smooth.  Or Screamer spoke, mimicking what he was saying, quite possibly in the exact tone and cadence.  “We got video.  I thought about having it be silent, in black and white, but Gray Boy wanted color.”

My scout-bugs found no signs of life.  Only bizarre constructions.  Crystal pillars with more wires stringing to them?  Where was Jack?  We passed through a room with what looked like a dentist’s chair.  Tools and pieces of the mechanical scalpel-spiders littered the room.

Bonesaw’s operating room.

“I like to think this is a win-win situation for me,” Jack said.  “Wait until you hear.  We’ll get the video up in a moment.  Play it on the speakers, maybe, or show it on the computers, if you can find one soon.  Does this break you, or does it give you that burning fury that drives you to go the extra mile and try to kill me?”

We entered the main area, and I stared.

“Oh god,” Foil said.

There was a crunching sound as Chevalier let his sword drop, the metal biting into the floor.

The crystalline pillars were vats.  Cloning vats.  Each marked with a name of one of the Nine.

They were full.  Babies floated within each.

“Cherish says you found the clones.  Yes.  We’re doing another batch.  Didn’t take much time to prepare, and it was bound to be either a nice follow-up or a good surprise for you if you happened to catch up to us here.  You know I’m close.  Do you take the time to eliminate each of these things, or do you come after me and leave them behind?”

“We can have someone stay behind, clean up,” Chevalier said.

“I wouldn’t say that, Chevalier,” Jack responded, his voice carrying through the vast chamber with two or three hundred vats spaced evenly throughout.  “See, we mixed things up a little.  There’s a specialized cleanup area that can kill the Crawler clones.  We gave them their powers right off the bat.  Mixed them in with the others.  You’ll have to be fairly discerning, and devote manpower to the task.”

I thought about using my power, but there weren’t any bugs native to this area.  I was limited to the ones that I’d brought with me.  Not enough to cart two or three hundred children off to some special device.

“A distraction,” Defiant said.  “There’s another option.  A bomb.  If we track down the device Dodge used to create and maintain this dimension, we can collapse it.”

“How fast?” Chevalier asked.

“Fast,” Defiant answered.

“Poor sportsmanship,”  Jack rebuked them.  “Let’s try a different distraction then.”

A computer monitor on the desk flickered to life.

“I’m excited,” Jack said.  “Gray Boy is working on getting the video up.  Funny thing.  The real Gray Boy wouldn’t be able to do this, but we gave this one the memories of a real child.  Came with the necessary skills.  I’m almost disappointed.  People are so much more interesting when they’re flawed, aren’t they?  Oh, here we go.  I haven’t even seen this.  Let’s see…”

The video started playing.  The camera wiggled and wobbled as Gray Boy ascended a staircase.

He came face to face with PRT officers.

“Best not to watch,” Revel said, her voice gentle.  “It’s not worth it.”

Golem didn’t take his eyes off the screen.  Revel approached him, putting one hand on his shoulder.

Others turned to keep scouting the area.

I joined them.  This place was massive, but my power had range.  I needed to find Jack, and that was a bigger priority than seeing the scene as it played out.  Rachel walked between the rows and columns of glass vats with me.  Her dogs trailed behind, their spikes and spurs occasionally tapping or dragging against the glass of the vats.

There we go,” Gray Boy said, his voice high, as he spoke in the video.  I could barely make it out with my own ears, but I had my bugs to help.  It didn’t hurt that the ones who’d remained behind were utterly silent as they watched.

I’d already seen, in a sense.  I’d figured out what was behind the tarp back in Killington.  Gray Boy’s victim.  The only one, as far as I was aware, who was still alive.

But Gray Boy didn’t kill.

Let’s adjust… there,” Gray Boy said.

Please… don’t… please… let…

The voice was halting, cut short at steady, regular intervals.

Me… go… please… oh… god…

Shhhh,” Gray Boy’s voice was a hush, but it carried through the speakers that were planted throughout the area.

I… don’t…

I said be quiet,” Gray Boy said.  “I’ll do you a favor, even.  I can make this painless.  I just need you to talk to me.  Tell me a story.

A… story…?

I’m sure you can come up with something good.  Let’s start with your partner.

There was a scream.  I tensed.

The scream didn’t stop.  It continued, a steady, constant loop, the beginning the same, the ending varying.

What… story?”

The scream changed, intensifying.  It continued looping, just a little louder, a little less usual.

Don’t be a baby,” Gray Boy said.  “That’s only a pocket knife I cut you with.

Trucks… vampir… dragons… what… do… you… want…

Think about it,” Gray Boy said.  “When I come back, I want to hear it.  If it isn’t a good one, I’m going to light a match.  They say a burn hurts more than any other kind of pain, inch for inch.  Look, see!  I’ve got a whole matchbox here.  A whole matchbox just for you two, and all the time in the world.

The man’s oddly rhythmic screaming continued, dropping in volume.  It was barely audible as a door shut.

I forced myself to keep walking, exploring with my bugs.  Tunnels, side-rooms, many occupied with old devices, things belonging to the Toybox residents that had apparently claimed spaces in here for themselves.

“Can your dogs pick up a scent?” I asked.

Rachel shook her head.  “Wrong breeds.  They’re not trained in tracking people.”

I swore under my breath.

“Kayden.”

Golem’s voice, from far away.

Gray Boy had found Theo’s family.

Move your hand,” Gray Boy said.  “You know it won’t work.  I’m too hard to kill.

A pause.

I’m going to give you a choice.  You can put the little girl down and let me have her, and then I’ll use my power on you only, or I can use my power on you both.”

There was no reply.

Don’t be silly,” Gray Boy warned.  His tone was flat, almost without affect.  “Give me the girl.  I promise I won’t do anything to her.  Can’t say the same for any of the others, but you and I both know that nothing they can do even compares to what happens when I use my power.

A sound.  A whimper.

I’ll even let you choose.  What kind of hell do you want to go to?  I can use fire, or knives, or I can hit you with something heavy.  I like that little statue over there.  There’s cold, probably.

A sound, a bang, a crash, echoed over the speakers.

I continued pacing down the row of vats.  I reached the end, then traversed an open, empty space before reaching the start of a complicated, almost labyrinthine tunnel network.  My bugs struggled to trace the contours of the space and find their way to the next area.

When they did, they found it was an even bigger space than the one Rachel and I were in.  A giant robot stood in the center, half-complete.

A toddler started shrieking, her wail audible over a hundred speakers throughout the complex, each just a fraction out of sync with the others, given the speed of the signal traveling as compared to the speed of the ensuing sounds.

Not bright,” Gray Boy said.  “And the baby’s crying.  No wonder, with you trying to throw her out the window.

There was only silence in response.

I thought you’d use your laser instead.  Do you think your baby can fly?  Here.  I’ll make the loop longer so you can talk.

I… had… to… try…

Maybe.  But now I have to punish you.  I could hurt you, like I do with most people.  Hurt you while you’re looping through the same action, so you feel that pain over and over and over and over again.  The only thing that doesn’t change is your brain.  That keeps going.  The pain is always fresh, it never gets easier to deal with, but I’m told there’s a certain point where you crack, and you go around the bend.  Takes a few days for most.  Then you get to a point where you work through your issues.  You don’t want to, but you do, because the only thing you have to occupy yourself with is the pain and your own thoughts… so you get mostly better, and then you crack up again, and you get better, and that becomes a loop of its own…

Fuck… you…

Until well after the sun goes out, they think,” Gray Boy said.  “Speed of thought, can’t turn it off unless I’m using it on myself, and I don’t think anyone’s immune.

Bastar… d…

But I do that to everyone I use my power on.  Like a snap of my fingers, just like that, anyone around me is caught in a loop.  What kind of special punishment could I give you, murdermommy?

There was no reply.  The child continued to cry.

Who’s this one?  The woman?” Gray Boy asked.  “No answer?  How about… now.”

There was a pause.

Most scream when you stab them.  Oh well.  Maybe this one?

I changed direction, walking along the wall to get a sense of the greater complex.  There was no way to check the area at the foot of the giant robot without navigating the labyrinth.  My range wasn’t that long.

Nope.  And… this one!”

A scream.

There we go.

Crusader…

I’ve decided, murdermommy.  I won’t do anything to you for now.  I’ll let you wonder what the others did to your little girl.  Then, maybe, if she’s still alive, I’ll bring her back to you and I’ll use my power on her while you watch.  Maybe a week from now, maybe a month, maybe years.  Decades, even.  A hundred years?  They have cryogenics and brain scans and cloning vats and more!  We could show up a thousand years from now, just to say hi to you.

No…

You lose track of time, like that.  Standing there.  But maybe if you keep yourself sane, you’ll be able to offer advice so it won’t be so unbearable, so you can converse and tell stories and keep each other happy.  Maybe, if you keep it together enough, you can convince me to let her go.  I’ll give you a… one in twenty chance.

No…

Tell her to listen to me.  To obey me.  You know what happens if she doesn’t.  Convince her.

Aster… do… what… he… says…

Good.  You hear that, Aster?  Good.

Come… back…

Her voice was quieter, almost drowned out by Aster’s wailing.

A door shut, the speakers echoing the sound all throughout the complex.

The rhythmic screaming of the PRT officer grew louder.

Sit,” Gray Boy’s high voice sounded.  “Don’t run, little girl.  Listen to me like mommy said.

The man’s screaming grew louder still.

So whiny.  I just cut up his face.  So?  Tell me a story?

Silence.

Okay.

A sound of a match being struck.

We… were… briefed… on… Jack…  we… don’t… know… how… he… ends… the… world… we’re… suppose… to… implemen… quarant… ine…”

I stopped in my tracks.

He… talks… to… someone… and… catalyz… es… someth… ing…

The PRT officer had been asked to weigh an eternity of torment against the lives of billions, and she’d chosen the selfish option.

Every… major… group… helping… teams… defeat… Jack…  Cauldron… Thanda… PRT… Protector… ate… Wards… Brockton B… ay villains… Moord Nag… Irregulars… Faultline… Triumvirate…”

We’d just lost our last major advantage in determining how this could play out.  Jack was getting everything.  He was a wiki-walk away from getting details on everyone who was arrayed against his new Slaughterhouse Nine.

I could sense the others as they moved through the complex.  I beckoned Rachel and her dogs, then mounted up.

I kicked the dog into motion.

Others… I… can’t… recall…  they… are… keeping… powerful… people… away… from… Jack… to… avoid… catalyz… ing… they… are… employing… strike… teams… to… take… down… smaller… groups…”

And you’re here because?

Because… Aster… supposed… trigger… young… usually… one… child… in… family… know… Jack… coming… probably… in… person… chance… she… is… catalyst…

There’s a lot of people who could be the catalyst,” Gray Boy said.  “You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to cover all of the bases.”

Low… chance… but… still… chance… thought… we… could… protect… with… Night… Fog… Purity… Crusader…”

Well,” Gray Boy said.  “That was boring.  I wanted a story with neat monsters.”

I gave serious consideration to switching the earbuds to a setting that would make them serve as earplugs.  I made myself keep listening as the screaming started, keeping my ears peeled for clues.

My swarm-sense, at the same time, was searching more of the area.  I brought bugs to me, then sent them off into new corridors as I reached them.

Too few bugs in this entire place.  No moisture to feed them, no food sources.  Only a scant few that had no doubt been brought in accidentally.

I thought the story was interesting,” Jack said, his voice sounding as though he were speaking in my ear.  “See, I had a plan in mind, but now I’m rethinking it.  If I’m supposed to be a catalyst, then it can’t be any of the others.  Bonesaw would get the credit for any plagues or clone armies we deployed, even if I gave the order.”

I grit my teeth.

“But if the effect is broad, well, giving the order could be a part of it.  Our Harbinger has been giving us some very good advice.  Talking about the critical places to strike.  What happens if we attack certain targets?  The world teeters on the brink of falling to the Endbringers.  Divide my remaining soldiers and attack key points in the infrastructure, and maybe that’s game over for humanity.”

Here.”  A voice over the comms.

Or Screamer fucking with our heads?

“Verify.” I spoke over the comms.

Nobody called back to verify.  A sign I was on the right track?  I kicked the dog to drive him to move faster.

“Or if Gray Boy uses his power on Scion, perhaps?  We could assassinate some key figures.  Win-win, because we either deliver a critical blow or we might run into the right person to bring about the end of the world.  So many possibilities, really.”

I could sense them.  Easily two hundred of the Nine, accompanied by a mess of Nilbog’s creations, hooked up to Bonesaw’s control frames.  Nilbog hung on the wall above the group, limbs splayed, tubes feeding into him as blobs dropped down and were captured by a small army of mechanical soldiers.

I closed my eyes for a moment.  A trick?

No.

Two years of emotions caught up with me in a single instant.  I felt fear grip me, anxiety seizing my entire body, adrenaline flooding through my body.

Yet, when I spoke, my voice was calm.  “Weaver here.  I’m using my first priority passphrase.  Danny and the Rose.  Look for the flare.”

Message received loud and clear, Weaver,” Tecton said.

I drew a flare from my belt and lit it, throwing it to the ground.

That done, I glanced over my shoulder at Rachel.  She nodded.

Jack’s voice echoed through the complex.  I could sense him with my bugs now.  He was pacing back and forth, while all of the other Nine were stock still.  “Attack the cities, target Scion, assassinate all of these powerful capes that are coming after me…”

Or I could do all of the above.”

I hopped off of the dog’s back to make it through the doorway, then ascended the spiral staircase.  The dogs struggled to follow, and I signaled for them to stop.

Couldn’t have them blocking my retreat.

I wasn’t sure what I could do, but there had to be something.

I reached the top of the stairs, then stopped, my back to the wall beside the doorway.  I held my gun.

The sole remaining Cherish said something, a murmur.

Weaver.” Jack said.  Screamer repeated the word after him, and it carried through the air, an echo.

“Hi Jack,” I said.  I hung my head, focusing on what my power was telling me.

The bugs I had in the room clung to particular members of the group.  They were eerily still.

“Gray Boy is standing right in front of me,” Jack said.

“I know.”

“Most are shut down.  Using a control to keep them still.  Too unmanageable in a group like this.  That doesn’t mean you have the slightest chance of accomplishing something.”

“I have to try,” I said, echoing Purity’s words from the video.

“Such sad, small words,” Jack commented.  “You don’t have to.”

I had tricks prepared, but none of them were remotely viable.  Not with Bonesaw so close.

I would die, and she would revive Jack.  At best, I’d slow them down.

“You’re too big for your boots, Weaver,” Jack said.  “You had a few critical successes and you’ve run with them.  Earned yourself a reputation.  But at the end of the day, you’re still the same pathetic bug controller who got her powers because her mommy died.”

He likes to talk.  Every second that passes is a second we’re catching up.

“People probably said the same thing about you in the beginning, Jack,” I said.  “Too big for your boots.”

“They did.  My trigger event was a little more dignified, though.  No matter.  I’ve been at this a long time.  You’re barely a concern.”

“Want to fight, Jack?” I asked.  My bugs moved through the crowd as I noted each of the threats that were present.

“Eh,” Jack said, shrugging,  “I can take you.  Step through that doorway, and I’ll give you a fair fight.  One on one.  Look.  I’ll even put my knife in my belt, hands on my head.”

I had an assessment of their group.  I couldn’t account for Nilbog’s creations, but I knew which members of the Nine were present and where they were situated.

“You said it yourself,” Jack said.  “You can’t afford not to.”

Too true.  The others weren’t close enough yet.

“Why this fixation on ending the world?” I asked.

“Nuh uh uh,” Jack answered me.  “Not going to get bogged down in a discussion.  We have a situation.  I’m going to walk away in about fifteen seconds, unless you want to have a duel.  Knife against knife, or gun against knife, if you prefer.  You win here, it’s a coup for the world.  What better option for the make-believe queen?”

The make-believe queen?

Maybe a name Cherish had given me.  I tightened my grip on the gun, but I kept my finger off the trigger.

Someone advanced.  I felt tripwires snap and break.

Letting a hostage go?

I turned and started to fire before the individual in question could step through the doorway.  By the time I made the conscious decision and started squeezing the trigger, the individual in question was emerging.  The bullet made contact, passing through their head.

A life taken.  A hostage killed.  But I couldn’t afford to take any chances.

No.

I shook my head a little.

A Nice Guy, not a hostage.

He needed to focus on people to use his power.  That focus was far weaker if he couldn’t see someone.  My voice would be another vector, as well as knowing my location.

“That was impolite,” Jack said.

“No tricks.”

“I could send Siberian after you,” he said.  “She wouldn’t even have to kill you.  Just hold you still.  Bonesaw and Gray Boy could have worlds of fun.  Remember what we did to your team leader?  Imagine the eternity of pain Gray Boy could deliver after our Bonesaw has given you more nerve endings to work with.”

“You could,” I said.

The others were getting closer, reaching the foot of the stairs.

Cherish spoke.  “The others are here, Jack.”

“Then your time is up, Weaver.  I hope you don’t regret your hesitation.”

I wouldn’t.

I drew in a deep breath, waiting for the second Jack turned, then stepped into the doorway.

Then I opened fire.

I’d first run into the scenario when I went up against Mannequin, before running up against Glory Girl.  The first time I shot a gun, I hit my target.

Now I had a better idea of why.

Having bugs over the entire area, I had a sense of the area, of the topography, of where everything was.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was an advantage.  Something to help aim the shot, to help give me a sense of the path the bullet would travel.  It was like being able to reach out with my arm in a perfectly straight line, touch my target, then aim along the line.  The same effect I’d granted Foil, so she could snipe Tyrant.

The sole remaining Siberian moved to Jack’s side before I could pull the trigger.

I wasn’t aiming for Jack.  It wasn’t even a consideration.  Like he said, he had Gray Boy with him.  The second I stepped into their sight, I was a goner.

My bullet took Cherish in the head.  Another bullet struck Screamer.

I hesitated.

Then I shot Aster, who was held in a Hatchet Face’s arms.

Manton-

No.  Too dangerous.  Gray Boy was moving, trying to get to a better vantage point.

I turned, activating my flight pack for a boost of speed.

The Siberian broke away from Jack, giving chase.  Crawlers advanced only a pace behind.

In that same moment, I drew out more lines, giving the signal.

Revel and Foil both opened fire, their energy-orbs and bolts tearing through the walls and into the rank and file of the Slaughterhouse Nine.

“No!”  Jack ordered.  “Siberian, with us.  The remotes are programmed?”

“Yeah,” Bonesaw reported.

“We go.  Divide into groups.  One major target each.”

Jack quickly sorted them out, his Siberian touching him, Manton and Bonesaw as the bolts and orbs continued to tear through his crowd.  One or two dead every second.

And then they separated into groups.  Bonesaw paused, then broke away, joining her crowd before hitting the remote.  They disappeared.

Another group gone.

Then the remaining three disappeared all at once.

I collapsed on my hands and knees as I reached the bottom of the staircase.  The others that had managed to reach our location stood over me.

“They’re gone,” I said, panting not from exertion, but the sheer panic of what I’d done.

“We give chase,” Chevalier said.  He looked to Defiant.  “Can we?”

“We can if there is a computer,” Defiant responded.

I only nodded.

“Good,” Defiant said.

I looked up as Golem approached, Revel beside him.

“Aster’s dead,” I said.

He went very still.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Did you-”  He started, then he stopped, staring down at me.

“Nevermind.  Sorry for asking,” he said.  “Whatever happened, it’s for the best.”

He didn’t sound like he believed it.  He didn’t sound confident in the least.

It’s for the best, I thought, as Golem joined Chevalier and Defiant in heading up the stairs.

“Can you tell me the order they went off?”  Defiant asked.

I nodded.

“Good.  Then I think we can figure out which went where.  We can eliminate this place as an escape route.”

Which meant we knew which way Jack had gone, and he couldn’t run anymore.

Final encounter.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Sting 26.4

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Ellisburg loomed before me.  A small town, surrounded by a massive wall.  Ellisburg had been situated by a river, and the wall included a section of the waterway.  The building that managed the flow of water was bigger than any structure within the walls, a filtration and guard system that ensured that nothing was making its way up or downstream from the small town.

It was a risk to even have the measure, no doubt, and it would cost money to operate and maintain.  There had to be a reason they had included the river rather than section the river off altogether.  A compromise?  Something to keep the goblin king happy?

I’d only been a toddler when the walls had first gone up.  Outside of that bit of news, the Ellisburg situation wasn’t one that came up a lot, yet it had somehow found traction in the public consciousness.  It was something we all thought about from time to time, something that loomed as a possibility in everyone’s mind.

Would today be the day the wrong person got too much power?

Would today be the day our hometown was effectively removed from the map, surrounded by sixty-foot concrete walls?

The dashboard indicated the Dragonfly was now approaching the designated landing point.  The A.I. had suddenly decided to ground itself, landing in a nearby field, costing me precious minutes, while Dragon had been silent on the comms.  I’d left a message, trusting her A.I. to pass it on, and hadn’t received a response yet.

My attempts to patch into the feeds and get a view on what was going on with Jack hit a brick wall.  The corner of the monitor still showed the cube folding through itself in the corner, Dragon’s loading message, as if the process had hung.

I’d manually piloted the craft back out of the field, and the A.I. had kicked in to handle the flight codes and necessary messages to air traffic control and nearby aircraft.  When I’d input my destination for the second time, the craft mobilized.

But the silence, the strange blip in the A.I.’s direction, it left me uneasy.

Now, as we took a circuitous route around Ellisburg, to a field beside the large filtration and security building, I could see the Azazels, parked at the edges of the same location.

That was the point I felt alarmed.

I hit the button on the console/dashboard. “Dragon?  Requesting confirmation on the situation.  You intended to intercept Jack before I got here, but the Azazels are dormant.”

No response.

“Dragonfly,” I said.  “Display non-system processes and tasks last carried out.”

It displayed a list.  In a matter of seconds, the scroll bar was barely a line, with thousands of individual instructions noted in collapsed menus.  A prompt reminded me I could load more with a request.

“In the last minute.”

The list wasn’t much shorter.

“Communications-related.”

There.  Besides the orders I’d just given, I could see the message I’d sent to Dragon.

“Status of message?  Has she heard or read it?”

The loading symbol appeared in the corner.  It should have been nigh-instantaneous.

“Cancel that.  Give me manual access.”

A keyboard appeared on the dashboard.  I couldn’t use it right away, though.  I was forced to pay attention as the Dragonfly reached the field and hovered.  I lowered the ship down.  The small craft shuddered as it touched ground.

Using the keyboard and the manual access, I began digging through the data.  I navigated the menu the A.I. had provided, then opened the submenu to view the details on the message I’d left Dragon.

My message was in the priority queue, but it sat at the 89th position on the list of messages Dragon would be getting to.

I dug a little, and found the list was growing.  Ninety-four, ninety-five…

Where the hell was Jack?  I contacted Defiant.

Defiant here.”

“Weaver.  What happened?  Is the Slaughterhouse Nine situation resolved?”

“No.  He entered Ellisburg.”

I closed my eyes for a second.  It took a moment to compose myself and get my thoughts and priorities in order.  “And the suits?”

Ignore the Azazels.  Listen.  I’ve got a lot to handle and coordinate right now,” Defiant said.  Was there a tremor of emotion in his voice there?  “Golem’s on his way.  Wait for backup.  I’m sending Dragon’s Teeth your way.  Teams from across America are joining the fight now that the full situation is leaking. I’m putting some on containment and quarantine detail, make sure the Slaughterhouse Nine situation doesn’t get beyond the areas the attacks are directed at.  I’m going to send a few your way.  Ten minutes.

“Jack’s already in the city, and you want me to wait ten minutes?  That long, and Jack could get what he wants.  I’ve got the Azazels nearby if there’s trouble-”

The Azazels aren’t… reliable.  Consider them compromised, but a non-threat at the same time.  Listen, there are things I need to take-

This is the highest priority,” I said.  “Isn’t it?  Jack?  The end of the world?”

A pause.  “Yes.  Of course.  But I can’t help you while I’m on the phone.

A note of deceit in that.  He was covering for something.

Something happened.

I thought of what had happened at the school, the way Dragon had stopped abruptly.  I’d read the records, knew the gist of the story.  Dragon had been in Newfoundland when Leviathan sank it, had escaped, only to shut herself away from the world, never venturing outside the expansive building complex she’d had constructed in Vancouver.

She hadn’t left Newfoundland unscathed, I was almost certain.  Brain problems, body problems… I couldn’t be sure.  Probably both.  She had no doubt integrated herself with technology to cope, enhance and expand her capabilities.

Except that her technology was failing.  The way she’d collapsed at the school, the speech problems she’d suffered, the slow recovery, now this…  It was the only theory that made sense.

She’d pushed herself too far, something had gone wrong, and now Defiant faced losing the one person on this planet who could tolerate him for more than ten minutes at a time.  No small wonder he was out of sorts.

I considered how I’d feel if it was one of the Undersiders.

“Defiant,” I said.  “I’m going in alone.  Send Golem in after me if he wants to come, reinforcements can hang back or come with, depending on your judgement.  I’ll handle things on this end.  You focus on what you need to.  Focus on Dragon, focus on damage control.”

A pause.  “There’s nothing I can do for Dragon right this moment.  The best I can do is maintain the momentum and keep things coordinated, and hope that Dragon’s substitution can maintain the back-end.”

I didn’t respond to that.  I was already getting ready to go.

Thank you, Weaver.

It was uncharacteristic of him to thank me.  A pleasantry.  How upset was he?

I couldn’t spare another thought on the subject.  I was out of the Dragonfly at the first opportunity, making my way towards the quarantine control and filtration building.  It was squat, concrete, hardly pretty.  As I got closer, I could hear an alarm.

The front doors had been torn apart.  It might not have been so impressive, but these were the same vault doors we saw with the shelters that studded every likely target around the world.

The gouges were narrow, a finger’s width, as though someone had dragged their hands through the steel like I could drag my fingers through half-melted butter.  Siberian.

Jack had brought protection.

My bugs flooded into the facility, past the second dismantled vault door.  The alarm was louder as I ascended the concrete stairs and made my way into the building.

The emergency lighting was on, casting the area in a red glow.  My bugs searched and scanned the area, in case any members of the Nine were lurking in wait.  So many ugly ways this could go.  So many threats that Jack could have on hand.  Cherish?  Screamer?  Nyx?  Ways to fool my senses, ways to shut me down or defeat me.  My only recourse was to get them before they got me.

Hey, passenger, I thought.  Do me a favor.  If I get taken out of action and you step up to fight, work on taking out Jack, alright?

My bugs stirred, moving further down the hall.  It was so far from a conscious direction that I wondered for a second if the passenger had listened.

No.  I’d tried hypnosis, I’d tried other things.  Some in Mrs. Yamada’s office, other times in the PRT’s labs, after dark, off the record.  Nothing brought the monster to the fore.

Just my subconscious.

Just.  Like that wasn’t something I couldn’t help but wonder about.

But I’d made peace with it.  I couldn’t barter with something that wouldn’t talk back, but I could accept it, test and acknowledge my limits as far as they pertained to the entity that was apparently granting me my abilities.

I wouldn’t turn away from it, wouldn’t tell it to go away or hold back in my abilities.

My bugs marked the area, giving me the information I needed to navigate the facility.  It proved easier than I might have expected.  Rather than follow the winding corridors and make my way to the security checkpoints, I followed the path of casual destruction Siberian had left in her wake.  She’d knocked down walls to create the shortest possible route from the front doors to Ellisburg.

No casualties that I could detect.  No nonhuman life.

Had Dragon ordered this place evacuated before she was incapacitated, or had Nilbog gotten here first?

My bugs started to scan the area beyond the facility, inside Ellisburg.  They made it about ten feet before something like a frog’s tongue began snatching them out of the air.

I withdrew the swarm back to myself, hiding my bugs beneath my cape and skirt, and I made my way through the opening into Ellisburg.

A goblin wonderland.  It was clear he’d altered it from its original layout, likely over the course of years.  The remodel had been more aesthetic than functional.  Floorboards had clearly been dug up and moved to the exteriors of the buildings, creating roofs and building additions that spiraled or twisted, with more boards propped up flat against the building faces on one side, painted or modeled in the same way the towns had been put together in old western movies.

The walls that surrounded Ellisburg had been painted as well.  To look from a distance, Nilbog’s kingdom extended to every horizon, with crooked, impossible landscapes at the periphery of it, like an ocean frozen in time, grown over with grass and trees.  Oddly enough, they had painted the sky as an overcast one, where it was visible above the lush, unpredictable fields and forests.

Within the city, the trees had been immaculately cut and trimmed, and the shapes were just as strange; trees that were perfectly round, cubes, cones.  Where new trees were growing on lawns, as dense and close together as trees in an orchard might be, I could see heavy wires wound around them, guiding their growth into twists and curves.  The art of bonsai taken to a bigger scale, cultivating each tree in form.  Already, some of the largest ones were properly set up, meshing together with counterparts on the opposite sides of the street, forming lush, living wooden arches.

The grass had been cut, and I could see the attention to detail there, even.  There were innumerable flowers growing across lawns, but the grass was neatly cut beneath and around them, as if someone had taken shears or scissors to the blades that grew between the flowers.  I couldn’t make out any rhyme or rhythm in how the flowers or plants were laid out and how they grew.  It was an injection of color in the same way a random splash of paint from a palette might be applied to a canvas.

And then, as if to remind me that this wasn’t friendly territory, there was a scarecrow in one garden.  The clothes were brightly colored, the pose one of a dancing figure, but that wasn’t the eerie thing about it.  The head was a skeletal one, a dog’s head stripped of all flesh, turned skyward with its mouth opened in joy.  The hands that clutched the rake and watering can were held together by wire.  A very small human hand.

For all the signs of careful tending, the entire place was still.  A town that could have been taken from a storybook, desolate.  There wasn’t any sign of chaos, nor the destruction that would follow from an attack by the Slaughterhouse Nine.

But more than anything, what threw me was the absence of insect life.  No spiders spun webs.  Even the ground had little in the way of ants or earthworms.

A trap?  I looked behind me to see if they were planning on walling me in, and came face to face with one of Nilbog’s creations.

It hissed, its breath hot and reeking of bile.  Fangs like a viper’s parted, the distance between them great enough that it probably could have sunk some into the top of my head and the underside of my chin as it closed its mouth.  I stepped back out of reach, then forced myself to stay still and wait.

The mouth closed, and I could see how the creature’s head was smaller than mine.  It wasn’t more than four feet tall, covered in pale brown scales.  The reptilian face could have been in a children’s movie, if it wasn’t for the eyes.  They were dark, black, and cold.

It clung to the wall, its feet placed higher up than its hands, opposable toes gripping the frame that had been around the vault door.  I noticed it was wearing white shorts, with one suspender strap over a shoulder.  A taloned claw held a softball-sized chunk of the wall.

Was it fixing the wall?

“I’m not a threat,” I told the lizard-child.

I felt hands touch my belt and jumped, seizing the wrist of the offending hand in an instinctive motion before I’d even looked to see who it was.

A girl, five or so feet tall, her face mottled with purple veins that spiraled across her perfectly round, puffy, hairless head.  Her eyes were tiny and piggish, her fingers blunt, barely a half-inch long, her mouth too small for her face.  She wore a sack that looked like it had been sewn to work around her oversized head.  Her hand was on my knife.

The lizard boy had extended frills at his arms, neck, and the edges of his face, colorful, brilliant, and held out by a framework of needle-fine spines.  His mouth hung open, viper’s teeth revealed.

I looked beyond this pair, and I could see signs of others.  Eyes reflected light in the shadows beneath steps, from windows.  There were large, bulky silhouettes in the windows, some holding smaller figures on their heads and shoulders.  I couldn’t make out much, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

That was twice now that they’d snuck up on me.  Quiet motherfuckers.

“I’m sorry for grabbing you,” I said.  “You wanted my knife?”

She took it, her tiny black eyes glaring at me from the midst of her oversized head.  The lizard-boy eased his frills down somewhat, but his mouth remained open.

“I’d like to see Nilbog,” I said.

She ignored me, her pudgy, blunt-fingered hands fumbling through the pouches at my belt.  With painful, clumsy slowness, she divested me of my taser, the pepper spray, and the spools of silk, both conventional and Darwin’s spider silk.

I winced as one spool fell to the ground and unwound partially, dirt getting caught up between the strands.  That would be a pain to fix.

I could see more of the things making appearances now, getting close enough for me to see as they took interest in what was happening.  Eyes appeared in the windows, reflecting the light in curious ways.  Eyes from within the trees, between the slats of stairs… some faces.  They ranged from artistic and beautiful to horrific.

Every single one of them was a weapon.  Going into this situation was a repeat of the information gathering and problem solving issues one faced when going up against an unknown cape.  If it came down to a fight, I’d have to figure out how they operated, and the full extent of their capabilities.

Trouble being that there were a hell of a lot of these things.  Hundreds, even thousands.

I waited patiently.  No use complaining, even if every second counted, and Jack was no doubt having words with Nilbog.

“Nilbog is in danger,” I said, trying a different tack. “The man with him, he has dark hair, a beard?  He’s with a striped woman.  Bad people.  I think they’re going to try to hurt Nilbog, hurt the man who made you, so you get upset and leave this place.”

Her hands fumbled with my flight pack.  I felt her touch the arm at the side of the pack, with its narrow arm.  She took hold of it and pulled.

“I can take that off,” I said.

She grunted, and I started to move to oblige, only to get a protest.  The frills on the lizard boy extended, and her own head swelled, the skin getting thin enough in the process that I could see a fluid filling the lower half of her head.  I moved my arms away from the straps, and I watched them both relax over long seconds.

When she was sure I wasn’t trying something, she grunted again, louder, a frustrated, constipated sound.  A communication, but not one meant for me.

Her friend emerged from a garage, lifting the door to lumber forth.  He was big, fat, and moved on four limbs that each had opposable digits.  His massive belly swung right and left as he loped, so distended and so close to the ground as it swung that I worried it would hit something and split open. His genitals were almost bigger than I was, and they were, along with his sensory organs, the only way I could really tell his front from his back.

The sensory organs consisted of slits running top to bottom from a ridge at one end of his body.  There was no room for a brain, no eyes present.

This organ granted him enough awareness to approach, probably by way of scent, but it didn’t give him the fine tuning he needed to find us, specifically.  The round-headed creature approached him, took hold of a fistful of chest hair and led him my way.

I backed up a little as they approached, and received a hissed rebuke from lizard-boy.

I remained still.  The safest course.

The girl-thing moved the brute’s hand towards me, and I stayed still as she gripped the arm and placed it in the hand.

He closed his fist around it.

“Wait,” I said.

He hauled on it, clearly intent on tearing it free.  I was thrown, sent rolling until I landed in one patch of grass, dazed, startled, just a little hurt.

The brute approached, the round-headed girl hurrying after.

Before I could rise, he’d already fumbled for me, and seized hold of the mechanical arm.  This time, he managed to pull it free.  I used the antigravity panels to control my flight as I was thrown, controlled my landing, and hurried to get my hands to the straps.

There was a wail behind me, a warning sound.  I saw the others react, but kept working through the straps.  Two at the shoulders, one across the chest, beneath my armor-

The pack fell free.  I chanced a look over my shoulder, and I saw a number of Nilbog’s creations gathered, close enough that they could have lunged for me.  One was a very tall, long-limbed man with skin that looked like a Siamese cat’s, covered in a very fine fur.  His face was split by a wide, toothless mouth, his eye sockets little more than indents filled with fur.  He held a makeshift spear with a flag on the end, which had been painted brilliant colors, and wore a matching loin cloth.  Probably the most dangerous one in my immediate vicinity, just in terms of how fast he could probably close the gap and murder me.

“Safe,” I said.  “No danger.  I’m safe, the pack’s off.”

I waited, tensed, as they studied me.  Enemies on all sides.

Jack was invincible, I wasn’t.  But if I was going to achieve anything here, it couldn’t involve destruction.  I’d read the files on Nilbog, I had a sense of him, in the most general terms.  I was banking everything on his megalomania overriding his desire to collect just a little more in the way of resources.

I kept my voice level and calm, “I’d like to see Nilbog now.”

Were they hungry?  If this became a fight, I’d have to defend myself with the bugs in my costume and the bugs in the quarantine and filtration facility.  I could use the swarm to equip myself with the stuff that had been dumped on the ground, but that required that I survive long enough to do so.  Were there ranged attacks here?  Assassins?

Desperate situations called for risks.  This was my gamble.

“I have a gift for him,” I said.

Something seemed to ease in them.  I watched as some turned away, finding their way to resting spots.  The tall man with the loincloth worked his overlong body under a porch, where he could rest in the shade.

I didn’t receive an escort, but the ones along one road moved aside, sitting or standing on the sidewalks.

I walked with my head high, and sent a handful of bugs forward.  More than a few of Nilbog’s creatures took the opportunity to snap them up.

A soft rumble sounded above.  Lightning.  Rain began to patter down, light.

My surviving bugs gave me ears on the scene before I arrived.

“Lipsy?  Tell the cook to serve us something.  I fancy a salad, and something robust.  I think it should taste sweet.”

The alterations to the surroundings only grew more focused and extreme as I found my way to the center of Ellisburg.  Building faces were covered in wild plant growth, and there wasn’t a single building without more extreme modifications made to it.  Glances indoors showed little more than barren exteriors with the floorboards pried up, or clusters of Nilbog’s creatures lurking in the unlit gloom within.

“I’ll look forward to this, god-king.”

“You should, you should.”

“Your hospitality astounds me.  I’m unworthy.”

Hardly.”

So Jack was situating himself as someone subservient, even servile, so as not to challenge Nilbog’s alpha status.  He was playing nice, even.

If I tried the same, I’d only be working to catch up, to earn Nilbog’s trust.

I approached the town center, and found myself in the midst of a crowd of Nilbog’s creatures.  Goblins and ghouls, muppets and horned moppets.  Big, small, thin and fat.  Each was exaggerated, twisted, as if Nilbog had gone out of his way to insert traits and qualities that separated them from humanity.

The creatures stepped out of the way as I made my way closer.  Nilbog sat at the center of a long table, and two more tables extended from the ends to form a loose ‘c’ shape.  Checked tablecloths in eye-gouging color contrasts covered each table.  Jack sat at the end furthest me, and a man with white and black stripes sat beside him.

Bonesaw was only a short distance away, sitting on the shoulders of what looked like a flayed bear.  The thing had claws two or three times the usual size, it’s mouth yawning open like it had been broken.

Nilbog was immensely fat, easily four hundred pounds, and sat on a throne that had apparently been cobbled together from dismantled furniture.  His face was covered with a paper mask.  Other creatures sat on chairs to his left and right.

The arrangement of the tables created an open space that could host their entertainment.  I looked, then wished I hadn’t.  A bloated, coarse-looking creature lay on the ground, almost like a potato made of hair and flesh.  Smaller things were busy carving gouges and holes into it.

The resulting wounds regenerated, but not before the smaller creatures inserted body parts into the openings, allowing the regenerated flesh to close tight but not close completely.

I averted my eyes from the scene, content with not letting my brain register which parts were being inserted and what they were doing after the fact.

“Another guest!” Nilbog cried out.  He spoke like he had a bad accent, but it wasn’t.  He’d affected strange and overdramatic tones for so long that his voice had warped, and he’d had no ordinary people to hear or talk to and measure his voice against.  “A friend of yours, sir Jack?”

I could see Jack’s eyebrows raise in interest.  “Not at all.  Skitter, was it?  Except you’re going by another name, now.”

I ignored Jack.  “Nilbog.  It’s good to meet.”

Nilbog didn’t look impressed.  “Sir Jack was more obsequious when he introduced himself.”

“That’s because he’s a two-bit thug, Nilbog.”

Jack chuckled at that.

“A two-bit thug?  You’d insult my guests?”

“If those guests include Jack,” I said.

Nilbog narrowed his eyes.  “I will not have fighting in my glorious kingdom.  Jack has agreed to a ceasefire while we dine.  You will do the same.”

“I already gave my weapons to your underlings.  You should know that the black and white striped man is a living weapon, much like your creations.”

Nilbog glanced at the male Siberian.  “I’m not concerned.”

“I imagine you aren’t,” I said.  Where’s the real him?

I had to be careful in how I used my bugs.  Sending them into buildings would only reduce the size of my swarm, but there was relatively little chance that Manton would simply be hanging out in one of the hollowed-out buildings.

“So,” Jack said.  “Are you going to have a seat, or are you going to continue to be rude?”

“I’m waiting for our host to invite me to sit.  Forgive me, Nilbog,” I said.  I glanced at the fat man.  The grease on his skin made it look like he’d oiled himself.

“Sit.  But I’d like to hear who you think you are, whelp, if you won’t bow down to me.”

I approached the row of chairs opposite Jack and the Siberian, and one of the critters hopped down, scurrying under to join the festivities in the center of the tables.  I took the vacated chair and sat.  I might have removed my mask, but I was all too aware of the silverware in front of Jack.

“I’m your equal, Nilbog.”

Jack laughed again.  Nilbog seemed to react, almost looking flustered, before turning to me.  “You insult me.”

“Not at all.  Ignore the thug that’s sitting over there.  I’m a queen, a goddess of my own realm.  Or I was.”

Jack was smiling, clearly amused.  Then again, he was safe.  He was untouchable with Siberian beside him, and he was only feigning weakness to get past Nilbog’s defenses.

“A queen?”

“A queen.  With that in mind, provided you give your permission, I’d like to offer you a gift.  A… peace offering, to make up for the fact that I entered your territory uninvited.”

“Of course, of course!”  He was almost childlike, so easily moved by this promise of a gift, his mood changing so quickly.  Guileless.  He’d been surrounded by yes-men for more than a decade, with barely any human contact, his defenses were gone.  “I forgave Jack the lack of an invitation, I’ll extend you the same courtesy.  This gift?”

I called on the swarm I’d kept within the quarantine facility.  “Resources are slim.  An isolated kingdom like yours, providing for your subjects is hard.  You do an admirable job despite this.”

“Of course, of course.”

He was eager, impatient.

“I’d feed your subjects,” I said.  “Protein.  You need it to make more.  To keep the ones you currently have in good health.”

“Yes, yes” Nilbog said.  My bugs were just now arriving in the area.  “This will do.”

The full swarm arrived, the vast majority of the ones I’d kept in the Dragonfly, and the ones from the area beyond the Ellisburg walls.  I gathered them on plates in piles.  His minions devoured them, licking at the plates, picking with talons, or simply lifting the plates and tipping the insects into open mouths.

I wasn’t surprised when Nilbog turned his attention to his own plate.  My eyes fell on Jack.  He still had a slight smile on his face.

He held the cards up his sleeve.  I’d played mine for a minor advantage, but he had Bonesaw.  One virus or parasite in the midst of these creatures, and they could go berserk, roaming the countryside until they were put down.  He had Siberian, which meant he was safe, meant he could kill me or Nilbog whenever he wanted.

But he wasn’t going to.  This continued as long as the game was still on.  He thrived on this interplay.

As more bugs continued to arrive, I used them to search the area.  Nothing.

Below ground?

Earthworms, ants and pillbugs dug through the soil beneath the park, searching.  Some of Nilbog’s creatures were beneath the earth, ready to spring up and attack.  Others were beneath, eating whatever they could find.

In the midst of my search, I found something.  Not Siberian’s creator, but nearly as good.

Nilbog himself.

He sat directly beneath his ‘throne’, and was connected to the fat man by what seemed to be an umbilical cord.  This cord gave him control of the body, fed him sustenance, let him stay safe while the decoy sat up here.

One card for me to play.

“I think the bug queen here should explain how she came to nobility,” Jack said.

Setting me up to say something incriminating, I thought.  “As you did, Nilbog, I claimed a realm for myself.”

“And you left it, apparently.  If you’re truly a queen, you’re a foolish one.”

“I did leave it,” I said, “Because I had to, to save it.  I had to protect my subjects, to fight my people’s enemies.  I have not been as fortunate as you.”

“No,” he said, uncaring.  “Apparently not.”

“If it came down to it, would you step up to protect your creations?  To protect this town you made?”

“You’re sounding a great deal like sir Jack,” Nilbog commented.  He frowned.

“He’s trying to convince you to go to war,” I said.

“To take pre-emptive action,” Jack clarified.

“I’ll do neither.  Not war, not pre-emptive action.  I have what I need.  I’m a content god, a happy king.”

You’re starved for real human contact, I thought.  Or you wouldn’t have let us join you at the table.

My bugs continued to search, though the bastard creatures were coming out of the woodwork to catch and devour them.

Where in the hell was Manton?

Jack spoke, “It’s a question of whether you act now and preserve what you have for the future, or wait and let them come and kill you.  They’ve been systematically seeking people like you, eliminating them.  I could show you proof, given a chance.”

“I’ll make it simpler,” I said.  “You don’t need to leave your kingdom, your garden.  You don’t need to go to war with an outside party you don’t know or care about.  You want to know what happened to my kingdom?  That man, right over there, sir Jack, destroyed it.”

“Nonsense,” Jack said.  “I’ve been sleeping these past few years.  Naps are such an underrated pleasure.”

“They are,” Nilbog said.  “All of my subjects nap every day.”

“Let me explain,” I said.  “I had a kingdom that I ruled.  I had a king that ruled with me, who kept me company.  I had wealth, people I cared about, people who cared about me.  Power.  I was a god in my domain, and those who stood against me were driven off.”

Nilbog shook his head.  “You need a heavier hand to rule.  More loyal subjects, so you don’t have to bother with those who would stand in your way.”

“I was more powerful than you,” I told him.

He snapped his head around to stare at me.  To glare at me.

I’d pricked his pride, apparently.

“I was more powerful than you, but Jack over there made a promise to people.  He didn’t say it aloud, but it was still a big promise.”

“Now you’re making stuff up,” Bonesaw commented.  She slid down off the flayed bear’s back and joined a group of creatures her size.  She hugged one, abruptly.

But Nilbog wasn’t telling me to fuck off.  His attention was on me.

He’d built a storybook kingdom, an impossible place, and populated it with monsters, both beautiful and ugly.  He’d had some fixation on this stuff, some Freudian obsession.  Not sexual, but still rooted in some primal part of his childhood that had been taken from him.

I’d play this by telling him a fairy tale.

“No,” I said.  “And I think Nilbog is clever enough to understand what I mean.  Jack promised that he’d come back when his nap was done, and he’d destroy my kingdom.  He said he’d destroy your kingdom, Nilbog, and every other kingdom.  He said he’d kill all of my people, and he’d kill all of your creations.”

“All of this, from the man you describe as a mere thug?”

“Yes,” I said.  “A woman with great powers told him he could do it, and now he’s going to try.  It’s why he’s here.”

“To destroy my kingdom?”

“No.  He wants you to go to war against your neighbors.  To break down the walls that keep you safe and fight people who are leaving you alone.  He’ll use you as a distraction, and then when everything is done, he’ll come back and destroy your kingdom.  And he’ll do it in the cruelest, saddest ways you can imagine.”

Nilbog nodded slowly.

Jack was still waiting patiently.  Too quiet.  I felt a moment’s trepidation.  I hadn’t found Siberian’s controller.  I needed to defeat him before Jack was cornered.  The second he decided he couldn’t salvage this situation, he’d order the attack.

Nilbog raised his hands.  “Angel on one shoulder that tells me one story…”

A placenta-like blob swelled in his hand.

“A devil on the other, telling me another.”

Another blob appeared in the other hand.

Both burst, showering Nilbog in greasy slime.  Two creatures gripped his forearms, looking more like flying monkeys than an angel and devil.  They were roughly the size of babies, their faces feral, mouths filled with pirahna-like teeth.  One had red hair, a red beard and gazelle-like horns, and the other had white hair and beard and a strange horn that formed an off-white halo above its head.

“I’ll take the angel, if you please,” Jack said.

Nilbog shrugged.  Were the creatures more a demonstration than anything else?  He lowered his hands, and nudged the white-haired thing in Jack’s direction.  The other thing made its way to me.  I reached out and took it into my hands, holding it close.

“Do you have a response to the Queen’s allegations, Jack?”  Nilbog asked.  He reached up to adjust his floppy cloth crown.  Creatures were arriving to deposit the meal on the plates.  It looked like purple vomit.

“I do,” Jack said, smiling.  “But can we eat first?  It’s rude to argue over a meal.”

Nilbog nodded, as if Jack had said something very sage.  “I agree.  We’ll eat.”

Bonesaw made her way to the table.  “How did you make this?”

“The chef stores every ingredient we can find inside her, then regurgitates it in the form required.  I asked for it to be hearty, and here we have it, chunky.”

I looked down at the plate.  Droplets of rain made nearly-clear spots appear in the midst of the purple slop.

So it is vomit.

“It tastes like cupcakes,” Bonesaw said, around a mouthful.

I started to move my mask to eat and be polite, then noted how Jack was holding his knife.  The blade swayed back and forth in the air, as he chewed, his eyes rolled back and looking up at the overcast sky above.

The blade was making criss-crosses in the direction of my throat.

He glanced down, meeting my eyes, and smiled.

“Our apparent rivalry aside, have you been well, bug queen?”

“Well enough.”

“Then you should be hungry.  It’s been a busy few days, and it’ll only get more interesting.  I notice your friends are sitting this one out.  Did you break it off completely, or are you still in touch?”

“Still in touch,” I responded.  I glanced at Siberian.  The knife is a purely psychological thing.  If he wanted to kill me, he could use Siberian to do it.

Besides, it was a butter knife.

I moved my mask, without breaking eye contact with Jack, and helped myself to a bite.

It did taste like cupcakes.  I suspected it would have been less nauseating if it tasted like real vomit.

It was a tense few minutes of silence as we ate.  I found out the devil-thing in my arms wanted to eat, so I let him help himself.  An excuse not to eat, anyways.

The creatures in the center of the area finished their ‘show’, and Nilbog clapped enthusiastically.   I joined him and the five or six creatures around the table who really had hands to clap with.

The second show began.  A gladiatorial fight, apparently.  One of the creatures had wings instead of arms, while the other had wicked barbs extending out from the elbows and knees.  When even the tips made contact, they ripped out grapefruit-sized chunks of flesh.

I braced against the table to keep it from flipping as the pair crashed into it.  Nilbog laughed, and the sound was more than a little unhinged.

“Is everyone done?” Jack asked.

“Yes,” Nilbog decided.

“Then let me explain.  Weaver’s entirely right.  Except for the part where you die at the end of it all.”

“Oh?” Nilbog asked.  He leaned forward, placing fat elbows on the table’s surface.  It dipped as his upper body weight rested on the wood.

“Living like this, you obviously dislike the system.  You know how screwed up things are out there.  People are vile, self-centered, and so caught up in their own routines and expectations that they’re barely people anymore.  Your creations have more personality.”

Nilbog nodded, taking it all in.  “They do.  They’re wonderful, aren’t they?”

Wonderful,” Bonesaw agreed, with the utmost enthusiasm.

He just believes whatever we tell him.  He’s a sponge.  How do you convince someone who’s so incapable of critical thought?

Worse, Jack was touching on all of Nilbog’s pet issues.  The man had been a loner before, a loser.  He’d rejected the trappings of society long before he’d become this monster.  He’d spent years simply going through the motions until the last parts of the system he’d clung to fell apart.

“I want to wipe the slate clean.  Things have been going through the same motions for so long that there’s a rut in the ground.  You erased everything that wasn’t worth keeping here, and replaced it with something better.  With your garden.”

“Yes.”

“With that in mind, I’m reaching out to a like-minded soul.  Someone who rejects the malignant, stagnant society and wants to grow something else in its place.”

“Jack has no interest in growth,” I said.  “Only destruction.”

“Did I interrupt you when you were speaking?” Jack asked.

“Do it again and I’ll order your execution,” Nilbog said.

I pursed my lips behind my mask.

Where the fuck was Siberian’s creator?  I’d scanned every area where he could be lurking.  There were only monsters.  I was nearly out of bugs.  I had only a select few secreted away in my armor, and they weren’t ones I was willing to sacrifice.

I didn’t have much in the way of cards up my sleeve, but these bugs would have to serve in that department.  Problem was, they wouldn’t fix anything now.  Bonesaw could counter them too readily.

Where could Manton be hiding?  My eyes passed over the crowd of creatures that had gathered around the edges of the area, enjoying their master’s presence.

Hiding in plain sight.

Plastic surgery, or even an outer suit, like the one Nilbog wore.  He had to be dressed up in the skin of one of the monsters.

Shit.  How was I even supposed to assassinate him if he was going that route?  I touched him with a bug, only to find his flesh harder than steel.  Unmovable, just from the way his foot touched the Siberian’s.

Jack licked his plate, then set it down on the table.  “Where was I?”

“Replacing society,” Bonesaw volunteered.

Replacing society,” Jack affirmed.  “Imagine if your garden really did extend as far as the eye could reach.  If you could walk in the direction of the sunset, only to find that your creations have already settled in each new place you travel to, decorated it, transformed it.”

“A romantic goal, one I might pursue if I were a younger man,” Nilbog said.  “But even gods get older.”

“They do,” Jack agreed.  “Well, we could give you that youth.  Bonesaw could grant you immortality.”

“She could also enslave you to her will,” I commented.

“I’d never,” Bonesaw said.  She shook her head, her curls flying, “No, I couldn’t!  I love these beautiful things he makes!  To control him would mean I’d take that creativity away.”

Nilbog nodded at that.  “That’s a good argument.  Besides, to enslave a god?  Madness.”

Except they’re mad, I thought.  All of you are lunatics, and I made the mistake of trying to talk sense.

“It’s a good argument,” Jack said.  “Because we’re right.  Would you like to live forever, as a god should?  Would you like to see your garden grow to what it should be?  What it deserves to be?  Something fitting of a god?”

“It’s a tempting thought,” Nilbog said.

I reached for a rebuttal, telling myself I had to be just as grandiose, just as mad, but I couldn’t do that at the same time I was trying to convince him to go dormant again.

“If I may?”

It was another human voice, but it didn’t belong to any of us.

Golem.

He approached, taking off his helmet.  He offered Nilbog a slight bow.

“One of yours, Jack?” Nilbog asked.

“No.  Not in the sense you mean.”

“Yours, then?” Nilbog asked me.

Yes, I thought.

“No,” I said.

I saw Jack raise his eyebrows at that.

“Shenanigans!” Bonesaw cried out.  “I call shenanigans!”

But Golem took my cue.  “I’m a third party.  I stand for myself.”

“Hardly worth a place at the table,” Jack commented.

“Then let me stand for the others.  The innocents.”

“Innocents?” Jack asked.  He snorted.  “No such thing.”

“There’s always innocents.”

Jack smirked.

“I’ll allow it,” Nilbog said.  “Excellent!  Sit!  We were just having a discussion.”

Golem approached and sat at the same table I was at, but he took the far end.  “I’ve overheard some, so we can cut straight to the chase.”

“The dilemma,” Nilbog said.  “The devil on one shoulder, the angel on the other.”

“The sin of sloth versus the realm of possibility,” Jack added, gesturing to my demon as he said sloth, then to his own angel.

“Well said, well said!” Nilbog said.  He nodded so hard his double and triple chins wobbled.

“Or is the angel making false promises?” I asked.  “There’s no security.  No comfort.  You claim to care about your creations, but you’d go to war?”

“Many have gone to war and made sacrifices in the present, for the sake of a brighter future,” Jack commented.

“I thought you were trying to break out of the rut?” I asked.

Jack laughed at that.

He’s enjoying this.

I felt almost dirty, knowing I was only helping Jack in his self-indulgence, helping him revel in conflict.

“Well, stranger?” Nilbog asked.

“Golem,” Golem said.

Jack snorted at that.  He’d caught the meaning behind the name right off, the white supremacist’s son naming himself after a creature from a Jewish parable.

“Golem, then.”

“I’m not an eloquent speaker.”

“That’s a good thing,” I said.  “Too many and it just becomes people talking circles around one another.”

“Then I guess I have to get to the heart of it all.  Direct.”

“Yes,” Nilbog said.  He leaned forward, and I feared the table would break.

“Were you happy, before any of us came here?”

“Yes.  I can eat the most delicious foods, yet get every nutrient I need.  I can fuck the most beautiful and exotic women you’d ever imagine, whenever I wish.  Every need is provided for a hundred times over, and I’m surrounded by those who love me.”

“Then why change?  Why do anything?  Let us leave, then return to your utopia.”

Nilbog nodded.  He rubbed at his chin, but the act was like pushing one’s hand into jello.  It shifted the mass more than it rubbed.

“You wanted a tie breaker?” Golem asked.  “This is it.  Do what Weaver is saying.  Do what the Queen is suggesting.  Stay quiet, enjoy what you’ve built here.  Attack, and the entire world will take it away.  Then, even if you’re strong enough to survive that, which you may be, then Jack will still betray you.”

“Or,” Jack said, “You can stop lying to yourself.”

Nilbog snapped his head around.  He growled, “Impertinent.”

“Your people are slowly starving.  You make them eat each other to live, and desperately attempt to shoot any birds out of the sky so you can try to recoup what you lose.  Bonesaw said they don’t live long.  How long?”

“Four years.  Sometimes five.”  All at once, the light was gone from Nilbog’s face, the sudden fury quenched.

“Who’s your favorite?” Jack asked.

“Polka,” Nilbog said.  He reached out, and a female creature, no taller than three feet, hopped up onto the lap of the creature beside her king.  She had a narrow face with a reptilian structure, with only four fangs at the very front, but smooth, humanlike skin.  Her hair was white, her skin blue.  She wore a toddler’s clothes, a long, narrow tail lashing behind her.  Nilbog stroked her hair.

“Not the first Polka,” Jack said.

“No.  The third.”

“She was your first, and you love her for that, because she drew you from the hell that was your life before godhood, gave you this.”

I can’t interrupt this.  Not with the subject being something so close to Nilbog’s heart.  I might win the argument, but I’d lose Nilbog’s ear.

But I knew I was losing anyways.  Jack had found Nilbog’s weak point.

“My first friend,” Nilbog said.

“And she dies.  Because your creations don’t last.  You make another, and slowly fall in love with her all over again, and yet you know she’ll die in turn.”

“Yes,” Nilbog said.

“Bonesaw can fix that.  I can grant you immortality.  I can grant your creation that same gift,” Jack said.

“A hard offer to refuse.”

“It would be wise to refuse,” Golem said.

“A king can’t be selfish,” I said.  “A god definitely can’t be selfish.  Your responsibility is to your creations.”

“Exactly what I’m saying,” Jack said.  “Step out of your comfort zone, to better your people.”

“Enough!”  Nilbog screamed the word.  As if responding to his anger, every single creature in the area responded.  Weapons raised, spines extended.

And Jack was still invincible.

“Nilbog,” I said.

“Speak again, and I’ll end you, queen or no.”

His eyes were angry, hard.

He’d lived for so long in his comfort zone, and now he was being called on to make a hard choice.

“Then please listen carefully,” I said.  “Because I suppose I’m paying for this with my life.”

“So be it,” he said.

“If you want proof that Jack intends to betray you, look no farther than your own creations.”

“What?”

“He’s secreted an assassin into your midst.  A killer who pretends to be one of your creations.”

A gamble, a last ditch effort.  Was my gut right?  Had Jack instructed Bonesaw to create a costume or a creature to hide the Siberian’s creator?

I called my flight pack to me, parked it on a rooftop nearby.  If it came down to it, I’d have to run.  I could see Golem tensing.  He’d read the situation right.

“Just look,” I told Nilbog.  “Because somewhere nearby, there’s a creature you didn’t create.”

His eyes roved over the crowd.

“Might not be in this crowd, but it’ll be close.”

“I see it,” Nilbog said.  “I see it.  Bossy, Patch, hold him!”

The crowd of creatures parted as two creatures took another in their hands.

“Not an assassin,” Jack said.  “Merely one of Bonesaw’s… I suppose you can call it a homage.”

“It is,” Bonesaw said.

The Siberian was moving.  Readying to pounce?

I couldn’t move fast enough if he did.

“Wait,” Jack said.  He stood from his chair.

No, I thought.  “Don’t listen.”

“I’ll do as I please,” Nilbog said.  “Last words, sir Jack?”

“Last words, yes.”  Jack approached the captive.  The Siberian followed.

“You let him do this, and he kills you,” I said.  “Your creations will go mad with grief, and they’ll die in a war for vengeance, just like Jack wants.”

“Not at all,” Jack said.  “Because…”

An instant before the Siberian made contact with the monster, Golem jammed his hand into his side, using his power, throwing the creator into the air with one thrusting hand.  Siberian lunged, punching through the hand of soil to grab the creator’s foot.

Nilbog half-rose from his seat, though he was massive enough that standing was hardly possible.  His eyes moved from Golem to the hand, anger etching his expression, if one could etch into a face as soft as his.

“You dare disturb the peace!?” Nilbog screamed the question. “Kill the queen!  Kill the Golem-man!”

In that instant, Golem created two hands, throwing us back.

I caught the flight pack in the air, hugging it.  It provided lift.  Not enough to stop my momentum as I headed back towards the ground, but enough that I could shift my direction to land on a rooftop.  Golem wasn’t so lucky, as he fell into the midst of a sea of the creatures.

“Azazels, now!” I screamed, one finger pressed to my earbud.  I pulled on the flight pack and then took off again.

Golem used his power to create a platform, slowly raising himself above the street.  Creatures tumbled off of the surface of it.  Some flew at him, and he struck at them.  Not enemies he was capable against.  I sent my bugs to them, the reserve I still had on hand, commanding the bugs to bite and sting.

Others leaped onto rooftops, then onto the rising platform.  Golem grabbed one claw as it slashed for his face.  He couldn’t do anything about the other, as it gouged his armor, scoring it.  He created a fist that jutted out of his chestplate, striking the creature off of the rising hand-platform.

Spines rained down on him.  One caught him in the shoulder, and he collapsed.

Where are the Azazels!” I shouted.  The flying creatures were turning my way.

But Defiant had said they were unreliable.  Dragon was out of commission.

My bugs burrowed towards the buried Nilbog.  Jack had orchestrated a war.  Killing the creature’s creator wouldn’t stop that, wouldn’t keep them from rampaging and seeking out revenge beyond the walls.

But it would slow things down.

They inched ever closer.  Jack was untouchable, but…

Yes.  Worms, centipedes and other subterranean bugs made their way to the buried goblin king, and forced their way into the sac that enveloped him, past the threads of material that wound down his throat and nostrils, and into his airways.

“Creatures of Ellisburg!” I screamed.

Heads turned.

“You’ve been betray-”

And before I could say more, Jack’s knife slash caught me across the chest, the cut severing the straps of my flight pack.  I dropped from the sky, landing on one of those ramshackle, spiraling rooftops.  Planks that had been poorly nailed in collapsed around me as I hit solid ground.

My hope of turning the monsters against the Nine had been foiled.  The fall had knocked the wind out of me.  I couldn’t get my footing, and the creatures were advancing.  Every possible combination of features, it seemed like, an infinite army, unpredictable.

Your king is dying, I thought, my mouth moving and failing to form the sounds.  There was only the barest whisper.  I killed him, but if you could believe that Jack did it

I would have used my bugs instead, but I had so few, here.

I sent those few to Golem, removing them from the flying creatures.

Nilbog dies,” I spoke through the bugs, but the range of sounds was too limited, and with scarcely thirty bugs in total, they were quiet.

Nilbog’s dying,” Golem said, his voice coming through the comm system.

One creature, eyeless, like a crocodile with a serpentine body, advanced on me, looming over me.  Its jaws opened.

The lizard boy was here too.  A drop of venom appeared on one distended fang.  I was surprised by the fury on his expression.

Blame Jack,” I said, through the swarm.

“Jack Slash has used us as a distraction to kill your king!”

Golem hollered the words at the top of his lungs.  I felt a tension leave me.  I might be fucked, but we’d limited the damage.  They’d turn it inward.

The attack stopped.  The creature looming over me turned and slid away in a flash.  The lizard-boy remained.  Still recovering from the fall, I couldn’t muster enough strength to fight back if he bit.

I commanded the flight pack instead, flying it into him with both wings extended.  He was brained, and the pack ricocheted off his skull, one wing shattering.

Golem had risen almost to safety, though he was still too far from the wall that had been erected around the city.

I looked at the wall.

Looked past it, at the capes who were swiftly approaching.

Rescue.

I brought the flight pack to me, the broken wing partially retracted, the other still extended, and pulled it on with slow, agonized movements.

Lost without their master, half of the creatures seemed to turn on the Nine, the other half seemed to remain intent on Golem and me.

Capes settled around me, forming a defensive line against the ones who approached.  Revel was among them, using her energy blasts to pick off the largest ones.

Someone picked me up, then took flight.

Jack,” I wheezed out the word.

The Siberian took hold of the umbilical cord and heaved, Jack maintaining contact with a hand on the Siberian’s shoulder.  Nilbog, still slowly dying of oxygen loss, was brought to the surface with a surprising ease.  Bonesaw wrapped her arms around the man.  Frailer than his self on the surface, smaller.

I felt a moment’s despair.

Foil?  Someone who could stop Siberian?

Somebody?

The heroes advanced, but the Nine created a portal, and were gone in a flash, Nilbog carried between them.

Leaving the monsters of Ellisburg to riot.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 25

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

July 8th, 2011

“...The reality is clear.  The repercussions of what happened today will change the relationship between hero, villain and civilian.  It remains up to them to decide whether it will be a change for the better, or a change for the worse.”

“Pretentious, isn’t he?” Jack asked.  He was naked, covering himself with both hands, sitting on a metal bench with more brushed stainless steel behind him.  With the angle of the device, he faced the ceiling.

“Likes to hear himself talk,” Bonesaw replied, agreeing.  “Which do you think it’ll be?  Change for the better or change for the worse?”

Jack only smiled, his eyes crinkling a bit at the edges.  He was getting older.  It was reassuring and spooky at the same time.  He’s the daddy of the group and I’m the kid and he’s getting older which makes him more daddylike.

But it meant he moved slower and got tired more easily.  It was only a matter of time before he made a mistake, lost a fight.

“It’s a given?” she asked.  She pressed the button, and the lights started to flicker again.

“I think so,” Jack commented.  “But I almost hope things do turn out well.”

The flickering steadily increased.  The progression had to be slow, or they could set off a cascade cycle and overwhelm the power cell they had liberated from Toybox.  If that happened, then the shell that was keeping this reality together would break, the holding grid for the pocket dimension’s substrata would become fluid and leak out into other hardened realities.  They would likely be crushed by the air, pulped as gravity twisted into eddies and condensed points of hyperconcentration.

Which would be funny, really.  A reckless, violent, unpredictable death would be awfully ironic, really.  An artful death, almost, in an anticlimactic way.  It would be better if there was an audience, if anyone could even know and tell the story.  But art wasn’t art without an audience.

“Makes for a greater fall?” she asked.

“Exactly,” Jack replied.  He had to raise his voice to be heard over the whine of the generator.  “I guess we find out soon!”

She laughed in response, giddy with the idea, with possibilities, ideas.

Then she pulled the switch.  In a heartbeat, Jack was frozen in stasis, contained.

She walked over to the computer.  Flowers, rainbows and gray-green smiley faces with the eyes crossed out in death bounced around the screen.  She moved the mouse to end the screensaver, giggles still periodically finding their way out of her mouth.

She set the timer, the alarm clock for the stasis to end.

The giggles trailed off.

Silence.

The lights slowly flickered back to life, and Bonesaw found herself standing in front of the keyboard.  The smile fell from her face.

Jack had assumed she would freeze herself.  The empty pod reinforced the idea.

Except… she was telling herself she had to be there to wake them up, and that wasn’t wholly true.  It was smart, but it wasn’t true.  She wasn’t one to be afraid of something, but she felt a touch of trepidation at the idea of entering stasis without someone to handle the exit process, without assurance she would wake up.  That was without touching on the issue of the power cell, watching that things didn’t go tilt with the pocket dimension.

No, that wasn’t wholly true either.  It was a one percent chance.  Five percent, if she counted her lack of knowledge about other tinker’s stuff.  But she hadn’t touched it, even to move it.  It should be safe.

Her eyes tracked the rows and columns of incubation chambers.  They weren’t her field either.  A different row for each member of the Slaughterhouse Nine, past or present.

King
Screamer
Harbinger
Breed
Crimson
Gray Boy
Nyx
Psychosoma

There were ten of each in various glass chambers. The original members.

With many, many more besides.  She looked down the length of the room.  Most members of the Nine had lasted only weeks or months.  She could count the ones who’d lasted longer than that on the one hand.  A shame she didn’t have samples for all of the past members, but she had most of the good ones.

Her, Jack, Mannequin, Siberian, Shatterbird.

Crawler had managed pretty well, too.

He’d been a doofus in the end, though.

She smiled.  It would be a family reunion, really.  But there was work to be done.

They’d come out blank.  Wouldn’t do.  She had access to some of the toys they’d liberated from the Toybox.  She’d have to put the new Slaughterhouse’s memories together herself.  Brains.  Memories, or things close enough to memories.  She had notes and records, all of the bedtime stories Jack had told her as she drifted off to sleep these past few years.  There was information saved on the computer.  She could hodgepodge it together.

This would be real art.  How well could she rebuild them?

Cranial had been selling memories on the black market, selling skills.  She’d kept bad memories too, took them from people, even gave them to some people.  Silly, really.  A lot of them had wanted trigger events, except the trigger events didn’t work like that.

This computer was only an access point.  The other computers took up vast amounts of space, out of sight, out of mind.  If something failed, she’d have to go fix it, but she would spend most of her time here, surrounded by her family, some she’d never met.

Mannequin had lost his wife and children in a Simurgh attack.  How to approach it?  A file here, with a woman who had lost her spouse and children in a car accident she’d driven.  Close enough.  She could leave gaps and it would fill in all on its own.  Build it all on a foundation of an academic background, a doctor with confidence to spare, an architect in the same vein, a celebrity singer who’d come in wanting inspiration at the press of a button… run everything in parallel, with the ideas of the former two and the experience of the other…

But that wasn’t enough.  He’d been driven, haunted.  How was she supposed to put it all together?  Could she make it a recurring idea, so this Mannequin-clone would see the events flashing before his eyes with every waking moment?  Something he could only quench with a quiet, cold rage?  Or was it something he’d put behind him?

Winter had been an arms dealer, sadistic, ruthless, cold.

Bonesaw giggled at the private joke.  The noise echoed in the utter silence.  It was quiet enough that she could hear her own heartbeat and the blood rushing in her ears, the creak of her muscles shifting, even.  That wasn’t anything she had enhanced.  Humans simply never experienced true quiet.  Those that had come close tended to go insane.

Another giggle, smaller.  No worry on that score.

How to model Winter?  She wasn’t truly a person who created or manipulated cold.  It was a different power.  A dampening power, causing objects and people both to lose inertia.  The ambient effect was one of altered physics, the effect on people was one of will.  The woman had gained power, money and more, and she’d found she liked tormenting people as much as anything else.  She’d turned to the slave trade, then crossed paths with the Nine.

How to make the Winters with the materials she had?  A child that had a gun in her hand before she could read, someone who had found the drive necessary to rise above her roots, meeting all expectations.  She’d taught herself numbers and business, she’d ruthlessly eliminated competition, and then when she had everything she’d wanted, she had stagnated, rotted like an overripe fruit.

Searches for keywords in Cranial’s notes failed to turn up any of the necessary elements.

“Hey, Blasto, buddy,” she said, and her voice sounded artificially chirpy, even to her.  She looked at her minion, who stood at the other end of the desk, staring off into space, his entire body rigid.  A tear was running down his cheek.

Would have to cauterize his tear ducts, maybe.

“Speak,” she ordered.  She tapped a key to open a menu, then released the lock on his lung control and breathing.  “Try now.”

“Ungh,” he rasped.  “Ugh.”

Would have to exercise his vocal cords, or he might lose the ability to speak.

“It’s too quiet.  Let’s see… do you know the theme song to Love Bug?”

“Ugh.  Guh.  Fuh- fuck-”

She hit the key to lock him down, feeling irritated.

“Swearing is so crass!  Okay.  Guess you don’t know them.  Let’s see.  I’ve got something in my backpack…”

It took only moments to rig.  Her spider boxes ran on interconnected lumps of gray matter, basic impulses, motor control and storage, with some computer chips to handle functions that were more trouble than they were worth to implement.  One of those chips managed rote movements.  She removed a defunct spider box from the backpack she was keeping beneath her desk and attached it to Blasto’s spine, between his shoulder blades.

Overriding motor control, rote movement operation, hook it to the lungs and mouth, tongue, jaw…

Her hands were crimson halfway up to the elbow by the time she was done setting it all up.  She handed the task over to a spider box to handle stitches and cauterizing the bleeds.  A quickie job.

Would be better with a real eyeball, but she’d settle for a camera.

She set a video to play.  Furry cartoon bugs with hearts, peace symbols and other icons on their backs began to dance with cartoon children.

Love bug love hug!  A, B, C, D!
There they are, coming to say hi!
Love bugs are here, no need to cry!
When you’re feeling lonely, when you’re alone,
Who can you count on, to be in the zone?”

“Get a love bug love hug!” Bonesaw sang along, pulling up a chair.  She used a pencil to press the buttons on the keyboard so she didn’t get it mucky.  Few things were quite as fun as letting the blood dry and then peeling it all off in one congealed strip.

Behind her, Blasto watched the video.  She set it to repeat, and the bug box kicked in the second time around.  Blasto’s reedy voice sang along.  It was so pathetic and mournful that she laughed aloud.

Better give him some exercise too.

By the time the fourth repeat had finished, he was all set up.  He started dancing along with the fifth, mimicking characters on the screen.  Each repeat would be a little more precise, as the camera captured the necessary elements.

There.

Something to occupy herself with, for the next year and a half.

September 28th, 2011

“I’m going to take over the world!”

“Wonderful,” Bonesaw commented, feigning a cultured voice.  “More tea?”

“Tea, yes!  Obey, serve me.  Give me tea.”

Bonesaw dutifully poured a beakerful of hot water into the cup, then set a spoon by the saucer.  “No milk?  You’re sure?”

“Milk is for weaklings and children.  I’ll drink it black,” Damsel said.

“We are children, Damsel.”

A biologically seven year old Damsel of Distress glared across the table at Bonesaw as she took a sip, then had to momentarily steel herself to keep from making a face.  Her face was gaunt, but that was her natural appearance.  Her pale blue eyes deep set, platinum blond hair simultaneously fine and thick, matted together.  The chemical stew the clones were growing in didn’t make for typical looking hair growth.

“I could end you, for that insult.”

“Yes,” Bonesaw said.  “But then you wouldn’t have anybody to pour you tea.”

“This tea is too hot anyways.”

“I’ll strive to do better,” Bonesaw said.  “World domination, hm?  Sounds like a bother.”

“It’s my natural place.”

“Maybe,” Bonesaw said.  “Well, I don’t envy you.  You’ll need to hurry, too.  World’s going to end soon, I think.”

“I’ll rule the ashes.”

“I see.  That’s even harder, isn’t it?  If there’s no way to communicate, then how do you manage it all?  There won’t be phones or internet after everything else is gone.”

Damsel’s forehead furrowed in concern.  “I’ll delegate.”

“Can you trust the people you delegate to?”

“No.  I trust nobody.”

“Well,” Bonesaw said, pausing as she took a sip of tea.  “That’s a problem.”

“Yes,” Damsel agreed.  She swayed in her seat for a moment, then gripped the table with foot-long, clawed fingers to steady herself.  Bonesaw’s design, replacing the skeletal structure.  A way to channel Damsel’s power and -if needed- briefly shut it off.

“I put a little something in your tea to help you sleep,” Bonesaw commented.  “Best to see you off to bed.”

“I’m not…”

“Not sleepy?  You’re going to faceplant in your tea.”

Damsel’s confusion became a swift, violent anger.  “You poisoned me, wretch!”

“Yes.  I thought you didn’t trust anyone.  What a shame that you couldn’t be constructive in that distrust,” Bonesaw said.  She stood and walked around the table, then took the little girl’s hand, leading her back to the incubation chamber.  The girl obeyed, though she spat epithets.

“I’ll flay your skin from your bones, irrevocably destroy everything you cherish,” Damsel said, her voice fainter.  “You’ll cry your rage to the heavens until your torment subsumes everything.  Madness will be a refuge.”

She was virtually whispering by the time she was done.

“Yes, sweetie,” Bonesaw answered, dropping the fake accent.  She leaned forward and gave Damsel a kiss on the cheek.  Damsel blinked, as if in slow motion, opened her eyes briefly, then shut them.

A press of a button and a flick of a switch bid the glass case to rise and surround Damsel before she could tip over.  The tube rapidly filled with a soupy liquid, rich in nutrients.  Damsel was fully asleep before the fluid raised her from the ground to float buoyantly in the middle of the tube.  Her tea party outfit billowed out around her, making her look like a jellyfish in the pale lighting.  Her hat, a wide-brimmed, shallow-topped hat with a false flower on the ribbon, drifted off her head and gradually sank to the base of the tube.

She sought out the other clone, finding him at the far end of her lab.  He was a boy, narrow, with long blond hair and a very worried expression.  A complex pyramid of beakers and glass measuring cups was arranged around him.

He was muttering to himself, “Wall them in.  Wall myself in.  Wall them in.  Wall myself in.”

“Come on, A.G.,” Bonesaw said.  She reached through the structure and took his hand.  “Out through the door.”

“Not a door.  Trap.  Safest way to ward off attackers.  Used my hair, made a tripwire, tying ends together.  Maximum devastation if intruder breaks perimeter.”

“Through the window, then.  I’ll wall you in.  Promise.”

He nodded.  With excessive care, he climbed on top of the jars that were precariously balanced on one another and slipped out through another aperture in the arrangement, higher up.  He stumbled as he landed.

“This way.  We’ll wall you in.”

He followed obediently.  “Where’s my Catherine?  She’s my…”

“Your mom, silly billy.”  Cognitive dissonance would be bad.  He could lash out.  Not that he was that dangerous, like this.

“I was going to say wife.  And I have two children.  They’re seven and five.  Except I’m…”

“You’re seven.  You’re thinking of your sisters.”

“I’m confused,” he almost mewled the words.  “It hurts, so much of it hurts to think about.  I- I let a lot of people down.  I can feel their disappointment like… like it’s pressing in on me from all sides.  I can’t hide from it and I can’t stop myself from caring.  I-“

“Hush,” she said.  “It all gets better when you wall yourself in, doesn’t it?”

He nodded mutely.

“Walling you in,” she said, as she put him on top of the stand.  A press of the button raised the glass enclosure.  She could see him relax a fraction at that.

A bit of a problem, Bonesaw mused, as the container filled with the nutrient fluid.

Various elements that were unique to every individual served as a signal that the passenger could reach out to in an attempt at reconnecting with a host.  DNA, electromagnetic patterns, patterns she could barely measure with instruments, all contributed, none was absolute.  Once the connection was established, powers were possible as well.  A moment of trauma sped the process along considerably.  Her initial assumption had been that coming to life would be enough for the clones.

But the clones were dreaming, and those dreams were founded in the fabricated memories she was providing.  It was something of an art, an interesting experiment, to strike all the right notes, to get geography and birthplace right, culture, custom, habit and every other detail, along with the major, defining moments of their lives.

The Corona Pollentia was developing as the originals did, drawing from DNA to form as a lobe in the brain, right from the outset.  The dreams formed the connections between the corona and the clone.  The bonds were forming too quickly and easily.

It was interfering with the cloning process, as the passenger’s typically indistinct and subtle influence on the subject was becoming rather dramatic.  The brain was too pliable while the clones were in their formative ages, the passenger too insistent.

She’d have to scrap everything.  Wipe them clean, grow a new batch of clones.  Nearly three weeks of work down the drain.

Already, she was figuring out how to solve the problem.  She’d have to stagger it, introduce memories in phases, starting with earliest and working her way forward.  Maybe it would be easier, organized.  She could consider each member of the Nine in turn and decide if they had been treated well as babies, if their home and school lives were comfortable… that would be a yes for someone like Mannequin, less so for Ned, for Crawler.

She typed on the computer for a minute.  Special disposal procedures for Crawler.  The rest could be boiled to death.

She watched until the bubbles started to rise.  One or two woke.  It didn’t matter.

She returned to her makeshift bedroom.  There hadn’t been a mattress, so she’d made a hammock instead.

Blasto lay on the floor.  His voice was barely audible.  He couldn’t stand, and his attempts at trying to dance were scraping his arms against the floor.

Bug… hug.  I, J, K, L.”

“Forgot to turn the music off,” she said.  She found the smartphone and switched off the music.  “Have a bit of an errand.  Sleep for now, I’ll patch you up when I get back.”

Her hair dyed black, a bit of makeup and clothes made the same way she’d made her mattress, creating a lifeform that could spin and ink fabric.

A touch roughspun, but it would do.

She found the remote and hit the button.  There was a quiet whoosh, and she was on the other side.

Back in Earth Bet.

Her heart was pounding.  If Jack found out about this, he’d be furious.  The risk, the idea that someone would be checking this one spot for a signal, or using a parahuman ability to search for her here

But, she thought, she needed supplies she couldn’t make on her own.  Resources, information, materials.

She entered a small grocery store.

“Good morning,” the man at the counter said.  Thirty-two or thirty-three, to judge by his appearance.  His hair was too long in the back, just starting to recede in the front, his stare intense, but he wasn’t unattractive otherwise.

“Good morning,” she responded, upbeat.  Don’t talk to me.  It would be messy if I had to kill you.  She corrected herself.  I’ll fix your hair and then I’d kill you.

“We don’t get many new people here.  Kind of out of the way.”  He smiled.

“Driving through,” she said.  “My mom is shopping down the street.”

“Dollar store or the boutique?”

“Boutique.”

“Don’t blame you for not wanting to go,” he said.  “Let me know if you need help finding something.”

She made her way through the store.  Lemon juice, vinegar, sugar, salt, a box of Frooty Toots, some milk, pancake mix.  Nutrient slop was great when she needed to work without cooking, but it was still slop.

Glancing up, she could see the man at the counter looking at her in the mirror that had been positioned to give him a view of the aisle.

She wondered momentarily if he’d recognized her.  No, the reaction would be different.

A distrust of outsiders?  No, he seemed too at ease for that.

Something else, then.

She felt more at ease, realizing what it had to be.

She deposited the things on the counter, then paid.  He bagged it and she waved goodbye as she left, offering him a winning smile.

She’d need to stop by a library, there were a few things she needed to look up.  There wasn’t enough information on Harbinger, for one thing.  King’s background was another blank.  People Jack didn’t talk about much, even if he talked about them fondly.

He’d be so pleased, she could imagine, if she hit the right notes with them and got their basic personalities right.

Then she could buy clothes and sheets. If there was a good hardware store, she could imagine some tools that would serve.  Her scalpels were getting dull.

This little bumhole of a town didn’t have much, and she’d seen maybe one car on the road since she had arrived, but still, she looked both ways before crossing the street.

A pale, dark-haired woman stepped out of the bank, wearing a black suit.

Her attitude, her demeanor, casual.  Nothing combative in the slightest.

Bonesaw still felt a twang of alarm.  The timing with which she’d appeared, the way the clothes didn’t fit the area…

Better to guess and be wrong.  “Are you picking a fight with me?”

“No,” the woman replied.  “No I’m not, Bonesaw.”

Gosh darn ding darn… golly.  Jack was going to be maaaaad if he found out about this.

“Because if you kill me, it doesn’t change anything.”

“You worked a biological key into the transporter device.  Unless you are alive, calm and holding the device, it won’t work.  It will only transport you.  We can’t use it to get inside, and killing you wouldn’t stop the stasis period from ending.”

“Yeah.  That’s why.”

“I understand.  But I wasn’t sent here to assassinate you.  We could.  We could even reach Jack, I think, now that we know where to make an entrance.  Still, that’s a dangerous prospect, putting powerful parahumans in the same space as a man who’s been prophesied to end the world.”

“I’m not a pushover, you know,” Bonesaw said.  She stabbed a finger in the woman’s direction.

It would be so easy to fire a poison needle into her throat.

“I only want to talk.  I’ll ask a favor, then leave you alone,” the woman said.

“You don’t know how the Slaughterhouse Nine work, do you?  We don’t do favors.”

“You’ll do this one.  The Slaughterhouse Nine you’re mass producing, you’re going to install a control switch.  You’ll give that switch to me.  Not soon, but later.  Later than you think.”

Bonesaw laughed, high and shrill.  Then she laughed some more.

The woman only waited patiently.

“Silly!  You couldn’t be more wrong,” Bonesaw said.  “Betray Jack?  Betray the others?”

“You will.”

Bonesaw laughed again, not for quite so long.  Through the giggles, she said, “If you’re going to try to mind control me, I can tell you you’ve got another thing coming.  I’ve got safeguards.  You’ll only activate my berserker mode.”

“No mind control.  There’s a great deal at work here, and this is the best way to go about it, even with the blind spot looming.”

“That’s the best argument you can give me?”

“No.  I can tell you two things.”

Bonesaw raised her eyebrows, smiling.  “Two things?”

“Breadth and Depth.”

“I don’t get it.  Those are the things?”

“No.  There’s another.  Each of these things is a sentence, an idea.  The second sentence is simple.  Say goodbye.”

Bonesaw bristled.  Mechanical traps, spring-loaded needles and venom venting systems readied throughout her body.  She let the bags drop to the ground.

The woman didn’t attack.  Instead, she turned to leave.

An empty threat?

She debated firing her hollow needles at the woman’s back.  But if she missed, she’d be largely unarmed.  She’d have to get even closer to use a venom spray, or poison spit, or her telescoping humerus with flesh dissolving acid capsules beneath her fingernails.

The woman entered the bank, and Bonesaw hurried across the street to follow.

But her quarry was gone.

January 20th, 2005

Riley panted for breath.  Her body wasn’t listening, now.

She reached her mommy’s room, then collapsed on the floor, head turned towards the foot of the bed.

The carpet was stained with blood.  On it, just beside the bed, her mother lay face down, head turned to one side just like Riley’s was.  She was covered in stitches.  There wasn’t a place where Riley could have reached out and placed a hand down flat without touching one of the marks.

An entire row had been cut open, the stitches severed, from temple, down the side of her throat, along the side of her body to her pelvis.

Too much blood loss.  Her mind leaped into action, reaching for knowledge she hadn’t had earlier in the night, knowledge of how to fix people.  She took in details, grasped everything from the amount of blood her mommy had to heart rate and the amount of air she was breathing, just from the clues in how fast the blood flowed and the color of the skin.  She knew the order she’d have to fix things.  Ideas fired through her mind, telling her how to close the wounds, to draw the blood out of the carpet and clean it, or even making something that would do the same thing blood did, out of water and some junk from the kitchen, all with the exact right amount of electricity, to fill the veins and carry a low amount of air throughout the body, staving off the shut down of her brain long enough for Riley to figure out something else.

But she was too tired.

“Hurry,” Mister Jack’s voice was almost gentle.  “You have time.  You can fix her, can’t you?”

She could.  Maybe she even had the strength to do it, to get downstairs and climb up onto the kitchen counter to get the things she needed out of the cabinets, and get back up here.  She could cut the lamp cord and use the frayed end with… with a lot of salt, to get the right frequency.

But she was too tired.  The moment she was done saving her mommy, she’d have to run to the bathroom and save daddy.  Then she’d have to run downstairs and save Drew.  After that she’d save Muffles, and hurry back to mommy.  In each room, one or two scary people waited for her.  Waited and watched while she worked, then undid her work or came up with worse things to do.

She knew because she’d been doing this for hours.

“Come on,” Mister Jack whispered.  “You can do it.  Don’t you love your mommy?”

She stared across the room at her mommy.  They were lying with their heads pointed in different direction, so her mommy’s face was upside down, almost covered with as many stitches as skin.

She’d done a bad job, she knew.  She couldn’t even cut a straight line with the scissors in school, how was she supposed to do this?

Mommy mouthed some words, but the stitches pulled her lips in funny directions.

She thought maybe she knew what mommy was saying.

“No,” she told Mister Jack.

“No?”

“I don’t love her,” she answered.  She blinked, slow, so she wouldn’t have to look her mommy in the eyes, and tears were squeezed out.

“Alrighty,” Mister Jack said.  “Say goodbye, then.”

Say goodbye.

“Goodbye, mommy,” Riley said, obediently.

Silent, her mom mouthed a reply.

It took a long time.

A long, long time, watching the blood volume tick down, seeing how the breathing rate changed, and the heartbeat slowed.  Knowing how the brain would be affected, knowing what the organs were doing, and the order they were shutting down.

At some point, it ceased to be mommy, became something else.  A moment when her mommy became only a dying thing, a machine of flesh and blood that was winding down.

It was easier.

Didn’t make her chest hurt as much.

Lips that had been fixed up with imperfect stitches mouthed one final sentence.

“There we go,” Mister Jack whispered.  “…There.  That’s it.”

For a little while longer, the three of them rested on the floor of the room.  Mister Jack, Riley, and her mommy.

Others appeared in the doorway, casting the room in shadow.

“She done?”

“She’s done,” Mister Jack said, standing.  He stretched.  “As for what we do with her, we-”

He broke off as the clown in the hallway laughed, an eerie, offbeat sound that seemed to be missing something most laughs had.  It seemed to take Jack a moment to gather why the clown had laughed.

When he looked down, Riley was looking up at him, smiling.  It was a forced expression.

“What’s this?” Jack asked.  He smiled back.  “Something funny?”

“No.  I just… I wanted to smile.”

“Well,” he said.  “Me too.  Let’s smile together.”

She looked momentarily uncertain, but kept the strained smile in place.

“Yes.  Come with us.  We’ll keep you safe.”

She didn’t want to.  She wanted nothing less.

But she had nowhere else to go.

“Yes please,” she said.  “That… that sounds nice.”

Her mother’s final words rang through Riley’s head, the last words she’d before she had become a machine that had stopped working.

Be a good girl.

She’d be good.  She’d be polite and cheerful and she’d do her chores and she would mind her manners and she’d eat all of her dinner and she’d keep her hair nice and she wouldn’t swear and…

November 15th, 2011

She woke from a nightmare that was becoming all too familiar.  Usually it was only a few times a week, fragments.  Now it was more distinct, more cohesive.

She didn’t like it.

As was her habit, she reached across the bed, holding her companion close.

Not enough.  Not warm enough, not responsive, not caring.

He wasn’t family.

She pushed her covers away, annoyed.

Blasto lay there, unmoving.

“Up,” she said.

The hardware worked throughout his body bid him to move.

She stared at him, unfamiliar feelings warring inside her.  The dream was fresh in her mind and she couldn’t banish it, just like she hadn’t been able to banish it yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that.

It was just a little harder every day.

She felt a flare of anger, but pasted a smile on her face instead.  Think happy.

Be good, she thought, and the thought was too close to an idea in her dream.  It had the opposite effect, dashed her resolve to the wind.

She was left only with a mingled sense of unease and frustration.

No mind control?  My fanny!  The darn woman in the suit had put a mind-whammy on her!

It made her upset, which was a terrible way to start the day.  Most days, she could cuddle with whoever was sleeping beside her.  Blasto wasn’t so good at that.

It didn’t help that Blasto had died a week ago.  A stroke, no doubt from stress, in the midst of a refrain of the Love Bugs theme song.  The only thing that let him move now were the control mechanisms she’d set up.

Not so good for snuggling.

Most days, if snuggling didn’t quite cut it, Jack would keep her busy, give her something to do, and entertain her.  Always, his voice in her ear, always ushering her forwards, praising her for being a good girl, for her art, for her talent.  Others were interested.  Her family.

Now she was alone.

She left the closet that was her bedroom, with Blasto standing beside the fleshy mattress, and she approached the cases.

The third draft, still in a foetal state, nine of each.  She had a good feeling about it.  There were a few more brains to create, more personalities to research and draw up, but she felt fairly confident about her ability to piece it all together.

The only rub was the Bonesaws.  A whole row, empty.

They didn’t need as long to gestate, but she had yet to begin figuring out how to create them.

She could have scanned her own brain and copied over the results, but the setup was awkward to manage, best done with a sleeping subject.  She could have set Blasto up to manage it, but… that was tricky in its own way.

She wasn’t used to feeling a lack of confidence.  The thing about art was that one could create anything, could incorporate mistakes.  But art needed an audience and she had none here.

She’d set herself the task of having everything ready for when Jack and the others woke up, and now she felt she was unraveling, coming apart in the quiet and the solitude.

She stared at the seeds of the Bonesaws that hadn’t grown and wondered if she really could look long enough to see the real her, to fabricate anything like herself.  Her test runs with the others had all worked.  They were close enough to feel familiar, even if little details were off.  Their personalities, their approaches, all would be close enough.  Here and there, she’d fixed things, corrected the most detrimental personality traits that had been turned against them and allowed them to be captured or killed.

Sighing, she turned away.  She took the time to dress in the clothes she’d bought, and then used the remote to teleport to Earth Bet.

“Our regular is back,” the man at the counter said.  “You get out a lot, with that home schooling.”

“Yeah,” she said.  She folded her hands on the edge of the counter and rested her chin on them.  “Your haircut looks good, Eli.”

“Thank you,” he said.  He looked genuinely embarrassed.  She smiled a little at that.

“See any good movies lately?” she asked.

“You like horror movies right?”

“Mm hmm.”

“The Darkness.  You’d like it, it comes from a good pedigree.  It’s about a mafia-“

A woman entered the store, and Eli jumped as though he’d been caught doing something wrong.

“Can I- can I put up a sign in the window?” the woman asked.

“I’d have to see it first,” Eli responded.  “Might have to ask my dad.  He owns the store, even if I run it.  If there’s any question, it’d be his call.  He gets back this Monday.”

The woman’s face was grave as she handed over the paper.

Eli took the time to read it.  “I think everyone in town knows about this, Mrs. Hemston.”

“Can I put it up anyways?  If someone passes through and sees it-“

Eli shifted, uncomfortable.  “I don’t see any reason you couldn’t.  My dad wouldn’t say no.”

Without responding, Mrs. Hemston set about taping it to a spot at eye level on the back of the glass door.

She glanced at Bonesaw.  “You shouldn’t be out without a guardian.  Go home.”

“Yes ma’am,” Bonesaw replied, smiling.

And then the woman was gone.

Bonesaw opened the door and held it open so she could see the sign.  A missing person sign, with a picture of a girl.  She let the door swing closed.

Eli hesitated.  “Riley, I was thinking, if you wanted to come over and watch that movie…”

“No.”

“No?  Why?”

“You know why,” she said.  She walked down the aisle to grab some snacks.  Gummy candies, more Frooty Toots, some more milk.

“I wouldn’t, you know I-“

“You’d be a gentleman, I’m sure,” she replied.  The funny thing was, she was sure.  She knew her monsters.

He struggled to recover.  “I… you’re talking about the home schooling.  Strict parents?”

It was feeble.  She knew it was feeble.

“Exactly,” she responded, setting the stuff on the counter.  “Sorry.”

“Eight ninety-five,” was all he said.

He was hurt.  He’d recover.  She collected her things, gave him a small wave, and then made her way back.  She glanced at the woman who was making her way into the next store.

She stepped out of sight, then used the remote to exit back to the pocket realm.

She felt a growing sense of unease as she set the milk in the fridge and put the Frooty Toots on the counter with the candy.  Not an unease with what had happened with Eli.  That would resolve itself.  She’d see him in two or three days, and it would be awkward.  Then she’d see him after that, and things would be okay again.

No.  That wasn’t what was resting heavily on her heart.

She called for Blasto and then entered one of the other closets.

Melanie, the girl’s name was.

A week and a half ago, it had been so commonsense.  A solution to her problems.  The girl had been right there.  So easy to approach.  A tranquilizer shot to the neck, calculated on the fly to fit with body weight and overall health.  Recalibrating the teleporting remote with the unconscious girl in the back lot had been a little riskier, but it was a quiet town.

Bonesaw had found herself busy enough that the girl could be left here, an IV in her neck, catheter and poop tube inserted.  Now that she had free time, she could handle the Winter issue.

She needed a child soldier.  This was a way to make one.  To insert the wartime memories from Cranial’s database into the girl, let it steep, then harvest the results.  The rest could be tweaked, rebalanced, fixed.

And there, again, that unease.

She couldn’t think of her mother’s face, only stitches.  Her father she hadn’t even seen.  His face was a vague idea in her head, a few isolated features with nothing to bind them together.

Yet when she tried to visualize herself going ahead with it, it was Eli’s face that intruded.  Disappointed, confused.

Eli and Mrs. Hemston both, now.

The girl was meat.  A tool, a collection of resources to be taken apart and put together in a different configuration, a machine.  Any number of things, but not a person.

But the people from the periphery of the girl’s life… they were harder to compartmentalize.  Distant.  They weren’t at arm’s reach to use as resources.

An emotional factor.

Darn it, she thought.  She’d stopped talking to herself, after she’d gotten in the habit and weirded Eli out.

She turned her attention to the computer, crossing the room.  Need a distraction.

Except it backfired.  She thought of the woman in the suit, and the statement.  Breadth and depth.

As things tended to do, a connection drew across her mind’s eye.  All of the problems at hand, the challenges, dealing with the clones, figuring out how to program them.

The first batch had failed because they were too young, and the connection with the passenger had become too broad, consuming too much of their personality, leaving room for little growth as a human being.  Things were missing, other things bloated or exaggerated as the passenger needed.

Jack had a different kind of connection.  A deep connection.  He was in alignment with the particular nature of his passenger.  The passengers naturally sought conflict, and Jack had fed that need from very early on, and he had sustained it for years.  The line between the two was so thin as to be impossible to mark, but Jack’s personality remained his own.  Altered, but not subsumed.

And Bonesaw… well, she was talented.  There was little doubt her passenger fed her a great amount of detail.

But what kind of connection was it?

Darn mind whammies!  Darn it, drat, gosh, golly fuck!

She stared down at her hands, splayed and resting on either side of the keyboard.

What kind of connection was it?

Young age?  Check.  That had meant breadth for the others.

Fed by conflict?  Check.  Depth, if the single data point that was Jack was any indication.

How much of me is me?

She stared at the backs of her hands.

What difference does it make?  It wasn’t a rhetorical question.  There was a difference, it did matter in the grand scheme of things.  She just wasn’t sure what that difference was, how it mattered.

She hadn’t had to make many of her own decisions before.  Or, it was better to say, she hadn’t had to make important ones.  There was a security in being with Jack, because it meant she didn’t have to face this sort of thing.  One comment, and the question was decided.

She turned to look at Melanie.  The girl was her age.

Odd to think about.

The girl had seen her face.  She couldn’t trust her ability to erase memories, not without test subjects, which was a new set of risks, a new set of problems.  It would only compound the problem she was trying to solve.

She wasn’t used to thinking like this, considering ways to minimize chaos.

Couldn’t trust that she’d scrub the right memory.  It wasn’t her tinker tech.

Couldn’t trust that she could overwrite the memories either.  Inserting memories, yes, but the brain was a funny thing.  Again, it wasn’t her tinker tech.

Going ahead would be safest.

She thought of Eli.  A friend.  Not family, like the Nine had become, but a friend.

She thought of the effect of the passenger on her personality.  Was the art hers or did it belong to it?  Her sense of family among the other Nine, again, who did it belong to?

She bit a thumbnail, cut deep into the material with the special cutting materials she’d laced her incisors with, and then tore the end off in one swift motion.  The quick of her nail started bleeding.

The pain gave her clarity.

Maybe the family thing was the passenger’s.  Maybe the art was too.

But Eli?  It wasn’t perfect.  It wasn’t normal.  But if the passenger had never made contact, and she’d still lived a life a little like the one she lived now, she could see herself being Eli’s friend.

That in mind, she made her decision.

November 12th, 2012

She shifted her weight from foot to foot.

A lot of time alone.  A lot of time to think.

Every decision now was made on a fulcrum.  Was she acting as Riley or as Bonesaw?

This… it wasn’t a hard decision.  In a way, she’d imagined she’d always make it.  But it, like every other call, had to be carefully measured.

First menstruation, check.

Might as well get it over with.  She made notes on the computer.

Auto-hysterectomy.

Auto-masectomy.

Limb shortening.

Bone shaving.

Plastic surgery.

Bonesaw would approve.  Maybe it would be better to be taller, to have more room for equipment.  Still, she could reverse the procedure.  It wouldn’t be her parts, but that wasn’t such a problem.

But for Riley, this was essential.  It was a matter of months before Jack woke.  She needed time to recover.  The clones were in a good state.  Only the Bonesaw vats were empty.  Each of the others had an adolescent or nearly-adult clone inside.  A month or two before the others woke from cryo-stasis, she’d start doing the surgeries, adding the augments, combining a handful of them together.

She laid out everything on the table next to her.  Scalpels, blood bags, IV drips, screwdrivers, wire, staple, cauterizing gun, hammer, stapler… a mix and match.

She hefted the bonesaw and frowned a little.  The word had taken on a different meaning for her, in recent months.  It had stopped being her name somewhere along the line, had become her passenger’s.

Anesthetic?  No.  She needed optimal awareness of her own body.  Anything that dulled her senses would spoil that.

She had the ability to switch off pain at will.  She wouldn’t use it.

No.  She wouldn’t say she felt guilty about the things she’d done, but she recognized that she was broken, now.  She recognized that maybe she should.

A part of her wished she could reach inside and find that carefree perspective, the innocence she’d enjoyed.  Another part of her was glad.  Everything about herself was modifiable, reversible, pliable.  Pieces in the machine.  But this?  She wasn’t sure she could alter it, nor that she wanted to.

This wouldn’t be a penance.  That would suggest penitence.  But it’d be just, as best as she could figure.

She started cutting.

January 24th, 2013

“The sign’s down,” she commented.

“Riley!”  Eli looked startled.  He glanced back at his dad, who was stocking shelves.  “It’s been… a really long time.  I was worried I said something.”

“No.  Went to live with my dad,” she said.  The lie was smooth, effortless.  She didn’t even feel bad.

“You’re back?”

“Stopping by, like the first time you saw me.”

He nodded, still a little stunned.  “Uh… they found the girl dead in the woods.  Some dogs had chewed her up pretty badly.”

“Oh,” she responded.  She’d practiced the look of concern in the mirror.  Even now, she didn’t really feel guilt, but nothing was reliable, like it once had been.  “I stopped in to say goodbye, Eli.”

“Goodbye?”  He seemed more surprised than disappointed.

Maybe he already said goodbye to me, she thought.  She didn’t feel hurt.  Growing up with the Slaughterhouse Nine had numbed her in many respects.  It made sense, little more.

“I wanted to give you a gift,” she said.  “As thanks for the movie advice, and the conversation over the past while.  You helped me, gave me a friend when I needed one.”

He frowned.  “After your parent’s divorce, you mean.”

“Yes.”  Another easy lie.

“I get that,” he said.  He looked at the card.  “Can I open it?”

“No.  There’s a date on it.  Wait, then read it on the date in question.  Break that rule and I’ll be mad, understand?”

“I understand,” he responded.  He looked down at the envelope.  “My birthday.”

“Yeah.  And I don’t think you do understand,” she said, “But that’s okay.  Just don’t break the rule, and don’t lose the letter.”

“Okay,” he said.  “Um.  I would’ve gotten you something, but… oh.”

He rummaged in his bag, then handed her a video tape.

“I… I rented it, but I’ll pay the fee to replace it.  One of my favorites from the last year.”

A horror movie.  A child werewolf?

A child monster.

She glanced at him, but there was nothing in his expression.  She’d become exceptionally good at reading people, and… no.  He had no idea how ironic the gift was.

“Thank you,” she said, holding it to her stomach.  “It’s probably okay if we just say hi and bye like usual, isn’t it?  Fits?”

“You look different,” he blurted out the words, a non-sequitur.

She’d hoped the winter clothes would hide any of the reversions she’d made.

“You look good,” he added.

“Be fucking good, Eli,” she retorted, staring at him.

Before, he might have protested, feigned confusion.  He’d changed, much as she had.

Now, he only nodded a little.  “I will.”

May 25th, 2013

She sat with her feet propped up on the table, a bowl of Frooty Toots on her stomach, as the alarm went off.

She felt a momentary sadness.  She tapped her pinky with her thumb twice, and the embedded magnets noted the signal.  She’d recorded her own brain activity and movements when contemplating the Bonesaw clones, and it was this that she drew on, manipulating her own body much as she had manipulated Blasto’s.

Her body language wasn’t her own.  Her smile, the way she walked, the gestures, all were fine tuned to match the Bonesaw of before.

Her height, too, had changed.  She’d cut her hair to match, had downgraded her body so the last year and a half of development had never happened.

It was the burning of a bridge, in a way.  It would retard her growth in the future, and that would arouse suspicion.

In a way, she couldn’t carry on her relationship with the Nine.  There would be too many tells, no time to herself to make changes in secret.

The individual cases opened, and slowly but surely, the members of the current Slaughterhouse Nine stepped out.  Jack, Hookwolf, Skinslip, Night Hag.

She could see the conscious effort on Jack’s part to maintain his composure.  He was barely able to stand.

His eyes fixed on her.

Somehow, she knew.  She knew he knew.  But that was no surprise.

All she really needed was reasonable doubt.  He would harbor suspicions, and he would pull something on her.  Later.

In the meantime, she’d have options.

“You’re awake,” he commented.

“And you’re nude,” she said, covering her eyes.  “Where are your manners?”

Like riding a bike.  Back to her old self.  Playing the role.

“I’ll remedy that in an instant.  Cereal?”

“Made it myself.  Took me a whole three hours to get it right.  Felt like keeping busy.”

“And the milk?”

“Made it myself,” she responded.  She grinned, and the device took over, gave it that width, that guilelessness she couldn’t manage on her own.

“I won’t ask.  My clothes?”

She pointed him in the direction of the closet where she’d placed all of the roughspun uniforms, alongside the clothes Jack and the others had removed before stepping into the cryostasis chambers.

He took a step, then stumbled.

“I’m… not as coordinated as I should be,” he said.

“Seems there’s trouble with the recovery phase,” Riley said.  “Be a month or two before you’re on your feet.”

“We have a schedule.”

“I know.  But I can’t fix this.  Not my stuff.”

He stared at her, brushed ice-crusted hair away from his face.

But she wasn’t lying.  There was no falsehood to pick out.

“You could have woken us sooner.”

“Nope, nope,” she said.  “Would’ve mucked up the scheduling.”

Still, that penetrating stare.  This was the make or break moment.

“Well,” Jack said, smiling, “Unavoidable.  We’ll have to make it extra special.”

“Triple special,” she answered.  “Things have been interesting while we’ve been gone.”

“Interesting?”

“I’ll show you later.”

“And the clones?”

“I was waiting for you to wake up before we greeted them.”

“Good,” Jack said.  “Excellent.”

She smiled wide as he turned, covering his bare rear end on his way to the closet, even as she felt coldness in her heart.

Hookwolf, for his part, only drew blades around his body, forming into a giant metal form.  She wondered if he looked a little introspective, before his head was covered in the mass of shifting, skirring hooks and needles.

She chewed on her cereal, and watched more of her movie.

She did like it, after all.  Eli had been right.

She smiled, hiding the sense of loss as she deleted it from the system and cleaned up the evidence.

One by one, the recently unfrozen members of the Nine rejoined them, dressed in their outfits and costumes.

Jack gestured, and she hit the key on the keyboard.  Lights.

Spotlights went on beneath each of the glass chambers.

Drain.

The fluids poured out, draining into the openings in the floor.  Blurry figures became more distinct, marred only by the residual droplets clinging to the interior of each chamber.

“You didn’t do yours,” Jack commented.

“Didn’t work out.”

“I see,” he said.

Every line of dialogue felt like a nail in the coffin.

But that coffin wasn’t a concern today, or even tomorrow.

For now, Jack needed her.  For now, she had options.

She smiled, wide, with a glee she didn’t feel.

The woman in the suit had options.  She would come to Riley and claim the remote.

Countless enemies would be mustering their forces, ready to deal with this.

Eli had the letter.  He’d find a plane ticket inside, along with an urging to leave and stay gone.  To drive the point home, she’d revealed her identity.

Yet Riley still felt a moment’s doubt.

Some rose from their knees.  Others had managed to remain standing from the moments the fluid left the chambers.  As they roused, powers flickered into action.

Siberians flickered into being near the Mantons.  Six like the daughter, three more like Manton himself, all in black and white.

Chuckles, tall, fat, with arms that zig-zagged, her own addition.  Thirty-one elbows, and arms that dragged behind them as they moved.  Here and there, one of them would twitch, a tic.  The clown makeup was a series of scars, tattooed on.  One activated his speedster abilities experimentally, crossing the room in a flash.

Nostalgic, in a way.  Chuckles had been around when she’d joined.

Murder Rat.  Not stapled together as the original had been.  She’d taken the time to do it well.  When membership had been down, Bonesaw had made Murder Rat as a created addition to the Slaughterhouse Nine.  She’d passed the tests, but degradation in mental and physical faculties over time had seen to her demotion.

Winter, white-haired, with white irises edged in black, nude, her eyes peering.  Madeline’s eyes, Riley thought.  Winter would need guns, of course.

Crimson, Winter’s brief-lived lover.  Riley had taken the time to program their relationship into them.  Crimson had been one of the first members in the group, Winter one of the more recent ones to die.  Winter had been followed by Hatchet Face -there he was, over there, nine of them- and Hatchet Face had been followed by Cherish.

Nine Cherishes, gathering in a huddle.  She’d forgotten to give them the tattoos.  It didn’t matter.  A glance suggested they were discussing different ways to do their hair.

The smile on her own face was so wide it hurt, but it wasn’t her smile.

King, tall and blond, unabashed in his nudity.  All nine Kings were broad-shouldered, each half a foot taller than Jack.

Their interaction would be an interesting one.  She’d wondered if she should program King with the knowledge that Jack had been the one to kill him, reconsidered.

Oh, and there were others.  Some were harder to recognize.  Nine Alan Grammes, who lacked his armor.  Nine Neds, narrow shouldered and only five and a half feet tall.  When the others had done some damage and given him a chance to regenerate, he’d resemble his true self a little better.  He’d be Crawler.

“And the last one?”  Jack pointed at the remaining chamber.

She hit a button, and for a moment, her expression slipped.  She closed her eyes, a brief moment too long, as nutrient soup drained out of the chamber and the glass lowered.

But nobody was looking at her.

The boy stepped out, and there was no sign of any difficulty.  He didn’t struggle as others had, nor have trouble finding his feet.  He was prepubescent, to look at him, older than ten but younger than fourteen.  His hair was neatly parted, and he wore a private school uniform, complete with glossy black shoes.  Dry.

Even though he was naked in the tube.

Then again, that was sort of his thing.  One of them, anyways.

Visually, the most notable part of him was the effect that surrounded him.  He was monochrome, all grays and whites and blacks, with spots of light and shadow flickering around him.  Here and there, he flickered, a double image momentarily overlapping him, ghostly, looking in a different direction.

As far as parahuman powers went, his was as unfair as they got.

“Jack,” Gray Boy said.  His voice was high, clear as a bell.

“Nicholas.”

Jack extended a hand and Nicholas shook it.

Riley felt her stomach sink.

It would be like Gray Boy to use his power and take out someone in the room, just because he could.  Jack had only wanted one, and the unspoken reality was that he only wanted one because he could only control one.

If he wasn’t going after Jack, then… she was the only other person in the room without clones surrounding her.

He approached her, his expression placid.

For a brief moment, she felt stark fear.

It was perhaps her salvation that the fear was buried under the expressions that her system pasted on her face.  The false smile that spread across her face was the push she needed to hop down from her seat, approaching him.  She leaned in close to kiss him on the cheeks, her hands on his shoulders, one leg cocking upward like she’d seen women in older films doing.

“Little brother,” she murmured.

“Bonesaw,” he said, voicing a name she hadn’t programmed into him.  His hand found hers, and he held it.  She felt a chill.  “We’ll be inseparable, I think.”

“Inseparable,” she answered, smiling falsely.

The others from rows further down in the chamber slowly approached.  She watched Jack taking it all in.  Two hundred and seventy-five in all.  Two hundred and seventy regulars, five special makes.  Snowmann, Nighty Night, Laughjob, Tyrant, Spawner.

The names had never been a strength of hers.

I’ve given you everything you want, she thought.  Now we see who comes out ahead.  Succeed, and Bonesaw comes to the fore.  Fail, and Riley wins.

She wanted Riley to win, but that wasn’t as simple as making a decision.  She had to bury her life with the Nine.  Bury Jack, and see him defeated.

Gray Boy squeezed her hand.  She would have jumped, if her body language wasn’t in the system’s control.  She looked at him, and he winked.

Her expression hadn’t wavered, she hadn’t allowed herself the slightest tell, but somehow he fell in the same category as Jack.

He knew.

Staring out at the gathered crowd, Jack seemed to reach a conclusion.  He glanced at her, as Gray Boy was doing.

“Good,” he said.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Prey 14.9

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Your powers are working alright?” Tattletale asked.

I nodded.

“Bug powers, was it?  Don’t want to get it wrong.  Control them, see through their eyes-”

“No.  I can’t see through their eyes or hear what they do.  It’s mainly touch.”

“Just wanted to check.”  She paused.  “If I asked you what my power was?”

I shook my head.

“Okay.  And if I said I was born in Mexico, could you tell me where I was born?”

“Didn’t you just say?”

“Yeah.  Repeat it back to me?”

“You were born in Mexico?”

“Your short-term recollection is still good, at least.  That would be why you can retain the information Grue and I have shared over the past few minutes.  That big beetle of yours, you named it?”

I glanced at Atlas, who was crawling a short distance away.  “Atlas.”

Tattletale nodded.  “That would be the short-term memory, again. Your power probably gives you enough contact with it that you don’t lose track of who and what it is.”

“Right.”

“So long as that keeps working, we don’t need to worry about you and Grue forgetting who we are in the middle of a conversation.  But for us, we might lose track of each other if we split up, so let’s stay close, okay?”

“Okay.”

She reached out and took my hand.

“Can you use the bugs to scout our surroundings?  This will go more smoothly if we don’t need to worry about running into people.”

It made sense.  I sent my bugs out to cover the surrounding area.

The red mist was everywhere.  Color was strained out, leaving everything a monochrome red.  I could still make out the surroundings, but just enough light was filtered out that the area had settled into an oppressive gloom, with many existing shadows made nearly opaque as a result.  The drifting movements of the mist and the subtle shifts in color and shadow made me feel like things were prowling in every corner and in the edges of my field of vision.

That deep, primal prey-animal part of my psyche kept telling me something was wrong, that I was in danger.  I tried to tell myself that it was just my fear working itself up, my brain playing tricks on me.  There was nothing out there.

The weight of the gun in my hand was both a reassurance and a burden.  It would be so easy to do something I would regret for the rest of my life.

“Hate this,” I muttered.

“Me too,” Grue answered.  He put his hand on my shoulder to offer some reassurance.  “But we manage, we cope because we’re a team.  We belong together.”

My awareness snagged on someone who was walking a distance behind us, measuring their pace with ours.

“We may need to stand together as a team sooner than later,” I said. “We’re being followed.”

“By who?” Tattletale asked.  She paused, then laughed.  “Silly question, I guess.”

“Tie them up?”  she suggested.

“Right.”

My bugs gathered in out of the way spots, and the spiders began drawing out lines of silk in preparation.  I didn’t want to inform this person that I was on to their tail.

Then, just in case they decided to drop the tail and attack us, I began to gather bugs together into decoys.  Human-shaped lumps and clusters of bugs gathered in alleys and at the edges of rooftops.  Still more gathered in the street, standing in alcoves and in other hiding spots.  I invested less bugs in the ones that were further away from our pursuer, trusting that the shadows the miasma cast would help round them out.  There were no decoys our pursuer would see from where they stood, but there were now enough to give them pause.

Grue drifted away from our group to approach one of the decoys.  He extended one hand and traced his fingers through the massed bugs.  “You’re versatile.”

I felt a little uncomfortable at the compliment.  “We should keep moving.”

“You’re not tying them up?”

I shook my head.  A miscommunication on that front.  Hadn’t I recently been thinking about chemistry and intuitively understanding how your teammates operated?  The miasma might be throwing us off in that department.  “Sorry.  Need to prep for it first, I’ll make my move in a minute.  For now, we should act normal.”

“Fine.”  He dropped his hand to his side and rejoined us.  We kept walking.  I had to admire them, the way they were confident enough to avoid looking over their shoulders.  I had my bugs to track our pursuer with, and I was still feeling nervous having them behind me.

“Is paranoia a side effect of this mist?”

Tattletale nodded.  “Could be.  As the symptoms progress, you could have fits of anger, paranoia, hallucinations…”

I swallowed.

“Or it could progress in another direction.  A broader agnosia, with the inability to recognize anything, not just people.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

She nodded.

“I’m going to bind her now.  If it doesn’t work, or if she has a way of breaking free, we should run, with the decoys for cover.”

Tattletale just smiled.

The bugs swarmed our pursuer.  I’d minimized the number of bugs on them, just to be safe, with the drawback that I wasn’t getting a full picture of who they were.  The bugs couldn’t get to her flesh to sting or bite her, but they were telling me she was female in general shape.

I had them deploy the silk they had prepared.  I focused my efforts on her arms and legs.  It took only a couple of seconds to get the threads in place.

She tripped as the silk went taut mid-stride.  Raising one hand to try to catch herself, she found silk threads hampering those movements as well.  To avoid landing face first, she twisted herself in mid-air so she hit the ground with her shoulder instead.

“Got her,” I said.  “Let’s keep going.  We can lose her.”

“We should investigate,” Grue said.  “Make sure she isn’t a threat, and deal with her if she is.”

“With this miasma affecting us, there’s no way to be sure of exactly of just who we’re dealing with,” I pointed out.

“We have Tattletale.  She can tell us if this person’s a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Tattletale’s not-”

I stopped.  Where had that come from?

“What?”  Grue tilted his head as he looked over his shoulder at me.

“I was going to say she’s not always right, but I’ve still got that black hole in my memory of her, so I’m not sure where that’s coming from.”

Grue rubbed his chin.  “Something to keep in mind, but I still think we should check this person out.”

“I agree,” Tattletale said, a slight smile on her face.  She tugged on my hand.  “Come on!”

We had to stick together.  I reluctantly followed, knowing that separating from the group could mean losing them altogether.

We stopped a few hundred feet away from the woman.  The silk strands had formed a cord around her arms and legs, and the work of the spiders had tightened the binding as she allowed it to slack.  She hadn’t made it back to her feet after falling to the ground.

Grue drew a knife.

“Hey,” I said.  I grabbed his arm.  “What are you doing?”

“She’s obviously a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine,” Tattletale said.

“Fill me in?  Because I must have missed something.  Doesn’t seem that clear to me.”

“Think about it.  Why is she wearing a mask like that, if not to filter out the miasma?  She knew about it in advance.”

“Maybe,” I said.  I could make out something like a gas mask or filter, now that Tattletale had pointed it out.  “Maybe there’s another explanation.  It could have something to do with her power?”

“It doesn’t,” Tattletale said.

Thinking about killing someone was one thing.  I’d always assumed I might have to do it out of necessity to save a teammate… I’d even come close to doing it when attacking the Nine, not long ago.  Couldn’t recall who it had been, but I’d gone all out, used potentially lethal stings and bites.

That had been at a distance.  Now we were looking at killing someone face to face.

The mask, there was another reason for it.  The-

Tattletale interrupted my thoughts.  “If you guys aren’t going to do it, I can.  She was following us, she was prepared for the miasma, and I’m positive she’s a bad guy.  My power, you know.”

“We can’t be certain,” I said.

“With my power, I’m five hundred percent sure.  Trust me,” she said, grinning.  She started toward the heroine.

“No,” I said.

“Skitter’s right,” Grue said.  “She could be playing possum.  Best to avoid being reckless.  Keep our distance and finish her.”

“That’s not what I meant.  Let’s just leave,” I said.  “I’ll make that phone call to, um-”

“Coil,” Tattletale supplied.

I nodded.  “We’ll get the information we need, get ourselves cured, or track down the Nine.”

“Cherish could lie,” Grue said.

It took me a second to place Cherish’s name.  Names were slipping from my mind too easily.  “Maybe.  We’ll use our own judgement to corroborate her facts.”

Tattletale scowled, “Have you forgotten how aggressively we’ve been going after the Slaughterhouse Nine?  The attacks, the harassment, capturing Cherish and Shatterbird.  And now you want to leave one of them there?  We don’t have to get close to her to take her out.  You have the gun.”

I stared down at the weapon in my hand.

“Trust me,” she said.

“No.”

Both Tattletale and Grue turned to look at me.

“No?”  Grue asked.  “We’re a team, Skitter.  We’re supposed to trust one another when the chips are down, have each other’s backs.”

I didn’t like the implications of that.  Like I was failing them.

But I shook my head.  “No.”

“Explain?” he asked.  He looked calm, but I could see the irritation in his posture.  Was the mist getting to him?

“The miasma… if it makes us paranoid, it could be coloring our perceptions here.  Even Tattletale’s.”

“I would know if it was,” she said.  She seemed impatient.

“Maybe.  But I’m not certain enough about that to take another life.”

“You nearly took Siberian’s,” she retorted.

“Yeah.  Sure.  But that was different.”

“I don’t see how.”

I stared at the bound woman who was prone on the ground, half-covered in my bugs.  She was looking in my direction.

“It bugs me.  This is too easy.  If the Nine were this easy to take out, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

“Sounds like a pretty thin justification for backing out,” Grue said.

“Yeah,” Tattletale added.

This kind of social pressure wasn’t the sort of thing I was good at coping with.  Just going by my recollection of how we’d planned many of our capers, I could usually trust some of the others to have my back when I was arguing a point.  Or I’d had some other motive or reason to go along with them.

“Why are you pushing so hard for this?”  I asked.

“Did you forget what they did to me?”  Grue asked, his voice cold.

Him specifically?  I had forgotten, yes.  But I could remember that scene, the emotions then, every feeling that I’d experienced afterward.  Frustration, hate, pain, sympathy for the pain he must have experienced himself.  I could remember the feeling of heartbreak, because someone I cared about was gone, in a sense.

“No,” I replied.

“Where’s your anger, your outrage?  Or don’t you care?”

“I care!  It’s-”

“Then end this.”

I shook my head, as if I could clear it.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t thinking clearly, necessarily.  It was that my thoughts kept hitting that dead-end where I couldn’t reach back for context about people, about Tattletale and Grue and the Nine.  I was in the dark.

What I did know was that I’d done too many things I regretted.  I wasn’t about to add something as serious as murder to the list.

Grue must have seen something in my posture, because he shook his head and turned away.  “Give me the gun, then.”

“Just use your power,” Tattletale told him.

“I want Skitter to acknowledge that she doesn’t care enough about this team or about me to do what’s necessary.  She can do that by admitting she doesn’t have the courage to shoot and allow me to do it.”

“That’s not what this is about,” I said.  “Murder is serious.  You don’t kill without being absolutely certain it’s right.  And nothing’s certain for as long as we’re under the influence of this miasma.”

He scoffed.  “And you call yourself a supervillain?”

“I call myself Skitter.  If someone wants to stick me with some other label, that’s their issue to deal with, not mine.”

“You’re not giving me the gun?”

“No.”

He shrugged, “So you don’t care at all, about what happened to me.  You don’t care about this team.  And you’ll even look down on us while you do it.  Your contemptible friends.”

“I care.  More than you know.  But you told me, not long ago, that I should follow my heart, trust my gut.  Fine.  That’s what I’m doing.  You attack her, I’ll fight to save her.”

He barked out a laugh, “You’ll fight me?  You’re a traitor now?”

The word hit home.  I must have flinched.

“A traitor again,” he added.

I snapped my head up to look at him in surprise.

“I wonder what it says that the notion of you being a traitor is so ingrained in my impression of you that it jumps to mind, even with the mist affecting me?”

“That’s enough,” I said.

“I know you like me.  I can read it on your face, I could see the way your eyes widened when you heard my name.  You’re an open book in some ways.  And I’ll tell you right now, I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you.”

I felt a nervous feeling deep in my gut.  It wasn’t pleasant, at stark odds to what he was saying.

Grue’s words spoke to that feeling of trepidation.  “But this?  It’s telling me I could never have a relationship with you, never be close to you, because I’ll always wonder if you’ll stab me in the back or fuck me over, fail to do what’s necessary in a situation like this.  I’ll never be able to shake that image of you as a traitor.”

He kept saying that word, traitor, hammering it in.

“Unless I take this gun and shoot that woman, who you’re convinced is a member of the Nine,” I guessed what he was getting at.

“Guess I had the wrong impression of you,” he said.  The emotion in his tone was so different that it caught me off guard.  Almost contemplative.  If I thought of it as him emotionally closing down, it almost fit with the impression I associated with Grue.  At the same time, it didn’t quite jibe with what I was seeing.  Again, I felt that distinct discomfort.

Is this how I lose my mind?

I shrugged.  “I guess you did.”

I carefully holstered the gun, as if hiding it could keep it from coming up again in conversation.

A long pause reigned.

“I’m disappointed, but there’s nothing I can do about that,” he said.  Then he smiled.  He turned and began walking away.  “Let’s go.”

“Just like that?”  I asked.

“We’re leaving her?”  Tattletale asked.

“Seems we have to.  Tattletale, can you use your power to make sure the lady from the Nine doesn’t pose a danger?”

Tattletale nodded, smiling.

“Then let’s hurry.  We wasted too much time here.”

“Let me know when she’s not in your range anymore,” Tattletale said to me.  “I’ll try to use my power to make sure she isn’t following us.”

I nodded.

She hugged my arm, “You’re stubborn, but we’re still friends, right?”

I nodded again.  I felt like I was back in school, in a situation where I couldn’t say anything without saying the wrong thing.  Strange, to recall being around the bullies rather than in the company of my team.

The argument weighed on me, as did the things Grue had said, the judgements.  Had I been wrong?  Were we risking letting one of the Nine get away, to murder others?  Was I arguing because I was still clinging to old ideals, or because the miasma was making me divisive?

Even if the miasma was to blame, I hated the idea of failing the others yet again.

This situation was fucking with my head.  I still felt like I was in the middle of a fight, that heart pounding mode where I was ready for bullets or laser blasts to start flying, for me or a friend to be in mortal danger, where a split second response meant the difference between life or death.

Except there was no danger here.  The only people nearby were the woman we were leaving behind, Grue and Tattletale.

I glanced at Tattletale as we ran.  Could I trust them?  They had been in the miasma for a little longer than I had, and I was already experiencing what I could only label as paranoia.  With only a difference of minutes, Legend had been thrust into a paranoid state where he was taking a reckless, offensive course of action, eliminating everyone from the battlefield, regardless of whether they might be friend or enemy.  How much was it affecting these two?  How would it influence their actions?

More to the point, what was my best course of action here?  If I worked on the assumption that I could trust them, would they drag me into a situation that was just as bad as what we’d gone through with the bound woman?  Or if I didn’t trust them, if I allowed myself to become suspicious and take countermeasures, would that be a slippery slope that led to me trying to kill them, in fear for my own life?

We’d come close to fighting just now.

“You’re awfully quiet,” Tattletale said.

“Leave her be,” Grue told her, his voice low.

What was I supposed to do?  I didn’t trust myself to handle this alone, not with the speed at which this general unease was building up.  But I wasn’t sure I trusted them either.  Something about the argument, it felt off.  Wrong.

“She’s out of my range,” I said.  “Tattletale?”

“I’ll keep an eye out!”  She grinned.

Traitor.  I could almost hear the accusation.

I’d lied.  The woman was still in my range.

“Is there service?”  Grue asked.  I must have looked confused, because he clarified by saying, “The phone.”

I pulled my phone out of the space between my breasts and the armor at my front and checked the display.

“Yeah,” I said.  Why does that bug me?

“Call Coil,” Tattletale reminded me.  “We need to know where Cherish is.”

I found him in the contact list and made the call.

“Speaker phone?” Grue suggested.

I nodded, selected the option and hit the button.

As the first ring sounded out, my swarm sense alerted me to the bound woman breaking free of the silk strands, as if it was effortless.  Had she been playing possum after all, hoping we would get close?

I looked at Tattletale, trying to see if had any inkling that this supposed member of the Nine was free.

Nothing.  Tattletale turned to me and grinned.

“No trouble incoming?”  I asked, as the phone rang again.

She shook her head.  “All good.”

Was her power not working as well as she’d thought?  I couldn’t even recollect what it was, but she’d said she would keep an eye out… and there was something alarming occurring this very moment.

“Skitter,” Coil answered the phone.  “I’ve been made aware that Bonesaw has deployed the ace she had up her sleeve.”

“Yeah.  Agnostia… Agnosia-inducing mist.  Permanent, according to Tattletale.”

“I see.”  I could hear the sounds of typing on a keyboard.  “Agnosia… Panacea can’t reverse the effects?”

“She’s not here.  We’re trying to find her.”

“And you need Cherish for that, I suppose.”

I was grateful that he was supplying the names, because it meant I didn’t have to bog down the conversation by remembering or asking.  Grue, Tattletale and I had brought them up recently enough that it wasn’t a huge leap to remember their names.

The woman who I’d tied up with the spider silk was walking towards us.  Her progress was hampered by the decoys.  I kept my mouth shut.  It wasn’t an imminent problem, and I was more interested in gauging just how far gone Tattletale’s power was.

“Except that with the agnosia, we can’t remember where she is and go meet her.”

“Meeting Cherish would be a grave error,” Coil spoke.

“Just put us in contact with her, then?”

“Tattletale informed me of your code.  You remember how it’s put together?”

“Yeah.  My memory’s fine, it’s just my ability to identify people and remember stuff about them that’s fucked up.”

Tattletale glared at me.  Right.  She didn’t like swearing.

“Then, using a name we’re both familiar with, D-gangrene.”

“I can’t remember names.  I don’t think I can use the code.”

“Troubling.  You must understand my predicament.  For all I know, you’re a third party using Skitter’s voice to make the request.  With shapeshifters, empaths and other methods of coercion, I have to be very careful about the dissemination of information.”

“I know.”

The woman was still approaching.  Tattletale and Grue weren’t talking.

Something was wrong.

“What if we kept you on the line?”  I suggested.

“That will suffice.”

There was a pause, then the sound of background noise.  A ring sounded, different from the one before.  It was interrupted as Cherish picked up.

“I have never been so sorry to miss out,” Cherish said.  She sounded a bit hoarse.

“We’re requesting your help,” Coil spoke.

“Oh, you need my help in more ways than you’re aware of.  Not that I’m going to provide it.  Skitter’s on the line, I believe?”

“She is.”

“I’m here,” I confirmed.

“And Tattletale and Grue, of course.”  She chuckled.  “How amusing.  Seems like I’m in high demand.”

“They’re looking for Panacea,” Coil said.  “Identifying her for us would be one way to achieve revenge on the Slaughterhouse Nine for turning on you.”

“Revenge?  Not my interest in the slightest.  I’ve learned my lesson and I’ve become the poster child for team loyalty.”

Coil paused, then said, “I’m prepared to offer you some enticements.  I imagine your current quarters can’t be too comfortable.”

“Don’t suppose these enticements will be hand delivered?”

“They will be provided by remote control, as your food has been.”

“Some headphones and music would be nice,” she said.  “The sound of the waves banging on the hull is driving me crazy.”

“Such could be arranged.”

“Nah, I’m totally fucking with you.  Music, as if.”

There were too many things that seemed off.  Cherish’s tone among them.  I glanced around.  The woman was still following us, throwing herself after decoys, verifying they were false, then retracing her steps.  She was slowly closing in.  I positioned Atlas so he would be ready to distract her if it came down to it.

“You’re stalling?”  Coil asked.  “I don’t see the point.”

“Just trying to see if I can provoke a reaction from you.  There’s only so many times I can read the labels of the shipping containers before I lose my mind.  Have to amuse myself somehow.”

“What will it take for you to tell us where Panacea is?”  Coil asked.

“Oh, I’m feeling generous, and I want to see what happens.  I’ll tell you that as a freebie.  They’re at Arcadia.  Somewhere in the top floor.”

A freebie.  Something was going on, and I wasn’t aware what.  I had to piece it together, but I had so little information.

“And maybe I could offer you something, in exchange for some goodwill.  Maybe you’ll even want to let me go free, no obligations.”

The feeling of dread that had been following me wasn’t getting worse as the woman approached.  It was staying steady, like someone had a gun pointed at me, and they’d had it aimed my way for some time now.

“I’m listening,” Coil said, “But if this is frivolous or another waste of our time-”

“Nah.  Critically important.  I’ll trust that you’ll take it for what it’s worth and repay me in kind.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s simple.  Going by what I’ve been able to observe around the city, there seems to be a major concern.  Si Jack effugit civitatem, mundus terminabitur.”

“I’m not versed in Latin,”  Coil spoke, sounding annoyed.

“For shame, Coil, for shame,” Cherish said.  Her voice was too cheerful. “You can’t sell the cultured supervillain image without the ability to make quips in an ancient language.  I had the benefit of my power, languages are easier to learn when you can get a sense of what the other person’s feeling.”

“That was something about Jack?”  I asked,  “Repeat that in English?”

“Doesn’t matter anymore,” she replied.  “The message was delivered.  I’ll leave you to think about it.”

If only I could have blamed the miasma for my idiocy.  Everything clicked into place.

I kept my voice level, “I don’t think you’ll get much goodwill if we don’t understand what the fuck you’re talking about.  Coil?  We’re moving out now.”

“Report back when you’ve found the healer,” Coil told me.

I hung up before Cherish could speak, then I glanced at the others.  “Let’s go?  Arcadia high?”

They nodded.

My heart pounded with such force that my vision wavered.  I turned to head toward Arcadia high, joined by the two members of the Nine.  Stay calm, don’t let on that you know.

If I could direct the woman to us…

The miasma’s effects had almost made me lose track of her.  She was fighting, grappling with mechanical spiders.  She went from fighting like an ordinary individual to moving at high speeds and throwing crushing punches, then back again.  I couldn’t think of how to help her, and she was obviously unable to help me.

Cherish had been engaging in double-speak, saying one thing to us, while addressing the two people with me the entire time.  She’d told them about where she was being held captive, and she’d offered the most valuable information she had to avoid getting tortured to death after they’d freed her.  From the way she’d talked about the message being received, one of the people with me had to be Jack.

Jack was slated to bring about the end of the world if he left Brockton Bay, and now he knew.

Couldn’t meet their eyes, didn’t want to speak, in case I let on that I knew.  I could barely breathe, I was so afraid of letting my emotions show.

My gun was in the compartment at my back.  I’d put it away at the conclusion of our argument, and with the compartment broken in my fall from Atlas’s back, I’d been forced to put it in a place where it wasn’t easy to draw.  I couldn’t be sure I would be able to draw it and fire.  I was still handicapped, unaware of their powers.  I was fighting blind.

If Jack or the girl killed Amy, just about everyone in the city would die violently from the miasma’s effects.  But I couldn’t stop them without letting on that I knew.  Fighting them put me at a clear disadvantage, and-

“Skitter,” Jack spoke.

I didn’t waste time turning to face him.  I gripped the hair of the blonde girl beside me and virtually hauled her off her feet as I dragged her around to a position between Jack and myself.  Jack was already swinging his knife.

The knife cut the girl more than it cut me.  I could feel it raking across the exterior of my costume, failing to penetrate, but he was swinging it underhand, and it caught me in the chin, slicing through the side of my cheek and up to my temple.

I tried to keep a hold on the girl for the sake of using her as a human shield, but I saw her reach into her dress and withdraw some vials.  I shoved her toward Jack, then stepped forward to kick her square between the shoulder blades.  She collided with him, interrupting his follow-up swing.  For good measure, I drew the bugs from beneath my costume and sent them chasing after her.  Some capsaicin-laced bugs, just the few I had remaining.

Jack caught her shoulders and spun her around so she faced me.  The vials were already billowing with a chemical reaction.  She threw them at me.

I backed away, and they hit the ground between our two groups, black smoke joining the crimson mist around us.

“You’ve outlived your usefulness, Skitter,” Jack spoke.

If I’d just had a minute or two more to decide on a course of action.

“It was fun.  I almost wish I’d nominated you for the Nine.  You’re versatile, and there’s so many weak points I could have exploited if I’d had more time.  If Cherish’s information on you wasn’t so misleading, I think I could have made you shoot the heroine.  To corrupt you like that, it would have been amusing.”

I fumbled for the gun, using my bugs to get a sense for where it was.  In the same motion that I pointed it, Jack slapped it out of my hand with two slashes of his knife.  He was a dozen feet away, but the knife nonetheless connected with my weapon.

My bugs began to gather like a dark cloud, their mass casting a shadow on the already gloomy surroundings.

“So I end the world?  Interesting.”

“The source is a little unreliable,” I lied.

“Still, I would love to see how that comes about.”

“You won’t live to,” I told him.

“I’ll make sure he does,” the girl informed me.

My swarm could feel others approach from the heroine’s direction.  They were the size of dogs, and they skipped forward on mechanical legs.  The mechanical spiders.  Dozens of them, coming straight for me.

If I was judging right, they were running faster than I could.

I sent the swarm after Jack and the girl, massed into thousands of bugs.  Some groups clustered so tight together that they looked like massive, amorphous black entities, amoebas floating through a cityscape painted in shades of red and black.  Atlas heard my call and headed my way from the place I’d positioned him, too far away to join the fight for a minute or two.

The girl was already mixing something else together.  Plumes of white smoke billowed around her, almost luminescent after so long spent in the crimson mist.  My bugs died on contact with the gas.

Everything I’d learned about my enemies had been blocked.  I had no information on them, no sense of what to expect.  They weren’t so handicapped.

She tipped half the vial’s contents into an empty container and handed it to Jack.  Both protected from my power, they started backing away.

I moved to edge around the cloud of black smoke, but Jack struck me with the knife.  I had to use my forearms to cover my unprotected face.  I just had my glasses, some bugs, and a layer of cloth protecting it.  Nothing that would guard against Jack’s cuts.

When I’d lowered my arms, they had already turned a corner, running in the general direction of Arcadia high.  Running around the cloud of black smoke cost me a precious minute.  I made my way around the same corner they’d rounded, and stopped short as I came face to face with another black cloud.

Couldn’t match their speed, not with these noxious clouds slowing me down.  With the heroine lying unconscious in the street, several blocks in the wrong direction, I had no allies to turn to.  Worse, anyone I came across was as likely as not to be a threat. It was down to Atlas and me, and Atlas was especially vulnerable to both of my opponents.  I couldn’t even fly after them without risking being cut down in midair.

I had minimal information on my opponents, while they knew enough about me to completely counter my powers.  Topping it all off, the mechanical spiders were steadily, inexorably closing in on me.  I’d lost my last fight with the things, and there were dozens more this time around.  Couldn’t fly without exposing myself to Jack’s power, couldn’t stay on the ground without getting swarmed.

I swallowed hard and held out one hand to grab Atlas’s horn as he landed.  In a moment, we were in the air, giving chase.

I wasn’t thinking about winning anymore.  I was thinking in terms of minimizing the damage when we lost.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter