Scourge 19.6

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The Eidolon-clone apparently wasn’t worried about the mass of armed heroes that were mobilized against him.  No, his concern was being naked.

He touched Alexandria, and she flickered.  When the flickering died out, she was dressed in a costume; a long white cape, a white bodysuit with high boots and elbow length gloves and a stylized helmet that let her long black hair flow free.  The tower on her chest was a tumbled ruin.  The ruined lighthouse.  A mockery of her other self, the colors reversed.

I really wasn’t liking the implications for that flickering power.  Healing, the costume…

Legend shot the Eidolon-clone before he could do anything more.  A laser tore into the Eidolon’s chest cavity, slashed out to carve into Echidna’s foremost leg, causing it to buckle mid-step.

The Alexandria-clone floated up, interjecting herself between Legend and his targets.  He adjusted the beam’s orientation, and she moved to block it.  He divided it in two shots that she couldn’t block, and she charged him.  Legend broke off to flee.

I could see the Eidolon flickering to heal himself as Echidna charged the rest of us.

Our battle lines did what they could to slow her down, which didn’t amount to much.  She was massive, now, to the point that cars were trampled beneath her or sent rolling on impact.

Chevalier put himself directly in harm’s way.  He held his cannonblade out to one side, and I could see it swelling in size.

There were a hundred feet between them, seventy-five, fifty-

The sword was growing with every moment, as well.

He brought the blade down to the ground, a razor’s edge biting deep into pavement, the blade’s point directed at Echidna.  Then he pulled the trigger.  The fact that it was impaled in the ground kept the recoil manageable, and the fact that it was as large as it was meant that the effect was that much more impressive.

Echidna leaped to the side as the cannonball ripped out of the weapon.  Not quite fast enough, she wasn’t able to avoid the worst of it.  Three of her eight legs, all on one side of her body, were turned into flecks of gore.  She hit the ground and her momentum carried her forward, skidding.

Chevalier didn’t flinch as she hurtled towards him.  Instead, he waited until her trajectory brought the right part of her into harm’s way, then shot out more of her limbs.  The impact of the hit brought her to a halt, spinning until her back was to him, only two of her monstrous claws intact.

A female hero threw out small ice crystals in Echidna’s direction, and they expanded explosively into virtual glaciers on impact.  Maybe the intent was to give Echidna less room to regenerate.

Chevalier withdrew the twenty-five foot long blade from the ground and chopped at Noelle – the upper body that jutted out of Echidna’s back.  He severed her from the monster at the stomach, turning the blade mid-swing to catch the body on the flat of the weapon. He swatted her away, separating the girl from the monster.

The impact of Noelle’s landing was enough to kill, but she didn’t die.  She flailed weakly for long seconds before she started falling apart.

Echidna caught Chevalier with a tongue.  He cut the tongue with his blade, and walked around her, blade poised, as if he were trying to find a place to strike.

I realized he was trying to find a way to rescue the people inside.  Alexandria, Eidolon, and seventeen of the capes who’d volunteered to fight this thing.  Had he directed the cannon blast with the same intent?  To avoid harming the people within?

Chevalier was struck.  He turned, and was hit again.  He was under siege from one of the nigh-invincible clones, with the burning hands.  The guy was digging his hands into a car at one side of the street, coming up with hunks of white-hot metal and flinging them.

He scraped them off, but more attacks were incoming.  One cape threw a stone, and though the speed and arc of the thrown rock didn’t seem to amount to much, it shattered one of the glaciers the ice-cape had erected.

Chevalier used his cannonblade to block another rock and a lump of molten metal from striking home.  From above and behind him, the woman with the ice shards began raining her attacks down on the clones, encasing them in ice.

I joined in, sending my swarm forth into the fray.  They flowed from the battlefield around me, finding paths to travel between the crags of ice and the capes.  Cockroaches tore into the membranes of eyes.  Hornets found flesh to bite that was close to arteries and veins, stings dug into the most sensitive flesh, and ants worked together to scissor and tear flesh more efficiently.

More bugs moved in the Eidolon-clone’s direction.  The flying insects faltered, their usual mechanisms for movement failing them.  Then they started falling out of the air.

They were suffocating; it was a vacuum.

He’d chosen his powers, and by the looks of it, he’d dressed himself in a mirror of his other self’s costume.  A costume with a black hood, loose black sleeves and a pale red-orange glow emanating from each opening.

The flickering.  Was that some variant on Scapegoat’s power?  More broad?  Paging through realities to find the state he wanted to be in?  Uninjured, dressed?

There were a lot of ugly possibilities with that one.  Could he affect how he was accessing powers?

He took one step, and was carried off the ground.  It wasn’t flight so much as floating.  Combine that with the vacuum around him… It had to be aerokinesis.  Manipulation of air.

Miss Militia took a shot at him, and he reeled.  There was a flickering, and he was back in the position he’d been in a moment before, uninjured.

She changed guns, and unloaded two assault rifles in his direction.

Her hits were on target- at first.  His armor absorbed the worst of it, and he undid the damage he’d taken with more flickering.  The bullets gradually moved off target, grazing him instead of striking vital areas.  A moment later, they stopped hitting entirely.

The effect he was using to alter their trajectories hit the rest of us a moment later.  I felt Atlas’s wings beat against nothing for just a moment before we caught air again, steered him through a sudden, unexpected headwind that dissipated as fast as it had started, and then found a spare moment to pull up, putting distance between myself and the Eidolon clone.

My bugs gave me a sense of his effect’s perimeter.  The storm effect had a diameter of roughly three-quarters my own range, no doubt allowing him to sense where people were by the movements of the air.

The vacuum extended roughly a hundred feet around him, the air condensing into threads that found him and flowed into his mask to sustain him.  Even the clones on his side were suffering, falling to their hands and knees or running to get away.  He was indiscriminate, and far more dangerous because of it.

He was approaching the battlefield where we’d engaged the clones, where many of our heroes had fallen.  If the vacuum extended over them, they wouldn’t last long.  I wasn’t sure what kind of effect it would have, but even the smallest push could mean the difference between life and death, and this wasn’t necessarily small.

“Rachel!” I shouted, but the wind kept my voice from reaching anyone.  It didn’t matter.  I could use my bugs, too, not as a collective effort, but with ten thousand voices in a hundred ears.  “Rachel!  Get over here and fetch the wounded!  Everyone else!  Get your teammates back!  He’s surrounded by a vacuum!

Heroes kicked into action, hurrying to collect the injured.  Rachel was occupied trying to herd the clones at the far edges of the battlefield, but she heard my order and broke away from the skirmish.

We still had to manage those clones, though.  A few Kudzu, and none of the forge-guys.  If they got away-

I contacted the ice dispenser.  She was trying to cover Echidna in more ice, but the wind was blowing the shards away.  “Need your help to contain clones.  This way.”

My bugs pointed the way.  She hesitated, tried to shout something to Chevalier, but went unheard.  She decided to follow my instruction, flying in the direction I’d indicated with the bugs.

Okay, so she was one of Chevalier’s people.  I told Chevalier, “Your ice cape is dealing with clones.

He only nodded.  He at least knew she didn’t have his back, now.

People were moving too slowly as they dragged and carried teammates away.  Worse, there were only so many able bodies.  Only three or four out of every ten heroes were down, all in all, but some required two people to move, and there were those like Tecton that required enhanced strength to budge.  Eidolon was getting dangerously close, now.

People screamed and shouted in alarm as Rachel reached the fallen.  She barely paused as she stopped momentarily by each body, pointed, and screamed the name of one of her dogs.

It’s okay,” I communicated, though it was getting harder with what Eidolon was doing with the air.  “Rescue operation only.

The dogs followed her instructions as much by mimicking Bentley as by anything else, it seemed.  I knew they weren’t well trained, and there was a reason she didn’t bring these dogs on every excursion.  It would look bad if we killed a hero in the process of rescuing them, but we were risking that simply by moving the wounded.  It had been reinforced over and over in the first aid class I’d taken, never to risk moving anyone who was injured.

Then again, this wasn’t exactly a typical situation.  Better to remove them from near-certain death.

With Rachel rescuing the wounded, the Eidolon-clone didn’t have any easy targets in reach.  Instead, he turned and floated toward Echidna.  Ice was chipped and whittled away by what must have been sharp blasts and currents of condensed wind, with fragments flying toward him, twisting in mid air and whipping back at the chunks of ice they’d come from, helping to chip away.  Enough cracks formed that Echidna could use her two remaining limbs to leverage herself to her feet.

The meaty, frost-crusted ruins where her legs had been blown away by Chevalier were healing over, bulging where muscle and bone were growing within the stump.  Bone penetrated the flesh where her claws and armor were.

And on top, Noelle was already more or less regrown, her arms wrapped around her upper body in a straightjacket of flesh, her eyes closed and face turned toward the sky.

Chevalier took aim and shot, and the cannonball veered in midair, slamming into Echidna instead of Eidolon’s clone.  One of Echidna’s growing limbs was destroyed, but so was the glacier that had encased it.

The Eidolon hit Chevalier with a focused blast of wind, and the hero went flying, the air in the Eidolon’s range shifting to reduce resistance and carry him further.

Chevalier was out of my range before he hit ground.

Legend and Alexandria still fought above us.  I could, when he passed into my range, note how he got faster the longer he flew, giving him the ability to put distance between himself and Alexandria, but he couldn’t stop to take aim and shoot without losing that acceleration and giving her a chance to close the gap.

The result was that he was flying in loops and circles, using the turns to find opportunities to take aim and fire on her.  She dodged most, but the hits that did land bought him distance and time to stop and laser down clones who were attempting to escape.

If any of them slipped away, it could be disastrous.  One clone could track down their original self’s family and murder them, or even go after innocent civilians.  My bugs were blinding them, finding weak points, but there were some that my bugs couldn’t touch that Legend was succeeding in taking out, like the forge-man.

Myrddin was below Legend and Alexandria, recuperating from holding Echidna at bay.  He took to the air, flying up to Echidna and the Eidolon-clone from behind.

He pointed his staff at the Eidolon, and his target disappeared.

The air the Psycho-Eidolon had compressed expanded all at once, sending Myrddin flying off course and Echidna rolling sideways, over a line of parked cars.  For the moment, the vacuum was gone.

Myrddin set himself down on the ground.  He wasn’t using his power against Echidna or the clones, which suggested that his reserves were low.

The Eidolon-clone reappeared.  He turned and spotted Myrddin.  The two started fighting, the Eidolon trying to close the gap and trap Myrddin in his vacuum, which was considerably smaller in area than before, but growing every second.  He hampered the self-professed wizard’s flying with headwinds and gusts, and sharp blasts of wind that Myrddin deflected or dodged.  Myrddin, for his part, attacked relentlessly, pummeling the Eidolon with explosions of energy alternating with scattered releases of whatever he managed to suck in while close to the ground.

Echidna was mending, and with Chevalier down and our heavy hitters more or less out of the running, I wasn’t sure we could stop her.

We needed to stall.

One tinker had machines rigged on the ground, with forcefields erected in layers, one behind the other, five between himself and Echidna.  I’d glimpsed him at work before, knew it wouldn’t hold if she really hit the things.  They were dangerous or lethal to the touch, if the experiences of my swarm was any indication, but little more than an annoyance for Echidna.

The ice cape was back, having dealt with the clones.  She began laying down more glaciers around Echidna, but with the monster being more able-bodied than before, it was only a temporary barrier.

We needed something more effective.

My eyes roved over the fallen, both those that had been rescued and the ones that still lay on the ground, injured or dead.  Weld had Kid Win and Scapegoat, and I saw a burly cape dragging Tecton behind him.

No.  This wasn’t a case where we needed brute force.  Echidna was liable to win any case of hand-to-hand combat that wasn’t against a full-on Endbringer.

Maybe she could even come out ahead in a close-quarters fight against the likes of Leviathan or the Simurgh, if she was capable of absorbing them.

Scary thought.

I recognized so few of the capes around me.  There was a girl who was emanating red lightning that wasn’t harming the allies she struck, apparently accelerating them to a faster speed instead.  I had seen her somewhere, but had no idea who she was.  A boy was fading in and out of reality, grabbing capes and then disappearing with his rescuee in tow.  He’d reappear a moment later, a few paces away, before fading out of existence.  He wasn’t teleporting, he merely wasn’t here when he was walking, some of the time.

Rachel arrived with a number of fallen capes in tow.  I flew low to the ground and helped lower them to the nearest solid surface.  One dog had bitten too firmly, not knowing its own strength, cracking body armor and maybe a rib.  I didn’t mention it – it was obvious enough that people would catch on before he was in terminal danger, but we didn’t need people turning on Rachel or getting distracted from the matter at hand.  The man was alive, and that was better than if he’d been caught in the vacuum.

Psycho-Eidolon went on the offensive against Myrddin, shoving the hero against a wall and then holding him there by pummeling him with repeated blasts of wind.  The Eidolon got close enough to catch Myrddin in the vacuum, and the bugs I had on Myrddin started to perish with surprising speed.

Myrddin, for his part, stopped fighting entirely, trying only to escape.  The Eidolon caught him and knocked the staff from his hand, then pinned him against the wall, choking him with the vacuum.  I knew it was supposed to take around two minutes to suffocate, but that presumed one was able to hold some air in their lungs.

Myrddin’s struggles were getting weaker by the second, almost from the instant he was in the Eidolon’s range.

The Eidolon’s grip slipped from Myrddin’s neck and he careened into the ground, hard.  Again, air billowed out around him, thrusting Myrddin into the wall once more, but supplying him with much needed air.

I could see Regent, turned towards that particular bout of fighting.  Had he been responsible?

It wasn’t enough to revive Myrddin.  He fell to the ground, only a short distance from the Eidolon, and slumped down into a prone position.  One hand pressed against his chest, and he went limp.

The Psycho-Eidolon stood, and Miss Militia opened fire, joined by several other capes.  The Eidolon was driven back, forced to flicker to recover from the blasts.  Again, his armor was absorbing the impacts.  It would be the best stuff money could buy, if it was a functional copy of what his other self wore, and it was healing every time he did.

Then, as before, he found a way to divert the incoming fire away from himself.  The bullets and laser blasts stopped, no doubt because the heroes didn’t want the Eidolon redirecting any of their fire towards Myrddin.

My bugs flowed in, carrying a length of cord.  I bound the Eidolon’s neck as he walked up to Myrddin’s unconscious form, but there wasn’t anything significant to tie the cord to.  I chose a car’s side-mirror.

He stopped short, a pace away from the fallen hero, then flickered.  The cord came free of his neck as though he weren’t even there, and he bent down over Myrddin.  I swore under my breath and tried to bind him again, knowing how ineffectual it would be at this point.

It was Wanton who moved to stop the Eidolon, turning into a virtual poltergeist, with debris and dust flying around him.  He barely slowed as Eidolon directed a blast of wind his way.

The Eidolon flickered, and a knife with a wavy blade appeared in his hand.  Before Wanton could reach him, he gripped Myrddin’s mask, raised the hero’s chin towards the sky, knife held ready.

His hand convulsed, and he dropped the knife.  Regent.

An instant later, he flickered, rendering his hand untouched, the knife back in position.  He thrust it into the soft underside of Myrddin’s chin.

Wanton hit him a moment later, tearing the dagger from the Eidolon’s hand and using it to cut and bludgeon the clone.

Myrddin was dead or dying, I couldn’t even guess if Chevalier was okay or not, and two of the three members of the Triumvirate had been turned against us.  We were swiftly running out of big guns.

The red lightning girl hurried past me, helping mobilize a group of heroes with more wounded.  We had maybe forty to fifty capes on our side, with twenty that were no longer in any shape to fight.

I saw Gully with two heroes cradled against her body with one arm, the other arm holding her shovel, planting it in the pavement like it was a walking stick.

One of the heroes was Clockblocker.  The face of his mask had been shattered, revealing the softer padding beneath.  I didn’t recognize the other cape, a guy with green dyed hair and a domino mask.

“Stop,” I told her.  “Is he okay?”

“Ramus is, but I think the clock boy is going to die,” she said.  She glanced over her shoulder at the Psycho-Eidolon.  He’d broken away from Wanton, and was working on mending the damage, one part of his body at a time.

If there was a limitation to his self-heailng, it was that.  It was healing by degrees, weaker against all-around damage.  If my bugs could have gotten to him, that might have done some damage, but they’d have to get past his armor, which looked like the all-concealing sort, and there was the not-insignificant matter of the vacuum.

“Clockblocker,” I said.  “You there?”

He turned his head toward me.  I could barely make him out over the wind.  “You’re still here.”

What did he mean by that?  Was he surprised that I was still alive?  That I hadn’t run?  I wasn’t sure how to respond.

Craved a fight,” the words reached me despite the winds that were tearing across the battlefield.  It wasn’t my bugs speaking, either.  “I hoped you’d challenge me.

Eidolon.  He was echoing his sentiment from earlier, that had driven him to fight Echidna alone, except it was twisted, warped, the original reasoning forgotten.

Do I need to get you angrier?  Do I need to push you harder?  I could torment you, inflict pain on your teammates until you’re forced to throw all caution to the wind and come at me with everything you’ve got.  Or I could attack you on another level.  Would you like me to tell you a story?

Echidna belched out another set of clones.

There was one forge-man, two identical to the one I’d seen flinging stones at Chevalier.  And an Alexandria.  They lurched to their feet, but they didn’t attack.  They were letting Eidolon speak.

We founded Cauldron.  The Triumvirate.  The Number Man.  William Manton.  The Doctor.  We sold people powers.

“No,” Clockblocker said.  Other murmurs came from the crowd.

It meant more people with powers to fight the Endbringers, that was the lie we told ourselves.  But we created the Siberian and Shatterbird, in a roundabout way.  We created the Gray Boy, selling him powers, finding ourselves unable to stop him when he went out of bounds.  There were countless others.  Echidna is just the latest in a long series of grave mistakes.”

Nobody moved.  I suspected that if anyone attacked him, they’d be seen as a Cauldron sympathizer, trying to shut him up.  I could see Noelle: her arms had separated from her torso, but she left them limp at her sides, her long hair in her face as she stared up at him.

We made the PRT, pretended to let ourselves be run by the unpowered, but we put Alexandria in charge.  We manipulated media, manipulated nations, in the interest of power.  We ventured into alternate worlds to kidnap people, experimented on them to refine our formulas.  And the failed tests?  The people who turned out wrong?  We cast them out, tossed them out as a bonus to anyone willing to pay a little more for an enemy that was guaranteed to lose against them.”

The Eidolon moved, facing one of the monstrous parahumans I didn’t know.  A boy with crimson skin and hair.  The clone spoke, “That’s all you were, monsters.  Little more than the cheap towels that are on offer for a few extra dollars when you buy something on a shopping channel.

Legend shouted something, but the wind kept his voice from reaching us.  He had to fly to avoid the Alexandria-clone’s unending pursuit.

The other, naked Alexandria took flight and went after him.

It said a lot that nobody moved to help.

I glanced at Gully, saw her already disfigured face contorted with emotion.

“He’s lying,” I said, to her.  “Twisting the truth to make it sound worse than it is.”

Gully only made a small noise in response.

“He couldn’t make all that up,” Clockblocker said.  Were it not for the bugs I had near his mouth, I wasn’t sure I would have caught what he was saying in the face of the wind.  “… kernel of truth.”

It’s all been a ploy from the start,” the Eidolon-clone said, his aerokinesis carrying his words to our ears, “Every single one of you were deceived.  For every one of you that bought your powers, there were innocents who died or became monsters for the sake of that formula’s research.  No matter what good you might do, it will never make up for that.  And the rest of you?  Conned, brought in with promises of ideals and saving the world.  You’re fools.

And with that, he let the wind die down.  There was a crunching noise as Echidna shifted her weight, but that was followed only by silence, the sound of murmurs.

“We just lost,” Clockblocker said.

I looked at him, saw Gully hanging her head.

He wasn’t wrong.  We were suffering losses, and we hadn’t achieved anything.  Echidna was as strong as she’d ever been, stronger than she’d been at the outset of the fight, and she kept on acquiring clones that cost more than we could afford to put down.  Alexandria and Eidolon were only the tips of the iceberg.

“It’s a big hit to morale, but-”

“No,” Clockblocker cut me off.  “We lost.  Not this fight.  Maybe we can still win it, won’t deny it’s possible, with Scion maybe showing up.  But the big picture?  There’s no coming back from this.  Without the Protectorate, without all the work that it does to organize heroes around the world, there’s no getting everyone working together.  The amount of anger?  The suspicion, wondering if a teammate took the formula or not?  How can we go up against the next Endbringer that shows up?”

“We’ll manage,” I said.  “We’ll find a way.”

He barked out a cough, groaned.  “Fuck, don’t make me laugh.”

“Laugh?”

“Never took you for an optimist.”

Was I?  Or was it just that the heroes were reeling just a little more in the wake of these revelations.  I wasn’t surprised, and I was betting the other Undersiders weren’t either.

Advantage: us.  We villains were the only ones who could really think straight in the wake of all this.  Except Tattletale, Grue and Imp were elsewhere, and Regent and Rachel weren’t really in a position to do anything major here.

I stared at the scene, Legend doing his best to fend off two Alexandrias, and Eidolon looking down on us, the crowd of fools.  I could see Echidna, standing still, surveying it all, much as I was.

No, not Echidna.  Noelle.

“I need your help,” I told Clockblocker.

“Can’t fight.”

“Don’t need you to fight,” I told him.  I reached behind my back, drew my gun.  I pressed it into his hands.  “If and when she comes for me, aim for the back of my head.  It’s unarmored, anything else might mean I survive, and I don’t want to be hers.  Not again.”

“Hers?” he asked.  “What are you doing?”

I paused.  “Wait until the last second.  Just in case.  You can call that more optimism, I guess.”

“Skitter?”

I moved my bugs away from the heroes around us and into the air, a cloud capable of getting attention.

If I was going to do this, I was going for optimal effect.

Back when this skirmish had started, I’d wondered if I’d be willing to make a sacrifice if it meant coming out ahead.  Even when the idea of throwing away one life for the greater good had crossed my mind, it had been with the notion that it would be me paying the price.  I couldn’t, wouldn’t, ask someone else to do it.

Fuck it.  I wasn’t about to back down now, not with the stakes this high.

With the swarm swirling through the air, and the fact that I was the only person moving in this otherwise still tableau, all eyes were on me.  Noelle’s included.

“Noelle!” I screamed her name.  My swarm augmented my voice, carrying it much as the wind had carried Eidolon’s.

She turned toward me.

“It is you, isn’t it?  It’s Noelle, and not Echidna?”

She didn’t respond.  My swarm drifted between us, partially to help obscure me, to cloak me from her vision if she charged me.

“At the start of all this, you offered a deal.  Any of your captives for one of us Undersiders.  Is that deal still open?”

I saw her shift position, planting her massive claws further apart.

“You’re dead anyways,” she said.

You’re not wholly wrong.

“Follow through with the deal, maybe you get to kill me yourself.  And maybe the other heroes here will turn the other Undersiders in for a chance that they can walk away alive.”

“You’re saying you’ll let your team die?”

“My team can fend for themselves,” I said.  “Right now?  I’m offering you me, in exchange for Eidolon.  That’s all.”

“The one who deceived them?” she looked out over the crowd.  “What makes you think they want him?”

“They don’t,” I said.  I made sure that everyone present could hear as my bugs carried my voice.  “But they need him.”

If there was any salvaging this, any way of recovering from this terminal hit to morale and avoiding the scenario Clockblocker had outlined, I had to make sure that everyone recognized how essential it was that we kept the big guns on hand for future Endbringer attacks.  Regardless of what they’d done in their pasts.  If it came down to it, I was willing to put myself on the line.  I’d die to drive the point home if it came down to it.

Noelle spat Eidolon out.  He landed, covered in puke, wearing his costume.  He recovered faster than the other heroes had, faster than I had.  He took to the air, flying toward the other members of the Protectorate.

A pair of flying heroes moved closer together, barring his path.

Through the bugs I had placed on the two flying heroes, I could hear him.  A single utterance, monosyllabic.  “Ah.”

He turned, surveying the scene, then started to fly towards Legend.  The other Eidolon moved to match his flight, and the original stopped.  If he moved to help, he’d only be bringing his clone into the fight with him.  He settled above a building, on the other side of the street from his mirror opposite, keeping a wary eye on Legend and the chase that the two Alexandria clones were giving.

“Now’s the part where you run,” Noelle told me.

“I’m not running.”

“You’ll try something.  Because you’re a coward.  You don’t have it in you.  You’re selfish.  You killed Coil when you knew we needed his help.”

“I killed Coil because he was a monster,” I said.  I didn’t let my voice carry, but it didn’t matter.  Others had heard what she said.  “But I’m not running.”

I sensed Rachel kick Bentley, stirring him to action.  Some of my bugs barred her path, forcing her to pull short and stop before he’d moved two paces.

“How do I finish you, then?” she asked.  “Should I puke on you and let them tear you apart while everyone watches?”

“Someone might try to save me,” I said.  “They’re still heroes, after all.  Takes a lot to stomach watching a girl get beaten to death.”

“Then I kill you myself,” she said, and there was a growl to her voice.  That would be Echidna chiming in, at least in part.  “They’ll see what you’re made of when you break and start running, and they can’t stop me from tearing you apart.”

That said, she charged.  The ground shook with her advance, and the heroes only stood and watched, no doubt considering the possibility that I was right, that they could negotiate their way out of all this.

I closed my eyes, using my bugs to stop Rachel from intervening for the second time.

I took a deep breath.  Every instinct I had told me to run, to find shelter, to survive, or take cover.  But I had to do this.

Instead, I used my bugs to whisper to Clockblocker, “Use your power.”

There was only one thing for him to use his power on.  He froze the gun.  Along with the gun, he froze the length of thread I’d attached to the weapon.

The thread, in turn, was held aloft by the bugs that flew as a curtain between Noelle and I.

I kept my eyes closed, relying on my bugs to feed me input, dissociating from my real self, because it kept me still, and that kept Echidna on course for the thread that extended vertically through the curtain.

Spider silk was, generally speaking, about two to three times as thick as the thinnest part of a safety razor.  That was still pretty thin, especially when Clockblocker’s power rendered it immobile, utterly unyielding even as a monster with three times the mass of an African Elephant crashed into it.

She tried to pull to a stop as she made contact with the thread, but her momentum carried her all the way through.  The bracing of her foremost limbs against the ground only helped to force the separation of the two halves.

Severed, the two pieces of her body crashed down to either side of me.  Despite my best intentions, I stumbled a little at the impact.

Hit the Eidolon-Clone,” I spoke to Miss Militia through my bugs, hurrying to step away from Noelle’s bisected form.  “Hit him hard.

The Eidolon-clone moved one arm in our direction, only to stop short.  A thread that had draped his arm was now a rigid barrier, connected to the same thread that I’d positioned between Noelle and I.  He tried to retreat, only to find the thread I’d circled around his neck holding him firm.

He started to flicker, no doubt to escape.  One arm free.  Then another.

Miss Militia hefted her rocket launcher.  Our Eidolon was already flying to Legend’s rescue as she pulled the trigger.  The Eidolon-clone wasn’t quite free when the warhead hit home.  For extra measure the explosion drove him against the threads that had draped his body.

If I’d been good at the punchlines, I might have thrown one out there.  The best I could come up with was, Flicker that.

Watch the two pieces,” I communicated through my swarm, still backing away from Noelle.  “Tattletale said there’s a core to her, that’s supplying the regeneration.  Whichever half regenerates is the half with the core.  We narrow it down, then we destroy it.  We can win this.

I could see Echidna’s body swelling, growing huge with tumorous bulges as she sought to rebuild her other half.  Still, she was nigh-immobile, and the heroes were free to unload every offensive power they had on her.  Wanton and Weld advanced, tearing into her, pulling people free and seeking something that might be her core.  She was regenerating faster than they were dealing damage, but every passing moment saw one cape freed, more ground covered.

Her other half was decaying at the same time.  The captives that were trapped in her flesh were revealed as it dessicated, and capes freed each person in turn.

She lurched, then forced herself into contact with her decaying other half, reconnecting to it.  She was minus eleven captives, by my count, Alexandria among them, but she was reforming.  I wouldn’t be able to bait her like that again, but I might be able to contain her.

I glanced at Clockblocker.  Gully had carried him to Scapegoat, who had roused from unconsciousness, and he was getting care.  He looked at me, offered me a curt nod.

I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I did the same.

Behind me, bugs could sense the approach of a containment van.  Tattletale, I could hope, with Faultline’s crew, perhaps.  Chevalier was perched in the fortified turret on top, his sword resting on one shoulder.

We can win this fight, I mused, and this time I could believe it.

But I was all too aware of the movement of a particular contingent of capes.  Having deposited Clockblocker, Gully distanced herself from the other heroes, approached Weld and the red-skinned boy.  The Cauldron-made, standing apart.

Across the battlefield, I was aware, there were very few people standing shoulder to shoulder.  People were distanced from one another as though their personal space was ten feet across, avoiding eye contact, with no conversation, and I wasn’t seeing any upturn in morale.  There wasn’t a cheer to be heard, and squad leaders weren’t giving orders to their subordinates.

I could only hope this divide wouldn’t prove as telling as the one I’d delivered to Noelle.

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Scourge 19.1

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The school’s bell tolled, oddly deep, with an echo that continued, unending.  I couldn’t see it through the cloudy haze that consumed my vision, but I felt as though the lockers were straining against their hinges in keeping with the rhythm.  The same went for the floor tiles, and the hundreds of footfalls of the students milling around me.  A pounding rhythm.

I couldn’t keep my footing.  I was blind, still, but that wasn’t the source of the problem.  It seemed vaguely familiar, the way every impact seemed designed to hit me where it hurt, to knock me off-balance and leave me in a state where I was spending too much time reeling and staggering to push back or find safety.

Someone tall shoved past me, and his bag caught on my nose.  It tore at the skin between the nostrils, and I could feel warm blood fountaining from the wound.  I staggered, bending over with my hands to my face, and someone walked straight into me, as though they didn’t know I was there.  My head hit a locker and I fell.  Someone stepped on my hand as their vague shape walked by, and I could hear something break, could feel it break.  The pain dashed all rational thought from my mind.

I screamed, brought my hand to my chest, cradling it.  I was tougher than that, wasn’t I?  I wasn’t made of glass, to have bone fracture or-

“You’re so pathetic, Taylor,” Emma intoned.

No.  Not now.  Not like this.

I could hear Madison tittering.  Sophia was silent, and her presence was all the more ominous for it.  I’d done something reprehensible to her.  I couldn’t recall what it was, but I knew she was here for retaliation.

They struck me, and I fell.  Emma and Madison took turns kicking me, and every effort I made to defend myself fell short.  It wasn’t just that I didn’t know how to fight, or that I was blind.  It was somehow worse, as though every effort I made were being actively punished.

I’d reach out with my good hand to grab one of them and pull them off their feet, and my elbow would get stepped on, forcing it to bend the wrong way.  I tried to push myself to a standing position, only for someone to kick me in the back, slamming my chest and face into the tile, hard.

I tried to speak and a kick caught me in the throat.

And all around me, there was the steady rhythm of footsteps and the bell’s echo.

The point was clear.  I was supposed to give up.  I really should have given up.

If I wasn’t able to do something on my own, maybe a weapon?  Some tool?  My thoughts were confused and disordered, but I searched through them, as if I could remember if I’d stashed some tool or weapon on my person.

No, something else, I was supposed to have another weapon, though my instinct told me it wasn’t anywhere I could reach, and that was normal.  I searched for it-

The scene was visible through a thousand times a thousand eyes, the colors strangely muted in favor of texture, the images blurring except where they moved, when they became oddly sharp.

Tattletale managed to leap back from the metal walkway as Noelle lunged and caught on the fixture.  As Noelle fell, her claws scraping gouges into the concrete walls, the walkway was pulled free.  Tattletale had put herself in one of the rooms that extended off the walkway.  Coil’s room.  There was a doorway to nowhere between herself and Noelle, surrounded by concrete walls that were two or three feet thick at their narrowest point.

Most of the construction of this place had taken place after Coil had found out about Noelle.  He’d known there was the possibility that she would go rogue.

Tattletale stepped up to the doorway, drew her gun, and fired, gunning down a Grue that had been vomited out.  Blood spattered and he went limp.

-and I couldn’t find anything.  I was unarmed here.

One kick caught me in between the eyebrows, and my head exploded with pain.

That spooked me.  I had to protect my head.  If I suffered another concussion…

That was the breaking point.  My brain was more important than whatever else I was trying to protect.  Anything else was fixable.  I stopped fighting back, tucking battered legs against my bruised upper body, drawing my hands around my head.

Immediately, the assault stopped being an attempt to break me and destroy my every effort to stand up for myself.  It became something more tolerable, with periodic kicks and stomps instead.  The accompanying shame and humiliation was almost nostalgic.  Horrible, but familiar.

Then Sophia stepped close, and I felt something sliding beneath my hands and arms, settling around my neck.  A noose.  She used it to lift me, choking, off the ground.

Madison opened the locker, and the rancid smell of it wafted around me.  I would have gagged if I could breathe.

Sophia shoved me inside, planting one foot between my shoulder blades as she hauled back on the rope.  My unbroken fingers scrabbled for purchase, found only trash and cotton that tore when I tried to grab it.  Bugs bit at my flesh and there was nothing I could do to stop them.

Bugs?  There was something I thought I should know, something-

The bugs observed as Tattletale pulled the pin from a grenade.  She waited while it sat in her hand.  It was dangerous and reckless to ‘cook’ a grenade like they did in the movies, but then again, this was Tattletale.  It fit with her nature, and if anyone knew how long the fuse really was, it was her.  She tossed it down to where Noelle lurked below.

The grenade detonated just before it made contact, billowing with smoke and radiating enough heat to kill the bugs that were finding their way into the underground base.  Other bugs could see the shifting radiance of the flames.

Tattletale shouted, “Rachel!  Now!”

-that eluded me, like the water that escaped the ever-thirsty Tantalus.

As I scrabbled for purchase, the contents of the locker shifted, falling and collapsing against me, pressing tight against my body, smelling like old blood and rancid flesh.

My heart skipped a few beats and I felt as though my blood was turning to sludge in my veins, slowing down.  My thoughts dissolved into a slush of memories, speeding through my life in choppy, fragmented, distorted images.  I felt momentarily disembodied, as though the line between myself and my surroundings, my mind and my feelings were all blended in together.

When it pulled back, I could finally breathe.  I let out a deep, shuddering breath.  I could breathe.  I could think again.

I heard the sound of blades rasping against one another, the ringing of steel building with each repetition of the sound.  I blinked, and the blind haze lifted as though I’d only had tears in my eyes.

Mannequin stood in the center of the room.  He had four arms, each ending in three-foot blades, and was sharpening each weapon against the others without pause.

Around him, the factory.  Machinery churned, pumps and pistons and levers moved, and furnaces glowed to cast long shadows, casting Mannequin in a crimson light.  The people from my territory were there too, along with Sierra, Charlotte, Lisa, Brian, Rachel, my dad, and my teachers.  Each of them fought to hide in the shadows and the corners, but there wasn’t enough room.

I carefully assessed the tools I had at my disposal.  My gun, my knife, my baton.  In a more general sense, there were my bugs.  I called for them-

Tattletale jerked toward the doorway, stopped as one arm stretched behind her with a clink.  She’d handcuffed herself to a length of chain, fastening that chain to a rubber-sheathed cluster of wires at the far end of the room.  Tattletale’s free hand gripped her gun, pointed it at something narrow… The bugs who were touching the object in question were being absorbed, dying.  It was one of Noelle’s tongues, wrapped around Tattletale’s waist.

The gunshot went off, severing the tongue, and the chain went slack.  Tattletale dropped to her knees, pressing her gun hand to her shoulder.

The three largest dogs attacked.  Bitch sent three, and the result was predictable.  Noelle absorbed them as they made contact, though each dog was nearly a third of her own size.  Her flesh stretched thin around the mass of each dog, then stretched thinner as they started to swell in size.

Noelle’s flesh crept over them faster than they grew.  The growth ceased the instant the flesh finished enveloping them, and their struggles slowed.  It took long seconds for them to stop struggling, but each dog eventually went limp.

Tattletale and Rachel watched as two figures stepped out from behind Noelle.  Regent and a Skitter.  Me.

Regent whipped his head up in Tattletale’s direction, and she dropped her gun.  As her good hand snapped up to her throat, gripping it, it became apparent that dropping the gun had been quite intentional.  If she’d been holding it-

The perspective of the scene shifted abruptly as the Skitter bid every bug in the area, Noelle’s included, to turn toward Rachel.

Rachel clenched her fists.

-and barely any responded.  A hundred?  If that?  The heat of the furnaces killed many of the ones who were trying to approach.  It left me with a mere thirty-nine bugs.  I might as well have been unarmed.

Mannequin extended one arm with the blade outstretched, pointing at the crowd.  His ‘eyes’ were on me as he did so, moving the blade slowly.  Pointing at faces that were familiar, but who I couldn’t name.

Pointing at my dad.

And there was nothing I could do to save him.  Not saving him wasn’t an option, either.  I drew my gun, fired.

Only one bullet in the chamber.  There was a sound as it hit Mannequin, but he barely reacted as he turned toward my father.

I drew my knife and baton, charging.

Futile.  He ignored me completely, raising one hand and then stabbing down.  I couldn’t even look at what was happening.  Refused to look.

I struck Mannequin, aiming for the joints, the small of his back, his hips and knees.  Nothing worked.

Without even looking, Mannequin reached over to one side and thrust one blade at me.  His weapon penetrated my armor like it was Armsmaster’s special halberd.

I screamed, but it was more rage than pain.  I howled like I might against a hurricane, a storm that was destroying everything I loved, that I was helpless to fight.  I battered him, struck him with my weapons, gave everything I had and more, to no avail.

He folded his arms around me in a bear hug, squeezed, crushed.

More of him folded around me, pulling tight against my head, my throat, arms, chest and legs.

My life flashed before my eyes, every event, every memory and recalled feeling distilled into a single point.

When the crushing sensation passed, I was left standing, disoriented, in the middle of a flooded ruin.

The momentary relief faded swiftly.

All around me, desolation.  Blasted buildings, bodies, flooded streets.  Graffiti covered the walls around me, the letter-number combination ‘s9’ repeated in endless permutations and styles.

I flinched as an explosion took the top off a building two blocks away.  Blue flames roared on the upper floors.

I couldn’t breathe.  My skin prickled, burned, just on contact with the air.  I felt nauseous, disoriented.

Radiation?  Plague?

A fleet of cockroaches scurried over one of the nearby ruins, like cattle stampeding away.

They were fleeing from something.  Multiple somethings.

I took cover.

Where are you?”

The voice might have been sing-song if it weren’t for the filter that reduced it to a mechanical hiss.

“Where are you?” another voice echoed the first.  Younger, female.  A girl’s giggle followed.

“Hush, Bonesaw,” Jack’s voice reached me, like a sibilant whisper in my ear.  The water that flooded the streets served as a surface for the sound to bounce off of, letting it carry throughout the area.

My costume was more tatters than actual fabric.  It wasn’t like there were spiders anymore.  Only cockroaches, and fewer than I might hope.  The water that flooded the streets wasn’t so kind to them.

“What game shall we play today?” Bonesaw asked.  “Did you make anything?  Please tell me you made something.”

I did,” Bakuda responded.  “I borrowed from your work for this one.”

They were close.  Nine of them.  I couldn’t run without making noise.

The cockroaches, then.  I reached for them-

“Regent,” Noelle gasped out the word.  She was far bigger than she had been before.  “Come.”

Regent hesitated, gave her a sidelong glance.

“Come!” she roared.

He reluctantly obeyed.  She raised one massive limb, slammed it into the wall where the walkway had once been attached.  The mutant Regent clambered up her arm to the doorway.

That would be the doorway that leads to the corridor with the cells.

The same cells where Shatterbird was in sound proof containment.

Tattletale had descended to the ground floor and was backing up as two Skitters and a Grue approached, with Bentley advancing to her side.  Rachel was prone, lying at the point where the wall met the floor, with Bastard on the ground and pressed up against her, as if he were using his bulk to keep the worst of the bugs from reaching her.  Her other dogs were smaller.  Big, but much smaller than they could be.

“You take fliers, I take ground?” one Skitter asked the other.

“Mm-hmm,” the other Skitter grunted her reply.

“Have to share, be smart about this one.  Grue, hang back.  She might try pulling something,” Skitter One ordered.  “Harder to make a counter-plan against bugs.”

“Me?  Pull something?” Tattletale asked.  She was cradling one arm, and covered in vomit.  Judging by the body parts that surrounded her, Bentley had taken apart the clones that Noelle had vomited at her.

“Yeah, you,” Skitter One said.  “You’re the type, aren’t you?  Awfully fond of keeping secrets for someone who calls themselves Tattletale.  Keeping secrets from me, even at the best of times.  Even though you knew what I’d gone through.”

“I’ve been pretty open,” Tattletale said.  She retreated a step, and Bentley advanced.  The swarm stirred around the two Skitters and the Grue.

“You haven’t mentioned your trigger event, have you?  Perfectly happy to dig through other people’s sordid pasts, but you won’t get into your own darkest moment.”

“Really not that interesting,” Tattletale said.

Skitter One’s voice was thick with restrained emotion.  “It’s still a betrayal, staying silent.  How can we have a partnership, a friendship, without equity?”

“Maybe.  I think you’re exaggerating.  Does the other Skitter have any input?  Awfully quiet.”

Skitter Two made a growling sound that might have sent a small dog running for cover.  “I’m the quiet type.”

“That you are,” Tattletale said.

“No commentary?  No manipulations?” Skitter One asked.  “Nothing nasty to say, to throw us off-balance?”

“You’re already off-balance enough.  Besides, I don’t think anything I had to say would get through.  How can I target your weak points when you’re nothing but?”

“That so?” Skitter One asked.  “Doesn’t happen often, does it?  You’re not as cocky, now.  Do you feel scared?”

“Just a bit,” Tattletale said.  She’d backed up enough that she’d reached the wall.  The mangled staircase stretched out beside her, almost entirely torn free of the wall.

“Why don’t we turn the tables, then?  Let’s see how I do, trying to fuck with your head,” Skitter One suggested.

“I’ll pass.  Bentley, attack!”

The dog hesitated, hearing the command from an unfamiliar person, but he did obey.  Skitter Two ran towards him, surrounding herself with crawling bugs.  At the last second, she took a sharp left, sending a mass of bugs flowing to the right.

Bentley managed to follow her, struck her with his front paws, and shattered her legs.  Skitter One’s flying swarm flew over him, and began binding him with threads of silk.  It was too little, a distraction at best.

Tattletale fired her gun, and Skitter One went down.  The bullet didn’t make for an instant kill, and the bugs continued doing their work.  Tattletale thrashed as the bugs started to cluster on her, took aim again-

And the Grue swept darkness over Skitter One.  She disintegrated, reappeared as the darkness sloshed against the far wall.

Teleporting things via his darkness.  As divergences from the base powerset went, it was pretty extreme.

“Heroes are on their way!” Skitter One shouted to Noelle, one hand pressed to the flowing chest wound.

I could sense them, observing with the same bugs that Skitter One was using.  Tattletale had left each of the doors unlocked as she’d made her way into the base, and Miss Militia was leading a squadron of Protectorate members and her Wards through the series of rooms and tunnels.

More bugs sought Rachel out, and she kicked her legs at the gap where they were flowing in beneath the left side of Bastard’s stomach.

Shatterbird appeared in the doorway at the end of the tunnel.  She was holding the Regent-clone by the throat.  She pushed him forward and let his limp body fall.  It landed in the heaping mass of Noelle’s flesh.

Shatterbird panted, her face was beaded with sweat, and it wasn’t related to the scene she was looking at, not the underground base filled with flesh and bodies.  Her hand shook as she pushed her hair out of her face.  Emotion?

Miss Militia chose that moment to open the door.  She, like Shatterbird, stared at the scene, but she was distracted as she was forced to grab the door frame to avoid stepping out onto the ruined walkway.

Tattletale’s voice was muffled by the bugs that were crawling on her face.  To actually open her mouth, in the face of all that, I wasn’t sure I could have done it.  I knew better than she did what the result might be, but… yeah.

But she did it.  Tattletale opened her mouth and shouted, “Shut the door!”

Miss Militia moved to obey.  Too late.

Shatterbird screamed, using her power of her own free will for the first time since we’d captured her.

-and the cockroaches obeyed.  They formed a rough human shape, then another.  Swarm-clones, as close as I could get to making them, without a concealing costume for my real self.

And the Nine didn’t fall for it.  Bakuda turned my way, and I belatedly remembered the heat-tracking goggles.  She could follow me by my body heat.

I ran, and I knew it was futile.

Night caught up to me first.  It would have been a simple matter for her to kill me right then, but she had different aims.  Her claw cut at the back of my legs, and I fell, crippled.  My fear pushed the pain into a distant second place on my priority list.

In a matter of moments, I was surrounded.  Night at one side of me, Crawler on the other.  Jack, Bonesaw, Siberian, Bakuda, Shatterbird, Burnscar and Panacea.

It was Weld who seized my wrists.

“Run,” I tried to warn him, but the words didn’t reach him.  Fluid bubbled out of my lips, and it came out as a mumble.  The radiation?  Plague?  Had Bonesaw or Panacea done something to me without my knowledge?

He said something I couldn’t make out.  It sounded like I was underwater.

Then he pulled.

He wasn’t gentle about it.  He threw me over one of his shoulders with enough force that bile rose in my throat and the sharper parts of his shoulders poked at my stomach.  I tried to move my hand to raise my mask, so I wouldn’t choke if I threw up, but my arm didn’t respond.

My head swam, and half of my attempts to breathe were met with only chokes and wet coughs.

Was this another delusion?  A dream?  Could I afford to treat it as though it was?

I was still blind, but my power was waking up.  I could feel the bugs in the area, and I was getting a greater picture of the surroundings as my range slowly extended.

Shatterbird was still perched in that doorway-turned window.  Noelle was beneath her, and I had only the bug-sight to view her with.  Her already grotesque form was distorted further by the three dogs she’d absorbed into herself.

Instinctively, I tried to move my bugs to get a better sense of the current situation.  They didn’t budge.

Instead, I felt the pull of the other two Skitters, wresting control of my bugs from me as though they were taking a toy from a baby, ordering those bugs to hurt my teammates and allies.

Rachel and Tattletale were down, and Imp was crouched beside Tattletale.  Imp had pulled up the spider-silk hood that I’d worked into her scarf, covering the back of her head, and cinched it tight.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was leaving her almost totally protected.

Almost.  Bugs had reached her scalp, and there were spiders working thread around her legs.  I wasn’t sure if she was aware of the latter.

The Wards and Protectorate in the upstairs hallway- some were hurt.  The fallen and the wounded were numerous enough that the heroes had lost any momentum they’d had.  Their focus was in the hallway, now, in saving their teammates.  Maybe they’d deemed the situation unsalvageable.

I exerted a greater effort, trying to reduce the impact the swarm was having on everyone present, but there was nothing.  My doppelgangers had a complete and total override, and the pair definitely noticed my attempts.  They turned my way.

What would I be doing in their shoes?  They couldn’t hurt Weld, but they could hurt me.

Or they’d find another avenue for attack.

“Weld,” Skitter One spoke up.  Her voice was quiet.  “Surprised you’re here.  Did Imp help you get close?”

Do I really sound like that?  I wondered.  And Imp?

Weld wasn’t replying.

Really surprised you’re with her,” Skitter One said.  She had one hand pressed to a chest wound.

Weld glanced over his other shoulder at her.  The other Skitter was a distance away, with shattered legs.

“Did she tell you?” Skitter One said, “She set someone on fire.  Maimed a minor, slicing his forehead open.  She cut off Bakuda’s toes, carved out a helpless man’s eyes.  I can keep going.”

“I don’t care,” Weld said.  He wasn’t moving.  Why?  He was waist deep in Noelle’s belly, holding me…  it dawned on me that he couldn’t throw me to some point clear of Noelle without giving me to the Skitter.

“You should care.  I could tell you about the critically injured man she left to bleed out and die.  She stood by and let people get attacked by Mannequin so she could buy herself time to think of a plan to make a counterattack.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but I couldn’t draw in enough breath to manage more than a hoarse whisper, and Weld wouldn’t have heard me.

“I don’t care,” Weld said.  “I know she’s done bad things.  After this is over, we’ll find her, beat her and take her into custody.”

“You don’t care?” Skitter One asked.  “She murdered your boss.  Shot Thomas Calvert in cold blood, not that long ago.”

Weld froze.  Or he went more still than usual.

“Whoopsie,” Imp said.  She’d appeared behind Skitter One.  A slash of her knife ended Skitter One’s contributions to the discussion.  “Sorry to interrupt.”

I couldn’t say whether Skitter One’s feedback had done anything to change his behavior, but Weld wasn’t gentle when he grabbed me and flung me overhand.  My legs tore free of Noelle, where her flesh had closed firmly around my legs, and I was sent flying.

Unable to move to protect myself or react to the landing, I sprawled where I landed, fifteen or so feet from Noelle.

Weld turned back to Noelle.  His left hand changed to become a blade, and he used it to hack and slash his way through Noelle’s side.  His other hand dug and scraped for purchase as he deliberately and intentionally submerged himself.

My bugs found their way to the others.  I did what I could with my bugs to drive Shatterbird away from the doorway and put her out of reach of Noelle’s tongue.  Once she’d started staggering back, I set about finding and destroying the bug clones who were attacking people and ignoring my powers.

The door where the Wards and Protectorate had been lurking opened.  Miss Militia tested her weight on the staircase, then leaped down to ground level.

She trained a gun on Imp as she noticed the girl crouching over Skitter Two, the taciturn Skitter with the broken legs.  Imp executed the girl, glanced at Miss Militia and shrugged.

I tried to speak, coughed.  I pulled my bugs away from Rachel and Tattletale.

Miss Militia stared at Noelle, her eyes adjusting to the poor lighting.

“You fed her!?” Miss Militia asked.

“Rachel,” Tattletale said, “Come on!”

There was a clapping or slapping noise, and Bastard lurched to his feet.  Rachel stood, and the other three dogs spread out around her.

“You fed Echidna?” Miss Militia asked, disbelieving.

Echidna?  Right.  They’d coined a name for her, then.

“And we’ll feed her more,” Tattletale said.  “Rachel!  All of the spare dogs!  Try not to get in Weld’s way!”

The dogs began to grow, flesh splitting, bone spurs growing, and muscles swelling to greater size.

Rachel hesitated.

“Do it!” Tattletale shouted.

Rachel gave the orders, shouting, “All of you, hold!  Malcolm, go left!”

She slapped one dog on the shoulder, and he bolted.

“Coco, go right!  Twinkie, go right!”

The other two dogs gave chase, stampeding past me as they ran along the right side of the room.

“Hurt!”  Rachel gave the order.

The dogs attacked the closet target – Noelle.  They got stuck in her like she was tar.

But, I realized, that the converse was also true.  Noelle was absorbing them, but she was unable to move so freely as long as this much extra mass was stuck to her.  It was like the way we’d fought Weld, sticking metal to him.

The problem would be when she spat out the dogs.

I tried to move, but I felt like I had fifty pound weights strapped each of my arms and legs.  My face burned hot, and my vision swam.

It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar feeling.  I felt sick.

With that thought, it dawned on me.  Noelle absorbed living things, and that apparently extended to bacteria.  Where others had bacteria in their digestive systems to help them digest food, Noelle, Echidna, had no need for such.  When she absorbed the ambient bacteria and molds from her surroundings, she was storing them, weaponizing them like she did with rats and insects.  They were used to debilitate her victims, render them unable to fight back while her clones got the upper hand.

It meant I was sick, and I’d have to hope that whatever the illness was, it would be short-lived.

Shatterbird was still thrashing, trying to do something with her glass and failing because she couldn’t breathe or see.  Echidna couldn’t move, as her legs were caught on the dogs.  The other clones had been executed by Imp, as far as I knew.

The sticking point was Weld.  Tattletale had apparently figured out that he was immune to Echidna’s absorption ability, but he wouldn’t be immune to her basic shapeshifting ability.  She didn’t have a lot of control over her form, or she surely would have chosen something without that number of legs, without the three mutant dog heads, but she did have the ability to shift her flesh around, and Weld was limited in how fast he could cut that flesh away.

Rachel had moved to my side.  She put her arms under my shoulders and my knees and lifted me, grunting.

I twisted around to cough and gag.  I managed to move one arm to my face, but didn’t have the strength in my fingers to move the fabric at my neck.

Rachel found it instead, pulling it up and halfway up my face.  I coughed up lumps of stuff that tasted the way raw meat smelled.

“Careful!” Tattletale said.  “Incoming!  Dogs!”

Noelle had apparently moved one of her heads around, because she managed to spray a stream of vomit our way.

There was a pause as her body heaved, my bugs could sense the movement as one of the bulkier dogs was repositioned inside her monstrous lower body, and then she puked up one of the dogs, along with a handful of humans.

It wasn’t large, wasn’t mutant.  Well, it was a mutant, but it wasn’t one of Rachel’s mutants.

“Bentley,” Rachel ordered.  “Kill.”

The bulldog lunged and seized the smaller dog in its jaws in a matter of seconds, crushed it in a heartbeat.

“Yeah,” Rachel said, her voice low enough that only I heard it.  “Feels wrong.”

“Why?” Miss Militia asked.  “Why was it small?”

“When we were hanging out with Panacea during the Slaughterhouse Nine fiasco, she put her hand on Sirius,” Tattletale said.  “And she said that the tissues die as they get pushed out from the center.  They’re more like super zombie dogs, really, with a juicy, living center.”

“And Echidna doesn’t copy dead things,” Miss Militia said.

Tattletale nodded.  “We got lucky.  I was worried it would only be a little smaller.”

Weld was fighting to emerge.  He had his hands on Grue and one of the dogs.  He hurled them out, and Miss Militia caught the dog.  Imp and Tattletale hurried to drag Grue away.

“Did you bring all the stuff I asked for?” Tattletale asked.

“Yes.  It won’t be enough.”

“So long as you’ve got some, it’ll help.  Just need to buy time,” Tattletale said.

Echidna’s bulk shifted.  I couldn’t see it with my own eyes, but with the blurry vision the bugs offered, I could track how she was getting her legs under her.  I could see that there weren’t any distinct bulges anymore.  She was breaking down the mutant flesh she’d stripped away from Rachel’s dogs and she was making it her own.  Six dogs… if my estimates about them being roughly a third her mass were right, she could be three times as big as she’d been before.

“She’ll be stronger,” Miss Militia said, putting the dog down.  “If this doesn’t work, we just gave her a power boost for nothing.”

“We’re saving the people she took,” Tattletale said, “And we’re buying time.  It’s not nothing.”

Echidna heaved herself up to her feet.  She vomited forth a geyser of fluids and flying clones.  Our ranks were scattered, knocked over and pushed away from Echidna by the force and quantity of the fluids.

It was stronger than before.  Whatever the source she was drawing from was, she’d reinforced it with the mass she’d gained from eating the dogs.  No less than fifteen clones littered the floor, and there were another twelve or so dogs and rats in their mass.

Miss Militia didn’t even stand before opening fire.  Twin assault rifles tore into the ranks of the clones as she emptied both clips, reforged the guns with her power, and then unloaded two more clips.  Several clones were avoiding the bullets more by sheer chance than any effort on their part.  One Grace-clone managed to shield the bullets, moving her hands to block the incoming fire.  One stray shot clipped her shoulder, but she was holding out.

Echidna spat up another wave, and I hurried to get my flying bugs out of the way.  I still couldn’t move, but I held my breath.  The wave hit us on two fronts, an initial crush of fluid and bodies, and the bodies from the first wave that had been shoved up against us.  As the fluid receded, my bugs moved back down to the ground to track how many clones she’d created.  It made for a pile of bodies, with snarling dogs and clones struggling for footing as they reached for us.

Bentley and Bastard provided our side with the muscle we needed to shove the worst of the enemy numbers away, bulldozing them with snouts and shoving them aside with the sides of their large bodies.  Miss Militia followed up by sweeping the area with a flamethrower.  She stopped, waiting for the smoke to clear, and Tattletale shouted, “Again!  Weld’s still inside!”

Another wave of flame washed over the clones.  They were Regents, Tectons and Graces, as well as various dogs, and none were able to withstand the heat.  Each and every one of them burned.

But this much heat and smoke, even with this space being as large as it was, it wasn’t an assault we could sustain.

Echidna opened her mouth for a third spray, then stopped.  One by one, bodies were dropping from her gut.

“No!”  Noelle screamed, from her vantage point on top of the monstrous form.

Weld forced another dog free, and Echidna moved one leg to step on it.

Grace and Tecton fell, and Weld dropped after them.  He turned the blade of one hand into a scythe, then chopped a segment of Echidna’s foot free.  With one motion of the scythe, he sent Tecton, Regent and some of the dogs skidding our way, sliding them on the vomit-slick floor like a hockey player might with a puck on ice.

Echidna deliberately dropped, belly-flopping onto Weld, Grace and the dismembered foot that had stepped on the sixth dog.

Miss Militia was already drawing together a rocket launcher.  She fired a shot at the general location where Weld was.  He forced his way free of the resulting wound a moment later, the dog tucked under one arm, Grace under the other.

Echidna swiped at him, but he hurled the others forward to safety a second before it connected.  He was slammed into the wall, but he didn’t even reel from the blow.  He made a dash for us.

“Retreat!” Miss Militia gave the order.

The staircase shook precariously as we made our ascent, one group at a time.  One of the capes had frozen the staircase of the metal walkway to the wall to stabilize it.  They started getting organized to hand each of us and the dogs up to the door, but Rachel barreled past, carrying me and two dogs, with Bastard and Bentley following behind.

As we reached the doorway, dogs were handed to the able-bodied.  Others were helping the wounded.  Clockblocker had fallen, and Kid Win was being moved with a makeshift stretcher formed of one of the chain-link doors that had been in the hallway.  There was a lot of blood.

It was Shatterbird’s power, I realized.  I’d barely registered the event.  Shatterbird was still in the hallway on the other side of the underground complex.  Standing away from the main fighting, perhaps, or waiting for an opportunity.  She’d found the locker where Regent kept her costume, was using her power to put it on while simultaneously fighting off the bugs that were still biting her.

Echidna reared back, apparently gearing up to vomit, and Miss Militia fired a rocket launcher straight into the monster’s open mouth.

It barely seemed to slow Echidna down.  Vomit spilled around her, crawling with vermin and bugs.

The monster was moving slower, now.  The entire structure shook as she advanced on us, sections of the walkway crumpling and screeching where her bulk scraped against it.

But the door was just that – a door.  Three feet wide and six feet tall.  The tunnels the trucks had used were too small for her mass, even if one ignored the fact that they’d been strategically collapsed.

The entire area shook with the impact of her furious struggles.  She was trying to tear her way free.  The violence only ramped up as we made our escape, to the point that I was worried the building above us would come down on top of our heads as we headed outside.

The warm, fresh air was chill against the damp fabric of my costume as we escaped from beneath the building.  I could sense other heroes and trucks stationed nearby, no doubt surrounding the area.

The second we’d reached the perimeter, Tattletale collapsed to the ground, propping herself up with her back to a wall.  Grue and Regent were placed next to us.

We were covered in blood and vomit, half of us so weak we could barely move.  It didn’t convey the best image.

“Vista wasn’t inside Echidna,” Weld said.  “If she’s still in the building-”

“Triumph, phone her,” Miss Militia ordered.

“Yes’m,” Triumph replied.

Miss Militia turned to Tattletale.  She gestured at the nearby vehicles.  “You said you wanted containment foam.”

“I did,” Tattletale said.

“You think she’ll fight free?”

“Almost definitely,” Tattletale said.  “She had a Grue with her.  One with teleportation powers.  He disappeared partway through the fight, lurking somewhere out of sight.  Being pragmatic about the situation.  So unless someone can testify to having killed the guy, we can expect her to pop up in a matter of minutes.”

“Minutes,” Miss Militia said.

“No reply from Vista,” Triumph reported.

“Keep trying.”

“She gets free in a few minutes, and we’ll use the containment foam then?” Assault asked.  I jumped a little at the realization it was him.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “We’ll use it as soon as the dust settles.”

“Dust?”  Assault asked.

She withdrew her cell phone, raised her voice, “If any of you have force fields, put them up now!”

Tattletale started punching something into the keypad.  Miss Militia grabbed her wrist, prying the cellphone from her hand.  “Stop.”

“It’s our only option.”

What’s our only option?”

Buying time,” Tattletale said.  She wrenched her hand free, but Miss Militia still had the phone.

“How?”

“You could punch the last two digits, one and four, into that keypad, see for yourself,” Tattletale said.  “Or you could give me the phone, let me do it, and then if Vista’s in there, your conscience is… less muddy, if not exactly clear.”

Miss Militia turned her face toward the phone, stared at the building that loomed over Coil’s not-so-secret base.

“Shatterbird-” I started to speak, had to catch my breath, “She’s in there too.  She was talking to Noelle.  To Echidna.  Last I saw.  They might be deciding to work together.”

“I won’t have a clear conscience, no matter what I do,” Miss Militia said.  “But I might as well own up to it.”

Miss Militia touched the phone twice.  Long, quiet seconds reigned.

“Didn’t think you had it in you,” Tattletale commented.

There was a rumble.  My bugs couldn’t reach far enough to see, but they could see the blur.  A cloud, at the top floor of the building.

Another cloud expanded out from the top of the building, one floor down from the first.

The explosions continued, escalating, ripping through the building in stages.  I couldn’t even breathe as I experienced the resulting aftershock, the vibrations as the building folded in on itself, plummeting down to the construction area.

“What-” Assault started.

There was another explosion, muffled, and my bugs were in range for the explosion that followed.  Plumes of earth rose in a rough circle around the building, and then the ground sank.  The entire underground base, folding in on itself.  Even with the debris of the fallen building on top of it, the area seemed to form a loose depression.

Fitting for the criminal mastermind, I thought.

“Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit,” Regent said, his voice reedy.

“He didn’t use it on us?” I asked Tattletale.  “Coil?”

She was staring at what must have been a massive cloud of dust.

“He tried, sort of,” she said.  “His computer was rigged to blow everything up if someone tampered too much.  I found the stuff when I went looking for his files, as I moved in.  Scared the pants off me when I realized that it was already in motion.”

“Before that?”  I asked.  “When we were waiting for the meeting?”

“Couldn’t afford to let ‘Echidna’ loose,” she said.  “And I think I would’ve known.  Can’t say for sure.”

It took minutes for everything to finish settling.

“Containment foam on the wreckage!”  Miss Militia shouted.  “I want cape escorts for each truck and equipped PRT member, do not engage if you see her!”

She was rattling off more orders.  I couldn’t focus enough to follow it all.

“She’s not dead,” Tattletale said, “But we bought an hour, at least.  Maybe a few.  With luck, they’ll upgrade this to a class-S.  We’ll get reinforcements… which we’ll need.”

“She’s stronger,” Grue said.  He didn’t sound good.  “You fed her.”

“Had to.  Or she would have escaped before the explosion.”

“But she’s stronger,” Grue repeated himself.

Tattletale nodded.

“Do you have a plan?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “Not really.  Ideas.”

“I have a few too,” I said.  “Not good ones, though.”

“I’ll take bad ideas,” she said.  She sighed wistfully, “Fuck.  I really wanted an evil mastermind headquarters of my own.  It’ll be years before I can build one for myself,” Tattletale groused.

“So impatient,” Regent clucked his tongue.

Tattletale pushed herself to her feet.  “The next part’s going to be three times as bad.  I’m going to go see if we can scrounge up some healing.”

I brought my legs up to my chest and folded my arms on my knees, resting my head on them.  The visions I’d seen were swiftly fading into memory, but the ideas behind them lingered.  For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to fight, to step up and save others.  A large part of me wanted to say it was up to the heroes, to take the unsure thing over doing it myself and knowing I’d done everything I could.

I turned to Grue.  “You okay?”

He didn’t respond.

“Grue?” I asked.

Nothing.

I used my bugs to search for someone who might be able to give medical attention.  Everyone was milling around, active, busy.

Us Undersiders aside, there were only two people nearby who weren’t active, trying to contain and prepare for a potential second attack.  Weld and Miss Militia.

They were talking, and they were looking at me.

Thomas Calvert.  My clone had informed them.  And they’d seen our faces.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus #3)

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Thursday, June 16th, 2011, 22:11

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

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

A… M…

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

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

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

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

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

“A, b, c, d, e, f, g, h…”

Another blink.

“H.  Okay.”

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

A blink.  Affirmation.

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

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

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

The sensation didn’t fade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I  don’t care.

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

Again, the letters.

N.  O.  T.  M.  I.  N.  E.

Not mineNot in my best interests.

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

Two blinks.  Negation.

“You… that’s not what you meant?”

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

A.  L.  O.  N.  E.

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

No blinks, now.  Long seconds passed.

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

B.  A.  T.  H.

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

Two blinks.  No.

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

One blink.

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

“Well?” the head nurse asked.

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

“She’s upset.  Understandably.”

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

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

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

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

“She won’t break?  Or tear?”

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

“I see.”

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

“Sveta.”

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

Jessica sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is she your last patient for the day?”

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

“Sadboy.”

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

“Any plans?” the head nurse asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“O-okay.”

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

“But something popped in the suit just now.”

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

Jessica hated lying to her patients.

“It’s not- it’s okay?”

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

“Christmas?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you think you were a ‘bad guy’?”

“I killed people.  Yes.”

“It wasn’t you.  It was your power.”

“I still killed people.”

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

“Okay.”

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

Sveta’s eyes lit up.  “Yes please.”

“I can’t make any promises.”

“I understand.”

“Now, have you been keeping that journal?”

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

“May I?”

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

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

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

“I… why aren’t you scared of me?”

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

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

Friday, June 17th, 2011, 10:15

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boy let himself sink into the chair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shadow Stalker.”

“Yeah.”

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

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

“Did you care about Shadow Stalker?”

“She was a teammate.”

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

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

She let herself smile a little, “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

“A worse fate?”

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

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

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

“Scary business.”

Dennis shrugged.

“Are you sleeping well?”

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

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

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

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

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

“No?  What word would you choose?”

He paused.  “I dunno.”

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

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

“You feel as though you’re losing?”

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

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

“Maybe.”

There was a long pause.

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

“I see.”

“I… I regret this.”

“Regret what?”

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

“Talking to me?”

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

“Could be.”

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

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

“I know.”

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

“Psychobabble,” he said, smiling a little.

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

Friday, June 17th, 2011, 13:01

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

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

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

“Have you picked a name?” she asked.

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

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

“So.  A lot’s happened,” she said.

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

“Yes.”

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

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

“What kind of picture does it paint?”

“Of?”

“Of the city.  Of us?  The villains?”

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

“Thanks for saying so,” Weld said.

“You don’t sound convinced.”

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

“Where are you at?”

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

“I heard.  I’m sorry.”

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

“No?”

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

“Does that matter to you?  Career?”

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

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

“It’s how it was explained to me.”

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

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

“Is there anything-“

She stopped as his phone rang.

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

“I totally understand.  Please, go ahead.”

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

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

“Go.  You have a team to lead.”

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

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

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

Friday, June 17th, 2011, 18:01

“Fuck them!  Fuck her!”

“Lily-“

“Fuck!  Fuck!”  Lily paced.

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

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

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

“They got her.”

Jessica felt her heart sink.  “Who?”

“Parian.  Skitter got to her.”

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

“Turned.”

“Turned?”

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

“Power?  Money?”

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

“A lot of money.”

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

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

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

“Did you tell her about those feelings?”

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

“Do you think she reciprocated?”

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

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

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

“How’s that?”

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Jessica asked.

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

“And what are those two answers?”

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

“And this satchel contains the answer?”

“It does.”

“May I?” Jessica leaned forward.

“No.”

Jessica stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

“You could.”

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

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

She couldn’t say that, though.

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

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

“Are you going to answer?”  Jessica asked.

“Can’t.  Not like this.”

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

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

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

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

“Which hospital?”

“Oh god,” Lily said, eyes going wide.

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

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

I will.

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

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

“Anaphylactic shock,” Jessica answered.

“Skitter.”

Jessica didn’t answer.

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

Jessica nodded.

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

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

The phone rang five minutes later.

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

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

“I know,” Miss Militia said.

“They’re losing faith.”

“I know.”

Saturday, June 18th, 9:01

There was a knock on the door.

“Come in?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I can imagine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kid Win shook his head.

“Nothing?”

“I don’t know if this is me.”

“If what’s you?”

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

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

“Metaphor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 18th, 11:06

“Um?  Hi?”

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

“Vista.”

“Vista it is.  Nice to meet you.”

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

“I heard they called in the big guns.”

“Dragon.”

“Pretty big as guns go,” Jessica said.

“Are you doing that on purpose?”

“What?”

“Talking down to me.”

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

“It sounded condescending.”

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

“Have you been here?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why do you ask?”

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

“I went to school for a long time.”

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

“Are you talking about Triumph?”

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

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

“Hmph,” Vista huffed..

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

“Sucks,” Vista said.

“I can believe it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can imagine him saying it.”

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

Jessica nodded.

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

Jessica almost replied, but kept her mouth shut.

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

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

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

“But what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was she serious, or was it a challenge?

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

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

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

Vista nodded.

Sunday, June 19th, 17:39

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

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

Monday, June 20th, 12:50

Jessica paced back and forth in her office.

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

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

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

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

The Wards were okay, at least.  Physically.

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

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

Tuesday, June 21st, 6:10

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

“Mrs. Yamada?”

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

Oh.  Wow.

Eidolon.

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t understand.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.  I think so.”

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

“You’re talking about dying?”

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

To the death.

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

“Surely you have something else to live for.”

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

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

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

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

She stared at him.

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

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

He nodded.

Then he took off.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Queen 18.4

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We had to take the elevator in two trips, due to the size of our group, and that meant splitting us up.  The heroes were too wary to leave any number of us unsupervised, whether it was on the ground floor or upstairs.

I entered the elevator in the company of Parian, Regent, Bitch, Bastard and Bentley, Miss Militia, Weld, Clockblocker, and Triumph.  It seemed to be an advanced design, the elevator offering so smooth a ride that I might not have been able to tell it was in motion if it weren’t for the bugs elsewhere in the building.

We exited at the third floor.  I could use the bugs that had gathered near the waste bins or in the walls to try to get a sense of who and what was around me.  I recognized the area as the site where I’d entered via Trickster’s teleportation: desks, cubicles, computers and paperwork.  I could sense some people heading into back rooms to rouse people who were sleeping in the office, on benches and in chairs.  All of the officers and out-of-uniform PRT operatives were gathering to look.

One of them stepped forward from the rest of the crowd.

“Deputy director,” Miss Militia said, standing straighter.

“I’m too cynical to think this is an arrest, or to hope that it’s anything more than another ruse,” the Deputy Director said.  “And I can’t help but note these villains aren’t in restraints.”

“It’s not an arrest, and I hope it’s a trick,” Miss Militia replied.

“You hope it’s a trick?” the Deputy Director asked.

“Because I like the truth even less.  A new class S-threat.”

Every officer in the room reacted, a general murmur punctuated with swearing and exclamations.

“Who?”

“An unknown.  Possibly a fourth Endbringer, not yet fully grown.  I’d like to get in contact with PRT thinkers to verify.”

“Waites,” the Deputy Director called out, over the noise from the gathered police,  “Doyon.  Get on the phone.  Patch them through to me as soon as you get hold of someone.”

“We should wake people up,” Miss Militia said.  She glanced at the nearest clock, “It’s four twenty-four in the morning.  If this is real, we’ll want the heaviest hitters ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.  There’s a chance this may be our one chance to kill her.”

“You’re killing her?” I asked, quiet.

“No,” Miss Militia said.  “Nothing’s set in stone.  But there’s a chance it may be our only opportunity and our only option.  If we’re going to do it, I want to do it successfully.”

“No word from Director Calvert?” the Deputy Director asked.

One of the guys in plainclothes spoke up, “He’s gone silent, sir.”

I didn’t miss the fact that nearly a third of the local officers glanced my way.  We were apparently the prime suspects.  Which wasn’t wrong, per se.

The Deputy Director ordered, “Militia, join me in the Director’s office.  Triumph, see to it that the villains are detained and separated.  Interview rooms one and two for Regent and Skitter.  Conference room for Hellhound.”

I could sense Rachel shifting position.

“If I may make a suggestion, sir,” Miss Militia cut in, “I think we should put Skitter in the conference room?  She and Tattletale are our main sources of information.”

“Not complaining,” I said, “But Bitch, or Hellhound if you want to call her that, may be more comfortable in my company.  Her dogs are their normal size.  If she uses her power, you’ll be able to see.  Miss Militia already saw to it I was disarmed.”

“This sounds like you’re positioning people for a maneuver,” the Deputy Director said.

“No.  Just trying to keep things as copacetic as possible,” I said.

“I’d okay it,” Miss Militia said.

“Fine.  Hellhound and Skitter in the conference room-” the Deputy Director paused as the elevator opened with nearly all of Brockton Bay’s remaining parahumans.  “Tattletale to the conference room.  Parian in the legal room.  Grue and Imp in interview room two.  Put police tape and a sign on the door with a notice of Imp’s stranger classification to remind people why it’s shut and staying shut.”

“Hey!”

“Relax, Imp,” Grue said.  “You want to confirm this is alright, Skitter?”

“So long as my teammates go free when trouble starts,” I said.  “But yeah.  I understand the paranoia.”

And I think we could break out if we had to, I thought.  I didn’t say that part.

“This sucks,” Imp commented.

“Suck it up,” Grue responded.  “Come on.”

We split up, with Rachel, Tattletale and I settling in the conference room, at the end furthest from the door.  Triumph stood watch, and the blinds were left open, leaving us visible to the countless officers who were now on their computers and phones.  There wasn’t one of them who wasn’t casting us suspicious glances every minute or so, or peering through the windows of the interview rooms at Regent, Grue and Imp.

I also noted the fact that there were nearly a dozen PRT officers fully suited up in their combat gear, complete with the full-face helmets, the chainmail-mesh covered body armor and containment foam sprayers.  They kept out of the way.  If I was using my eyes and I didn’t have my swarm sense, I wouldn’t have known they were there.

“Sorry, by the way,” I told Triumph.

“The fuck you apologizing for?” Rachel grumbled.  She’d settled into a chair, feet on the table, Bastard curled up in her lap.  One hand dangled, resting on Bentley’s head.

“I attacked his home, remember?  Didn’t know it was him, but Trickster threatened his family.  A fight broke out and I nearly killed Triumph.”

“They know?”  Triumph asked.  “You shared the details already?”

“More or less,” I said.  “Bitch doesn’t care and isn’t the type to use it against you, and Tattletale would have figured it out anyways.”

Tattletale nodded.

“Fuck,” Triumph swore.  “Weld was right.”

“Anyways,” I said, “It… there were better ways to do it.  So I am sorry.”

“Didn’t need doing in the first place,” Triumph said, sighing.  “I was prepared to risk my life the day I graduated from the Wards.  Knew what I’d be getting into.  Week I had clearance, I watched all the video we have of the class S threats.  Leviathan, Simurgh, Behemoth, Slaughterhouse Nine, Nilbog, Sleeper.  I knew what I was getting into.  So I’m not shocked or horrified at the attempt on my life.  What gets me is what you did to my dad.  Set his career back years, if it’s even recoverable, by forcing him to take that stance.  The whole thing, start to finish, was unnecessary.”

“He’ll recover,” Tattletale said, “I’d argue his career was already pretty fucked after the way things went down, here.  Not saying he was to blame, or that he wasn’t, but it’s hard to graduate from mayor to governor when your legacy is a flooded ruin of a city.”

“It’s not that bad,” I said.

Tattletale shrugged, “Not if you’re here, but the photographers and reporters who are getting pictures and video footage of Brockton Bay aren’t going to take pictures of the barely affected areas.  They’re going to get the beaches, the south end and the crater.  Because that’s what sells.  The people outside the city only see the worst bits.  When we’re talking public perception, it’s not what is, it’s the picture that’s painted.”

“And the picture is of a handful of scary and powerful supervillains running a fucked up city,” Triumph said.  “Which is about to get more fucked up if you aren’t pulling our legs.  So yeah, not a good legacy for my dad.”

“We have no reason to pull your leg,” I said.

“Getting access to something else that’s confidential?  Covering your kidnapping of Vista so you’re clear to use Regent’s power on her later?”

“Why would we want her?”  Rachel asked.

“She’s strong.”

“Bitch’s question is a good one,” Tattletale said.  “Yes, Vista’s strong, but why would we want her?  It’d be putting ourselves at risk, for no particular gain.  If we wanted raw power, we’d have kept your cousin.  There’s nothing left in the city that we want or need, so it’s not like we really need her assistance to get a job done.  We have money, we have resources, and anything that’s worth anything is destroyed or taken by now.”

“Then what do you want?” Triumph asked.

“Security.  We have all of the basics.  Shelter, food, warmth, companionship, money.  Anything we do from here on out’s going to involve better securing ourselves where we’re at.  We want to stop visiting villains from getting a footing anywhere in the city unless they’re joining us.  Keep the peace so we keep you guys off our backs.  I wouldn’t mind a system like the Yakuza of Japan’s yesteryear, where we support and involve ourselves in local business, legally, to the point that nobody will be able to shake us.”

“That’s terrifying,” Triumph said.

“Why?  Because we’re bad?  Ooh, spooky,” Tattletale waggled her fingers at him.  “If we do it right, we won’t have to extort anything from the locals.  We can do more to stop the drug trade than any of your guys.  Then we disappear into the background, make enough money off the side benefits of our powers and investments to live a life of comfort.  Mobilize only if and when there’s a new threat.  Build trust with you guys, ensure that any new parahumans go to either your group, go to ours, or they get dealt with some other way.  Ensure that anyone like Hellhound who needs more elbow room or freedom is somewhere they’re comfortable, where they won’t do any real harm.”

“And she’s okay with that?” Triumph asked,  “Being benched?”

“Give me my dogs, don’t bother me, don’t get in my face, I’m okay with whatever,” Rachel said.  Her arm was moving.  It took me a second to realize she was scratching Bastard.

“Calmer than you were a week and a half ago, if that’s the case,” Triumph said.

“Dunno,” Rachel replied.  “That was then.  This is now.”

Triumph sighed.

Weld and Clockblocker joined us.  Clockblocker handed Triumph a can of coke or something like it.

“They behaving?” Clockblocker asked.

“Pretty much.  Tattletale mentioned Dinah, but it wasn’t to fuck with me.  We were talking about their master plan, if you can call it that.  Not much else.”

Clockblocker looked at me.  “Skitter and I had a discussion on the way over.”

“And you won’t have another,” Miss Militia cut in.  She’d stepped out of the Director’s office next door and into the doorway.  “We’re not here to socialize.  We got in touch with some thinkers.  Eleventh Hour says he gets an ‘eight’.  Appraiser’s read says we’re ‘purple’.  Rule for any pre-situ call is we get three points of reference,  going by thinkers alone, that means a third thinker.  The first they were able to get in touch with was Hunch.  Your old teammate, Weld.”

“Didn’t think he rated, yet,” Weld said.

“Chief Director Costa-Brown gave the a-ok, and Hunch says it’s bad.  All together, we’re calling this a threat level A.”

“No shit.  The Undersiders are for real?”  Triumph asked.

Tattletale didn’t wait for him to get an answer, “That’s threat level S.  S-class.”

“The Chief Director of the PRT determined it was an A-class threat.”

“Bullshit,” Tattletale said.  “S-class.  I know Appraiser offered a purple-velvet diagnosis for his previous ratings on Endbringer attacks, so that’s not the reason it’s so low.  Eleven’s score of eight has to be above the seventy-five percent mark, and an answer as vague as Hunch’s is going to be a seventy-five percent exact, as per section nine-seven-six, article seventy-one.  That’s three values that have to be above the threshold for declaring a threat level S situation.”

“How the hell do you know all that?” Weld asked.

Tattletale waved him off.

“The Chief Director made the call.  We’re standing by it,” Miss Militia said.

“We’re talking class-S, even if you ignore pre-situation verification.  Section nine-seven-five, article fifty-seven.  Classifying high level duplicators and villains who operate to any exponential degree.  Nilbog and Simurgh both count, and Noelle does too.  If the powers generate more instances of power generation or recurring effect in an epidemic pattern…”

“She’s not a self duplicator,” Miss Militia said, “And yes, she’s creating powers, but they’re copies of other people’s powers.  They’re not exponential or self-recursive in effect.”

“You’re splitting hairs.”

“And,” Miss Militia said, “She doesn’t create more powers on her own.  She has an intrinsic requirement of needing contact and time to absorb.  She doesn’t meet the criteria as they stand.”

“Still splitting those hairs,” Tattletale said.  “Her threat level zooms up to S as soon as she gets her hands on anyone who can enable something like that.  Like, say, any tinker.”

“I don’t know why we’re even discussing this, when you seem to have our operations manual memorized and you’re capable of realizing it for yourself,” Miss Militia said, “but it doesn’t bear dwelling on.  The difference in our response to a class A crisis and a class S one is minor at best.  Some tertiary protocols change, we won’t necessarily have Alexandria, Legend or Eidolon assisting, and there’s no penalties for anyone who subscribed to the critical situation roster if they sit this one out.”

“Which they will,” Tattletale said.  “You’re ignoring the fact that people are inherently selfish.  It takes something to shake them from that reality, and that’s not common.”

“I think you’re underestimating the inherent goodness of people who dedicate their lives to heroism.  I know for a fact we have ample volunteers already informed on the situation.  They’re en route.”

“If the heroes aren’t showing in full force, others won’t either.” Tattletale said, “And there’s no epidemic protocols with a class-A.”

“We have one tinker,” Miss Militia said.  “Kid Win.  Armsmaster is no longer on the premises.  We have no duplicators.  The risk is one we can control, either through the organization of our forces or turning any combatants with problematic interactions away.  Epidemic protocols are unnecessary.”

“Armsmaster escaped, you mean,” Tattletale said.  “And it won’t be that easy.”

“Maybe not, but that’s the word from above.  I’m not interested in debating this further, Tattletale.” Miss Militia said.  She turned her head slightly toward me, clearly expecting me to comment along the lines of what I’d said in the containment van, about authority tying one’s hands.  When I didn’t rise to the challenge, she said, “We’re having a strategy meeting in a matter of minutes.  The first phase of the response will be teleporting in momentarily, but our best mass-teleporter died in the Leviathan attack, and the process is slow.  I’ll be releasing the rest of the Undersiders to join you soon.”

“As soon as you have enough extra bodies to watch us,” Tattletale commented.

“Yes,” Miss Militia said, terse.  She looked at the three young heroes who had gathered at the wall by the door.  “Be good.  Excuses or no excuses, it looked bad when we had the last incident with a break in the truce.  Don’t let Tattletale provoke you, don’t provoke them.”

“You can’t blame them if they get emotional,” Tattletale sighed.  “It’s only natural, three young men, three young women, a possibility of Capulet-Montague forbidden love between hero and villain…”

“My warning goes for you too, Tattletale.  I already instructed Triumph to shout at the first sign of trouble.”

“I’ll be angelic,” Tattletale said.

“Good.  You should also know that Parian is leaving.  She asked me to tell you, and to let you know she’ll be at her territory.”

Parian was gone?  Shit.

“I wouldn’t have let her go,” I said.  “For a lot of reasons.”

“It’s unfortunate, I agree,” Miss Militia said, “But we’re not in a position to stop her, short of fighting her.  She was adamant about not wanting to participate in this fight.  Flechette is escorting her back.”

“And however Noelle found Vista, she might find Parian and Flechette and target them the same way,” Tattletale said.

“Maybe.  They both have devices to alert us.  In the worst-case scenario, they can inform us if something’s happened.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to prepare.”

Miss Militia didn’t wait for a response.  She was already striding down the hall, gesturing to get someone’s attention.  Someone too small and too young to be a cop.

The three boys at the other end of the long table started talking among themselves.

“This is falling apart before it begins,” Tattletale commented.

“I get the impression Miss Militia’s spooked,” I said.  “She’s tense.”

“Anyone would be,” Tattletale replied.  “Doesn’t help that the last Endbringer fight ended her predecessor’s career.”

I nodded.

“Our muscle’s going to suffer in this fight,” Tattletale said.  “Your bugs, Bitch’s dogs, they can’t hurt her, if she absorbs things on contact.  Not unless we want clones of Bitch’s dogs running rampant.”

“The heroes have long ranged fire,” I replied.  “Kid Win, Miss Militia, Triumph.  So Bitch and I adopt a support role.  The dogs get our key players around the battlefield, if Bitch is willing.”

Rachel grunted something that could have been agreement.

“And I might be able to tie Noelle up without the bugs touching her.  Grue can slow her down, Regent could do the same.” I finished.

“Regent couldn’t use his power against Leviathan.  Can you imagine him getting Leviathan under control?”

“I’d rather not,” I admitted.  “There’s a sweet spot as far as rep goes.  Having a pet Endbringer puts us in the ‘too scary to be allowed to live’ category.”

“We’d have to do what the Slaughterhouse Nine do, win frequently enough against high odds that people can’t afford the losses.”

“Would mean we have to go mobile,” I said.  “So we have time to recuperate while the enemy tries to track us down.  Anyways, enough ‘what if’.  Let’s get back on topic.”

Tattletale nodded.  “Imp?”

“For this coming fight?  Rescue,” I said.  “The enemy won’t target her, they might not target anyone she can get in contact with.  Fallen allies, captives, Imp gets them to safety.”

Tattletale nodded.  The tone of her voice shifted fractionally as she said, “You guys can chime in at any point here.”

The young heroes had stopped talking and were listening in.

“I don’t know what you want us to add,” Clockblocker said.

“Interactions,” I said.  “Maybe we put you on Bentley’s back.  We won’t have to kill Noelle if you can tag her.  We’ll be able to keep her frozen long enough for us to erect some form of containment.”

“Me?  On the dog?”

“You scared?” Rachel asked.

“I think anyone would be a little scared.  You can’t tell me they aren’t a little intimidating.”

“Your power nullifies any threat they could pose,” I said.

“If it closes its teeth around my arm, the fraction of a second it takes my power to kick in is going to buy it time to dig in just a little.  Jaws clamped on my arm, I freeze it, sure, but then every time it unfreezes, it closes a little more before I can freeze it again.  No thank you.”

“He’s scared,” Rachel said.  She scratched the top of Bastard’s head, and I realized she was talking to the wolf cub that was sleeping in her lap.  “You’re the stuff of nightmares.”

Clockblocker snorted, then got caught up in a murmured conversation with Weld and Triumph.  They were facing our way as they talked.

I tried to ignore them, focused on taking deep breaths, controlling the intake so I wouldn’t start coughing and humiliate myself in front of the local heroes.

“You okay?” Tattletale asked.

“Coughing less.  I feel like I’ve maybe got the worst of it out of my lungs and throat.”

“I meant you.  You’ve been quiet.  You weren’t saying as much as you normally might when I was talking to Miss Militia.”

“Thinking.”

“Important you keep doing that,” she said.  “But not if it’s getting you like this.  Unless you’re putting together a master plan.”

I shook my head.  “No plan.  Just fatigue and-”

I stopped.  Each and every officer in the next room was turning their heads.  I used my bugs to feel out the subject.  A hood, with the warmth of a faint natural glow from beneath, with the same effect around his hands, with his loose sleeves.  I noted that a glass helm like the one Clockblocker wore fit over his face beneath the hood.  People went out of their way to clear out of his path, to such an extent that I might have thought they were in front of an elephant and not a man.

Eidolon entered the conference room and grabbed the seat just to the right of the one at the far end of the table.  He swept his cape to one side before he sat down.

“Didn’t think you were coming,” Tattletale said.  “With it being just a Class-A threat.”

“The infamous Undersiders,” Eidolon spoke.  His voice reverberated slightly, an effect similar to Grue’s.

“And the famous Eidolon,” Tattletale retorted, “while we’re doing the reverse-introductions.      I thought I told Miss Militia that we shouldn’t bring in anyone we can’t beat in a fight.”

“Don’t concern yourself over it,” Eidolon said.  “I can render myself immune.”

“We won’t know until it happens,” she replied.

There was a pause.

“Tattletale.  Are you looking for a chink in the armor?”

“You can’t blame me, can you?  If we wind up having to fight you, then it might be all over.  So I’m gathering intel.”

Eidolon didn’t reply.

“Okay, sure.  Fine,” Tattletale raised her hands in surrender.  “It’s cool.”

Eidolon turned away to follow the murmured conversation between Weld, Triumph and Clockblocker.  Tattletale rested her elbows on the table, rubbed at her eyes.

“Tired?” I asked.

“Exhausted.  Been using my power all night, my head’s throbbing, and this whole business with Noelle hasn’t even started.”

“Take a nap,” I suggested.

“No time.  And I do want to make sure I have some ideas in advance, for anyone we might have to face.  Noelle is going to target Eidolon.  If we fight him, we’ll have to use his weaknesses against him.”

“Tattletale,” Eidolon cut Clockblocker off mid-sentence, his voice carrying across the room.  “Could you elaborate?”

“Don’t worry,” she said, “No weaknesses you don’t already know about.”

“Is that so?”

“You’re losing your powers,” she said.  “Not fast enough that it matters today, but enough that the difference is appreciable.”

It was hard to read Eidolon’s body language with the few bugs I’d permitted myself.  He was leaning forward slightly, and his upper arms pressed against the fabric of his costume as he flexed or clenched a fist.

“And how would you know this, if it were true?”

“Because any other day, with you heroes being as short on teleporters as you are, you’d be helping bring people in.  You’re conserving your strength.  It might even be a long term fear, like you’ve only got so much power to use over your lifetime before it’s all spent.  Candle that burns twice as hot, or something.”

“Simple deduction?  Did you consider that I am not teleporting people because there’s a shortage of volunteers?”

“That would contradict what Miss Militia said, and she wasn’t lying.  And it doesn’t fit the overall picture.  Alexandria-”

Eidolon slapped his hand down against the table.  A forcefield expanded from the impact site, forcing Rachel and I out of our chairs and against the wall.  I slumped down to the ground, grabbing my rib, and coughed painfully.

The forcefield had kept Rachel and I out, but Tattletale was inside with Eidolon.  The sounds from within were muffled.

But I had bugs on both Eidolon and Tattletale, and I could almost make out their words.

Tattletale was speaking.  “…reason you … this situation a class-A threat isn’t because it doesn’t fit.  …did it is because Alexandria wanted an excuse not… …  You came because you needed to prove something to yourself.  Test … measure of your power in a …nse situation… work best when… danger.  This is best challenge you’ll have…”

“…treading dangerous waters,” Eidolon spoke.  There was no growl in his voice, no anger, irritation or emotion at all.  Only calm.  It made him easier to understand.

“…can live with danger, … it’s interesting.  Awfully interesting… why Alexandria’s not coming… … me?  …secret.”

Eidolon said something, but his tone had changed and I wasn’t able to switch mental gears fast enough.

“…you?”  Tattletale asked. “Years…-”

“The fuck!?” Rachel snarled.  Bentley growled as if to accompany her words.  He was already growing.

“Relax,” I said, before I started coughing again.  “They aren’t fighting.”

“He knocked me over!”

I could see Miss Militia and Assault at the other end of the room, but the forcefield bubble was blocking us.

“What happened!?” Miss Militia shouted.

I tried to respond, coughed instead.  My voice was weak with the fresh rawness of my throat as I did manage to utter a reply, “Eidolon flipped…”

“Eidolon attacked!” Rachel yelled.

“Did she provoke him?”  Miss Militia asked.  Her gun was raised.

“No,” I managed only a whisper.

The forcefield winked out.  Eidolon was still sitting, he hadn’t moved except to slap the table with his hand, but Tattletale was standing.

“Just wanted to have a private conversation,” Eidolon said.  “I’m sorry.  I’ll be getting some fresh air.”

With that, he stood and strode out of the room.  He made his way to the stairwell and I could track him moving to the roof.

I picked up my chair and sat, still coughing intermittently.  Rachel was still standing, and her dogs were still growing.  I gestured for her to sit.

She just glared across the room.

I gestured again, but the force of the motion made my chest hurt and I started coughing.  Before I recovered, Rachel sat with an audible thud.  She kicked her boot against the edge of the table, hard, and left it there.

“What did you do?” Miss Militia asked.  She was facing Tattletale.  I could see the other Undersiders behind her.

“Was just commenting that it seemed odd he wasn’t helping you guys out with teleporting people in,” Tattletale said.

“You said more than that,” Weld noted.

“I’m tired, he’s tired, we talked it out.  All copacetic,” Tattletale said.  She leaned back and stretched.

“I’m not so sure,” Miss Militia said.  “Skitter, are you alright?”

“Recent injury,” I managed.  “Will be fine in a minute.”

Miss Militia nodded.  Not much sympathy, but I couldn’t blame her.  “Then let’s get things underway.  Everyone, please get seated, or find space to stand.”

Grue, Regent and Imp joined us, and Grue set his hands on my shoulders as he stood behind me.  He rubbed my exposed back where the armor panel was missing as I coughed hoarsely once or twice.

I counted the people in costume with my swarm.  It wasn’t nearly as many reinforcements as we’d had against Leviathan.  I saw Chevalier and Myrddin, but didn’t recognize anyone else.  There were the Wards and Protectorate members from Brockton Bay, with perhaps twenty more.

“Tentative ratings, based on what we know, we have her down as a brute eight, a changer two and a combination of striker and master with a rating of ten.”

“Too low,” I heard Tattletale murmur.

I suppressed a cough, managed only a choke.  It drew more attention to me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone was already paying way too much attention.  I was wearing my older costume, and somehow felt more juvenile, more exposed.  I didn’t have the covering of bugs over the exterior of my costume like I was used to, either.

“Her ability allows her to create clones of anyone she touches.  The PRT office believes she’s a class-A threat, but Tattletale’s expectation is that this individual has the potential to become an Endbringer.  We’re moving forward with extreme caution.

“Our primary issue at the moment is that we can’t yet locate her.  She has one hostage, a young member of the Wards.  The girl was attacked en route to her home.  Locating our target quickly is paramount, but we should also be careful to avoid giving her a chance to use her power on us.  For the time being, we will be operating with the same protocols and plans that we employ against Hadhayosh.  Hit and run, maintain a safe distance as priority number one, and employ continuous attacks.  We’ll be dividing you into teams-”

Miss Militia stopped short as an officer pushed his way through the people near the door, Chevalier included.  He handed Miss Militia a phone.

She turned around and pressed a button on the wall.  The faux-wooden panels separated to reveal a widescreen television.

It flickered on.

Her?” Kid Win asked.  “That’s the class-S threat?”

“She’s bigger than she looks,” Tattletale commented.

I was disappointed I couldn’t see.  I tried looking at the screen with my bugs, but they saw only a rectangular glow.

“Quiet,” Miss Militia said, “It’s a webcam feed.  I’m setting it so we’ll be transmitting audio only… Hello, Noelle.”

“Who is this?”  Noelle asked.

“She talks,” I heard someone whisper.

“Miss Militia,” Miss Militia said, louder.

“The gun woman.  Who else is there?”

“Other local heroes,” Miss Militia replied.

“Oh.  There aren’t more?  The Undersiders didn’t get in touch with you?”  Noelle sounded funny.  Her voice was hollow, almost disappointed.

“It’s just us right now.”

“Because I smell more,” Noelle said.  “Which makes it hard to believe you.  But you can lie if you have to.”

“You can smell us.”

“Not you.  But it doesn’t matter,” Noelle’s voice broke.  She stopped.

“Are you there?” Miss Militia asked.

“I’m here.  I was telling you it doesn’t matter.  I only called because… I killed her.  The space-warper.  I’m so bad with the names.  So many names for you capes.  I only ever paid attention to the powers.”

“You killed Vista,” Miss Militia said.  “Why?”

“Because I could.  Because I was hungry, and I’d already used her up.  See?”

There was a brief pause, then a number of gasps and breathless words all at once.  One of my bugs caught a noise from Clockblocker, deep in his throat.

Grue leaned close, whispered in my ear, “Five Vistas.  All but one of them have faces more like masks than skin and muscle.  Hard, rigid.  Wearing borrowed clothes, not costumes.  The fifth one might be taller than I am, and her bones look curved.”

I nodded.

There was a thump from the microphone on Noelle’s end, presumably as she turned the camera back to herself.

“Just wanted to let you know that.  I’m sorry.  This isn’t like me.  It’s the stuff that’s growing on me.  I have my memories, and when I think, it’s always my thoughts, but it feels like it’s taking over my subconscious, and when it wants something the hormones and adrenaline flood into my body and my brain, so I feel what it feels.  Twists the way I think.”

“Why Vista?”

“She was alone.  And could smell how strong she was.  Read about her online, too.  Internet was all I had for a long time.  Now I’ve got them.  They’re pretty obedient, and it’s nice to have company.  I haven’t had any physical contact with anyone for a while, and they like giving me hugs.  Except the sixth.”

“Sixth,” Miss Militia said.

“Not as obedient.  She ran off.  Gibbering something about killing her family.”

Miss Militia thrust her index finger toward the door, and the Wards were gone in a flash, running for the stairwell.

“Can we negotiate?”  Miss Militia asked, her voice oddly calm given the ferocity of the gesture and the threat against one of her colleagues’ family.

“Not really a negotiation… but I can offer you a deal.”

“What’s the deal?”

“Kill the Undersiders.  Or hand them to me so I can torment them before I kill them.  You can do it any time you want to.  Just… knock them out, or hurt them, or find a way to tell me where they are.  If it’s a choice between hurting one of you or hurting one of them, I’ll hurt them.  I promise.  If I’ve taken someone hostage, you probably have a little while before the hostage is dead.  Just know that I’ll trade you any of my hostages for any Undersider, any time, any situation.  When the Undersiders are all dealt with, I’ll sniff out and kill all of the clones I’ve made, then I’ll let you try to kill me.  Or imprison me.  Do whatever.  I don’t care anymore, because I don’t think I’ll be me much longer.  I don’t think I’m even me right now.  Not the me I was… I’m rambling.

“They took away my only chance.  My only chance to get well.  Until they’ve paid for that, I’m going to make this hard on you, heroes.  I don’t think I can die, and I don’t think I’m that easy to stop in other ways.  I’ll hunt you down, I’ll copy you until you’re all used up, let your copies ruin your reputations and your lives, and then I’ll eat you.  I’ll do it to each of you, one by one, until you realize it’s easier to go after the Undersiders than to come after me.  Give me my revenge, and this ends.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Queen 18.3

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Miss Militia didn’t respond.  She stared down the length of her gun at Tattletale.  I could believe that if we gave her cause, any of the rest of us were an instant away from getting shot.  We had bulletproof armor, but there wasn’t anything saying she wasn’t using the fanciest armor-piercing rounds.  Her power supplied whatever hardware she wanted.

“We didn’t take Vista,” I told her.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Tattletale said, “We’d take her, do that sort of damage, and then come back?  Approach you guys peacefully?”

“I’m beginning to see why Armsmaster was so frustrated with you, Undersiders.  Every time we run into you, we’re left in the dark, vast amounts of information missing from the overall picture.  There’s always surprises.  So I’m paying very close attention to what you are saying.  Case in point, you say Vista was taken, and not murdered.”

“I don’t think she was killed,” I said.  Tattletale nodded.

“That’s good to know,” Miss Militia said.  She sighed, “When you’re going on the offensive, there’s nothing held back, you don’t pull any punches, short of murder… and you apparently came damn close with Triumph, Skitter.”

Triumph folded his arms.

She continued, “If you’re not trying to kill us, you’re approaching us with open arms, asking for help, putting us in a situation where we can’t accept without breaking our rules, but refusal comes at a cost.”

“It’s that second bit,” Imp said.  Some of the heroes wheeled around to find her standing on the opposite side of her group.  I managed to hide my own surprise.  Imp added, “We’re here because we need help.  This is a nasty one, too.”

Miss Militia turned back to me, and her voice was a little harder.  “I thought so.  It’s your pattern.  Except there’s always information missing.  Information withheld.  You said you were indirectly responsible for this?”

“You caught that,” Tattletale said.  She looked at me.  “Should we dish out the dirt?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Have to anyways.”

“Full disclosure,” Tattletale said.  “We were working for Coil.  The Travelers were too.”

Miss Militia didn’t move a centimeter.  Some of the other heroes did.

“He’s dead, in case you weren’t aware,” Tattletale said.  “And the Travelers are a little upset, because they were counting on him to help them out.”

I could imagine Tattletale smiling.  She’s misdirecting them.  They think he died at the debate, but she’s talking about the real death.  The death at my hands.

Miss Militia shook her head.  “I doubt this was the Travelers.  We heard howling, and this wasn’t Genesis.  Analysis of her file by some of our top guys suggests she has limits to the strength of whatever forms she’s chosen.  Strong, yes, but not enough to tear half the wall off the front of a building in the time the witnesses described.  I would, however, believe Hellhound’s dogs could do it.  Besides, Genesis has never been on record shapeshifting to resemble someone or something.”

Never? I thought.  She crafted her bodies in a dream state.  I knew she’d made a body that resembled her real self, but the rest…  Did it take too much effort to get the aesthetic details exactly right, to the point that it cost her in other departments?

“When the Slaughterhouse Nine attacked,” I said, “Do you remember who they targeted?”

“Armsmaster, Regent, Hookwolf, Panacea.  Two more.  With the appearances Mannequin and Burnscar made in the Boardwalk, we belatedly discovered Hellhound was another, and we were theorizing you were the last of them, Skitter.”

“I got in their way too many times,” I said.  “But they didn’t want me.  But the last one was Noelle.”

Her gun shifted a fraction towards me.  I wasn’t sure she was aware she was doing it. “Noelle?”

Tattletale spoke up, “The Travelers have two other members who don’t see much action.  Oliver handles their day-to-day stuff.  Finds and prepares places for them to settle down, gets food, looks after Noelle.  Noelle…”

“New York,” Miss Militia interrupted.  “She’s the one that’s responsible for the disappearance of those forty people?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Tattletale said.

“The reason the Travelers have been operating like they are,” I told Miss Militia, “Going for the quick and easy cash grabs and constantly moving, it’s been for her sake.  Trying to find someone who can help.  They found Coil, or Coil found them, and they thought they had the answer they needed.  Except now Coil’s dead.  Noelle’s snapped, and it’s very possible Vista was her first captive.”

“What does she-” Triumph started.  He stopped as Miss Militia raised one hand.

“You’re good at this, Undersiders,” she said.  “But I do learn my lesson.  I won’t get caught up in your story, I know you’ll have to give me the details, if this situation is as serious as you say.  But let’s postpone that for a minute.  Why don’t you start off by explaining how you’re indirectly responsible for this.”

I turned to Tattletale.  She gave her head a small shake.

“What aren’t you telling us?”  Miss Militia asked.

“Stuff,” Tattletale said.  “Surrounding the circumstances of Coil’s death.  But getting into the particulars would create more problems than it solves, for you guys and for us.”

“I dunno,” Assault said, from behind Miss Militia, “I doubt staying quiet is going to help you much.”

“Did you have something to do with the explosion at the town hall?”  Miss Militia asked, and there was a note of anger in her voice, “The way things went wrong?  The deaths of those reporters, the injuries sustained by the retired Director and the candidates?”

“No,” I said.  “I swear on everything I stand for that I, we, didn’t play any part in planning or setting that in motion.”

“You can understand if we don’t take you at face value on that, nice as it sounds,” Assault said.

“If it helps,” Tattletale said, “Get your hands on the evidence from the scene, some of the blood and bits from the bodies.  Send them out of town.  Discreetly.  Get another lab to run DNA tests.”

“Why?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “It’s pig meat.  Almost all of it.  Glued together with transglutaminase.  Human bone, and human blood, probably, but if you look for it, you’ll find antifreeze.”

“Antifreeze?”

“Glycerol.  It’s how they store it at blood banks.”

“You’re saying it was staged,” Miss Militia said.  “Despite the fact that we had Wards on scene, innumerable witnesses.”

“Despite that.”

Miss Militia straightened a fraction, “And of course, we can’t check it now.  So you’re expecting us to work with you in the meantime, help you with whatever problem you’re suggesting you’re partially to blame for setting in motion, and when the lab tests come in, long after the situation’s resolved, we’ll find you were lying.”

Assault added, “And somehow, conveniently, you come out ahead when all’s said and done.  A handful more of your enemies injured or dead.”  There was a hint of emotion punctuating the end of the statement.  Battery.

“Telling the truth,” Tattletale said.

“This situation’s serious,” I told Miss Militia, “And if you do what we’re suggesting, I can assure you, we don’t wind up in a better position at the end of this.”

“Why’s that?” Miss Militia asked.

It was Grue who answered her, breaking his silence with his deep, eerie voice, “Because we’re recommending you call in the big guns.  Call in everyone.”

“Class S threat,” Tattletale said.  “Or damn near.”

The tip of Miss Militia’s gun wavered as she started to react and then stopped herself.  Neither she nor any of the heroes moved or spoke for long seconds.

When she did speak, she said, “There’s six class S threats active in the world at large.  The Endbringers make up three of them.  The Slaughterhouse Nine as a group are a fourth.  You’re saying this Noelle is on par with one of them?”

“She’s a nascent Endbringer,” I said.

“Bullshit!”  Triumph shouted, not a half second after I’d said it.

“Fuck me,” one of the Wards said.  It was only after he opened his mouth again that I saw it was Weld.  “Please tell me this is another one of Tattletale’s mind-games.”

“Explain.” Miss Militia demanded.

“She’s maybe a nascent Endbringer,” Tattletale said.  “It’s one theory.  Her powers are transforming her, and she’s getting less human, getting tougher and more desperate every day.  Coil was keeping her contained, with heavy vault doors and promises of a fix.  Now she’s free and she’s pissed.”

“And this hypothetical individual has Vista?” Clockblocker asked.

“It’s very likely she has Vista,” Tattletale confirmed.  “Coil’s precog said she wouldn’t cause any real damage until dawn.  That’s… one hour and twenty-nine minutes from now.  I guess this kind of incident doesn’t count as anything serious.”

“You have Coil’s precog in your custody?”  Miss Militia asked.  “Dinah Alcott?”

“I took her home,” I said.  “Her powers are currently disabled, so resist the urge to go to her and ask her for help with this situation.  Everything she’s been through, she deserves some peace.”

“Assault,” Miss Militia said, “Let’s get some confirmation that at least some of what they said is the truth.  Get in touch with the Alcotts.”

“On it,” he said.  He drew a rugged smart phone from his belt and put it to his ear.

“I think it’s time you guys offer the particulars on this ‘Endbringer’,” Miss Militia said.

“She’s as strong as Leviathan, physically,” Tattletale said, “She’s not as tough, based on what I’ve seen.  Have you read the notes on what I told Alexandria after Leviathan’s attack?  About the density of Leviathan’s body?”

Miss Militia nodded.  “Higher density as you penetrate deeper to the core, to the point that it bends the rules of how molecules and atoms should work.  It makes sense.  Armsmaster had a molecule-severing weapon that couldn’t cut through all of Leviathan’s hand, and it explains why nearly all the damage we do is so superficial.”

“Noelle doesn’t have that yet.  I’m not sure if she ever will.  We don’t know if she’s really becoming an Endbringer or not.  What I’ve seen of her was only partial, a camera feed with dim lighting on the other end,” Tattletale said.  “But everything she eats gets added to her biomass, and I think she’ll probably reach a critical point and stop growing, start fortifying what’s already there instead.”

“She’s big?”  Weld asked.

“She’s big,” Tattletale said.  “And if she gets her hands on you, she’ll eat you whole.  Spit you out along with a copy.  Copies with powers like yours.  Stronger, tougher, meaner.  Understand?  When this fight starts, it starts for real.”

“She duplicates people,” Miss Militia stated.

“And the duplicates aren’t on our side,” Tattletale replied.  “You’re going to have to call for backup at some point, it’s just a question of whether you do it before shit goes down or after.  When you do get in touch with the PRT heads and get the a-ok to call a red alert or whatever it is you do, you’re going to want to be very careful about the kind of cape you request, because we might wind up fighting them.”

Assault had finished his phone call and was waiting for Tattletale to finish talking.  Miss Militia turned her attention to him, and he said, “Story checks out.  Kid’s at the hospital, recovering from a long stint of drug abuse.”

“The situation they’re describing is too dangerous to be ignored.  We’ll move forward with this.  Tentative cooperation,” Miss Militia announced.  “In exchange for our trust and our assistance, the Undersiders will give us one hostage.”

“How about me?” Imp offered.  Her tone was light, joking.

“Someone who we can keep track of,” Miss Militia said.  “Rachel Lindt.  Hellhound.  If you’d please step into the van?”

“Fuck that,” Rachel replied.

“That’s a disaster waiting to happen,” Grue said.  I couldn’t help but nod in agreement.

“You, along with Skitter, are problematic due to the sheer amount of damage you could do in the enclosed space of a van.  Tattletale’s more damaging in other ways.  It would help if we knew exactly what her powers were…”  Miss Militia trailed off, inviting a response.

“Not sharing,” Tattletale said.  “And I just had my turn at being a hostage.  Not sharing the details on that either, for the record.”

“Regent’s too dangerous.  We don’t know exactly how long it takes for him to achieve full control, and our records suggest he can regain control instantly.  Even if we assume it takes an hour or more, we can’t trust that we won’t end up in a crisis situation where Regent’s being kept in custody for an extended period and gets the opportunity to use his power on someone.  Not to mention the possibility that he could call Shatterbird to his location.  Separated from her dogs, Rachel Lindt is the least threatening and most vulnerable member of your team.  The optimal hostage, if you will.”

“And she won’t accept being separated from her dogs or being kept in custody,” I said.  “I will.  I can hand you my weapons and send my bugs away.”

“Skitter,” Grue said, “No.”

Miss Militia folded her arms, unconvinced.

I reached over my shoulder, slowly, and unbuckled my utility compartment.  Tattletale grabbed it for me as it came free, and the straps fed out through the rings beneath the shoulder panels.  She handed it to me, and I drove away the bugs I’d gathered inside.  When they were gone, I sent away the bugs that were nestled in the midst of my hair, beneath each of my other armor panels and the ‘skirt’ of my armor, where it covered the scorched leggings of my costume.

“So many fucking bugs,” Clockblocker said.  “They have to weigh as much as she does.”

“No, not as much as you’d think,” I said.  I turned to Miss Militia.  “Satisfied?”

She extended a hand for the concave, spade-shaped piece of armor, her gun turning into a handgun in the meantime.  “Triumph, pat her down.  Everyone else, get ready to mobilize. Assault, you’ll be riding my bike.  I’ll sit in the van.  Weld, Clockblocker, Flechette, and Kid Win, with me.”

I waited while Triumph roughly pat me down, running his fingers into the folds and crevices of my armor and beneath my belt.  He found the two pieces of paper I’d folded and tucked inside, shook them out as if there might be powder inside, unfolded them, read them, then put them back the way I’d had them.

I felt like saying something to him, but wasn’t sure what.  Sorry for attacking your family and nearly murdering you?  It sounded almost taunting.

Miss Militia led the way to a containment van, and I followed, feeling oddly lightweight.  She opened the back, indicating we should gather inside.

They arranged themselves with Clockblocker and Weld sat to either side of me, Miss Militia, Flechette and Kid Win opposite me.  The door slammed shut as Kid Win got himself seated.

I had only a few bugs in place to get a sense of their positions.  Few enough that I might have lost track of who was who if I wasn’t careful.  Using one of these bugs, I did a minor, peripheral sweep.  They didn’t have weapons pointed my way, but Flechette and Kid Win did have weapons on their laps, a crossbow and laser blaster.

“You’re shorter, looking at you like this,” Clockblocker said.  “Tall for a girl, but… not tall.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“You didn’t get rid of all your bugs,” Clockblocker commented, as the truck started moving.  He was looking in the direction of the patrolling mosquitoes and no-see-ums.

He noticed.

“Not all,” I agreed.

“Why not?”

Because I’m blind, and I’m utterly helpless if you take all the bugs away, I thought.

“Too much of it’s automatic,” I said.  “I got in the habit of using my power to survey the situation, and now it happens even without my thinking about it.”

“Thinker one,” Weld said.  “Because your bugs let you sense things to the point that you might be a short-range clairvoyant.”

“That’s about what the Director said,” I replied.

I heard a click, and bugs moved to the source of the noise to investigate.  Miss Militia had my utility compartment in her lap, and she was holding a handgun.  Mine.

“Only one shot remaining.  Two reasons that might be the case,” she said.  “Saving it for yourself, or it was used and you haven’t reloaded.”

“The latter,” I replied.

“Who have you been shooting?”

Your Director.  “Mannequin.  And shot through some boards so I could break them.”

“Oh?”

“Long story.  I haven’t really thought to reload it.  I don’t use the gun much.”

“Obviously,” she said, but she didn’t elaborate.  “String?”

“Can you leave stuff where it is?”  I asked.

“I’m curious why you have coiled string in your backpack here,” she said.

“It’s a utility compartment, not a backpack.  It’s so I don’t have to have the spiders make it in the middle of a fight.”

“Spider silk,” Kid Win spoke his realization aloud.

Miss Militia continued, “Pepper spray.  Changepurse with… cotton swabs?  I see, it’s to mask the rattle of spare change.  And smelling salts, needles.”

“Please leave everything where it was,” I said, a little firmer.

I’d collected a few bugs on the various objects she’d withdrawn from the interior of the compartment.  I sensed her putting things back, watched to make sure she was putting everything back properly and in the right place.

Clockblocker, though, leaned across the back of the van and picked up the baton.

“You’ve got stuff like this that’s high quality, but then the other stuff’s so mundane,” Clockblocker commented.  “Odd for someone half the nation’s paying attention to.”

“I wouldn’t know,” I said.  “Not really watching TV these days.”

“You guys took over the city, which is something that’s usually limited to psychos like Nilbog or the third world nations.  I guess with Coil gone, you’re queen of the local underworld.  Or is it Tattletale who’s taken that position?”

“We’re partners.”

“You sound so matter of fact about it,” Clockblocker said.  “You’re not ashamed?  Guilty?  Or proud?”

“Stand down, Clockblocker.  She was gracious enough to be our guest.  Don’t provoke her,” Miss Militia ordered.

“I’m not bothered,” I said.  I’m more annoyed at you picking through my equipment.  “And I don’t feel anything about being in charge.  It is what it is.”

“And you’re not afraid at all, being a hostage?” he asked.

“Should I be?”

“You violated the code by association when you took someone, took control of someone.  The same someone who you saw unmasked.  You violated the code again when you attacked Triumph’s family.  So what’s stopping us from tearing off your mask right now?  The same code you’ve disrespected and broken?”

“Look me in the eye,” I told Clockblocker, turning my head to face him, “And tell me you don’t think Shadow Stalker was a deeply damaged, broken person before we ever got our hands on her.”

He faced me square on, “She was also a hero.”

“She was a hero because the other choice was juvie,” I said.  “In the months leading up to our kidnapping her, she was using real crossbow bolts.  Shooting them at people, Grue included.  If I remember right, she wasn’t supposed to have or be using any lethal ammo, on penalty of jail time.”

“Do you have evidence?” Miss Militia asked.

“Would it matter?  Does it matter?  Judging by what I saw, in my limited interaction with her, she was pretty psychotic.  There’s no way you guys spent all that time with her without something crossing your radar.  The night we took her, I baited her out and she tried to cut my throat.”

“I understand where you’re coming from,” Miss Militia said, “But again, I have to ask for evidence.  I can’t take you at your word, there’s procedures to be followed.”

“Procedures that tie your hands,” I said.

“And they protect us at the same time.”

“If you’re looking for a reason why we’re in charge,” I said, turning towards Clockblocker, “That’d be a good place to start.  You guys knew you had someone bloodthirsty and fucked up working beside you.  You accepted it, probably accommodated her.  Probably cut her slack in other areas, because I doubt she was an angel outside of costume, either.”

I let that sit with them for a moment.

“Yeah,” I said.  I shifted positions on the bench.  “We aren’t limited by oversight and bureaucracy, and we don’t pretend our lunatics are kid-friendly.”

“And without that oversight, you’re free to kidnap people like her and subject her to torture,”  Clockblocker said.

“That’s enough,” Miss Militia said.  She wasn’t quite as sharp as before, but her words were somehow more effective.

We rode on in silence for a few long moments.

“You smell like smoke,” Clockblocker said.

“Clockblocker,” Miss Militia said, “I reserve every right to adjust your patrol schedule if you won’t stop engaging Skitter.”

“I’m really okay,” I told her, keeping calm.  If I’m ever going to shake the idea of Skitter being this unpredictable, dangerous felon, it’s now.  “I’m not going to flip out and hurt someone because I don’t like what they’re saying.  When I said I shot some boards, it was to escape a burning building.”

“Coil wasn’t lying when he said he set your headquarters on fire,” Weld commented.

“He was,” I replied.  “This was something different.”

“Fuck it, give me shit patrols,” Clockblocker said.  “I’m not going to just sit by and obey orders, when I have a chance to get answers.”

“Clockblocker,” Miss Militia said the name in a warning tone.

“That’s the kind of attitude I’m talking about,” I muttered.  “Recognizing when the bureaucracy is hindering more than helping, pushing against it.  I can respect that.”

“Don’t compare me to you,” Clockblocker said.

“Okay,” I said, smiling a little behind my mask, “I won’t.”

“I’m wondering how the fuck you can justify doing any of the shit you’ve pulled and act high and mighty.”

“I won’t deny I’ve done stuff,” I said, “But I somehow doubt it’s the same stuff you’re thinking about.  But I had reasons for everything I did.  If you want to tell me what you think I’ve done, I can try my hand at explaining myself.  Provided you’re willing to hear me out.”

“Clockblocker,” Kid Win said, “Listen to Miss Militia.  This is the kind of stuff that goes on your record.”

Clockblocker shook his head.  “Fuck my record.  Let’s start with the takeover.  Justify that.”

“It put me in a position to help people.  Visit my territory.  People there are healthier, happier, safer, because of what I’ve done.”

“Except the ones Mannequin and Burnscar killed.”

I didn’t have a ready reply to that.

“No comment?”

“I tried,” I said.  “I did what I could to help the people in my territory.  Maybe my being there did more harm than good.  I don’t know.  But I tried to help.”

“Let’s call that one a draw, then.  What about how things turned out with Panacea and Glory Girl?”

“I already quizzed her on this,” Flechette said.

“I want to hear it from her myself.”

“That was Jack, not me,” I said.  Flechette nodded, snorted just loud enough that she knew I’d hear it.  It was very ‘I thought she’d say that’.

“But you were one of the last people seen with Glory Girl.  You were sighted in Panacea’s company,” Clockblocker said.

“I tried to help her.  Talk to her.  We invited her to join the Undersiders, because she was in a bad headspace, she needed other perspectives beyond her own.  But she finished giving Glory Girl medical care after Crawler’s spittle had burned through half her body, she refused our offers to help and refused Tattletale’s suggestion that she fix what she’d already done to Glory Girl’s head… Tattletale knows the full story there, though I have suspicions.  The next time I saw her, she was talking to Jack, and he was getting to her, fucking with her head.  Stuff happened, I went after him, and it was the last time I saw her.”

“She had a freak-out, you know,” Clockblocker said.  “She was in a bad headspace, sure, but she was a good person.  Healed people I really care about when she didn’t have to.  That’s why I’m pressing you on this stuff, no matter what Miss Militia might put on my record or do to my patrol schedule.  Because Amy deserves to have someone stand up for her, in her absence.”

“I’m sorry she freaked, but it wasn’t my fault.”

“It was bad.  She took Glory Girl with her, you know.  When Gallant died, Vista saw the body.  When Aegis was mashed to a literal pulp by Leviathan, to the point that he couldn’t function anymore, when he died, despite his power?  I got to see the remains to verify for myself.  But Victoria Dallon was still alive and they didn’t let us see.  A select few adults and family members got to see her, they carted her off to a parahuman asylum and none of the rest of us got to say goodbye, because the end result was that fucked up.”

“I didn’t know, I’m sorry,” I said.  “But that wasn’t my fault.”

“Fine.  I’ll concede a point for you, then.  You tried, maybe.  One-naught.  What about Battery?”

“I was with Jack and Bonesaw, affected by the miasma, thought they were my friends.  Battery was giving chase.  Around the time I figured out what was happening, she got attacked by the mechanical spiders.  She was fine when I left her.”

“Assault blames you.  Probably why Miss Militia didn’t have him riding in the van with us.”

“Okay.  If I’d been in a better headspace, I would have backed her up.  But there was the possibility Jack would get away, and the miasma-”

“It fucked with all of us.  Fine.  Let’s call that another draw.  Can’t judge you either way with that stuff in play.  Triumph?  His family?”

“Didn’t know he was Triumph until we were in the thick of it,” I said,  “But I did it for Dinah.  It doesn’t excuse it, but I did it for her.”

“How’s that work?”

“To get into a position where I could free her, I had to get close to Coil.  He’d already clued into the fact that I was planning on betraying him if he didn’t let her go, put the screws to me, basically.  Forced me to do what I normally wouldn’t.”

“It had nothing to do with keeping control of the city?”

I hesitated.  “I didn’t say that.  I could try to justify it, explain how I really felt like I was doing more good than harm and what all that meant, but it would take too long, cover too many details I’m not willing to share, and I’m not a hundred percent convinced I’d buy it myself.  I’ll concede that one to you.  Not in a position to defend or explain it.”

“One-all, then.  Let’s talk Shadow Stalker.”

“We’re back to that?”  I asked.

“She was an asshole, dangerous, didn’t even like her, but she was still a teammate of mine.  Some of your teammates might fall into that camp, so maybe you know how I feel.”

“Maybe.  But like I said, we weren’t holding ourselves up as paragons of virtue.  You guys were.”

“Our focus right now is you.  You, who drove Shadow Stalker into a corner, to the point where she flipped out on her mom and tried to hang herself with an electrical cord.”

What?

“…I’m not sure how to respond to that,” I said.

“Do you feel bad about it?  I’m genuinely curious.”

“I feel… less bad than I should,” I said.  “But yeah.  It isn’t nice to hear.”

“Because of what happened, because she was still reeling from the time she spent as your meat puppet, she attacked her mom, who called the authorities.  They caught up just in time to catch her in her room, electrical cord around her neck.  Cost Shadow Stalker her probation, meaning she got stuck in some parahuman detention center until she’s eighteen.  And word is her mom doesn’t want her back when she’s finished the three-year sentence.  Last straw and everything.  Her life, put on hold, her family shattered.  Maybe she was damaged like you said, but you took her captive and tormented her until she went off the deep end.”

“I’m not happy she was pushed that far,” I said, “That’s ugly.  You’re right.  But getting her off the streets?  Yeah.  That’s worth it, at least.”

“What I don’t get is… why?  Was the data from that computer really so important?”

“Coil needed it, and I needed Coil happy.  Either he’d like my work enough to free her on my request or he’d trust me enough that I could catch him off guard and help her escape some other way.”

“I’m sure Dinah would be thrilled to hear that,” Clockblocker said.  “Some other girl’s life ruined for her sake.  How does a supervillain warlord react to that sort of news, by the way?  Finding out a heroine tried to hang herself?  Do you sit in your swivel chair, stroking your tarantula and pull off your best maniacal laugh?  One more enemy out of the way?”

“I didn’t know,” I said.  “Not until you told me what happened to her.”

“That seems to be a recurring theme,” he commented.  “You do stuff, you have reasons, like your apparent feeling that, oh, it’s okay because she was a violent personality, but you don’t pay attention to the ending, to everything that comes after.  A whole lot of people have been screwed up and hurt in your wake, Skitter.”

“I react like you see me reacting.  I don’t enjoy it.  No maniacal laughing here.”

“But you plan to continue doing what you’re doing.”

“I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing in the future,” I said.  “Aside from stopping Noelle.”

“That’s a good point to end this particular discussion,” Miss Militia cut in.  “I will be adjusting your patrol route and noting this minor infraction on your record, Clockblocker.  I hope you’re more or less satisfied with this discussion.”

“More or less,” Clockblocker said, handing the combat baton to Miss Militia.  “Unless our local Supervillainess-in-chief wants to pursue further debate.  I think I was ahead by one.  Two-one.”

“No, that’s fine,” I said.  I left it at that.  No, I’m not entirely sure I want to hear the full details on any of the other stuff.  Quit while I’m only a little behind.

If he knew me a little better, I wondered just how targeted those questions could get.

I’d killed a man, and I still didn’t feel bad about it.  I didn’t feel anything in particular when I thought about it.

In a way, I’d taken the perspective that I didn’t feel bad about it because it wasn’t wrong.  He was a bad person, irredeemable, and it had been the only option.

Except now Clockblocker’s words and his tone were resonating within me, and I was left just a little less confident about the conclusions I’d come to, in terms of the stuff we’d discussed and all the little events that had added up over time.  I’d made peace with who I was and who I was becoming in part because my peers were limited to other villains and civilians who I could dismiss because they didn’t have the full perspective of life on the battlefield.  My dad was among those civilians, it almost pained me to admit.

I wasn’t entirely certain I felt so peaceful now.  Most things, I couldn’t imagine I’d really do them differently, given the circumstances and the knowledge I’d had at the time, but the decisions weren’t sitting quite so easily as they had been.

It was several minutes before the van stopped.  Assault was the one who opened the door, and Clockblocker held the front door of the PRT offices open for me, in a very ironic manner.  My team was already waiting in the lobby.

I’d entered once as a prisoner and thief, once as an invader and kidnapper.  It was an eerie thing to be entering as ally to the good guys, when I’d never felt further from being one.

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Monarch 16.8

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There was a tap on the microphone.  “If we could have silence from the audience, please?”

The low murmur of conversation throughout the auditorium gradually died down.  The place wasn’t full, but four out of every five seats were filled, and there were more people at the back, primarily reporters, many from out of town.

My eye darted across the room, trying to assess the situation.  The heavy woman in the front row, was that Piggot?  It made sense that every person worth talking about would be present.  The disasters and Tattletale’s attack on the cell towers meant that there wasn’t TV, there weren’t phones, and the only way for interested parties to find out what the candidates had to say was actually attending.

Outside of the auditorium, Coil’s men gathering in the lobby and at the sides of the building.  Some were taking point on the roof, gathering in pairs, working together to assemble sniper rifles.  Preparing for a fight.  For a war.

Coil was in the lobby, now, and he was joined by others.  I could recognize Circus by the sledgehammer she was carrying, the metal head dragging on the floor.  Coil said something and she lifted it up.  Was he talking about the noise?  It shouldn’t matter.  He was accompanied by two others I didn’t recognize.  A teenage guy and a larger, more athletic man in a heavy metal frame.

“Thank you to everyone for coming.  Tonight is a three-way debate.  Let me introduce your candidates, starting with Mr. Roy Christner, our mayor incumbent.  We also have Mrs. Carlene Padillo, city councilor of communications; and Mr. Keith Grove, C.E.O. of Eaststar Financial.  Tonight’s subjects are crime, public safety and the state of the city.  Would you start us off, Mayor Christner?  What sets you apart from the other candidates in your views?”

I glanced over my shoulder to verify what I was seeing with my bugs.  A young man was making his way up the aisle with a toddler, straight for Coil.

“I won’t lie,” Christner said.  I glanced his way, saw how haggard he looked.  In a way it worked for him, made him look determined.  “Things are bad.  The situation’s improved from where it was weeks ago, but we’re still in an ugly situation.  No less than forty percent of the city has evacuated, hospitals are overflowing, and villains claim to own the streets…”

I looked back to the dad and his kid.  They opened the door, stepping through, and two of Coil’s soldiers were on them before they could open their mouths and shout a warning.  Putting hands over mouths, the soldiers retreated from the door, separating dad from child.  Within seconds, both were being gagged and restrained.

The door closed on its own, leaving nobody any wiser to what was going on.

“…involved with the defense every step along the way.  I’ve discussed the subject with Legend, with Dragon and with Chief Director Costa-Brown of the PRT.  Daily, I’ve been talking with and working with Director Piggot to see what actions need to be taken to see this city restored to what it once was.”

“That’s setting the bar pretty damn low,” Grove said, gripping the sides of his podium.

“No interruptions, please,” the moderator spoke.  Christner waved her off.  “You concede the remainder of your turn, Mayor?”

“Let’s hear what Grove has to say.”

“Very well.  Mr. Grove.  Two minutes to speak.”

“He wants to restore the city to what it was?  I think he’s wanting us to forget that half of our city was a cesspool before the Endbringer came.  Many of you in the audience live in the north end.  You know how bad it was.  Or maybe the Mayor is referring to the city’s heyday, when the docks were bustling with activity and the entire city could hear the ships coming in and out of the ports.  If he’s trying to convince you we’ll return to that time, he’s telling you an outright falsehood.  The Lord’s Port, known to many as the ship graveyard, would cost the city twenty-three million dollars just to clear away the damaged ships and dispose of them.    That’s not getting into the cost of actually refurbishing the area and updating it to modern standards.  Or the fact that anyone approaching within a mile and a half of the area is subjected to uncontrollable, suicidal despair.  I visited.  I know.”

I sent a message to Coil, drawing words with my bugs.

‘I’m here.  Stop.’

He broke up the words with a casual wave of his hands, scattering the bugs.  Almost dismissive.  Of course he wouldn’t stop now.  He’d made little secret about how important his plans were to him, and to stop now, at a moment this important?

“The mayor wants to take us back to where we were?  That’s not good enough.  I’m proposing that we make this an opportunity.  The slate, in many ways, has been wiped clean.  Let’s start over again.  There’s national and international funding that’s been put in place to help recover from Endbringer attacks and events of gross parahuman involvement.  My budget, which is detailed in handouts that will be provided in the lobby, details how we’ll use our tax dollars and that recovery funding to rejuvenate the city.  The ferry, which has become a local in-joke, will be started up once more.  Low-cost, high-yield housing plans for the north end, demolition and reconstruction on a large scale for Downtown and other damaged areas, and marketing to the rest of the United States to promote and sell Brockton Bay as a symbol of perseverance and human spirit, drawing in new residents and tourism.”

“Councillor Padillo,” the moderator spoke.  “Any response?”

“Keith Grove is not addressing the question.  He paints a pretty picture, but he doesn’t mention the presence of the local supervillains or the pressures they put on us…”

I fidgeted.  Could I attack?  Should I attack?  If I left now, maybe stepped into the side hallway, I could maybe avoid the soldiers, get to a vantage point where I could mount a counterattack against Coil.

Except I didn’t know what he was planning, and my dad was here.  I could take my dad, but then I risked having to explain what was happening, and it would mean leaving Kurt, Alexander and Lacey behind.  It meant leaving all these other civilians behind.

It wasn’t practical to bring anyone else along, but I couldn’t bring myself to run from my dad, here.  I couldn’t say why, how or any of that, but I felt as though leaving my dad behind here would mean I could never come back.  That it would break our relationship, whether it was me getting outed as a supervillain, a break in whatever tenuous bond of trust we had or because one of us would die.

I tended to be more rational than emotional.  If I was being totally honest with myself, though, my rationalizations were pretty heavily influenced by my feelings.  I could come up with a rational justification for pretty much any course of action.  It had led me this far.  Which wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

Councilor Padillo was still talking, even as my mind raced.  “…Points to a mismanagement of resources.  The Mayor would like us to believe that he was involved in genuine efforts to save this city.  I can’t believe he would want to be associated with the PRT’s operations as of late.  Loss after loss on the part of our heroes.  The losses aren’t the fault of the heroes, it’s even understandable, given the sheer power wielded by the likes of the Endbringer, of the Slaughterhouse Nine and the various other threats within the city…”

Coil was moving, now, his people getting in rank and file around him, his pet parahumans standing by.

I had to make my call.  Stand up to him and jeopardize everything I’d been working towards?  Here, now, with Coil drawing on his power, with three parahumans and no less than twenty elite soldiers who I knew were entirely capable of hitting what they were aiming at, backing him up?  Even if I stayed hidden in the crowd, I couldn’t say for sure that he wouldn’t spot me or my dad and order one of his people to move.

The alternative was that I could do as I’d been ordered, avoiding any costumed activity; trust Coil and his power to handle the situation.  I hated him, on a level, but I knew he was smart.  And I knew he knew I was here; I’d asked Lisa and she’d asked him if it was okay.  He had to have a plan for dealing with me if I took any action.

“…Open fighting in the streets.  No, the blame lies with the PRT and the mayor’s administration, which he admits was heavily involved in the decisions made.  Highly questionable decisions:  Holding back when they could have intervened.  Forcing confrontations when our heroes were gravely outmatched.”

I saw Piggot shifting uncomfortably in her seat at that.  Had this been arranged?  A staged scene?

Coil started striding for the closed double doors that led to the back of the auditorium, flanked by Circus and the other parahuman, rank after rank of his soldiers following.

I gripped my dad’s hand, held it tight, and stayed where I was.

The doors banged open.  Coil, Circus and… Über was with him, in a heavy metal suit, Leet stood off to one side, holding what looked like a ray gun.  People screamed, and it set off a chain reaction of responses throughout the auditorium.  People started running for the other exits, only to have their paths barred as more soldiers emerged.

My dad and I stayed in our seats, and I crouched low in front of my seat, pulling my dad down so he would be under cover.

“What the hell?” the Mayor growled into his microphone.  “Coil?”

“Mister Mayor,” Coil spoke.

“This is insanity,” Grove spoke.

“Genius sometimes looks that way to those who don’t see the whole picture.”  Coil had advanced far enough down the aisle that I could see him clearly.  He turned to take in the crowd, and for one heart-stopping moment I thought he’d stop when his eyes fell on me.  His head kept moving, and he walked further down the aisle, closer to the stage.

Grove said, “The local heroes-”

“Are occupied.  Fires started at select locations, areas where the damage won’t be immediate, but where they cannot be allowed to spread.  One such fire is at your headquarters.  My apologies.  I wanted to target high-priority areas.  The other fires will occupy the members of the Undersiders and Travelers and slow them down as they recover from the loss of their individual headquarters.”

I tensed at that.  How much of it was a bluff?

“You bastard,” the Mayor growled.  “First my niece, now this?”

Niece?

Of course.  I’d heard Dinah was niece to one of the mayoral candidates.  I hadn’t realized she was the niece to the mayor.

“She’s safe and sound,” Coil said.  “As are any people here without a title.  If you’re the mayor, or a candidate for mayor, if you call yourself chief of police, lieutenant, director or major, I’m afraid I can’t promise your safety.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Let me demonstrate.  Circus?”

Circus was walking through the assembled crowd as though she were on solid ground, but each footstep was onto the back of one of the auditorium seats.  She extended her arms out to either side, fingers splayed, then closed her hands into fists.  Knives stuck out from the spaces between each finger.

Mr. Grove and Mrs. Padillo ran first, and Mayor Christner was only steps behind.  It didn’t matter.  Circus flung her arms forward and each of the eight knives hit the mark.

People stood from their seats and for long moments I couldn’t see what happened on the stage after that.  I only felt the bodies hit the floor with the bugs.  I didn’t dare move the bugs to try to see exactly where the knives had landed.

Coil’s soldiers were holding the reporters and cameramen at gunpoint.  I raised myself up high enough to see him turning around to face the largest group of cameras.  “The other villains want to seize the city from below.  To start at the streets, out of sight, to remove any who would threaten their rule, and claim the various districts one by one.  They ignore the fact that there are others in power who aren’t superhuman.  Ordinary mortals with the power to make decisions that affect its citizens.

“I would take the more direct route.  Brockton Bay is mine.  I will make the decisions, claim and distribute the taxes and decide who sits in seats of power.  Anyone who would disagree will face the same fate as the mayor, Mr. Grove and Mrs. Padillo.”

I rose up enough to get a glimpse of the stage.  The mayor was lying on his back, chest rising and falling with too much force, as if he was sucking in lungfuls of air and then forcing them out with just as much strength.  He had a knife sticking out of the middle of his torso, another in his shoulder, and yet another in his leg.  My father pulled me down before I could see the others.

The mayor wasn’t dead, but he looked like the man might be dying.  Was I condoning this by staying silent?  I’d told myself I would let Coil’s plan play out until he did something unconscionable and this threatened to cross the line.  It was only the fact that the mayor was still alive and the fact that I couldn’t think of what I might do to intervene that kept me on the sidelines, hiding from the soldiers and the assault rifles they were wielding.

“You cannot expect this to succeed,” the voice blared over the speakers.

“Director Piggot,” Coil spoke.  “I must admire your courage, putting yourself in the line of fire so soon after your last escapade.  Kidnapped by the Undersiders, weren’t you?”

Through my bugs, I could sense how Piggot was leaning heavily on a desk just in front of the stage, using the debate moderator’s microphone.  “This plan of yours was doomed from the outset.  Just for what you’ve done, threatening these people and ordering the execution of those three on the stage, they’ll send the entire Protectorate after you.  America will demand it.  Or are you so mad you think we’ll let you crown yourself king?”

“Mad?  No.  A monster?  Maybe.  Better to say I’m a freak of nature.  My power is to control my own destiny, to reshape and cultivate it.  What you see here is only the tip of the iceberg.”

“There’s a greater plan, then.”

“Quite.  A shame you won’t discover it.  Circus?”

Piggot backed away from the table and ducked low.  It didn’t help.  Circus lobbed a throwing knife into the air, so that it arced.  She didn’t have eyes on the director, but the knife nonetheless went high, catching the light as it reached the peak of its flight near the high ceiling of the auditorium.   It plunged down to strike its target and screams sounded from the front of the auditorium.

“Someone contacted the heroes,” Leet spoke.  “My U.I. says they’re on the way.”

“Good,” Coil responded.  “Circus, come.  Squad captains, maintain order here.  We’ll be back the moment this is done.”

“The bitch is too fat.  Thinking I didn’t hit anything vital,” Circus said.

“See it through,” Coil ordered, turning to leave with Über and Leet accompanying him.  Circus turned to follow, flicking her wrist hard over her shoulder.  Three knives traveled through the air, their paths eerily in sync as they nearly touched the ceiling, converging together as they dropped towards Piggot.

I barely had time to think about it, rising to my feet and calling on my bugs.  I knew it was too few, too late, but standing by while someone got murdered?  Four or five cockroaches, some houseflies, it wasn’t enough.  I’d held the bugs back, keeping them in out of the way areas, and now I didn’t have enough to block the knives or divert them from their path.

There was a flash of light around Piggot, and for just an instant, I thought maybe she had powers.  Maybe she’d had a trigger event, or she always had them but kept them in reserve?

But it wasn’t her.  Weld caught the knives, letting them sink into his palm, down to the hilts.

It was the Wards.  Weld and Vista were at the foot of the room.  Vista was raising her hands, folding the walls into barriers to block those of Coil’s soldiers who weren’t holding the reporters hostage.  Kid Win was at one corner of the room, firing what looked like concussion blasts into soldier and civilian alike, a gun in each hand, and the hovering turrets at his shoulder adding still more firepower to the fray.  He’d taken the fight out of them with the first barrage, and the follow-up fire was apparently to take down the soldiers who managed to climb to their feet or raise a weapon.  The concussion-cannons were obvious nonlethal weapons from the casual way he was firing into the massed people, intended to stun and disable rather than harm.

Chariot had a gun that was firing off charges of electricity, similar to the one I’d borrowed from Kid Win, and was flying over the assembled soldiers, unloading shots on them.  His costume was different from the last time I’d seen him, with single-wheeled roller blades at his toes and a flight system that didn’t seem to be attached to him.  A disc the size of a car tire floated behind his head and shoulders, almost luminescent with energy, and the wings of his flight suit, tipped with jets of gold light, floated out to either side of it.

Clockblocker formed the final part of the strike party.  He wasn’t fighting- not directly.  He stood by a white cloth that had been frozen in time, covering the soldiers.

They were turning the situation around.  The suddenness with which they’d appeared, their positioning, they had planned this, assessing the situation, deciding where they needed to be to make a decisive strike and protect the crowd, and they must have teleported in.  I knew they had the technology to teleport objects.  I hadn’t guessed they had it for people, too.

“This way!”  Weld bellowed.  “Evacuate through the area at the back of the stage!  Stick to the sides!  And I need medical help for the wounded!”

Their group was a little battered, beaten and bruised, and they wore replacement costume parts.  Where I could see skin, I noted the welts of bug bites and stings that hadn’t yet faded.  Vista had covered hers with makeup, but they were there.

I was frozen by indecision.  I felt almost hopeful, strange as that sounded.  If the good guys got the upper hand, if they actually beat Coil, then I could rescue Dinah by simply visiting Coil’s base and opening the door to her room.  Coil was being ruthless here.  At his orders, four people had been wounded to the point that they might die.  If I stepped in to help…

No, my help wouldn’t be welcome.  It could even be dangerous, a distraction at a crucial time.  I would also have to escape.  A resounding victory might see them locking down the area to take down witness statements or make sure no soldiers removed their uniform and slipped out with the crowd.  Nobody had seen me gathering the bugs in my futile attempt to try to help Piggot.  But if they found out Skitter was in the building and won, then it would be a question of narrowing down which teenage girl in the building fit the profile.

And if I tried to help and Coil won, well, my dad and I would be fucked.  No sense in putting it politely.  He would be in a prime position to not only retaliate, but maybe even retaliate without losing the support of my teammates.

If anything anchored me in place, it was the way one of Dad’s hands clutched my own, the other hand holding my wrist, and the way he seemed to be trying to shield me with his body.  His face was taut with fear, his body rigid.

“Wards!”  Weld shouted.  “All clear!?”

“Clear!”  the cry came back three times, from Clockblocker, Kid Win and Chariot.  The soldiers had been taken down.

My dad tugged on my hand.  Enough people had made their way down the aisles that we had room to maneuver.  I followed his lead, letting him pull me towards the aisle.

“Regroup!  Optimal range, facing the doors!”  Weld ordered.  Vista, Clockblocker, Kid Win and Chariot hurried to the center of the room.  He stayed where he was, watching as civilians from the crowd tended to the wounded.  All but the mayor were apparently alive.  The only one I could wonder about was the mayor.  He was lying prone, receiving CPR at the hands of two people.

“Now!”  Weld shouted.

Clockblocker moved, lunging three feet to his left to tag Chariot.  Chariot froze in the air.

I stopped in my tracks, momentarily confused.  Had some of the Wards turned traitor?  No.  Kid Win and Vista seemed to be taking this in stride.  Both were working together to bind Chariot.

There were cries of protest from the crowd.  “What are you doing?”  “He didn’t do anything!”

“He’s a double agent,” Weld spoke, his voice carrying.  “Working for Coil.  Go.  Evacuate, get out of here.  We have this in hand.”

He radiated confidence.  Damn it, for all the times we’d fought the Wards, for every time I’d cursed the heroes for not doing what I needed them to do, I began to feel hopeful.

My dad and I were making our way down the aisle, past the soldiers that Chariot had laid low.  We were at the steps leading up to the stage when the doors slammed open.

Über led the way, followed by Coil, Leet, Circus and a squadron of soldiers.  His metal frame took the brunt of the incoming fire, and he used his arms to shield his exposed upper body from the blasts of electricity and the concussion shots from Kid Win’s guns and turrets.

Vista began shrinking the arms, but the progress seemed slower.  She had trouble using her power when there was living material in the way, but it was still working.

Being so close to the fighting, to the gunfire and flashes of electricity, people were reacting badly.  Screaming, shouting at others to move faster, pushing and shoving.  Worst of all, they were making so much noise I couldn’t follow everything that was going on.  Coil was saying something, his words carrying to the heroes, but I missed it in the chaos.

I didn’t want to out myself as being present, so I was limited in how many bugs I could deploy.  A small handful on Coil served to let me follow his movements.  He’d dropped to one knee behind Über, and Leet handed him a small remote control.  He wasted no time in pressing the button.

The noise of gunfire changed.  My head wasn’t the only one that turned to see what had happened.

Kid Win had stopped shooting, and a shrill whine was filling the air.  He turned to Weld, who began tearing at his armor.

Leet stepped out from behind Über and shot Vista.  She was thrown down the length of the aisle, slamming against the base of the stage.  He took another shot at Clockblocker, who froze himself.  Kid Win drew another gun from a side holster and shot Leet.

Weld had finished dismantling Kid Win’s armor, freeing what looked to be a power cell.

I could barely make out the words, but someone in the crowd did.  A woman screamed the words, “He said it’s a bomb!  Sabotage!  Run!”

In that instant, the crowd became a crush of bodies, each trying so hard to get up and through the stairwell that we barely made any progress.  Über, Leet, Circus and Coil began running towards the lobby, Über kicking down the door, leaving the heroes to deal with the bomb they were holding, which was squealing at a higher pitch and volume with every passing second.  It was glowing, brilliant in its golden radiance.

Kid Win pointed at Chariot.  The boy was frozen, still, but the wings and pack on his back were still active, not attached to Chariot’s suit and therefore unaffected by Clockblocker’s power.

Weld caught the setup out of the air, tearing away the outer casing the second it was in his hands.  Kid Win changed the wiring.  They were shouting something to one another, but I couldn’t make out the words.  Weld pointed up.

The bomb or sabotaged power supply disappeared, teleporting away in the same grid of lines that I’d seen Kid Win use to summon his massive cannon.  It dawned on me what they’d done.  Teleporting the bomb straight up into the sky, where there was nobody and nothing to be affected.

Or that had been their plan.  It didn’t work out that way.  I saw a flicker of light from the lobby, the glow of the device, and Coil wheeling around to face us, his screaming lost in the midst of the shrill whine and the shouts of the others.

My eye to brain response was too slow to process everything that happened next.  I saw it in snapshots: the swelling energy of the sabotaged power supply, Coil’s body coming apart in pieces, the chairs of the auditorium and fragments of floorboards being thrown into the air as the explosion seemed to move in slow motion.

Then it hit us, and I saw only white, felt only pain.

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Monarch 16.2

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“We’re not going to be able to take on Dragon without a plan,” Grue said, “A damn good one.”

“You taking point on this?” Trickster asked.  He stepped forward to unlock the gate and held it open for us.

I knew Grue well enough that I noticed the delay before he responded. “I don’t have a plan, but I’ll take lead if we need it.”

Was he hesitating?  We hadn’t really asked a lot of Grue since he’d been taken by the Nine.  Lisa had expressed concerns that he might be shaky if we put him under the pressures a leader had to handle, and the others had apparently agreed.  They’d talked about nominating me.

I wasn’t sure I was up for the role, but I was even less sure about having Grue calling the shots when he might shut down or get distracted at a crucial moment.  I didn’t know what form his trauma might take in this kind of situation.  Our side consisted of Trickster and Sundancer from the Travelers, with Regent, Shatterbird, maybe Victor, Grue, Imp and me. Grue’s own self-preservation or his feelings for Imp and me could cause him to play it too safe when we needed to make a decisive strike.

“Actually-” I started to interject, but the words disappeared the second everyone turned my way.  Grue’s attention, in particular, was making it hard to be confident.  I didn’t want to hurt him, and trying to figure out how to phrase things without hurting his feelings, raising a sensitive subject and actually saying what I wanted to say…

We’d stepped outside.  The half-finished building that loomed over the entrance to Coil’s underground base sheltered us, allowing intermittent sunlight through where plywood hadn’t yet been erected to fill the gaps.  Patches of bright and dark.  I turned and looked at Grue, trying to read him, to see if there was some clue about what he’d say.

Regent spoke up, “Spit it out.  Actually what?”

“Can I?”  I asked.  “Can I take point here?”

When in doubt, keep it simple.

“You have a plan?” Trickster asked.

“Maybe.  No, plan is the wrong word.  Call it a strategy.”  I was studying our group, assessing the tools we had at our disposal.  “But it’s becoming a plan as I think about it, and I think Imp plays the key role here.”

“Fuck yeah!”

Imp?” Trickster asked.  “Dragon can see her, can’t she?  She’s the most useless person here.  I mean, I know I’m not in any shape to fight, but at least my power does something.”

“Fuck you,” Imp snarled.

“No,” I said.  “We can definitely use her.”

“Let’s hear the plan,” Grue said.  I was relieved that there was no anger or irritation in his voice, nothing to indicate he was upset over my co-opting the leadership role.

“The first priority will be making sure Bitch, Genesis and Ballistic are okay.  I’m thinking the easiest way to do that will be to pay the heroes a visit at the PRT headquarters.”

“Dangerous,” Grue said.

“And it’s something Dragon will anticipate, I think,” I said.  “It’s a safe bet to say she’s smart, even if the actual machines aren’t getting her full attention or if they’re dumber because their artificial intelligences don’t function at the same level as an actual human brain.  She’s still organizing the suits, and she’s going to be able to anticipate that we might go for the most vulnerable elements of their operation, the local heroes.”

“You’re thinking we go after them?”

“We have to.  The individual suits are going to be tough to take down, if not outright impossible.  We can take down the local heroes and get leverage, information, or at least stop them from interfering when we go up against one or more of Dragon’s suits.”

“Makes sense,” Trickster said.  “Unless we’re putting ourselves in that worst-case scenario where we’re dealing with multiple suits plus the local heroes.”

“It’s possible.  Even here, I’m willing to bet my left hand that there’s going to be a Dragon suit parked on the roof of that building, or somewhere near by.”

“And you’re thinking we use Imp?”  Grue asked.

I nodded.  “We can leave her there as a saboteur, maybe, or just have her in place to get information or methodically take threats out of action.  But it won’t be that simple.  They’ll have security cameras throughout the building.  Which means we need to take them out if she’s going to walk around without a problem.  Regent, can Shatterbird kill all the cameras and lights in the building without killing anyone?  Nothing explosive.”

“A gentle break?  I’d have to be close.  Closer if I don’t know where it is.”

“And by ‘I’ you mean Shatterbird?” Grue asked.

“Yeah.  I can’t get that far from her though.”

“I can probably find the location to target with my bugs.  But getting Shatterbird in close means we need a distraction.  So this is a two-pronged plan.”

“The problem with that,” Grue said, “Is this is also a plan with a lot of steps, each dependent on the success of the step before it, as well as the success of the second ‘prong’.  If we fuck up or run into a snag somewhere along the line, it falls apart.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “And we’re going to be outnumbered and outgunned, even if we don’t count the squads of PRT uniforms that are going to be stationed in there.  But I think we can use that to our advantage.”

“Disguises?” Sundancer asked.

“No.  Not disguises.  Let’s hurry.  We’re working with a hard time limit, we have to travel on foot, and we’re going to be forced to stay out of the open as we travel.”

Grue filled the area with darkness as we approached, and then cleared enough away for us to talk.  With luck, it would help keep them from detecting us with any of the countless tools tinkers like Dragon, Chariot or Kid Win had at their disposal.  Radar, thermal imaging, stuff I’d never even heard of.

They had modified the PRT building since our last visit.  The windows had been destroyed when Shatterbird had attacked the city, and were now filled with screens and plywood.  PRT uniforms stood on the rooftop, observing the surrounding area.  Trucks ringed the area, each with police officers, detectives in bulletproof vests and more PRT uniforms standing nearby.

One of Dragon’s suits was perched on the rooftop of the tallest building in the area.  The legs were long enough that the knees rose above the body, ending in four sharp points, and wing panels seemed to join each of the legs, like the flaps of skin between the legs of a flying squirrel.  The actual body was low to the ground, with a long tail that had entwined from a point at the back of the rooftop to the front, caressing the corner closest to me.  The head swiveled slowly from side to side, scanning for threats.

It wasn’t the drone ship.  Good.  That would have been disastrous.  But I didn’t know what this suit did.  The feature that caught my eye was the wheel.  As big around as the suit was long, the spoked wheel ran through the shoulders of the suit, jutting straight up.  It rotated slowly, arcs of electricity occasionally flashing between the center and the edges, killing any bugs that settled on the spokes and leaving a heavy scent of ozone in their wake.

I described the general shape for them.

“Anyone recognize what Skitter’s describing?” Grue asked.

“That’s not the one that came after me,” Sundancer said.

“It’s in my territory,” Trickster said.  “Maybe she picked it to come after me?”

“How do you counter a teleporter?”  I asked.

“With that thing, apparently,” Regent commented.  “So we’re dividing our group?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m tracking you guys with my bugs.  Take your time getting into position.  Better to take a bit longer than to alert them too early.  Grue’s with me.  Trickster, Imp and Sundancer stay here, keep out of sight at all costs.  Regent and Shatterbird, you stay here in the darkness for cover until we make a move, then head out and circle around.  When we’re all in place, I’ll let you know.”

Grue and I headed out, navigating through back alleys and side streets, detouring far enough away that the curve of the road kept us out of sight of the officers stationed by the intersection, with my swarm to check for any bystanders and Grue’s darkness to keep us off the armored mech’s radar.  I used my bugs to start tracking the people inside the headquarters.

Heat and humidity were my allies here.  The main floors had open areas with desks and areas with blocks of cubicles, packed with officers working elbow to elbow.  They’d worked long days, judging by the heavy taste of the sweat on their skin, and they’d let food pile up. With the general warmth of summer, bugs were secretly thriving.  Some vegetable mush had leaked from the trash can to the bottom of a bin, maybe spaghetti or some pizza sauce, and maggots were happily devouring a meal there.  Small flies had amassed where the trash hadn’t been promptly cleared away, and piles of paper offered a home to the enterprising spiders that wanted to devour this growing population of pests.

I’d worried I wouldn’t be able to get my bugs on everyone present without alerting them.  It wasn’t a problem in the end.  A small number of maggots could be delivered by a fly, dropped into the midst of an officer’s shoelaces, the pocket of their pants or the holster of their gun.  From there, it was easy enough to keep track of where they were moving and what they were doing.  Counting the bodies, checking the various people inside, I could tell that Bitch, Genesis and Ballistic weren’t present.  Nobody matched their build or style of dress, in costume or out.

On the third floor the three local members of the Protectorate were in the company of the Wards, a pair of PRT uniforms and the woman I took to be the Director.  Triumph seemed to be okay, I could sense the general shape of Miss Militia, as well as Assault.  I didn’t spot Prism, Cache or Ursa Aurora.  That was good.

All of the Wards were present, too:  Weld, Clockblocker, Flechette, Kid Win, Vista, and Chariot.

We had two big guns.  If we were willing to be monsters, to go all out, it would be a fairly simple matter to hit them with Shatterbird to slow them down, use Sundancer’s sun at maximum power, tear the building apart and incinerate the residents before everyone could clear out.  It wouldn’t even be hard.

But what was the point if we went that far?  I was in this to save Dinah.  It didn’t do any good if I ruined the lives of a hundred Dinahs in the process – the daughters and sisters of the employees here, fathers, mothers and other people who did nothing to get caught up in this war.

“This spot good?” Grue asked, stopping.

I looked around.  We didn’t have a view of the building, but we did have a view of Trickster.  Which is what we needed.

“It’s good.  One minute while I fill them in.”

“Feel confident?”

“Wish I had time to practice this before trying it in the field,” I replied.

“Yeah,” he answered.

I used my bugs to spell out the various information they needed.  The presence and location of the armored suit, the general number and location of the enemy forces and the floors they were currently on.  It took me a few minutes to spell everything out and verify that they understood.

The plan called for a distraction.  Sundancer would take the lead on that.  I signaled the go-ahead, and she created her orb, shoving it down through the road’s surface.  However many thousands of degrees it was, it melted through pavement and bored into whatever pipes and drainage spaces were beneath the roads.

When it rose through an intersection some distance away, it was significantly larger.  Sundancer began bringing it steadily towards the headquarters, moving in towards the opposite face of the building that Grue and I were closest to.

The Protectorate headed to the windows to see what was happening.  I highlighted the window frame with my bugs, clustering them so a general rectangle surrounded the area.  Did Trickster have the ability to see them through the window?  It was hard to calculate the angles-

I found myself in the midst of the local heroes.  Bugs exploded out from within my costume, covering them.  Capsaicin-laced bugs found every uncovered eye, mouth and nose before they realized what had just happened.  My bugs could sense Triumph bending his knees to lunge for me-

And I’d shifted a few feet to the right.  Even as my orientation and senses were thrown by the sudden movement, my bugs let me figure out where I’d moved a fraction of a second before the enemy did.  I was already reaching for my baton, whipping it out to its full length.

Trickster switched me again before I could strike Miss Militia with my combat stick.  Vista was in front of me, and without really thinking about it, I struck her in the most vulnerable area I could reach, across the bridge of her nose, swatting her in the ear with a stroke in the opposite direction.

Another swap, not a half-second later.  We were counting on my swarm-sense giving me the edge in this chaos, the close proximity and unclear positioning of their allies would keep them from hitting me with the worst of their powers.  I caught Miss Militia in the midsection with my baton, swung overhead to try to catch her hand, but missed when Trickster teleported me again.

Assault kicked me before I could recover and strike my next target.  The hit didn’t feel that hard, but it sent me sliding across the floor, into a trio of chairs with plastic seats.

“The window!” Miss Militia choked out the orders through the pain of the capsaicin and the massed bugs.  “Block Trickster!”

I climbed to my feet.  I’d waited too long to signal for an exit.  The plan had been to bring Grue in as I wrapped up my initial attack, let him use his darkness to disable, steal whatever power would serve best and dispatch the enemy.  They’d caught on to what we were doing, and they were making their counter-move.  If Trickster couldn’t see me, he couldn’t swap me with anyone, meaning I was on my own.

My opponents were suffering, though.  Clockblocker was gone, teleported out as I’d teleported in.  Miss Militia, Vista, Flechette, Triumph, Chariot and Kid Win were down, more or less out of commission with their eyes swollen shut and the bugs crawling into their ears and airways.  At Miss Militia’s instruction, they had backed up to the window, blocking Trickster’s view.

Besides bringing Grue in, the plan had been for Trickster to swap the heroes out as he spotted them, using bystanders or any officers in the area.  Right this moment, he should have eyes on the uniforms on the roof, could switch their locations with that of the heroes, but he wasn’t.  Maybe he felt it was more dangerous for me to be up against a cop with a gun or a PRT uniform with containment foam than against heroes we’d already disabled.

Or maybe he was fucking me over on purpose.  No, it didn’t make sense.  He had his teammates to rescue.  I was still suffering latent paranoia from Coil’s ‘test’.

Still, the other heroes were more or less incapacitated.  That left me to deal with Weld, Assault, the two PRT officers and the Director.  She was an obese woman, two-hundred and fifty pounds at a minimum, with an unflattering, old-fashioned haircut that might have looked good on a model with the right clothes to go with it.  Neither Weld nor Assault were advancing, choosing to block my access to the exits.  The area was some kind of office, filled with desks, chairs, cubicles and computers.  More like an office building than I’d expected from a law enforcement facility.

“This-” the Director started, stopping to cough and gag as one of the capsaicin bugs found the inside of her mouth.  It had already smeared its payload along the inside of Vista’s nostril, so the payload wouldn’t be that intense.  “This was a mistake.”

“If it wasn’t a little reckless, Dragon would have probably anticipated it.”

“You’ve trapped yourself in here.  Two other Dragon models are already on the way.”

Fuck.

“Good,” I told her.  I was pretty sure I managed to hide the fact that I was lying through my teeth.

She straightened, pressing one hand to her right eye.  “Is this Tattletale’s plan?”

“Mine.”

“I see, and-”

I didn’t hear the rest.  Behind my back, Assault moved to kick one of the desks.  It went flying into the air in the same instant I threw myself to the ground.  I could feel the rush of wind as it passed over me, hurtling into a cubicle.  I scrambled for cover.

“Prescience.  Interesting,” the Director called out, as I ducked low and used the cubicles to hide.  “We assigned you a thinker-one classification, but perhaps we fell short.”

“I really don’t care.”  I used my bugs to speak, so they couldn’t use my voice to pinpoint my location.  She was trying to distract me so the others could act, or buying the Dragon suits time to arrive.  I was calling in more bugs to the area and slowly gathering them around myself, now that I didn’t need to worry about people spotting them.

“You can see through their eyes, hear what they hear?  Can you see the suit that was outside?”

The armored mech was moving, its limbs outstretched to catch the air with the flying-squirrel wing flaps.  Panels around its body were venting out hot air and giving it lift, and the giant wheel was tilted back at a forty-five degree angle.  The suit was clearly designed to fly forward, relying on the wing flaps to make intricate and acrobatic twists and turns in the air.  Sundancer’s miniature sun was blocking the suit’s progress, forcing it to make lengthy detours and twist in the air, stalling and dropping several feet before it could catch the air beneath it again.  More than once, it lost more ground than it gained while retreating from the burning orb.

“Yeah.  It’s handled,” I called out, from behind the desk.  My swarm felt the Director make a hand motion, apparently to signal Weld.  As he began advancing towards me, I stayed low and retreated into a cubicle.

The Director spoke, “More will come.  Not just the seven suits that are currently in Brockton Bay.  So long as you hold this city, Dragon will bring in more suits on a weekly basis.  Dragon will shore up weaknesses, augment strengths.  If you’re lucky here, you might win.  I’ll credit you that.  But you won’t get two or three days of rest before you have to fight again.  How many times can you abandon your territory before your followers abandon you?”

The swarm’s buzz helped mask the location of my voice.  “How many times can you afford to let the crooks clean up your messes before the public realizes your Protectorate is little more than good PR, fancy talk and wasted tax dollars?”

“We’re doing more than you think,” she responded.

“And less than the people need.  I’m filling a void you people left behind.  If you were doing a satisfactory job, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing.”

Come on, come on.

“Don’t act stupider than you are, Skitter.  The city can’t step in to help the people in your territories because we can’t trust you.  Your Bitch is already mauling anyone that sets foot in her territory.  Any electrician, carpenter or doctor that we send into your territory might come back to us dying from anaphylactic shock.”

I shut my mouth.  I didn’t have a response to that.  At least, I didn’t have a response which wasn’t a mere, I promise I’ll be good.

It wasn’t worth worrying about, because I didn’t get the chance to reply anyways.  There was a crashing sound and the lights cracked.  Fragments and splinters of glass showered down on top of us as everything suddenly went dark.  To take maximum advantage of this shift in circumstance, I complemented the effect by moving the bugs I’d gathered just outside the windows, blocking the meagre light that was filtering through the screens and plunging the entire room into a dimly lit twilight.

I drew my knife and bolted.  Glass crunched underfoot and caused my feet to slip under me as I ran.  Assault charged my way, one arm still covering his mouth.  More bugs covered the lenses of his mask, but they slid off him as if he were oiled.  His power at work.

With the bugs around me, I pulled a quick, crude decoy together, running in one direction as my bugs moved in another, slightly closer to him.  In the dim, his mask partially covered, he went after the decoy.  When his hand passed through, he reached just a little further to grab a desk and heave it my way.

Once again, I only barely managed to dodge by throwing myself to one side.  My landing was hard, undignified, and ended with the armor of my mask and shoulder hitting the corner where two walls met.

“What are you hoping to accomplish?” the Director called out.

I stood, trying to look as if I was considering my answer.  Weld was approaching, and Assault stood ready to attack.  Not like he had anything to lose – I was cornered, quite literally.

I turned the knife around in my hand so the blade pointed down and slashed to my right, cutting the bug-covered screen with a loose ‘x’.  Assault lunged for me, crossing half the room with a single leap.  He was too late – I let myself fall through the third story window.

The outdoors were startlingly bright after the gloom of the building’s interior.  I felt my hair whip around me for one second, then landed, sprawling, in a dim setting.

I hadn’t fallen the full distance.  I was inside again, surrounded by the other heroes.  I had only a second before they realized what I’d done.  I turned and slashed the screen behind me, throwing myself from the window a second time.

Again, Trickster swapped me with one of the heroes.  I landed with my feet skidding on the floor beneath me and caught the windowsill for balance.  I waved: my signal.

“Get away from the window!”  Assault bellowed.

Then I was teleported yet again.  I found myself back in the alleyway I’d been in with Grue.  Clockblocker was facing away from me, Grue was gone.

A quick check showed he wasn’t moving.  Grue had caught him off guard, and his initiative had beat out Clockblocker’s concern about potentially disabling an ally.  Clockblocker was frozen by his own borrowed power.  Perfect.

I reached behind my back and unspooled the length of thread.  My bugs took hold of it at various points along its length and began traveling across Clockblocker’s body, winding the silk cord around him and tying it in knots.

With luck he wouldn’t be a threat even after he got loose.

I reached out with my power to assess the general situation. Grue’s darkness surrounded the area, keeping the officers and PRT uniforms at the blockades from opening fire.

The mechanical suit that had been perched on the rooftop nearby was on the ground now, fighting Sundancer, Shatterbird and Grue, the latter two of which were out in the open.

The plan was to avoid leaving cover, I thought.

The wheel on the back of Dragon’s machine was already spinning at full speed.  I could make out a red eye in the center, identical to the ones that had been on the drone.  The suit thrust itself forward with the vents around its body, lunging for Grue, and Trickster swapped Grue’s location with a PRT uniform, putting Grue on the rooftop.  It avoided hitting the man by dragging its two left claws in the pavement, lifting its tail so it wouldn’t swing around and strike him.

The wheel blazed with a wreath of electricity, the entire suit thrumming with enough charge to kill every bug touching it.  Without warning, the wheel flared and Grue was yanked over the edge of the rooftop by an invisible force.  Trickster caught Grue, swapping him for the same officer before he was halfway to the ground.

This is Dragon’s counter to a teleporter?  I would have called it a magnet, but Grue wasn’t carrying or wearing anything substantial with metal on it.  Or was this the suit Dragon had deployed against Genesis, Ballistic or Bitch?

Maybe I was missing something.

I used my swarm to keep the windows blocked and the people inside under assault, just enough that they couldn’t recover and complicate an already dangerous situation.  I tried to position the bugs I could spare so they hovered around the sensors and the ‘eye’ of the wheel.  Shatterbird was pelting it with a stream of glass shards that looped back in her general direction to rejoin the stream and strike over and over again.

It didn’t work.  The thing targeted Grue again and hauled him a hundred feet towards it.  Still crackling with electricity from its nose to the tip of its tail, it advanced on him, tail stretching forward to reach for him.

The machine suddenly shifted position and powered its thrusters to lunge away.  Sundancer’s orb erupted from the ground just behind the spot the suit had been standing.  I could see Grue raising his hands to shield his face from the waves of heated air as he scrambled to his feet and ran.

The first of the reinforcements arrived.  I recognized it as the suit that had been deployed against Leviathan.  The same one that had gone after Tattletale, unless she had more than one.  This one had the foam sprayer.  It set down on the edge of the battlefield opposite the wheel-dragon.

We took too long.  Or the suits had arrived too soon.  There wasn’t really a difference.  The wheel-dragon must have pulled Grue from cover and forced Shatterbird to step up to help, and my own invasion of the main building had taken just a little too long, giving Assault a chance to get his bearings and hit me.

My swarm informed me in advance of the second of the suits that were arriving on scene.  The wheel-dragon thrust itself forward, skimming the road’s surface to put itself next to the PRT headquarters.  The drone-deployment suit set down on top of a nearby building so they were spaced out evenly.

They had Grue and Shatterbird surrounded.  I stood off to one side, between the drone-deployer and the foam-sprayer, still too close for comfort but they didn’t seem to have noticed me.

I glanced towards the building where Trickster and Sundancer were holed up.  Sundancer wasn’t moving her sun, and Trickster was apparently unable to see a valid target to swap Grue for.  The officers and PRT uniforms had been disabled while I was indoors, and both Kid Win and Miss Militia lay at the base of the building.

I used my bugs to write him out an order: ‘swap me for sun, swap me for kid’.

A long second passed.  Was Trickster illiterate?  Why was it so hard for him to notice the key info I was trying to write down-

I found myself surrounded by darkness.  Only a slit of light filtered into the room through the plywood.  Trickster stood beside me, and the words I’d written out with bugs were on the plywood.  He’d swapped me for Sundancer.

“You sure?”  He asked.  He’d gathered what I was hoping to do.

“Yeah,” I said.  I pressed my knife into his hand.

He moved me in an instant, putting me at the base of the headquarters, facing a wall.  As I turned around, the three suits shifted position to look my way.

Trickster stepped out of the building, the tip of my knife pressed to the point where Kid Win’s chin joined his neck.

We could have used Sundancer’s sun to threaten the people inside the building and get the suits to back off, but I didn’t trust her to be mean enough.  I didn’t have much respect for Trickster as a human being, but that was an advantage when we needed someone to be more vicious.

The suits stood down.  I could see the wheel spin to a stop, the drones returning to dock.

Right.  Dragon wouldn’t risk a human life.  She’d discarded her suit rather than let an established criminal die.  She wouldn’t let a young hero die for the sake of getting us into custody.

“Let’s go!” Trickster called.

I hurried to cross the area between the three Dragon-suits, Grue joining me halfway.  Trickster backed up with a barely conscious Kid Win in his grip.

We’d nearly reached safety when one suit shuddered to life.  Trickster spun around, still holding Kid Win, turning his attention to the wheel-dragon.  The wheel was moving again. “No funny business!”

It wasn’t the wheel-dragon that attacked.  Before I could open my mouth to warn Trickster, the suit with the containment foam sprayed him, swamping him from behind.  The weight and force of the spray knocked his knife-hand away from Kid Win, and the swelling, gummy mess kept it away.  The sprayer proceeded to slowly bury the two of them, trapping hostage and hostage-taker together.

“Swap for Miss Militia!”  Grue shouted, turning around as the drones began deploying once again.  The wheel was getting up to speed, crackling with electricity.

“Can’t- Can’t turn my head to get a look at her!”  The foam was spraying him from behind.  If he turned his head, he’d be blinded.

And we weren’t in a position to grab her and haul her into Trickster’s field of view.  It would take too long.  Drones were sweeping down onto the street level, moving into position so they hovered above Grue and I.  I waited for the electrical charge to hit.

It didn’t.

The drone tapped my head as it descended.  I stepped back and let it descend slowly to the ground.

The foam sprayer had stopped.  Trickster was buried up to his waist, Kid Win face down in the foam in front of him.  The wheel was spinning down for the second time in the span of twenty seconds.

Trickster swapped himself for Kid Win, putting himself knee-deep in the foam.  He craned his head around and managed to get Miss Militia in his sight, then swapped for her.

We ran, following after the others, who’d already left the battlefield.

“Why did they stop?” Grue asked.

I shook my head.  “Tattletale?”

I kept waiting for the suits to perk up and give chase, or for further reinforcements to appear.  There was no pursuit.  Fifteen minutes passed before we had to stop, settling in an abandoned building to hide and catch our breath.

I sorted out my weapons, taking my knife back from Trickster, and sat down to rest.  I ran my fingers through my hair to get it in a semblance of order.

My fingers snagged on something.  For a second, I thought maybe I’d gotten some containment foam in it.

No.  My hair was tied around a piece of paper.  I had to use my bugs to untie it.

I recognized the lettering.  A series of symbols that all strung together so it was hard to tell where one began and one ended.  I’d designed it, when I was making up the code to keep my superhero notes private.

I’d left myself a message?  When?

“I gave myself a reminder, telling me to take our group to the south end of the main beach,” I said.

“The fuck?” Regent asked.

“I dunno,” I said.  “But we didn’t get the hostage we’d planned on taking, so I think we should go, if nobody else has a better idea.”

It took some time to get there, sticking to back alleys and roads, and it took more time to verify that there were no threats in the area.

As confusing as the message was, everything made sense when Imp made her presence known, dropping the veil of her power’s effect.

Right.  I’d had her tie the note into my hair so it wouldn’t confuse or distract me while I was in the field, something I’d only notice after the fact.

She was practically bouncing with excitement.

“Saved your asses,” she said.

“And she’s never going to let us forget,” Regent commented.

“You got out okay?” Grue asked.

“I marched the fatty out of the building as soon as I’d made sure the robots weren’t going to attack again.  Grabbed the keys from a cop and drove off.  No way you can say I’m useless again, Tricksy.”

Trickster looked at her ‘guest’.  “I won’t.”

Director Piggot, the fat woman, was handcuffed and kneeling beside Imp, head hanging.

“Well,” I said, “Could have gone better, but we got what we needed.  You had her order them to shut down, right?”

“Yup.”

“Dragon must have given the Director the ability to command the suits.  Wouldn’t have guessed,” Grue said.

I nodded in agreement.  “It’s a matter of time before they arrange some workaround, take away the Director’s access or Dragon reprograms the suits, but this is good.  We’ve got some leverage now.”

The Director raised her head to direct a glare at us with swollen, bloodshot eyes.

Funny as it was, I couldn’t bring myself to feel bad about it.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 15

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

“Knock, knock.”

Triumph turned around.  “Sam.”

She poked her head around the edge of the door, hand over her eyes.  Beautiful.  She was blonde and wearing her skintight costume.  She had the figure to pull it off where so few really did.  The kind of body someone worked for.  Her mask was off, tucked into her belt.

“You decent?”  Prism asked, not moving her hand.

“Yeah.”  He finished folding his hospital gown and draped it at the foot of the bed. Not perfect, but it was better than leaving a mess.

“You’re okay to be up and about?”

“Yeah,” he said.  He didn’t want to reply with a single syllable again, so he turned to face her.  He smiled a little.  “I’m tough.”

“Don’t boast.  I was with your family while we watched the paramedics cart you off.”

“I made it.  I don’t heal that much faster than normal, but I do heal faster, I don’t scar, and I don’t tend to suffer long-term injuries.”

“But you nearly died.  Don’t forget.”

“I definitely won’t forget, believe me,” he said.  He balled up his bathrobe and put it in the gym bag that already sat on the bed.  “I’m surprised you came.”

“We’re dating,” she said.

“Three dates, and we both agreed it wouldn’t be anything permanent.”

“You say that and then you invite me to meet your parents.”

“Because the food at home is better than the rations you’d get anywhere else in this city.”  He raised an eyebrow, “But you’re the one checking on me this morning.  Didn’t you have a flight?””

“A flight’s easy enough to postpone when the Protectorate’s arranging it.  I decided I needed to sleep in after being up all night getting x-rayed, Ursa said she was ok with it.”

“I’m just saying, you didn’t have to stop by.”

“Don’t flatter yourself.  I wanted to see how Cache was doing.  It’s a walk down the hall to see you.”

“Ouch.  Allies before guys?”

“There’s got to be a better way of saying that.”

“Probably.  How’s he?”

“Burned badly, but he’s healing.  We’ll see how bad the long-term damage is.”

“And how are you?”

“Bruised, bit of a limp.  Pretty okay overall.”

“Good,” he smiled.  “Want to go get some coffee?  I’ve been running on so much caffeine lately that I think I’ll pass out if I don’t get my morning dose.  I’ll lend you my shoulder so you don’t have to put too much weight on that leg.”

“Coffee’s good.  But are there any places that are open?”

“There’s a place in the building.”

Prism made a face.

“Not institution coffee.  An actual coffee bar as part of the cafeteria.”  He slung his bag over one shoulder and offered her an arm.

“Don’t you need a wheelchair?  I thought it was hospital policy to wheel you to the door.”

“It’s fine.  Benefit of having a small hospital as part of the PRT building.  Pretty common for us to go straight from here to our offices, and there were apparently issues with photographers taking pictures of heroes in wheelchairs as they left the hospital.  Director Piggot arranged things this way for exactly this reason.”

“Damn.  Need to push for something like that in NYC.  Our hospital’s off-site.”  She put a hand on his shoulder and they began making their way down the hall.

Ursa Aurora turned the corner and spotted them.  Triumph could see the frown lines above the glossy black bear mask she wore, her obvious relief and the quickening of her pace on spotting him.  His heart sank. Something’s happened.  Or it’s happening.

“Guys!”

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“There’s an issue.  Division in the ranks.  Looking ugly.”

“The enemy?”

She shook her head.  “Our guys.  And it’s about you.”

That caught him off guard.  He shook his head a little; no time to get into the particulars.  He’d deal with the situation himself.  “Lead the way.”

Despite the apparent urgency of the situation, they couldn’t run.  Prism was hurt and the elevator was the fastest way to their destination.  Ursa went ahead to press the button while Triumph helped Prism limp her way there.

Gentler,” she hissed, after setting too much weight on her bad leg.

“Sorry.”

“I hate this, being injured,” Prism mumbled.

“It’s not too serious?”

“No.  Skitter tethered me to the roof so I dropped halfway, stopped, then cut the line so I’d drop the rest of the way.  Landed on my side.  But being hobbled like this, it brings back bad memories.”

He turned to Ursa as they approached the elevators.  “Press both buttons at the same time, three times in a row for the emergency use.”

Ursa did as he’d suggested, and the button began alternately flashing yellow and red.  The doors opened almost immediately afterward and they gathered inside.  Ursa hit the button for the basement floor: the Wards’ headquarters.

He glanced at her teammate.  It struck him that it was inappropriate to ask, but it also felt like Prism was inviting the question.  “Would it be bad form for me to ask?  About the bad memories?”

Prism shook her head.  “Ursa knows, and I’ve been working on getting over it.  I already mentioned my history in gymnastics.  My dad’s a coach, had spent his entire life pushing me and my siblings to be on the Olympic level.  I sometimes thought it was the only reason he had kids.  I was pretty close to qualifying when I tore my ACL.”

“Ouch.  You didn’t re-injure it last night?”

She shook her head, “Hip, not knee.  Looking back, I think I screwed up my knee back then because my dad had pushed me too hard and too fast.  But I blamed myself.  I got depressed, stayed home instead of going to the gym.  Once dad and the sibs realized I wasn’t going to come along anymore, I started to get left out of family events, left behind when they went out to eat after training.  It doesn’t sound like that huge a deal, but gymnastics had become a core part of my life, and it was gone.  Everything fell apart.”

“I’m sorry.  I know better than to say that’s not significant.  Believe me.  I’ve been there.”

She shrugged.  “I guess I became my own family.  Found another pillar to build my life around.  But even if I have a high pain tolerance, having an injury like this reminds me of those days.  Puts me in a bad mood for a while.  So I’m sorry if I’m irritable.”

“I can deal.”

They’d gone out as friends, first, because they both had similar backgrounds, and segued into a casual relationship.  They had both been athletes, once upon a time.  She was an ex-gymnast, he had been a baseball player.  She’d triggered because of the aftermath of a career-ending injury.  He’d acquired his powers because he’d been perpetually second place, doomed to miss his chance, a mere hair from a career in the major league.

He knew how devastating that stuff could be when you’d made the sacrifices, given up most of your adolescence to succeed at something, only to fall short.

He’d turned to his dad for help, and his dad had delivered a small vial that was supposedly designed to force a state equivalent to a trigger event, without the necessary trauma.  Irony had reared her ugly head when the major leagues had mandated MRI scans to check for powers and maintain the integrity of the game, mere months after he’d gained athletic ability that would let him compete.

In a way, he was glad.  Not that he had been back then.  He’d been spoiled, a brat, entitled.  He was relieved he hadn’t continued down that road, that he’d found a career where he was on something of an even playing field with his peers.

Not that things were perfect.

He could hear the arguing the second the elevator doors parted.

Miss Militia, Weld and Kid Win stood on one side of the room.  Assault was on the other side, perched on the edge of the terminal, with Clockblocker, Chariot and Vista at his side.

“-vigilantism!”  Miss Militia’s voice was tight with barely controlled anger.

“There has to be an authority for us to ignore for us be vigilantes,” Assault said.  His voice was calmer, but his body language wasn’t.  He was tense, the hand that wasn’t gripping the edge of the console was clenched into a fist.  “There isn’t.  Nobody’s stepping up to enforce anything.”

“The PRT stands.  All of the watchdogs are in place,” Miss Militia spoke.  “You go out and do something without an official a-ok and people are going to notice that we’re acting completely outside of the principles and rules the Protectorate stands for.”

“How?” Assault countered.  “Media?  In case you haven’t noticed, a full third of this city is still lacking power.  The reporters that have stuck around this long are too tired and too low on resources to follow along.”

“Cell cameras,”  Miss Militia said.  “People are watching and recording us every step of the way.”

“We’ll be covert.  I’m talking a fast, hard hitting strike.  Attack is always preferable over defense.

“You’re talking revenge,” Triumph spoke.  He let Ursa support Prism and stepped forward to join the ‘discussion’.

“Revenge, justice, it’s a pretty thin line.  But sure.  We can call it that,” Assault said, leaning back a little.  He smiled a little at Miss Militia; there was now one more person on his side of the argument.

Triumph glanced around the room.  Flechette, Ursa and Prism weren’t taking a side.  They weren’t local, and the politics here would be intimidating.

Still, Triumph glanced at Flechette.  She’s been around a few weeks.  She should feel confident about voicing an opinion.

Was she being neutral, or was she undecided?  Or was there another factor at play?

He felt so disconnected from the Wards, these days.  He barely recognized his old team.  Vista, Kid Win, Clockblocker… he’d been their captain, not so long ago.

Miss Militia and Assault were looking at him, waiting for him to speak.  From Assault’s confidence, there was no doubt he expected Triumph to take his side.

Instead, he commented, “Just going by what I’ve heard, Assault’s arguing we should take the fight to the enemy?  Without Piggot’s consent?”

“Piggot has told us to stand down,” Miss Militia spoke.  “So we’d be going against her directive.”

“They attacked one of our own.  Again,” Assault said.  “And they broke a cardinal rule.  They attacked family.  You don’t unmask a cape, and if you happen to discover their secret identity, you don’t go after their family.”

“The family’s testimony suggests that wasn’t deliberate.  Skitter informed Trickster partway through,” Weld said.

Clockblocker cut in, “But we can assume she found out beforehand.  Unless you’re going to suggest she figured it out on her own?”

“No,” Weld replied.  “It makes sense.  I suspect Tattletale could find out something like that.  I’d even believe she’s found out all of our identities by now.  But I’m saying Trickster wasn’t in the know, and he’s the person who made the conscious decision to attack Triumph’s sister.”

“They’ve broken other unspoken rules,” Assault said, looking at Triumph and Miss Militia rather than the junior members.  “Shatterbird?  Are we really going to let that one slide?”

“Anything goes when fighting the Nine,” Miss Militia said.

“The Nine are gone.  He’s still breaking the rules.  He kidnapped and took control of Shadow Stalker.  He’s affected civilians.  Criminals, admittedly, but still civilians.”

“And the people in charge know that,” Miss Militia said.  “If they decide that it’s crossing the line, we can act decisively.”

“People in suits,” Assault said.  “They sit in offices with padded chairs, viewing everything through the filter of clinical, tidy paperwork.  They don’t know what it is to be in the field, to face the risk of death or fates worse than death in the service of this city.”

If Miss Militia had been getting ready for a response, she hesitated when Assault said ‘fates worse than death’, his voice revealing a tremor of emotion.

Triumph could imagine the scene as he’d glimpsed it: Battery on her deathbed, wasting away from a poison designed to be cruel rather than efficient.  But as slow as it had worked, it had proved incurable.

Assault went on, and there was no hint of the earlier emotion in his voice.  Rather, he sounded dangerously like a leader.  “If we don’t act on this, if we don’t move on the Undersiders and the Travelers, then we’re saying that’s alright.  We’re saying it’s okay to do those same things to us.”

“You’d be violating your probationary status on the team,” Miss Militia said, quiet.  “Going against orders.”

“My joining the Protectorate was conditional on being on the same team as Battery,” Assault replied.  He met Miss Militia’s eyes with a level stare, as if challenging her to press the issue.

There was no doubt what was at the root of Assault’s anger.  Miss Militia, by contrast, was the leader of the Protectorate because of her unwavering loyalty and willingness to not only abide by the rules but to fight for them.  Triumph could understand why they’d taken the positions they had.

He glanced at the others.  Weld was a company man, so to speak, and the PRT was his family, after a fashion.  It made sense that he’d stand by the rules imposed by the PRT, the Protectorate and the Wards.  Clockblocker had always chafed under the yoke of the institution, and Chariot could easily be the same.  Most Wards went through a phase like that, feeling the pressures, the strict rules, realizing that the Wards existed in part to keep them out of the worst of things, while aching to go out and be a hero.  Clockblocker had never entirely grown out of it.

It could be that Chariot’s stance here was what Coil wanted.  Triumph couldn’t forget that Chariot was an undercover operative, planted by the supervillain to gather information.

No, none of those calls surprised him.  The outliers, the ones that caught him off guard…

“Vista, I didn’t think you’d be wanting to break the rules like this,” he commented.  Before she could reply, he said, “And Kid Win.  I took you for more of a rebel.”

“I’m tired of losing people,” Vista said.  “We lost Gallant.  Aegis too, and Velocity, Dauntless, Battery…”

“Yeah.  And Shadow Stalker,” Triumph offered.

“She left,” Clockblocker said.

“I’d still consider her a casualty,” Triumph said.  “We might not have liked her, but she was one of us, and the enemy basically took her from us.”

“I don’t want to forget Glory Girl and Panacea,” Clockblocker said.  “She and her sister did me a life-changing favor.  We don’t know the whole story there, but the Undersiders or the Nine had to have played a part in how that unfolded.  But that’s one hell of a list of names.  There’s less of us than there are them, and we’re losing.  Not just fights, but we’re losing this war.  Don’t you see that?”

“I see it,” Miss Militia said, her voice particularly quiet compared to her raised volume earlier.  “But that’s exactly why I’m telling you not to do this.  The second we make this into an actual war, we change it from a losing fight to an outright defeat.  At best everyone involved would lose out, our enemies included.  I don’t want that.”

“You’re making it sound more complicated than it is,” Assault said.  “I’m talking a quick, hard hitting strike against one of their territories.  One of the master-classifications would be a good bet.  I’d suggest Regent, but Shatterbird is too big a complication.  Better to take out Hellhound or Skitter.  Doing either would cut their tactical options down by a third, and it could gain us a hostage to leverage against the others.”

“Not Tattletale?” Clockblocker asked.

Assault shook his head.  “She’d know we were coming.  It’s in Armsmaster’s notes from his first meeting with Skitter.  It’s why they’re so elusive as a group, and that’s why it’s so crucial we strike first, while they’re still split up in individual territories.  Grue, Trickster, Genesis or Imp would escape too readily, and confronting Ballistic or Sundancer would place our side at too much risk.”

“They’d retaliate,” Miss Militia said, “And we’d almost certainly lose.  We’re roughly matched in numbers, we’re outmatched in raw firepower and they have the edge on us in terms of tactical knowledge.”

“So we’re supposed to sit here and take it?” Clockblocker asked.  “If my family gets attacked next time, I don’t think my dad’s about to haul out a shotgun to defend himself.”

“That’s not exactly how it played out,” Triumph said.  “But no.  I don’t think we should take it, and I don’t think we should attack.  Miss Militia’s right.”

Assault’s eyebrows rose in surprise.

“Thank you,” Miss Militia said.  “I understand that some of you are upset.  We’re all upset.  We’re all concerned about our loved ones, about the current state of things in the city and about possibly being captured and controlled by Regent.  But we’re only going to succeed with the support of the Protectorate as a whole, and we’ll only have that if we stick to the rules.”

“Well said,” Director Piggot spoke.

All heads turned.  Director Piggot stood in the doorway that led to the stairwell.

“Director,” Assault said.  He didn’t look fazed by the woman’s appearance.

“I hope you’ll hear me out before committing to a plan of action?”

“Of course.”  Assault leaned back, folding his arms.

“Then let me introduce our visitors.”  Piggot stepped to one side, shifting her prodigious weight out of the way of the door.

There were two of them, each covered head to toe in power armor that was similar in theme, if not in design.  It was heavy duty stuff, and even without tinker abilities, Triumph could admire it as something exceptionally well made.

They were the same height, a man and a woman.  The man held a spear that was no less than fifteen feet long, with a two-pronged tip on the end.  The woman wore something that looked to be  a modified jetpack, divided into two pieces that each had to weigh as much as she did.  The exhaust jets fanned out to either side of her, like the feathers of a bird’s outstretched wings.

The woman removed her helmet, then shook her head so her dark hair could fall around the armor around her shoulders and neck.  She wasn’t beautiful, but she wasn’t ugly either.  Even ‘plain’ wasn’t the right label.  She was exceptionally average in appearance, to the point that it was borderline eerie.  He couldn’t pin down as belonging to any particular ethnicity, nor could he eliminate her from one.

Yet she’s strangely familiar, Triumph observed.

Triumph looked at the man, waiting for him to remove his helmet, but he didn’t.  The man folded his arms instead, still holding on to the spear with one hand.

That body language.  Triumph’s eyes widened behind his visor.  No.  No way.  No way he’d come back here.

But if he was here, then the woman would be-

“Dragon,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Dragon extended a hand, and Miss Militia shook it.  “Likewise.  Let me introduce Defiant.”

Triumph glanced around at the others.  Nobody here was so stupid as to miss what was going on.  Even the capes that weren’t native to Brockton Bay would figure this out in a heartbeat.

“Dragon and Defiant have stopped by to pick up resources and gather information before taking on a long-term mission,” the Director explained.  “Would you like to explain?”

“The Nine,” Dragon explained.  “We know their general behavior.  After a spree like the one they had here in Brockton Bay, they’re going to retreat.  They’ll stick to back roads and isolated small towns, use time and distance to let the heat dissipate.  Jack may keep his people engaged with games like what he tried to set up here.  Scaling up slowly in a remote area, seeing how badly they can terrify the local populace, ending with a grand climax before moving on.  They’ll also be looking to recruit and replace missing members, and I expect they’ll go easier on testing the recruits until they’ve replenished their numbers.”

“What are you doing, then?” Assault asked.

“We’re going after them,” Defiant spoke.  His voice was partially altered by his helmet, but it was still identifiable.

Why is everyone pretending they don’t know that’s Armsmaster?

Defiant continued, “And we’re not going to stop.  Pursuit will continue twenty-four seven, year-round.  We keep them running until they get tired and hungry enough that they make a mistake, and we capitalize on that.”

“We’ve tried this before,”  Miss Militia responded.  “I’m not saying I don’t appreciate the idea, but Assault was just arguing that it’s easier to attack than to defend, and I agree.  You won’t be able to prevent every casualty.”

“The primary issue before,” Dragon replied, “Is that the previous efforts were squads, sleeping in shifts, always moving.  Invariably, the Nine would catch on to what was happening, they’d take out the squad on duty and then they would disappear before the others could mobilize to stop them.  Or the Nine would circle around and kill the off-duty squad members.  We don’t have that problem.”

“I don’t follow,” Assault said.

“Dragon mentioned to me once that she doesn’t need to sleep.  A side effect of her powers,” Miss Militia said.

Dragon dipped her head in a nod.  “I tried going after the Slaughterhouse Nine before, but Shatterbird’s powers proved too difficult to work around, and I was only one person.  Now I have a partner.”

“Defiant?”  Miss Militia asked.

Defiant tapped his chest.  “With Dragon’s help, I’ve replaced my internal organs and parts of my brain with artificial equivalents.  My current downtime is a rough fifteen minutes a day. That includes waste, sleep and eating.  In the next two weeks, I intend to reduce it to a mere twelve minutes.”

Vista’s hands went to her mouth in shock.

He’s made himself into a monster.  And Dragon doesn’t even flinch as he announces it. Triumph’s own eyes were wide.

Miss Militia seemed to recover faster than anyone else.  “That’s not the only issue the squads faced.  There’s the psychological strain.  Hunting a prey for days, weeks, months at a time?  Especially targets that will commit atrocities if you let your guard down for a second?  It gets to you.”

“I think,” Defiant paused, as if he had to pick the right words, “My single-mindedness will be an asset on that front.”

“It’s worth a try,” Dragon said.  “Between us, Defiant and I can customize our equipment and approach to effectively counter the Nine’s powers.  Once we have a lead, we’ll maintain constant pressure for as long as necessary.  Even if we can’t save everyone, even if we can’t stop them outright with Siberian rendering others invincible, I think we can keep them from setting up another major event like they tried here in Brockton Bay, and we can hopefully keep them from recruiting.”

“The PRT is hopeful,” the Director said, “They gave their consent.  But you’ll have to explain how this is relevant to the current situation.”

“Of course.  If everyone would turn their attention to the monitors?”

Assault had to hop down from where he was sitting on the edge of the long desk to see.  Everyone else turned as the images appeared across the screen.  One armored suit after another.

“The Cawthorne mark three.”

A sleek model resembling a cross between a dragon and a fighter jet, mounted with four engines around the ‘shoulders’.

“The Astaroth-Nidhug hybrid, making use of the Nidhug design that was partially damaged in prior confrontations.”

It didn’t look like a mesh.  It looked like a cohesive design, a massive gun barrel with teeth at the end, outfitted not with a handle, but three afterburners at the rear and three at the midsection.  The landing gear looked spindly.  It was also, Triumph realized, quite large.  No smaller than a commercial aircraft, if the machinery beneath it was supposed to be a forklift.

“The Ladon-Two.”

It didn’t look as sleek or combat-ready as the others, smaller, almost spherical in the body.

“That’s a utility design,” Chariot said.  “What’s the concept?”

“A forcefield generator,” Dragon replied.  “Dual offensive and defensive use.  I also have the Glaurung Zero-Model, the Pythios-Two, the Melusine-Six and the Azazel ready for field use.”

The camera panned out to show a sheared-off mountaintop with the seven armored suits and a hangar or factory.

“It is thanks to Defiant’s assistance that I can now do this.”

Simultaneously, each armored suit flared to life and took off, disappearing from the camera’s field of view.  The cloud of dust and snow that spread out from the takeoff point obscured the camera’s view.  The image went black.

“I have nine models in total that I can keep active simultaneously.  More are in development.  It’s inefficient and expensive to keep all of them active when we do not yet have a bead on the Slaughterhouse Nine.  With the Director’s consent, we’ll be stationing the seven suits we’re not personally using in Brockton Bay.  The PRT will remain in contact with me so I can remotely deploy them.  That is, those not already in use against the Slaughterhouse Nine or an Endbringer.”

Not just one, but seven suits crafted by the best tinker in the world.

Triumph glanced at Chariot.  The boy seemed pensive, but that could have been one tinker admiring the work of another.

“Hard to believe you need Defiant riding along when you have that kind of raw firepower,” Assault commented.

“Two sets of eyes are better than one, and we can keep each other sane.  Defiant will pilot the Uther when he isn’t on the ground.”

“Well, Defiant, your hard work is appreciated.  I wish you the best of luck.  You too, Dragon,” Miss Militia said.

They can’t possibly be buying this.

“Nobody’s going to say it?”  Triumph asked, before he could censor himself.

Every set of eyes turned to him.  He could only go forward.

“You… don’t really believe this?  This Defiant thing?  He’s not even trying to hide it.”

The tension in the room was so thick he could have choked on it.

“If you have a valid concern about Defiant,” Director Piggot spoke, “I think it would benefit us all to hear it.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but she’d already raised her hand to stop him.  “Rest assured, Triumph, if you were to allege criminal activity, we would arrest and detain him until a case could be made.  We’d pull him off this wholly voluntary task and if your charges were serious enough, send him to the Birdcage.  I suppose we’d have to adjust Dragon’s battle plan against the Nine, she would likely be forced to rethink her idea of having the suits stationed in Brockton Bay, so she was better able to defend herself.”

“I get what you’re saying.”

“I’m not saying anything, Triumph, only that you’re entirely free to speak.”

He glanced around the room at the others.  Clockblocker looked at the monitors, Assault was adjusting his glove, Vista staring hard at the ground.  Nobody met his eyes.

Except Director Piggot.  It would have been easier to stare down a Bengal tiger than to meet her steel-gray eyes.

There’s a difference between serving the system and enabling it.

“Just wanted to say that the guy’s got cojones,” Triumph said, with no emotion or inflection.  “Taking on the Slaughterhouse Nine like that, being this new to the game.”

“Quite so,” the Director replied.  “You’ll be on double patrols until the elections are over, but you’ll have the suits arriving within a minute of any confrontations.  The schedule’s already in the system.  I and my direct subordinates will be available twenty-four-seven to those manning the console.  We’ll then be able to verbally sign-off on the deployment of any of the dragon models.”

He couldn’t bring himself to speak up and say it.  That Armsmaster was here, posing as a new hero.  Triumph knew he was enabling the system, he was allowing something wrong to happen here, but stopping the Nine was more important.  Having the suits to turn the table on the villains taking over the city?  Too much hung in the balance.

“Hey,” Prism murmured in his ear.  She’d created a duplicate rather than hobble over to him. “You okay?”

He shook his head.

“Still want to get that coffee?”

“No.  No thanks.”  He had trouble looking at her.  She hadn’t said anything, hadn’t tried to say anything.  Yes, it was the better choice in the long run, putting Armsmaster to work against the Nine.  That didn’t mean it wasn’t wrong.

He was still relatively new to this.  Three years of duty, most of which had been spent among the Wards.  Was he the only one who was just old enough to speak out, not yet so old and jaded that he acceded to authority over anything else?

Or was it the opposite?  Was he of the age where he had the ignorance of youth coupled with the arrogance of adulthood?

As much as he’d thought she was the ideal girl before, as much as he’d shared her background with a failed sports career of his own, he could barely recognize her.

“I gotta go.  Need to take a walk.”

“My flight is-”

“Right.  Of course.  Have a nice flight.  Maybe I’ll see you at a future date?”

Disappointment crossed her face.  “Maybe.”

He stepped into the elevator and pressed the button.  The doors whisked shut.

His mind was a dull buzz as he walked.  He’d looked up to Armsmaster, once.  He’d understood the man.  His own experiences of being second best in baseball ran parallel to the feelings Armsmaster had hinted at but never outright stated; the Protectorate captain had been resentful of Dauntless’ meteoric rise, the inevitable moment that Dauntless would effortlessly supplant him as leader of the team.

As much as he hated to admit it, Triumph could understand where Armsmaster was coming from.  He could imagine the selfish joy the man must have experienced when Dauntless fell.  It would have been horrifying, too, no doubt, but that horror would be tempered by pragmatism.  Death was a natural consequence of an Endbringer attack.  It was reality.  So maybe Armsmaster had told himself it was okay to feel relieved that a rival had fallen.

He could see why Armsmaster had taken the route he had in the actual battle.  Taking on Leviathan one-on-one had been the only way the combat prediction program would work, and he’d had an effective weapon.  If villains happened to die in the process, well, he only had to call on that pragmatism again.  Triumph didn’t agree with the line of thinking, but he could see how it had happened.

Armsmaster had been injured by Leviathan and Mannequin, and replaced parts of himself with mechanical equivalents.  He’d realized the benefits, worked with Dragon to step them up further.  He’d failed to defeat Leviathan, had been too hurt to fight the Nine directly.  So he augmented himself further, eradicated his need for sleep, for time spent eating and shitting.

Armsmaster, Defiant, would achieve that respect he hungered for by stopping the Nine.  Or he would join Dragon in stopping an Endbringer.

It spooked Triumph because he could imagine it all too easily, where his teammates seemed dumbfounded.  It all made sense, to the point that he could imagine himself doing something similar if he found himself in Armsmaster’s shoes.

He wouldn’t ever do something like that; that was how he’d reassured himself.  He was no longer that selfish teenager who’d received superpowers from his father like his peers got cars on their sixteenth birthday.  He’d hoped for an undetectable, undeniable advantage over his peers and been enraged when it had been denied him.  He’d changed, forced himself to change; he would be a good student, he’d help his fellow citizens, do the right thing.

Except he hadn’t.  He’d kept his mouth shut.  Armsmaster would get away scott free with what he had done.  He might even succeed in stopping the Nine, in seeing them killed or put in the Birdcage.  The world would be better for it, and a warped man who’d mechanized his humanity for one more edge would be regaled as a hero.  And he couldn’t help but feel that he’d taken one small step forward on the very same road that Armsmaster had traveled before him.

Triumph’s walk brought him to the scar.  Just as Leviathan had turned a section of Downtown into a sinkhole, the Director had dropped countless tinker-made bombs on central downtown.  There was radioactive fallout, but the reported levels weren’t dangerously high.  Fire still burned in one area days after the fact, and he had to skirt around a cloud of dangerous-looking white vapor to reach his destination.

Seating himself on a safe-looking piece of rubble, Triumph rested his elbows on his knee and stared at the figures.  Crawler and Mannequin, turned to silicon by the detonation of one of Bakuda’s bombs.  Crawler looked almost joyous, limbs spread and flexed, mouth open in a roar.  Mannequin was caught mid-dash, low to the ground.

He stared at them, as if he could burn them into his memory.  He couldn’t say why he was here, exactly, but he’d felt compelled to see the real monsters for himself, outside of the heat of battle and the frantic and desperate scramble for survival.

Maybe it was to find some clue, some sign he could watch out for, that would let him identify the monsters from the men.

He’d stay for five minutes at most, he told himself.  Whatever the records said, it was better to be safe than sorry when radiation was involved.  Five minutes, and if he couldn’t see anything by then, there wasn’t much use in staying longer.

He stayed for fifteen.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 14.5 (Bonus Interlude)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“It’s just going to be another minute or two.  The data has to compile and upload.  It’s not my work, so I played it safe and went for the slowest, heaviest compression method that I could.  It’s going to take a bit.”

“That’s fine.  Thank you.”

Kid Win shifted position uncomfortably, falling silent.

You don’t have to be intimidated.  I’m just a man.

Legend stared out the window.  He wouldn’t miss this city.  There weren’t happy memories here, and there was little he was proud about.  Most of the time, he was able to feel that he’d made an impact, that the world was a better place for his being there.  That wasn’t the case here.

“How long have you been in the Wards?” he asked, to make conversation.

“Two years.”

“I’ve seen your records.”

Kid Win cringed.

“No, don’t act like I’m going to say something bad.  The Deputy Director in charge of the Wards, I can’t quite remember his name, he had some glowing praise for your ability to engage with the public.”

“Engage with the public?  I don’t remember doing much of that.”

“Something about speeches to other youths at school?”

“Oh.  That wasn’t a big deal.”

“The guy who’s rating your performance seems to think it was.  Can’t quite place his name, the suits sort of start to blur in with one another-”

“Deputy Director Renick,” Kid Win supplied.

“Yes.  Thank you.  He seemed to think you connected with the crowd, and you did it better than any of your teammates. You were frank, open, honest, and you stood out because of how you handled yourself when the students started getting rambunctious and heckling you.”

“Director Piggot yelled at me for drawing the gun.”

“It was something that could have backfired very easily, but you struck the right tone and you defused the situation with humor.  I think that’s a good thing, and so did the staff at the school.  The teachers sent emails a few days after the event, commenting on the overall positive impact you had on the students, the hecklers included.  And when I say you, I mean you specifically.”

Kid Win shrugged, tapping a few keys on the laptop to rotate through a series of progress bars and graphs.  “Nobody told me about that.”

“That’s a shame,” Legend said, turning his gaze to the window to relieve some of the pressure his very presence seemed to put on Kid Win.  “The ability to manage yourself with the public is crucial if you intend to go on to make a career out of working with the Protectorate.”

“It’s kind of weird, that someone as important as you are is making such a big deal out of an event I barely remember.”

“I study the records of everyone I intend to work with, and I studied yours.  I try to make a note of individual strengths.  That event stuck in my mind when I was reading through your files.  It was a very easy mental picture to put together, especially the part with the gun.”

Kid Win smiled a little.

“You remind me of Hero.”

The smile fell from Kid Win’s face.  He looked startled.  “Really?”

“I imagine he was very much like you when he was younger.”

Kid Win looked uncomfortable.

“You can talk about it,” Legend assured him.  “It’s okay.  It was a long time ago that he passed.”

“I sort of modeled myself after him.”

Legend studied the boy.  Red and gold body armor and a red-tinted visor.  There were additions that seemed to be more recent, judging by the lack of wear and tear, but if he looked past those, if he imagined the boy with a helmet covering that brown wavy hair, replaced the red with blue chain mesh, he could see the resemblance.

“I can see that.”

“I didn’t mean to copy him, or to ride off his fame or anything.  I was younger when I started, I totally meant it to be respectful-”  Kid Win stopped as Legend raised a hand.

“It’s okay.  I think he would be flattered.”

Kid Win nodded, a little too quickly.

“He was the first real tinker, you know.”

“Before we knew tinkers have specializations,” Kid Win added.

“I’ve thought about it.  The disintegration gun, the jetpack, the sonic weapons, the power sources and explosives that were surprisingly effective for their size.  I suspect his specialty tied into manipulating and enhancing wavelengths and frequencies.”

Kid Win’s eyes went wide.  He glanced at the laptop.

“I know enough other tinkers to know that look.  You just had a stroke of inspiration?”

“Sort of.  More like a bunch of half-assed ideas all at once.”

“Don’t let me distract you.  If you want to take a minute to make some notes on whatever came to mind, I won’t be offended in the slightest.”

“It’s okay.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.  I-” Kid Win paused.  “I guess I’d rather keep talking to you than write down ideas that probably won’t work out.”

“Thank you.  I’d say you shouldn’t worry too much about trying to emulate Hero.  It’s heartening, if I had to put a word to the feeling, that you look up to him and carry on his legacy.  But you have your own specialization and your own strengths.”

Kid Win nodded.  “I’m figuring that out.  I spent a long time trying to be like other tinkers and struggling.  Ninety percent of my projects just stopped before I finished it.  The stuff I finished, I finished it because it was simple.  Guns, the floating hoverboard… well, I used to have a floating hoverboard.  I sort of copied Hero’s approach.  ‘Board instead of jetpack, but I made the guns, tried a few disintegration rays.  Maybe part of the reason I finished that stuff was because I felt like I’d be insulting Hero by trying to copy his style and making a mess of it.”

“Makes sense,” Legend spoke, primarily to show he was listening.

“But lately I’ve started to relax about that.  Maybe it helps that we’ve been working as hard as we have.  I’ve been too tired to keep to the rules I thought I was supposed to follow.  Still have to spend time in the workshop, I think I’d go crazy if I didn’t, but I’m winging it more.  I’m trusting my instincts and spending less time using the computers to get the exact numbers and measurements.”

“To help compensate for your dyscalculia?”

“I didn’t know you knew about that.  I didn’t know the PRT knew about that.”

“Dragon’s talents make for very comprehensive records, sorry.”

Kid Win frowned, his expression changing fractionally as he stared down at the keyboard in front of him.  He seemed to come to terms with the idea, because he moved on. “Anyways, I think it’s working for me.  I’m getting the feeling that I do have a specialization, but it’s more of an approach than a particular field.  Equipment with multiple settings and uses, modular weapons, gear that’s adaptable to different situations, I guess?”

“That’s fantastic.  The fact that you’ve struggled and then found your strengths the hard way could be an asset.”

“An asset?”

“If you wind up leading the Wards or a team in the Protectorate, it means you’ll be better equipped to help out teammates who are having their own problems.”

“I’d be horrible in a leadership position.”

“Hero said the same thing, and I think we’ll both agree that he was wrong.”

That seemed to give Kid Win pause.

“Think about it.”

“Okay,” Kid Win replied.  “Not that I’m not majorly grateful that you’re giving me the pep talk, but you said you were in a bit of a hurry and I think we’re done here.”

“The compiling is done?”

“I could refine it further, try to give you some additional features, but the coding and the hardware I’m working with here is so tightly structured that I think I’d do more harm than good.  It’s like the techie equivalent of trying to put toothpaste back in the tube after you’ve squeezed it out… you can’t, so maybe you try to make more tube that sticks out of one side, but you keep doing it and you wind up with this kludgy mess that you can’t even use for its original purpose.  For getting toothpaste.”

“I think I understand what you mean.  Thank you for this.  It’s already uploaded?”

“Yeah, and it was my pleasure, really.” Kid Win smiled.

Legend stood and stretched a little.

The goodbyes had already been made and he’d had his meeting with Emily.  Business was wrapped up here.  He’d called home to let Arthur know he wouldn’t make it to dinner but that he hoped to be back before midnight.

A light smile touched his face.  He even felt a little giddy at the thought of getting home, wrapping Arthur in a hug.  Growing up, he’d never thought that he’d feel giddy about his husband after six years of marriage.

But he had something to take care of first.  The notion put a damper on his pleasant mood.

“I’m going to go, then.  You and I,” he promised Kid Win, “Should talk again sometime.  You can tell me if you’ve figured out your specialty, and if you’re leading a team.”

“Maybe the next time you’re in Brockton Bay?”

“Maybe.”  Legend smiled, but he was thinking, does he know?  This whole region might be condemned.

Maybe Kid Win was being optimistic.

Legend turned and opened a window, then let himself float through.  He took a second to get his bearings, to inform himself of which direction was up, down, north, east, south and west, then he took off.

Powers were classified into categories, and the ‘breaker’ classification was used to mark those powers which were limited to one’s own body and their immediate vicinity.  Though it had initially been used to cover individuals who could make themselves stronger, denser, larger or change the materials they were made of, it was slowly expanding to include others.  There was a theory that was gaining traction, suggesting that the breaker classification was one of the most common powersets, if not always the most pronounced.  Innumerable people with powers had also adapted innate defenses that kept their own powers from harming themselves.  Pyrokinetics tended to be resistant to flame. There were automatic shutoffs, biological and mental, for various other powers.  Even beyond that, there were other adaptations that were so subtle as to be almost undetectable.  His weren’t.

Legend’s flight powers let him accelerate to a speed that exceeded sound and continue accelerating, to no hard limit.  The soft limit was that he had breaker powers that kept the acceleration from tearing him to shreds, altering his body into something else entirely as he gained speed.  The drawback to this was that his brain also shut down on a cognitive level as the transformation occurred.  He had never let himself go so fast that he lost the ability to consciously control his movements.

There were other benefits too.  He was better at registering and processing light waves, regardless of which state he was in.  He could see with perfect clarity up until the point that an obstactle intervened or the atmosphere occluded his vision.

If an opponent attacked and struck him, he instinctively transitioned into his energy form for a split second.  In that state, he absorbed energy of a variety of kinds, including the kinetic energy that was transferred with a punch or with a bullet.  His opponents were forced to whittle him down, each attack only a fraction as effective as it might otherwise be.  Even then, a share of that small amount of damage was healed a second later as he used the absorbed energy to mend his body.  Conversely, his enemies could try to hit him with enough speed and force that even a hundredth of a second of contact was sufficient to take him out of the fight.  Leviathan and Behemoth had managed to land blows of that magnitude.

Siberian has as well.  He set his jaw and increased his speed a notch.

He traveled over the Atlantic Ocean, moving so fast that the water appeared to be one flat plane.  His thoughts became a blur, and he was forced to focus on his destination, letting all other thoughts and doubts fall by the wayside.

It was refreshing, in a way, cleansing himself of the responsibilities and the thousands of problems he was forced to handle as the leader of the Protectorate.  Still, it always scared him just a little.

It took him only an instant to reach a complete stop.  He let himself settle down into his real body once more.

He’d wondered sometimes if his ability to fly was meant for travel on an interstellar level.  What if he kept accelerating?  His breaker power would let him weather the void of space, his ability to see would be that much more powerful if there was no atmosphere to occlude his vision over miles… even the boredom of traveling for years was nothing if his conscious mind shifted into a rest state.

Not that he’d ever test it.

He’d absorbed light, heat and ambient radiation while he flew, and he felt restored.  Even the mildest wear and tear had been tended to, his body restored to peak condition.

His mind was another matter, his emotions.  It was like waking up in a warm bed, the man he loved beside him, only to experience a sinking feeling as he came to dread the coming day.

He drifted closer to the oil rig, and settled down on a fence, using a touch of his flight ability to stay balanced.  In every direction, as far as the eye could see, there was only water.

“Any time now,” he said.

It began as a pale square in mid-air, then unfolded rapidly, three-dimensional.  When it opened up further, the interior of a building loomed in mid-air, the exterior absent.

He floated forward and set foot on the white tile of the hallway.  He felt the distortion as the space shifted, felt the rush of wind as air pressure adjusted.  It took only a couple of seconds.  When he glanced over his shoulder, the oil rig was gone.  There was only more hallway behind him.

He walked onward, confident in his ability to navigate the maze of rooms and corridors.

When he pushed open the double doors and stepped into the conference room, there were a few looks of surprise.

“Legend,” the Doctor spoke, “I thought you were occupied in Brockton Bay.”

“Jack escaped.”

“That’s… really unfortunate,” Alexandria said.

“Quite,” the Doctor replied.

Legend glanced around the room.  Alexandria leaned back in her chair, her helmet on the table in front of her, a star-shaped scar at the corner of one eye.  Beautiful, Legend was sure, but more in the way a lioness was beautiful.  In her black and gray costume, she was intimidating, her expression regal.

Eidolon was the opposite.  He had lowered his hood and removed his glowing mask, revealing a middle-aged man with thick eyebrows, thinning hair and heavy cheeks.  He looked more like an average family man who was getting dressed up as Eidolon for a costume party than he looked like Eidolon himself.

There were others around the table.  The Doctor: dark-skinned, hair tied into a prim bun with chopsticks stuck through it, wearing a short white dress beneath a white lab coat.  The Number Man, with his laptop set in front of him, looking more like a businessman than one of the most influential and lesser-known parahumans on the planet.  There was also the woman in the black suit, who had never introduced herself or been introduced by name.  Whenever Legend came here with the others, the woman was there with the Doctor.

Insurance, he thought.  The Doctor thinks that woman can face us if we turn on her.

Would she win?  Legend harbored doubts.  He’d met a lot of powerful individuals over the course of his career, and he’d learned how to measure them.  This woman didn’t relax for an instant, where someone who was assured of victory would be more willing to let down her guard.  More likely that she’s supposed to stall or stop us if there’s a problem, buying the doctor time to escape.

“Jack escaped.  What about the other Nine?” the Doctor asked.

“We suspect that Bonesaw and Siberian also escaped, with Hookwolf as a new member of their group.”

“I see.”

“It’s unusual for you to show any interest in what’s going on outside the realm of your business and research.  Any reason for the curiosity?”

The Doctor smiled. “Hard to keep track of what goes on beyond these walls, sometimes.”

Legend nodded.  He took a seat to Alexandria’s right.  He considered for a moment, then spoke.  “There are some things that concern me.”

“Is this tied to why you came here today?”

“Yes.  Let me begin by saying that there’s apparently a precog in Brockton Bay that’s pretty damn certain that the world’s going to end shortly.”

“Precogs are notoriously unreliable.  I tell many of my customers that when they express interest in seeing the future.  I think I even told you.  Or was it Alexandria that I discussed it with?”

“It was,” Alexandria replied.

“You’re right,” Legend said, “Most precogs are vague.  They have to be, because the future is vague.  But all reports point to this precog being very specific.  Jack Slash was mentioned as the catalyst for an event that occurs in two years.  More specifically, she said this occurs if Jack escaped Brockton Bay alive, which he did.”

There were nods around the table.

“What do you mean when you say the world ends?” Eidolon asked.

“Thirty-three to ninety-six percent of the population dies in a very short span of time.  I assume the aftermath of this scenario leads to more deaths in the long run.”

The Number Man spoke.  “Depending on the circumstances of death, the demise of even one in three individuals would lead to further casualties.  Lack of staff for essential services and key areas, health, atmospheric and ecological effects of decomposition on a massive scale, destabilized societal infrastructure… The best case scenario is that Earth’s population drops steeply over twenty years, until it settles to forty-eight point six percent of where it currently stands.  Three billion, three hundred and ninety-one million, eight hundred and three thousand, five hundred and four.  Give or take.”

“That’s the best case scenario?” Alexandria asked.

The man shrugged.  “It’s unlikely it will occur.  The bare minimum of people would have to die, there couldn’t be any bodies, and there wouldn’t be anything left unattended that could cause uncontrolled fires or nuclear incidents.  If I were to ballpark a number, talking about events that could kill one-third to nearly all of the world’s population, I’d say roughly seventy-two percent of the earth’s population are likely to die.  That leaves one billion, nine hundred and fifty million alive.  More than half of those individuals would die over the following twenty years, and more than half of those who remain would die in the ten years following that.  Keeping in mind these are estimates, of course.”

“Of course,” The Doctor said, “Precogs are unreliable.  I’m surmising this girl doesn’t know exactly how this occurs?”

“No.  Her employer didn’t say anything on the subject.”

“We’ll take measures,” Eidolon said.  “Evacuation, we’ll also push for automatic shutdown controls on power grids and nuclear facilities.  With the Endbringers out there, it would be sensible to do it anyways.  We can reduce the potential damage.”

“Unless,” Alexandria said, “The numbers the precog provided are already accounting for us having this conversation and taking the extra measures.  If she does view the future, it’s very possible she saw this very meeting and everything that followed, in a manner of speaking.”

That was sobering.

“We’ll do it anyways, of course,” Eidolon said.

Legend and Alexandria nodded.

“Let’s remember,” the Doctor said, “The numbers already pointed to an endgame situation at the twenty-three year mark.  If the Endbringers continue doing the damage they’ve been doing at the current rate, things won’t be sustainable.  We’ll be forced to withdraw from damaged and dangerous areas, populations will condense, the Endbringers attack those pockets…  and that’s without considering the possibility that they achieve something big in the interim.  We’ve talked about the crisis scenarios: Behemoth triggering a nuclear winter, Leviathan obliterating or tainting the world’s renewable water supply.”

“You’re saying we’re already facing an end of the world situation,” Alexandria said, “And this is just accelerating the timetable.”

“Yes.  Any measures we take are still vital.  They’ll help here, with this scenario, but if it never occurs, it will still help against the Endbringers.”

“Are we assuming the Endbringers are at the core of this end-of-the-world scenario?” Eidolon asked.

“Likely,” Alexandria said, “But let’s not rule anything out.”

“Provided this is really occurring,” the Doctor spoke.

“We can’t afford to say it’s not,” Legend said.  “You have precogs among your staff and customers?”

“Some,” The Doctor answered.  “I can ask them about this end of the world scenario.”

Legend nodded.  “Good.  Eidolon, you want to try your hand at it?”

“If my power lets me.  It only gives me what it thinks I need, not what I want.”

“We need all the help we can get.  Let’s see if we can’t figure out how this happens, so we can stop it or mitigate the damage.  There’s a lot of capes out there with the thinker classification.  Get the word out, call in favors, offer favors.  Anything to get more information on this.”

There were nods and noises of agreement from his fellow Protectorate members and the Doctor.

Legend quietly cleared his throat, glancing around the table.  “Speaking of great minds… there was another point I wanted to address, that came up during my stay in Brockton Bay.”

He had their attention.

“Alexandria, I expect you read the reports already.  You didn’t seem that surprised when I talked about the precog and her end-of-the-world scenario, you’ve probably read up on my notes here.”

Alexandria had originally named herself after the Library of Alexandria, though she’d ceased mentioning that, choosing to leave enemies in the dark instead.  As strong as she was on a physical level, her mind was equally formidable.  She never forgot a detail, absorbed information quickly, reading two pages of a book with a glance, and she learned quickly, retaining everything she picked up.  She knew most commonly spoken languages, no less than ten styles of martial arts and she could match some of the best non-tinkers in the world when it came to computers.  Not only was she rated well in the brute classification, but she held high scores in the mover and thinker categories.

“I read what you provided, though I’m not sure what you’re referring to specifically.”

“Siberian.”

He saw a change in her expression, saw Eidolon flinch as if he’d been slapped.

“I’ll explain for those of you who lack access to the PRT records or the time to peruse them.  Siberian is not a brute-class cape.  Siberian is a ‘master’, and the striped woman is a projection.  I caught a glimpse of the man who is creating the projection before they retreated.”

“And?”

“And he had Cauldron’s mark tattooed on the back of his left hand, a swan on his right.”

With the exception of himself, the Number Man and the woman in the suit, everyone present reacted with surprise.

“You don’t think that was William Manton?”  Alexandria asked.  “But why the mark on his right hand?”

“I don’t know.  It doesn’t fit on a lot of levels.  A top parahuman researcher becoming one of the Nine?”

“It happened to Alan.  To Mannequin,” Eidolon said, his voice quiet.

“There’s nothing in the records,” Alexandria said, “Nothing saying he was present at any of the places the quarantine protocol was put in effect.”

She would know.  She read every record, could call them to mind with perfect accuracy.

“He could have stolen someone’s identity.”

Alexandria nodded, “True.”

“We have confirmation he’s alive,” Eidolon said, his voice quiet.  “We suspected, but-”

“We made assumptions, and we were way off base.  That’s what concerns me.”  Legend leveled a hard look at the Doctor.  “See, we’ve been going by the assumption that William Manton, from the time he left Cauldron to the present day, has been continuing his work.  We’ve been assuming he’s traveling across the world, experimenting on human subjects, giving them powers with physical mutations as a side effect, then releasing the victims back into society with Cauldron’s symbol tattooed on their bodies.  Or at least, that’s what you told us.”

“You’re implying I lied?” the Doctor asked.  She didn’t look bothered in the slightest.

“I’ve looked at the timelines.  It’s not likely that William Manton could be conducting experiments to give some poor girl tentacles in Illinois at the same time Siberian’s busy attacking people in Miami.  Not to mention he barely looked capable of taking care of himself, let alone conducting research.”

He glanced at the others.  Eidolon’s brow was creased in concern, while Alexandria looked pensive.

“The pattern doesn’t fit,” he said, to drive the point home.  He looked at the Doctor, “Which leaves me to wonder just who is conducting experiments on human subjects.”

“We have no need for human experimentation.  The Number Man can calculate the odds of success for a given formula.”

“Maybe that’s the case.  But just who is conducting experiments on human subjects, who knows enough about Cauldron to tattoo or brand them with the mark while simultaneously having access to these kinds of resources?”

“It’s not us,” the Doctor spoke.

Legend stared at her, studying her.  “And you don’t know anything about how William Manton is connected to all this?”

“I’m as mystified as you are.  If it would assuage your suspicions, you can examine this complex,” the Doctor suggested.

“You and I both know this place is far too large to explore in one lifetime,” he answered.

“True.”

“And if we were to surmise that you’re the culprit here, there’s nothing saying you couldn’t have your doormaker maintain a path to another alternate reality where you have captives stashed away.  It would even explain why there haven’t been any real missing persons cases that we can link to the case-fifty-threes, if you’re simply snatching them from another reality and depositing them in our reality when you’re done.”

She spread her arms wide.  “I don’t know what I can say to convince you.”

“You trust me, don’t you?” Alexandria asked.

“Yes,” Legend said.

“I’ve trained myself in kinesics.  I can look at a person’s face and body language and know if they’re lying.  And I can tell you the Doctor is telling the truth.”

Legend sighed.  “Right.”

“We’re okay, then?” the Doctor asked.

Legend nodded.  “I’m sorry to accuse you.”

“It’s understandable.  This situation doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“I can’t add anything here, and my power’s not volunteering anything that could help to solve this particular mystery,” Eidolon spoke.  “I guess we have yet another unanswered question on our hands.”

Legend sighed, “More than one.  William Manton and his link to Siberian, the tattoo on his right hand, our end of the world scenario and the role Jack plays as the catalyst.  Too many to count.”

“None of this has to be addressed today,” Alexandria said.  “Why don’t you go home?  We’ll consider the situation and come up with a plan and some likely explanations.”

Legend nodded.  The thought of holding Arthur and Keith in his arms energized him.

The Doctor turned to Eidolon, “You want another booster shot?”

“Probably another Endbringer attack coming up, it’s best if I’m in top form.”

While the others talked and planned, Legend stood and left without a farewell.

An opening between realities unfolded before he was half of the way down the alabaster white hallway.  He stepped through the opening to the oil rig, and then began his flight back to New York City.

But he didn’t go home.

Instead, Legend descended on the rooftop of the NYC Protectorate offices.  A tinker-made scanner verified who he was and opened the doors for him in time for him to walk through.

He nodded a greeting to everyone he passed.  When people asked him how things had gone, he offered them a response that was polite but short enough that it was clear he wasn’t looking for further conversation.

He reached his office and closed the door.

He was careful to start up a virtual operating system preloaded with the standard PRT databases and software.  Nothing that would leave a trace on his regular OS.  He unplugged the fiber-optic cables and disabled the wireless.

The precautions were little use if he was already being watched, but it made him feel better.

Once his computer was isolated from outside influences, he withdrew a USB cable from one drawer, plugging one end into the keyboard.  He reached up to one ear and withdrew an earbud.  The other end of the USB cable connected to it.

ASCII art of Kid Win’s face popped up as the earbud connected to the computer, along with the text, ‘thank you’.

He couldn’t bring himself to smile.

Problems of self-confidence aside, Kid Win had produced an interface that was easy to use.  Legend clicked on the yellow button and waited.  Voices played from the computer’s speakers.  He adjusted the volume and listened.

“We suspect that Bonesaw and Siberian also escaped, with Hookwolf as a new member of their group.”

“I see.”

“Any reason for the curiosity?”

“Hard to keep track of what goes on beyond these walls, sometimes.”

Text appeared, transcribing what was being said.  The program paused, the image of the yellow button popping back out.  A red word appeared below the last statement: LIE.

A vague lie, but not a damning one.  His pulse was pounding as he hit the waiting yellow button to resume the record.

“We have no need for human experimentation.  The Number Man can calculate the odds of success for a given formula.”

LIE.

He clicked again.

“…Who knows enough about Cauldron to tattoo or brand them with the mark while simultaneously having access to these kinds of resources?”  His own voice was the one playing from the speakers.

“It’s not us,” the Doctor’s voice answered his.

LIE.

He sat staring at the screen, horrified.

Cauldron had given him his powers, had given him what he needed to be at the very top, to lead the largest collection of superheroes in the world.  They hadn’t wanted much in exchange.  He kept an eye out to make sure nobody got too curious about Cauldron, diverted them if they did.  He’d greased the wheels for some of Cauldron’s top customers.  He was also ready to defend Cauldron if and when it became public knowledge.  It was for the greater good, he told himself.  There was no way for Cauldron to operate otherwise, lest the world’s governments fight over the ability to create whole armies of people with powers and interfere with the organization’s ability to operate.

It would operate, he knew, it obviously wasn’t in a location where it could be raided or seized by military forces, but it wouldn’t be able to reach nearly as many people, and capes would come under scrutiny with the possibility that they’d purchased their powers.

He’d committed to this because Cauldron was essential.  With the rise of the Endbringers and threats like the Slaughterhouse Nine, the world was in need of heroes.  Cauldron produced more heroes than villains, because there was none of the trauma of a trigger event to throw them off.  Even for those individuals who turned to crime, Cauldron was able to leverage the favors that were part of the contract in order to guide their path.  More superheroes meant better chances for everyone when it came to fighting the Endbringers and dealing with the big threats.

It struck him that this wasn’t necessarily true.  If the Doctor had lied about human experimentation, she could have lied about those details as well, too.

Human experimentation on a large scale.  Unwitting, or perhaps unwilling to connect the dots, he’d helped it happen in a way.

His hand shook as he reached for the mouse.  He clicked the button once more, hoping there would be something he could use to convince himself that this was a mistake.  A false positive, a clue that Cauldron was really a force for good after all.  Hadn’t Armsmaster said that his lie detection system was imperfect?  Or maybe Kid Win had generated errors in the code.  The alterations had been minor but comprehensive:  Legend hadn’t wanted to be informed in real-time about the lies, lest he give something away.

“And you don’t know anything about how William Manton is connected to all this?”

“I’m as mystified as you are.”

LIE.

He knew what came next, with the conversation fresh in his memory.  He didn’t want to press the button again, but there was little choice.

“I’ve trained myself in kinesics.  I can look at a person’s face and body language and know if they’re lying.  And I can tell you the Doctor is telling the truth.”

The red text popped up as the last four and a half words appeared.  LIE.

Alexandria knew.  Of course she had.  Her ability to read people, her vast troves of knowledge, her ability to see patterns.  And she was the most willing of their group to take the hard, ugly road.  Had been since Siberian had hospitalized her.

Click.

His own voice.  “I’m sorry to accuse you.”

LIE.

Had he been lying?  He supposed he had.  He didn’t like the Doctor, and he hadn’t truly felt sorry for his suspicions.  Ever since he’d seen William Manton with the Slaughterhouse Nine, he’d harbored doubts about what was going on.

Those doubts had become quiet conviction after he’d gone to see Battery in the hospital.  One of Bonesaw’s mechanical spiders had cut her suit.  He knew exactly the kind of disorientation, hallucination and waves of paranoia she would have experienced as the gas took hold.  While she reeled and tried to get a grip on reality, she’d likely left herself open for further attacks.  Whatever the case, one of the spiders had injected her with a poison Bonesaw had devised.

Her death had been slow, painful and inevitable.  It had been engineered to strike those notes in a way that millions of years of evolution had yet to refine a plant’s toxin or an animal’s venom.  Lying in the hospital bed, still delirious, Battery had used halting sentences to tell him about Cauldon, about buying her powers, and about Cauldron asking her to help Siberian and Shatterbird escape.  She’d planned to pursue the Nine, to offer assistance and then kill one or both of the villains.  Battery had begged him for affirmation that she’d tried to do the right thing, that he would find the answers she didn’t.  He’d reassured her the best he could.

She’d died not long after.

He almost couldn’t bring himself to click the yellow button again.  Alexandria had been lying to him.  And that only left…

Click.

Eidolon’s voice came from the speakers.  “I can’t add anything here, and my power’s not volunteering anything that could help to solve this particular mystery.  I guess we have yet another unanswered question on our hands.”

The word was in red letters on the screen.  It could have been his own pulse behind his retinas, but the letters seemed to throb with a heartbeat of their own.  LIE.

“All lies,” Legend whispered the words to himself.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 13

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

It’s like the world’s gone mad, and I’m the only sane person left.

Director Emily Piggot finished the last of her coffee and paused to survey the enormity of the task that lay ahead of her.  The scale of it could be measured in paperwork.  Piles of it.  Sometimes two feet high, the stacks of paper were arranged in rows and columns on every available surface, including the top of her coffee maker and the floor around her desk.  There were stacks of stapled pages, each topped with a weight to protect it from the gusts and breezes that flowed through the open window frames.

She couldn’t help but notice the way that the pages at the bottom of the pile were neatly organized, tidy, everything in line.  The newer pages, the ones at the top, were the sloppy ones.  Pages were slightly out of alignment, some dog-eared or stained.

The same progression could be measured in the print.  The older pages were typed, printed as forms with everything in its place.  Abruptly, it all shifted to handwriting.  Shatterbird’s destruction of everything glass and everything with a silicon-based chip inside.  Computer screens and computers.  The handwriting, too, grew less tidy as the rise of the piles marked the passage of time.  On occasion, it would improve for a day or two, when her captains and sergeants complained about illegible handwriting, but it inevitably slipped back into disarray.

A strong metaphor, Emily Piggot thought.  Every part of it said something about the current circumstances.

The shift from uniform typed words to countless styles of handwriting, it said something about the innumerable voices, the break down of the cohesive, ordered whole.  What resulted were hundreds, thousands of self-interested voices.  One in five condemned her, two in five pleaded with her for assistance in some form, and the remainder simply expected her to perform her duties as a cog in the machine.

She looked over the sheer volumes of paper around her office.  The PRT handled cases where parahumans were involved, and these days, it seemed like everything and everyone was touched in some way by the heroes, villains and monsters of Brockton Bay.  Every time the other precincts had the slightest excuse, they would claim that it was the PRT’s responsibility.  If they had no excuse at all, they would claim it a joint responsibility.  Until she read over the cases in question and either signed off on them or refused them, the job was in her hands.  As far as the ones passing the buck were concerned, it was out of their hands.

The first real intrusion on the average citizen’s life had been the bombings instigated by the ABB.  Frightening, but it had been easy for the average person to believe they wouldn’t be one of the victims, to shrug it off as the same background noise of heroes and villains that they’d experienced for much of their lives.  Now, between Leviathan, Shatterbird, the fighting and the formation of territories, everyone had reason to worry and give serious thought to who they needed to support and how they were going to protect themselves.

Just as the parahumans had invaded the lives of those in the city, the paperwork seemed to dominate Emily’s life.  It crept onto the walls, onto bulletin boards and whiteboards.  Notes on the local players, timelines, messages and maps.

Insurmountable.  Too much work for one woman to handle.  She delegated where she could, but too much of the responsibility was hers and hers alone.  The humans outnumbered parahumans by eight-thousand to one, give or take, in urban areas.  Outside of the more densely populated areas, it dropped to a more manageable one to twenty-six-thousand ratio.  But here in Brockton Bay, many had evacuated.  Few places in the world, if any, sported the imbalanced proportion that Brockton Bay now featured.  What was it now?  One parahuman to every two thousand people?  One parahuman to every five hundred people?  Each parahuman represented their respective interests.  She represented everyone else’s.  The people without powers.

The whole nation was watching.  People across America ate their TV dinners while they watched the news, seeing footage of the slaughters in downtown Brockton Bay, white sheets draped over piles of bodies.  The before and after shots of areas devastated by Shatterbird.  Flooded streets.  Fundraising efforts were launched, many succeeding, while yet others leveraged the situation to cheat the sympathetic out of money.  The world waited to see if Brockton Bay would become another Switzerland, another Japan, another region that simply couldn’t recover.  Ground lost to the Endbringers in their relentless campaign of attrition against humanity.

So very few of them knew it, but they were counting on her.

She heaved herself out of her chair and made her way to the coffee machine to refill her mug.

“Director?”

She turned to see Kid Win standing in the doorway.  He looked intimidated.

“Yes?”

He raised the laptop he carried in his hands.  “The guys in CS asked me to bring this to you.”

She shook her head, refusing the offer, “For now, every computer that comes in is supposed to be used for setting up the consoles and communications.”

“They’re done.  Or almost done, for communications.  They expect to be up and running in two hours, but they have all the computers they need.”

“Good.  Access to the central database is up?”

“Everything except the highest security feeds.”

Disappointing.  “I’ll make do, I suppose.  Thank you.”

Kid Win seemed almost relieved to hand her the laptop.  It meant he could get out of her presence sooner.  He was turning to leave the instant the laptop was out of his hands.

“Wait.”

She could see his shoulders drop, slightly, in the same way a dog’s tail drooped when ashamed or expecting reprimand.  Emily Piggot wasn’t good with kids, or even young adults.  She knew it.  Outside of the time she had played with dolls as a small child, she’d never entertained the notion of being a mother.  She didn’t even like kids.  It was the rare youth that she actually respected, now, and those few tended to be the ones who saw her firm leadership and respected her, first.  Now she was in charge of some of the most powerful children in the city.

“The next patrol shift is in…”  She turned to find the clock, “Twenty minutes?”

“Twenty minutes, yeah.  Vista, with Clockblocker babysitting.  Weld and Flechette are out right now, patrolling separately.”

“Postpone the next patrol, and tell Weld and Flechette to take it easy, but to be ready to report at a moment’s notice.  With the consoles up, we’ll be ready to act.  Pass on word to Miss Militia as well.  I believe she’s taking the next patrol shift.”

“Yes ma’am.”

The laptop would do little to help in her war against the paperwork until she had access to a printer.  PRT divisions and precincts in neighboring cities were all too willing to send along staff and officers to assist, but her firm requests for the fundamentals -for computers, printers, satellite hookups, electricians and IT teams- were ignored all too often.

She cleared space on her desk and started up the laptop.  It would be good to have access to the files on the locals and ‘guests’ alike.  She would handle the paperwork better after a moment’s break, while she focused on other things that needed doing.  She was barely registering the words, at this point.

This would be a battle won with preparation, and for that, she needed information.

It took her a moment to adjust to the smaller keyboard.  She entered her passwords, and answered the personal questions that Dragon’s subsystem posed to her.  Why is your nephew named Gavin?  Your favorite color?  Irritating- she didn’t even know her favorite color, but the algorithms had figured it out before she did.  All information divined from the countless pieces of data about her that were in official emails, photographs and surveillance footage from the PRT buildings.  It was with a moment of trepidation that she typed in For Gawain, knight of the round table.  Silver.

The fact that Dragon’s system could divine these details, as always, unnerved her.  This time, in light of recent events, it unsettled her all the more.

She typed in the words ‘Slaughterhouse Nine’ and watched as information began appearing in lists.  News items, sorted by relevance and date, profiles, records.  Lists of names.  Casualty reports.

Emily clicked through the records.  Sorting as a timeline, she found the entry muddled with Armsmaster’s simulation records on the fighting abilities of the Nine.  He’d been preparing to fight them.  A double-check of the modification dates showed he’d seen the entries recently.

So when he’d escaped, he’d done it with the intent of fighting the Nine.  She’d suspected as much.

She refined the search to remove the simulations from the results and found video footage.

A video of Winter, an ex-member of the Nine, engaging in a protracted siege against no less than twenty members of the Protectorate.  She’d been killed by one of her teammates.

A sighting of Crawler, shortly after he had joined the Nine.  He’d been more humanoid, then.  Still large.

Another member of the Nine from yesteryear, Chuckles, attacking a police station.  No use to her, beyond serving as a testament to what might happen if she consolidated too many forces in one place.

She found a file listed as ‘Case 01’.  She clicked it.

We’ve got her cornered?” the person in the video spoke.  Hearing the voice, noting the camera image of an apartment was mounted on a helmet, Emily Piggot knew who it was.  She knew the video well enough.

Think so,” a man replied.  The camera focused on Legend, then swung over to Alexandria, and finally Eidolon.  “We’ve got teams covering the drainage and plumbing below the building, and the entire place is surrounded.

She hasn’t tried to leave?” the face behind the camera asked.  “Why not?

Legend couldn’t maintain eye contact.  “She has a victim.

Alexandria spoke up, “You had better be fucking kidding me, or I swear-

Stop, Alexandria.  It was the only way to guarantee she’d stay put.  If we moved too soon, she’d run, and it would be a matter of time before she racked up a body count elsewhere.

Then let’s move,” she responded, “The sooner the better.

We’re trying an experimental measure.  It’s meant to contain, not kill.  Drive her towards main street.  We have more trucks over there.

Emily turned off the sound as the four charged into action.  She didn’t want to hear it, but she felt compelled to keep watching.  A matter of respect.

It was Siberian.  One of the first direct confrontations, more than a decade ago.  It hadn’t gone well.

The Protectorate had been smaller, then.  The lead group had consisted of four members.  Legend, Alexandria, Eidolon and Hero.  Hero had been the first tinker to take the spotlight, so early to the game that he could get away with taking a name that basic and iconic.  He’d sported golden armor, a jetpack, and a tool for every occasion.  His career had been cut short when Siberian tore him limb from limb in a sudden frenzy of blood and savagery.  He’d been scooped up by Eidolon, who tried to heal him, who continued to hold the man as he joined in the ensuing conflict.

Director Piggot had seen the film before.  Several times.  It was the screams that haunted her.  Even with the sound off, she could have put it all together from the sounds that were engraved in her memory, right down to the cadence, the pitch.  Seeing a teammate die so unexpectedly, so suddenly.  The noises of panic as some of the strongest capes in the United States realized there was nothing they could do, adjusting their tactics to try to save people, staying one step ahead of Siberian to minimize the damage she did as she waded through any defense they erected, tossing the PRT trucks -modified fire trucks, then- as though they were as light and aerodynamic as throwing knives.

Invincible Alexandria was struck a glancing blow and had one eye socket shattered, the eye coming free in the midst of that bloody ruin.  Eidolon had healed her, after, but the scar was still there.  Alexandria now wore a helmet whenever she was out in costume.

After that telling blow, Legend’s voice would be ordering the containment foam.  Not so much to bind Siberian as to hide the wounded Alexandria from the feral lunatic.

With the sound muted, Piggot would not have to hear Legend crying out over what he had believed was the death of two teammates.  It had always made her feel guilty to hear it, as if she were intruding, seeing someone mighty at a moment in their life when they were stripped emotionally bare.

And of course, Siberian had escaped.  Slipped past countless PRT officers and a dozen superheroes in the chaos.  Nothing in the footage gave a clue as to how.

A shadow passed over her desk.  Turning, she saw a silhouette of a flying man against the light of the sun.

Like so many parahumans, he lapsed into intrusiveness and a self-centered mindset.  Well, she wouldn’t blame him for being emotional in regards to this.

She composed herself and spoke, “If you’d like to enter my office through the front door, Legend, we can talk there.”

Silently, he disappeared around the side of the building.  She couldn’t see through the wall, but she heard the commotion as he flew in through the window.  He stepped into her office with the fluid grace one had when they could use their ability to fly to carry their weight.  Blue and white costume, boots and gloves.  Veteran member and leader of the Protectorate, his lasers carried as much firepower as a battalion of tanks.  She had to remind herself that she technically outranked him.

“Siberian?” he asked.

“I’m reading up on our opposition.”  She wouldn’t apologize, but she couldn’t keep the sympathy from her face.

“I flew up to check if you were in your office, and I saw the video.  My fault for seeing what I did.  It wasn’t a good day.”

She nodded curtly.  It hadn’t been.  One could even suggest it was when things started to go bad.  The loss of Hero, the first time a truly dangerous villain made an appearance.  “What did you want to see me for?”

“A note delivered for you at the front door.  We gave it a high priority.”

“You’re taking the standard precautions?”

He nodded.  “It’s already on its way to the lab.”

“Join me?”  She lifted herself out of the chair, keenly aware of the differences in her and Legend: parahuman and human, male and female, lean muscle and eighty pounds of extra weight, tall and average in height.

“Of course.”

They walked past the reams of public servants, government employees and Piggot’s own people.  Emily knew she was not the only one overburdened with work, not the only one sweating, trying and failing to keep cool.  The rest of her people were staying awake with the benefits of coffee more than anything else.

She couldn’t turn away everyone that volunteered or was sent to Brockton Bay to assist her PRT division, but there were too many.  Space was at a premium, and there were too few places where she could establish secure offices, where buildings didn’t threaten to fall down and where assistance was actively needed.  Still, she’d sent people away when she could.

“How’s the family?” She asked.  “You adopted, if I remember right?”

“We did.  Arthur was worried that a surrogate parent would give birth to a parahuman, and if that happened, he’d be out of the loop.”

“The odds are still high, even with an adopted child.  It’s likely more to do with exposure to parahumans at formative ages than genetics.”

“I know.  Arthur knows, but I don’t think he believes it.”

“Or he doesn’t want to believe,” Emily said.

Legend nodded.

“He knew the price of admission,” she said.

Legend smiled.  “You’re always straight to the point, Director.”

“But the child is good?  A boy or a girl?”

“A boy.  Keith.”

“You’ve heard there are some third generation parahumans on record?”

“For a while now.  We knew they were being born anyways, right?”

“We did.  But nothing’s official until it’s on record.  But the point I was getting at was that there was apparently an incident.”

“Oh?”

“In Toronto.  A five-year-old manifested powers.  A third generation parahuman.”

Legend nodded, but he didn’t respond right away.  He stepped forward to open a door for her.

“Everyone’s alright?” he asked, at last.

“No.  But no casualties.  The parents were outed in the chaos.”

“Sobering.”

She nodded.  “The perils of being a superhero parent.  Your child isn’t a third generation cape, I know, but there are always risks.  Still, I envy you.”

“How so?”

“Family.  I wonder if it is harder or easier to get through the day if you have people waiting for you at the end.”

“Yes.”

She smiled a little at that.

They entered the lab, and Emily Piggot very carefully measured the expressions of every person in the room when they noticed Legend.  Awe, surprise, amazement.  Sometimes ambivalence.

What could she take away from that?  If she were to promote one of them, should she promote one of the awestruck ones, or one of the taciturn?  The starry-eyed might be in the PRT for the wrong reasons, but the ones who were unfazed by the presence of one of the most notable heroes in the United States could easily be plants, hiding their emotion or simply too used to the presence of capes to care.

“The note?”

“No traces of toxins, radiation, powders or transfers.”

“Why the priority?  We get letters from cranks every day.”

“The man who delivered the message reported a fairly convoluted series of safeguards to protect the identity of the sender.  Apparently the man who gave him his instructions was given the note by a civilian, and ordered to find a random individual to deliver it to the PRT, all with compensation arranged.”

“You’ve tailed him?”

“Of course.  We doubt anything will come of it.”

“No.  It wouldn’t.  Can you make out the contents without touching the envelope?  Can’t be too careful.”

“We can and have.”  The technician handed Emily a paper.

She read it over twice.  “Burnscar is dead, it seems, and Bonesaw won’t be in the field for the interim.  God knows how quickly she’ll recover, but it’s something.”

“Good news,” Legend said.

Emily wasn’t so sure.  “It’s… a change.”

“Not a good one?”

“The closing line reads, ‘Thanks for the help.’  I can’t help but read it in a sarcastic tone.”

“The bug girl?  Skitter?”

Emily nodded.  “Exactly.  As good as it is to have one more member of the Nine dealt with, this shifts the balance of power towards another group of villains.  It also serves to move up our deadline.”

“What do you want to do?”

“Call a meeting.  Protectorate and Wards.”

“Alright.”

She looked at each of the capes in turn.  Legend, Prism, Ursa Aurora and Cache were the outsiders, heroes on loan.  Miss Militia’s group was more worn out.  Where their costumes had been damaged, stained or torn, pieces had been replaced from the generic costumes the PRT kept in stock.  Miss Militia had doffed the jacket but left the scarf with the flag motif in place.  She wore a black tank top and camouflage pants with a number of empty holsters and sheaths for her weapons.  Battery was wearing a plain black costume and goggles, while Assault had replaced the top half of his costume with similar odds and ends.  Triumph still wore his helmet and shoulder pads with the roaring lion style, but his gloves had been replaced with the same utilitarian, generic ones the PRT officers wore in the field.

The Wards, at least, were in better shape.  Tired, to be sure, but they hadn’t been directly in the fray.  The patrol shifts were unending and they always had something to do.  Weld, Flechette, Clockblocker, Vista, Kid Win and Chariot.

She deliberately avoided looking at Chariot.  The mole in their midst.  Did Coil suspect she knew about the mole he’d planted?  Could she afford to assume he didn’t?

Still, it would all be for nothing if she gave the game away.  Back to the matter at hand.

“We have three priorities,” she began.  “We take down the Nine, we regain control of the city, and we don’t die.”

She stressed the final two words, waiting to see their reactions.  Were any of her people thinking of performing a heroic sacrifice?

“There’s no point in winning now if any of you die or get converted to the enemy side by Regent or Bonesaw.  Even if we were to defeat the Nine outright, through some stroke of fortune, I harbor concerns that we’d lose the city without the manpower to defend it.  It’s a dangerous situation.”

She picked up the remote that sat in front of her and clicked the button.  The screen showed a map of the city with the spread of territories.

“The Nine have the advantage of power.  Not necessarily in terms of the abilities at their disposal, but in terms of their ability to affect change and shape everything that occurs.  They are our number one priority, obviously.  With them gone, if nothing else, I can hope that more capes will be willing to venture into the city to help out.”

“But we’re operating with a deadline, and the Undersiders and Travelers have just moved it up dramatically.  The Nine posed their challenge, and they’re losing.  There’s now four ’rounds’ of Jack’s little game remaining.  Twelve days, depending on their successes and failures in the future.  I’ve talked it over with Legend, and we’re both working under the impression that the Nine will enact whatever ‘penalty’ they mentioned in the terms for their game.  Our working assumption is a biological weapon.”

There were nods around the table.

“In short, our worst case scenario is the Nine feeling spiteful or cornered, and deploying this weapon.  When we attack, we need to make it an absolute victory, without allowing them an opportunity.  Wards, I know you’re not obligated to help in this kind of high-risk situation.  This is strictly voluntary, and I’ve had to discuss the matter with your parents to get permission to even raise the subject, but I would value and appreciate your help on this front.”

The Wards exchanged glances.

“If you could raise your hand if you’re willing to participate?”  She ventured.

Every hand except two was raised.  Chariot and Kid Win.

It did mean she had Flechette, Clockblocker and Vista.  The ones she needed.

“Thank you.  Rest assured, Chariot, Kid Win, that I harbor no ill will.”

“My mom wouldn’t forgive me if I went,” Kid Win said.

“I understand.  Now, the Nine are only one threat.  Let’s talk about the others.”  She clicked the remote again.  “Tattletale’s Undersiders have the advantage of information.  We still don’t know her powers, but we can speculate that it’s a peculiar sort of clairvoyance.  She was able to provide us detailed, verifiable information on Leviathan after fighting him, even though she was only participating for several minutes before being knocked out.”

She paused. “I believe this is why, in a matter of twenty-four hours, they were able to fight the Nine twice and win both times.  On the first occasion, they captured Cherish and Shatterbird, presumably enslaving the pair.”

“So they have Shatterbird’s firepower and Cherish’s ability to track people, now,” Legend spoke.

Piggot nodded.  “Skitter contacted us for assistance, as some of you will remember, and when we refused, the Undersiders took the fight to the Nine a second time.  Burnscar is dead, Bonesaw injured.  She’s invited us to attack them in the meantime.”

“Why would we do that now when we turned down her offer to cooperate?”  Weld asked.  “What’s changed between now and then?”

“Communications will be up shortly,” Piggot replied, “We now have the consoles and trained employees ready to man them, and so long as we’re going into this as a unit, we don’t need to worry about other groups stabbing us in the back at any point during the battle while we engage the Nine.”

“Would they?”  Legend asked.  “I have a hard time assessing their motives and morality.”

“I don’t know.  Could they?  Yes.  And that possibility is too dangerous, especially given what Regent can do.  The Undersiders do not pull their punches.  The Travelers, oddly enough, are more moderate, but they do have sixteen kills under their belt, due in large part to the sheer power at their disposal.”

“Let’s not forget the incident in New York,” Legend said.  “Forty individuals disappeared in one night.  Investigation confirmed the Travelers were occupying a nearby location.  Chances are good that they were involved.”

“They’re complicated, no doubt,” Emily confirmed.  “But for now, they’re one knot in a very  tangled weave.  The Nine have power, the Undersiders have information.  Coil has resources that may even exceed our own, including a precog of indeterminate power.  Last but certainly not least, Hookwolf’s contingent is one and a half times the size of our own, and he’s absorbing the whites from the Merchants to his own group.  He commands a small army.”

“It’s a considerable series of obstacles stacked against us,” Legend answered.

“And few capes are willing to step in to help defend the city.  Credit to Legend and his teammates for joining us.  Thank you.”

The group of guests nodded.

“There’s more.”  Time to see how much information filters through to Coil, and how he reactsWith luck, we might be able to pit one problem against another.  “Armsmaster’s confinement was technically off the record, to protect the PRT in this time of crisis.  He escaped, and thus far, Dragon has not been able to track him.  Without official record or reason to arrest him, our measures are limited.”

“It’s impressive that he got away from Dragon,” Kid Win said.

“It is.  Thus far, he has eluded every measure she had in place.  Either he is much more crafty than even Dragon anticipated, keeping in mind that she’s a very smart woman, or Dragon helped him.”

That gave the others pause.

“Dragon’s record of service has been exemplary,” Legend spoke.

“It has.  And we’ve put an inordinate amount of trust in her as a consequence.  How many of our resources are tied into her work?  If she had a mind to oppose us, would we be able to deal with her?”

“We have no reason to think she’s done anything.”

Emily waved him off.  “Regardless.  Very little of this situation remains in our control.  Armsmaster is gone, the other major players are members of the various factions, and we remain in the dark about who many of them are.”

There were nods all around.

She had them listening.  “I have a solution in mind.  The higher-ups have approved it.  Clockblocker, you’re going to be using your power defensively if things go south.  They aren’t patient enough to wait for it to wear off.  You can protect yourself by using your power on a costume you’re wearing, yes?”

Clockblocker nodded.

“Vista, I’m counting on you to help control the movements of the Nine.  Siberian is immune to powers, but not to external influences.  The timing will be sensitive.”

She clicked the remote, then turned her head to look at the result.  It was a warhead.

“On my command, a stealth bomber is prepared to drop payloads of incendiary explosives at a designated location.  We evacuate civilians from the area or lead the Nine to an area where evacuation is possible or unnecessary, then we drop a payload on site.  If they move, we drop another payload.  Clockblocker, you protect anyone that’s unable to clear out.  Legend will ferry you to where you need to be.  Cache can rescue people as the effects wear off.”

“That’s… still not reassuring,” Flechette spoke.

“You’ll be equipped with fire resistant suits.  I ordered them in anticipation over fighting Burnscar, but the plan has been adjusted.  You’ll all look identical, except for agreed upon icons, colors and initials on each costume.  Ones Jack and the other members of the Nine will not be able to identify, please.  There’s a team ready to prepare the costumes at a moment’s notice.  It will help mask the identities of those involved, and postpone any reaction from Jack over our having broken the terms of the deal.”

“But we are breaking the deal.  Even if Legend’s team doesn’t get involved-” Miss Militia started.

“The incendiary deployments will serve three purposes.  They’ll forestall any biological attacks Bonesaw attempts, they’ll force Siberian to stay put to protect her allies and they’ll kill Jack or Bonesaw if she isn’t able.  Humans aren’t biologically programmed to look up, and whatever else Siberian is, she’s still human at her core.”

“And if Siberian does protect her allies?” Weld asked.

“Flechette will see if her enhanced shots can beat Siberian’s invulnerability.  Failing that, Clockblocker contains the woman.  His power won’t work on her, but we can cage her in thread or chains that he can then freeze.  If we can do the same with Jack and Bonesaw, we can starve them out, or wait until they let go of Siberian.  If you’re prepared, Clockblocker?  We can support you with relief teams.”

“If it means stopping them, I’m down.”

“Unless she’s able to walk through that,” Weld spoke.

“It’s inviolable,” Clockblocker said, leaning back in his chair.  “I’d sooner expect her to fold the universe in half.”

“You’re sure?”

“It’s what the doctors say.”  Clockblocker said.

“And Crawler?” Legend asked.

Piggot spoke, “Legend, Ursa Aurora, Prism, Weld, Assault and Battery will occupy him until we can contain him.  He’s still vulnerable to physics.  I’m hoping the white phosphorous explosive will keep him in the area long enough for us to put measures in place.  As I said, we can’t afford to do this halfway.  If they get cornered, or if they think they’ll lose, we run the risk they’ll lash out.”

She glanced around the room at the fourteen parahumans present.

“We carry this out this evening, before any of our opponents catch on to our intentions and complicate matters with their own agendas.  That will be all.  Prepare.  See to your suits in the lab.”

She watched everyone file out.  Legend stayed behind.

“You’re not saying everything,” he murmured.

“No.”

“Fill me in?”

“Some of that is to mislead the spy in our midst.  We have a follow-up measure.”

“Does it pose a risk to this team?”

“It does.  Unavoidable.  I suspect Coil will inform Hookwolf and encourage the Chosen, the Pure and even Faultline’s group to act.  Tattletale, I suspect, will know something’s going on, and I intend to leak enough information to pique her curiosity.  It’s in the moment that the villains enter the situation that the risk to our capes occurs.”

“But?”

“But we have a store of equipment we confiscated from Bakuda when we raided her laboratory.  Miss Militia deployed a number against Leviathan, but we have more.  Once the other factions have engaged, we bombard the area with the remainder in a second strike.  Our research suggests that several of these explosives can bypass the Manton effect.”

“This breaks the unspoken rules between capes.  And the truce against the Nine.  I don’t like this.”

It’s a world gone mad.  Do I have to join the madmen to make a difference?

“Don’t worry.  I’m the one who’s going to push the button,” Piggot answered.  “And I’m not a cape.”

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