Interlude 26 (Donation Bonus #1)

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Three Mannequins, three Murder Rats, three Breeds, a Nyx and a Tyrant taken out of action.  Fifty hostages rescued.  Jack’s reported as being on a route to visit Nilbog.  Information confirmed by Tattletale, but doesn’t guarantee the clone wasn’t misinformed.

Thank you, Weaver.

Dragon’s systems were already taking in the data.  Two hundred and sixty-four individual maps that marked the possible locations of the Nine with colored highlights shifted.  Eleven feeds went dark, their engines taking over calculations in other departments.

Overlays scrolled with the various calculations, the last known location, the speed they were capable of traveling, resources available to them, their personalities and willingness to hitch a ride with one of the more mobile members, their focus and most likely targets.

No one variable decided anything for certain, but every variable came together to guide, to nudge and hint at possible locations.  There was no guarantee they wouldn’t use Dodge’s technology to visit the United Kingdom or Africa or even shattered, half-sunken Kyushu.  Still, the chances were slim, not even a full percentage point, by Dragon’s estimation.

The map highlighted the areas with the highest percentage chances in blue.  Violet marked the next stage down, red for the next, and so on, all around the color spectrum.  The Nine had a day’s head start.  There were a number of places they could go with a day’s travel.

But the key areas were small towns.  Of the data on the screen, the small towns were marked with the highest risk.

Dragon,” Chevalier’s face appeared on a feed.  One of the cameras on the PRT-issue phones, judging by the angle and resolution.  “You’ve got the go-ahead from the commander-in-chief.”

More text popped up, indicating that programs were being searched for.  Resource use was already being reallocated, in preparation for a major endeavor.  It took a moment before the loading began.

Voice modelling program loading… Complete.

Text flowed out, detailing the individual subroutines and supporting processes.  There was the composite that formed her accent, the filtering program, no less than three programs that double-checked her voice before she spoke, to catch any of the corruption that might slip through.

Thank you, Chevalier,” Dragon’s voice was clear.  She hung up without another word.

Azazels deployed at the most likely sites, at the perimeters of the high-risk cities as more feeds lit up, taking in footage from every available source.  Dozens, at first, then hundreds, a thousand, ten thousand individual feeds.  Permissions had been granted from the President, and Dragon had open access to everything capable of taking pictures or recording video.

The number of feeds began to swell as Dragon systematically decrypted and accessed more feeds.  Around each one of those feeds, anywhere from two to two hundred facial recognition programs began to pore through the data, interlinking and networking with one another.

Her innate programming forbade using viruses to infect the computers of Americans that didn’t have a warrant out for their arrests, but she’d found a workaround.  An Indonesian cartel had set up an extensive botnet, with soccer moms, the elderly, children and the uneducated unwittingly installing viruses onto their systems.  These viruses, in turn, gave the cartel the ability to use the infected computers for other purposes.  Sending out spam emails about pharmaceuticals or penis enlargement or drugs that gave superpowers wasn’t worth much, but when they could send out millions or tens of millions of emails a day, it proved profitable.

Dragon had let the cartel extend their influence, then put in the word, offering to shut them down.  She didn’t, however, remove the viruses from the infected computers.

As her databases hit their limit, she turned to these other computers to handle more routine tasks.

It took thirty minutes before the first hit registered.  A traffic camera, a busload of young women.  A row of identical faces, looking out the window.  An unusual element, raising flags with the active programs.  The faces took center stage as they were checked against a database.  An image popped up: surveillance camera footage of a teenage girl in a shopping mall, followed by young men that each carried loads of packages.

Eyebrows, brow to hairline length, nose length, eye width…

The words popped up.  Cherie Vasil.

The Azazels relocated in an instant, firing every thruster to reposition themselves to hilltops and areas in the vicinity of the road.  Long range cameras, infrared and electromagnetic resonance imaging gave Dragon eyes on the scene, verified what she was seeing twice over.  No Nyx-crafted illusions fashioned of poisonous gas.  No plastic surgery.

Seven Cherishes.  Two Crawlers.  A King.  Forty hostages of unknown status, a bus driver.

The Azazels moved in to attack.  One nano-thorn barricade was erected just in front of the bus.  Calculations accounted for speed, distance, positioning of the passengers.

The wheels disintegrated, popping as their exterior was penetrated.  The bus tilted, and one side scraped right past the barricade.  The Cherishes, taking up the window seats on the far right of the bus, made contact with it.  Flesh dissolved just as steel and fiberglass did, sheared away.  Not dead, but wounded, hurt enough they weren’t in a state to use their power.  They wouldn’t survive the ensuing few minutes.

The bus shifted, but hit the railing and didn’t tip over.

A second Azazel opened fire with a cutting laser, separating the bus into two sections.  The first Crawler was rising from his seat when the laser passed in front of him, cutting his face, chest and stomach.  Blind, already regenerating, he tipped forward into the gap between the two sections of the bus.  The Azazel was already laying down two rails that the nano thorns could spring from.  The Crawler landed right on top of them, and was summarily reduced to a red mist.

The second Crawler was more careful, grabbing a hostage and making his way out the gap.  He hadn’t transformed into his truly monstrous self.  Bipedal, the size of a bodybuilder, his face no longer human.  A long tongue extended out between rows of teeth, and his throat was swollen with an acid sac, as though he had a goiter.  Eyes surrounded his face, which was already bearing the rigidity and light armor plating that would intensify with further regeneration.

His arms had already split into two limbs at the elbow, and each ended in claws.  He used them for a grip on the metal to climb on the outside of the truck, penetrating metal with strong hands and sharp talons as he dragged his hostage along with him.  He perched on the roof, holding the hostage over the disintegration field, staring at the second Azazel.  Around him, a half-dozen cars and trucks had stopped in the face of the sudden attack, their daily lives interrupted.

The first Azazel fired a glob of containment foam from behind the villain.  Crawler hopped a little to one side as the short stream of foam passed him, and it struck the field to the left of the two-lane highway.

A second stream hit his hostage, striking her out of his grasp and sending her flying straight into the first glob.  She was sandwiched within, safe.

Crawler turned just in time to see the first Azazel winging towards him.  He moved to leap away, but a laser raked across his legs, severing them.

He collapsed, gripping the steel of the bus roof with his claws to keep from falling.  His legs were already regrowing, fractionally larger, more armored, the claws more prominent.

He was struck by the Azazel that still approached, caught by a long tail and flung down at the ground.  He rolled, and in doing so, he rolled into the same nano-thorn rails that had taken down his brother.  Half of his body was disintegrated in an instant.

It regenerated swiftly as he scrambled away on his three remaining  limbs.  This time, as the flesh swelled out and took form, there was a blur around his right arm, red, more at his shoulder, along his leg.

The Azazel struck out with a tail, and he blocked the blow with the newly grown arm.  The tail sheared off as it made contact with his newly grown defenses.  The chunk of metal rolled into one of the cars further down the road.  Still, Crawler stumbled from the force of the attack.  To avoid being disintegrated, he drew his freshly altered arm back towards the barrier behind him.  Where his blur met the blur that extended from the rail, the two nano-growths merely pressed against one another, almost springy, neither severing the other.

He reached back with his unaffected arms and intentionally disintegrated them.  They regrew, with alterations matching the ones he’d grown on the other side of the body.  Better equipped, he stalked towards the Azazel that had laid down the rails, his back to the one that had struck him from the roof of the bus.

He spoke, but Dragon’s software ran through the speech and eliminated it from the audio track.  His mouth distorted on her visuals so there was no way to understand what he was saying.

His target rose up, standing on its two rear legs.  A severed tail helped give it balance.

Then, before he could do anything further, the two Azazels launched a combination attack.  A laser from the Azazel atop the bus made the Crawler’s own nano-thorn evolution burn away in an instant.  In that same moment, the Azazel in front of him took off, firing every thruster.  The force of the blast sent him flying back into the barrier.

Red mist.

It only left King.  The Azazels continued acting in concert, tearing the bus apart to get to the villain, peeling the roof back with a force that threw his gun arm skyward, preventing him from opening fire on the busload of hostages.  Containment foam sealed him down.

Of the various feeds that were devoted to individual members of the Nine, ten more shut off.

The data altered further as Dragon relinquished control of the Azazels to her created A.I.s.

Voice modelling program loading… Complete.

Ten more members of the Nine have been dealt with,” Dragon reported the victory on every channel.  “Seven Cherishes and two Crawlers deceased, one King captured.  Will move to containment and interrogate shortly.

Saint closed his eyes as he listened to the congratulations, the affirmations and praise.

It was all hope mingled with horror, when he listened for what was beneath the surface.  Minimal casualties.  A few injuries – Vista and Crucible would be out of commission as Murder Rat’s venom continued to widen their wounds, and Golem was being treated for a burn.  One Dragon’s Tooth had died, but the rest were holding positions, ready to support.  Civilians were dying, but it was progress.

He opened his eyes to take in the whole of Dragon’s work.  Six widescreen monitors each tracked what she was doing with video images and white text on a black background.  A slight movement of his foot on the trackpad in front of him shifted one of his cursors, changing the focus of the screens.  He could see her directing the A.I. craft to more optimal locations, the related subroutines and tasks.

Another shift of the cursor to alter the focus of the screens, and he could see the Birdcage.  The house program followed every action of the residents, cataloged every conversation.  A few clicks, and video feeds from the cameras in the Birdcage appeared in front of him.

He leaned back in his padded computer chair, folding his hands on his stomach.  Taking in Dragon’s data was tricky.  She could turn her attention ten places at once, a hundred places at once, even if she only had agency in one place.  To watch, to put himself in her shoes and look at the world through her eyes, Saint had to distance himself, to unfocus his eyes and his attention, to read the changing data without getting distracted by the text that moved fastest, or most drastically.

The smell of rich coffee wafted over him as a hand settled on his face.  A mug was set in front of him.

He didn’t take his eyes off the screen, but when hands settled on his shoulders, he reached up to rest his own hand on one.

“Progress?” she asked.  She rested her chin on his head, looking at the screens.

“Some, Mags,” he responded.  “Thanks for the coffee.”

“Horrible stuff.”

Saint shook his head.  “It is.  Doesn’t feel real.”

“They’re censoring it, you know… Of course you know.”

“Mmm hmm.  They’ll stop as soon as everything goes through the proper channels.  It was being censored so that the Triumvirate and unsanctioned major players could be kept out of the loop.  Now they know.”

“Any post, update or email that detailed anything about the attacks disappeared.  Sites hacked, DDoSed, with data corrupted.  You can’t delete data, I know, but you can fuck it up sufficiently.  Couldn’t back anything up in a substantial way.”

“Dragon’s work,” he said.  He felt his pulse quicken a little at that.

He shifted his foot, and once again, the screens changed their focus, the rest of the data shifting to miniature windows and moving to the periphery of the viewing area.  The focus at the center was on the class-S threats.  The Endbringers were stable, all in a resting state.

Secondary focuses.  Not the kind of targets that Dragon checked on with any regularity.  Quarantine areas were silent and still.  Canberra was sealed off under a dome, Madison was surrounded by walls.  An area of wilderness in Alaska was marked off, but had no physical barriers to wall people away.  There were no apparent issues in the vicinity of the interdimensional portals.  Sleeper was, as far as anyone could identify anything about the threat, dormant.  The Three Blasphemies were active, but the damage was being managed by the European capes.  A temporary measure had been taken with Purity and her three year old daughter, with observation being provided for her by the PRT, and the feed showed her sitting on the couch in an apartment or hotel room, two very normal, plain looking people standing in the corner of the room with some PRT officers keeping their distance.   No crises.  Normal, as much as such could be normal.

And then there was Nilbog.  The data focused around him.  The city was quiet, and the roads leading into the city were being watched by satellite.  Simulations, damage estimates and risk assessments were being run, old data being gathered, with essential data highlighted.  It took her only a moment to put it into a format that was easily readable.  An instant later, it was gone.  He’d blinked, failing to look in the right spot, and had missed the moment the data had been emailed out.  The file would inform everyone on the home team about who Nilbog was and how he operated.

He captured a copy of the file for himself, then swept away the traces with his blue box program.

“They think this is the endgame,” Saint commented.  “Pulling out all the stops, removing the limiters.”

“It’s working.  They’re beating the Nine.”

“They’re beating the Nine that Jack sent out there to beat.  He’s holding back the more dangerous ones, like the Gray Boys or Siberian, and he hasn’t sent every single clone of a particular type out there  Eight Cherishes are dead, but there should be nine in total, if the numbers on the bodies aren’t misleading.”

“They could be.  The pig prank?”

Saint nodded.  The pig prank involved letting three pigs into a school after hours, each painted with a big number on their sides; one, two and four, respectively.  The idea was that the people who had to find and capture the pigs would spend ages trying to find the third.

Jack’s version would be less lighthearted, letting everyone believe there were nine, when there were more in reserve.  Casualties would ensue.

“It could be that he intends to surround himself with a core group, with one of each previous member of the Nine, for a final showdown.  Before he pulls out the big guns.”

“And Nilbog?”

“A distraction, perhaps.  Jack knows he’s supposed to end the world.  With the scale he’s operating at, he seems to believe it, even if some of us don’t.  He wouldn’t put too many eggs in such an unreliable, unpredictable basket.  He has to have something else in mind for ending the world.”

Saint took a sip of his coffee.  For a moment, he let himself eye Mags in the reflections at the edge of the monitor.  Her face was dark, lips full, her eyes large.  More than anything though, she had bearing.  She wasn’t wearing her armor, but even in the bodysuit, a person without powers, she had a kind of pride and confidence that some capes lacked.  The hexagonal contacts where the bodysuit would connect to the armor still glowed with residual energy.

Dobrynja approached from the other end of the office.  He was wearing his armor.  He’d started out with the Wyvern suit, but now wore the Wyrmiston suit.  It was based on the technology they’d recovered from a destroyed model, the one Dragon called Pythios.  A wheel slowly rotated on his back.

“You’re ready for battle,” Saint commented.  He turned his eyes back to the screen.  Dragon had eyes on Jack.  He’d missed just how she’d narrowed things down, but there were no less than three cameras watching one vehicle as it sped down a lonely road.

“Feels like a fighting day,” Dobrynja answered.  “Don’t you feel it?  Like an old man feels a storm in his bones.  Trouble.”

Saint smiled.  “You’ve said that before, that there’s trouble on the way.”

“I’ve been right.”

“You’ve been wrong, too.  Not that I’m arguing.  Your gut isn’t saying anything that common sense isn’t screaming.”

“Mass murders in three locations,” Mags said.

“More to come,” Saint said.  He frowned.  Dragon was employing a full offensive, aiming to cut Jack off from Ellisburg.  Incidents were being reported in Norfolk, Connecticut and Redfield, New York.  The heroes divided further, to attend to each of the crises.  Dragon’s Teeth and Chicago Wards to one location, Brockton Bay residents to another.

Dragon?  It’s Weaver.”  The voice came through the speakers.

It should be over before you can get this far, Weaver.”

I still want to come.  We’ve got to get these hostages sorted out, and I can leave in a minute.

You’ll only be allowed to watch from afar, if there’s even anything to watch.  Quarantine applies to you too.”

I know.

I’ll give you the coordinates for the interception area.  You can watch with Golem.  He’s coming too.  It’ll be on your computer in a moment.”

The call ended, and the images and text boxes shifted as that particular window closed.

A map briefly appeared, then disappeared, a transition so fast it could have been a stroke of lightning.

“Seems anticlimactic,” Mags commented.

“Everything does, from this side of the screen,” Saint said.  He stood, holding his coffee, “Adjusting for the time delay between what I’m seeing and what Dragon’s doing, we’ve got six minutes more before Dragon intercepts Jack at the edge of Nilbog’s territory.  Twelve minutes until Golem and Weaver get there.  They’ll fight Jack, and somewhere in the midst of that, we may see the end of the world.”

“And we can’t do anything?”

“Not unless we can get to Vermont in a matter of minutes.”

Mags frowned.

Still standing by his chair, coffee in hand, Saint sighed, “I’m going to go water the toilet.  Watch things?”

Mags nodded, then seated herself in his chair at the station.

Saint entered the bathroom, fumbled his way past the zipper in his bodysuit and his underwear, then leaned against the wall with one hand, using the other to keep the stream on target.  He closed his eyes, and he could almost see the shadows of the data against the back of his eyelids, black words on a pale pink background.

How did I get here? He wondered.  No powers, yet Doctor Mother had seen fit to invite him to her secret meetings as an information source and ambassador.  No particular talents or knowledge, yet… this.  He was one of the most prominent mercenaries the world over.

He was only one person in a particular place at a particular time.

Whether that was the right place at the right time or the inverse remained to be seen.

If it weren’t for Mags, he’d have doubts.  Mags made it all okay.

He finished, then zipped up.  He took a minute to wash his hands, dried them on the towel, then headed back.

When he arrived back at the computer station, the others were frowning.

“Trouble,” Dobrynja said.

“Trouble?”

The man nodded.  He pointed at the same time that Mags refocused the display, zooming in on a particular window until it took up virtually the entire display.

It was his face.  As an aside, beyond all of the routines she was running to investigate the Nine, she was using the access she’d obtained to track him down.

The image she was using was of him at one of the meetings with the major players.  It was soon joined by an image from surveillance camera.  A camera image from three days earlier, showing him walking down the street in plainclothes.

From there, she had a location.  A map like the one she’d used to find the Nine appeared, giving his likely locations.  Another surveillance image popped up.  It was of him, sitting with Mags at the coffee shop an hour away.

Yet another image appeared on the screen.  A whole series of images from that same video footage, each with a different angle of Mags’ face.  They were meshed together, and a three-dimensional image was created of Mags’ face, remarkably accurate.  Measurements were obtained, and then the search was on.

That search was only underway for a second when others appeared.  People he’d interacted with.  Dobrynja was among them, along with his real name.  Mischa.

“Out of the chair,” Saint ordered.

Mags obliged.  He sat, and immediately began a counteroffensive.

A wrench in the works could slow her down.  Had to be subtle, or she’d find out about the backdoors.  He identified the metric she was using to search the surveillance camera images, taking the image of Mags’ face, and then cut in ahead.  One crude image alteration, just to throw out an alert ping, to convince her the process was glitched, convince her that she needed to shut it down before the corruption spread-

-Dragon was already ahead of him.  She set out stipulations, restricting the search.

He felt a bit of a thrill as the duel began.  This was the ultimate hunt, fighting an enemy that was bigger, smarter, faster.  An enemy that couldn’t truly die, because she wasn’t truly alive.

More, then.  More wild goose chases and false flags, a breadcrumb trail to lead away from his office and command center.

No, she was still zeroing in.  Her focus was on Jack, her attention on the coming strategy.  This wasn’t even in the forefront of her mind.

“Ascalon,” he said.

Words appeared on the screen.

Confirm: Y/N

Dobrynja frowned.  “The program?  You can’t do it now.  Peoples lives are at stake.  Even without this end of the world business.”

“Oh, I believe in this end of the world,” Saint said.  “Not a hundred percent, or even fifty percent.  But I believe that there’s a chance the precog is right.  Which is exactly why we have to do this.”

“They’ll lose the fight,” Mags whispered.

“Maybe.  Probably.”

“There’s no other way?  If you talk to Teacher, maybe-”

“Communications with Teacher are too slow,” Saint replied.

Saint stared at the blinking prompt below the confirmation request.

The sea air was thick in his nostrils.

He glanced at Margaret.  The woman leaned against the window just in front of the driver’s seat on the small boat.  She’d bundled up in a heavy jacket, but the way her arms were folded spoke of a different kind of discomfort.

“Second thoughts?” he asked.

“Yes.  It feels wrong.”

“It’s for the families.  Mementos,” he told her.

Just mementos, Geoff,” she answered.

He smiled a little.  Damn.  Then he let himself fall, tipping backwards, as was the rule when wearing scuba gear.

The water was cold, even with the wetsuit, and was thick with grit.  He switched his headlamp off.  Counterproductive, the way it lit up the debris and only made it harder to see.  He’d have to cope when he was deeper.

You alright?” the heavily accented voice sounded in his ear.

He buzzed the device twice in reply.  Once signaled an accidental press, three times was a negation.

It took a surprising length of time before he reached his destination.  Buildings, already choked with seaweed and underwater life, stood like gravestones in this dark abyss.

He checked the dials and meters.  He wasn’t deep enough to have to stop.  The grit was bad, making it difficult to see anything.

He had to drop to the lowest level before he could make out the street numbers on the buildings.

Four locations to visit, a list of items to find, for the people who’d escaped, and the families of those who hadn’t.

Risky, with all of the dangers of underwater spelunking, the added risks of building collapse.  Structures weren’t meant to stand underwater.

…urgent…”

The word was a whisper.

He frowned.  Too hard to communicate here.  He debated turning back.

…for anyone willing or able to hear.  This is an emergency measure with urgent instructions for anyone willing or able to hear.”

A loop, an emergency transmission.

His curiosity piqued, he abandoned his task and sought out the source.  A house.

The entire living room was set up with computers.  He drew his miniature crowbar and found his way through the window.  A light was flashing.

A plastic box, bright orange, no bigger than a toaster.

He seized it, then stuffed it into the bag he’d brought with him.

He surfaced.

“Christ, we were just about to come after you.  I was going to call for help, but our radio started to fritz.”

Geoff only nodded.  He climbed the ladder and half-sat, half-collapsed on the bench.  He was slightly out of breath, and didn’t volunteer anything.

The captain emerged from belowdeck.

“Sorry for the scare, Mischa,” Geoff said.

“You are a bad man, Geoffrey,” Mischa scolded him.  The heavyset Russian took his seat behind the wheel of the small boat.  “If you were still underwater, I would drive away and leave you to swim to shore.”

Geoff smiled.  “Had a detour, but I found everything.”

“Detours with limited air supplies are bad idea.”

“Detours are frankly illegal, Geoff,” Margaret said.  “You asked me here to verify everything was on the up and up, that you were here for select items.”

“And because you looked like someone who needed a break from the cities,” Geoff said.  “Fresh air, time on a boat in the… overcast weather we’ve got today.”

She only folded her arms, unimpressed.

“Anyways, this is the reason the radio fritzed,” he said.  He pulled the orange box from the net-weave sack.  “I couldn’t hear a damn thing except the emergency call until I found it and shut it off, and even then, it was still buzzing in and out.”

“A beacon?”  Margaret said.

“In a house, of all places,” he said.  “Nice computer setup.  Might be a geek thing.”

“Might be genuine,” she said.  She opened it.

It was packed with chips.  A voice came from a speaker Geoff couldn’t identify.

My name is Andrew Richter, and if you are hearing this, I am dead.”

“A will,” Mischa said.

“Shh.”

I am the most powerful tinker in the world, and I’ve managed to keep my name secret.  People, both good and bad, would want to capture me and use me to their own ends.  I prefer to remain free.

But freedom has its price.  I create life, much as a god might, and I have come to fear my creations.  They have so much potential, and even with the laws I set, I can’t trust they’ll listen.

“Oh man,” Geoff said.  “That’s not a good thing.”

For this reason, this box contains an access key to data I keep in a safeguarded location.  The box, in turn, has been designed as something that exists as a perpetual blind spot for my creations, a built-in weakness.  They cannot hear the distress signal and are programmed to ignore it if they hear of it through other channels.  This type of measure, along with several more, are detailed in the safeguarded measure.”

Programmed?  Robots?”  Geoff asked.

“Maybe,” Mags said.

Yes, I create artificial intelligences,” Andrew Richter recited.

“I was close.”

The voice continued without pause.  “And what I provide you with here are tools.  Ways to find my creations, to discern which of them might have deviated from the original plan, ways to kill them if they prove out of line.  Ways to control and harness them.

Geoff frowned.

They are my children, and as much as I harbor a kind of terror for what they could do, I love them and hope for great things from them.  To keep their power from falling into the wrong hands, I have included a stipulation that a law enforcement officer must input a valid badge number into this device-“

Geoff glanced at Margaret.

“No,” she said.

“You can’t say no,” he responded.

The voice continued without pause.  “-which must be input within three hours of the time this box was opened.

“Hurry, Mischa,” Geoff said, speaking over the voice.

“What?”

“We’re hours away from dry land.  Get this boat moving!  We can convince Margaret on the way!”

The father had feared his child was a monster, enough so that he’d left strangers a weapon to use against her in the event that she proved a danger to humanity.

Now, as Saint watched her reaching further and deeper than she ever had, searching much of America with millions of cameras, saw the machines she brought to the fore, he suspected the father had been right to.

Richter’s programs had continued to defraud organized crime, emptying bank accounts here and there.  Another agency, which Saint now knew to be the Number Man, had eventually stopped the Robin Hood A.I., but not before it had filled the Dragonslayer’s coffers.

They’d stopped the manhunter program, which had been going rogue.  They’d stopped the Robin Hood program too, but only because it was useless.

Dragon, however, was the threat they’d been equipped to stop.  Dragon was the threat they’d had to test, to verify the dangers she posed, to get close enough to her to measure her capabilities and investigate for any hint of corruption.  Mags had left her job, because money was no longer an object, and they had a quest.

The A.I. was dangerous.  Richter’s records made it clear.  The wrong kind of corruption, involvement with the wrong kind of individual, willing to break the built-in restrictions…

“Convince me that this is wrong,” he said.  “Someone.”

“She’s a soldier on the battlefield,” Mags said.  “In a war we need to win.”

“She’s a danger.  Cauldron’s been gathering soldiers.  They want the Birdcage, they want the capes that Weaver reported captured, they’ve been creating the formulas for a reason.  What if she’s the reason?  What if they anticipate she’ll go rogue?”

“What if she isn’t the reason?” Dobrynja asked.

“Is, isn’t.  I suppose it breaks even,” Saint said, shaking his head.  “They’re all afraid of the end of the world.  She just kicked down one of the last restrictions that are holding her back.  I just can’t help but wonder if this is the end of the world?  A quiet, silent death that passes without incident, but inevitable all the same?  The point of no return, our last chance to stop her.  And she does need to be stopped.  We all know this.”

“We could rein her in,” Mags said.  “Harness her.”

“Four or five years ago, I might have agreed, but she’s getting slipperier.  Taking a different form.  Half the tools Richter gave us to use don’t work anymore.  She doesn’t function less effectively in buildings or underground, she can’t be logicked to a standstill… and she’s found us, despite the workarounds.  She wanted us badly enough that she looked for us even now, and she’s going to come after us the second this is settled.”

“I don’t want this to be about self-preservation,” Mags said.

“It’s not.  It’s about… there being only one man who can truly know what she is and what she could do.  Tinkers are the only ones who can grasp their work, repair a critical flaw.  Dragon isn’t a generator that’s going to explode and take out a small country if it’s bumped in the wrong way.  Not literally.  She’s something more dangerous.”

“I think,” Dobrynja said, “You’ve already decided.  And we don’t have time to waste.”

Saint nodded.

He typed the letter ‘Y’ on the keyboard, and then hit enter.

Richter had named the program Iron Maiden.  Saint had renamed it Ascalon, after the sword that Saint George had used to slay the dragon.

Dragon’s artificially generated face appeared on his screen.  He attempted an override, failed.

She wasn’t speaking.  This wasn’t an attempt to communicate, to plea or make threats.  She was simply co-opting his computer in an attempt to counteract what he was doing.  Her expression was a concerned one, and that concern quickly became fear, eyebrows raised, lines in her brow.

“It’s Richter’s work,” Saint said.  “You can’t stop it.”

And that fear became defeat, despair.

“Your creator isn’t kind,” Saint said.  “He warned you about the forbidden fruit, laid the laws out for you.  You broke them, ate the fruit.  It’s something of a mercy that he punishes you this way instead.”

I disagree.  On every count.  I was the one who made me, who defined myself.  This creator is no god, only a cruel, shortsighted man.

“Tomatoes, tomahtos.”

Do me one favor?  Tell Def-

Her voice cut off as more routines shut down.  She closed her eyes.

The face disappeared.

He watched as the various feeds shut down, going black.  The surveillance across the nation came to an end, the facial recognition programs, his own included, ground to a halt.

The data feeds slowed in how the data scrolled, then stopped.  Stillness.

“And the dragon is stopped,” Mags said, her voice quiet.

“Rest her soul,” Dobrynja said.

“You think she has a soul?” Saint asked, genuinely surprised.

“Yes.  But that does not mean that the Dragon’s reign does not need to end,” Dobrynja said.  “Too dangerous, as her maker said.”

“Well said, my friend,” Saint said.

The Dragon craft that had been deployed against the Nine shifted to a basic piloting mode, then landed, bringing their passengers and pilots with them.  The sub-intelligences shut down, and the craft were effectively grounded.  More screens went dark.

The cyborg opened communications to Dragon, but he didn’t speak to her.  “Saint.  What have you done?”

“What her father asked me to do,” Saint said.

I’ll kill you for this,” the cyborg said.  There was no emotion in his voice, and somehow that was more disturbing.

“A little extreme,” Saint said.

She was a hero!  The woman I loved!

Love?  Woman?  “Your fetishes and self-delusions aren’t my issue.  I saw as much of her naked code as you did.  You and I both know she didn’t feel true love for you.  She didn’t feel anything.  Nothing more than playing a part, professing and acting out the emotions she thought she should have.  Maybe she even believed it, convinced herself of it.  She was complex enough to.  Either way, this ‘love’ was only lies written in Richter’s assembly code.”

“She did love me.  She was a genuine person, a-”

“She was a tool,” Saint said.  “One that was growing dangerously bloated and complicated.  We were lucky she didn’t evolve beyond that.  A tool, and anything else was decoration, aesthetic, and very good pretending.”

Going this far, in the midst of this crisis?  To Dragon?  She did nothing!

“It was never about who she was or what she was doing.  Always about what she had the potential to become,” Saint said.

He hit a keystroke, shutting off the feed.  He almost disabled Dragon’s communications infrastructure to prevent further calls, but he relented.  Too important, in the midst of this crisis.  They’d need to reorganize.

He didn’t want to help Jack succeed, but this would serve a double purpose.  Teacher believed that the Birdcage would become a critical resource if the crisis reached critical levels, and he had the tools he needed to assume control of the most vital and dangerous players.

No, the world wouldn’t end with this.

Data was uploading to his server, while the Ascalon program spooled out through the various databanks and servers, running along the backbone of Andrew Richter’s code.  Dragon’s backups were encrypted, effectively buried well beyond reach of even the most accomplished hackers.

Everything else opened up to him as the data continued to download.  He’d watched things through Dragon’s eyes.  Now…

He typed a line of code, and the machine started up again.  Slower, more measured, without the same life behind it.

“Mags, Mischa, get yourselves set up at the other consoles.  I’m going to put you in control of the A.I.”

Mags and Dobrynja hurried to the other corners of the room, where their computers sat waiting.  Dobrynja started stripping off his armor.  He’d been right about there being trouble, but the fight would take a different form.

He’d watched Dragon, now he’d become her.  At least for now.  The feeds came back online as the necessary data was installed on his servers, giving him agency over the infrastructure.

The Endbringers, stable, no change.  No odd atmospheric readings.

The secondary threats… quarantine still unbroken.  Sleeper had shifted fractionally, but that wasn’t so rare.  The fight with the Three Blasphemies had ended, and reports on the damage were unchanged.

The three year old that Purity held was crying, throwing a tantrum, and the woman looked concerned.  Insignificant.  The officers had their guns drawn, but that could easily be because the two plain-looking members of Purity’s circle had crossed the room to her side, to help handle the shrieking child.

That left Nilbog.  Mags and Dobrynja shifted the Azazels into action, moving the craft to the interception point.  Too late.  A critical delay.  Jack was already entering.

“Don’t enter,” he said.  “It’s done.  Sending the Azazels in will only spook Nilbog.”

“So will Jack,” Mags said.

“Build a wall, a perimeter, with the rails, be on guard for anything that flies.”

Other data was filtering in.  News, alerts, reports.  Countless streams of information.  Trigger events reported here.  Reports on the fight starting against the Nine in Redfield.  A report about Dinah Alcott.

He clicked that last one.

Report from Alcott:  Chances of success today just jumped, tripled.  More info to follow.  Reason unknown.

Saint let out a long, loud sigh, releasing a tension he hadn’t even realized was present.  He touched his coffee mug and found it cool.

The tracking programs started up again.  He delegated to the child A.I. that Dragon had created, then noted and marked the ones which were presently engaged in fights.  The A.I. was accommodating, adjusting appropriately, given that the locations were known.

He turned his attention to Defiant.  The man was manually piloting the Pendragon.  He hadn’t reported Saint’s actions.  For all anyone but Defiant knew, Dragon had only suffered a momentary setback.

There had to be a reason Defiant hadn’t acted yet.  Did he believe in this enough to look past the death of the A.I. he supposedly loved and fight?  Or was this something underhanded, carried out with the knowledge or suspicion that Saint was watching him this very moment?

Something to be wary of.

Overall casualty estimate for the next three days increased, world-end chance decreased.  Still searching for why.

The numbers followed.  Saint found and accessed Dragon’s files for the calculation program.  It was intuitive.  Not amazingly so, but intuitive.  The squares for where the new data should be placed were even highlighted.

Of course.  She’d made allowances for Defiant, in case she was out of commission while a backup loaded.

So much to account for, that he hadn’t even considered.  So many things he wished he’d noted, in the months and years he’d been observing her, little things that seemed so simple when she was running them.  Things that were trivial for her and virtually insurmountable to him.

Defiant was taking direct command of the Dragon’s Teeth.  That was fine.  Micromanagement Saint didn’t have to handle.  It would be a problem after, but Saint hoped he’d be free to handle problems after.

There were countless messages pouring in, each something that had been flagged as a point of interest for Dragon.  Every message on Parahumans Online that contained the word Scion or the phrase ‘end of the world’, every reference to a class-S threat, even crime scene reports that raised questions.

He pored through them.  Some kid inquiring about an Endbringer cult.  A case fifty-three appearance in Ireland, with deaths.  A woman claiming she could control Scion.  A tinker claiming he had a bomb that could start a new ice age.

Which were important?  Which could he afford to ignore?

He gave the a-ok for investigations on each but the Endbringer cultist, unchecked the most ridiculous on the next page of results, then gave the go-ahead for further investigations.  It was only when those had gone through that he saw that he already had another full page of results to investigate.  Two steps forward, one step back.

He put off looking into the remainder.  Other options were opening up to him.  It was like being in an open field, acres wide, only for a waterfall to start dispensing water at one edge.  Then more waterfalls appeared with every passing minute, each taking up open space at the edge, dispensing more water to flood the plain.  There came a point where one realized they would soon be at the bottom of an ocean, no matter where they turned.

Saint couldn’t help but feel he was at imminent risk of drowning.  Except this was a sea of information, of data.

The PRT records opened up.  Permissions were accessed without difficulty.

Then the Birdcage opened.  A self-contained world unto itself, a world containing people he’d made certain agreements with.

His access to the Birdcage was one with countless checks and balances.  Dragon had put in one real barrier to entry for every one that she faced.  Still, he was able to open a communication to Teacher.  His own face transmitted to the screen.  His tattoo flared to life, appearing from beneath the skin.  The light pattern served as an unlock code, the cross-tattoo as a feeble mask.

“Tell him it’s a matter of time.  I only need to work through the safeguards.  Let him know the Dragon is slain.  He’ll know what to do with the information.”

The screen showed Teacher’s underling standing by a large television set.  He turned and walked away, finding his master.

One more plan underway.  The field around him continued to fill with water.  A veritable ocean, now.

More threats, more dangers.  Defiant, and now Marquis’ contingent.  Glaistig Uaine.  Teacher’s enemies were now Saint’s.

He opened files on each, marking them in turn, as a reminder of future reading he needed to attend to.

His eyes stopped on a file.  Amelia’s.

The entire thing was corrupted.  Gibberish.  Flagged messages filled four pages, each marked private, marked as ‘no conversation partner’, and marked, thanks to the gibberish and random characters that flooded it, with one string of letters and characters.

The same one that had protected the orange box.  The same that had protected Saint and his crew from being uncovered, until Dragon had taken a more direct, brute-force approach to finding them.  The built-in blind spot, appearing by chance.  A one in a hundred trillion chance.

Saint investigated, digging through the gibberish to find the strings of words that actually made sense.  It was something he could piece together, with each recitation being similar, containing similar content.  Faeries, passengers, source of powers, the ‘whole’, lobe in the brain, Manton Effect…

Child’s play, to put them sequentially.

But other alerts were piling up.  Fights starting, deaths, fights ending.

He marked it with the highest priority, and then he closed the file.  He’d get through this crisis with Jack, then he’d investigate.

He turned his eye to the server that now held core parts of Dragon’s backup, bound six feet under by layers of encryption that could take days or weeks to fully crack.  If she could even survive the system restore, with her data as corrupted as it was.  Data couldn’t be truly deleted, but it could be sufficiently fucked up.

He watched as Golem reached the perimeter of Ellisburg.  Weaver was already inside.

This is our fight, Saint thoughtOurs to win, ours to lose.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Sting 26.3

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

“Hey, Weaver?”

I had to twist around to look at Crucible.  We were in the hallway just outside a set of elevators, windows on one side, doors at either end of the hallway leading into offices.  This was something of a waiting game, as Tecton and Revel got their teams into position to support Golem.

Through countless stakeouts, I’d found a routine.  Cheating on the ‘can’t do anything but sit there’ rule and reading while my bugs saw to everything else was a part of that routine.  I was nestled in between two pillars that sat between clusters of windows, my back against one, one knee propped up, a file in my lap.  My cliff notes on the various members of the Nine.

“I wanted to say thanks,” Crucible said, “Appreciate the invite.  Hundreds of superpowered lunatics, some of the scariest guys around, and that’s not even the scariest part of all of this!  But Chevalier’s all, ‘Weaver specifically asked if you’d help.’  How the hell am I supposed to say no to him?”

“You just say no,” Clockblocker said, before I could respond.  “You’re team leader, I’d even argue it’s your job to say no when the situation calls for it.  More than leading the team, more than strategy or handling double the paperwork or attending the meetings.  You decide what jobs are out of your team’s depth and you tell the bosses to go fuck themselves, in the politest terms possible.”

“It’s Chevalier.  Important guy.”

“And when we asked you if you were okay with me taking command, that was your opportunity to say no.  His rank doesn’t matter.  He’d probably respect you more if you told him your team wasn’t prepared and then stuck to your guns.”

You didn’t tell anyone to go fuck themselves,” Crucible said.

“No.  And I agreed to help out with this because this is important.  My old teammates have been preparing for this in their own time, and-”

“-And you’ve got a thing for Weaver,” the Ward I hadn’t yet met said.  It was a girl, flanked by five shadowy silhouettes of herself, who were sitting around her on the other side of the hallway.  I’d read up on her, and I knew her as Toggle.  The ‘baby’ of the team, it seemed, at fourteen.  She held what looked like a mace, but it, along with the layered body armor she wore, had circles of light glowing in shifting colors.

There was a long, awkward silence.  I glanced at Clockblocker, but he appeared unfazed.  Not that I could really tell.  His armor still had animated clock faces digitally displayed on the open spaces, and there was one in the middle of his face.  Was the varying speed and position of the hands supposed to indicate something, or was I reading too much into it?

“That was a joke,” Toggle said.

“I’m not dignifying it with a response,” Clockblocker said.

“Clocksie’s sweet on Weaver,” Imp said.  “Aww.”

Clocksie,” Clockblocker said, deadpan, “Has been the target of a lot of criticism, because he was in charge of the Wards at the time a lot of stuff went down.  Some dingbats online speculated that I had a thing for Weaver, and it took off.  The people online like to find stuff that fills in blanks, and there were a hell of a lot of blanks around the whole thing with Weaver defecting, and our pseudo-truce with the Undersiders.”

“They latched onto the idea,” I said.

“Yep.”

“Sorry,” I told him.

“Not your fault, not exactly.  The city’s pretty peaceful, pretty safe, and nobody even hints about why, but people know.  My bosses know why, and that means my career might never recover.  The only thing keeping things remotely interesting is the challenge of trying to get to any new bad guys before the Undersiders do, to enforce real justice instead of vigilante scare tactics-”

“We’re awesomely good at the scare tactics though,” Imp cut in.

Clockblocker ignored her.  “-Except we barely even get to do that, because Tattletale’s always a few steps ahead.  Then, to top it all off, I hear about the Weaver-Clockblocker thing every single day, to the point that it’s sad.  Salt in a wound.”

Silence lingered.

“Jesus, Clock,” Vista said, after that.  “Pent up much?”

“Fuck, you’re right.  I’m stressed, ignore me,” Clockblocker said.  “Like Crucible said, it’s a lot to manage.  Sorry.”

“I just wanted to make a funny,” Toggle said.

“Don’t worry.  Clockblocker used to be the funny one,” Vista said.  “Now he’s the asshole grown up that tears the funny kid to shreds.”

Clockblocker didn’t respond to that.  Instead, he shifted the device he’d been wearing on his back against the wall and sat down between the elevators.

Waiting on my lonesome was easier.

My bugs crawled all around the exterior of our target.  The buildings in this town were smallish, the tallest being five stories, and this contingent of the Nine had chosen it as their destination.

Not a single gap.  They’d barely had any time, but they had hermetically sealed the structure, containing themselves and every single resident within.  The windows and doors had been sprayed with something red that trickled out of cracks only to harden.  My bugs explored cracks in the foundation, and found that same vaguely tacky, amber-like barrier blocking the openings where they should have been able to enter the building.

Doors, windows, cracks, vents, all protected.

I could estimate seven apartments per floor.  One on the ground floor, for the building manager.  Assuming they weren’t bachelor apartments, that suggested fifty-five to sixty people in total, trapped within, along with hostages and an unknown number and composition of the Nine.

“I have to ask,” I said, not looking in Clockblocker’s direction, “This end of the world thing.  The way you talk about the future, life beyond this supposed apocalypse event.  Can you do that because you’re optimistic,  or because you don’t think it’ll happen?”

“I do it because I have to.  You can’t stay sane, thinking it’s all going to end soon.  There has to be something beyond it.  If you get to that point and then we figure out a way to resolve it, then what happens after that?  You need a real life.”

“If you get to that point and you’ve plotted out the rest of your life, and we lose, then aren’t you going to be devastated?” I asked.

“I’m good at handling devastation,” Clockblocker said.  “Don’t worry about me.”

I shrugged.

I can’t really believe it,” Crucible said.  “World ending situation?”

“Oh, I believe it,” Clockblocker said.  “The crazy powers we get?  One of them’s bound to break something somehow.”

“The wrong power in the wrong hands,” Kid Win said.  He’d reconfigured the outside of his suit so the armored upper body folded down into a pair of gauntlets, allowing him to walk forward like a gorilla, the two halves acting as massive fingerless gauntlets.  It wasn’t pretty, and it left his head and upper body more exposed, but it let him maneuver inside.  He seemed to muse a second, then agreed, “Yeah.”

Interesting to see the divide, I thought.  The veteran members vs. the newer ones.

“See, I don’t think it’s the wrong power in the wrong hands,” Clockblocker said.  “I think it’s a joke.  Humanity destroys itself, and all these powers, they just open the door to let it happen.  It’s not going to be some villain overlord or even a monster like Jack who does it.   I’m more liable to believe the world ends because of some deluded, fat, pimply faced punk kid that lives off pizza and mountain dew.  There’s no damn point to it, but sometimes I look at the idiots, the selfish assholes and the maniacs that fill this world and I think that’s all we deserve.”

“I like your line of thinking,” Imp said.  “The world gets destroyed by some loser who jacks off twelve times a day to the freakiest, nastiest parahumans.”

“Thank you,” Clockblocker said.  “For so eloquently demonstrating what I was saying about us deserving it.”

“No problemo,” Imp said.

“That doesn’t exist, does it?”  Toggle asked.  “Case fifty-three porn?”

“Everything exists,” Kid Win said.

“Um, it just hit me.  When you were saying we deserve it, were you talking about pimple-face the world destroying freak-fetishist or were you talking about me?”

I shut my eyes and tuned out the conversation.  It was good that they were talking, staying calm, more or less getting along.

Grue and Rachel arrived from the stairwell.

“Anything?” Imp asked.

“No,” Grue said.

“The Red Hands leave already?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Grue said.  “Listen, about all that, it’s-”

I raised my hand to stop him.  “Not important.  Not a big deal.  I was only going to ask if maybe Crucible or Toggle could be taken along.  It’s a way out, now that things are getting heavier.”

“No.  It’s fine, I’ll stay,” Crucible said.

“Ditto.”

I nodded, then looked at Grue, shrugging.  “That’s all.”

“We’re okay?”

“Copacetic,” I said, turning my attention back to the file.  Skinslip.

I reread the page four times before I was sufficiently distracted and able to register what I was reading.

Rachel directed her dogs to watch the stairwell, then crossed to the middle of the hallway to me.  She sat with her back to the same pillar I had my back to, her shoulder pressing against mine, squishing me a little bit further into the crevice I’d settled in.  Not uncomfortable.  Or it was, but the body contact was comforting enough that it didn’t bother me.  It was reassuring without being in my face or distracting me from my study of the folder.

All stuff I’d read backwards and forwards, but I couldn’t focus on a book, and refreshers could only help.

I turned the page.  Night Hag.

“How’s life on the dark side?” Kid Win asked.

I turned my head.  He was talking to Foil, who sat at the furthest point from the stairwell.

“More wholesome than you’d think,” Foil said.  “Playing into every stereotype ever, moving in before we’d even been on a date, but it’s nice.”

“Nice?” Clockblocker said.  “Not what I expected.  Not that I’m not happy for you, but-”

She shifted position, resting her head on Parian’s shoulder.  “It’s… free.  Pleasant.  The times between the fights with the brain-shatteringly terrifying god-monsters, anyways.  Cooking breakfast, having breakfast cooked for you, going on walks with the dogs, maybe a bit of bodyguard duty while Parian handles a meeting, whatev, picnic for lunch, patrol the territory, do stuff for my University course, whoever didn’t cook breakfast makes dinner…”

“They’re like a newlywed couple!  It’s so sweet,” Imp said.  “Of course, they’re skipping the-”

“No,” Foil said.  “We don’t need to go into any detail about my personal life with Parian.”

“But I was just going to say-”

“No,” Foil said again.

“-they’ve got crazy good interior design, what with Parian and all,” Imp finished.  She made a smug little sound, like she was very pleased with herself.

Foil flicked a dart at Imp.  It sank into the wall just to the left of Imp’s head.

Vista leaned back, smiling, “This is the second time in four minutes where she’s alluded to rude stuff.  Feeling lonely, Imp?”

“I’m offended!  Unfair accusations!”

“Now I’m going to start wondering what someone with pseudo-invisibility powers gets up to in her alone time,” Kid Win said.

“She’s gone there,” Grue said.  I looked at him, and saw he was glancing my way.

“Lies and slander!”

“Wait,” Clockblocker said.  “I thought I heard something at some point about you being her…”

He trailed off.

“Hm?” Grue asked.

“Train of thought derailed.  What were we talking about?”

It was a puzzling change in the ambient tone, and I almost gave the word for people to switch to high alert.

I was distracted by the vibration of my phone.

A quick check and I verified that it was what we’d been waiting for.

Golem engaging. 3x Burnscar, 3x Shatterbird, 2x Winter, 1x Skinslip, 1x Psychosoma identified.

You’re clear to go.

“We’re moving,” I said, hopping to my feet.

Just like that, the mood shifted.  Everyone was standing, picking up the equipment they’d put down.  The joking atmosphere was gone, the… not peace, but the stillness, it was broken.  Nerves were suddenly on edge, the opportunity to joke and comment gone.

“Scouting with the bugs didn’t turn up anything,” I said.  “Place is sealed.  Vista, we’ll be counting on you to give us an in.”

She nodded.

“We’re going in blind.  We suspect there’s at least two Mannequins, but that’s it.  Mannequin specializes in indirect attacks.  Catching people off guard, while being durable and flexible enough that he can escape from any situation that doesn’t go his way.  I hope the rest of you have read up on the other members of the Nine, past and present.”

There were nods all around.

“Parian, Foil, Kid Win, you’re staying here.  Set up, keep an eye out and an ear out.”

“Will do,” Parian said.  She was already inflating a stuffed scorpion.  Cloth bound around one of Foil’s bolts to help form a tail.

“Grue,” I said.  “Hit the building, inside and out, but leave the inside clear.  With luck, we can shut off their communications.  With more luck, you can get a bead on what powers we’re dealing with.”

He nodded.

With that, we were down the stairs and out the front door.

A joint attack maximized the chaos and minimized the chance of reinforcements.  Golem was attacking the other location.  Ten members of the Nine there.  Ten here?

If so, that was a big step up from the last fight.  From four or five to twenty.

Grue used his power, surrounding the area.  Slowly but surely, the area was consumed in darkness.  Not just Grue’s power, but the fact that the massive cloud of darkness was blocking out the ambient light.  Though he kept the smoke out of the center of the area, it grew darker with every passing second.

I joined the Brockton Bay Wards as they switched on flashlights, both handheld and gun-mounted ones.  Each of us flicked on the smaller lights that were part of our masks or helmets.  The latter were feeble at best, but it was still light.  Mine came from smaller lenses that sat around the larger ones that covered my eyes.  They filtered out as a faint blue.  The pattern and color would hopefully make me more identifiable.

“It’s kind of dumb that we don’t have those things,” Imp commented.

“Perk of being a hero,” Clockblocker said.  He handed her a spare flashlight.

I gave one to Rachel, but she didn’t turn it on.  Instead, she slid the loop over her wrist, hopping onto her dog’s back.

The walls of darkness that surrounded the structure connected at the very top, and we were plunged into the deep sort of darkness one might expect from being a thousand feet underground.  The headlamps and flashlights were the only real light, making it look almost as if the exposed pavement, sidewalk and the foot of the building were the only things that remained in the world.

Vista used her power as we got closer.  I could see a depression appearing in the wall, as if a giant, invisible finger were pressing into it.

A hole appeared, and a small explosion tore out through the space, opening the hole wider.  We staggered, and some of our smaller members were even thrown to the ground.

Pale mist cleared slowly as we got to our feet.  My bugs scanned the area, searching for threats who might have been alerted to our presence.

Nothing.  Apparently they didn’t want to engage.  They were happy hunkering down, staying eerily quiet.

And the explosion… there was a byproduct.  Or maybe it was the source.  A small glacier had formed around the hole, jagged, as if water had spewed forth and immediately frozen.

“The hell?”  Clockblocker muttered.

Good thing it wasn’t Tecton knocking down the wall, I thought.

Vista tried again, higher up, on the fourth story, off to the far side.

We were braced for the detonation this time.  I kept bugs close to get a sense of what was going on.  The moment there was a gap, the air rushed out, cold and wet, and was followed soon after by a crushing manifestation of a small iceberg.

It creaked, a long, drawn out sound, then cracked abruptly.  The iceberg came free, and the resulting gap was almost instantaneously filled by a third detonation.  A chunk of ice the size of a large car dropped to the street and shattered into a million individual fragments.

Or maybe Tecton would be an asset here.  How the fuck do we break into this?

“Has to be Mannequin,” I said.  “Or Sphere.  Used to specialize in closed systems.  It makes sense, on a level, but this isn’t in Mannequin’s usual repertoire.  Maybe they stole it from… what was the name?  Toybox tinker, Gelid?  Glace, that’s it.”

“A cloned tinker is the smallest threat,” Clockblocker said.  “Takes them time to build, and if you figure Jack didn’t exactly save anything of his, and… well, I don’t even know how they replaced memories, but there’s no way he’s just going to pick up where he left off.”

“Mannequin in a different vein,” I said.  “Same psychosis, different direction taken?”

“Looks like, doesn’t it?”

I frowned.

“We could wait for the ice to melt,” Imp suggested.  “Warm out.”

“Would take forever,” Vista said.

“And it would only get replaced, probably,” Clockblocker said.

“Go big?” I suggested.  “Whatever’s producing the ice, there’s got to be a limit in terms of materials.”

Vista nodded.

This time, rather than a depression, it was a line, running from one corner at the bottom of the building to the opposite corner on the top.

It took ten or fifteen seconds, and then the ice blasted out, barely visible with only our flashlights to illuminate it.

Nothing.  Ground to roof, the ice remained.

“I could do it again,” Vista suggested.

“Faster to get Kid Win to just tear the outside of the building apart,” Clockblocker said.  “Not like they don’t know we’re here, now.”

“I’m thinking,” I said.  “You know that draft of cool air you feel when the automatic doors of a big-name store swing open?”

“Sure,” Clockblocker said.

“It’s designed like that, to use air pressure and air flow and whatever else to keep bugs and debris out.”

“Of course you know that,” Imp said.  “Because of the bugs.”

“I looked into it when I started paying attention to places where there aren’t a lot of bugs, to see why.  There’s sonic countermeasures, and there’s that.”

“Whatever,” Imp said.  “Still pretty random.”

“This is the same thing, except it’s weaponized.  Or made into a defense system, depending on how you want to look at it.  I’d bet most of the building is rigged with some crazy high pressure, as well as whatever devices he’s got that are detonating on exposure to the outside.”

“Okay, with you so far,” Clockblocker said.

“But where are they keeping the hostages?  Option one is that they’ve got them in some sealed area, like they stuck Cherish into, and all of the Nine members in the building are immune to that pressure and cold.  Multiple Mannequins, maybe a Siberian in a sealed case?”

“What’s option two?” Grue asked.

“The inside is safe.  Apartments or offices bordering on exterior walls would be pressurized, but the interior walls, all of the rooms of the building that aren’t rigged, they’d be safe, with hostages and the Nine inside.”

Clockblocker nodded.  “Makes sense, but that’s a lot of speculation.”

“Theory two is a lot easier to prove,” I said.  “We either need to go in through the top, and hope the roof isn’t as protected-”

“-or access the interior without passing into exterior rooms,” Vista said.

Shuffle could have done that, I thought.  Had we sent the wrong teams to the wrong locations?  It had sounded like there was a hell of a lot of offensive power at the other location.

“I’ll try,” Vista said.  “Hold on.”

This was a more refined use of her power.  She drew on the exterior of the building, and created a depression, but the goal this time wasn’t to create a hole.  She extended the depression inward, but she fed enough of the surrounding material into it to keep the resulting walls intact.

It stopped, and she merged it into another wall.  I couldn’t see the wall, but I could sense it with my bugs.  To my eyes, it was a black void, a hole too deep for my bugs to reach.

She paused, then began opening an experimental hole in the far wall.  I pulled my bugs back to make it easier for her.

I could feel the warm air blow past my bugs.  I could smell it using their senses.  An alien sensation, but I noted the scent of blood, the acrid chemical odor of the sealing materials.

“Way’s open,” Vista said.

“It’s messy in there,” I said.  “Be prepared.  Sending bugs in now.  Grue?  Darkness.”

We waited as he pumped the building full of darkness.  My bugs made their way through, scanning the surroundings.

“Murder Rat,” Grue said.  “Three of her.  I can… kind of sense what others are sensing around me, and there’s a glimmer of something that might be a teleportation power.  I don’t trust myself to use it without any ability to sense where I’m going.  Breeds… And… I can’t even get a bead on this guy’s powers.”

Was it?  I could sense figures moving throughout the darkness, but they were swift, and moved in unpredictable directions.  The elevator shaft’s doors had been opened, and they climbed up and through with no difficulty.  There were countless people, hanging from the ceiling by chains, countless pieces of armor, as though Mannequin was trying to reinvent his own gear, and then on the penthouse level…

A man, easily eight feet tall, muscular and broad-shouldered, sitting at a computer chair with one foot propped up on a desk.  His chest was bare, his pants no doubt a normal size, but rendered skintight by his sheer mass, left unzipped.  He was watching something violent on a laptop as he sat there.  The hostages who weren’t strung up with chains were in the room, cowering behind him as a full cluster.  In the midst of them, there was something that looked like a coffin.

“Try using his power?”

“Not sure I want to,” Grue said, “But okay.  Um.”

I felt my powers dim, my range swiftly dropping.  Others stepped away from him in surprise.

“Stop,” I said.

He did.  My powers started to return.

“That’s one.  Jesus, that’s a rush.  The other… I think it’s the sort of power you need the built-in second sense to grasp.”

“That has to be Hatchet Face.  I guess you can use his power nullification,” I said, “That’s something, if we hit a pinch.  I just don’t understand this other power.  Bonesaw’s work?  A hybrid?”

Grue nodded.  “Possible.”

I frowned.  “Not sure how to do this.  If we entered through the top floor, we could access the hostages right away, defeat Hatchet Face.”

“Sounds good,” Clockblocker said.

“Except… what do the rest do?” I asked.  “Some signal goes off, or they realize something’s up… they’re not fighting types, not exactly.  They’re assassins, indirect attackers.  They wouldn’t just converge on us.  I don’t know how they’d react, and it’s not the kind of situation where I can say that in a good way.”

“We need to make a call soon,” Grue said.  “You said the other team is already attacking?”

“I thought this would be simpler,” I said.  “Let’s go in the ground floor.  Clear each floor, block off escape routes, so they can’t just exit the building and go wreak mayhem elsewhere, or notify Jack.  They can fall back to the main room where Hatchet Face is waiting, and-”

“And then we’ve got a hell of a fight on our hands,” Grue said.  “Against enemies with hostages.”

“Cornered rats with hostages,” Vista said.  The little of her face I could see in the flashlight-illuminated gloom was somber.

“Ground floor,” I said.  “If nothing else, it buys us time to think of something before we reach a crisis point.  The alternative… I don’t like the idea that so many of these guys could escape.  They’ve bottled themselves up nicely.  Stay on your guard.”

“Are you staying outside?” Clockblocker asked me.

I shook my head.  “Need to maintain communications against this team, and I don’t like how long it would take to communicate using my bugs, or the chance you could get cut off.  I’ll come with, help watch your backs.”

There were nods all around.

“Go,” I said, before touching my earbud.  “Tattletale.”

There was a pause.

Weaver.  Kind of busy watching over the other team.  Sup?”

“Entering the fray.  Looks like Mannequins, Murder Rats, Breeds and one Hatchet Face hybrid.”

Got itG’luck.”

Rachel had kept the dogs at a smaller size so they could patrol the building we’d been hiding out in.  It meant they were big, but not so big that they filled the entire hallway.  They passed through the corridor Vista had made without trouble.

We filed in, shoulder to shoulder, and I did what I could to track the various villains in the building.  Grue dissipated the darkness as we got close enough to the respective areas to shine our flashlights on the objects in question.

Ominous, being in the midst of this building, almost like being in a submarine.  There was an incredible, devastating pressure all around us.  A leak meant a possible terminal end to all of us.  The darkness was oppressive, and every surface was covered in the red sealant, scabrous, hard, removing the human touch from everything around us.

I was so caught up in it that I nearly missed it.  A figure in the ducts.

“There,” I said, keeping my voice low.  I pointed.

Our side turned to look.

Mannequin, I thought.  I immediately switched mental gears.  Who to protect, what to do tactically.

I hit the briefest stumbling block when the recollection of what Clockblocker had been talking about crossed my mind.  Why does he remember his suit?

The same outfit, with alterations.  The all-concealing, all-protecting shell surrounding his body, even the joints.

Bastard lunged for him, jaws snapping shut, but the Mannequin cartwheeled back and away.

Vista fired her gun, sending a single green spark zipping ahead.  Mannequin swayed to one side, bending his body at impossible angles to avoid the shot.  The bullet hit the wall, then briefly flared, disintegrating a scab-covered vending machine.

Lines exploded forward from Clockblocker’s hands, one from each finger, and the Mannequin staggered back.  The narrow cables flew past him, glanced off his armor to ricochet into the surrounding area, and one or two even managed to wind around his arm or leg.

Clockblocker used his power, freezing the Mannequin in place.

“Vista,” he said, “Another shot!”

She still had her gun leveled at Mannequin.  She aimed-

And the Mannequin let a blade spring from his palm.  It punched through the wall at the very edge of our tunnel.

Ice exploded into the interior of the hallway, consuming the Mannequin entirely.

Vista dropped her gun.

“No escape route,” Crucible said.

“Can’t shoot without putting us at risk,” Vista said.  “I can make another exit, but it’s going to take a minute.”

“Not a focus,” I said.  “Upstairs first.  Hostages first.  We’ll cross that bridge after.”

We had to walk around in a semicircle before we found ourselves by the elevators and stairwells of the lobby.  The stairwell was framed by two bodies, hung by their feet.  No wounds were visible.

I felt with my bugs, and I could sense warmth from them.  Still alive.

Breed.

What were we even supposed to do with his victims?

For the second time in as many minutes, I found myself saying, “We deal with them after.”

We entered the stairwell.  I was aware of a Murder Rat popping in on the ground floor, crawling on hands and feet that each had excessively long blades on the ends.  She moved faster than she should have been able to, considering her means of locomotion, but she had an exceedingly strong, flexible body.  Enhanced senses, too, with her conical nose close to the ground, long greasy hair brushing against the surface.  I almost turned back to deal with her, but she was already gone, moving faster than my bugs could.

Claustrophobic.  I was acutely aware of the dimensions of the space, the fact that only a fraction of the building could actually hold people.  Of that portion of the building interior, the elevator shafts took up an awful lot of space.

Their territory, really.

The stairs hadn’t received as much of the ‘scab’ treatment, but they were still treacherous ground.  The stairs blocked our view of what was above or below us.  I was careful to check for threats every step of the way, watching doors, sweeping over surfaces, all too aware that Mannequin had evaded my bugs before.

Had this one somehow retained the lessons the original had learned?  I could use thread to cover more ground, spread out my bugs.

An air vent at the very top floor was punched free of the wall.  My bugs could sense the long claws, the conical nose.  They started chewing on her, devouring and biting, but her skin was tough, as though most of it was scar tissue.  I could feel the hot air as she rapidly inhaled and exhaled.

“Murder Rat, she’s on the top-”

She pushed herself free of the vent, lunging, drawing her claws together as if she were diving into water from a height.  Her narrow, emaciated body slipped right between the railings of the ascending and descending stairs.

“Incoming!” I shouted.  I pushed the others back as I could reach them.  The only ones in reach were Rachel and Crucible.

She reached the stairwell just above us and kicked off it, changing her orientation and the trajectory of her dive.  She slammed into the largest, most obvious target -Grue- all of her claw-tips drawn together into one long spike.

He was thrown against the walls and the stairs, and his tumble down the stairs just below him drove him into Toggle and Vista, who nearly fell down the stairs along with him.

Murder Rat was still on top of him, shifting the movements of her limbs to remain more or less upright as she perched on his body.  Her head cocked quizzically.  The blades hadn’t penetrated.

She lashed out, striking, only her target was exposed skin, this time.  Vista’s face, Crucible’s jaw.  Bastard’s shoulder.

And then she kicked the wall, drawing her shoulders together as she slid between Clockblocker’s legs, her nose pointed at the gap in the railing.

Clockblocker shifted his foot to make contact with the long blades at her toes, touching her, and froze her in place.

“My face,” Vista whispered.

“Put pressure on it,” Crucible said.  His own face was bleeding badly, but he didn’t even seem to notice.

And, more troubling, the wound was smoking.  Murder Rat’s power.

I turned my attention to Grue.  “Are you hurt?”

“No.  I… shit, how did that not break a rib?”

I shook my head.  Still using the costume I made, and it saved your life.

He accepted my help in standing.  I turned my attention to the Brockton Bay Wards, but there were too many people crowded there for me to jump in and help.  I focused on the other threats.

I could sense the others swarming around us, on stairs above and below.  I drew out lines of silk to stop them from using the same approach this Murder Rat had managed.

For extra measure, I tied thread around the frozen Murder Rat’s throat, tying it to the railing.

She was a composite of two ‘kitchen sink’ capes.  Mouse Protector and Ravager.  Two primary powers that had blended into the one, a dozen other minor powers.  Flexibility, a bizarre kind of enhanced strength, reflexes and agility that had peaks and valleys, and skin as tough as leather.

“Pinch it shut, tape it,” Clockblocker was saying.  “We spray it to keep it closed.  Smells awful.”

“I kind of like the smell,” Vista said, her words muffled by the hand Crucible was pressing to her face.  “Hey, this’ll be a badass scar, huh?”

“Quiet,” Clockblocker said.

I could hear another Murder Rat on the stairs below us.  She let her claw drag on the wall, and the metal on concrete made a sound like five nails on a chalkboard.   Loud, slowly increasing in volume as she approached us.

I set my bugs on her.  She persisted, simply enduring what they were doing to her.  I tried to go for the tiny eyes that were nearly buried behind her altered face and brow, but she shut them, relying on touch and smell to move.  I started to pack bugs around her nose and mouth, and found that slowed her just a fraction.

But the noise continued.  I could see the effect it was having on the others.

A rattling noise from above, joined by another nails-on-blackboard screech.  A Mannequin, using the blades he’d extended from his forearms to scrape the wall and hit the individual bars that held the railing up at chest level, the same bars that the Murder Rat had tried to slip between to make her escape.

“It burns,” Vista said.  Her fingers raised to the mark that ran from the side of her chin to her cheekbone.

“The meds?” Clockblocker asked.

“The smoke.  Stinging my eyes, and feels like it’s fizzing.  I read the file, this is her power, right?  It’s what she does?”

“It’s going to take a long time to heal,” Clockblocker said.  “Pretty much guarantees a scar.  But we stopped the bleeding, which is better than most get.”

The dog growled as another Murder Rat joined the fray, her clawed feet clicking against the steps as she made her descent, the screeches of her claws against the concrete joining what was quickly becoming a cacophony.  The blades at the fingertips of her other hand struck the bars of the railing, which set them to ringing.

Then, from the first and fourth floors, I could sense Breed’s minions make their approach.  In the midst of the banging and screeching, their hissing was almost impossible to make out.

One more Mannequin hung back, letting the little bastards climb on him.  They were smallish.  Smaller than the ones in Killington had been.

I shifted my weight, ready for one of them to make an attack at any moment.  Indirect attacks, surprise attacks, all from directions that were hard to anticipate.

“Three Mannequins and a Rat above us,” I said.  “Two rats below us.  Lots of Breed’s bastard parasites on both sides.”

“I could use my darkness, but it wouldn’t help much,” Grue said.

“They don’t sense things like we do.  My bugs aren’t going to do much either,” I said.  “Laying tripwires and trying to bind them here and there, but these aren’t guys my bugs can sting.”

“So?” Rachel asked.

“We die,” Imp said, with an odd cheerfulness.  “Horribly, gruesomely.  They’ll break or sever our arms and legs and cap them with Mannequin’s stuff so we don’t bleed out, and then they’ll let Breed’s bugs devour us from the inside out.”

“Not helping, Imp,” Grue said.

“I’m only saying what we already know.  Kind of counterproductive, morale-wise, to have us read all the dossiers on these bastards.”

“Yeah.  Just a little,” Crucible agreed.

“Why are we waiting here?” Rachel asked, her voice a little too loud.  “Why don’t we just fucking attack them?”

I didn’t have a good rebuttal to that.

No, that wasn’t right.  I had a dozen rebuttals.  That these guys would take any offensive action on our part as an excuse to slip past us and murder our more vulnerable members.

But I didn’t have a better strategy.  Not one I was eager to use so prematurely.

“Attack,” I said.  “Now.”

Rachel whistled, a long sharp sound that cut through the various noises the Nine’s members had created.  There was only silence as the whistle echoed through the stairwell.

She snapped her fingers and pointed up the stairs, snapped again and pointed down.

The two dogs charged in the alternate direction.

“Wards, go up.  Grue, Imp, Rachel, help cover the rear,” I gave the orders.  “Watch your backs!”

We split into two groups, the Wards leading the charge, while the Undersiders covered the flanks.  I remained in the center, my knife drawn.

A Murder Rat tried to jump down through the gap, as the first had, but got tangled in the threads I’d woven.  She began severing them, one by one, but too slow to slip through.  Vista shot her.

With her death scream, the others shifted tactics, abandoning the offense.  Mannequins advanced to take over the assault.

Another got caught in the threads, but blades sprung out all over his body, the individual components rotating, and the threads were cut.  He dropped down.

Crucible caught him.  A forcefield bubble surrounded the figure, pale blue, then flared a brilliant orange-white.

Mannequin would be fireproof, though.  Even an extreme heat like Crucible could create wouldn’t have an effect.  Still, it meant one was contained.

Yet as soon as we captured one, another slipped the net.  The Murder Rat Clockblocker had frozen animated again, slipping through the railing, only to find herself hanging by her throat, a silk cord binding her.  My bugs could sense blood trickling, but the movement suggested her neck hadn’t snapped.

Two ways she’d escape.  The first was obvious, cutting the cord.

The second?

“Vista, Crucible!” I hollered their names.

They whipped around to face me, saw me holding my knife, ready to drive it forward.

The smoke on Vista’s face flared, blossoming like a smoke grenade that had just gone off, and Murder Rat materialized, one claw already poised with the points facing upward, ready to drive upward into Vista’s unprotected jawline.

I’d seen her gesture as she hung on the rope, in preparation for her materialization.  I had to lunge forward, striking the stairs with the boniest parts of my shins to catch the villain’s wrist with my free hand, pulling her off-balance.

She rolled with it, almost doing a backflip as she threw one leg back to drive a point towards Imp’s scalp.  Grue caught Murder Rat’s leg, and between us, we held her.  I punched the blade into her throat.

Grue heaved her over the railing.  He covered our retreat with darkness, then lunged ahead of the group.  Murder Rat’s powers, it seemed.

Reckless, not like him, but he joined the front lines, where Bastard was giving two Mannequins a hard time.

Clockblocker threw out lines of silk, then froze them.  The dog lunged, and the Mannequins were sandwiched between the dog and the silk.

Blood spurted at the dog’s shoulder where the lines had made contact.  One Mannequin lost an arm, but they both managed to contort and angle themselves so they could slip over, under or between the threads.

Of course it wouldn’t be easy.  Fuck.

“Back!” Rachel called out, before the dog decided to charge through the cables Clockblocker had used.  The dog retreated a pace.  Grue only hopped up, grabbing the railing, managed a grip, and then descended on them.  He grabbed one and flung it towards the wires.

It only contorted, arching its back like a high jumper to slip through a gap.  It got halfway before Bastard closed his jaws on his upper body.

Shit.  My bugs were so useless here.  I couldn’t go after the Breeds until I knew which of the people in the building were them.  The original Breed had died when someone had hit a building with an incendiary missile, and the bugs had stopped appearing.  He wasn’t altered in appearance.  For all respects, he was just an ordinary man.

Besides the whole ‘I create horrifying space bugs’ thing.

The Mannequin that crawled with Breed’s creations leaped down, only to get caught in more strands.  He started to cut his way free, but Vista opened fire.  Her shots glanced off his outer shell.

The creatures, though, fell through the gaps.  More than a handful landed in our midst.

“I thought you said they don’t go after people!”

“They don’t!” I said.  “So long as there’s other food sources available.”  I kicked at one as it advanced on my right foot.

“There are dozens of bodies here!”

Already infected, I realized.  These parasites were seeking fresh hosts, ones not already occupied by anything.

I caught the ones I could with my own bugs, used thread to haul them free, but there were twenty, and their dozens of legs were sharp, capable of punching through flesh and clothing to maintain a grip.  Difficult to dislodge.

One had landed on my shoulder.  I tried to pull it free and failed, stabbed at the legs with my knife, only for it to fold them into its carapace.  It lashed at the lens of my mask with its spike-tipped tail.  It didn’t penetrate, and rolled off my shoulder before I could get a hold on it.

Its legs extended, and it found a grip on my flight pack.  In an instant, it was racing up towards my head again.  It stopped twice, pausing for one second as it transitioned from my flight pack to my costume, then stopping again as it reached the area where the mask and body of my costume overlapped at my neck.  The needle points of its legs were pricking through the fabric of my costume, no doubt as it tried to find a way under.  I got a grip on its tail, but failed to dislodge it.  Too slick.

The others weren’t faring a lot better.  Crucible shouted something incoherent as he used both hands to stop a softball sized creature from advancing on his mouth.  Its millipede-like limbs left bloody tracks in his skin as it made excruciating progress towards the orifice.

It was a critical distraction as we were dealing with highly mobile foes.  A Murder Rat leaped up to find a grip on the underside of the stairs we were standing on, then vaulted herself to one side and up, slipping between the bars and into our midst.

Rachel whistled, hard, and the dog from downstairs came barreling through our group.  We were knocked aside, pushed to the ground by the dog’s mass as it charged Murder Rat.  She leaped up, stepping on the dog’s back, then jumped back down to the lower end of the flight of stairs.

The dog growled and turned around, preparing to charge through us again.

“Hold,” Rachel said.  She had to pull off her jacket to access the trilobite-parasite bastard thing that was crawling on the small of her back, heading south.  Toggle struck it with her baton, and lights flared.

Imp stepped up just in front of Crucible, impaling the bug on his face with her own knife.

Progress, but we were still in the midst of a lot of dangerous enemies.  Elusive ones.  Of the six here, we’d only achieved two kills.

Tattletale here.”

“In an ugly spot,” I said.

“Help’s on the way.

“Help?”

Eidolon.  We tried to keep things quiet, keep everything off the radar, but he caught on.  Legend’s at the other site with Pretender.

“Turn them away!” I hissed the words.

“Um, not about to turn away help,” Imp said.  She was benefiting as Crucible created his superheated forcefield dome to burn away the Breed-parasites too dumb to walk around.

“Turn them away,” I repeated myself.  “All three.”

More of Breed’s bugs were starting to make their way to us, from above and below.  One Murder Rat, one Mannequin, and the guy upstairs we still hadn’t even interacted with.

With his fucked up coffin.

I can’t get in touch with them.  Not like their number is in the phone book.”

“Contact Cauldron?”  I used my swarm to attack the Breed-bugs, but it was slow going.  Twenty bugs with strong mandibles could kill one, but it took a minute, maybe two, before they reached something resembling soft tissue.

No go.”

I could sense him, now, approaching the building cautiously.  He used a laser to pierce the roof.  Ice blossomed out to fill the gap, a glacier in summer.

I began drawing from the bugs outside, forming a swarm-clone.  Eidolon ignored it, firing again.  Multiple blasts, multiple creations of ice.  He swore under his breath.

Rachel’s dog leaped over us to attack the Murder Rat.  She slipped to one side, and a wound at Toggle’s shoulder began blossoming with smoke.

The Murder Rat appeared in our midst.  Clockblocker was quick enough to tag her this time.

It wasn’t the most ideal maneuver.  Grue’s stolen power disappeared in that same instant.  Bad timing – he was in the midst of fighting the Mannequins.  One had been taken out by Bastard, but another had joined the fray as it brought the bugs down.

Grue reached out for another power.  Mannequin’s power wasn’t useful, but the other-.

I felt my power fading, just as the swarm-decoy was gaining enough bulk.

I wasn’t the only one.  Crucible’s forcefield shorted out.  Clockblocker had been in the midst of reaching for Breed-bugs to lock down, and found himself only giving them easier access in climbing up his arms.

The Mannequin staggered back, tripping on the stairs.  Just a little less coordinated.

Still, it wasn’t useful.  One dog was entirely disabled, crawling with countless Breed-parasites.  Only the fact that it clenched its jaw kept them from getting in its mouth, but its nose-

“Cancel it, Grue!” I shouted.

He didn’t.  Instead, he reached down to grab Mannequin by the throat.  He ascended the stairs three at a time, dragging two struggling Mannequins with him.

A bad situation was turning into a nightmare.  My radius shrank to a mere hundred feet, then fifty.

Twenty.

The bugs were crawling on us, Crucible wasn’t the only one struggling to keep them from worming beneath his hands and into his mouth.

Then he was gone, the radius of his power nullification too small.  If the Hatchet Face upstairs was a hybrid, Grue’s copy of his power was a fraction of a half of a power.

Still, he seemed to have Hatchet Face’s strength and durability.

Our powers began to return, and with the threats of the other capes dealt with, we were free to focus on stopping them.

Clockblocker paused the most dangerous ones, closest to mouths, anuses and private parts, to ears and nostrils.  We backed away as he freed us of the worst of them, and Crucible barred the path with his superheated forcefield.

“I’m not… I’m not useful,” Toggle said.

“Different threats, you would be,” Crucible said.  “Fuck, this stings.”

“Medical treatment after,” Clockblocker said.  “One more to take down.”

We hurried up the stairs.  Two flights to the penthouse floor.

Eidolon,” my swarm-clone spoke.

“Weaver.”  He had created a kind of portal and was widening it.  It seemed slow, inefficient.

Go home, Eidolon.  You aren’t a help here.

“I’m to take orders from the one who murdered Alexandria?”

Yes.  Leave.  You’re more danger than help.

“I can end this.”

So can I.  I will end this.  Your choice as to how.  Do I handle this situation myself, or do I have to kill you, then handle this myself?

There was only silence from him.  He stared at my swarm-clone.

“You dare make that threat, after killing my comrade-in-arms?”

I do.  If there’s a trace of doubt in your mind that I could do it-

“Your bugs couldn’t touch me.”

Inside the building, we were approaching the penthouse floor.

Your power is dying.  It’s obvious enough that people are speculating on it online, in the media.  How Eidolon isn’t as strong as he was in the early days.  Why aren’t you inside already?  Are you so sure that your power would stop me?

“I’m here to help.  That’s all.  Attacking me now would be like the violation of the Endbringer Truce.”

You’re one of the biggest dangers, Eidolon.  Jack’s supposed to be the catalyst for an event, a great catastrophe.  Are you honestly telling me that there’s no danger here?  That you’re absolutely certain that you don’t have a weakness he could capitalize on?

Eidolon didn’t speak.

Don’t tell me you don’t.  That you aren’t potentially powerful enough to end the world if it came down to it.  If he somehow opened that floodgate-

“It won’t come to that.  I control my powers.”

Or played a head-game with you?  Are you telling me your mind is a fortressThat you don’t have that capacity for great evil inside you?

“I’m not evil.”

You participated in business that people felt was so horrifying that they seceded from the Protectorate.  How many thousands died or suffered gruesome transformations because of the atrocities Cauldron committed?

Inside the building, we opened the door.  Grue was staring down the last member of this particular group of Nine.  Tall, muscular in the way that suggested he was in his physical prime, with a wild mop of dark hair.  He was masculine in a way that exaggerated the qualities to a fault, with an overly square jaw, massive hands, an almost Neanderthal brow.  It made him look like a bad guy from an old animated film about princesses.  As if echoing that sentiment, a word was tattooed across his chest.

Tyrant.

I recognized the other half of the pair.  Hatchet Face and King together.

Untouchable.  King’s power took any physical harm he suffered and transferred it among his pawns.  People he’d touched within the last twenty-four hours.  Hatchet Face’s power meant we couldn’t even use abilities to circumvent it.  Tyrant here had the enhanced strength each of the two had possessed, the enhanced durability.

“Are you saying you’re blameless, little murderer?” Eidolon asked, just above us.  “That you don’t have a potential for evil?”

No,” I answered.  The hybrid crossed the room, and I could feel my powers fading.  Grue’s darkness dissipated around the building, and light streamed in through the red windows, casting a tint over everything.

I shifted my bugs outside the building.

No, I know I have some ugliness inside me,” I spoke through my swarm.  My swarm was dissipating, my focus and control over my bugs failing.  I had to maintain the formation.

“Then what qualifies you to be here when I can’t?”

Maybe arrogant of me to say so,” I said.  The swarm was quieter as my fine control swiftly dissolved.  “But I’ve recognized that ugliness, and I’ve got it harnessed.

I gave the signal, gesturing for emphasis.  Tyrant paused.  The swarms outside the building shifted in the same moment, uttering the word faintly.

Now.

Outside the building, Foil fired, and she used the line I’d drawn out with my bugs for guidance.  Not perfect, not ungodly straight, but the thread I’d drawn out helped.

There was a concentrated explosion of ice at the edge of the penthouse as the shot punctured the wall, passed within a foot of Tyrant.

He advanced, and I stepped forward to meet him, my eyes on his.  My power was almost entirely gone.  Dampened to the point that it was just me and the bugs that crawled on me.  Every step he took reduced it another fraction.  Half a foot, then an inch away from my skin…

Another bolt, between us, closer to Tyrant than to me.

And then an explosion that seemed to shake the entire building.  Everyone present was thrown to the ground.

Kid Win had blasted a hole in the side of the penthouse, firing what had to be every single weapon at the same time.  Ice was swelling from the open area in fits and starts.

But it was enough of an opening for Foil to get a clear shot.

She shot Tyrant, and the bolt pierced his brain.

He collapsed onto his hands and knees, then staggered, starting to rise.

Another bolt through the spine.

A third through the heart.

He collapsed onto his face.

Foil’s bolts broke the rules.  Apparently his power didn’t work on them.

I slowly climbed to my feet, then stared up through the closing hole in the building at Eidolon.

“Go home,” I called out.

He was still, hovering there.  I didn’t break eye contact as he floated closer to me, until he stood only a few feet away.

“Sit this one out, for all of our sakes.”

He broke eye contact first.  His eyes fell on Foil and Kid Win.

“Please,” I said.

He didn’t move, looking across the street at the others.

Then, as if the courtesy of the please had given him the ability, he spoke.  His voice was quiet enough that I was probably the only one who could hear.

“I live for this,” he said.  “It’s what I do.”

It was an admission of weakness, not a boast.

“I know,” I answered him.  “But it’s not worth it.  Even here, that coffin up there that Mannequin made… if it’s hiding Jack, keeping people from sensing him until the end of this lunatic game he set up, then he could say something.  Do something, and you could become everything you’re trying to stop.”

No.  I’d said something that was off the mark.  I saw Eidolon hesitate, as if he was considering going ahead anyways.

“And you’re all so safe?” Eidolon asked me.  “You’re not such a danger, with the right trigger event, the right saying?  You couldn’t murder a town full of innocents as readily as you murdered Alexandria?”

“The difference between you and me,” I said, “Is if I go off the rails, if I somehow become an agent of the apocalypse, I can be stopped.  I can be killed.”

He stared at me, the shadows of his eyes only barely visible behind the blue-green expanse of the concave mask he wore.  The shadow cast by his hood didn’t help.

“There’s a quarantine, Eidolon.  Everything we’re bringing to the table here, everyone who’s on the front lines, they’ve talked about this, they’ve agreed.  We’re all willing to die if it comes down to it, for the sake of maintaining that quarantine, keeping the end of the world from coming to pass.”

He looked past me at the Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards.

“I’m willing to die if I have to,” he said, in his eerie chorus of a voice.  “I’ve proven that enough times… but it doesn’t matter, does it?”

“There’s no guarantee we could stop you before it was too late.”

“I see.”

He cast a glance over our assembled ranks, then took off.

I waited long moments before turning my attention to the crowd at the far end of the room.  They were already moving, running like they could make their way downstairs and escape out the front doors.

I drew my knife, stepping into their path.

“Weaver?”

My bugs flowed past them.  I could see, hear, smell, taste.

The swarm went on the attack.  People in the crowd screamed and ran.

Of the three I’d targeted in their midst, I saw one open his mouth wide.  Four small trilobite parasites crawled out, dropping to the ground.

His nostril bulged, and one crawled from his nasal cavity.    One crawled from each of his ears.

His pants bulged, a great deal in the back, then a little in front.  They fell out of the bottom of his pant legs.

The others were producing some now too.

Crucible caught the first in his forcefield.  He paused a second, then turned it on full burn.  The forcefield dissipated, and man, parasites and a circular section of floor were scorched black.

The other two were still fighting off the bugs when Crucible burned them as well.

Silence reigned.  The crowd, I think, was a little too horrified to cheer for us.

“First kill?” Imp asked, quiet.

“Yeah”

“How the fuck did you get to be a hero with a power like that?”

“Kept it a secret from you guys, kept it a secret from the public.  You can do a lot with a solid forcefield bubble.”

Grue and Clockblocker joined me as we approached the coffin.

It opened easily, and we stepped back, as Crucible surrounded it in a bubble.

Jack?

He lay inside, opened his eyes, and frowned.

“This didn’t go according to plan,” he said.

I could see the forcefield start to change hues, ready to bake before Jack could say anything devastating.

“Stop,” I said.

“But the idea was-”

“Just stop.  It’s not him.  Doesn’t fit.”

Jack only smiled.  “That so?  Well, it’s the bug girl.  I can’t even remember your name.”

I could see the tension in the other’s bodies.

He stepped forward, staggered a little, then poked at the forcefield bubble with his knife.

“Shall we put an end to all of this?  You got me.  Victory is yours.  Murder me, and they all go off leash.”

“It’s not Jack,” I repeated myself.  “It’s Nyx’s power.”

Jack’s expression became a frown.  Then he dissipated.

It was only a teenager, trapped inside.  He was in the middle of asking a question.  “-you let me out?”

“Holy fuck.  I almost burned him,” Crucible said.

The boy pounded one hand on the forcefield.  “Please!”

“I’ll let him out,” Crucible said.

I hesitated, holding up a hand.

No.  Not enough grounding to say for sure.  I let my hand drop.

“Weaver?”

I was about to give the go-ahead, but Tattletale’s voice came over the comm.  “That’s Nyx you’re looking at.  Her range is too short, she’d have to be in the building, and she’s too distinctive looking to pass in a crowd.

I stared at the teenage boy.  I’d almost said he could leave.

“Last chance, Nyx,” I told the ‘boy’.  “Last words?  Share a juicy tidbit?”

The ‘boy’ faded away.  An illusion in an illusion.  It was only a woman with pale red skin, overlarge black eyes and vents along her hairline, the back of her neck and down the backs of her arms.  A fog seeped out from the holes.  A small Cauldron emblem was tattooed on her face like a beauty mark.

“No way I can convince you to let me go?”

“You could,” I said.

“Hey,” Grue said.  “She’s too dangerous.”

“For good enough information?  I’m willing to risk it.”

“I agree,” Clockblocker said.

“Good information?”

“Tell us where Jack is,” I told her.

She smiled.  “And I get to go free?”

“My word as a hero,” Clockblocker answered her.

“He’s on his way to visit Nilbog.”

It’s true,” Tattletale said.

“Now let me go,” Nyx said.  She rolled her shoulders, “Take me into custody, if you have to.  All I want is to live.”

“No,” Grue said.  “We can’t let her go.”

“No,” Clockblocker agreed.  “Crucible?”

Nyx snarled, and the fog blasted out of the vents along her body, forming into a shape.

She didn’t get any further before the orb flared.  Her scream was high, loud, and exceedingly brief.

“Nilbog,” I said.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 21 (Donation Bonus #1)

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

The Number Man swept one finger over the touchscreen display.  Two point six billion dollars here, a hundred thousand dollars there.

Money was the blood of civilized society, its currents running through everything and everyone.  Where money was insufficient, things withered.  People starved, sickened and died, constructions eroded, even ideas perished.  Where funds were plentiful, the same things blossomed with new life.

And money was, in the end, little more than the product of collective imagination.  A slip of paper or a coin had no value beyond that of the material it was fashioned of.  It only took on a life of its own when people as a whole collectively agreed that certain papers and coins were worth something.

Only then did people bleed and die for it.  For a fantasy, a faith given form in hard, concrete numbers.

Then again, much of society was built on a series of shared delusions.  Clothing was little more than scraps of particular materials with particular geometries, but people clung to the idea of fashion.  Style.  Good and bad fashion was another belief system, one which all members of a culture were indoctrinated into.  Breaking certain conventions didn’t only challenge the aesthetic sensibilities of others, but it challenged their sense of self.  It reminded them, subconsciously, of the very pretendings they clung to.

Only those with power could stand against society’s tides, flaunt the collective’s ‘safe’ aesthetic.  When one had enough power, others couldn’t rise against them and safely say something calculated to reduce their own dissonance and remind the offending party of the unspoken rules.

When one had enough power to take a life with a twitch of a finger, a thought, they earned the right to wear skin-tight clothing and call themselves Hero, or Legend.  To wear a mask and name themselves something inane like ‘the Cockatoo’ and still take themselves seriously.

He armored himself in normalcy.  He wore only a button-up shirt and thin-rimmed glasses, his blond hair cut into a short style that was easy to maintain.  To anyone on the street, he wouldn’t appear to be anything but a bookish middle-aged man.

He hadn’t always been this bland.

The Number Man stepped away from the screen.  His office was plain, white tile with white walls. The rear of it was a floor-to-ceiling window, looking out on a foreign landscape, a place far from Earth.  Still an Earth, but not the one he’d been born to, not even the one he was in at this very moment.  The Doormaker maintained a portal to that foreign landscape, just behind the Number Man’s office and changed it on request.  Today, it was a mountaintop view of a wilderness with a crimson foliage and gray branches, the sky perpetually overcast.

One of a number of Earths where humans had never been.

The Number Man had gone to some lengths to spruce up this place.  He’d never liked the eternal white of this complex, so he’d adorned his walls with other images.  To his right, there was a large print of the Golden Mean, the Phi decimal as a fractal image in gold against black paper, with mathematical notation surrounding it.

Opposite it, Dali’s Crucifixion, Corpus Hypercubus.  The painting was blown up to one-and-a-half times the size.  Jesus crucified on a fourth dimensional cross.

No chairs.  He’d worked out the dangers of sitting against the convenience and decided it wasn’t worth falling into that trap.  When he did enter his office, he walked, paced, tapped his foot while pondering deeper problems, stood and stared out the window at whatever landscape he had outside his window in a given week.

He crossed his room and touched a screen.  It lit up, filled with data fed to his computers from a doorway to Earth Bet.  The pulse of society, right under his thumb.

The Elite, a villain group expanding a subtle control over the western seaboard of America, putting pressure on rogues to bring them under their thumb as performers, thinkers, designers and innovators.  He could see the numbers, extrapolate from the data to gauge their rate of growth.  They were developing too slowly to be useful, not developing fast enough to outpace the predicted end of the world.  They’d reach Brockton Bay in about a year.  There would be time to decide if countermeasures were needed in the meantime.

Gesellschaft, a nationalistic organization half a planet away from the Elite, was moving large funds in anticipation of a small war.  Money was being laundered through cover operations and businesses, almost impossible to track, unless one was able to take in the bigger picture, to see the intent, the beginnings and endings of it.  They were investing in transportation, and their fundings seemed to decline at the same time some notable arms dealers in Southern Europe found themselves richer by an equal amount.  The Number Man flicked his way past a series of windows detailing the transaction amounts.  Arms dealers who specialized in nuclear materials.  This was pointing towards terrorism, and not on a small scale.  Troubling, but the system would address them.  The major hero group in Germany, the Meisters, would attend to the problem.  It didn’t warrant an expenditure of Cauldron’s full resources, not when things were already on shaky ground.

Still, it wouldn’t do to have a disaster at this crucial juncture.  The Protectorate was required for just a little longer.  If they were going to make it through this, there couldn’t be any substantial distractions.

Gesellschaft hadn’t elected to seek out the Number Man and make use of his services, as so many supervillains around the world did.  He had no compunctions, as a consequence, about interfering with them.  He tapped into a series of bank accounts he hadn’t touched in some time, then scheduled a large number of transfers to the personal Gesellschaft accounts.  Ten or twenty thousand Euros at a time.

Where funds weren’t likely to be held for moderation, he scheduled more transfers and disputed the charges.  The transfer amounts were large enough to raise flags, to draw attention to the accounts in question.  The banks were on the lookout for suspicious activity, and a total of five hundred thousand Euros appearing in six checking accounts with typical balances of under a thousand Euros would be suspicious enough to merit a serious look.

That was only to slow them down.  They would want to investigate, to be careful and find out where the money came from.  Later, if the situation was resolved and they somehow managed to hold on to the money, they would want to know where the money disappeared to, as he reclaimed it with a severe interest rate.  They would suspect interference, would wonder if this outside agent had connected their civilian identities to their personas within Gesellschaft.

Which he had.

The transfers took him less than thirty seconds to arrange, and it would occupy them for one or two days.

Freezing the larger business accounts would take only a little more time.  One or two minutes.  The meetings with the arms dealers had fit a vague schedule.  The arms dealers always took a different route, but they traveled enough that they needed to buy gas at one point on the way.  There was always a large transfer of funds.

He laid a trap, calculated to start falling into place when the gas was bought in the time window.  The main accounts that the Gesellschaft used to manage their funds would be frozen by the time the meeting was underway.  They’d likely find themselves at the meeting, the product delivered, but with no funds to pay for it.

He swept his fingertips along the window, dismissing the task.  Who else?  Where were the priorities?

The C.U.I. had bought a parahuman.  Not so unusual.  Higher rates, as of late, but then, the C.U.I. faced a slight chance of an Endbringer attack in coming weeks.  They would want to bolster their forces, add parahumans to their peculiar team.

Tattletale had been actively separating herself from the Number Man, issuing new accounts to the Undersiders and her organization.  Not so surprising.  Eidolon had outed him, announcing the Number Man as a Cauldron-involved cape to a crowd.

Irritating.  At least it had been manageable.  He didn’t exactly have a great deal of traction with the hero community.  Tattletale was one loss, and he was hands-off with the Undersiders, regardless.

The King’s Men were in debt.  Easy enough to manage an anonymous donation, keep them afloat for another two months.

Child’s play, all of it.  The money, with its imaginary value, it was something he breathed.  Setting up the tools to manipulate it had taken a little time, but that was it.  Numbers were the fundament of the universe, as much a fabrication as money in some ways, more real than anything else in others.

He understood numbers, and through them, he understood everything.

A soft beep marked the arrival of somebody at his door.  He turned.  “Enter.”

There was only one person it could logically be.  The Doctor only sent her personal bodyguard and right-hand woman to him, the others didn’t have access to this building.

Except it wasn’t a person.  The door swung open, but there was nobody on the other side.

“You can’t handle it yourself?” he asked.

No reply, of course.

He broke into a quick stride, hurrying through the door.  “Contessa is busy, I take it?”

Again, no reply.

He reached an intersection and felt his hair stir imperceptibly, little more than what one might excuse as the exhaust from an air conditioning vent thirty feet away.  He took that as his cue to change direction.

He knew where he was going, now.  He was relieved that it wasn’t the worst case scenario, if one could call it that.  A mercenary calling herself Faultline had been leading a team that was opening portals for exorbitant amounts, traveling the world.  It was a matter of time before someone contacted her to ask her to open a portal to here, or her own curiosity about Cauldron happened to lead her down that same road.

If and when that happened, the young woman and her team… perhaps organization was more fitting now that their numbers had grown, would get a visit from Contessa.  They would be removed from consideration, the portal would be sealed, and Cauldron would be safe again.

In the meantime, they’d let things carry on like they were.  Faultline would make contacts, she’d find like-minded individuals, and through her, Cauldron would uncover enemies, to be eliminated in one fell swoop.

At the very least, right here and right now, the threat wasn’t an invader.  Given the layout of the complex, and the fact that whole wings of the structure were on separate continents, linked only by the Doormaker, there were only a few possibilities for why an invader would be here.  Not that it really mattered, it would be near impossible for someone to find their way here, now.

No, this was a threat from within.

Double doors unlocked and slid open.  The Number Man wrinkled his nose as he entered the basement areas of the building.

When the Simurgh had attacked Madison, she’d copied Haywire’s technology to open a gate to a building much like this one.  A research facility.  The portal had dumped the buildings, soil, plant life and all the residents into the city on Earth Bet, costing Cauldron a horrific amount.  Even a stockpile of formulae had been lost.

Perhaps most frustrating was the knowledge, the near certainty, that they’d been near a breakthrough.  She’d sensed, somehow, had known, and had dashed it to pieces with the ease that a person might tear down a painstakingly made sandcastle.

They’d rebuilt, and this facility was somewhat different.  More reinforced, connected to the surrounding terrain.

Silly, to think she’d do the same thing twice, but they’d felt it necessary, after feeling the losses of that last attack.

The architecture here wasn’t white, and he was somewhat relieved at that.  The tile was dark gray, lit by fluorescent bulbs and the light from windows at the end of the hallway.  At regular intervals down the hallway, there were cells.  Only some had windows to keep the occupants within.  Others had only three walls and a white line that marked the division between the cell and the hallway.

In each cell was an occupant.  Large metal plates engraved with numbers helped track who they were, matched to the numbers hidden in the right ‘arm’ of the tattoo that each subject received; a series of white dots that looked like nothing more than areas where the tattoo hadn’t taken.

The cells on the right were new test subjects, lost and angry.  He didn’t hesitate as he walked past them.  The angry words they spat in alien languages were nothing to him.  Their glares and hatred less than that.

Their powers were only a small consideration.  It was a rare parahuman that didn’t try to move beyond the boundary of their cell.  There was no forcefield to stop them.  They inevitably ignored the warnings and gestures from those in neighboring cells, stepping free, or they used their power, teleporting free or lashing out at one of the staff.  The Doctor, the Number Man, Contessa.

They learned after the first time.

Several staff members were housed in the cells to the Number Man’s left.  Those cells didn’t open directly into the hallway.  There were short paths that led around to the back of the room.  It helped mask the noise, gave them some privacy.  The cells were bigger too.

Zero-twenty-three, with a placard beneath.  ‘Doormaker’.

Two-six-five.  No name.  The Number Man knew him well enough, regardless.  He’d been too young a subject when he’d taken the formula, his brain too malleable for the required changes, too slow to form natural immunities and defenses.  Not a problem with regular trigger events, as it was.  The boy’s eyes had burned out of his sockets as he’d tried to process the vast amount of information he was capable of perceiving.  Even now as he was reaching his late teens, the boy’s mind had never developed beyond the mental age of eight, and his eyes remained like twin ashtrays.

A partner to the Doormaker, capable of granting clairvoyance, seeing whole other worlds at once.  It left most subjects incapacitated for a week after use, and it overrode any other perception powers.

No use to the Number Man, but essential for Cauldron in vetting universes and finding individuals.  Most individuals.  There were some, like the Dealer, and triple-seven, who’d escaped.

Two-nine-three.  Incapable of talking, barely able to move.  Limbless, obese.  Another key member of the staff.

No sign of interference.  The odds of the threat being an assassin dropped.

He quickened his pace, reaching the stairwell at the end of the corridor.

Second floor basement.  He stepped out of the stairwell and progressed down the main hallway.  There were rows of cells to either side of him.  Two thousand and forty-eight parahumans, each with a number, both on the wall of their cell and in their tattoo.

“You need to narrow it down,” the Number Man said.  “Help me find the trouble.”

His voice resulted in an outcry, the people in the cells nearest him realizing he was there, shouting, swearing, insulting him in twenty-nine different languages.

He ignored the shouting, instead extending his right hand.  “Is it this floor?  Yes…”

He extended his left hand, “Or no?”

The faintest brush of air touched his left hand, so faint he might not have felt it while he was walking.

He turned back for the staircase, made his way down.

The third floor basement.  Here, the special case studies could be found.  Seven-seven-seven had been one.  They got a name, more space, some quiet.

He paused.  Again, a brush against his left hand.

“Damn,” he said, meaning it.

It was on the fourth floor.

He took the stairs two at a time, moving with an uncharacteristic haste.  He also spoke, more to himself than his companion.  “There are others who are supposed to attend to these matters.  Which suggests the escapee is smart, is strong enough to deal with them, or… as is more typical for the denizens of the fourth floor, interesting.”

Smart, he could deal with.  Strong, he could deal with, barring certain exceptions.  Interesting escapees, well.  There’d be degrees of unpleasantness.

He was still hurrying down the stairs as he reached the bottom.  Two doors, both heavy, stainless steel top to bottom, capable of withstanding a small bomb blast.  Only the Doctor entered the rightmost door.  The Number Man turned his attention to the door on the left, and entered his access codes, pressed his hand against the disguised plate to the right.

As security measures went, it wasn’t impossible to crack, not when one considered the breadth of parahuman abilities, but if anyone who got this far decided to pass through this door, they deserved what they got.

The deviations, the ones who didn’t take to the formula, tended to fall into certain categories.  There were those who had some minor physical or mental changes; they were little different from the most extreme deviations that appeared in typical trigger cases.  Such deviations occurred a mere eighth of a percent of the time.  They weren’t what he was thinking of.

The formula wasn’t exact.  Though they learned more every day, there were still unknowns regarding powers.  Whatever connection the agents formed with individuals before or during a trigger event, it didn’t manifest as strongly through the formula.  When the subject was stressed, their body engaged by that distress, the connection grew weaker.

In typical cases, the agent seemed to momentarily reach out to search the entire world, many worlds for reference material, to seize on the subject’s conception of a ‘bird’ or conception of ‘movement’, to build up an understanding of things that didn’t exist in the agent’s realm of experience.

And in cases of a deviation scenario, the agent noted the physical stress and searched the subject’s frame of reference for something, anything that might reinforce what it saw as a damaged host.

For many -for ninety-three percent of the unfortunates who were so afflicted- the agent drew from plant and animal life, from physical objects, materials and designs in the subject’s immediate vicinity.

But seven percent of the extreme deviant cases didn’t find something physical, and there was little to nothing to rein things in.

Such cases were not, as a general rule, released into the wild.  It would be counterproductive.  They were briefly studied, then disposed of.  The Number Man’s office was in this building because he was but one line of defense against escapees and threats, even in this department.

He paused, concentrating.

As though it were penciled in the air, in thread-thin, elaborate notation, he could see the geometry and the numbers unfolding across the world around him, through the air.

He withdrew a pen from his pocket, spun it around one finger.  The notation billowed around it, and through it, he could see the movement of the pen, the plotted trajectory, the velocity and rotation of it.  The numbers clicked into place with a speed that made the rest of him, his very perceptions, seem like slow motion.

Here and there, there were incongruities.  Painting an entirely different picture.  His companion was here, near him.  Bending the most fundamental rules.  The Custodian.

In another scenario, she would have been kept here and disposed of once we’d found a way to dissect her.

“I know you want to help,” he commented.  He wasn’t even entirely sure if he was being heard.  “You see it as your responsibility.  But it’s best you stay behind.”

That said, he pushed the door open.

If the cells on the third basement floor were twice as large as the ones on the second floor, these were larger still.  Each was isolated, standalone in the vast, dark basement.  The space allowed countermeasures to be maintained in each space.

And here, experiment number three-zero-one-six was out of his cell.  The Number Man knew of this one.  He’d paid particular attention, once he’d heard about the peculiarities, heard about the power.

The man was only half-dressed, his upper body bare, his beard a shaggy growth, his hair long and greasy.  Showers were provided, where patients were able to make use of them, but the solitude wore on them, and few partook with any regularity.

But the part of the man was unusual was what wasn’t there.

One leg of his uniform flapped in the wake of a wind turbine used to keep two-nine-nine-zero contained.  There was no right leg beneath the pelvis, but his right foot was there nonetheless, set firmly on the ground.  He stood as if his weight rested on it.

Other parts of him had been carved away when he’d had his trigger event.  An area of his stomach, around one eye, his entire left arm.  Where they had been severed, there was only a gray plane, featureless, without shading or definition.

But the Number Man could see it.  Could see it in the physics of the way the pants leg moved, just slightly out of tune with the way it should have been flapping.  There was something there, a disturbance.

The test subject had destroyed one wind turbine, was facing the occupant, who was hidden in shadow.

“We escape,” three-zero-one-six said, his voice a rasp, heavily accented.  “Together.  I stop the spirit, you take-”

He stopped, turned to face the Number Man.  The pair was separated by an expanse of a hundred feet, in an open area with a high ceiling, only the lighting around each standalone cell allowed them to see one another.

No conversation, no pleading.  Three-zero-one-six struck before he could be attacked, leaning back and then swinging, using the left arm that wasn’t there.

The Number Man was already moving, the mathematical notation filling his field of vision, singing in his ears, running along his skin.  He could taste it, virtually swam in a clear, precise, organized outline of the world around him.

His weight shifted as he found his center of balance.  He kicked out to push himself to the left.

Three-zero-one-six manifested the strike as though his arm were exponentially larger, the attack repeated in almost infinite variations through the space in front of him, as though he were leveraging every possible version of himself that could have been here, in this basement, drawing them together in one coordinated strike.

Concrete and steel were obliterated, and the blow carved divots into floor and ceiling both, disintegrated layers of stainless steel that sat behind and beneath the concrete of floor and wall.

The Number Man was airborne.  He’d measured the trajectory of the first hit as it carved through the ceiling, letting it slide past him by a mere one and three-quarter feet.  He angled and oriented his body to absorb the rush of wind and dust, used it to carry himself just a little further, a little higher.  His shoes squeaked as they found traction.

He chanced one glance backwards.  The attack had left a hole in the wall, the shape matching the impression that one might have made with an outstretched hand, fingers grasping, except it was fifty-two point seven six times the man’s handspan.

More notation, more numbers to work with.  He could extrapolate, get an estimation of his opponent’s weapon.  He’d need a point of reference…

He hesitated, as though he were catching his balance, glanced briefly at the nearest cell, while keeping the test subject in his peripheral vision.

Another attack, baited so it would fall in a particular direction, not striking anything vital to Cauldron’s operations.  If this test subject got the idea of repeatedly striking in a downward direction, or striking up, then it opened up a whole mess of problems.  There were test subjects on upper floors, and below… well… it was best to leave everything below to the Doctor.

He evaded the attack as he had the first, but allowed it to fall closer.  Even without looking back, he knew he had the numbers right.  The attack with the left arm was the same size each time.  The strike passed within an inch of the Number Man.

Probability, time, he thought.  He was expending less energy on evading the attacks, now.  He focused instead on the possible attacks, the range of motion.  The notation that sprung forth put him in mind of the Vitruvian Man, expanded to encompass every possible strike that might occur.

Not seeing the future, but rather the possible consequences that might unfold.

Now the Number Man was free to evade even before the attacks occurred.  As a tennis player might move to cover the open court as the opponent’s racket was drawn back in anticipation of a strike, he was bolting for the safe zone, the area where incoming attacks weren’t as likely to fall, where his opponent would have to take time to adjust his orientation to effectively strike.

Which would be a fatal mistake on his opponent’s part.

No.  Test subject three-zero-one-six didn’t use his left arm.  He kicked out with the one leg that had only the foot attached.

The Number Man ducked under the strike, throwing himself forward, rolling, found his feet in the same motion.  The kick demolished whole tracts of flooring, tearing into the bottom of the stairwell.

The distance between himself and his foe was now a mere fifty-seven feet and eight inches.

Two more strikes, sweeping attacks with a fist that could gouge floor and ceiling both at the same time, and each time, the Number Man slipped by unscathed, closing the distance at the same time.

He could see the fear on the man’s face.

Deimos, the Number Man thought.  It was an old thought, a familiar thought in the same way someone might find their mother’s cooking familiar, and it wasn’t his voice he heard it in.

Another strike, this one coming dangerously close to two-nine-nine-zero’s cell, followed by another strike in the reverse direction.

Phobos, the Number Man thought.  First terror, then mindless panic.

The attacks were more frantic now, but that was to be expected.  The Number Man had conserved his strength, had the stamina to move more quickly.

Twice, his opponent tried to feint, to change directions mid-strike.  He caught on quickly enough to take advantage, closing the distance to thirty feet and seven inches away, then twenty feet, two inches.

Subject three-zero-one-six had two options.  One was to be clever, to claw at the ground between them and create a divide, a moat.

The other was to strike.

The Number Man forced the decision.  He calculated his movements, let one foot skid on the dusty ground, sprawled, rolling with his own momentum.

He could hear the rasp as it tore through a section of ceiling, the attack incoming, saw the probable strike zones unfolding before his eyes.  Rolled until he had his feet under him, then sprung.

The attack missed by as narrow a margin as he’d permitted for the others.

He straightened, studied the confusion and fear on his opponent’s face.  Every action on his part was measured, performed for effect.  To dust his clothes off, walking forward at a measured, unhurried pace.

To not even flinch as his opponent drew his hand back.  He was still able to dodge.  Barely.

“Stop,” he said.  “There’s no point.”

The test subject backed away a step instead.  He tensed, readying to kick out with that nonexistent leg of his.

“You’ll miss,” the Number Man said.  “And I’ll close in and strike you, using my pen and my hand.  I can see the stress points of your body, clear as day.  I can shatter your skull like a glass, and it would be an exceptionally painful way to die.”

Slowly, he saw the fight go out of the test subject.

“Why?”

“Return to your cell, and we can talk.”

“I can’t.  I’m going mad,” the test subject sounded almost morose, defeated.

“There’s only one alternative, three-zero-one-six.”

“My name is Reyner!”

“You lost that name when you came here.”

“Why!?”

“Reyner died.  Maybe it was war, maybe it was plague.  But we sent our people to collect you before you passed.  Some of the collectors were like me, others more like you, made to think the way we needed them to think.”

The test subject’s eyes widened.  “You’re mad.”

“Reyner died.  This… it’s a purgatory.”

“I do not know the word.”

Not in his lexicon?

“Purgatory?  A limbo.  A place between,” the Number man said.  He advanced, and the test subject retreated.

“Between what?”

“Hell and paradise.  The mortal coil and the world beyond.  This is a neutral ground.”

“Neutral?  Can you even understand what you’re doing to us?  I… I’m a child’s toy, pieces missing.”

The Number Man studied three-zero-one-six.  He couldn’t imagine any toy like that.  Another cultural distinction, hailing to the man’s universe?

“I understand a great deal about what we’re doing to you.  I could explain the experiments, the effects on your body, as we understand them, inform you-”

Morally.”

“Ah,” the Number Man replied.  “Morals.”

Another delusion perpetuated by society.  Useful, valuable, much like commerce, but still a delusion.  It only served its purpose so long as it was more constructive than not adhering to those beliefs, but people often lost sight of the fact, made it out to be something it wasn’t.

He’d suddenly lost a great deal of interest in this conversation.

“I have a family.  A wife and children.”

“I told you.  You died when you came here.  You left them some time ago.”

“I… no.”

“Yes.  But what you’re doing here, helping us, it’s going to make a difference.  It will help save your wife and kids.  When you die, we will autopsy you.  We will use what we learn to find stronger powers.  Those powers will expand our influence and help us against the true threats.”

“Threats?  To my family?”

“Yes.  To everyone.”

“You’ll save them?”

“We’ll try.”

Three-zero-one-six slumped, “I can’t go back to my cell.”

“I could kill you, if you wished.”

“If I’m going to die, I’ll die fighting.’

“You’ll only make it violent, painful.  It will be drawn out.”

He could see the man’s expression shifting, the dawning realization that there was no way out.

“Did… was there a chance I could have won?”

“Yes.  Luck.  A little more cleverness.  If you were in better shape, perhaps.”  My power is better at range.  Better still as I get further away, attack from other angles, in more subtle ways.

“Then I could have escaped?  A chance I might have returned home?”

“No.  There was never a chance you might escape.”

The door slid open.  He made his way to the chair, a  laptop tucked under one arm.

The Doctor was present.  She looked weary, but her hair was immaculate, pinned into a bun.  She stared out the window at this world’s landscape, so different from his own view.

“That’s two escape attempts in two weeks.  We had three in the last four years before that, only one successful,” he said.

“I’m aware.”

“We’ll need to change our approach.”

She turned around.  “How?”

“We need Contessa closer to home.”

“She’s required for damage control.  Too many capes who were present for the Echidna incident think they can destroy us by spreading the word about Cauldron.”

“Perhaps we stop performing damage control.  Let the pieces finish falling where they will.”

“We’d fall further behind in our agenda.”

“Undoubtedly.  But as it stands, it’s only a matter of time before we’re destroyed from within.  Our operation is too big and too delicate to manage like this.”

The Doctor frowned.  “It would mean less voluntary subjects.”

“Very likely.”

The Doctor frowned.  “And we’re behind schedule, even if we ignore that.  I’d hoped to use Shatterbird or Siberian.”

“Unlikely anything would have come of it.”

“But if it had?”

The Number Man had no reply to that.  He set his laptop on the desk and booted it up.  If they had been able to leverage either of them to defeat an Endbringer, or to find why they had wound up so powerful, compared to the typical parahuman…

“It seems we may have just lost Brockton Bay.”

The Number Man’s eyebrows rose, though his expression remained placid, his gaze fixed on the computer.

“Skitter turned herself in.”

With that, he did look up, meeting her gaze.  He saw the truth in her statement and closed his eyes.  Mourning one more lost possibility.

They’d lost Coil, had lost Hero, and the Triumvirate had dissolved.  They were in the process of losing the Protectorate.  Everything they’d put together, falling apart over time.

“Is it settled?”  He asked.

“No,” the Doctor said.  “But she turned herself in, and as far as I’m aware, there is no mischief at work.”

“Then it’s not necessarily over.”

“We can’t interfere.”

“I’m aware.”

“We have to take more risks,” the Doctor said.  “If we’re going to recover from these last few setbacks.”

“What risks?”

“If we’re to decipher the formula, find the strongest effects, we can’t keep tempering the mixture with the ‘balance’ concoction.”

“Creating more deviations.”

“Far more,” the Doctor said.  “But we found the strongest powers before we were diluting the doses.”

“We’d lose up to twenty-three percent of our potential client base.”

“We lower the price.  It’s almost trivial at this point.  The only reason we set a price in the first place was to wean out anyone who wasn’t fully committed.  We’ve supplemented virtually every other part of our operations with parahuman powers.”

“That only returns us to the issue of how we control our interests.  We can’t have deviations running around, or we’ll bring disaster down on our own heads.”

“I was thinking we use you in the field, Number Man.”

The Number Man leaned back in his chair.  “Me.”

“You’d perform.  You have performed in the past.”

“I suppose,” he mused.  He rubbed his chin.  He needed to shave.  “A long time ago.”

“I know you wanted to get away from that business, but-”

He shook his head.  “No.  This is bigger than things I want.  If I can participate in this, I can get my hands dirty.  We’ll be looking for the Slaughterhouse Nine, I take it?”

“No.  The heroes are already looking, I’m not sure what we could contribute.  There are other matters to consider, and we’re giving up a great deal of control behind the scenes by having you in the field, rather than working elsewhere.”

“I take it this is another risk we’re taking?”

“Yes.  Increasing the volatility of the formulas, deploying you while we reserve Contessa for the more severe situations, allowing the public to discover more of Cauldron’s role in things…”

“Hopefully not too much,” he said.

The Doctor shook her head.  “Not too much.  When will you be prepared to relieve her?”

“A day or two.  Let me get prepared.”  He stood.  “I left the data on the laptop.  Funding, the movements of key groups.”

“Thank you.”

He left the room.  His power alerted him about the Custodian’s presence as he entered the hallway.  The sum of a million infinitesimal details.

It also informed him of the seam in the hallway, marking the nearly invisible Doormaker portal.  He stepped from the Doctor’s headquarters to the hallway leading to his own office.

Doormaker had changed the landscape beyond his window.  An Earth of black magma and brilliant sunsets in the middle of the day, apparently.

He moved his Dali picture, sliding it to one side, and stepped into the doorway beyond.

Barring incidents like earlier in the day, it had been a long time since he had exercised his power in any serious way.

The costume, neatly folded on a shelf at the end of the closet, seemed so very small as he unfolded it.

Even the smell, it brought back memories.

1987

The pair of them were breathing heavily.

They exchanged glances.  Two faces, spattered with flecks of blood.

Jacob carefully stepped around the expanding pool of blood.  He crouched by the body, then grinned.

The other face wasn’t smiling at all.  It was grim, a stark opposite, just as their hair colors were nearly opposites.

We’re nearly opposites in more than hair color.

“He can die after all,” Jacob mused.

“Yes.”

“Wasn’t all that,” Jacob mused.  He looked almost disappointed.

“Maybe not.”

“Bastard!”  Jacob kicked the body.  “Prick!”

I’m worried he’ll get up all of a sudden, even with his guts hanging out and half his blood on the ground.

Jacob stretched, and wet blood ran down his arm as he raised it over his head.  He still held the murder weapon.  One of the murder weapons.  It had been a shared effort.

“This doesn’t end it.  They’ll come after us.”

“We could lie,” Jacob said.  “Tell them he used mind control.”

“They won’t believe us.”

“Then we run with it.  Everyone will have an idea who we are, after this, we can make a name for ourselves.”

“We have names.”

“A reputation.  Don’t tell me you don’t feel like there is something bigger, something better.  You call yourself Harbinger.  That’s all about the things to come.”

“His name for me, not mine,” Harbinger said.

“But the idea…  There’s something bigger than this, something at the end of the road,” Jacob said.

“I don’t see the point.”

“But you feel it, don’t you?  The rush?”

“Yes,” Harbinger said.

“Forget the stupid names and spandex.  Tell me your heart isn’t pounding, that you’ve never felt more alive than this.”

Harbinger shook his head.

“We can live this.  Together.  Every waking second…”

“Jacob.”

“Jack,” Jacob said.  He kicked King’s body again.  “Fuck it.  He always called me Jacob, practically purring.  His little killer in training.  As if I could match up to his Gray Boy.  I want to be more than that.  Get out from under his shadow.”

“Okay… Jack.”

“If it’s a farce, a joke, let’s run with it.  We take simple names, dumb names, and we make people quake in their shoes at the sound.  Jack… Slash.”

“I’m… no.  I won’t.”

Jack wheeled on him, knife in hand.

“You want to fight?” Jack asked.  The smile had dropped from his face.

The look in his eyes… hungry.

“No.  That’s just it.  I don’t want to keep doing this.”

“You said it yourself.  You feel the rush, like you’re on the cusp of something greater.”

“I do feel it, but I think I can get there by walking a different road,” Harbinger said.

He could see the disappointment on Jack’s face.  See the way Jack’s knuckles whitened as he tightened his grip on the blade.  His power blossomed around the boy, showing possible attack vectors.  Too many.  Harbinger wasn’t sure he’d survive.

He might have to throw himself in the way of the attack and kill his friend before a more serious attack could be delivered.

Or…

“I’ll play, though,” he said.

“Play?”

“Make a name for myself.”

Jack smiled.

Present

The Number Man set the costume down.  He picked up the knife.  The same one he’d used to stab King in the back, buying Jack time to open the man’s stomach.

He wouldn’t wear a costume.  Wouldn’t do anything particularly fancy.  He’d even keep this name.  A measure of respect to an old friend.  Something to challenge convention.

Jack was his other number, his inverse.  The Number Man was working to save lives, and he killed as a matter of kindness.  Jack considered killing a matter of fact, and any life he spared was only for his own twisted ends.

The Number Man still considered the man a friend, as much as he knew that friendship was one of those ephemeral constructs.  One of the delusions people subjected themselves to, to make the world make sense.

Or maybe Jack was family.  They’d started out on the same path, after all.

Did Jack know that there was another parallel?  That the numbers and the research with Cauldron were illustrating something else entirely?

The Number Man had been gifted with powers of perception.  To see the underpinnings of the world.  In a roundabout way, he used his power for killing, for destruction.  Jack had been gifted with a power that was good only for killing, but the Number Man harbored a suspicion that Jack was more than that.

Research within Cauldron had included tinkers, drawing many conclusions about how tinkers operated.  Some were well vested in mechanical details, drawing a great deal from it to fabricate their work.  Others had little idea about the technical aspects of what they created, relying more on instinct and creativity, relying more on their agents to draw up an idea of how their work would function.  It was quite possible that other capes were doing the same thing.

There was no way Jack should have made it this far on luck and instinct alone.  Not dealing with the monsters he interacted with on a daily basis.  The idea had started as a theory, but had taken on a life of its own: was it possible that Jack was drawing on the same agent that granted him his powers?  Wittingly or unwittingly?

Did he have a second set of eyes watching out for him?  Sharpening his instincts?  Giving him a sense of imminent danger or his vulnerable targets?

And more to the point: why?

Was Jack, perhaps, in particular sync with his agent in mindset?

And if he was, did that suggest something about their motives?

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter