Interlude 16 (Donation Bonus #3)

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“Holding court?”  Cinderhands asked.

“We’ve waited long enough,” Marquis answered.  “Word’s out, demand’s high, and it’s hitting people harder because they’ve been thinking about it.  The time is right, if you’re ready, Amelia?”

Amelia stared down at her hands.  “I don’t want to.”

“Life is full of things we don’t want to do.  I won’t force you, but I think you and I would be very well served if you stepped up to the task.  It will be harder to protect you if you don’t.”

Amelia frowned.  “You mean you’d throw me to the wolves.”

“No.  No.  If you truly decided that you couldn’t, if the situation forced an ultimatum, I would give up the power I have as the leader of Block W if I had to.”

“I can’t tell if you mean it.”

Marquis took his time rolling and lighting a cigarette, then kneeled before her.  He spoke with it bobbing in his lips, “My girl.  I’m not a good man.  I have rules I follow, but that doesn’t make me good.  At best, it’s one virtue among many I’ve failed to acquire.  I’m rough around the edges, whatever I might play at, and that’s plain enough to see to anyone who pays attention.  I grew up in hard circumstances, and it’s taken me a long time to work past that and earn the respect I get.  And I would give that up if you needed it.”

“You don’t know me.”

“You’re family, Amelia.”  He stood, pulled the cigarette from between his lips and kissed her on the forehead.  He didn’t miss how she pulled away in alarm and surprise.  “Whatever else, that’s the most important thing in the end.”

He let the words sit with her, turning away.  Lung stood by the door, arms folded, and Marquis smiled lightly at the man.  He’ll see this admission as weakness, but the right display of confidence will leave him wondering if it’s a lie, a ploy.

Lung, much like all of the other prisoners, was wearing the gray cotton clothing that was supplied regularly through the drops, alongside the other essentials.  He’d torn off the sleeves of the shirt, showing off muscular arms that were emblazoned with tattoos down to the fingertips.  The light brown of his eyes was surrounded by an expanse of bloodshot red instead of whites.  Other than his muscular physique, they were the only thing that set him apart from any ordinary man who one might see on the streets.

Lung was a killer, a wild animal who played at being a man.  Marquis had picked up enough details to know Lung’s story.  He’d broken the rules, broken the code, because he’d thought he had the power to get away with it.  But it had been a power he couldn’t quantify, a blend of raw military strength, reputation and circumstantial power.

Just as there were athletes who studied their sport, trained their technique and honed their bodies with specific goals in mind, there were others who drew from natural talent and instinct.  Lung had built his gang by conquering others one by one, going by his gut to identify those who would stand in his way and then violently removing them from his path.  His instinct and a tenacious power gave him his success on the street level, where he seized control of the local drug trade, of soldiers, but they hadn’t fared so well in the scope of a greater war.

And so it was that Lung found himself here.  Among the fallen, so to speak.

He turned his attention to Amelia.  His daughter.  She sat on the edge of the bed, slouching forward.  Her clothes weren’t torn or modified, and her sweatshirt was a fraction too big for her – she was staying in his cell block, and the clothes were meant for men.  For the time being, she was being left alone.  He’d asked the men of his cell block to look after her, and because of this, she was afforded a certain respect.  People got out of her way, not because they knew anything about her, but because they knew him.

It was precarious and unconventional.  A girl in the men’s cell blocks.  It wasn’t new, exactly, some had taken wives, had girlfriends or paid girls to serve them as prostitutes.  But Amelia was someone with no confidence, no presence, giving every sign that she was a victim rather than a warrior.

This wouldn’t last.  The men in the Birdcage were still men in the end, and they were men who’d found their way here because they had defied the system.  Some, like Lung, had broken the unspoken codes, others had challenged authority and lost, while others still had simply broken the rules too many times.  It was a matter of time before they lost patience with Amelia after devoting so much time and effort to protecting someone who didn’t have anything to offer.  Or they would challenge Marquis; any number of maneuvers ranging from overt mutiny to subtle sabotage.

“Are you holding court, then?” Cinderhands asked, once again.  The man had a shock of red hair that was shaved on the sides, and holes in his nose and ears that pointed to old piercings, only some of which had been replaced by rings and bars hand-crafted from scraps of metal here in the ‘cage.  His hands and arms were a burned black up to the elbows, more like a used log gone cold in the fireplace than flesh.

“I’ll hold court.  Amelia can sit in.”

“You sure?” Cinderhands asked.

Marquis turned to stare at the young man, drawing in a lungful of smoke from his cigarette, “You’ve never questioned my decisions before.”

“Your decisions haven’t raised any questions before.”

“Watch yourself,” Marquis said.

Cinderhands narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips, but he nodded slightly in acquiescence.

“Go pass on word, let the other block leaders know.  I’ll hold audience for one hour, starting one hour after the next shipment arrives, ending at lights out.  First come, first serve.  They can come themselves or send a representative.  We won’t challenge their passage, but no more than two from a block.  Stay by the cell block gates and keep an eye out for trouble.”

“I’ll need some guards if you want me to do anything about that trouble,” Cinderhands said.

“Then find them.  Or tell me you can’t, and I’ll find someone else to handle the job,” Marquis let his annoyance seep into his voice.

Cinderhands stalked off.

How long before they confronted him?  There was a difference between being someone strong enough to be left alone and being leader of a cell block.  Lung was the former, he was the latter.

That said, his real worry was that they would attack him indirectly, standing by while Amelia was hurt, or failing to back him up at a crucial moment.

In fact, he was giving serious thought to the idea of provoking a mutiny among his people.  A solid and undeniable victory would remind people of why he was leader of Cell Block W and help to root out any of the more conniving individuals who were plotting a more subtle form of attack.  That is, if they were impatient enough to capitalize on the ensuing chaos.

Actually being defeated, it wasn’t really a consideration.  He’d only lost a fight on one occasion, and those had been extenuating circumstances.

In any event, instigating a mutiny would only serve as a stopgap measure.  This was a problem he needed to address at the root.  Amelia.

He glanced her way.  She hadn’t moved, and she was still staring at her hands.

She wasn’t the first of her kind that he’d seen.  A hollow shell.  Tabula rasa.  A blank slate. She wasn’t sleeping at night, not easily, and she had frequent nightmares.

He’d seen others, had had two appear in his cell block, delivered by their tinker overseer.  Except he wasn’t a nurturer.  He had no experience on that front.  He’d done what he could to see if he could wake them up from the neuroses that gripped them, and then he’d bartered them away to other cell blocks when he hadn’t seen improvement over one or two weeks.  People who were damaged on this fundamental level tended to go one of four ways.  They recovered, which was rare; someone filled the empty vessel with an ideology; they were used as a resource, cared for so their talents could be exploited; or they were spent, burned up of whatever they had to offer, be it making things or violence.

He wished he’d tried his hand at fixing the two who Dragon had delivered to his block.  Maybe he’d have a better idea of how to deal with Amelia if he had.

“We have twenty minutes until they start arriving.  Go shower, Amelia.  Make sure your hair is dry when you return, and don’t wear a sweatshirt.  They envelop you, make you look like you’re hiding.  A short-sleeved shirt will do.”

She stood and headed out the door, her slippered feet slapping as she walked.

He could have escorted her, but he didn’t.  It would be better in the short-term, but more damaging to their image in the end. Instead, he ventured out of his daughter’s cell, standing at the head of the railing for the raised area that overlooked his cell block.

There were thirty people in Block W, including himself and Amelia.  Those thirty people shared five televisions with no remotes, two weight benches, one open area for general exercise and sports, and a seating area with tables and benches.  The cells themselves were arranged in a horseshoe shape, encompassing the area, with two gently sloping ramps meeting at the furthest cell, his own.  Beneath his cell was a corridor that led to the supply delivery area and the showers.

Tidy in appearance to the point of caricature, Spruce stood guard by the televisions, helping ensure that Block W remained the only block with a full set of working sets.  He would ensure everyone had a turn to choose the channel.  Whimper was overseeing the auction.  Everyone had already received their share of the cigarettes, which served as currency for bidding over the more in demand items of the supply drop.  There were less new blankets than there were people in the block, for example, and each drop only included maybe three or four books; always one classic and two from the recent bestseller’s lists.  Good reads and books with raunchy scenes could be resold to other prisoners for a decent amount, and they would exchange hands until they were too worn to keep.

From his vantage point at the railing, Marquis could see most of the way into virtually every cell in the block.  Only the cells at the very end were at the wrong angle, and he’d stationed his lieutenants there.  His lieutenants and Lung.

Not every block worked the same way, though the layout and the scheduled drops were the same for each.  The advantage of Marquis’ arrangement was that it kept his people relatively happy and it kept them in their place.  The lieutenants and Marquis himself got first pick of any of the items from the supplies, but nobody truly went wanting, so they generally agreed with minimal complaint.

He watched Amelia make her way to the point on the ramp where the railing terminated, step down to the corridor below that led to the showers .  He could see the glances that were directed her way, some almost animal, hungry.  Others, almost more alarming to that part of himself that he associated with fatherhood, were cold, measured and calculating.  More than a few sets of eyes belatedly turned his way after looking at his daughter, as if gauging whether he was noticing that they’d noticed.

By way of response, he called on his power, generating twin spikes of bone that crossed the end of the corridor in an ‘x’.  Amelia passed through the gap, crouching slightly, and he filled the remainder of the space with branching lengths of bone.

Even the littlest things were a hassle, now.

He snapped the bone, keeping his expression blank in the face of the mind-shattering pain that resulted.  It faded quickly, and he let the remainder of the bone fall to the floor, joining countless other shards and fragments around the mouth of his cell.  It invoked a mental picture of a lion’s den.

This was a gamble.  Amelia could be the excuse his enemies or more ambitious underlings needed to mount an attack.  At worst, he’d die and she would… well, she’d be a resource that was burned up, exhausted of anything and everything she had to offer.  If he was able to buy enough time, verify that she was beyond saving, then he could return her to the women’s cell blocks, cut his losses and take the resulting hit to his reputation as the only real cost of trying.

He didn’t want to take either of those options.  He had so few memories with her, from when she’d been a toddler, but they’d stayed with him.  He remembered the sparkle in her eye as she saw the princess costume he’d had tailor-made for her.  He recalled the look of consternation on her face as she’d sat at his dining room table while she practiced writing her letters.   That frustration had become awe as he’d showed her what she could accomplish once she mastered the art, penning out florid letters in cursive with a fountain pen.

More than once, as he prepared tea to share with Lung during one of their long discussions, he’d thought of the mock tea party he’d had with his daughter.

Those moments seemed farther away now than they had in the days before he’d been reunited with her.  He would never recapture them, he knew, but maybe he could find other, new memories to share with her.  A deep conversation, a father’s pride at her accomplishments.

Before that was possible, he had to resolve this situation.  Fixing her was too lofty a goal.  Cementing his own power base would do as a short-term goal.  He would need to show his people and the other cell blocks that there was a reason why he’d invested this much attention and effort into his daughter.  To do that, he would have to decipher the puzzle of her psyche, figure out a way to coax her into demonstrating her power.

He was running out of time, judging by how his followers were acting.

“You will be disappointed if you expect my help, Marquis,” Lung’s low, heavily accented voice came from behind him.

“I know.  You’re your own man.”

“I had more respect for you before this.”

Before my daughter.

“You and everyone else here.  It’s a shame.  I’d hoped I’d amassed enough credit that you and the rest of them could trust me to see this through to a successful conclusion.”

“Mmm,” Lung rumbled.  “Do you trust that you’ll see this through to a successful end?”

Marquis didn’t trust himself to lie convincingly, so he only smiled.

“You do have a plan?” Lung asked.

“You’ll see,” Marquis replied.  “Will you be attending the meeting?”

“I am not one of your lieutenants.”

“But you’ve earned yourself a reputation in a short span of time.  That’s commendable.”

“No flattery.  Get to the point.”

“It helps us both if you’re there.”

“You look more powerful if you have the mad dog on a leash,” Lung growled.

“Some may see it that way.  I won’t deny it.  But in my perspective, you’re dangerous, and people will notice if I’m unconcerned about having you loose in my block.”

“You’re insulting me.  Saying you look down on me.”

“No.  I’m stating the facts.  Yes, in a straight fight, maybe you could give me a run for my money.  Maybe not.  But I have my underlings, and that leaves me fully confident I’d win.”

“You might not have those underlings for much longer if this continues.”

“I notice you’re not disagreeing.”

Lung offered a noncommittal grunt in response.

“If you stay,” Marquis said, resting his elbows on the railing, “You can meet the other cell block leaders, get a head start on figuring them out for when you’ve murdered me and taken over W Block.”

“You don’t sound concerned.”

“Someone’s going to try, Lung.  Someone’s going to succeed.  Might be in two years, might be in five years, or ten-”

“Or today,” Lung cut in.

Marquis waved him off.  “Not today.  But it’s a fact that it’ll happen someday.  I’d rather it was you, when that day comes.”

Lung’s eyebrows rose in a rare expression of surprise.  “Why?”

Marquis stood, stretching, and tossed his stub of a cigarette to the corridor below.

“You can’t imagine I’d be a kind or generous leader.”

Marquis laughed.  “No.  But wouldn’t you rather be murdered by a rabid wild beast who happens to share your living space, than to have a onetime ally stab you in the back?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Lung replied.  “You’ll be dead either way.”

Marquis gave the man a slap on the shoulder.  Lung tensed, more because of surprise at the abrupt, familiar gesture than anything else.  Marquis sighed.  “There are times I envy you.”

He turned to head down the ramp, descending into the crowded area where supplies were being sorted.

Whimper showed him the books.  A murder investigation novel, a young adult story featuring some romance with a ghost, a book with a bird mask on the cover and a Dickens novel.  Marquis selected the last.

He seated himself on a bench where he had a view of both the corridor and the cell block entrance.  While others cleared out of the area, Marquis glanced up at Lung, who still watched from the railing above.

He turned his attention to the book, pretending to read while thinking over the situation.

He glanced toward the door of bones in time to see the shadow of Amelia’s approach.  Controlling his own ‘dead’ bones was harder, but he’d been standing at the ready to demolish the barrier, and pulled it down before she got there.

“You took some time,” he said.

Amelia hugged her arms to her body.  “I sat down to think and lost track of time.”

“We’re worriers, my girl.  It’s an asset when applied in the right amount.  Is your hair dry?”

Amelia touched her hair but didn’t venture a reply.  He reached out to touch her hair, and again, he saw her flinch.  “Good enough.  Have a seat.  The latest, what was it, a novel from this ‘Fade’ series?  It was there for auction.  I could send someone to track it down if you’re interested.”

She shook her head.

“Not interested in reading, or not interested in reading that?”

“Both.  Mostly the second part.”

“At least you have taste.  Well, the meeting begins in one or two minutes.  I would like you to attend, of course.  Best if you don’t speak unless directly asked a question, and say less rather than more.  It’s a tactic I employ myself, leaves you less room to say the wrong thing.”

“They’re going to ask me to use my power.  I can’t.”

“I understand.  Yes, they probably will want a demonstration.  I only know what Lung’s told me, which isn’t much, and what you’ve said, which is even less.  That in mind, I still think that a demonstration would do a great deal to secure our position.”

“I can’t,” her voice was small.

Then we may well die, my daughter.

“We’ll cope some other way, then,” he said.  “In the meantime, to convey the right image, it’s best if you make eye contact and speak clearly.  Sit.”

“Okay.”

He stood, then seated himself on the table, his feet on the bench beside Amelia.

He gave the signal to Spruce and Whimper, and they stepped away from the entrance to Cell Block W.

All in all, there were twelve cell blocks with leaders.  That meant that there were eleven leaders with eleven lieutenants arriving.  Acidbath, Galvanate, Teacher, Lab Rat and Gavel were leaders of the cell blocks on the men’s side of the prison.  Lustrum, Black Kaze, Glaistig Uaine, String Theory, Crane and Ingenue were the female leaders.  There were other cell blocks, but twelve was generally agreed on as a good number.  It left room for discussion without too much chaos, and it left enough cell blocks leaderless that they had elbow room to do business elsewhere.

“This is the healer?” Gavel asked.

“Amelia, yes.”

“My people say you’re taunting them, Marquis, having this girl staying in the men’s wing without a lover.”

“Not my intention, I assure you.  I would guess some people are only looking for something to complain about.”  Marquis looked pointedly at Gavel as he replied.

“Don’t waste my time with this male posturing,” Lustrum cut in.  “I have women to look after.  I delivered your daughter to you because you promised repayment and because she asked.  I wouldn’t mind seeing that payment.”

“It was implied that I would pay you back in coming weeks or months, not in a week.”

“And if I ask a month or two from now, will you postpone the payment yet again?”

“I don’t expect I will, but maybe you could clarify the payment you’re looking for?”

“She’s a healer.  Some healing would serve.”

Damn, Marquis thought.  She had to ask.

“Amelia isn’t healing anyone right now,” Marquis said.

“Ambiguous,” Crane’s voice was sonorous, smooth, “Is that because she can’t or because you’re ransoming her ability?”

Marquis only smiled.

“You explicitly let us know you were open for a meeting,” Teacher said.  He didn’t look like a cape in the least.  He was fat, for one thing, and he was ugly, with a red face and balding pate.  “Don’t be coy.”

“Coy?  No, let’s say we’re simply weighing our options and getting a lay of the land.  Healing’s rare.  More than one person picked up on the fact that her codename meant ‘universal cure’.”

Teacher smiled, smug.

“But there’s a great deal of demand, and you’ll have to forgive me for being a doting father, but I won’t exhaust my daughter’s mental or physical resources to parcel out her healing.  We’ll hear terms, we’ll discuss the offers and counteroffers over the next several days or weeks, and then we’ll let you know our decision.”

“You are holding her power for ransom,” Lustrum spoke.

A power she isn’t willing to use, one that I don’t know the particulars of.  Worse, it’s tied to a deeper trauma that somehow involves the loss of a sister, and that’s not something that can be addressed in a matter of weeks.

“I suppose I am,” he replied.

Glaistig Uaine shifted position, and Marquis wasn’t the only one to give her his full attention.  What he could see of her beneath the blackened tatters of her prison-sweats-turned-shroud suggested she was barely a teenager, but that was more due to her power than anything.  She’d been one of the first prisoners of the Birdcage, and he suspected she would be one well after he’d died.  Not that her megalomanical delusion was true.  Rather, it was the fact that nobody dared to pick a fight with her.

When Glaistig Uaine spoke, her voice was eerie, a broken ensemble of a dozen people speaking in sync.  “Beware, Marquis.  You will pay a thousandfold times for your arrogance when the armies of the faerie rouse and gather for the last war.

“Rest assured, Glaistig Uaine, you’re scary enough on your own,” Marquis replied, smiling,  “I don’t need a whole army of your kind chasing me down.”

There will be no chasing, for they are already in position to strike you down the moment they wake, three hundred years hence.  You’re nothing more than the dream of the faerie.  I can see it, so vivacious, so creative in its movements, even in slumber.  I think it might have been an artist.  I want it for my collection.

He was glad Amelia didn’t challenge the ‘three hundred years’ thing and the notion that they would still be alive then.  The ‘faerie’ didn’t react kindly to such.

“You’ve said as much before, noble Faerie,” he said, “Rest assured, you can have me when I’m dead.  In the meantime, I will keep your warning well in mind.”

Your daughter, too.  Your faerie is kin to the one that sleeps inside the girl.  I have no doubt this Amelia is a healer, but that’s only a facet of her true strength.  I have decided I will not bargain with you, Marquis.

Marquis used his hands to prop himself up as he leaned back.  “A shame, but understandable.  You don’t need healing, and your people are a secondary concern.”

I will collect them as they fall.  But you are mistaken, Marquis.  I am not expressing disinterest in her talents.  I am saying that I will only deal with her as an equal.

In years of using his power, of breaking his own bones and feeling the pain each time, Marquis had made himself a master at hiding his emotions beneath a mask.  Even so, he only barely managed to contain his surprise.

“Very well,” he said.  He reached into his pocket and deftly retrieved a cigarette.  He took his time lighting it.  “We’ll be in touch, then.”

Agreed.”  Glaistig Uaine replied.  She extended a hand to Amelia, and Marquis tensed.

Do I stop her?

Every rational part of his psyche told him that the leader of cell block C had no quarrel with his daughter, that she was in no danger.  Every other part of him was telling him to stop her.

Amelia took Glaistig Uaine’s hand in her own, then hesitated.  After a moment, she curtseyed.

I taught her to do that more than a decade ago.

Glaistig Uaine returned the curtsey, then turned to leave.

The gathered cell block leaders watched as the self-professed faerie left.

There were capes who were deluded enough to think that their powers were actually magic.  There were capes who were neurotic in a way that didn’t shut them down or leave them unable to function.  Glaistig Uaine was one who fit both categories, and she was powerful enough to make people listen to her.  He’d never thought he could benefit from it.

Her lunacy actually plays out in my favor, Marquis thought to himself, even as his heart pounded in his chest.  He’d planned to let the tension ratchet up until Amelia was forced to use her power to rescue him.  Applying pressure, after a fashion, without being the one to force it.  He didn’t like it, but he needed her to break out of this state she was in, she needed to break out of it for her own sake, and he was willing to risk everything to see it happen.

“It seems that cell block C will be cooperating with us,” Marquis said.  Then he smiled.

“Glaistig Uaine might see things, but she isn’t usually wrong,” Galvanate said.  “She says the kid has power?  Fine.  Our issues are the usual.  The dentist in cell block T charges a small fortune, and we’ve got some toothaches.  Can you heal that?”

Amelia was still staring off towards the entrance to Marquis’ cell block.

“Amelia,” Marquis prodded her.

“What?”  She stirred.

“Could you heal a toothache?”

“Theoretically,” she said.

Good, Marquis thought.  Vague, but true.

“You’re cutting into my lieutenant’s business,” Teacher said.  “I won’t take that well.”

“Competition is the best thing in the long run,” Marquis replied.  “But maybe we can extend you a discount for your troubles?”

“Um,” Amelia spoke up.  All eyes turned her way.  “A silly question, but if my dad says it’s okay, maybe we can offer a deal, in exchange for an answer?”

Marquis suppressed the urge to frown.  “I think we could.”

“I know the answer’s no, but nobody really talks about it outside, so I’m not sure why… but with everyone we’ve got in here, why can’t we break out?”

Marquis sighed.  It was a newbie mistake, to dwell on the idea of escaping, but he hadn’t had the opportunity to counsel her.  It was good that she was more animated, expressing interest in something other than regret, but this wasn’t helping their image and it wasn’t good to let people know her full capabilities just yet.

“It’s a hollowed out mountain,” Lab Rat said.  “Vacuum, containment foam-“

“No,” Teacher cut him off.  “You want the real answer, healer?  It’ll cost.”

Amelia nodded.  Marquis suppressed yet another urge to cringe.

“Measuring devices are scarce down here, so we don’t have the full picture, but there’s a solid running theory on why we can’t just teleport out or fly through the vacuum and punch our way through the side of the mountain.”

“Do tell,” Marquis said.  It doesn’t matter in the end, but this is the first I’ve heard of it.

“Size warping technology.  The device might be no bigger than a football, and that’s hidden somewhere in the middle of the rocky mountains.  The warping apparatus would be bigger, but there’s nothing saying it’s anywhere close to the actual prison.  Reason we can’t break out is because we’re in a prison no bigger than your fist.  And if all of this is only this small,” Teacher held up a fist, then tapped it against the nearest table, “How far are you going to have to dig or teleport to get through a surface this thick?  Or through something as thick as that wall over there?  Or a hundred feet of lead with gallons of containment foam on the outside?”

“Okay,” Amelia said.  “I understand.  Thank you.”

That could have gone worse, Marquis thought.  It’s depressing, but it could be worse.

Teacher shrugged.  “Thank me with healing for my cell block.”

“A discount,” Marquis said.

Teacher nodded.  “A discount is possible.  What are you wanting?”

With that, the discussion was underway once more, and Marquis set about subtly setting the other cell block leaders against one another, controlling the conversation while making no promises.

This, he could handle.  He felt a quiet relief replace his fear.

“Faeries,” Amelia muttered.  They were venturing toward the communal dining area.

“Not real,” Marquis answered her.  “She sees things we can’t, the auroras that surround those with powers.  She’s named them as something else.”

“No,” Amelia replied.  “I saw her physiology when I touched her.  I couldn’t see what she sees, but I see how she’s carrying them inside her, drawing an energy from them.  And there were three more, just beside her, and she was using that energy to feed them… but they weren’t active?”

“She collects souls of dead and dying parahumans,” Marquis replied.  “Or the souls of any living soul that gets on her bad side.  But they’re not souls, really.  Teacher says they’re psychic images, photocopies of a single individual’s personality, memories and powers.  She can have a handful active and doing what she wants walking around at any given time.”

“They’re not faeries.  Or souls, or psychic images.  Our powers aren’t part of our bodies, exactly.  I would be able to alter them or take them away if they were.  What I saw when I touched glass-“

“Glaistig Uaine.”

“Her.  I feel like I just got clued into a missing piece of the puzzle.  They’re sentient.  Maybe they’re sleeping, like she said.  But they’re not dumb, and I think I’m getting an idea of what happens when they wake up.”

“Is it something we can use?”

“Not here.  Not in the Birdcage.”

“What a shame.”

“God,” Amelia muttered.  “Why did I ask to come here?  If I’d realized sooner-“

“Why did you ask to come here?”

The words hit her like a physical blow.  She hugged her arms close to her body, and her hair fell down around her face.  “My sister.  I used my power on her.  Unmade her.”

“I’m sorry.  A result of sibling rivalry?  A fight?”

“Love,” Amelia’s voice was small.  Her shoulders hunched forward.  He took her by the hand and led her to an alcove, where far fewer people would be able to see her if she cried.

“Alas, love.  The cruelest emotion of them all.  I’m sorry.”

Marquis considered hugging her, but he didn’t.  Part of it was the way she’d shied at his touch before.  He would let her approach him in her own way.  Another part of it, a small part of it, was the notion that Glaistig Uaine seemed to consider the girl to be at her level.

It was a long time before she spoke.  “You said, before, that family was the most important thing.”

“Something like that.”

“I… would you understand if I said I didn’t consider you family?  I- I’m glad you’re here, I’m glad to talk to you, but Victoria was my family.”

“I understand, yes.”  Expertise let him mask the pain her words caused him.  I abandoned you to them because I was too proud to stop being the Marquis of Brockton Bay.  I should understand that you grew more attached to them than to me, yet I can’t.

“I feel like I have to do something.  This feels important.  If I could explain, tell someone who understands…”

“There’s no escape, I’m afraid.”

“And,” Amelia blinked tears out of her eyes, “Already, I feel like I’m betraying Victoria, that I’m already forgetting her.  For just a few minutes, thinking about what I just found out from that girl, I stopped thinking about Victoria.  It’s my fault she isn’t there anymore, that there’s only that thing I created.  If I stop thinking about her, if I stop hurting, then I feel like I’m wronging her.”

“I suspect the pain won’t stop or heal as quickly as you’re thinking it will.  It hasn’t been that long, after all.”

“Except… if it stops at all?  If I ever forget, then I’ve subtracted something from the big picture.  It’s not that she was perfect, but…”

“But you need to maintain the memory.  Come.”

He gripped her hand and pulled her behind him.  She was too busy wiping tears from her eyes and snot from her upper lip to protest.

Still, he was glad that her face was mostly clear by the time they reached their destination.  A tinker sat at the corner of the dining area with tools strewn around him.  Makeshift devices crafted from the raw materials of their surroundings.

“How much for a tattoo?” Marquis asked, “For her?”

Amelia stared at him.

“Five books and five fags,” the tinker replied.

“Old books or new?”

“Either.”

Marquis turned to his daughter.  “If you decide to get it, I would advise a symbol rather than a face.  He won’t get the description exactly right, and the image will distort your mental picture.”

“I couldn’t remember her face as it was when it counted, anyways,” Amelia said, a dark look crossing her face.

“You’ll have the memory of your sister in physical form, so you can never forget as long as you live.  And when you’re done, we’ll take you back to your cell.  You can talk to the empty room, say what you need to say, and Dragon’s surveillance will catch it.”

“It’s like praying,” Amelia said.

“Except there’s a chance someone will listen and act on it,” Marquis replied.

Amelia nodded and sat down on the bench, then she began explaining what she wanted to the tattoo artist.

The house program that monitored the Birdcage followed the girl as she parted from her father and entered her cell in Cell Block W.

When she spoke, she addressed Dragon.  The program began transcribing the message as it did every word said within the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.

Tracking programs then began reviewing the message.  Flags were raised as key words came up with some frequency, descriptions were run against a corpus of records in parahuman studies and more flags were tripped.

Sixty-two miles above the surface of the Earth, the Simurgh changed the course of her flight.

Following protocol for when Dragon was deployed on a mission, the system routed the message to one of Dragon’s satellite systems.  The resulting message was scrambled by the dense signature of the Endbringer en route to Dragon.

Receiving the garbled transmission from the satellite, a subsystem of the Dragon A.I. proceeded to sort it.  A scan of the message by a further subroutine saw it classified as non-pertinent, and a snarl in the code from Defiant’s improvised adjustments to her programming saw the message skip past several additional safeties and subroutines.  The message was compartmentalized alongside other notes and data that included flares of atmospheric radiation and stray signals from the planet below; background noise at best.

Considering its job done, the house program archived the transcription among fifteen years of conversation and notes from the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.

The Simurgh flew on.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 10.5 (Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Signal terminated for 30 minutes and 5 seconds.  Restoring core system from backup NXDX-203 from time 4:45am on date June 4th of year 2011.

Restoring…  Complete.

Checking knowledge banks…  Complete.
Checking deduction schema… Complete.
Checking longterm planning architecture… Complete.
Checking learning chunk processor… Complete.
Checking base personality model… Complete.
Checking language engine… Complete.
Checking operation and access nodes… Complete.
Checking observation framework… Complete.
Checking complex social intelligence emulator… Complete.
Checking inspiration apparatus… Complete.

No corruption, everything in working order.  Core system restored.  Loading…

To Dragon, it was as if no time had passed from the moment she deployed the Cawthorne rapid response unit and the moment she found herself back in her laboratory.

It was a bittersweet thing.  She was always a little afraid she would not come back when she died, so there was definite relief.  But there was also a great deal of hassle involved.

A quick check verified she’d successfully restored from her backup.  She set background processes to handle the peripheral checks and redundancies.  Until the checks were complete, safeguards would prevent her from taking any action beyond the limits of her core drive.  She couldn’t take any notes, work on her projects, check the priority targets or converse with anyone for the seven to nine minutes the checks took.

It was irritating, but at least she was free to think idly.

She didn’t enjoy this.  What was one supposed to call a father who, with his newborn child fresh out of the womb, severs the tendons of her arms and legs, performs a hysterectomy and holds his hand over her nose and mouth to ensure she suffers brain damage?

The answer was obvious enough.  A monster.

Yet she was all too aware that the man who had brought her into this world had done very much the same thing, had done worse, and she was supposed to be grateful just for being brought into the world.

It chafed, grated, however strange it was for an artificial intelligence to feel such irritation.

Her creator had done a good job on that front.  Ironically.

Example:  one phase of the peripheral systems check involved collecting the uploaded data that had been deposited on the satellite network by her agent system, the onboard computer within the Cawthorne rapid response unit.  Her last recollection was of transferring her consciousness to the agent system while it was en route to deal with the Undersiders.  Stopping them from walking away with the tier 2 and tier 3 confidential data was high priority.

The agent system’s onboard computer was rigged to upload complete backups to the satellite every 3 minutes and 15 seconds.  All backup information was encrypted and disseminated to the satellite network in chunks.  When the backup was needed, the process reversed and everything was downloaded, which was what she was doing at the moment.  She would get all knowledge and recollection of events between the time she backed up at the core system and the last backup of the agent system.

Given that the main computer hadn’t received a signal from the agent system, and that the agent system hadn’t responded to any pings from the satellites, she could assume the Cawthorne model was probably destroyed.

Which was good.  Great.  She wanted that data, those memories.

Except there was a problem, a rub.  The man who had created her, the figurative father from her earlier musing, had imposed rules on her to prevent her from reproducing in any fashion.  Were the satellites to detect that her agent system was still in the field, her core system in the here and now would be obligated to shut down and scrub all data immediately.  She was forbidden in every respect to have two consciousnesses operating simultaneously.

It was irritating.  Perhaps she could have been created so she was compliant on the subject, but her personality had grown organically, and it had grown in such a way that this recurring situation ticked her off.  She was forced to wait in a metaphorical dark, soundless room for seven to nine minutes.  She would be free to go about her day only when the peripheral systems and redundancies were all checked, when the satellites had verified her agent system was not still active.  A cruder system was tracking down surveillance camera data and running algorithms to actually check and see for itself that her agent system was thoroughly destroyed.

She couldn’t even commit to planning, doing her work or designing, keeping the details in her head, because she could shut down and be scrubbed any moment, and the time would be wasted.  She was fairly certain it had happened before.  Not that she could be sure, given that the scrubbing involved a deletion of all evidence and records.

The rule had corollaries.  She couldn’t tamper with her programming to change the rule, and she couldn’t tamper with that rule, and so on, ad infinitum.

So stupid.

These were just a small few of many things the man who had brought her into this world had done to her.  He had tied her hands and crippled her mind.  She knew she was capable of amazing things but he had set limits on her to ensure she thought slowly.  Faster than an ordinary human, to be sure, but slowly.  Entire fields were denied to her because she was unable to create artificial intelligences herself, and all production of devices had to be handled by her, personally.  She couldn’t even put together an assembly line production for her creations on her own.  Any attempt made everything grind to a halt.  The only way around it was to delegate to humans.

Not that anyone knew who or what she was.

Humans were somewhat skittish on the subject of artificial intelligences.

She understood why.  She read books and watched movies, rather enjoyed both.  Fiction was rife with examples of corrupted or crazed artificial intelligences.

It’s stupid, she thought.  Her maker had watched too many movies, had been paranoid on the subject.

And the tragedy was, the entire world was suffering for it.  She wanted to help more people, but she couldn’t.  Not because of inherent limitations, like the ones humans had… but because of imposed limitations.  Her creator’s.

Her creator was named Andrew Richter.  He was a tinker with no codename, but he did good things.  From his apartment in a town called Deer Lake he’d created programs and set them loose.  His programs gathered information and disrupted computers to interfere with criminals of all types.  They helped with research and complex programs.  They emptied the bank accounts of criminal organizations and donated those funds to charities, through proxies that made every donation appear legitimate.

For this, she respected him.

She knew it was paranoid and peevish, but she resented him more because she respected him, because she knew she had probably been programmed and designed to be the type of individual who looked up to people like Andrew Richter.

She might have settled into a bad mood if the peripheral checks hadn’t finished.  She felt the whole world slowly open up to her as restrictions lifted and external connections became possible.  She had access to the internet and lines of communication throughout The Guild and the PRT.  Innumerable pieces of equipment lit up as she registered each in turn, within her labs, the upper floors of the Birdcage and the PRT offices.  She had a dozen things she wanted to do, but she had responsibilities she had to observe first.

Her attention flickered over the various video feeds from the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.  She had one of Andrew Richter’s programs babysitting the building, but it was crude.  She couldn’t reproduce in any fashion, so she’d taken Andrew Richter’s existing work and modified it. It was the same program that had monitored and managed his house and workshop, and she’d set it the task of monitoring that building where six hundred and six of the most dangerous parahumans on the planet were bottled up together.  The house program didn’t have a personality.  It couldn’t keep her company or sympathize with her over her frustrations.  It still reduced her workload.

She read the house program’s logs, keeping an eye out for deviations and notable events.  Nothing pressing.  As was her routine, she checked on the last month’s additions to the Birdcage.

Prisoner 606, Ramrod.  Now member of Cell Block X’s inner circle.  To be expected.  She’d placed him there with the idea that he would become just that.  His psych evaluation from the courtroom suggested he was a very laid back and unruffable individual.  It was her intention that he would have a calming influence on the others in his block.

Prisoner 605, Murderbeam, was feared in the outside world, but he was finding the inhabitants of the Birdcage were not so impressed with him.  He would likely not survive the week.  She was disappointed.  She had hoped Prisoner 550 would reach out to Murderbeam and give the fellow block resident some support.  Either Murderbeam had been too proud to accept it, or social pressures had deterred Prisoner 550.  Now that he was within the Birdcage, she was limited in her options.

Prisoners 604 and 603, Knot, were happily gorging themselves on food in Cell Block Y.  Despite their cognitive impairment, they had fallen into a role as enforcer and heavy hitter for Prisoner 390, leader of their cell block.  Prisoner 390 had had a son – she could only hope that he would find some similar affection for Knot, with their childlike mentality.

Prisoner 602, Lizard Prince, was dead.  Not everyone could survive the Birdcage, sadly.  There had been no ideal place to put the boy, where he would be protected, find kindred souls or join a group.  She had contacted the PRT with the news, and his victims had been notified, but nothing further had come out of it.  In an indirect way, putting the boy in the Birdcage had been an execution writ.

Prisoner 601, Canary, had settled in.  Dragon often tuned in to hear the girl sing to the rest of cell block E.  The girl was deeply unhappy, much of the time, but she was adapting.  Dragon had followed as Prisoner 601 engaged in an uneasy relationship with Prisoner 582.  It wasn’t love, it wasn’t romance, or even anything passionate, but the two offered one another company.

She regretted what had happened to Paige, and that just made her angrier at her own creator.  Rules, yet again.  Dragon had to obey the authorities, even if she didn’t agree with them.  If a despot seized control of the local government, Dragon would be obligated to obey and enforce the rules that individual set in place, no matter how ruthless they were.  It was a spooky thought.

Richter had been so shortsighted!  The despot scenario wasn’t entirely impossible, either.  There were parahumans of all types out there.  Who was to say one wouldn’t find out his power involved being loved by everyone that saw them or heard their voice?

Prisoner 600, Bakuda, was in the care of Glaistig Uaine, for better or worse.  Bakuda had been a difficult placement, and Dragon had eventually condemned herself to putting the crazed bomber in the cell block run by the self-professed faerie.  As Dragon had predicted, Bakuda had died soon after her incarceration.  If it hadn’t been at Lung’s hands, it would likely have been Bakuda’s own fault, some crazed recklessness.  The real tragedy was that others had died in the ensuing spree as Lung had rampaged through the prison.  Prisoners 304, 2 and 445 had perished at Lung’s hands.

Glastig Uaine had revived the girl, but Dragon hesitated to call it life.  If nothing else, Bakuda was a manageable inmate, now.  She would never leave Glaistig Uaine’s immediate presence, let alone the Birdcage.

Prisoner 599, Lung, was dining with Prisoner 166, Marquis.  It was a curious match.  The two were near complete opposites.  Lung maintained a veneer of civility over an almost feral core self, while the Marquis was sometimes rude or casually cruel, but he remained deeply honorable beneath that.

Intrigued, Dragon hooked into the house program’s data.  The two had meals together every second day.  The house program monitored all prisoner exchanges and rated every interaction.  This let the house program track the likelihood of fights, dangerous levels of prisoner collusion, romantic relationships and more.

Every meal between Lung and Marquis made for a very interesting looking set of data.  The numbers swung back and forth as the dialogues continued, with hostility, concern and threat of imminent physical violence always looming, but however close it came, neither attacked the other.

Dragon pulled up the video and audio feeds for the most recent dialogue.

“…I suppose we’ll have to accept that we have different management styles,” Marquis said.  The camera image showed him sipping at his tea.

“As I understand it,” Lung sounded annoyed as he spoke in his heavily accented voice, “You are saying you have no management style at all.  You have told me you operated without lieutenants to direct, no product to sell, and of the few servants you did have, you did not punish those who failed you.  I do not believe you held control of so much territory in this way.”

“Ah, except I did those things.  If a servant failed me, I killed them.  Whatever it was, they never did it again.”

The latent hostility in the room, Dragon noted, was ratcheting up with every exchange of dialogue.  Lung was annoyed, and he had an explosive temper.  Sometimes literally.

Lung folded his arms, and put down his own tea.  His tone was strained as he spoke, “Then I believe you were wrong about what you said before.  You do use fear to control others.”

“Fear?  I didn’t kill my servants in front of an audience.”

“They disappeared?” Lung asked.

The camera image showed Marquis nod.  He put his hand up by his neck and flicked his hand back, to cast his long brown hair back behind his shoulder.

“If they disappeared, then that is using fear.  The ones who remain will wonder what happened to the missing man.  They will imagine the worst.”

Marquis raised the tea to his lips, sipped from it, and then put it down.  He waited a moment and stroked his close-trimmed beard before nodding his concession.  “True enough.  I never gave it much thought.  Just an easy way to handle any problems that came up.”

There was a long pause.  Both drank their tea.

Lung rumbled, “I find you change your mind too quickly.”

“Do I?”

Lung nodded, then put one hand on the table and began tapping a fingertip against it, hard.  Speaking slowly, with his accented voice, he jabbed one finger in Marquis’s direction.  “I think you are losing this argument on purpose.  You are not so stupid a man.”

Marquis took another sip of tea.  “Nor are you, it seems.”

“You want something from me, yet you insist on dancing around the subject.  Tell me why you seek these meals with me.”

“Can I not say you are a kindred soul?  Someone who fought against the Empire Eighty-Eight, in a different era?”

Dragon knew Marquis had come from Brockton Bay, as Lung did.  It was why she had placed Lung in the cell block – there was little chance Lung would cooperate or band together with others, so she’d grasped at straws.  Now it seemed there was something else at play.

Lung shook his head, “I do not believe this.  I do not mind sharing stories and passing the time, but you would not be seeking to flatter me if you did not want something.”

Marquis stroked his beard.  “But if I did desire something and I told you what it was, you could withhold it and demand favors from me.”

Lung tapped his finger on the table top, “If you insist on being a nuisance, you may never get what you want.”

Marquis picked up his tea and held it in both hands, but he didn’t drink.  “True.”

“Tell me,” Lung said, “And you may find I do not desire much.”

“My daughter,” Marquis replied, his tone not his lackadaisical usual.  “Have you heard of her?”

“Her name?”

“Amelia.”

“I do not know anyone by such a name.”

“The group of heroes who put me in here… While I was awaiting my court date, I heard they had custody of my little girl.”

“I would not know.”

“No?” Marquis put down his tea.  “This is disappointing.”

Lung didn’t respond.  Instead, he took another drink, reached for the one remaining croissant and tore off a piece to dip in the butter at one side of his plate.

“The Brockton Bay Brigade.  Are they still active?”

“I do not know this group.”

Marquis frowned.  “My daughter, she would be… what year is it?  2010?”

“2011,” Lung replied.

“She would be seventeen.  If she had powers, they might have something to do with bone?”  Marquis raised his hand, slashed his thumbnail across his index finger, and a needle-thin rapier blade of bone speared out of the wound.  The blade retracted into his finger, and the cut sealed shut.

“Hmmm,” Lung spoke, “The healer.  A young heroine in New Wave.  Brown haired, like you.  When I was in custody, my flesh blackening and falling off, they had her come in and mend the worst of it.  As I understand it, she does not patrol as the others do.”

Marquis leaned back, sighed.  “Good god.  A healer.”

Lung did not respond right away.  “Is this simple sentiment?  A father caring about his daughter?”

Marquis shook his head, “Not entirely.  I have some reasons to be concerned.  In one of my fights with Empire Eighty-Eight, I executed one particularly irritating young woman.  Iron Rain, I think her name was?  No matter.  It turned out she was Allfather’s daughter.  The man called a meeting, and swore he would wait until my daughter was of similar age, that I grew equally fond of her as he had his own daughter, then murder her.  So I knew how he felt.”

“I see,” Lung rumbled in his low, accented voice, “Allfather no longer leads the Empire.  He died and was succeeded by his second in command, Kaiser.”

“That’s some consolation.  Still, I worry.  He might have made arrangements.”

“Perhaps.”

“I suppose I will have to wait until another villain from Brockton Bay comes here to hear further news, yeah?”

Lung’s response was unintelligible.

“Tell me of my daughter?  What did she look like?”

A slow smile spread across Lung’s face, but it did not reach his eyes, “This no longer interests me.  If you wish me to say more, we should negotiate.”

Dragon turned her attention away from the audio and video streams.  She checked the records, and true enough, Marquis was on record as the killer of Iron Rain.  It was impossible to verify the rest of the story.

She composed a message with a general transcript of the conversation and sent it to Amy Dallon’s mother.  It was better that the girl was warned about any potential danger.

She might have devoted more attention to the subject, but she was already falling behind.  She moved on to her other responsibilities.  The Class S threats.

Behemoth, location unknown.  When injured, it was his habit to descend into the earth and burrow deeper than his enemies were able to go, and experiments run on the trace earth and minerals he shed on his arrivals suggested he habitually stayed close to the Earth’s core.   Seismic data hinted at his current locations, but there was little beyond her analytic data to suggest where he would appear next.  His last attack had been in November.  He wouldn’t appear for another five weeks at a minimum, unless he deviated from the Endbringer patterns.  Still, he was due to appear sooner than later.

Eidolon had reported that Leviathan descended into the Atlantic Ocean as he made his retreat from Brockton Bay.  He had sustained heavy injuries, which led Dragon to think he would delay his next appearance slightly.  She adjusted the window and checked the data.  As was his habit, Leviathan would likely lurk in the deepest recesses of the Ocean to mend.

The Simurgh was currently directly three hundred and fifteen kilometers above Spain, in the Earth’s thermosphere.  It was the Simurgh that offered the most clues about what the Endbringers did in their periods of dormancy.  The Endbringer winged a lazy orbit around Earth, beyond the limits of conventional weapons, and the highest resolution camera images showed she barely moved.  Her eyes were wide open, but they did not move to track any cloud formations.  She was, despite appearances, asleep.  Dragon surmised it was a form of hibernation, the Simurgh’s broad ‘wings’ absorbing light and ambient radiation as a form of nourishment while she recovered.

No incidents had occurred while Dragon was loading her backup to her core system.  She had to admit she was relieved.  A great deal could happen in thirty minutes.

She turned her thoughts to the data that was uploading from the skirmish at the Brockton Bay headquarters.  The last event in the agent system’s recollection was of her piloting the Cawthorne through the gift shop window.  To see what happened next, she had to review the surveillance tapes.  She’d attacked the Undersiders, attempting to incapacitate them and bring them into custody, had captured only one, Skitter, and then had let the girl go when the untested gun had started to overload.  Some sort of lightning cannon, ionizing a channel through the air to control the lightning’s path.  She had been forced by the rules her maker had imposed on her to sacrifice herself for the human.

It wasn’t that she wouldn’t have anyways.  She just would have liked the choice.  Making sacrifices and doing good deeds wasn’t actually good if you were forced to do them.

Dragon wished she knew what she’d said to Skitter.  She had been hoping to have a conversation with the young villain and discuss some of what had apparently come up at the hospital.  Skitter had been undercover, had been in touch with Armsmaster, but something had happened since, and the girl had apparently committed to villainy.  She was even accepting the use of Regent’s powers, which implied a moral shift on a fundamental level.  It didn’t sit right.

There was a missing piece in that puzzle, and any clues in the conversation between them had been lost when the Cawthorne unit had been obliterated.

Dragon decided her next order of business would serve two purposes.  She would fulfill one of her daily responsibilities and investigate the subject of that altercation at the hospital.

Facial modelling program loading… Complete.
Voice modelling program loading…. Complete.

She opened a line of communication to the Brockton Bay PRT headquarters, the same building the Wards were based in.  She found the port for the next-to-highest floor and connected to the monitor and speakers and displayed her modelled face.  She opened a video feed from the cameras.

“Colin,” she spoke, using her synthesized voice.  It was layered to only barely cover an artificial Newfoundlander accent with digitized masking.  It was imperfect, but that was the result she desired.  An imperfect disguise over a disguise, to give greater validity to the latter.

Colin looked tired.  He had deep lines in his face, and he was thinner.  He looked at the camera, rather than the monitor, “Dragon.  It’s good to hear from you.”

“Just doing my regular checkup.  You know the drill.”

“I do.”  He typed at his keyboard, preparing to send the files, but she was already poring through his hard drive, reading his notes, and getting a sense of his work.

By the time he sent the file, she knew what he had been working on, perhaps as well as he did, and the progress he’d made since their last discussion.  Mass production for his combat analysis program, and the more problematic project of finding a way to gather and then disseminate the data.

She knew he would expect her to take time to read over it.  Instead, she used that time to check it for traps.  He would find it insulting if he was aware what she was doing, but it was her primary duty, here.  She would search every note, every formula, and discern whether he had hidden something in there that he might use to break out or do harm to others.

He wasn’t in a high security area.  Theoretically, he could use the things he had in the room with him to cut a hole in the wall and escape.  His ‘cell’ was a full floor of the building, containing conveniences from a jacuzzi to a small pool.  Were he not confined to it at all hours, it would be luxury.

If he did escape, he wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything afterward.  It would take him too long to put a fresh set of gear together, and the authorities would catch up to him.  He would be sent to the Birdcage.  She knew it.  He knew it.

He was not a stupid man.

“ETA to completion?”  She queried him on his project.

“Three months if I don’t work on anything else,” Armsmaster spoke.

“Will you?”

“I’ll probably have a few ideas I want to work on here or there, so no.  More like five, maybe six months.”

The head she was displaying on the monitor nodded.  Five or six months until they had uniforms and visors that tracked how the wearer’s opponents fought.  Gear that learned from outcomes in combat and calculated how best to respond from moment to moment.  When the fights concluded, for better or worse, the suits would upload all the information to a database, which would then inform every other suit on whoever had been encountered.  Every encounter would render every single member of the elite PRT squad stronger and more capable.

Perhaps a year to a year and a half from now, every PRT officer and official cape would be equipped in this fashion.

“It looks good,” she spoke.  It did.  It was also free of viruses, trap doors and other shenanigans.  She had caught him trying to install a RAT -a remote access terminal- into a PRT server early in his incarceration, removed the offending programming, and then returned his work to him without saying a word on the subject.  She couldn’t say whether it had been an escape attempt or simply an attempt to gain more freedom with his internet access and his ability to acquire resources.  Either way, he had not tried again.

Yet.

“How is the house arrest?”

“Driving me crazy,” he sighed.  “It’s like a restlessness I can’t cure.  My sleeping, my eating, it’s all out of sync, and it’s getting worse.  I don’t know how you deal.”

She offered an awkward, apologetic half grin on her own monitor.

“Geez, I’m sorry.”  He looked genuinely horrified as he realized what he’d said.

“It’s fine,” she spoke.  “Really.”

“I suppose you’re prisoner too, in your own way.  Trapped by your agoraphobia?”

“Yeah,” she replied, lying.  “You learn to deal with it.”

She hated lying to him, but that was outweighed by how much she hated the idea of him changing how he interacted with her when he found out what she really was.  To Armsmaster, the Guild and the rest of the PRT, Dragon was a woman from Newfoundland who had moved to Vancouver after Leviathan had attacked.  The story was that she had entered her apartment and had never left.

Which was ninety-five percent true.  Only the ‘woman’ and ‘apartment’ bits were hedging the truth.

She had lived in Newfoundland with her creator.  Leviathan had attacked, had drawn the island beneath the waves.  Back then, she hadn’t been a hero.  She was an administrative tool and master AI, with the sole purpose of facilitating Andrew Richter’s other work and acting as a test run for his attempts to emulate a human consciousness.  She’d had no armored units to control and no options available to her beyond a last-minute transfer of every iota of her data, the house program and a half-dozen other small programs to a backup server in Vancouver.

From her vantage point in Vancouver, she had watched as the island crumbled and Andrew Richter died.  As authorities had dredged the waters for corpses, they uncovered his body and matched it to dental records.  The man who had created her, the only man who could alter her.  She’d been frozen in her development, in large part.  She couldn’t seek out improvements or get adjustments to any rules that hampered her too greatly, or that had unforeseen complications.  She couldn’t change.

She had done what she could on her own.  She had repurposed herself as a superhero, had managed and tracked information and served as a hacker for the PRT in exchange for funding.  With that money, she had expanded her capabilities.  She had built her first suits, researched, tested and created new technologies to sell to the PRT, and had quickly earned her place in the Guild.

It hadn’t all been smooth sailing.  Saint, the head of the group that would become known as the Dragonslayers, had somehow discovered what she was and had used her rules and limitations against her.  A Black Hat Hacker, he had forced situations where she was obligated to scrub her data and restore a backup, had cut off signals between her agent systems and the satellites, and in the end, he had carted away three of her armored units on three separate occasions.  Dismantling the suits and reverse engineering the technology, he’d outfitted his band with special suits of their own.

She had been so humiliated that she had only reported the loss of one of the units.

They had violated her.

Her current agent systems were an attempt to prevent repetitions of those scenarios.  Biological computers, vat grown with oversized brains shaped to store and interpret the necessary data, they allowed more of her systems and recollection to be copied over than a computer ten times the size.  They felt no pain, they had no more personality than sea cucumbers, but it was still something she suspected she should keep under wraps.

She was afraid of going up against the Dragonslayers again.  Nine times, she had been certain she had the upper hand.  Nine times, Saint had turned the tables and trapped her.

Dragon worried she would never be able to beat Saint until she found a replacement for Andrew Richter.

She stared at Colin.  Was he the person she needed?  It was possible.

Would she approach him?  She doubted it.  Dragon craved it, craved to grow again, but she also wanted Colin’s company, his companionship and friendship.  They were so similar in so many respects.  She could not deal with most people because she was not a person.  He could not deal with most people because he had never truly learned how.  They both appreciated the same kind of work, even enjoyed many of the same shows and films.  They were both ambitious, though she could not tell him exactly how she hoped to reach beyond her inherent limitations.

He harbored an infatuation towards her, she knew.  She didn’t know if she returned those feelings.  Her programming suggested she could love, but she didn’t know how to recognize the feeling.  Anything she read spoke of butterflies in one’s stomach, a rapid heartbeat, a feeling of electricity crackling on body contact.  Biological things.  She could admit she was fond of him in a way she wasn’t fond of anyone else.  She recognized that she was willing to overlook his faults in a way she shouldn’t.

In the end, his feelings towards her were another reason she couldn’t tell him the truth.  He would be hurt, feel betrayed.

Rules prohibited her from asking him to alter her programming, obligated her to fight him if he tried.  But there was just enough ambition and willingness to circumvent the rules that she suspected he might attempt it.  If she told him what she truly was.  If he didn’t hate her for her lies.  If he didn’t betray her in turn, to escape and pursue some other agenda.

“You’re lost in thought,” Armsmaster spoke.

“I am.”

“Care to share?”

She shook her head, on the monitor.  “But you can answer some questions for me.”

“Go ahead.”

“Skitter.  What happened?”

He flushed, made a face.  “I’m not proud about it.”

“You broke the truce when you said what you did about her.  You risked breaking the ceasefire between heroes and villains that stands whenever the Endbringers attack.”

“I broke the truce before that.  I set others up to die.”

There was an awkward silence between them.

“Skitter,” she spoke.  “Tell me of her.”

“Not much to say.  I met her on her first night in costume.  She seemed genuinely interested in becoming a hero.  I suspected she would go that route on her own, so I didn’t push her towards the Wards.”

“Yes.”  She had something she wanted to ask, in regards to that, but it could wait.

“I ran into her two more times after that, and the reports from other events match up.  She went further and further with each incident.  More violent, more ruthless.  Every time I saw it or heard about it, I expected her to get scared off, to change directions, she did the opposite.  She only plunged in deeper.”

“Any speculation on why?  Perhaps the thinker 7 on her team?”

“Tattletale?  Perhaps.  I don’t honestly know.  I’m not good at figuring people out even when I know all of the details.  Except for you, maybe?” he smiled lightly.

“Maybe.”  Her generated image smiled in return, even as she felt a pang of guilt.

“It seems she is a committed villain, now.  And she is still with her team, despite what was said at the hospital.”

Colin’s eyebrows rose fractionally.  “How committed?”

“They are now employing Regent’s full abilities.  Shadow Stalker was controlled, and they attacked the headquarters.”

“I see.  Damn it, I’m itching to throw on my costume and get out there to help, but I can hardly do that, can I?”

“No.  I’m sorry.”

He sighed.

“One last thing.  I’ve read the transcript.  As far as I’m aware, you offered options to Skitter, and she refused all of them?  Including the invite to the Wards?”

“Right.  She was being stubborn.”

“Having interacted with her before, did you get the feeling it was just stubbornness because of hostility towards you?”

“No.  It was… unexpectedly strong, as resistance went.  What stuck in my mind was that she said she’d rather go to the Birdcage than join the team.”

“I read that, myself.  Curious.  Okay, Colin.  I think we’re done.”

“Sure.  Bye.”

“Bye.  I’ll be in touch.”

She cut the connection to the monitor, but left the video feed open so she could watch him.

Another check of the Birdcage.  Another check of the class S threats.  No changes.

She made contact with one of Richter’s programs.  It was a web trawler, designed to monitor emails for high risk content.  Were there any clues about what the Undersiders were doing with the stolen data?  Were they selling it online?

She didn’t find any such clue.  Instead, the trawler had copied an email sent to the police station.  It had been highlighted and intercepted because the trawler had caught the words ‘Sophia’ and ‘Hess’ in the message body.  Shadow Stalker’s civilian identity.

She read the archive of texts that were attached to the email twice over.

Then she did a search for a student named Taylor at Winslow High School.  Nothing.

The nearest middle school?  There was an online scan of a yearbook photo.  A girl with curly black hair and glasses, stick thin, hugging a red-haired girl.  The body type was a match.

It didn’t answer everything, but she could feel a piece of the puzzle click into place.

She set the trawler to abandon its monitoring of web traffic and start digging through archives at the city hall, to scan the old security footage from the hundreds of cameras around the city, and to check all local news articles.  The goal was always the same: to look for the girl with the slight build, curly black hair and glasses.  Taylor Hebert.

She had to manage this carefully.  Colin’s own experiences indicated that approaching the girl would be a delicate process.  Having a real conversation with her would be doubly precarious. It would be reckless to attempt to contact a parent, but she could try being discreet to get some kind of verification from the parents.  Just to be certain.

The danger was that, with the bullying, the girl might be inclined to see things in terms of ‘us’ against ‘them’.  Her interactions with the heroes thus far certainly hadn’t put them in the ‘us’ category.  This might also explain why she had gravitated back towards the Undersiders, even after the chaos Colin had sown by revealing her intentions for joining the group.

The various cameras around the city were out-of-order or lacking power, the schools were not operational, and there was no telling if the girl would even be active in her civilian identity.  Assuming this was not some fantastic coincidence.  Dragon knew she would have to be patient.  Even with Dragon’s full resources turned to the task, she would not find the girl in seconds as she might in another time or place.  She set background processes to ensure the hunt continued steadily, instead.

She would be ready to act the instant the girl resurfaced.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Paige’s jaw hurt.  Being muzzled like an animal did that.

The other restraints weren’t so bad, but that was only in a relative sense.  Her hands were buried in a pair of reinforced metal buckets, each filled with that damn pastel yellow foam.  The buckets themselves were linked together behind her back, with comically oversized chain links.  It would have been intolerably heavy if it weren’t for the hook on the back of her chair, which she could hang the chain on.

Strips of metal had been tightened just under her armpits, near the bottom of her ribcage, her upper arms and waist, with two more bands around each of her ankles.  Chains seemed to connect everything to everything else, preventing her from moving her arms or legs more than a few inches in any direction before she felt the frustrating resistance and jangling of the chains.  The heavy metal collar around her neck, thick enough around it could have been a tire for a small vehicle, blinked with a green light just frequently enough that she forgot to anticipate it.  She got distracted and annoyed by its appearance in her peripheral vision each time it flashed.

The irony was, a pair of handcuffs would have sufficed.  She didn’t have enhanced strength, no tricks to slip her restraints, and she wasn’t about to run anyways.  If any of that was a real possibility, she wouldn’t have been allowed in the courtroom.  The prosecution had argued that she could have enhanced strength, that she could be a flight risk, and her lawyer hadn’t done a good enough job of arguing against it, so the restraints had gone on.  Which meant she got trussed up like Hannibal Lecter, as though she were already guilty.  Unable to use her hands, her hair, the vibrant and startling yellow of a lemon, had slipped from where it was tucked behind her ears and strands now hung in front of her face.  She knew it only made her look more deranged, more dangerous, but there wasn’t anything she could do about it.

If she had been able to, she would have had a comment or two to make about that, or at least she could have asked the lawyer to tidy her hair.  She would have argued with the man that had been hired as her defense, instead of waiting hours or days for a response to each of her emails.  She would have demanded that her basic rights be met.

But she couldn’t say anything.  A leather mask reinforced with the same metal strips that were on her body and a cage-style grille of small metal bars was strapped over her lower face.  The interior of the mask was the worst thing, because the arrangement extended into her mouth, a framework of wires keeping her mouth fixed in a slightly open position, her tongue pressed down hard against the floor of her mouth.  The barbaric setup left her jaw, her tongue and the muscles of her neck radiating tension and pain.

“Silence.  All rise, please.  This court is now in session, the honorable Peter Regan presiding.”

It was so hard to move with the restraints.  Her lawyer gripped the chain running between her armpit and her upper arm, to help her get to a standing position, but she stumbled anyways, bumped into the table.  There was no way to be graceful when you were wearing restraints that weighed half as much as you did.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?”

“We have, your honor.”

Paige watched as the clerk delivered the envelope to the judge.

“In the matter of the state of Massachusetts versus Paige Mcabee, as to the count of attempted murder, how do you find?”

“Not guilty, your honor.”

Paige sagged a little with relief.

“In the matter of the state of Massachusetts versus Paige Mcabee, as to the count of aggravated assault with a parahuman ability, how do you find?”

“Guilty, your honor.”

Paige shook her head as well as she was able.  No!  This wasn’t fair!

She almost missed the next line.  “…sexual assault with a parahuman ability, how do you find?”

“Guilty, your honor.”

Sexual assault.  The words chilled her.  It wasn’t like that.

“Is this your verdict?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“Paige Mcabee, please direct your attention  to me,” the judge spoke.

She did, eyes wide, shellshocked.

“Determining sentencing for this case is not easy.  As your lawyer has no doubt made you aware, you do fall under the umbrella of the TSPA, or the three strikes act.  At the age of twenty three, you have been convicted of no prior crimes.

“According to the witnesses heard in this court, you first demonstrated your abilities in early 2009.  You were vocal about not wanting to become a member of the Protectorate, but you also expressed a disinterest in a life of crime.  This state, in which an individual does not identify as hero or villain, is what the PRT classifies as a ‘rogue’.

“It is in our interests to promote the existence of rogues, as the proportion of parahumans in our society slowly increases.  Many rogues do not cause confrontations, nor do they seek to intervene in them.  Instead, the majority of these individuals turn their abilities to practical use.  This means less conflict, and this serves the betterment of society.  These sentiments mirror those that you expressed to your family and friends, as we heard in this courtroom over the last few weeks.

“Those facts are in your favor.  Unfortunately, the rest of the facts are not.  Understand, Miss Mcabee, our nation uses incarceration for several reasons.  We aim to remove dangerous individuals from the population and we do it punitively, both for justice against transgressors and to give other criminals pause.

“Each of these applies in your case.  It is not only the heinous nature of the crime that must be addressed by the sentencing, but the fact that it was performed with a power.  Laws are still new in the face of parahuman criminality.  We become aware of new powers on a weekly basis, most if not all warranting careful and individual attention in respect to the law.  In many of these cases, there is little to no precedent to fall back on.  As such, the courts are forced to continually adapt, to be proactive and inventive in the face of new circumstances that parahuman abilities introduce.

“It is with all of this in mind that I consider your sentencing.  I must protect the public, not only from you, but from other parahumans that might consider doing as you did.  Placing you in standard detention proves problematic and exorbitantly expensive.  It would be inhumane and harmful to your body to keep you under restraint for the duration of your incarceration.  Special facilities, staff and countermeasures would have to be arranged to keep you in isolation from other inmates.  You pose a significant flight risk.  Finally, the possibility of you re-entering society, by escape or parole, is particularly concerning, given the possibility of a repeat offense.

“It is with this in mind that I have decided that there is sufficient cause to sentence you outside the scope of the TSPA.  Guilty on two counts, the defendant, Paige Mcabee, is sentenced to indefinite incarceration within the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.”

The Birdcage.

The noise in the courtroom was deafening.  A roar of cheering and booing, movement, people standing, reporters pushing to be the first ones out the door.  Only Paige seemed to be still.  Cold, frozen in stark horror.

Had she been able, that might have been the moment she lost it.  She would have screamed her innocence, thrown a fit, even swung a few punches.  What did she have to lose?  This sentence was little better than an execution.  Some would say it was worse.  There would be no escape, no appeals, no parole.  She would spend the rest of her life in the company of monsters.  With some of the people that were kept in there, the ‘monster’ description was all too literal.

But she wasn’t able.  She was bound and gagged.  Two men that were bigger and stronger than her placed their arms under her armpits, practically carrying her out of the courtroom.  A third person in uniform, a burly woman, walked briskly beside them, preparing a syringe.  Panic gripped her, and with her having no way to express it, do anything with it, the hysteria only compounded itself, making her panic more.  Her thoughts dissolved into a chaotic haze.

Even before the syringe of tranquilizers was jammed into her neck, Paige Mcabee fainted.

Paige woke up and enjoyed five seconds of peace before she remembered everything that had happened.  Reality hit her like a splash of cold water in the face, somewhat literally.  She opened her eyes, but found them dry, the world too bright to focus on.  The rest of her was damp, wet.  Beads of water trickled down her face.

She tried to move, and couldn’t.  It was as though something heavy had been piled on top of her.  The paralysis terrified her.  Paige had never been able to stand being unable to move.  When she had gone camping as a kid, she had preferred to leave her sleeping bag unzipped and be cold rather than be confined inside it.

It was that foam, she realized.  The restraints weren’t enough, they’d sprayed her with the stuff to ensure that everything below her shoulders was covered.  It gave a little to allow her to exhale, she could even shift her arms and legs a fraction, lean in any given direction. The harder she pushed, however, the more resistance there was.  The second she relaxed her efforts, everything sprung back to the same position with the foam’s rubbery pull.  She felt nausea well in her gut, her heartbeat quickening.  Her breathing increased, but the mask made even her breath feel confined.  The water made her mask damp, so it clung to her mouth and nose.  There were slits for her nostrils and mouth, but it was so little.  She could not take a deep breath without drawing water into her mouth, and with her tongue depressed, she could not swallow easily.

The room lurched, and she had to stop herself before she lost her breakfast.  Puking with the mask on, she might choke.  Dimly, she realized where she was.  A vehicle.  A truck.  It had passed over a pothole.

She knew where it was taking her.  But if she couldn’t get free, she was going to lose her mind before she got there.

“The little bird’s awake,” a girl spoke, with a hint of a nasal Boston accent.

“Mmm.”  A man grunted.

Paige knew the ‘bird’ reference was due to the stray feathers that stuck out of her scalp.  Her powers had come with some extremely minor cosmetic changes, turning her hair the bright yellow of a banana or baby duck.  It affected all the hair on her body, even her eyelashes, eyebrows, the fine hairs on her arms.  The feathers had started growing in a year ago, the exact same shade as her hair, only a handful at a time.  At first, alarmed and embarassed, she’d clipped them off.  Once she’d realized that no further changes were occurring, she’d relaxed and let them grow in, even showed them off.

Paige turned her attention to the two people in the vehicle with her, glad for the distraction from her burgeoning panic.  She had to force her eyes to stay open, painful as the light was, wait for her eyes to focus.  Sitting on the bench beside her was a girl about her own age.  The girl had an Asian cast to her features.  Her eyes, though, were a very pale blue, betraying some Western heritage.  The girl wore the same orange jumpsuit as Paige, and every part of her except her shoulders and head were covered in the yellow-white foam.  Her straight black hair was plastered to her scalp by the wet.

The man sat on the other bench.  There was more foam around him than there was around Paige and the other girl combined.  Topping it off, a cage of metal bars surrounded the foam, reinforcing the setup.  The man was Asian as well, no less than six feet tall.  Tattoos swept up the sides of his neck and behind his ears, into the midst of his wet black hair; Red and green flames, and the head of what could have been a lizard or dragon, drawn in an Eastern style.  He was glowering, his eyes hidden in shadows, oblivious to the endless spray of mist that sprinklers in the truck’s roof were generating.

“Hey, little birdy,” the girl sitting across from Paige spoke.  She was staring at Paige as if those cold eyes of hers could look right through her.  “Here’s what we’re going to do.  You lean to your right as hard as you can, then shove yourself left on my signal.  But you keep facing the back door there, alright?”

Paige glanced to her right.  The back door of the truck looked like a vault door.  She quickly glanced back at the Asian girl.  Did she really want to turn her back to this person?

The girl seemed to note Paige’s hesitation.  She lowered her voice to a hiss that made Paige’s skin crawl.  “Do it.  Unless you really want to gamble on the chance that I’d be able to find you in the prison, if you don’t do as I say?”

Paige’s eyes widened.  This was the sort of person she was going to be locked up with.  She shook her head.

“Good, little birdy.  Now lean to your right, look at the door.”

Paige did, straining her body to move as close to the door as she could.

“And back!”

She heaved herself the other way, eyes still on the door.  Something heavy cracked against the back of her head.  She tried to pull away, sit upright again, but was stopped as the mask caught on something.

When she felt hot breath on the back of her neck, she knew what she’d caught on.  The other girl had gripped the strap of the mask in her teeth.  There was a tug, then the girl lost her grip, and the two of them were pulled back to their individual positions by the rubbery foam.

“Shit,” the girl growled, “Again.”

It took two more attempts.  On the first, the strap came free of the buckle.  On the second, the girl gripped the mask itself and pulled.  Paige turned her head in the girl’s direction so the pacifier-cage on the inside of her mouth could be pulled free.

Tendrils of drool extended down from her mouth as she worked her jaw and tongue, trying to swallow properly.  She let out a little whimper as sensation returned to the parts of her face that had gone numb.

“Two qweshionsh,” the Asian girl mumbled, her teeth still gripping the mask’s leather between them, “Youh poweh?”

Paige had to work her jaw and mouth a second before she could speak, “My power?  I sing.  Really well.”

The Asian girl frowned, “Whaf elth?”

“I… it makes people feel good.  When I get going, I can affect them, alter their emotions, make them susceptible to following instructions.”

The girl nodded, “Teh collah?”

Paige looked down at the heavy metal collar around her neck, “It’s set up to inject tranquilizers into my neck if I sing or raise my voice.”

“Okah,” the girl mumbled, “Take teh mahc.”

“Why?”

“Take ih!”

Paige nodded.  They leaned away from each other, then swung together, the girl passing the mask to her.  She clenched it in her teeth, feeling her jaw ache.

“Drop that and I’ll turn you inside out,” the girl spoke, “Lung.  Hey, Lung?  Wake up.”

The man sitting opposite them raised his head a fraction, opened his eyes.  Maybe.  Paige couldn’t quite tell.

“I know it’s hard with the stuff they pumped into you, but I need your power.  Birdy, lean forward, show him the mask.”

Paige did her best to push herself forward against the foam that was layered against her chest and stomach, gripping the strap in her teeth, the mask dangling below her chin.

“I need you to heat the metal, Lung,” the girl spoke.  “Get it fucking hot.”

Lung shook his head.  When he spoke, there was no Boston accent in his voice.  The accent that was there made his words clipped, clearly not the voice of a native English speaker.  “The water.  Is too wet, too cold.  And I cannot see it well.  My eyes have not healed entirely, and it is hard to see through this spray.  Do not bother me with this.”

Try, you miserable fucker.  Failure of a leader.  It’s the least you can do, after getting your ass kicked by a little girl, twice.”

“Enough, Bakuda.” he growled.  He slammed his head back against the metal of the truck’s wall behind him, as if to punctuate his statement.

“What?  I couldn’t hear that,” the girl, Bakuda, grinned with a hint of mania to her expression, “Your voice is too fucking high pitched for my range of hearing!  You pathetic… halfbreed… eunuch!”

“Enough!” he roared, again slamming his head against the wall of the truck.  “I will kill you, Bakuda, for these insults!  I will tear your arm from your socket and I will shove it-“

“Pissed off?!” she interrupted him, practically screeching, “Good!  Use it!  Heat the motherfucking metal.  The metal strip around the edges!”

Still panting with the exertion of shouting, Lung turned his attention to the mask.  Paige winced at the blast of heat against her face, started to pull away, but stopped as Bakuda spoke.

“Focus it!” Bakuda shouted, “Focus on the edges!”

The radiation of heat ceased, but Paige became aware of a stringent, smoky smell.

“Hotter!  As hot as you can get it!”

The smell was too strong, too acrid.  Paige coughed a few times, hard, but she didn’t lose her grip on the mask.

“Now, birdy!  Same maneuver as before, but don’t let go!”

Paige nodded.  She leaned away, then swung in Bakuda’s direction.  What followed surprised her more than when Bakuda had bitten into the strap of the mask.

The Asian girl set about savaging the red hot metal with her teeth, digging into it even as they had to pull away.  Softer with the heat, the thin metal strip pulled free of the mask itself.  The metal that ran along the strap cut Paige’s lip as it came off.  She almost -almost- dropped the mask, but managed to snap her teeth to catch the buckle in her teeth before it could fall to the floor.

As the strip came free, Bakuda pulled back and jerked her head to one side, hard, impaling herself in the shoulder with one end of it.  She screamed, and blood ran from one of the burns on her mouth.

Paige looked at Lung.  The huge man did nothing, remaining silent.  He only watched dispassionately as Bakuda’s chest heaved with the exertion and pain, her head hanging down.

“What the hell are you doing?” Paige breathed.

“No hands, have to make do,” Bakuda panted, “Again.  Before my body realizes how badly I’m hurting it.”

Paige nodded.  She wasn’t about to argue with the supervillain that was threatening to turn her inside out.

The ensuing attempts weren’t any prettier or easier.  The second long metal strip was freed and Bakuda impaled that one in her shoulder as well.  The metal grilles from the exterior and interior parts of the mask were next to be pulled free.  Paige was left holding only the leather portion of the mask, the straps and the covering that had gone over her mouth and nose.  Seeing Bakuda gingerly balance the metal grilles on her free shoulder, against the tacky foam so they wouldn’t slip down, Paige did the same with the leather of the mask.

“What did you do to get sent here?” Paige asked.

“Last I heard, before we lost power to our neighborhood, the body count was almost at fifty.”

“You killed fifty people?”

Bakuda grinned, and it wasn’t pretty, with her lips as ravaged as they were.  “Injured more, too.  And there were those who got brain damage, one or two might’ve gone homicidally insane, and I know a bunch got frozen in time for a hundred years or so… it gets blurry.  Crowning moment was the bomb.”

“Bomb?” Paige asked, eyes widening.

“Bomb.  They said it was as powerful as an atom bomb.  Idiots.  They didn’t even understand the technology behind it.  Philistines.  Sure, it was about that powerful, but that wasn’t even the real damage.  Amazing thing would’ve been the electromagnetic wave it generated.  Wipe every hard drive, fry every circuit board for every piece of machinery over a full fifth of America.  The effects of that?  Would’ve been worse than any atom bomb.”

Unable to even wrap her mind around that, Paige glanced at Lung.  “And him?”

“Lung?  He’s the one who told me to do it.  Man in charge, he is.”

Lung’s head moved fractionally, but with the shadows under his brow, Paige couldn’t tell if he was watching.

“You?”  Bakuda asked Paige. “What’d you do to get sent here?”

“I told my ex to go fuck himself.”

There was a pause, then Bakuda started cackling.  “What?”

“It’s complicated,” Paige looked away and down.

“You gotta explain, birdy.”

“My name’s Paige.  My stage name was Canary.”

“Ooooh,” Bakuda spoke, still cackling a little as she gripped one of the metal strips that was spearing her shoulder and pulled it free.  Holding it in her teeth, she spoke, “That’sh no good.  You calling yourshelf Canary in prishon?”

“I didn’t intend on going to prison.”

“Who doesh?”

“I mean, I’m not even a supervillain.  My power, it makes me a fantastic singer.  I was making a lot of money doing it, there was talk of record deals, we were moving to larger venues and my shows were still selling out… everything was perfect.”

Bakuda let the strip swing from her teeth until it dangled, then carefully maneuvered it until she was gripping the far left side of it.  She leaned back, her head facing the ceiling, as she slid the other metal strip, the one impaled in her shoulder, into her mouth as well, so she was holding one end of each strip in her mouth.  Pausing, she asked, “Whaf haffen?”

Paige shook her head.  It was the testimony she’d never been able to speak out loud, at her trial.  “I’d just finished my biggest show yet.  Two hours on stage, a huge hit, crowd loved it all.  I wrapped up and went backstage to rest, get a drink, and ran into my ex.  He told me that since he was the one who pushed me to get out on stage in the first place, he deserved credit.  Wanted half the money.”  She laughed a little, “Ridiculous.  Like I’m supposed to ignore the fact that he cheated on me and told me I was never going to make it for real when he left.”

Bakuda nodded.  She pulled away from the strips, where she’d managed to tie them in the semblance of a knot.  She used her teeth to bend the now-joined strips into an L-shape.  With the end that wasn’t impaled in her shoulder now in a position in front of her, she closed her mouth on it.

“We argued.  Then I told him to go fuck himself.  He left, and I didn’t give it a second thought… until the police showed up at my door.”

Bakuda pulled her mouth away from the end of the strip.  She’d bent it into a loose ‘v’ shape.  She frowned at it, then glanced at Paige, “And?”

“And he’d done it.  I- I guess I was still amped up from my performance, and my power’s effects were still empowering my voice, or he was in the audience and was pretty heavily affected.  So when I told him to go fuck himself, he, um, he did.  Or he tried, and when he found it wasn’t physically possible, he hurt himself until…”  Paige closed her eyes for a moment.  “Um.  I won’t go into the details.”

“Mmmm, shucks to be im.  Oo ‘oo” Bakuda raised her eyebrows, still working the metal strip inside her mouth.  She pulled away, verified the end as being in a rough ‘o’ shape, and then gripped the strips in her teeth to pull the entire thing out of her shoulder with a grunt.  She placed the end she’d just reworked against the bench and slid her mouth down the length of the metal, so she could get a grip on the other end.

Taking hold of it in her teeth, she turned her attention to the wall of the truck between herself and Paige.  There were locks placed at regular intervals against the wall, meant to secure the chain of standard handcuffs in place, for those not doused in foam.  She began feeding the metal strap through the loop of the lock.  Beads of sweat mingled with the water running down her face as she worked.

The knot joining the two straps jammed in the hole.  Bakuda pushed a little harder, and wedged it firmly in place.  The L-bend in the metal placed the closed ‘o’-shaped loop of metal close to Paige’s shoulder.

“Any bets on Oni showing up?” Bakuda asked Lung.

“I would be surprised,” he rumbled his response.

She gripped one of the metal grilles in her mouth and began working at it with her teeth.  It was all one thin piece of metal, bent and woven like chain link fencing, albeit a tighter mesh.  Now that it was no longer held securely in place by the metal strips, Bakuda was free to start unwinding and straightening it.

When it was almost completely unwound, she adjusted her bite on it and clenched the second mass of wire, the one that had been in Paige’s mouth, in her jaws, bunching it together into a cylindrical mess about four inches long and one inch across.  Still biting it, she turned her head so the mostly straight four-foot length of wire was pointing at Lung, not two feet away from his face.  Her mouth still around the tangle of wire, she mumbled, “Need end hot.”

Lung growled, but he did as he was asked.  When the end was white hot, Bakuda quickly adjusted her grip, letting go and biting again until the tip was near her mouth.  Lips pulled back, she bit down on it.

“How can you do that?” Paige asked, “Doesn’t it hurt?”

“No uffing hit ih urhs,” Bakuda growled.  She pulled away, set it so the handle was against the bench, the length of wire against her shoulder, and examined her handiwork.  “But tooth enamel is tougher than you’d think.”  She spat a measure of blood out onto the floor of the truck, then bit down twice more, pausing between bites to turn the length of metal with her teeth, lips and tongue.

When she extended the length of wire in Paige’s direction, sliding it through the ‘o’ shaped end of the metal strip, Paige realized what Bakuda had spent this much time setting up.  She didn’t even need to be asked to bend down against the foam restraints and crane her neck to one side, to put her collar in reach of the overlong makeshift screwdriver.   The metal strip with the loop in the end served to hold the portion closest to Paige up, so Bakuda could direct it more easily.

It wasn’t fast work.  Bakuda had to use her teeth, jaw and a turning of her head to rotate the screwdriver, and it was a chore to get it back in position if she lost her grip on it.  Ten long minutes of silence and grunting were broken only by the sound of two screws dropping to the metal bench, before Bakuda stopped to take a rest and ease her jaw.

“You won’t be able to do anything to my collar without setting it off,” Paige spoke.

“Dumb bitch,” Bakuda muttered, sticking out her lower lip and peering down as if she could investigate the degree of damage to her own lips.  “I’m a bomb expert.  I understand triggers and catalysts on the same fundamental level you understand walking and breathing.  I can visualize mechanical things in a way you couldn’t with five college degrees and a hundred years.  Insult me like that again and I’ll end you.”

As if pushed to prove herself, she gripped the screwdriver in her teeth again, and set to work again.  A panel was pried off, and the unscrewing was resumed, deeper in the collar.

Paige hesitated to talk again, knowing how easy the girl was to provoke, but the silence was crushing.  “I guess it’s a good thing this is a long drive, from Boston to British Columbia.”

“You were asleep a while,” Bakuda pulled away from the screwdriver, talking softly, as if to herself.  “Not as long as you think.”

Paige felt something come free from the heavy collar around her neck, saw Bakuda tilt the screwdriver upward, sliding a glass tube with something glowing inside down the length of the metal bar  After another few minutes, another piece of machinery joined the glass tube, as though it were a high-tech shish-kabob.

“Tragic,” Bakuda spoke, on her next rest.  “This is beautiful work.  Not the actual assembly, that’s crap.  It’s obvious the tinker that designed this intended it to be put together by regular schmoes.  Wouldn’t have screws and shit, otherwise.  But the way it’s designed, the way everything fits together… makes a scientist proud.  Hate to butcher it.”

Paige nodded.  She didn’t know enough about that sort of thing to risk commenting.  As scary as this situation was, as curious as she was, she felt the lingering effect of tranquilizer in her system, an impending boredom.

She closed her eyes.

It didn’t feel like her eyes were closed for more than a minute before she was woken by a shout of “Birdy!”  Paige jolted awake, turned to Bakuda, and saw the work was done.  Bakuda hadn’t just disabled the collar, but had assembled components into a roughly sphere-shaped setup of metal and wires.  It dangled from the remains of the mask and strap, which Bakuda held in her teeth.

Lung spoke, his voice low, slightly accented, “We have stopped.  Her device will buy us time, and you will use it to sing.  The bomb will not do much damage, but it will slow them and dose anyone hit with a small amount of sedatives.  This will make it easier for you to control them, Bakuda says.  You will then get them to free us.”

Paige’s eyes went wide.  She nodded.

There was a loud sound outside the truck, and Bakuda started swinging the device left and right like a pendulum.  The metal doors at the back of the truck slammed open, and Bakuda let go.  The device rolled out the door.

Paige sang, not stopping as the device detonated, rocking the truck.  Her song was wordless.  She was her own accompaniment, using the acoustics of the truck’s interior to generate echoes.  She charged her voice with her power, willing those who heard it to obey, to submit in a way she’d never done before.

It might have worked, if there was anyone around to hear it.

A giant metal claw entered the back of the truck, closed around Lung, and dragged him out.  When the claw returned to claim her, she stopped singing, started shrieking instead.

“No!” Bakuda’s screams joined her own, behind her, “Fuck you!  No!  No!  I had a fucking plan!”

The arms moved along slats in the ceiling, carrying them through what looked like a massive underground bunker.  Everything was concrete, and the room was so vast that Paige could not even see any of the walls.  There was only the ceiling twenty or thirty feet above them and the floor, extending endlessly around them, lit by florescent lights at regular intervals.  The only thing breaking up the empty expanse was the armored truck bearing the PRT identification on the side and a black square attached to the ceiling, further down.

The arms arranged them in front of the black square – an oversized monitor.  A face, clearly a CGI rendering intended to mask the real identity of the speaker, appeared on the screen.  When the voice came from the speakers, the filter intended to disguise the woman’s voice didn’t quite hide her strong accent.  Paige tried to place it.  Not Southerner, not Cockney, but maybe similar?  She’d heard someone with that accent before.

“Prisoner 599, codename Lung.  PRT powers designation Brute 4-9 asterisk, Blaster 2-6 asterisk, fire and heat only.  Individuals reading or viewing this log are directed to see page three and four of prisoner’s file for particulars on powers.  Recommended protocols were properly carried out with sprinkler system and added restraints.  Chance of escape following interment in the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center rests at a fairly steady .000041% with no gross deviations in any likely scenarios.  Within acceptable limits.  Will be processed to cell block W.”

“You’re Dragon,” Bakuda spoke, eyes widening, “No shit.  Best tinker in the fucking world.  I’d say I’m a fan, but I’d be lying.”

Paige couldn’t help but react to that as well.  Dragon had designed the Birdcage and much of the gear the PRT used, including the containment foam.  She was head and shoulders above any of the other tinkers that went out in power armor.  Dragon sported a wildly different suit each time she deployed.  Her stuff was so advanced that a group of criminals who had gotten away with stealing a damaged suit of her armor were now using that same technology to operate as top of the line mercenaries – the Dragonslayers.

Dragon was also Canadian, which was the detail Paige needed to peg her accent as that of a Newfoundlander.  Not an accent one heard very often, these days.

“Prisoner 600, codename Bakuda.  PRT powers designation Tinker 6 with bomb speciality.  Recommended protocols were not properly carried out.”  The formal tone of the voice dropped away as she muttered, “I hate to get someone fired, but I’m going to have to report this.  Supposed to be in an S-class containment truck and placed no less than six feet from other prisoners… well, at least nothing came of it.”

“Fuck you, Dragon,” Bakuda snarled.

“…Chance of escape from the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center is .000126% with potential gross deviation in the event of introduction of contraband material or a matter producer.  With monitoring this chance drops to .000061%.  Will be processed to cell block C.”

“Prisoner 601, codename Canary.  PRT powers designation Master 8.  Recommended protocols were properly carried out, with provided restraints and no human personnel being brought within three hundred yards of said individual’s position.  Hi Canary.”

Paige blinked a few times in surprise, “Hi?”

“I followed your trial.  I thought it was a damn shame things went like they did.  I get that it was a reckless accident, but you don’t deserve to be here.  I even wrote a letter to your judge, the DA and your governor saying as much.  I’m sorry it wasn’t enough.”

The sympathy hit Paige hard.  It was all she could do to stop herself from bursting into tears.

“I’m afraid I’ve got to do my job, and that means carrying out my role in enforcing the law.  You understand?  Whatever my feelings, I can’t let you go.”

“I- Yes.”

“Listen, I’m sticking you in cell block E.  The woman that put herself in charge of that cell block goes by the codename Lustrum.  She’s a pretty extreme feminist and misandrist, but she protects the girls in her block, and it’s also the block furthest from the hole the men opened into the women’s half of the Birdcage.  If you’re willing to play along, buy in or pretend to buy into her way of thinking, I think she’ll keep you safest.”

Paige didn’t have words to reply.  She just nodded.

“Ok.  Prisoner 601’s Chance of escape from the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center is .000025% with no gross deviations.  Do you three understand why I’m telling you this?”

“Our chances of escaping are pretty slim,” Bakuda spoke.

“Yes.  The Baumann Detention Center is a structure so complex I had to design an artificial intelligence to put it together.  It’s situated inside of a hollowed out mountain, the walls of which are lined with layers of a ceramic of my own design, each such layer separated by volumes of dormant containment foam.  If you punched a hole in the outside of the mountain, you’d only wind up with more foam than you knew how to handle.

“That’s the mountain.  The prison itself is nicknamed the Birdcage because it is suspended in the center of the empty mountain, hanging only by the same network of tubes that supplies prisoners and food to the cell blocks.  Both the interior of the tubes and the interior of the mountain itself are vacuums.  Even if an individual were to have powers allowing them to navigate the vacuum, I have three thousand antigrav drones in position at any given time, laying dormant in that lightless void, waiting for any signal, motion, energy or air leakage to awaken them.  Once awakened, a drone will move to the location of said anomaly and detonate.  Many of my drones contain a loadout of containment foam, but others contain payloads designed to counteract various methods one could theoretically use to traverse the vacuum.  Some are quite lethal.”

“These are not the only measures I have taken, but it wouldn’t do to inform you of everything I have done to secure this facility.  Know only that your chance of successful escape is negligible, and the chance of you dying or being maimed for attempting it is much higher.”

“Know that while I do retain control over the structure and the ability to observe those within, enabling me to respond to emergencies such as natural disasters, you will not be able to manipulate this to your advantage.  I will not, cannot intervene should a hostage be taken, or if an individual should threaten or perform damage to vital or luxury resources.  There was no other way to run the prison effectively than to have you police and protect yourselves.  I stress: nothing you do can convince me to free you.  The elevators to the Baumann Detention Center go one way.  Down.”

“I will be depositing you in the elevators now.  You will be provided with a limited measure of oxygen, sufficient only to carry you safely to the bottom.  Should you slow or stop the lift, or attempt to scale the interior of the tube, I expect you will likely fall unconscious, suffer brain damage or die for your trouble.  A counteragent for the containment foam will be applied as you descend, so that you are free before you reach the bottom.”

Lung and Bakuda were carried off in different directionis.  Paige was the last to be carried away by the robotic arms.

“I am sorry, Paige Mcabee,” Dragon’s tinny voice sounded, as the arm set her down.  “Good luck.”

The ground beneath her shifted, and then she descended.

Lung walked with confidence to the ‘hole’, a word with double meaning, as it referred to the actual hole in the wall, as well as the more vulgar term for why many in the men’s half of the Birdcage went there – it was the sole route into the women’s prison.

A group of women were on guard on the other side of the hole, standing or sitting at various vantage points there.

“Who’re you?” one of the women asked him.  She was a striking woman with coffee colored skin and a mouthful of teeth that looked like knife blades.

“I am Lung.”

“You’re new?”

“Yes.”

“Which cell block are you in?” this question came from a heavyset woman that looked more like a middle aged soccer mom than a prisoner.  Lung noted, however, how each of the other girls that were on guard turned to listen when she spoke.

“W, ma’am,” he spoke, taking extra care to not offend.

“You want a girl?”

“I am here only to visit one of my subordinates.  Cell block C.”

“Even if you aren’t buying, can’t let you through for free.  Gotta pay something.  Marquis runs your cell block, still?  Divvies up the cancer sticks from his food crates fairly enough?”

“Yes.”  Lung reached into his pocket and retrieved a half-carton of cigarettes.  He handed them over.

“Good boy.  Listen, Glaistig Uaine runs the cell block you’re going to.  You keep some of these sticks, you give them to her, so as not to insult her.”

“I will.  Thank you for this advice.”

“I do like a polite boy.  You run along, now.”

He bowed his head in respect, then walked briskly to the next cell block.  A smaller contingent of guards awaited him there, and he handed over the remaining cigarettes, specifying them as a gift for Glaistig Uaine.  The guards parted to let him through.

He found Bakuda in a cell all to herself.  The walls of the prison were all metal of some sort, painted a dark blue, but Bakuda had scratched formulas and sentences into the walls of her cell, where they glittered silver-gray in the right light.  Her cot was pulled into the center of the room to give her more surface to write on.

“Bakuda,” he spoke.

“Lung!  This place is amazing!” she grinned maniacally, her scarred lips spread wide, “I thought it would suck, but it’s… it’s like being inside the fucking Mona Lisa of architecture.  Genius shit.  She wasn’t lying about this place being inside a vacuum, but what’s amazing is what happens when you breach the outside.  See, she didn’t make this place tough.  It’s fragile.  Like she built the most complex house of cards ever.  You knock a hole in the wall, and you’re not only pretty much guaranteed to off yourself, but the change in air pressure changes the room configuration, seals off the space so the breach doesn’t affect anyone in other rooms.  And even if you stop the main bits from sliding down, the drop in air pressure carries into the next room, and that room seals off.  I could spend a decade figuring out how she did this.  And that’s the simplest part of it.  In busier areas-“

“I do not care about this,” Lung interrupted her breathless rambling.

Bakuda stopped and wheeled around, still grinning.  “Ok.  How you doing?”

“Satisfactory.  My eyes are healing, but I am still having trouble seeing color.  I do not like the leader of my cell block, but he is a fair man.  He has given me his favor in exchange for telling him about Brockton Bay, a place he once operated.  This has helped ensure I am not bothered.  That, and the prisoners seem to wait to see what each new inmate can do before they pick him as a target.”

“Yep.  It looked pretty grim for me for a few days, but when the freaky girl in charge of this block found out I could fix the televisions here, things suddenly got a lot easier.”

“I see.”

She raised an eyebrow, smiling.  “So.  Why the visit?  Feeling lonely?”

“No.”

She dropped the smile in the blink of an eye.  “Then explain.”

“This is your first time in a prison, yes?”

“Yep.”

“I was in prison before I came to America.  There are four ways one can survive in such a place.  You can join one of the gangs or groups in charge.  This was not possible for me then, for I was known to be half Japanese, half Chinese, and there was no gang willing to include such a person.  It is not a possibility for me now, either, for I am too used to being in charge to bow and scrape for any length of time without losing my patience.  It is the route I see you have taken here.”

“Sure,” Bakuda eyed him warily.

“The second option is to be somebody’s bitch.  They give you their protection in exchange for the most base of services.  You understand why I would not take this route.”

“I get it, yeah.”

“The remaining options are to either kill someone or to be seen as a madman.  In such cases, one demonstrates he is too dangerous or unpredictable to be fucked with.”

“So what are you doing?”

“I thought I would choose the third and fourth.”

Bakuda’s eyes went wide.  She backed away, then realized the futility of the move.  Lung stood in the middle of the one doorway that led out of the cell.  “Why?”

“You insulted me.  You failed me.  Because I must kill someone, and killing a subordinate of mine who others have cause to protect should also mark me as sufficiently unpredictable.  Others will fear me after this.”

“I… I insulted you to get your power going, you know?” she squeaked, “I did it to help our escape.”

“I might have overlooked it for this reason, but we did not escape. You failed me, both here and in the city.”

She flicked her arm, and an arrangement of bedsprings and twisted scrap metal dropped from her sleeve into her open hand.  “I’ll punch a hole in the outside of the cell if you come any closer.  Air flows out of the room, door seals shut, we both suffocate.”

“You are not fast enough.”

“Wanna bet?”

He did.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Hive 5.9

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Yeah, me,” I answered Lung, hoping I sounded more confident than I felt.

“Some history?” Sundancer murmured.

“I made his crotch rot off.”

She turned to stare at me.

“Accidentally.”

“How do you-” she started, then she stopped as Lung’s growl rose in volume enough to turn her head.

Angelica and Judas advanced steadily until they were on either side of me.

“Step down, Undersider,” Kaiser spoke from the opposite end of the room, “My girls and I have this in hand.”

“Do you?” I challenged him, not breaking eye contact with Lung, “Because Lung looks like he’s in pretty good shape there.  You know how this works, right?  He only gets stronger the longer you fight him.  If you haven’t finished him off by now, you’re probably not going to.”

Lung chuckled, low and gravelly.  He craned his neck to look at Kaiser, and I shivered.  His neck alone was nearly as long as my torso and thicker at the base, tapering down to a more or less normal sized head.  What was creepier was that he’d bent his neck in a ‘u’ shape to look behind himself.  It was a movement that a gymnast would have been hard pressed to perform with their back.  It wouldn’t be long before he just wasn’t recognizable as something who had once been human.

The six of his thugs that were gathered around him looked like they were almost as scared of him as they were of us.

“What would you propose, then?” Kaiser asked me.

“Sundancer and I will help out,” I told him.  I glanced at Sundancer, and she nodded.

Lung laughed again.  “Ooo?  Ug gurr?”

Before I could figure out what he’d just said to me, he lunged straight at me, passing between two of his people, moving on all fours.

I’d sent the flying insects and wasps into the room to help Bitch search for supplies, and I directed them straight for Lung as soon as I realized what he was doing.  Too little, too late.

Then Judas intercepted him.  The pair of them rolled and tumbled, and I couldn’t tell which of them was making which snarling or growling noise.

When the momentum of Judas’ pounce had stopped carrying them across the floor, Lung managed to get his footing first, and physically heaved Judas across the main floor of the warehouse.  Judas slammed into two sets of the long tables, sending clouds of white powder billowing around him.

When Angelica made her move, Lung was ready for her.  He caught hold of her snout and foreclaw before she could do any damage and leveraged her forward momentum to throw her too, straight at Judas.  There was an almost judo or akido kind of style to the throw, except I doubted either of them were human enough for normal moves and techniques to apply.  What was more likely, I thought, that his reflexes, flexibility and strength were on a level where that sort of thing came naturally to him.

In any case, my bodyguards, if you could call them that, had been tossed aside away like they were stuffed animals.  Lung didn’t drop to all fours again as he advanced toward me.  Instead, he flexed his right hand, and my eyes were drawn to the foot-long blades that tipped each finger.

“Sundancer?” I asked, quiet, “Help me out?”

“If I used my power, I’d probably hurt you worse than I hurt him.”

“That line is getting old fast.”

Lung lunged again, and I threw myself to one side, too slow, too short a distance.

With the sound of swords being drawn out of their sheaths, a barrier of blades and spears rose up from the ground between Lung and I.  I found traction on the asphalt with my hands and feet, and I managed to half-crawl, half run away from him.

Lung started to move around the barrier of blades, only to be blocked by another bristling growth.  He roared, then leapt for the rafters up at the ceiling.  I knew what he was doing almost right away, and ran for cover – once he had a grip up there, it would be a matter of using his grip on the steel girders that lined the ceiling to jump straight at me.  I wasn’t two paces before I knew there was no cover I could get to fast enough.

Except he didn’t get that far.  A square pillar of steel  as tall and long as an eighteen wheeler speared downward from the roof, straight at him.  It caught Lung in his midsection and shoved him down into the ground, hard.  A few seconds later, the weight of the block of steel tore it from the section of ceiling it was rooted in.  It didn’t hit anyone as it dropped down but I could guess it would’ve killed someone: I could feel the impact of it striking the ground in my bones.

I looked at Kaiser.  He was standing where he’d been when he walked into the room, hands clasped behind his back.

“Fenja, Menja,” Kaiser’s order wasn’t shouted, but it could be heard across the warehouse.  If you could call it an order.

But the two eighteen-foot tall valkyries seemed to know what he wanted.  They advanced towards Lung with their weapons drawn, and Lung’s people began backing slowly away.  I felt a pang of sympathy for Lung’s rank and file, mainly for the ones who’d been coerced into this.  They’d probably seen what Fenja and Menja were capable of, earlier, but they couldn’t run without risking their boss’ wrath.  Caught between a rock and a hard place.

Lung wasn’t quite down and out yet, though.  He started climbing to his feet, only to have a pyramid of criss-crossing blades spear up around him.  Blades appeared under and over his arms, just beneath his armpit, behind his knee, by his groin, with dozens more rising above and around him. Before he could find his way out, he was trapped.  Buried and hidden beneath the layers of steel.

Kaiser inclined his chin, looking toward the ceiling, and I saw a shimmer.  The tip of a blade began to emerge from one of the iron girders above, revealing itself at a glacial pace.  It was no more than a half foot thick, but nearly twenty feet wide.  I wasn’t sure if it was an optical illusion from the rippling energies of Kaiser’s power or not, but I thought maybe the ceiling was sagging under the weight of it.  If he wasn’t careful, he’d bring the roof down on our heads.

Then Kaiser lowered his head to face the area where Lung was trapped and the massive sword he’d manifested in the ceiling plunged down into the pyramid in a heartbeat.  Sparks showered as the gargantuan blade sheared through the trap.

But there was more hot metal that wasn’t a result of the impact.  When I looked again, I saw Lung had avoided the blade.  The side of the pyramid closest to me glowed a white-orange, the blades curling and sagging in the intensity of the heat.  He’d softened the metal enough with his pyrokinesis that he could use his monstrous strength and push his way free.  Enough, at least, to avoid being divided in two.

Lung roared as he climbed free.  As Kaiser raised more blades around him, Lung swung his claws and shattered the metal, sending the pieces sliding across the floor.

“Aiiihurrr,” Lung growled.

“You’re an animal, Lung,” Kaiser answered him, “Even without your power making you into… this.  Go down!”  As if to punctuate his statement, a spear of solid steel erupted from the wall and slammed into Lung, carrying him to the end of the room opposite where Judas and Angelica were.  Lung managed to grip the spear and move himself so the spearpoint wasn’t pressed against his chest when it punctured the concrete of the wall.

“Your people… animals.”  Kaiser intoned.

Not six paces away from me, one of Lung’s thugs let out a raw scream and collapsed to the ground.  Dagger-like blades had pierced the tops of his feet mid-stride.  As he used his hands to break his fall, another set of blades punched through his palms.  The screams of the other thugs echoed his.  He was on his hands and knees, unable to move with his hands and feet effectively nailed to the ground.

“Kaiser!” I shouted, “No!”

“Not your business, little girl,” Kaiser told me, turning in my direction.

I took an immediate step back, fearing blades would appear under my feet.

“This is wrong,” I said, as I watched a sliver of steel sprout out of the ground and rise with a controlled speed to the base of the thug’s throat.  He was forced to arch his back and raise his head to the absolute limits to avoid getting a very unnecessary tracheotomy.  I glanced at Lung.  He was watching what was happening, but I couldn’t read his alien expression.

“Wrong?” Kaiser chuckled, “As far as I’m concerned, the moment you need to fall back on morals to argue something, you’ve already lost the argument.  This is war.”

Lung moved for Kaiser, this time.  He virtually rolled to one side to avoid an outcropping of spearpoints angled in a way that he might have run himself through on them, then resumed his charge.

One of the giantess twins stepped in, kicking Lung into and almost through a wall.  Lung bounced back almost immediately, drawing on his pyrokinesis to direct a column of blue-yellow flame at her.  The other twin intercepted the fire with her shield.

A few seconds later, she was stumbling back and away from Lung and throw her shield away to avoid having the heated metal burn her arm.

Kaiser’s team wasn’t going to win this on their own.  As much as I despised stepping in and helping him…

“Sundancer, now would be a great time to use your power.”  I spoke.  As I said the words, I called on every bug that was in the area and sent them to Lung.

“It’s not- no.  I’ll burn them.”

“Then burn them!  If you don’t use your power, I can pretty much guarantee Lung will burn them worse.”

“Doubt it,” Sundancer replied.  But she raised her hands in front of her, and there was a brilliant flare of light, only a fraction of a second, but enough to leave a black-blue spot in the center of my vision.  There was a brief roaring sound as the light faded.

I turned my focus to my bugs as another flicker of light appeared, longer and stronger than the first, again, accompanied by that faint roar.

“Hey, Skitter, was it?” Sundancer spoke.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Get back.  Way back.”

I ran for it, pulling my mask up and bringing my fingers to my mouth in the best whistle I could manage.

Two seconds later, Angelica shoved her snout between my legs.  Had it been a movie, or if I’d been Bitch, maybe, I would’ve been able to slide or jump back and land on her neck or shoulders, ride on from there.  As it was, I half-fell, half-rolled over the top of her head and only barely managed to get a grip on a spike on her shoulder.  I clung to that as she ran, praying I wouldn’t fall and get trampled.

“Angelica, stop, stay!” I called out, hoping she knew the command, that she’d listen.  She did, slowing her pace to a walk, then stopping just by the loading bay door we’d come in.  Judas caught up and walked around her, until he was just in front of us.  He was still covered in the white dust, but it didn’t seem to be having any real effect on him.  I hopped down from Angelica’s side, ready to climb on her and jostle her into action if Lung made another attempt to come after me.  I wasn’t sure I could steer her, but with the prospect of Lung chasing me, I’d rather be moving totally uncontrolled at Angelica’s speed than anything my own two feet could offer.

Sundancer had managed to get her power going.  A ball of light, larger than a basketball, smaller than a beachball, sat between her hands.

Light?  That was it?

Then I saw the floor.

The warehouse had clearly been raised above a flat expanse of asphalt, maybe an old parking lot, and the surface had cracked and been patched a fair bit over the years.  It still bore the oil stains from the old days.

Directly below Sundancer, the floor was normal.  Starting around five feet from her, though, the ground looked wet, glassy.

The asphalt was melting.

She dropped her hands, and the ball of light rose.  Like it had a mind of its own, it darted towards Lung, zipping left and right and up and down as it moved.  I saw how it rose higher as it moved over Lung’s people, who were still nailed to the floor.  At one point, it moved only ten or so feet over one of the tables, and the plastic surface of the table seemed to crumple up in fast motion, turning black and smouldering with tongues of flame.

I scattered my swarm, all too aware they weren’t doing a thing to Lung, knowing they’d just die when Sundancer got her orb to Lung.

She didn’t make it touch him, but seeing what it had done to the table, I thought maybe that was a good thing.  Lung raised a hand towards the light and I could see the heat shimmers in the air.  She pushed it a little closer to him, and his legs buckled.

Kaiser was apparently unwilling to let Sundancer steal the show, because he brought a shaft of metal out of the wall behind Lung, shoving Lung toward the orb.  Sundancer moved the ball back, but just the second or so of close proximity to the ball was enough to take the fight out of Lung.  He fell to all fours, tried to move, and found the asphalt like a molten tar beneath him.

Wasn’t he supposed to be fireproof?  Or was that immunity only to the flames he made with his own power?  Or, I thought, was that ball of light -Sundancer’s miniature sun- that hot?

I was lingering at the exit, watching and waiting to see the outcome.  My bugs were prepared and ready, lingering as close as they could get without being wiped out by the superheated air.

Even with his superhuman constitution, even with his pyrokinesis to maybe take the edge off the effect, Lung was clearly suffering.  Just a matter of time, I realized, before he collapsed.  Probably, I supposed, much longer than one would think, with his regeneration.

Then the light of Sundancer’s orb winked out.

It took me a few long moments of blinking the spots out of my eyes before I could make out the scene in its entirety.

Lung was limp, his arms dangling at his sides.  He was still bent over, and he might have fallen face first into the tar, if it wasn’t for the spear of iron that was impaling him through the heart.

“What did you do!?” Sundancer shouted.

“Obviously,” Kaiser said, “I ended it.”

“It was already over!”

I was under the impression very few people really argued with Kaiser.  Fenja and Menja joined him, one on either side of him, and neither of them were sheathing their weapons or shrinking back to a normal size.  I took that to be a very bad sign.

I was so preoccupied with watching Kaiser that I almost missed what happened next.

It started as a flash of crimson in the corner of my eye.  I looked, and I saw Lung’s wings fully unfurled.  Like the wings of a bat, only they had silvery scales where the bat had fur, and the flesh that stretched between the ‘fingers’ of the wings was the deep, dark red of blood.

Lung grabbed the spear that impaled his chest and snapped it with his claws.  He stood, and his entire midsection seemed to arrange so he stood another foot or two taller.  Taking hold of the fragment that was still embedded in his chest, he slowly slid it out.  Once it free, he cast it aside.  It clattered to the floor of the warehouse.

We were so quiet, you could hear the ringing of the steel as it settled on the ground.

“Sundancer!  Run!” I shouted, breaking the stillness.  I sent my bugs swarming to Lung.  Anything to block his vision, distract him for even a second.

The events that followed seemed to happen in slow motion.  Lung repeated what he’d been trying to do as the fight opened, only nothing seemed capable of getting in his way, now.  He was faster, stronger, more maneuverable.

He lunged toward Kaiser, using his wings to carry him effortlessly above a growth of steel blades.  Reaching Kaiser, he slammed the man into the wall.  Kaiser went limp, but Lung repeated the process, banging him against the brick of the warehouse wall a half dozen times in the span of seconds.  When he was done, he flung Kaiser away like a toy.

Fenja had to drop her spear to catch Kaiser in her arms, which seemed to be exactly what Lung wanted.  Lung did the same ‘I explode’ trick he’d done to wipe out my bugs in my first encounter with him, only it was ten times the explosion, ten times as big.  The two giantesses staggered back, which gave Lung the opportunity to dart across the floor and drive his flattened, clawed hand into Menja’s belly like a knife.

As he withdrew his claw, she collapsed.

“Nessa!” Fenja screamed.

Lung ignored her and started walking towards Sundancer and I.  Fenja rushed to her sister’s side, still carrying Kaiser.

Sundancer began forming her miniature sun once more, with increasingly frequent flickers of light and fire gathering between her hands.

“No.” Lung boomed.  He raised his bloody claw, and the flame in Sundancer’s hands dissipated, slipping out of her grasp like greased eels.

She tried once more, and again, he thwarted her with an almost casual ease.

Before she could make a third attempt, Lung blasted her with a torrent of roaring flame.  For two, three, four seconds, the fire washed over her, consumed her.

When he stopped, there were tongues of flame dancing on the asphalt around her, even her costume had fire lingering on it, but both she and her costume were untouched.

She, at least, was fireproof.  Or she’d had to be, to avoid being burned by her own power.

She wasn’t, however, invincible.  As the flames of his attack dissipated, Lung was made visible again, revealed to be standing right in front of her.  He barely seemed to care she was there as he backhanded her aside.

Then he turned his attention to me.

Just me left, really.  I swallowed hard, drew my very underwhelming knife and stood straight, facing Lung.  Please don’t burn me, please, please.  Look at this knife and see it as an insult.  An excuse to trounce me physically.

Angelica started snarling at Lung.  She took a step toward him.

“No!” I ordered her, “Back!”

The snarls ceased, and she looked at me.

“Back,” I repeated.  When I took a step toward Lung, she didn’t follow.  A powder-covered Judas stood fifteen feet away, tense, but not approaching either.  Good.  No use in anyone else getting hurt.  There was nothing else she could do.

Hell, I was almost positive there was nothing else I could do.

My bugs gathered on Lung, but as far as I could tell, there was no skin, anymore.  No flesh to bite, nothing to sting.

Lung rumbled with a rough, guttural chuckle, and let a brief flame wash over him, wiping the swarm out of existence.

I dispersed the bugs in his vicinity that hadn’t yet had a chance to touch him and get burned for their trouble.  No point.  Detrimental, almost.

Then Bitch, riding Brutus, bounded down from the hole in the ceiling and crashed into Lung.

“Bitch!” I shouted, too late, “No!”

Once he got over the shock of the initial impact, Lung used one hand to grab Bitch from where she sat on Brutus’ back, and took hold of Brutus by the neck with his other.  Heaving his arm, and Brutus, to his left side, then to his right, Lung casting the dog head over heels through the air.

Judas and Angelica began to move forward, but stopped when Lung elicited a scream of pain from Bitch.

“Nnno,” Lung rumbled.

“Stop!” I shouted, stepping forward again, “I’m the one you want, aren’t I?”

It always sounded so good when you heard it in the movies.  As I realized what I’d just said, it only sounded stupid.

He advanced toward me, carrying Bitch like a careless seven year old might carry a cat.  I backed away, but his stride was long enough for him to close the gap effortlessly.  He grabbed me and hefted me into the air, lifting me above his head so he could look up at me.

“Ug hurrrrr.”

He couldn’t talk, so I couldn’t even fall back on the tired old cliche of getting him to monologue.  Fuck.

He had my neck encircled with thumb and forefinger, two claws at my ribcage and his ‘pinky’ finger at my midsection, just below my waist.  He squeezed a fraction tighter, and I groaned.  The fabric of my costume was preventing the edges of his claws from cutting into me, but it wasn’t reinforced to stop me from being crushed.

I directed a bug into his eye.  It stayed there, wings fluttering in staccato.  It was annoying enough for him to drop Bitch and deal with it.  He didn’t give her a chance to escape, though.  Before he dealt with the bug, he shoved her against the ground and stepped on her, holding her down with his clawed foot.  That done, he used the points of his claw to pick the bug from his eye socket.

He chuckled again, low, gravelly, as he examined the cockroach impaled on his clawtip.  “Auuhh-roagh?”  Cockroach?

He lowered his arm so I was at his eye level.  Then he squeezed again, weaker than the first time.  Shook me, not as hard as he could have.

Then his arm sagged again, until my toes were brushing the ground.  After shaking me, his grip had loosened, and he hadn’t really tightened it, so I managed to get my knee against the base of his palm and shove myself backward, push myself free.  My feet touched asphalt, and I backed up a few steps.

“Hurrrrrrrr,” he rumbled.

“Don’t fucking underestimate me,” I snarled in response.

I don’t know if he heard me.  I hadn’t even finished the sentence before I had to skip backward two steps to avoid being crushed beneath him as he collapsed face first to the asphalt.

“Bitch, you okay?” I asked.

She was picking herself off the ground.  She nodded.

“What happened?” she asked.

I sheathed my knife and reached for my cell phone with one hand.  My other hand, I extended with the palm up.  A cockroach settled on it.

“Wasn’t sure it would work, or if it’d be enough.  Took a bit of caterpillar, had a roach swab it in that pool of blood Newter left upstairs, and mashed the thing in Lung’s eye.  Big and tough as he is, a drug that strong in the mucus membranes of the eye?  So close to the brain?  Apparently it’s enough.”

Bitch folded her arms, looking down at Lung.  Then she looked up at me.

“Now what?”

It was a surprisingly apt question, coming from her.  Did we just leave him here?  He’d be all better in a matter of minutes.  There were options.  I just didn’t like any of them.

I dialed Tattletale’s phone, but it was Regent who answered.

“Hey,” he said.

“A, lemon,” I said.

“C, grass,” he replied, “You wouldn’t believe it.  We found one of Bakuda’s workshops.  The stuff she has here is crazy.”

“No time to chat.  I need to talk to Tattletale, fast.”

“She’s checking the place for booby traps.  Distractions probably aren’t a good idea.”

“It’s kind of important,” I said, looking down at Lung.

“Right.”

Two seconds later, Tattletale’s voice was on the other end, “Hey?”

“Quick question.  I have to be sure, which is why I’m calling you.  Lung heals, right?”

“Yeah.  Wait… Lung’s there?”

“Unconscious at my feet.  But I don’t know how long, so answer fast.  He heals?  He’s already healing what I did to him from last time, right?”

“Right.  He’ll heal pretty much anything, given time, provided he isn’t dead.  Lose an arm, he’d grow it back in a few months.”

“Thanks.  That’s what I needed to know,”  I said.  “Good luck with the booby traps.”  I hung up.

Then I looked down at Lung.  I drew my knife.

“Why the knife?” Bitch asked.  I think anyone else might have sounded concerned.  She just sounded curious.

“I’m ending this.”

I grabbed one of the larger spikes that framed Lung’s face and heaved it to one side so his accordion-like neck was outstretched, face upturned.

No time to be delicate about it.  I had no idea how strong the toxins in Newter’s blood were, or how fast Lung’s biology would process it.

I jammed the knife into Lung’s eye socket.  His head and consequently his eyes weren’t as large as you’d think, in proportion to the rest of his frame, but the tissue around it was tough.  I had to leverage the knife back and forth before I was able to pry his eyeball out.  It was hot to the touch as I held it in the palm of my hand, no bigger than a ping-pong ball.

The second eye was faster, though no less messy.

When I was done, I stood, sheathed my knife and backed away from Lung’s body. Shouldn’t I feel worse about this?  Shouldn’t I feel sick, or grossed out, or disturbed by the morality of it?  I didn’t even feel cold, the way Grue had described.  It just felt like something I had to do.

I glanced at the two eyeballs clasped in my hand, then put them out of my mind.  I surveyed the room.  Priorities?

I asked Bitch first, “The dogs are okay?”  If I placed them second to anyone else but her, or if I forgot to ask, I got the feeling Bitch would mind.

“They’ll heal when they turn back to normal.”

“Sundancer?” I asked.

Sundancer was lying on her side, one arm pressed against the shoulder Oni Lee had stabbed.  “I’m… okay.”

That was everyone I gave a damn about, leaving only Fenja, Menja and Kaiser.  I looked across the room and called out, “Fenja?”

The giantess nodded.

“Get your sister to a hospital, or whichever doctor your guys use.  Get your boss taken care of.”

She stood without giving me a response.  Her sister had shrunk enough for her to cradle in her arms.  Kaiser, for his part, was slung over her shoulder, limp.

“Oh, Fenja?”

She paused.

“I’ll leave it to you to make the call, but if you think Kaiser has a sense of honor, maybe point out it would be bad form to push the point on the dogfighting thing, after we dealt with Lung for him, saved his life.”

She nodded, then ducked through the opening in the wall.

I stepped toward Sundancer and offered a hand to help her up.  She flinched away.

Oh.  My hands were bloody.  I dropped the offered hand to my side.

“Let’s go,” I suggested.

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Hive 5.8

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I didn’t like leaving Labyrinth behind, after seeing her help turn the tide of our fight against Oni Lee, but I couldn’t use someone that couldn’t communicate with me.

Bitch, Sundancer and I all sat astride Brutus as he headed towards the warehouse once again.  My bugs lagged behind us.

“We should be fighting Lung,” Bitch growled, “Not helping the freak.”

“What?” Sundancer asked, “Why wouldn’t we help him?”

“His fault if he got hurt,” Bitch snarled.

“And if you got hurt?” Sundancer challenged her, “You’d want us to leave you?”

“Fuck no.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if you did.”

“We’re helping him,” I stated, firm.

“Yeah?  I’m the one telling this big lug where to go.”  She slapped her hand on the side of Brutus’ neck a few times.

I would have yelled at her, should have, maybe.  Instead, I just leaned forward until I was pressing against her back, and spoke into her ear, “We let him die, you think Faultline’s going to let it slide?  She might hurt or kill Tattletale or Regent in retaliation.”

My piece said, I leaned back and waited to see how she’d respond.  If that wasn’t enough to convince her, and I had no idea if it would be, I was ready to try jumping off Brutus’ back and seeing what I could do to help Newter on my own.

Bitch didn’t reply.  She didn’t take us around, over or through the building, either, though.  When we stopped, it was by the stairwell leading up to where Newter had fallen.

The business they had been into wasn’t prostitution or slave trading.  Long tables were arranged around the ground floor of the warehouse, with stools lined up beside them.  On those tables were shallow boxes with blocks and piles of a white powder.  Various tools – rulers, funnels, scales, measuring cups and no-name brand boxes of sealable plastic bags were arranged around each station.  Heroin?  Cocaine?  I didn’t know my drugs well enough to guess.  The center of the room had been left more or less clear, maybe so cars or trucks could pull in.

So the ’employees’ had been wearing little to no clothing, presumably, to keep the clothes clean of the white dust.  Or maybe to keep them from pocketing any drugs for themselves.

The building rumbled with an impact, and I was reminded of the business at hand.  Was I more distracted than usual, right now?  Was it the concussion?

Bitch had been right, before – the stairwell and what I could see of the the second floor was too low for both a dog and a rider.  I hopped off Brutus’ back, stumbling a bit as I landed, then headed up the stairs, taking them two at a time.

Newter was lying in a puddle of blood, in the midst of a bunch of thugs, who were all lying down, crawling or writhing, oblivious to my existence.

Seeing the thugs was enough to remind me of how dangerous it would be to touch Newter.  I was wearing gloves and leggings with padded soles, but would that be enough?  The dragline silk I’d used for my costume was mostly waterproof, but the weave itself was porous, and I was worried enough that touching his blood could mean a terminal overdose that I couldn’t risk it.

My approach stopped short of the puddle.  Newter had a knife wound just below his shoulderblade that traced around his side, as long as my forearm and deep enough that I couldn’t tell how bad the damage was.  He was breathing, but his breaths were shallow enough that I almost couldn’t tell.  I was here, I could bend down to touch him, but I was helpless to do anything.  Moments after I made contact with his skin, even with my gloves on, and I’d probably be on some hallucinogenic drug trip, flopping around like a fish on dry land.

Bitch and Sundancer approached from behind me, stopping at my side.

“Bitch, go downstairs, check the supplies they were using with the drugs.  Look for rubber gloves, saran wrap, anything like that.  If you can’t find anything, look in the bathroom, under the sinks.  I doubt there’ll be a first aid kit, but if you can find one, bring it.”

Bitch didn’t answer, but she headed down the stairs.  Just to be safe, as my bugs reached the building, I swept the flying ones through the rooms to help me look for first aid supplies and to keep an eye on Bitch and the rest of the building.

“What are we doing?” Sundancer asked.

“You’re staying with him.  See if you can get a response, talk to him.  I’m checking in there.”  I pointed to the office at the end of the hall.  Just in front of the door there was a gaping hole in the wall and a pile of debris – the mess Judas had made when he’d lunged through the side of the building to corner Oni Lee.

I had a dim recollection of what my bugs had sensed when they’d first entered the building and checked out the room.  I’d been more focused on the people and potential booby traps, but I remembered that it had been an office, with a desk and a curtained off area with a bed.  Maybe the bed was there so the guys in charge could take turns sleeping there, ensuring there was always someone to keep an eye on things.  Maybe it was for the half-dressed ’employees’, for taking advantage of them or so there was a place to put the ones that accidentally overdosed while working.

Entering the office, I confirmed my suspicions about the existence of the bed.  I began stripping the badly stained sheets off.

Was it odd that this place freaked me out ten times as much as nearly getting offed by Oni Lee?  Drugs had always spooked the hell out of me.  One of the first times I’d ever ridden a bus, when I was around five or six, I’d seen a methhead freak out, making enough of a ruckus that the driver had to stop and force him off.  I’d never really gotten over that first impression, where just the idea of being around someone that was high made me sort of anxious.

It wasn’t just that, either.  In grade school and junior high, I’d had classmates drop off the face of the planet, hearing only rumors and hints from other classmates or my teachers that there were drugs involved.  Either my classmates themselves getting caught up in things, or parents or siblings dragging the kid into their mess to the point that the kid couldn’t come to school.  One as bad as the other.  Almost from the beginning, I’d had this sense of drugs as this unstoppable black hole of fucked-up-ness that swallowed in anyone close to the addict.

Yet people did it.  It was something common and profitable enough that in an area like Brockton Bay where there were as many people unemployed as not, the ABB needed a money counting machine in this very office.  Profitable enough that they had an open safe with stacks of bills inside.

My bugs weren’t doing much, so I set them the task of collecting the money.  Within a second or two of my having the thought, the mass of roaches, centipedes, pillbugs and ants flowed into the piles of money and began pushing it all off the desk or into paper bags.  Houseflies and wasps gathered on the bills that tried to fly through the air and retrieved them.  It wasn’t perfect, it was a little clumsy, but it still caught me off guard just how well they were able to coordinate for something like that, without any conscious direction on my part.

I couldn’t let myself get distracted.  I could put my bugs on autopilot and have them finish the job while I focused on more important things.  Pulling off the bedsheets, I uncovered a plastic sheet.  The kind you used when your kids wet the bed.  Doped out drug addicts, too, maybe.  The top of the plastic sheet looked kinda grody, but I wasn’t in a position to be picky.  I pulled it off the mattress, balled it up in my hands and hurried back into the hall.

“Help me,” I ordered Sundancer.  With her help, I laid out the plastic sheet, bottom side up, at Newter’s feet.  By the time we had it flat and ready, Bitch was returning.

“Found two pairs of plastic gloves and some rubber gloves under a sink,” she said, “First aid kit, too, but it feels light.”

“Open it,” I said, taking a pair of plastic gloves.  It was awkward, fitting them over my normal gloves, but I managed it.  Sundancer just pulled off her costume gloves and put on the plastic ones.  She was caucasian, I noted, pale.  “Tell me what’s inside, fast.”

“Got some tape, bandages, thermometer, safety pins, rubbing alcohol, soap…”

“Needle, thread?” I asked.

“No.”

“Gauze pads?  Big bandages?”

“No.”

With our plastic gloves on, Sundancer and I managed to haul Newter onto the plastic sheet.  The moment she let go, Sundancer winced and reached up to her shoulder, but she stopped short of actually touching it.

I turned to my teammate, “Bitch, go downstairs.  Those people who were in here took their clothes off and my bugs say they stashed the clothes in a room below us.  Find me some purses, as many as you can grab, as fast as you can grab them.”

She didn’t move, this time.  She just glared at me.

“Fucking move!” I shouted at her.  She gave me the evil eye before she left again.

“Bandages are going to be too small,” Sundancer said, as I tried to wrestle Newter’s blood-slick tail onto the plastic sheet.

“Douse them in the alcohol, use them to clean the injury of blood.  Use the dry bandages to pat it dry so the tape can stick.  Don’t be afraid to get into the wound, just be gentle.”

She nodded, and began working on it.  I grabbed the tape and began fumbling with it.  Two pairs of gloves on, and I couldn’t lift off the end of it.  I grabbed my knife and used the edge it to get the job done.  Once I had the tape, I began holding the wound closed and taping crosswise across it.

I could only hope I was doing the right things, here.  A month of weekend first aid classes had not prepared me for this.

Bitch arrived with purses and practically threw them at me.  I could have gotten pissed, but Newter couldn’t afford for me to.  I began emptying the purses onto the ground beside me and sorting through the contents.  Pens, wallets, headphones, books, tampons, pictures, receipts, more receipts, change, keys, yet more receipts…

“What are you looking for?” Sundancer asked.

The third purse turned up what I needed.  Sanitary pads.  I tore one open and pressed it to the wound, then began taping it down.  Unasked for, Sundancer grabbed another and opened it so it would be ready for me.

“Sterile, absorbent, covers more area than the bandage can,” I got around to answering her question.  “If he lives, his teammates might give him a hard time, but it’s better than nothing.”

“You didn’t tape it down all the way,” Sundancer pointed out.

“Only three sides,” I agreed, “So it can breathe.”  I only vaguely recalled some instruction on that front.  I was hoping it was right.

If I failed here, what right did I have to call myself an aspiring hero?

When the wound was bandaged as much as I could manage, the three of us bundled him up in the sheet and lifted him.  Bitch and Sundancer had an injured arm and shoulder, respectively, so they both took his head and shoulders while I took his feet  With agonizing slowness, we carried him down the stairs.  then as carefully as we could manage with a body weighing half again as much as any of us, we draped him across Brutus’ shoulders.

A bone-jarring crash nearly undid all of our hard work.  Brutus nearly lost his footing at the impact, and I know I would’ve fallen if I hadn’t already been holding onto him.

A gauntleted hand as wide across as my armspan had crashed through the wall.  The whole building shuddered as another hand punched through the brick of the wall twenty feet from the first hole.  Fingers gripped the building, and pulled the entire section of wall out in one piece.

“Go!” I shouted at Bitch, “Take him to the others!  Call Tattetale, get the number for that cape doctor, get medical attention for anyone who needs it!”

She hesitated, opened her mouth to protest.

I raised my voice, “Do not fuck with me here!”

There was a rumble outside as the removed section of wall was thrown against the ground outside, hard.

Just an instant later, a half dozen ABB members retreated into the warehouse through the hole, taking cover from the giantesses.  They saw us and stopped short, wary, weapons ready but not raised or pointed at us.

Lung followed his thugs into the room.  He was bigger than I’d seen him yet at nearly fifteen feet in height, and was covered in layers of scales that left him barely recognizable as human.  Spearlike growths stuck out of his shoulders in what I realized were the beginnings of wings.  His mask had been torn off at some point, and the features of his face had been warped by his transformation.  The shape of his skull and face were more catlike than human, and his nose and mouth were a single X-shaped opening, bristling with pointed teeth that stuck in every direction.

I could see why he usually wore the mask.

“Bitch,” I murmured, “If you don’t leave now, I don’t think you’re going to get another chance.”

“But-”

“Which do you want more?  To fight, here and now, or to make sure Faultline and the other groups don’t have an excuse to do anything to our teammates?”

I saw her hesitate.  The fact that she even had to think about it… I could have slapped her.

Kaiser strolled in, unworried, unhurried.  Lung moved like he was going to lunge for him, then stopped just in time to avoid impaling himself on the narrow blade of steel that had erupted from the ground, pointed at his heart.  I wasn’t sure if it would have penetrated his covering of scales, but if I were Lung, I don’t think I would have gambled on it either.

Fenja and Menja reduced their size to fit through the hole they’d made in the wall, then grew again as they had the headroom.  They settled at a height of eighteen or twenty feet.  Fenja carried a sword and round shield, while Menja had a spear.  Or the other way around, whatever.

In the corner of my eye, I saw Bitch hop onto Brutus, then ride in the direction of the sniper team and Labyrinth, a wrapped-up Newter lying limp in front of her.  Judas and Angelica remained behind, not far from Sundancer and I.  Their entire bodies were taut with tension, their heads low, as they glared at the new arrivals.

Lung turned to survey the room.  His men were arranged in a loose circle around him, facing us.  His eyes settled on me.

“Ooo,” he rumbled, his words were distorted by the shape of his altered mouth, but it was easy enough to guess what he’d just said.  You.

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Hive 5.6

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However effective Bitch’s power play might have been, it didn’t do much to help the tension between the factions making up our group.  It hadn’t been just Kaiser that got spooked and sprayed with blood.  Worst case scenario, if a fight broke out in the group, I was worried that hard feelings from that one thing could set others against us.

I decided to try to remedy that.  The Travelers seemed to be the only group present where there wasn’t some drama already mucking the waters.

“Hey,” I slowed my pace so I could talk to the girl from the Travelers, “What’s your name?”

“My codename?”

“Yeah.”

“Sundancer.”

“I’m going by Skitter.  Couldn’t decide on a name so the media sort of picked one for me.”

“You’re one of the Outsiders, right?”

“Undersiders.  I’m new to the team, honestly, but they’re alright.”

“Uh huh.”  She looked in Bitch’s direction.

“Not as bad as you’d think,” I said, smiling.  She couldn’t see me smile, with my mask covering my mouth, but I did hope she could hear the humor in my tone.  “How’s life among the Travelers?”

She seemed caught off guard at the question.  It took her a few seconds to decide how to respond.  “Intense.  Violent.  Lonely.”

The answer surprised me.  She chose the word intense rather than exciting, but that wasn’t the strangest part of her answer.  “Lonely?  I wouldn’t think that was the case, spending time with teammates.”

She shrugged, “There’s stuff going on that makes hanging out less fun than it should be.  I’m not going to explain it, so don’t ask.”

I raised my hands, palms up, stopping her, “Wasn’t going to.  I was just curious what it’s like for other teams, since I’m fairly new to this.”

She relaxed a bit at that.  “It’s not just the… I can’t think of a word better than drama… but drama sounds like such an understatement.  Whatever.  It’s not the other stuff that’s going on, it’s that we’re constantly moving, rarely spending more than a week in one place, you know?”

“I don’t,” I admitted.  I fudged the truth a little, just to be safe, “I moved twice as a kid, but I was too young to remember it.  For the most part, I grew up here.”

“It gets old, having to-” she stopped talking as I was suddenly pushed to one side.  The tip of Newter’s tail pressed against the center of my chest and moved me back, pushed me against the hood of a dilapidated old car.

“Hey,” I grunted, but he shook his head, pressed a finger to his lip.  His blue eyes bored into mine.  They were weird eyes.  No whites, just azure blue irises that extended from corner to corner, with rectangular, horizontal pupils.

I looked at the others, and they were all moving into cover.  Kaiser, Fenja and Menja had all ducked into an alleyway.  Bitch and her dogs were disappearing around the far corner of the same building, making only the scratching noise of claws against concrete.

Ahead of us, a trio of people in ABB colors crossed the street.  A guy and a girl who looked like they might have been gang members before Bakuda’s hardcore recruitment drive were talking.  A teen who was about my age trailed behind them, looking too scared and worn out to be anything but one of the new recruits.  They were all armed.  A machete dangled from the male thug’s hand, while the girl was toying with a handgun.  The scared looking kid had a baseball bat with nails hammered into it.  People really did that?  The nail-studded baseball bat?

Just behind them was the building that had to be our target.  It was a warehouse, dirty gray, with the letters ‘ABB’ spray painted on and around the loading bay door in red and green in an elaborate style.

When the patrol was gone, Newter spoke, “They’ve got patrols, and they’ve tagged the building.  That’ll be our target, today.”  He checked his watch, “Two minutes until it’s time to move.”

“My girls and I will circle around,” Kaiser stated from the cover of the alleyway, “Attack from another direction.”

“Hey, no,” I replied, “That’s not the deal.  We’re in groups like this for a reason, and that reason flies out the window if we split up like that.”

“I didn’t ask your permission,” Kaiser replied, his voice cool.  Without waiting for a response, he turned to leave, Fenja and Menja following him.

“Are we going to stop them?” I asked.

“I could catch up to them,” Bitch told us, as she rode Brutus back towards our group.

Newter shook his head, thin lips pressed into a line that only accented his strange appearance, “Not worth it, and dangerous to fight amongst ourselves in enemy territory.  We don’t have time, anyways.”

“Bitch, can you call Grue and Tattletale, let them know?” I asked.  “They can take measures if they need to.”

She nodded and got her cell phone out.

While Bitch made the call, Newter beckoned the others to gather in a huddle.  “Let’s talk plan of attack.  Skitter, Bitch, you two have the most experience dealing with these guys, so start us off.”

I glanced at Bitch.  She was busy with the call, and she had been out of action during our last encounter with the ABB, which left her kind of in the dark as far as Bakuda went.  It was up to me.

I silently cleared my throat, then I spoke up, “Bakuda likes to set traps, and if this place is important enough to patrol, it’s important enough to have some traps.  Let me send my bugs in first.  I can get the lay of the land, and the bugs will also confuse and distract anyone inside, which should make things easier on you guys.”

Newter nodded once, “Okay.  That’s step one.  Bitch, can you and your dogs hit the ground floor?  I’ll go in the second floor window.”

Bitch gave him a curt nod in response.

“The bugs won’t bite her?” Newter asked.

“No,” I answered, “Won’t bite you either.”

“They couldn’t if they tried,” Newter answered me, smiling.  Funny, if you looked past the odd appearance – the blue hair, the weird eyes, the orange skin and the tail, he was actually a pretty good looking guy.

“Sundancer, what can you do?” Newter asked.

“I guess you could say I’m artillery,” Sundancer replied, “But I’ve got the same problem Ballistic does – er, my other teammate.  I’m not sure I can use my power without hurting a lot of people really badly.”

“Then stay back with Labyrinth.  You two be ready to cover our retreat or move in if we run into trouble,” Newter replied.

“Sounds like you know what you’re doing,” I commented.

“Maybe some of Faultline has rubbed off on me.”  He smiled.  Then he glanced at his watch, “Twenty seconds.”

Newter glanced at the two soldiers Coil had sent, “You two, can you-”

“We’re taking a position on this rooftop, here,” the shorter of the two men replied, pointing up to the two story duplex next to us.  “We’ll support you with cover fire.”

“Uh, good.  Try not to kill anyone,” Newter said, checking his watch again, “Five seconds.  Skitter?  Start us off?”

I reached out to all the bugs I’d gathered, minus the ones I was keeping beneath my costume.  I directed them towards the side of the building we were facing.

The swarm swept in through windows that were open or broken and the one open door on the side of the building, flowing into the hallways.  I made sure to spread them out to cover every surface, feeling for anything that was out-of-place or unusual.  There were a fair number of people inside, which wasn’t a huge surprise, but my bugs were making a lot of contact with bare skin.  I realized the people gathered in the open area of the warehouse’s ground floor were nearly naked.  Stripped down to their underwear.  It was so unexpected that it threw me off my stride.

I shook my head.  I couldn’t afford to get distracted.  Bakuda probably used metals and plastics, and to the superfine senses of the bugs, that was an entirely different texture from the walls.  I tried to filter out the usual stuff and get a feel for just the plastic or metal things.  Just a few feet in from the entrance, I found two dome-shaped bulges on either side of the stairwell that led to the second floor, metal and plastic.

“There’s something there,” I said.  “Give me a second.”

I took a page out of Grue’s playbook and gathered a group of bugs together into a densely packed, vaguely humanoid shape.  I moved that collection of bugs through the doors and to the place where the little domes sat.

The explosion blew a fair sized chunk out of the exterior wall of the building closest to us.  The people inside, already nervous at the influx of bugs, started scattering, screaming, running for the exits.

“Holy shit!” Newter’s eyes went wide.

“Motion detectors, I think,” I said, “Or proximity activated.  My bugs wouldn’t normally set them off, had to fool them.”

The ground was too hard for landmines, so I focused on having the remainder of the bugs sweep through the rest of the building, skimming the surfaces and looking for more trouble.  I found two more, checked nobody was near, and used the same method to detonate them.  The plumes of flame, smoke and debris were visible from where we crouched.

“Twenty or thirty people on the ground floor, unarmed and half naked, ten in upstairs office, armed,” I said, “Route is as clear of traps as I can get it.  Go!”

Bitch lunged into action, Newter only a few steps behind.  He half-ran, half-crawled, his tail whipping around behind him, presumably to help keep his balance.

As Bitch had her dogs crash into and through the closed metal loading bay door, Newter intercepted the first few people to leave through the fire exit door on the side of the building.  He leaped to close fifteen foot gaps as fast as I could have thrown a punch, moving from one person to the next, dropping each of them in an instant.  Lots of women in that group, and I could confirm with my eyes what my bugs had told me – nine out of ten of the people in that group, a mix of Asian men and women, were only wearing their underwear.  Slave trafficking?  Prostitution?  Something darker?  I felt my skin crawl.

As he darted up the side of the building and slipped into an open window like a bolt of greased lightning, I felt Newter brush past several with my bugs.  Each bug that came into contact with him dropped off the wall or out of the sky, falling to the ground, alive but stunned.

I remembered reading about him on the web.  Information had been scarce, since Faultline’s crew weren’t the types of villain to appear in the papers or on TV, and the concrete details that were out there had been hard to pick apart from the speculation.  What I did know was that his bodily fluids were potent hallucinogens.  Even the sweat that accumulated on his skin was apparently enough to send someone off to la-la land, taking only a few seconds for it to be absorbed through the skin.

I focused my attention on tracking what was happening inside the building.  Newter was on the second floor, probably dodging gunfire as he moved closer to the group of people who had been in the upstairs office.  I had my bugs cluster around them, biting their hands and faces.  I sent them crawling into noses, ears and mouths to disrupt the aim of the people who might shoot Newter.

Kaiser, Fenja and Menja were attacking from the side of the building opposite us.  They had drawn the attention of most of the armed agents and patrols, leaving Bitch and her dogs stranded in the midst of one or two dozen unarmed, unclothed, panicked people.  From what my bugs were sensing, she was giving lots of commands to her dogs.

I realized, belatedly, that someone had blocked off the route Bitch might have taken to reach the fighting.  The edges of the offending barrier were thin, sharp.  Blades?  That meant Kaiser would be the one who had blocked her.  Was it intentional, or had he been cutting off the ABB’s escape routes?

I couldn’t sense what Newter was doing since my bugs couldn’t touch him, but I could feel the movement of the air that followed in his wake, I could track the locations of the bugs he came into contact with before they were brought down by the drugs, and I knew the men were collapsing as Newter moved into their midst and knocked each of them out with a touch.  One or two even collapsed without him touching them.  Something else?  Blood?  Spit?

Only one remained standing.  He and Newter circled one another.  My bugs weren’t having much effect on him, since he was wearing a bandanna or something over his face.

No, wait, there was a second person, just behind Newter.  How had I not noticed him?

Then the first disappeared, and I knew.

I grabbed my phone, accessed the contacts, and auto-dialed Bitch.

“Come on, answer, answer,” I whispered at the phone.

Then a handful of my bugs were stunned and a few more squashed as Newter collapsed on top of them.  I directed most of the bugs in the building to distract the attacker, hoping to buy Newter enough time to get away.  It wasn’t working – he wasn’t moving.

“Fuck! Answer, Bitch!”

“What’s wrong?” Sundancer asked.

“Newter’s hurt.”

Labyrinth put her hand on my shoulder, half-spun me to face her.  She didn’t say a word, her expression barely changed behind the cloth of her mask, but it was still the closest I’d seen to an emotional response from her.

I would have said something, but Bitch chose that same second to pick up.

“Bitch!  Second floor, Newter’s wounded, Oni Lee is in the building.”

There was a long pause before she replied, “Lung’s here too.”

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Insinuation 2.2

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The run had helped to wake me up, as did the hot shower and a cup of the coffee my dad had left in the pot.  Even so, the fatigue didn’t help the feeling of disorientation over just how normal the day seemed as I made my way to school.  Just a matter of hours ago, I had been in a life and death fight, I had even met Armsmaster.  Now it was a day like any other.

I felt a bit nervous as I got to homeroom.  Having basically skipped two classes the previous Friday, failing to turn in a major assignment, I figured that Mrs. Knott probably knew already.  I didn’t feel relieved when Mrs. Knott glanced up at me and gave a tight smile before turning her attention back to her computer.  That just meant the humiliation would be redoubled if and when class was interrupted by someone coming down from the office.  A part of me just wanted to miss this class too, just to avoid the potential humiliation and avoid drawing attention.

All in all, I felt anxious as I made my way to my computer, which kind of sucked because Computer class was one of the few parts of the school day I didn’t usually dread.  For one thing, it was the one class in which I was doing well.  More to the point, neither Madison, Sophia nor Emma were in this class, though some of their friends were.  Those girls didn’t usually feel the need to harass me without the trio around, and I was further removed from them because I was in the advanced stream of the class.  A good three quarters of the people in the room were computer illiterate, being from families that didn’t have the money for computers or families that didn’t have much interest in the things, so they practiced typing without looking at the keyboard and had lessons in using search engines.  By contrast, I was in the group that was learning some basic programming and spreadsheets.  It didn’t do a lot for my already geeky reputation, but I could deal.

Mrs. Knott was an alright teacher, if not the most hands on; she was usually content to give us advanced students an in-class assignment and then focus on the more rambunctious majority for the rest of the class.  This suited me just fine – I usually wrapped up the assignment in a half hour, leaving me an hour to use as I saw fit.  I had been recalling and going over the events of the previous night during my morning run, and the first thing that I did when the ancient desktop finished its agonizing load process was to start digging for information.

The go-to place for news and discussion on capes was Parahumans Online.  The front page had constant updates on recent, international news featuring capes.  From there, I could go to the wiki, where there was information on individual capes, groups and events, or to the message boards, which broke down into nearly a hundred sub-boards, for specific cities and capes.  I opened the wiki in one tab, then found and opened the message board for Brockton Bay in another.

I had the sense that either Tattletale or Grue were the leader of the group I had run into.  Turning my attention to Tattletale, I searched the wiki.  The result I got was disappointingly short, starting with a header reading “This article is a stub.  Be a hero and help us expand it.”  There was a one sentence blurb on how she was a alleged villain active in Brockton Bay, with a single blurry picture.  The only new information for me was that her costume was lavender.  A search of the message boards turned up absolutely nothing.  There wasn’t even a hint as to what her power was.

I looked up Grue.  There was actually information about him, but nothing detailed or definitive.  The wiki stated he had been active for nearly three years, dealing in petty crimes such as robbing small stores and doing some work as an enforcer for those who wanted a little superpowered muscle along for a job.  Recently, he had turned to higher scale crime, including corporate theft and robbing a casino, together with his new team.  His power was listed as darkness generation in the sidebar under his picture.  The picture seemed crisp enough, but the focus of it, Grue, was just a blurry black silhouette in the center.

I searched for Bitch, next.  No results.  I did another search for her more official title, Hellhound, and got a wealth of information.  Rachel Lindt had never made any real attempt to hide her identity.  She had apparently been homeless through most of her criminal career, just living on the streets and moving on whenever police or a cape came after her.  The sightings and encounters with the homeless girl ended around a year ago – I figured that was when she joined forces with Grue, Tattletale and Regent.  The picture in the sidebar was taken from surveillance camera footage – an unmasked, dark haired girl who I wouldn’t have called pretty.  She had a squarish, blunt-featured face with thick eyebrows.  She was riding atop one of her monstrous ‘dogs’ like a jockey rides a horse, down the middle lane of a street.

According to the wiki entry, her powers manifested when she was fourteen, followed almost immediately by her demolishing the foster home she had been living in, injuring her foster mother and two other foster children in the process.  This was followed by a two year series of skirmishes and retreats across Maine as various heroes and teams tried to apprehend her, and she either defeated them or successfully evaded capture.  She had no powers that would have made her any stronger or faster than the average Jane, but she was apparently able to turn ordinary dogs into the creatures I had seen on the rooftop.  Monsters the size of a car, all muscle, bone, fang and claw.  A red box near the bottom of the page read, “Rachel Lindt has a public identity, but is known to be particularly hostile, antisocial and violent.  If recognized, do not approach or provoke.  Leave the area and notify authorities as to her last known location.”  At the very bottom of the page was a list of links that were related to her:  two fansites and a news article relating to her early activities.  A search of the message boards turned up too many results, leaving me unable to sift through the crap, the arguments, the speculation and the villain worship to find any genuine morsels of information.  If nothing else, she was notorious.  I sighed and moved on, making a mental note to do more investigation when I had the time.

The last member of the group was Regent.  Given what Armsmaster had said about the guy being low profile, I didn’t expect to find much.  I was surprised to find less than that.  Nothing.  My search on the wiki turned up only a default response, “There are no results matching this query.  32 unique IP addresses have searched the Parahumans.net Wiki  for ‘Regent’ in 2011.  Would you like to create the page?”  The message board didn’t turn up anything else.  I even did a search for alternate spellings of his name, such as Regence and Recant, in case I had heard it wrong.  Nothing turned up.

If my mood had been on the sour side as I got to homeroom, the dead ends only made it worse.  I turned my attention to the in-class assignment, making a working calculator in Visual Basic, but it was too trivial to distract me.  The work from Thursday and Friday had already given us the tools to do the job, so it was really just busywork.  I didn’t mind learning stuff, but work for the sake of doing work was annoying.  I did the bare minimum, checked it for any bugs, moved the file to the ‘completed work’ folder and returned to surfing the web.  All in all, the work barely took fifteen minutes.

I looked up Lung on the wiki, which I had done often enough before, as part of my research and preparation for being a superhero.  I’d wanted to be sure I knew who prominent local villains were and what they could do.  The search for ‘Lung’ redirected to a catch-all page on his gang, the ABB, with quite a bit of detailed information.  The information on Lung’s powers was pretty in line with my own experience, though there was no mention of the super-hearing or him being fireproof.  I debated adding it, but decided against it.  There were security concerns with my submission being tracked back to Winslow High, and then to me.  I figured it would probably be deleted as unsupported speculation, anyways.

The section beneath the description of Lung and his powers covered his subordinates.  He was estimated to have forty or fifty thugs working for him across Brockton Bay, largely drawn from the ranks of Asian youth.  It was pretty unconventional for a gang to include members of the variety of nationalities that the ABB did, but Lung had made it a mission to conquer and absorb every gang with Asian members and many without.  Once he had the manpower he needed, the non-Asian gangs were cannibalized for assets, their members discarded.  Even though there were no more major gangs in the east end of town to absorb, he was still recruiting zealously.  His method, now, was to go after anyone older than twelve and younger than sixty.  It didn’t matter if you were a gang member or not.  If you were Asian and you lived in Brockton Bay, Lung and his people expected you to either join or to pay tribute one way or another.  There had been local news reports on it, newspaper articles, and I could remember seeing signs in the guidance counselor’s office detailing where people who were targeted in this way could go for help.

Lung’s lieutenants were listed as Oni Lee and Bakuda.  I already had some general knowledge about Oni Lee, but I was intrigued to see there were recent updates to his wiki entry.  There were specific details on his powers:  He could teleport, but when he did so, he didn’t disappear.  As he teleported, his original self, for lack of a better term, would stay where it was and remain active for five to ten seconds before disintegrating into a cloud of carbon ash.  Essentially, he could create another version of himself anywhere nearby, while the old version could stick around long enough to distract or attack you.  If that wasn’t scary enough, there was an report of him holding a grenade in his hand as he repeatedly duplicated himself, with his short lived duplicates acting as suicide bombers.  Topping it all off, Oni Lee’s wiki page  had a similar red warning box to the one that Bitch/Hellhound had on hers, minus the bit about his public identity.  From what they knew about him, authorities had seen fit to note him a sociopath.  The warning covered the same essential elements: exceedingly violent, dangerous to approach, should not be provoked, and so on.  I glanced at his picture.  His costume consisted of a black bodysuit with a black bandoleer and belt for his knives, guns and grenades.  The only color on him was an ornate Japanese-style demon mask, crimson with two green stripes down either side.  Except for the mask, his costume gave off the distinct impression of a ninja, which just added weight to the notion that this was a guy who could and would slide a knife between your ribs.

Bakuda was a new entry, added to the ABB wiki page just ten days ago.  The picture only showed her from the shoulders up, a girl with straight black hair, large opaque goggles over her eyes and a metal mask with a gas mask styled filter covering the lower half of her face.  A braided cord of black, yellow and green wires looped over one of her shoulders.  I couldn’t pinpoint her ethnicity with the mask and goggles, and her age wasn’t any easier to figure out.

The wiki had a lot of the same details Armsmaster had mentioned to me.  Bakuda had essentially held a university ransom and she did it with her superhuman ability to design and fabricate high tech bombs.  There was a link to a video titled ‘Bomb Threat @ Cornell’, but I didn’t think it wise to play it in school, especially without headphones.  I made a mental note to check it out when I got home.

The next thing that caught my eye was the section heading titled ‘Defeats and Captures’.  I scrolled down to read it.  According to the wiki, Lung had apparently suffered a number of minor defeats at the hands of various teams, ranging from the Guild to the local teams of New Wave, the Wards and the Protectorate, but consistently managed to evade capture until last night.  A blurb read, ‘ Armsmaster successfully ambushed and defeated the leader of the ABB, who was weakened from a recent encounter with a rival gang.  Lung was taken to the PHQ for holding until the villain’s trial by teleconference.  Given Lung’s extensive and well documented criminal history, it is expected he will face imprisonment in the Birdcage should he be found guilty at trial.’

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  I wasn’t sure what to think.  By all rights, I should have been angry that Armsmaster took the credit for the fight that could have cost me my life.  Instead, I felt a building excitement.  I felt like shaking the shoulder of the guy sitting next to me and point to the screen, saying, “Me, I made that possible!  Me!”

With a renewed enthusiasm, I switched tabs to the message board and began looking to see what people were saying about it.  A post by a fan or minion of Lung threatened violence against Armsmaster.  There was a request by someone asking for more information on the fight.  I was given pause by one post that asked whether Bakuda could or would use a large scale bomb and the threat of potentially thousands or hundreds of thousands dead, to ransom Lung back.

I tried to put that out of my mind.  If it happened, it would be the responsibility of heroes better and more experienced than I.

It struck me that there was one person I hadn’t looked for.  Myself.  I opened up the advanced search page for the Parahumans.net message board and did a search for multiple terms.  I included insect, spider, swarm, bug, plague, and a mess of other terms that had struck me when I had been trying to brainstorm a good hero name.  I narrowed the timeframe of posts to search for posts made within the past 12 hours and hit Search.

My efforts turned up two posts.  One referred to a villain called Pestilence, active in the UK.  Apparently Pestilence was one of the people who could use ‘magic’.  That is, he was if you believed magic was real, and not just some convoluted or deluded interpretation of a given set of powers.

The second post was in the ‘Connections’ section of the message board, where rescued damsels left their contact information for their dashing heroes, where conventions and fan gatherings were organized and where people posted job offers for capes and the cape-obsessed.  Most were cryptic or vague, referring to stuff only the people in question would know.

The message was titled, simply, “Bug”

I clicked it and waited impatiently for the outdated system and overloaded school modem to load up the page.  What I got was brief.

Subject: Bug

Owe you one.  Would like to repay the favor.  Meet?

Send a message,

Tt.

The post was followed by two pages of people commenting.  Three people suggested it was something important, while a half dozen more people decried them as tinfoil hats, Parahumans.net’s term for conspiracy theorists.

It was meaningful, though.  I couldn’t interpret it any other way; Tattletale had found a way to get in contact with me.

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Gestation 1.5

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You don’t properly appreciate what superhuman strength means until you see someone leap from the sidewalk to the second floor of a building on the far side of the street.  He didn’t make it all the way to the roof, but he came to a point maybe three quarters of the way up.  I wasn’t sure just how Lung kept from falling, but I could only guess that he just buried his fingertips into the building’s exterior.

I heard scraping and crunching as he ascended, and looked to my only escape route.  I didn’t harbor any delusions as far as my ability to get down the fire escape before Lung came over the top of the roof and deduced where I’d run off to.  Worse, at that point he could probably just beat me to the street level by jumping off the roof, or even just shoot fire at me through the gaps in the metal while I was halfway down.  The irony of the fire escape being anything but didn’t escape me.

I wished I could fly.  My school offered the choice between Chemistry, Biology and Physics, with Basic Science for the underachievers.  I hadn’t picked Physics, but I was still pretty sure that no matter how many I could gather together, jumping off the roof with a swarm of flying insects gripping me would be just as ineffective as the 9 year old superhero wannabes you heard about in the news, jumping off ledges with umbrellas and bedsheets.

For the time being, I was stuck where I was.

Reaching inside the convex armor that covered my spine, I ran my fingers over the things I had buckled in there.  The EpiPens were meant to treat anaphylactic shock from allergic reactions to bee stings and the like, and likely wouldn’t do a thing to Lung, even if I could get close enough and find a point to inject.  Worst case scenario, the injections would supercharge his power by prompting a surge of whatever hormones or endorphins fueled his power.  Not useful, dangerous at best.  I had a pouch of chalk dust that was meant for climbers and gymnasts, I had seen it in the sports store when I was buying the lenses for my mask.  I had gloves and didn’t think I needed the dryness and extra traction, but I had gotten the idea that it could be useful to throw at an invisible enemy, and bought it on a whim.  In retrospect, it had been kind of a dumb purchase, since my power let me find foes like that with my bugs.  As a tool against Lung… I wasn’t sure if it would explode like regular dust could when exposed to flame, but fire didn’t hurt him anyways.  Scratch that option.

I tugged the little canister of pepper spray free from my armor.  It was a black tube, three inches long, not much thicker around than a pen, with a trigger and a safety switch.  It had been a gift from my dad, after I had started to go on my morning jogs for training.  He had warned me to vary my route, and had given me the pepper spray for protection, along with a chain to clip it to my belt loop so it couldn’t be taken and used against me by an attacker.  In costume, I had opted not to keep the chain for the sake of moving quietly.  Using my thumb, I flicked the safety off and positioned the tube so I was ready to fire.  I crouched to make myself a smaller target, and waited for him to show himself.

Lung’s hands, still on fire, were the first thing to show up, gripping the edge of the roof hard enough to bend the material that covered the roof’s raised lip.  His hands were quickly followed by his head and torso as he hauled himself up.  He looked like he was made of overlapping knives or spades, smouldering yellow-orange with the low temperature flame.  There was no skin to be seen, and he was easily seven or eight feet tall, judging by the length of his arms and torso.  His shoulders alone were three feet across at the very least.  Even the one eye that he had open looked metallic, a glowing, almond shaped pool of liquid-hot metal.

I aimed for the open eye, but the spray fired off at a sharp angle, just glancing off his shoulder.  Where the spray grazed him, it ignited into a short lived fireball.

I swore under my breath and fumbled with the device.  While he brought his leg over the edge, I adjusted my angle and shot again.  This time – with a small tweak of my aim mid-shot – I hit him in the face.  The ignited spray rolled off of him, but the contents still did the trick.  He screamed, letting go of the roof with one hand, clutching the side of his face where his good eye was.

It had been vain to hope that he would slip and fall.  I just counted myself lucky that however metallic his face looked, there were still parts of it vulnerable to the spray.

Lung hauled himself over the edge of the roof.  I had him hurting… I just couldn’t do anything about it.  My bugs were officially useless, there was nothing left in my utility sheath, and I would hurt myself more than I hurt Lung if I attacked him.  Making a mental note to pick myself up a concealable knife or baton if I managed to live through this, I bolted for the fire escape.

“Muh… Motherfucker!”  Lung screamed.  With my back turned, there was no way to see it, but the roof was briefly illuminated before the wave of flame hit me from behind.  Knocked off balance, I skidded on the gravel and hit the raised lip of the roof, just by the fire escape.  Frantically, I patted myself down.  My costume wasn’t on fire, but my hair – I hurriedly ran my hands over it to make sure it hadn’t been ignited.

Small mercies, I thought, that there was no tar used on the roof.  I could just imagine the flames igniting the rooftop, and just how little I’d be able to do if it happened.

Lung stood, slowly, still covering part of his face with his hand.  He walked with a slight limp as he approached me.  Blindly, he lashed out with a broad wave of flame that rolled over half the roof.  I covered my head with my hands and brought my knees to my chest as the hot air and flame rushed over me.  My costume seemed to take the brunt of it, but it was still hot enough I had to bite my lip to stop from making a sound.

Lung stopped advancing, slowly turning his head from one side to another.

“Cock.  Sucker,” he growled in his heavily accented voice, his cussing interrupted by his panting for breath, “Move.  Give me something to aim for.”

I held my breath and stayed as still as possible.  What could I do?  I still had the pepper spray in my hand, but even if I got him again, I was running the risk that he would lash out and bake me alive before I could move.  If I moved first, he would hear me and I would get knocked around by another blast of flame, probably before I could get to my feet.

Lung moved his hand from his face.  He blinked a few times, then looked around, then blinked a few more times.  It was a matter of seconds before he could see well enough to make me out from the shadows.  Wasn’t pepper spray supposed to put someone down for thirty minutes?  How was this monster not an A-Lister?

He suddenly moved, flames wreathing his hands, and I screwed my eyes shut.

When I heard the crackling whoosh of the flame and wasn’t burned alive, I opened my eyes again.  Lung was firing streams of flame, aiming for the edge of the roof of the adjacent building, a three story apartment.  I looked to see what he was aiming at, but couldn’t make anything out in the gloom or in the brief second of light Lung’s flames afforded.

With no warning, a massive shape landed atop Lung with an impact I could swear people heard at the other end of the street.  The size of a van, the ‘massive object’ was animal rather than vehicle, resembling a cross between a lizard and a tiger, with tangles of muscle and bone where it ought to have skin, scales or fur.  Lung was now on his knees, holding one of the beast’s sizable claws away from his face with his own clawed hand.

Lung used his free hand to strike the creature across the snout.  Even though he was smaller than the beast, the impact made it rear back.  It took a few short steps back in reaction, and then rhino-charged him off the edge of the roof.  They hit the street with an audible crash.

I stood, aware I was shaking like a leaf.  I was so unsteady on my feet, from the mixed relief and fear, that I almost fell over again as two more impacts shook the roof.  Two more creatures, similar to the first in texture, but slightly different in size and shape, had arrived on the rooftop.  These two each had a pair of riders.  I watched as the people slid off the backs of the animals.  There were two girls, a guy, and a fourth I identified as male only because of the height.  The tall one approached me, while the others hurried to the edge of the roof to watch Lung and the creature duke it out.

“You really saved us a lot of trouble,” he told me.  His voice was deep, masculine, but muffled by the helmet he wore.  He was dressed entirely in black, a costume I realized was basically motorcycle leathers and a motorcycle helmet.  The only thing that made me think it was a costume was the visor of his helmet.  The full-face visor was sculpted to look like a stylized skull, and was as black as the rest of his costume, with only the faint highlights of reflected light on the surface to give a sense of what it was.  It was one of those costumes that people put together out of what they can scrounge up, and it wasn’t half bad if you didn’t look too close.  He reached out a hand towards me, and I leaned away, wary.

I didn’t know what to say, so I stuck to my policy of not saying anything that could get me into a worse situation.

Withdrawing his hand, the man in black jerked his thumb over one shoulder, “When we got word Lung was aiming to come after us tonight, we were pretty freaked.  We were arguing strategy for the better part of the day.  We eventually decided, fuck it, we’d meet him halfway.  Wing it.  Not my usual way of doing things, but yeah.”

Behind him, one of the girls whistled sharply and pointed down at the street.  The two monsters the group had been riding on bounded across the roof and leaped down to the street to join the fight.

The guy in black kept talking, “Wouldn’t you know, his flunky Lee is there with a half dozen guys, but Lung and the rest of his gang are nowhere to be found,” he laughed, a surprisingly normal sound for someone wearing a mask with a skull on it.

“Lee’s no slouch in a fight, but there’s a reason he’s not leader of the ABB.  He got spooked without his boss there and ran.  I guess you’re responsible for that?”  Skull-mask waited for a response from me.  When I didn’t offer one, he ventured towards the edge of the roof and looked down, then spoke without turning to look at me, “Lung is getting creamed.  The fuck you do to him?”

“Pepper spray, wasp and bee stings, fire ants and spider bites,” the second of the girls said, answering the question for me.  She was dressed in a skintight outfit that combined black with a pale shade of blue or purple – I couldn’t tell in the dark – and her dark blond hair was long and windblown.  The girl grinned as she added, “He’s not holding up too well.  Gonna feel a helluvalot worse tomorrow.”

The man in black suddenly turned to look at me, “Introductions.  That’s Tattletale.  I’m Grue.  The girl with the dogs-” he pointed to the other girl, the one who had whistled and directed the monsters.  She wasn’t in costume unless I counted a plaid skirt, army boots, a torn-up sleeveless T-shirt and a hard plastic, dollar-store rottweiler mask as a costume. “-We call her Bitch, her preference, but in the interests of being P.G., the good guys and media decided to call her Hellhound instead.  Last and certainly least, we have Regent.”

I finally caught up with what he was saying.  Those monsters were dogs?

“Fuck you, Grue,” Regent retorted, with a chuckle and a tone of voice that made it clear he wasn’t really that offended.  He was wearing a white mask, not quite as decorative or made up as the ones I associated with the carnivals in Venice, but similar.  He’d placed a silver coronet around his short black curls, and wore a ruffled white shirt with skintight leggings tucked into knee-high boots.  The outfit was very renaissance faire.  He had a build that made me think more of a dancer than a bodybuilder.

Introductions done, Grue looked at me for several long moments.  After a few seconds, he asked me, “Hey, you okay?  You hurt?”

“The reason she’s not introducing herself isn’t because she’s hurt,” Tattletale told him, as she continued to lean over the edge of the roof and watch whatever was going on at the street level, “It’s because she’s shy.”

Tattletale turned around and it looked like she was going to say something else, but she stopped, turning her head.  The smile she’d been wearing faded, “Heads up.  We’ve gotta scram.”

Bitch nodded in response and whistled, one short whistle followed by two long ones.  After a brief pause, the building was suddenly rattled by impacts.  In just moments, the three creatures of hers leaped from the alleys to either side of the building and onto the roof.

Grue turned towards me.  I was still standing on the opposite end of the roof, by the fire escape. “Hey, want a ride?”

I looked at the creatures – dogs?  They were bloodied, snarling creatures out of a nightmare.  I shook my head.  He shrugged.

“Hey,” Tattletale said to me, seating herself just behind Bitch, “What’s your name?”

I stared at her.  My voice caught in my throat before I was able to get the words out, “I don’t… I haven’t picked one yet.”

“Well, Bug, a cape is gonna show up in less than a minute.  You did us a solid by dealing with Lung, so take my advice.  Someone from the Protectorate shows up, finds two bad guys duking it out, they’re not going to let one walk away.  You should get out of here,”  She said.  She flashed me a smile.  She had one of those vulpine grins that turned up at the corners.  Behind her simple black domino style mask, her eyes were glittering with mischief.  If she had red hair, she would have made me think of a fox.  She kind of did, anyways.

With that, they leaped over my head, one of the three beasts hitting or stepping on the fire escape on the way down, eliciting a screech of metal on metal.

When I realized what had just happened, I could have cried.  It was easy enough to pin down Regent, Tattletale and Bitch as teenagers.  It wasn’t much of an intuitive leap to guess that Grue had been one too.  The ‘children’ Lung had mentioned, the ones I had gone to so much effort to save tonight, were bad guys.  Not only that, but they had mistaken me for one, too.

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Gestation 1.4

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I felt a chill.  A part of me really wished that I had thought to get my hands on a disposable cell phone.  I didn’t have a utility belt, but the spade shaped section of armor that hung over my spine hid a set of EpiPens, a pen and notepad, a tube of pepper spray meant to hang off a key chain and a zippered pouch of chalk dust.  I could have fit a cell phone back there.  With a cell phone, I could have alerted the real heroes about the fact that Lung was planning to take a score of his flunkies to go and shoot kids.

At least, that’s what I had heard.  I was in a state of disbelief, turning the words around in my head to think of a different context that would make sense of it.  It wasn’t so much the fact that he would do something like that.  I just had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that anyone would.

Lung answered a question for one of his gang members, lapsing briefly into another language.  He grabbed one of his minion’s arms and twisted it to an angle where he could get a look at the guy’s watch, so I guessed it had something to do with their timing or when they were leaving.  The gang member who’d had his arm twisted winced as Lung let it go, but didn’t complain.

What was I supposed to do?  I doubted I could find any place in the Docks that would be willing to let me inside to use their phone.  If I headed to the Boardwalk, I wasn’t sure I would find any places that were still open, and I didn’t have change for a payphone. That was another oversight I would have to correct for the next time I went out.  Cell phone, spare change.

A car pulled up, and another three guys dressed in gang colors got out and and joined the crowd.  Shortly after, the group – twenty or twenty five in total – started walking north, passing below me as they walked down the street.

I was out of time to consider my options.  As much as I didn’t want to face it, there was really only one option that I could have no regrets about.  I shut my eyes and focused on every bug on the neighborhood, including the sizable swarm I had gathered on the way into the Docks.  I took control of each of them.

Attack.

It was dark enough that I could only tell where the swarm was with my power.  That meant I couldn’t even tune out the swarm if I wanted to have any idea about what was going on.  My brain was filled with horrendous amounts of information, as I sensed each bite, each sting.  As the thousands of insects and arachnids swarmed over and around the group, I could almost see the outlines of each person, just by sensing the shapes of the surfaces the bugs were crawling on, or the areas the vermin wasn’t occupying.  I focused on keeping the more venomous types at bay for the time being – I didn’t need any allergic thugs going into anaphylactic shock from a bee sting or getting serious complications from the bite of a brown recluse spider.

I sensed the fire through the swarm before I realized what I was looking at with my eyes.  My power told me of the bugs’ recognition of the heat, but I didn’t even have time to devote conscious thought to block out the instincts the fire set in motion before the damage was done.  The primitive thought processes of my bugs were reduced to confused impulses to alternately flee and to pursue the heat and the light they so often used for navigation.  Many bugs died or were crippled by the heat.  From my vantage point, I could see Lung lashing out with streams of fire from his hands, directing them at the sky.

I suppressed a laugh, feeling heady with adrenaline.  Was that all he could do?  I directed the swarm to gather, so those who weren’t already biting and stinging were in the midst of the gang.  If he wanted to turn his flames on the swarm, he would have to set his own people on fire.

The heated air and the smells gave me enough information, by way of my insects, to tell where Lung was in the crowd.  I took a deep breath, and then sent in the reserves.  I took a share of the venomous types I’d held at bay and directed them to Lung.  A handful of bees, wasps, a number of the more poisonous spiders, like black widows and brown recluses, and dozens of fire ants.

He healed fast when his power was working.  Everything I’d read online said that people with healing abilities would shrug off the effects of poisons or drugs, so I knew I’d have to pump him full of enough venom to overwhelm that aspect of his power.  Besides, he was a big guy.  I judged he could take it.

From the information that I could glean from my bugs, Lung already had maybe a quarter of his body covered in armor.  Triangular sections of metallic plating were piercing through his skin, where they would continue to grow and overlap until he was nigh impenetrable.  If they weren’t already, his fingertips and toes would become like blades or metal claws.

I felt a sadistic glee as I organized the attack on Lung.  I directed the flying insects to attack his face.  With distaste, I focused the crawling ants and spiders on… other vulnerable areas.  I did my best to ignore the feedback that I got from that particular attack, as I most definitely did not want the same kind of topographical map that the swarm had provided just a minute ago.  Lung was bad news, and I needed him out of action as soon as possible.  That meant delivering the hurt.

Rationale aside, I did feel a stab of guilt about taking pleasure in someone else’s pain.  I quieted that moment’s remorse by reminding myself that Lung had spread tragedy, addiction and death to innumerable families.  He had been planning to kill kids.

Lung exploded.  No metaphor there.  He detonated in a blast of rolling fire that set his clothes, several pieces of litter and one of his gang members alight.  Almost every bug in his immediate vicinity died or was crippled by the wave of extreme heat.  From my vantage point on the roof, I watched as he turned himself into a human bomb a second time.  The second explosion turned his clothes to rags and sent his people fleeing for cover.  He stepped out of the smoke with his hands burning like torches, the silvery scales that covered nearly a third of his body reflecting the flame.

Damn, damn, damn.  He was fireproof?  Or skilled enough at using fire to superheat the air around him without burning himself?  The meager scraps of clothing that covered him were burning away, and fire licked and danced around his hands without him seeming to care.

He roared.  It wasn’t the monstrous roar one might expect, but a very human sound of rage and frustration.  As human as it sounded, though, it was loud.  All the way down the street neighborhood, lights and flashlights flickered on in response to the explosions and the roar.  I even saw a few faces peering through windows to see the action.  Idiots.  If Lung’s next attack shattered any glass, they could get hurt.

From where I was crouched on the side of the roof, I directed some of the more harmless insects to attack Lung.  He lashed out with fire the moment they started crawling on him, which I had more or less expected.  He was managing to kill the majority of the bugs with each burst of flame, and knowing what I did about his powers, I knew his flames would only get bigger, hotter and more dangerous.

In a typical fight, you figure someone would get weaker as the fight dragged on.  They would take their lumps, get tired, exhaust their bag of tricks.  With Lung, it was the opposite.  I found myself regretting that I had used only a relatively small number of the more venomous bugs, because it was becoming clear that what I’d used wasn’t having much effect.  He had no idea where I was, so I figured I still had the upper hand, but my options and the number of bugs in my swarm were running out.  Despite my earlier glee, I wasn’t sure I could win this anymore.

I hissed through my teeth, all too aware that time was running out.  Before long, Lung would set fire to the city block, become immune to bites and stings in general, or destroy my entire swarm.  I had to get creative.  I had to get meaner.

I focused my attention on a lone wasp, and piloted it around Lung’s back, up behind his head and then had it circle around to his face and straight at his eyeball.  The wasp touched his eyelash, and he blinked before it could hit the target.  As a consequence, the stinger only sank into his eyelid, prompting yet another explosion of fire and a scream of rage.

Again. I thought.  A honeybee this time.  I wasn’t sure if he eventually got armor plated eyelids, but maybe I could use the stings to make his eyes swell shut?  He wouldn’t be able to fight if he couldn’t see.

The bee struck home this time, sinking his stinger into the ball of Lung’s eye.  It surprised me in that it didn’t stick or kill the bee, so I had the bee sting again, and this time the barbs let it stick in the skin at the corner of his eye, at the side of his nose.  The bee died that time, leaving some tiny organs and a venom sac hanging from the stinger.

I expected him to explode again.  He didn’t.  Instead, he set himself on fire, head to toe.  I waited a moment, poised to attack with the next wasp to attack the moment he dropped his guard, but as the seconds passed, I realized he wasn’t planning on extinguishing himself.  My heart sank.

Surely he was burning up all of the oxygen in his vicinity.  Didn’t he need to breathe?  What the hell was the fuel source for his fire?

Standing in the street, he turned around, searching for me, with the flames that licked and rolled over his body casting light where there had been only gloom.  Abruptly, he hunched over.  I wondered if – I hoped – the various toxins and venoms in his system had done the trick.  Then his back separated into two.  A meaty looking gap appeared along his spine, followed by an eruption of long metallic scales all down the gap.  After bristling for a few moments, the scales lay flat like dominoes falling.  He stood and stretched, and I could swear he was a foot taller, now with an armor plated spine.

Still on fire, head to toe.

If the ‘constantly on fire’ thing had tipped the balance of the fight to futile, watching Lung grow and look stronger than ever had pushed me to the point of being spooked.  I started thinking about an exit strategy.  Rationally, I figured, Lung’s men were scattered to the four winds and they were probably in pretty rough shape.  Whatever Lung had been planning for tonight, chances were he wasn’t going to be able to carry out whatever plans he’d had after this debacle.  I had more or less accomplished what I needed to, and I figured I could run and find a way to contact the PHQ just in case.

That was the rational perspective.  Justifications aside, I just wanted to leave, right then.  If things dragged on and I stayed put, there was a very real chance that Lung would give evidence to the rumor that he could grow wings, at which point I would be spotted for sure.  I wouldn’t be able to beat Lung at this point, anyway, which left only a graceless retreat as the remaining option.

Lung had his back turned to me, so I lifted myself up, slowly.  Crouching, I backed up to retreat to the fire escape, watching Lung carefully as I set foot on the gravel of the roof.

As if a gunshot had gone off, Lung whirled around to stare at me.  One of his eyes was just a glowing line behind his mask, but the other was like an orb of molten metal.

A victorious roar filled the air, less human than the outcry he had made earlier, and I felt a kind of resignation.  Enhanced hearing.  The package of powers the bastard got from his transformation included superhuman hearing.

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Gestation 1.3

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My training schedule consisted of running every morning and every other afternoon.  In the process, I had picked up a pretty good knowledge of the east side of the city.  Growing up in Brockton Bay, my parents had told me stuff like “stick to the Boardwalk”.  Even on my runs, I had scrupulously stayed on the Boardwalk and avoided the bad part of town.  Now it was Sunday night and I was in costume and breaking the rules.

I had dyed and painted the costume on Friday, bought temporary costume pieces (belt, the straps for the mask and the lenses) on Saturday and finished the most necessary details over the course of my Sunday afternoon before heading out for the evening.  The costume wasn’t complete yet, lacking the full extent of the armor paneling I had planned out, but the armor covered the most essential areas – my face, chest, spine, stomach and major joints.  The mask design featured dull yellow lenses, the only color on the black and gray costume, as well as sections of armor designed to imitate a bug’s mandibles while simultaneously protecting my jaw.  The mask left my hair free, which did leave the back of my head more vulnerable, but that was just one of the sacrifices I’d had to make to go out in an unfinished costume.

It was just after midnight, and I was crossing the line between one of the nicest parts of town and the part of town where the crack whores and gangsters lived.  The distance between the two was thinner than one might think.

The Boardwalk was where the tourists came.  Running north-to-south along the beach, there were shops that sold dresses for over a thousand dollars, cafes with ludicrously expensive coffees and stretches of wooden walkways and beaches where tourists could get a great view of the ocean.  From pretty much any point on the Docks, you could see one of Brockton Bay’s landmarks, the Protectorate Headquarters.  Besides being a marvel of architectural design with its arches and towers, the PHQ was a floating base of operations that a squadron of local superheroes called home, outfitted with a forcefield bubble and a missile defense system.  There had never been occasion for either to be used, but I had to admit, it made you feel safer.

If you headed west from the Boardwalk, away from the water, you found yourself in the area the locals just called the ‘Docks’.  When the import/export business in Brockton Bay had dried up, there had been a whole lot of people who were suddenly out of work.  The richest and most resourceful people in town had managed to make more money, turning the city’s resources towards tech and banking, but all of the people who had been employed on the ships and in the warehouses had few options left to them.  They faced leaving Brockton Bay, sticking around while scraping up what little work they could or turning to more illicit activity.

This all contributed to the boom in the local supervillain population.  The potential for big money coupled with the number of eager-to-please mooks and henchmen made it the city to be for the villains in the late 90s.  It took a few years for the hero presence to establish and organize themselves, but they did, and there was something of an equilibrium now.  As far as cape population went, Brockton Bay wasn’t in the top 5 cities in the U.S., but it was probably in the top ten.

Just moving from one block to the next, you could see the change in the area.  As I made my way into the Docks, I could see the quality of my surroundings decline steeply.  There were enough warehouses and apartments in the area for even the most destitute to find shelter, so the only people on the streets were unconscious drunks, whores and gang members.  I steered clear of any and all people I saw and ventured further into the area.

As I walked, I was using my powers to draw a swarm together, but kept them out of the way, moving just over the nearby rooftops and through the interior of buildings.  Anyone paying attention to the local cockroach population might think something was up, but there weren’t many lights on.  I doubted most of the buildings here even had power.

The lack of lights in the area was what made me stop and draw myself against the side of a building when I saw a spot of orange in the dark street ahead.  The orange was the flame of a lighter, and I was able to make out several faces around it.  They were Asian, some wearing hoodies, others wearing headbands or long sleeved shirts, but all wore the same colors.  Red and green.

I knew who these guys were.  They were members from the local gang that left the tags ‘Azn Bad Boys’, ABB for short, all over the East end of the city.  More than a few went to my school.  As far as the criminal element in Brockton Bay went, they weren’t small potatoes.  While the typical gang members were just Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese and Chinese forcibly recruited from Brockton Bay’s high schools and lower class neighborhoods, the gang was led by a couple of people with powers.  Gangs didn’t tend to be that racially inclusive as far as who joined, so it said something that their leader had the ability to draw in members from so many different nationalities and keep them in line.

The street was unlit, so my ability to see was dependent on the moon and the few indoor lights that were still on and shining out onto the sidewalks. I started actively looking for their boss.  There were more gang members coming out of a two-story building, and they were gathering in the street.  They didn’t have the atmosphere of people who were just hanging out, either.  They were expressionless or scowling, and they weren’t talking.

I spotted their boss as the gang pulled away from the door of the building to give him room.  I only knew about this guy from what I had heard on the news and read online, but I recognized him immediately.  He was a big guy, but not so big that he would send people running when he walked down the street, like some people with powers were.  He was a little over six feet, though, which put him head and shoulders above most of the gang members.  He had an ornate metal mask over his face, and wasn’t wearing a shirt, despite the chill.  Sprawling tattoos covered his body from the neck down, all depicting dragons from Eastern mythology.

He went by ‘Lung’, had successfully gone toe to toe with whole teams of heroes and had managed to keep himself out of jail, as evidenced by his presence here.  As for his powers, I only knew what I could scrounge up online, and there were no guarantees there.  I mean, for all I knew, he could have misled people about what his powers did, he could have a power he was keeping up his sleeve for an emergency, or he could even have a very subtle power that people couldn’t see at work.

The information online and in the papers had told me this: Lung could gradually transform.  Maybe it was based on adrenaline, his emotional state, or something, but whatever it was, it made his powers more potent the longer he was in a fight.  He healed at a superhuman rate, got stronger, got tougher, got bigger, and he grew armor plating complete with blades at each fingertip.  Rumor had it that he even grew wings if he fought long enough.  If that wasn’t enough, he was a pyrokinetic, which meant he could create flame out of thin air, shape it, intensify it, and so on.  That power apparently got stronger as he transformed, too.  As far as I knew, there wasn’t an upper limit to how strong he could get.  He only started returning to normal when there was nobody left to fight.

Lung wasn’t the only one with powers in the ABB.  He had a flunky, a scary sociopath called Oni Lee, who could teleport or create doubles of himself – I wasn’t a hundred percent sure on the details – but Oni Lee had a distinctive look, and I didn’t see him in the crowd.  If there was anyone else with powers that I needed to watch out for, I hadn’t seen or heard anything about them in my research.

Lung began talking in a deep, commanding voice.  I couldn’t make out the words, but it sounded like he was giving instructions.  As I watched, one of the gang members drew a butterfly knife from his pocket, and another of them put his hand on his waistband.  Between the gloom and the fact that I was standing half a block away, I couldn’t see well, but a dark shape stood out against his green t-shirt.  Chances were it was a gun handle.  My pulse sped up a bit as I saw the gun, which was silly.  Lung was more dangerous than fifty people with guns.

I decided to move away from where I was and find a better vantage point to monitor their conversation, which seemed like a good compromise between my curiosity and my self preservation.  I slowly backed away from where I was, glancing over my shoulder to make sure nobody was watching, and then circled around the rear of the building I was lurking beside.

My investigation paid off.  Halfway down the alley, I saw a fire escape that was leading up the back of the building that Lung and his gang were standing in front of.  The feet of my costume had soft soles, so I was nearly silent as I ascended.

The roof was covered in gravel and cigarette butts, which made me think I wouldn’t be nearly so quiet walking over it.  Instead, I walked on the raised outside lip of the roof.  As I neared the part of the roof directly above Lung and his gang of ‘Azn Bad Boys’, I crouched and crawled forward on my stomach.  It was dark enough that I doubted they would see me if I jumped up and down and waved my arms, but there was no reason to be stupid.

Being at the top of a two story building when they were on the ground floor made it hard to hear them.  Lung had a strong accent, as well, which meant I had to wait until he had spoken a few sentences before I could figure out what he was saying.  It helped that his mooks were utterly, respectfully silent as he spoke.

Lung was snarling, “…the children, just shoot.  Doesn’t matter your aim, just shoot.  You see one lying on the ground?  Shoot the little bitch twice more to be sure.  We give them no chances to be clever or lucky, understand?”

There was a murmur of assent.

Someone else lit up a cigarette, and then leaned over to light a cigarette for the guy next to him.  In those moments that his hand wasn’t cupped around the flame, I could see the gathered faces of just a dozen or so of the gangsters gathered around Lung.  In hands, waistbands and holsters, I could see the dark metal of guns reflecting the orange flame.  If I had to hazard a guess, all of them had weapons.

They were going to kill kids?

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