Speck 30.2

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We were broken, routed.

When had it happened?  When had we reached that critical juncture?  Had one specific act or moment marked the point where the rank and file capes had stopped fighting and started merely trying to survive?

Morale was failing, and had failed long ago.  A good fifth of our fighting force here was made up of Nilbog’s creatures and Dragon’s suits, which self-repaired and kludged together with the remains of other damaged suits to return to the field again and again.  That was with the reinforcements that were coming through Doormaker’s portals.

Chevalier and Ingenue, the other Birdcage leaders and other teams were trying to gather into a defending force.  Issue was, there wasn’t really a way to defend.  Scion held the keys to all things power related, and any attack that didn’t penetrate a particular defense needed only to be tweaked, adjusted with a moment’s thought.  Following that, it passed through forcefields, armor and time distortions like they weren’t even there.

The same was true in terms of our ability to attack.  I had a sense of Scion’s scale, because I’d seen his partner, and I’d gotten a glimpse of the sheer mass of the partner from how much had flowed through into our world as Scion had moved it.  I could assume they were roughly equivalent in size, and that meant we were trying to tear through landmass of raw matter, and we were doing it a few handfuls at a time.

I could look at how durable the partner entity’s flesh had been when Rachel and Lung had been tearing through it, extrapolate to the attacks we’d seen here.  We weren’t doing nearly enough, especially if he was compartmentalizing the damage and keeping himself from losing more than a certain amount at a time.

To top it all off, anything we found that worked only worked for a short time.  Either the user died, or Scion adapted his defenses to become immune to it.

I knew this.  A good number of us knew some of it, especially the ones who’d attended the meetings with the major players.

But for a large number of people on the battlefield, this wasn’t all common knowledge.

For the others on the ground, this was a man with golden skin who didn’t seem to be bothered in the slightest by the vast majority of what we were throwing at him.  At best, he seemed annoyed, by effects as massive as the ones String Theory and Gavel had dished out.  At best, we gave him pause for a moment.  He was toying with us in a way that made it clear he was holding back, yet it didn’t take away from the horror of his actions.

It was impacting morale, instilling a kind of hopelessness, and that hopelessness was a big part of why things were falling apart before my eyes.

I saw him generate a beam so thin I couldn’t make out anything but the glow around it, tracing it through a group.  It cut into throats, arms, legs and chests.  The wounded capes fell, all together.

Blood welled out from the cuts the beam had made in their flesh.  The damage wasn’t lethal, not yet, but it was bad enough that death was likely.  Even inevitable.  I saw a trace of golden light on the skin around the wound.  The damage was spreading.  It wasn’t the sort of injury a medic would be able to handle.

Sixteen capes in all, left to feel their hot blood flow free, their lives seeping away.  Not everyone Scion had targeted was in such bad shape.  One had dodged, pulling a teammate out of the way.  Another three or four had survived the attack by toughness alone, with armor and powers protecting them.

Scion moved, advancing on them.  One sphere of golden light, turning one of these hyper-tough capes into ash.  And then he was in their midst, hitting them with physical blows, tearing them to pieces, each hit harder, faster and more gruesome than the last.  A sweep of his arm and a cape with stone armor was torn in two.

Two or three seconds and he’d taken nineteen capes out of action, wounding several more.  But the real effect was on others, on capes who were now giving up, trying to get away from this slaughter.

He advanced on the two who remained, and it was Chevalier who got in the way, slamming his cannonblade down, twenty feet long and eight feet high, a physical barrier in Scion’s way.

Scion raised one glowing hand, not even slowing as he advanced towards his intended targets.  The sword, to Scion, was little more than tissue paper.

Which made it all the more surprising, to him and to me both, when he stopped, his hand touching the barrier and failing to tear through it.

Chevalier drew the sword back, then cleaved Scion.  The sword passed through the golden man’s shoulder, ribcage, and out his waist, cutting into the earth.

Bisected.

Chevalier remained where he was, hands on the handle of the weapon, making eye contact with Scion.  Ingenue was only a short distance behind him, looking more like she was dressed up to go to a club than to be on a battlefield, with a little leather jacket and a dress with the slit up one side,  her hair draped over half of her face.

Just the same as we’d seen with the Siberian.  The damage was there, but Scion was holding himself together.

Scion withdrew himself from the sword.  Chevalier slashed again, slamming Scion into the earth, then used a sweep of the sword to vault himself back.

Scion’s a ghost, it’s a mask.

And whatever Tattletale says about him being human at his core, human on the surface or whatever else, he’s a natural disaster, not an individual.

A force of nature.  Impossible to control or prevent.  The words crossed my mind, and they were my words, but they weren’t my thoughts.

Reminding me of the bad old days, Passenger?  I thought to myself.  My bugs continued to gather around me.  A familiar and comfortable presence, considering everything that was happening.

I’m not giving up!  My voice, sounding so far away, even in my own head, so young.

Damn straight.

Chevalier blocked Scion’s beam with his sword, then moved the blade, pulling the trigger.  The cannonball hit Scion, and knocked the golden man back.

Capes were taking the opportunity to flee.

I knew what I had to do, here.  Even with a myopic, skewed perspective.  I could guess what the ultimate price was going to be.

Maybe a good part of myself was a monster.  Maybe a part of me was still that girl who had very nearly gone on a rampage in her school, still that girl who would have been an angry, frustrated, aimless c-list villain, a footnote in a footnote in the grand scheme of things, forgotten by nearly everyone once the media frenzy had died down.

The hell am I supposed to do!?  The memory was so clear I could almost hear my own voice.  Had that anger ever really gone away?

The world didn’t fucking make sense.  People didn’t make sense.  I’d been railing against it from the beginning.

I dropped to the ground, cutting one of the boosters to the flight pack.  I didn’t position my legs right, and I folded, landing on my knees and hands instead of on both feet.

I felt a spark of fear, then another.  Capes stopped in their tracks, and the ones behind them crashed into them, driving them forward, some toppling onto a disc a tinker was riding.  Seven people, now inside my range.

I could get a sense of their powers.

The disc the cape was riding was a tinker device, hovering over the ground with a constant stream of air that sent dust billowing in low rolling clouds around the edges.  A woman rode the platform, garbed in a green, flowing kimono-style dress, surrounded by some sort of tinker-derived cyborg bonsai trees on raised sections of varying height.

I began to find my feet, using both my hands and the flight pack to get myself upright.

I could feel the tree-girl’s fear, the fact that she was cornered.  It was echoed across each of the seven who’d stumbled into my power’s radius, and it invoked memories.  Different memories for each of them.  For her, it called Leviathan to mind.  Me running, being struck from behind.  There was one case that reminded me of being with my dad in the room, wracked with shame and helplessness, a complete and total lack of direction.  Another that, inexplicably, brought up the scene with Dragon and Defiant in the Arcadia High cafeteria.  A sense of injustice, mingled with surrender.

For another, for two others, it brought up Mannequin, but they were different scenes.  Being in the empty factory with the innocents at the edges, a building rage, and being there when he’d attacked my territory the second time, after we’d saved Amy.

In both of those cases, it was the same kind of rage I’d just been thinking about.  To these two, I was the freak of nature standing in their way.

I was broken, and I’d bitten off more input than I could chew.  The passenger was tapping into the experiences it had shared with me, because that was the only way it could convey the signals I was getting from them.

Which wasn’t what I needed.  It was the wrong inputs.  What I needed was to decipher their powers.  The tinker with the trees… I could sense things about her that weren’t tapping into memories I understood.  Something mental that I couldn’t relate to, out of my reach.

I ordered them to turn.  When they moved, they lurched.  Unfamiliar proportions, different degrees of athleticism.  Like my adjustment to my new arm and legs.

Could I get used to moving them like I’d gotten used to the new limbs?

Laughter disturbed me from my thoughts.

“Human shields?”  A man asked, almost unintelligible with his coarse accent.  “I love it!  I was ganna shoot the bloody idjits in the backs, you’re ‘lowed to do that, ‘miright?  But some cunt might get the wrong idea.”

When I turned my head, all but one my minions turned their heads as well.  My fault.  I’d wanted the extra sensory input, and I’d instinctually tried to take it in with a share of my ‘swarm’.

It was Acidbath.  One of the Birdcage’s cell block leaders.  He had the stylings of a rock musician or punk rocker who’d spent a little too much time doing drugs and not enough time playing his instrument.  Worn around the edges, a little too full of himself.  He’d been a bit player in the real world, caught up in his vices, yet had managed to take over and rule a cell block for three years after being sent to the Birdcage.

He was still smirking, laughing a little, as he looked between me and Scion’s ongoing fight with Chevalier.  He danced a little from foot to foot, tensing just a bit every time Scion moved.  Not out of fear.

“This is better,” he said.  “They wanna run and leave us assholes to do the fighting, you can say otherwise.  Pin ’em up and let Scion knock ’em down.”

No.  They aren’t meat shields.

But I couldn’t tell Acidbath that.  I couldn’t answer him because I couldn’t communicate.

It galled me that he thought I’d use them as cannon fodder.  Not least because he was right.  Partially right, but that didn’t make it much better.

I’d compared myself to some pretty horrible individuals in the past, but Acidbath was something else.  He was low, barely above dirt.  He’d scalded his own brother with acid, and had gone after girlfriends and girls who had rejected him.  The attacks hadn’t been lethal, but had melted flesh and the fat or muscular tissues beneath.  I’d seen the pictures of the aftermath when I’d browsed his files, after the scar tissue had formed.

I couldn’t think of worse ways to hurt someone, and he’d done it in impulsive acts of retaliation.

If I was going to be a monster, I’d at least try to be smart about it, constructive.  To have a plan.

I set my new minions into action.  I couldn’t get too caught up in the details.  Their powers were a part of them like the venom was a part of a spider or centipede, or web a part of the spiders I controlled.  I had to take it in without getting caught up in analyzing it, trusting the passenger to handle the essential details on autopilot.

As my new minions rejoined the battle, I felt the tinker tap into that power that had previously been out of reach.  I got a glimpse of how she operated, the world she saw; a distorted world much like I’d seen when I tried to look through my bug’s eyes.  The trees were primed and loaded like guns.  Tinker-herbalism, only it wasn’t very medicinal at all.

I set her aside.  The others… my passenger was better at controlling most of them.

A cape in a black flowing costume who had powers I couldn’t decipher.  I set him aside as well.

The others were easier to use, and I wasn’t sure how much of it was because of their powers’ similarities to my own.  Focusing on them resulted in a deluge of fragmented memories, memories of me using my power in different ways.

Two shaker-classification capes provided the majority of the offensive power.  If I let them be, if I let things move on autopilot in their own way, then they used their power well enough.  A telekinetic with an emphasis on small objects, with a storm of ball bearings and small stones from the road, and a cape that could create superheated shafts of energy, anchoring them between two objects.  The memories were of my bugs attacking as a coordinated whole, of the threads I’d extended as tripwires and my attack on Echidna.

Not that I was so graceful or effective in using their abilities.

There was a woman, and focusing on her resulted in a deluge of fragmented memories, but these were memories of using my bugs to observe.  A secondary power?  Trying to tap into her other power resulted in thoughts of Atlas, the void in his midsection, of my relay bugs.  Something incomplete?  A kind of frustration.  With my eyes, I could see her fingertips glowing blue.

I moved her hand, and I saw a line drawn in the air.

Something incomplete.  I moved her hand in a circle, and I closed the line.

There was a small pop as the space we’d enclosed disappeared.  My bugs could feel the air moving at the destination point.

A teleporter with a somewhat irritating limitation.

The other two looked like members of the Birdcage.  Very possibly Acidbath’s underlings, though he hadn’t identified with them.  Brutish, mean looking.  One was armored in what looked to be fragmented pieces of pottery and glass, with flesh webbing between fragments, while the other was covered head to toe in biker tattoos, oddly doughy looking, with a power that was being channeled just under his skin.  Focused air.

Alexandria joined the fight, relieving Chevalier, who was on his heels, his blade in rough shape.  A third cape I didn’t know joined the fight.

Scion shook off the pair, and then struck Chevalier hard enough to send him crashing into the crowd opposite us.

Then he wheeled around.  His eyes passed over Acidbath.

Acidbath, still dancing from foot to foot, leaped, and he changed into a living tidal wave of clear liquid, isolated, with roughly five times his mass.  He materialized into regular human form when he was a little behind and to one side of Scion, and then lashed out, slinging punches that ended with his hands becoming liquid projectiles.  They splashed against Scion, and I could see smoke rise, even though there wasn’t any visible damage.

If Scion had been planning to attack us, the cape with Alexandria managed to get his attention.  Another flying bruiser type.  An ‘Alexandria package’ cape fighting alongside Alexandria herself.

Or Pretender, whoever.

The fear that was emanating from my minions was paralyzing me, I realized.  I shook it off and stepped up the attack.  The one with the shards and the one with the soft looking body charged to either side, and moved right out of my power’s range.

I hoped they would take this as a nudge, a push to get back into the thick of things.  Both these capes and the ones around us.  We weren’t many, but we were a little closer to Scion than most, and we were steadfast.  Capes who were backing away on either side of us were keeping their eyes on Scion, where they might otherwise have routed completely.

The guy that was made up of fragments took the nudge from me for what it was, giving me a hard look over one shoulder before he joined Alexandria and the other cape in attacking Scion.  He was a shapeshifter, maybe one like Mush, from the Brockton Bay Merchants.  My assessment of his power suggested he was tougher than he looked.

The other one, with the air swirling beneath his skin, simply left my range and ran.  He found a spot with more capes and slowed down, dropping into a crouch, like he might run at the first opportunity.

Scion threw the Alexandria-package cape I couldn’t name into the ceramic shard guy, and he managed to break the cape’s fall, falling to pieces in the process.  He began picking himself up, gathering more pieces of glass from nearby rubble to make himself bigger than before.

Acidbath stepped up the attack, slinging acid every time the path was clear,

I didn’t want to lose my stride, getting caught up in observation.  I focused on my minions.  The tinker with the disc had her plants loaded down with drugs.  I focused our attention on different things, and I got more fragmented memories in response.  A glimpse of me, paralyzed, with Bonesaw about to operate on me.

Poison?  Paralytic?

Being inside the building Coil had set on fire.

Incendiary?  Blinding?

The hospital bed-

I was acting even as the knowledge came to me.  I pushed her to use that one, and the passenger took over.  It was better at understanding the abstracts.  I could follow what it was doing, grasp the basics of it.  Her body and the seat beneath her was another plant, focused on producing, concentrating and storing gases in a combination that served as breathable air, the same gas that was keeping her disc aloft.

Her hand moved, the raised platforms shifted, and one tree was lowered to a point just in front of her.

The gas blew what looked like a vast cloud of purple pollen out onto the battlefield.  It settled on the wounded capes, and only the wounded capes.

Coagulants, I thought.  Painkillers.

I watched the others carefully, making sure that my minions weren’t inadvertently putting others in the line of fire.  I started circling our group with our teleporter, drawing out a line as she jogged in a tight loop.  The two shakers, the telekinetic and the guy who made lasers, they had matching costumes.  Had they combined their techniques?  I formed lasers between the airborne ball bearings.  Needle thin, they still cut into Scion.

The damage of one with the flexibility of the other.  No doubt a technique they’d used on their own.

Scion turned his head, looking at us.  His hands glowed.

The teleporter lunged forward, completing the loop, leaving out only the brute with the weird skin, the fragment-shapeshifter and the girl with the disc.  I gave one last command to make the disc-botanist tinker start running.

Our group was collectively teleported away.  I could feel the strength drain out of the teleporter to the point that she fell to the ground.  Scion’s attention was elsewhere.  He hadn’t gone after any of the ones we’d left behind.  We’d managed to avoid his attentions.

I turned my attention to the one cape I hadn’t yet figured out.

A voice interrupted me.  “Queen Administrator.  I almost didn’t recognize you.”

Glaistig Uaine.  I didn’t respond.  My focus was on the young man.  Some kind of trump power, responding to a few glimmers here and there.

I turned her way.  She was dressed in a complicated dress of green-black ribbons, complete with a hood.  She looks so young.

I pointed at the cape I was trying to figure out and raised my stump-arm in a shrug.

“If you want to get a full understanding of your new capabilities, you must figure that out on your own,” she said.  “Practice, and it will soon be second nature.”

I turned my attention to the cape.  My focus, again, was interrupted by her voice.

“I will warn you, do not attempt to usurp me.  If I catch you trying, I will fight you.  I am careful to tend to my flock, and would not have anyone but me handle them.”

I nodded.

“Good.  Peace is preferable,” she said.  We watched Scion unload on another group.

They can’t stop him with brute strength.  They know it.  Yet they keep coming.  Is it just for the sake of going out with a fight?  The hope of finding some trump card?

I’d stopped capes from running, but the idea wasn’t to stop retreat.  Retreat was sensible.  I didn’t want things to devolve into a panicked stampede to get away.

“It seems we’re losing, Administrator,” Glaistig Uaine said, as if echoing my thoughts.

I shook my head a little.

“I would offer him solace, if I knew how.  He is in a dangerous state, and I find myself worried for the first time.”

I glanced at her.

“Yes, very worried.  Had things gone like they were before, I would be bothered, but not overly upset.  We would die, the faerie would slumber and they would wait.  With luck, with a great deal of luck, he would find another partner, or another partner would find him, and things would be set for the great play to start anew, on a fresh stage.”

Scion had stopped with the beams and the blasts.  He was throwing punches again, hurling himself into the thickest parts of the crowd.  Nilbog’s creations were taking the brunt of the attack.

“But the faerie are creatures of whimsy, aren’t they?  Easily influenced by the masks they wear.  It’s the whole point of them, isn’t it, Administrator?  It’s why they are, yes?”

I nodded a little.  I could almost see it.

She nodded a little herself, as if satisfied by my response.  “He’s fallen prey to the worst kind of whimsy, a destructive wroth.  He is heartbroken and hopeless, he has lost more than you or I could ever imagine, and he may well leave this stage so ruined that things cannot be salvaged, unless we’re fortunate enough to get a…”

She trailed off, grasping for a word.

Understudy?

“Fortuitous arrival,” she said.  She smiled a little.  “Not very likely.  They litter breadcrumbs in their wake, not to be followed, but so their kin don’t waste time and effort traveling the same paths.  For another to arrive here, they would need to avoid touching a single crumb, like you or me swimming the length of a river without touching a wave.”

Black Kaze had entered the battlefield, backed up by Dragon’s Teeth.  She disappeared, and then reappeared behind Scion, katana drawn.  A moment passed, and Scion reacted as though he’d been punched dead center in the chest.

Not a big reaction, but it was a reaction.

Black Kaze alternated attacks with Acidbath, very proper, measured in her movements, compared to Acidbath’s flailing, reckless, hurried scramble to keep out of Scion’s line of sight.  Acidbath moved with surprising quickness, faster than a typical car might.  A peculiarity of his breaker power.

Glaistig Uaine offered a small laugh.  “I cling to a sliver of hope, and I know I’m fooling myself.  There really isn’t much of a time window.  A few thousand years is such a short time, you know.”

I continued to pay attention while I focused on the more mysterious cape in my range, the one who I hadn’t deciphered.

The connections of his powers to something that was there but not quite there… his power hinged on some outside qualifier or factor that wasn’t being met on this battlefield.  It was concentrated most on the wounded…

It snapped into place.  His power worked with people who were sleeping.  The people his power sort of worked on were unconscious.

I used the teleporter to draw a circle around him.  A moment later, he was gone, set in the midst of the biggest cluster of wounded.

“Ah, you understood.  Good.”

Only a moment later, Scion attacked, striking the ground.  We were distant enough that I could see the circle of golden light expanding around them, a ring that ripped through the ground, demolishing it.

Nilbog’s creations, the defending forces and Dragon’s suits were all toppled as the ground settled.  Buildings collapsed.

A wounded Leviathan emerged from the water, approaching Scion with an almost lazy slowness.  Capes practically fought one another to get their footing and get out of the way.  Some were too rough in their hurry to get by Nilbog’s creations, only to get attacked by the things in retaliation.

I clenched my one fist.

“Would you accompany me?  We would be the queen of the living and queen of the fallen.  No swords in our hands, but warlords nonetheless.  Yes?  I will give you hints, if you desire them, and help you manage your soldiers.  One last hurrah, a great war to end it all, like the best myths have.”

I shook my head slowly.

“No?  A shame.  Fear?  A lack of soldiers?”

I shook my head, still.

“No, you are not afraid, queen, or you are afraid, but this is a fear that drives you forward.  You have something you intend to do.”

I nodded.

“Then I will be here when you return, and we can have that great battle, fighting to drive him back into slumber.”

I gathered my swarm around me and the teleporter, and I had her draw another circle.

Glaistig Uaine reached out, seizing the woman’s wrist.  The teleporter’s alarm mingled with my own.

But she wasn’t attacking, and she wasn’t taking the teleporter’s powers, extinguishing her life in the process.

“A warning,” Glaistig Uaine said.

I gave her my full attention.

“You sought power, and you lost a portion of yourself in the doing.  Always the case, but it’s… pronounced, in a case like yours.  Yes?”

“Hng,” I mumbled.

“You will need a tether, an anchor.  It can be an idea, a physical thing, a place, a person, a goal.  Right now, it will not seem so important, but it will.  When all is said and done, you will either be dead, and this thing will be a comfort to you in your last moments, or you will be powerful, and it will be all you have left.  Decide what you will hold on to.”

I’ve already decided what that is, I thought.  Since a long time ago.

“Choose very carefully,” she said.  “Take it from someone who knows.”

Then she moved the teleporter’s hand, closing the circuit.

The teleporter and I arrived at our destination at the same moment Leviathan crashed into Scion.  Water mingled with the ruined landscape, seeping into cracks, making life just a bit harder for the capes in the center of the disaster area.

I felt memories stir.  The moment I’d announced myself as Weaver and heard the howling.

You really have to make this unnecessarily hard, don’t you?  I thought.  Reminding me that I’m abandoning them.

Yes, Rachel and Imp were probably there.  So were the capes I’d controlled and urged back into the fray.  Maybe they had turned to run at the first opportunity.  Maybe they had been given a chance to reconsider, and were still fighting.

Maybe I’d killed them, by denying them the chance to run.

But I told myself I wasn’t abandoning them.

I had a mission, and this was a mission that would take me back to them, after a fashion.  I might never rejoin the group, I was fully aware of what I was getting myself into, but this was for their sake, not despite them.

That detour was a part of the mission, killing multiple birds with one stone.  Helping to stop the rout, trying to do a little something to keep the fight going, so the capes on the ground could buy time.  Learning about my new ability, testing my ability to accommodate unfamiliar abilities.

It hadn’t been planned, so much, but I’d also had a reminder of something that had slipped my mind.

Glaistig Uaine was one of my most dangerous enemies at this point.

Now I was in dire need of information.  Getting that information was a surprising obstacle, considering my inability to communicate.  I couldn’t ask, couldn’t whip out my phone and type something into the search bar and wait for it to dig records out of the archives.

To these ends, I’d moved us to the edge of the settlement, where six armored suits were deployed and waiting to be sent into the fray.  The Pendragon was one.  Dragon’s Teeth were scattered throughout the area, many holding what looked like rocket launchers with glass bulbs at the front.

The teleporter was exhausted from using her ability, and leaned on me as we made our way forwards.

D.T. officers stepped forward to bar my way.

Alarm, surprise.  I was momentarily dazed by images of a number of surprise attacks and explosions.  My power had reached them, and they stepped aside at my command.

I moved as confidently and as quickly towards the Pendragon as I could manage, trying not to show fear or uncertainty.  Harder than it sounded, given my limping, uneven gait, and the way my head slumped forwards.  D.T. officers beyond my range took notice and moved to flank me.

I reached the back of the Pendragon and I slammed my hand on the metal door.  I did it again.  My best attempt at a knock.  I tried my best to stand straight, folding my hand behind me.

Not quite loud enough.  The armor was too thick.  Still, the fact that I’d knocked was a point in my book, as far as the officers were concerned.  They were hanging back.

“Defiant isn’t replying,” one of the officers said.

“Try Dragon,” another spoke.  “She always answers calls.”

“Ladies!”  One called out.  “State your identities for the record!”

You know who I am, I thought.

“We know your face, we’ve met, but we can’t take anything for granted here!  Stranger and Master protocols are in effect!”

Oh.

Were the protocols in effect because of me?

Or was it a problem that stemmed from the half-dozen incidents in the last two years, where people had tried to capitalize on Endbringer attacks and other crises, attempting assassinations on key figures?

I couldn’t argue it, in any event.  I couldn’t defend myself, either.

“Both of you!  We’ll need your names, and we need at least one good password!”

Right.  Lovely.

Couldn’t use the teleporter without getting shot.  They’d see the line…

Unless they couldn’t.  Seeing myself through the teleporter’s eyes, I was a little surprised at the sheer number of bugs I’d accumulated.

She moved her hands to me, and she drew the line through the middle of the swarm.

Could she teleport where she couldn’t see?

I focused our attention on the interior of the Pendragon.

She closed the circuit, and we were inside.

My bugs could sense the soldiers reacting.

“Weaver?”  Dragon asked.  “I was just about to step outside.”

I stepped away from the teleporter.  My eyes roved over the ship’s interior.  Less elbow room than in the Dragonfly.

“Tattletale filled me in, asked me to pass on the details,” Dragon said.  “A lot of people are worried, here, on quite a few different levels.”

I couldn’t respond, and I knew how tight time was, so I met her eyes, nodded a little, and then gestured towards the nearest laptop.

“Yes,” Dragon said.  “Of course.”

I gave her a little salute.  I didn’t know a better way of expressing thanks.  If I’d known sign language, would I have lost it with my ability to speak and write?

“Tattletale was saying you were unfocused.  I’m not getting that sense.  You’re up to something.”

The laptop booted.  I froze.

Oh.  Damn.

I realized what I was looking at, and I felt my heart plummet.

When my mom had died, I’d sort of turned to books as a way of remembering her, a way of being with her in the present day, reminding myself of the nights she would read aloud to me, then the nights we’d read together, and beyond that, times when we’d all be in the living room, my dad with his computer half the time, a book the other half.  My mom and I always had our novels.  Sometimes we had shared, sometimes not.

When the bullying had started, books had been an escape.  I’d be exhausted at the end of the day, feeling a low that counterbalanced the higher adrenaline and stress of the time spent in school.  Curling up with something to read had been a refuge.

Maybe that had lapsed when I’d become a cape.  The costumed stuff had become an escape of sorts.  But I’d gotten back into it in prison, and on some of the stakeouts.  I’d taught myself braille, so I could read with my bugs, and take in more.

I would have settled for being a little crazy.  I would have settled for some physical impairment, for a power that was so out of control that I couldn’t have real human contact again.

The words were gibberish.  I couldn’t read.  It had been something I’d turned to in my lowest moments, a little crutch, a coping mechanism, and it had been denied to me.

It hit me harder than the loss of my voice, stupid as it was.  My hand shook, hovering over the display.

I watched as the words disappeared, replaced by images.  A composite picture of locations, a composite picture of faces, a composite picture of icons that no doubt included details on powers.  There were others I could scroll down to see.

My eyes watered a little.  I couldn’t look at Dragon, but I raised my hand in another salute.  Not nearly as good a thank-you as I wanted to be able to give.

My fingers touched the display.  Faces.

There were sub-menus.  All visual.  I clicked the frowny-face with the black background, then the little map for a world map… America.  I clicked the map icon again for a national map… Washington.

I found Teacher’s portrait near the top of the results list.  One of Washington’s most notorious capes.  Right.  I clicked it.

Dragon’s hand settled on the top of my head.  She ran it over my hair, using one finger to hook a strand and move it out of my face.  She did the same for another strand.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

I opened his file, and I clicked through the tabs until I saw a map.

I tapped my phone against the screen.

There was a rumble outside, followed by a thrum, and movement beyond this craft.  Dragon had deployed at least two of the other suits.

“I need some communication here, Weaver,” Dragon said.

Dumbly, I tapped the phone against the screen once again, not making eye contact.

“Please,” she said, but she made it sound like an order.

What do you want?  I thought.  Pantomime?  Do you want me to draw Teacher and the rest with my bugs and enact a play?

I didn’t do either.  I reached up and pulled off my mask.  I met Dragon’s eyes.

I could see myself through the teleporter’s vision.  Strands of my hair had fallen across my face as I’d removed the mask.  My lips were pressed together – I forced myself to relax them, only to find them resuming the position when I turned my attention elsewhere.  My body was all odd angles, my expression… I didn’t even know how to judge my own expression.  I didn’t know my own face that well, all things considered.  It was only something I saw from time to time in the mirror, getting ready for the day.

Intense?  Focused?  Determined?

Fatalistic?  More crazy than less?

I held her gaze.

Again, I tapped the phone against the computer screen.

It chirped.  The data had been loaded onto it.

“If it was Skitter that asked me, I would have said no,” Dragon said.

I nodded.

“If I was convinced it was Weaver in there more than anything else, I’d feel a lot better about this.  Tell me, am I going to regret giving you this?” she asked.

I couldn’t answer.  Not even with a nod or a shake of the head.  I touched the screen again, going back a bit.  Region… Chinese Union-Imperial.

C.U.I.

She knew what I was looking at.  “I’m thinking of how we brought the Endbringers in, bullying people into helping, or at least getting them to stop hurting.  Is this going to be a repeat?  Strongarming them?  Using your power?”

I shook my head.

My phone chirped again.

Others.  More targets.  The Birdcage.

Another chirp.

The rest I’d find on my own, provided all went according to plan.

I turned to the teleporter, then bowed low.  It wasn’t because of her culture – she looked European – it was because a bow would have to serve as an apology, as much as a salute would have to serve as acknowledgement and thanks.

I met Dragon’s eyes.

“I wish you could explain,” she said.

I’m glad I can’t, I thought.  I turned to leave.

Glaistig Uaine was one hurdle I’d have to cross.  Dragon was another.

If everything went to plan, they were the biggest threats to me.  Scion excepted, of course.

I left the teleporter behind, making my way outside.  I turned on the flight pack.

My bugs sensed the teleporter making her exit, drawing a circle around herself and then promptly disappearing.  The Pendragon took off a moment later.

I approached my target.  The Simurgh was flying over a set of hills that would have been the Towers district of Brockton Bay, had we been on Earth Bet.  She was building something.

The fighting was ongoing, with Leviathan more hurt than alive.  Capes were fighting to get to safety rather than trying to hurt Scion.

Scion hit Leviathan, and the last buildings in the settlement toppled.

I turned away.  I wasn’t one for prayer, but I wasn’t really one for hope, either.

At the same time, though, everything hinged on their ability to hold out.  Scion might leave soon, moving on to another target, but I wasn’t so sure these guys would be able to hold out against one more attack.

I passed beside the Simurgh as I flew.  Checking.

No control.

I plummeted.

The Simurgh, for the time being, came part and parcel with Tattletale.  When she wasn’t fighting, she was a distance away from my teammate and friend.

I touched ground, then flew through the doorway at an upward angle, moving over the defensive line Marquis had set at the doorway.

I found myself back in Tattletale’s company.  Marquis and Lung were close, but not so close they were in my range.  Panacea and Bonesaw, for their parts, were tending to the wounded.  The two girls froze as they fell inside my range.

Too many patients, on top of Panacea and Bonesaw.

Marquis and Tattletale froze as well, but it wasn’t the same kind of freezing.  It was tension.

“No,” Marquis said.

I ignored him.

“My daughter-”

Panacea stood up.  Bonesaw followed soon after.  They marched in Marquis’ direction.

They passed out of my range.  Marquis draped an arm around his daughter’s shoulders, hugging her closer.  Bonesaw wheeled on me, and there was a fury in her eyes.

It left only the wounded in my vicinity, along with a handful of others.  Members of the backline, the infrastructure elements in Gimel.

“Taylor-” Tattletale said.

I ignored her too.

“I’m sort of getting what you’re doing.  I don’t get why, but I think I get what you’re about to do.  Don’t.”

I closed my eyes, concentrating.  I needed to figure this out before I made any moves, or I’d be putting myself in danger.  Problem was… there was so much.

“Taylor, if you go ahead with this, and people start to catch on, you become public enemy number two.”

“Catch on?” Marquis asked.

Tattletale didn’t answer him.

I was pretty sure I had it.

With my power, I seized control of Doormaker and the Clairvoyant.  The pair stood, holding hands.

A heartbeat later, a cage of bone erupted from the ground.  Bindings wound around my legs.

He laid a trap under the surface of the ground, I thought.

Some of the more mobile injured were backing away from me and my two hostages.  The remainder were still in my range.

Bone coffins encased each of them, sealing them to the ground, out of sight.

I paused, doing my best to get a sense of them.  I could get the gist of their abilities, focus to try and piece together the details.  There were a few capes who could have broken free, a few who were probably capable of slipping out one way or another.

But I didn’t need to go that far.

I exerted Doormaker’s power, and he opened a portal behind Marquis.  The other side of that portal was just behind me.

Memories hit me.  Being chained to the interrogation chamber, opposite Director Tagg.

Tempered confidence, even now?

The memories were distorted, moving just a little too quickly towards the end of that particular scenario.  Except I was looking an awful lot like the person on the receiving end of the abrupt, painful and unexpected murdering.

Marquis’ lieutenants approached.  Cinderhands, Spruce, one other I couldn’t name, in dark clothes and chains.  Lung was circling around, getting ready to fling a fireball.

I used Marquis’ power to block their paths with spiked barriers of bone.  When Lung, Spruce and Cinderhands all tore through the barriers, with claw, some sort of disintegration power and flame, respectively, I used Doormaker’s power again.  This time, the portals I opened were only about a foot by a foot across.  Four at once.

“Taylor,” Tattletale said.  “You’re putting me in a pretty shitty spot, here.”

I checked my phone, tabbing through the pages that had been loaded onto it.  There was a blip marking Teacher’s location.

More were gathering around me.  I made more doors.  One or two dodged out of the way.  I managed to catch them, anyways.

“I’m not getting enough details here to paint a picture.  I trust the hell out of you, but I’m not sure this is you, Taylor.”

I pocketed my phone, then reached into my belt.  I hesitated for an instant, then pressed my hand to my chest for long seconds.  I knew I didn’t have time to spare, but…  no.  I didn’t have time to spare.

I opened a portal twenty feet above Tattletale, then opened my hand.  The little tube of pepper spray dropped through the portal.  Tattletale caught it.

“You couldn’t have made it easy?”  Tattletale asked, looking down at it.  “Because standing by while you do this… that’s fucking hard.  It’s honestly easier if I’m on their side and I’m helping them stop you.  If I can blame the fuck-up job Panacea did to your head.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  I used Marquis’ power to withdraw the bone cage and free my own legs.

I opened a doorway and passed through.

Dragon might be my enemy the moment she got filled in on what I was doing, but she was someone I cared about.  Teacher had fucked with her.

This next bit was going to be easier.

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Speck 30.1

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I didn’t trigger.

Kind of silly, really, that I’d expected to see something.  But this was the opposite.  A trigger event worked on the power end of things.  This was altering me.

I felt the range of my power halve, as though a guillotine blade had dropped down, cutting it off.

My control began to slip.  It wasn’t so severe as the effect on my range, but I could feel it degrading.  I was aware of my bugs in a general sense, and they were moving in reaction to my subconscious thoughts, but the end result wasn’t precise.  I moved them, but getting them to stop had a fraction of a second’s delay.

Slipping out of my control.  Slipping…

Tattletale was nearby, but I was trying not to focus on her.  I had to focus on the swarm, I needed to be perfectly aware of what was going on.

An echo of an event from years ago, only this time, Tattletale was one of the ones in the dark.  I felt a pang of guilt,and I was surprised at how intense it was.  Guilt, shame, a kind of intense loneliness…

This way lies madness, I thought.  But the thought itself had an oddly disconnected quality to it.  The emotions persisted, and I was aware of the memories.  Walking away from the people I cared about, feeling horrible about it, knowing it was the best thing in the end.

Too many would be calling it an error in judgement, stupidity.  Why go to such an extreme, especially when there was no guarantee it was the right path in the end?

But it had allowed me to reunite with my father, in a fashion.

I could remember jail too, the way the guilt and shame had manifested as a maddening restlessness, worse than the confinement.  The fears that had haunted me, dealing with the other prisoners, the kind of peace that had come with surrendering to my then-current circumstances…

Would this decision lead to something in the same vein?  Would I be confined, following a monumental decision that was so selfish and selfless at the same time?

I was altering something biological and mental.  I felt my heart skip a beat as my mind momentarily touched on what that kind of confinement might entail.

I was hyperaware of my own body, every movement, the flow of blood in my veins.  I was focused on the beating of my heart and my breathing, both picking up speed with every moment.

The sky behind me was bright blue, almost taunting me.  Blue was the color I wore when I became a hero.  A failure.  It made for long shadows, extending down the length of the cave in the direction of the others, in the direction of Doormaker’s portal to Earth Gimel.

No, focus on the swarm.

My range was dwindling with every passing second, and so was my control.

That trace of fear I’d experienced swelled as I realized just how much I wanted that control.  I needed to be able to use my mind, to put things into motion when I had an idea.

I need control, I thought.

I tried to open my mouth to tell Panacea, and I couldn’t.  I’d pushed my focus out towards my swarm, and I couldn’t reel it back in to my body.

I was still aware of my body, but it felt piecemeal, now.  My fist was shaking, I had my head bowed, my teeth clenched so hard against one another it hurt.  My heart was pounding, my breath coming out in inconsistent huffs through my nose, pushing just a bit of mucus free.  My eyes were wet with tears, but I hadn’t blinked, causing them to build up on the surface of my eyeballs.

All of these things were normal, but I didn’t feel like they were all intuitive parts of a whole.  My concept of my body as a connected thing had shattered, the ties broken.

If this continued, I’d be on autopilot from here on out, if I could even put the individual components together to walk.

I need control, I thought.

A moment passed, and I could feel Panacea working to give me that control, changing what she was focusing on.  I felt the swarm moving more in sync with what I was thinking and wanting.  But this… I could sense what was happening, feel my range plummeting yet again, the guillotine coming down.  My range had been cut down further.

Take an inch in one department, lose several inches in another.  Lose a whole foot.

Everything was piecemeal now, slipping away.

If this continued, I’d have nothing left.  A net loss operation.

Stop, Panacea, I thought.  Stop, stop, stop, stop…

My swarm attacked her, and it wasn’t because of any conscious command on my part.  The attack was crude, more the swarming behavior of wasps drunk on attack pheromones than the calculated attack I was used to employing.

She stopped, pulling back and falling backwards in a clumsy way.

“Shit, shit, shit, fuck,” a young woman’s voice, from a distance away.  Not Panacea.

Tattletale.

I raised my head, and Tattletale startled a little.  Why had she startled?  The way I’d moved?

“What did you do, Taylor?”  Tattletale asked.

What did I do?  I wanted the answer to that question, myself.

I looked at Amy, realizing the bugs were still approaching her.  I pulled the swarm away, and I felt how hard it was to move them.

I was left with the ruins of my power.  My range was maybe a third of what it might otherwise be, the control rough-edged at best.  There were bugs in my swarm that I couldn’t control, too small.

There were too many things to concentrate on.  The swarm, the nuances of my power, my state of near-panic, and the fact that I no longer felt like a complete, connected human being.  The other stuff, it wasn’t that it wasn’t important, but it was so secondary.

Someone large, with flames swirling around his hands, stalking towards me… didn’t matter.  My power – was my inability to get a complete picture due to a loss of my multitasking ability?

It was Lung who was approaching, Lung who stopped a short distance away, his breathing hot, muscles tensed, flames rolling over his clawed hands and forearms.

He stared at me, his eyes a molten orange-red behind his mask, his breath hot enough it shimmered in the air.  Waiting to see if I was a danger?

“Taylor…” Tattletale said, as if from very far away.

But she didn’t say anything else.  She stared for long seconds, and then she paced, walking the perimeter, as if she could get different perspectives on me from the edges of the room.  Bonesaw, a little distance away, was half-crouched, tensed, between me, Doormaker and the clairvoyant.  She looked less like a child and more like a wild animal.  Reverting to habit, maybe, only without the veneer of the innocent, cutesy, perky child this time.

The stillness of it all was eerie, not helping the growing sense of panic I was experiencing.  Everyone’s eyes were on me, and I felt like I might be having a panic attack.  I couldn’t regulate my breathing because focusing on that meant my body was getting tenser, my one fist clenched so hard it hurt.  Paying attention to my hand meant my breathing started to spiral out of control again.  All the while, my heart was pounding.  Nothing I could do to fix that.

I closed my eyes, in an effort to shut out the external stimuli, and I felt the moisture running down to the point where my lenses met my cheekbones, settling there.  I raised my head to look at the cave roof.

As if that was some kind of cue, Bonesaw dashed through the doorway.

Why was I crying?  It didn’t fit.  I was scared, my hand was shaking and I couldn’t be sure how much was fear and how much was because of what Panacea had done.  I was angry, inexplicably, frustrated, and I couldn’t shake the phantom memories of being in jail.

Trapped in an uncooperative body?  No.  The emotions and the thoughts didn’t match with that.  Why was I thinking about it, all of a sudden?

I felt almost nauseous, now, on top of the sense of panic and the conflicting, nonsensical emotions I was experiencing.  Or because of them, maybe.  I felt myself tip over as if I were physically reeling from it all.  When my leg moved to catch me, it wasn’t because I gave it the order.  It wasn’t a reflexive response either.  A third party.

Passenger, I thought.  I guess we’re going to have to learn to work together here.

My breathing eased a notch.  I had no way of telling if it was the passenger reacting or if it was my own reaction to the realization that the passenger was there.

“Weaver?”  A girl’s voice.

I wasn’t sure I trusted my control over my bugs to get a good sense of where she was or what she was doing.  I turned my head to see Canary standing by the portal.

“Don’t,” Tattletale said.  “Don’t bother her.  Leave her alone for long enough that she can get her bearings.  Wait.”

“What happened, Weaver?”  Canary asked, ignoring Tattletale.

Someone answer that question for me, I thought.

Tattletale?  No, she was silent.

Bonesaw was gone.

Canary wouldn’t know.

Passenger?  I thought.  Any clues?

It was easier to talk to my passenger than it was to speak up and answer the question.  Speaking up meant voicing everything that was wrong, my confusion, the fears, the worries, the fact that my body, my mind and my emotions all felt entirely unhinged.  Speaking meant trying to talk around the growing lump in my throat.

“You never learned to ask for help when you needed it,” Tattletale said.  Her voice was almost accusatory.  “I mean, you ask when you approach other groups, and it’s like you’re holding a gun to their heads as you ask, or you ask at a time when it’s hard for them to say no, because all hell’s about to break loose.”

I glanced down at Panacea.  She wasn’t moving, aside from rocking a bit back and forth as she breathed, her head slumped, eyes on the ground.

Was it me?  Something grotesque?  Horrible?  Had I changed?

No.  I had taken stock of myself, I’d seen myself, and I was still the same, as far as I could tell.  Two arms, two legs, two eyes, a working nose, ears and mouth.  One missing hand, but that was to be expected.

“Yeah, you asked Panacea.  You asked me to play along and arrange stuff, when you went to go turn yourself in.  Your handling of the school thing… well, I don’t want to get into a pattern and start cutting too deep.  Let’s just say you make a decision by yourself, and then you use others to get help carrying it out.  That’s not really you asking for help, is it?”

I didn’t need this, not now.  But I looked up, meeting Tattletale’s eyes.  She was standing behind Lung, now.  He was changing.  Was he biding his time?

“While I’m saying all this, kiddo, you gotta know I love you.  I adore you, warts and all.  You saved me, as much as I like to think I saved you.  All this stuff I’m bitching about, it’s the same stuff that got us through some pretty hairy shit, and I love you for it as much as I groan about it.  You’re brilliant and you’re reckless and you care too much about people in general when I really wish you’d leave things well enough alone and be selfish.  But this?”

This?

“Shit,” Tattletale said.  “You gotta forgive me, just this once.  Because seeing this and knowing what you pulled hurts enough that I gotta say this.  This makes me feel really sorry for your dad, because I’m starting to get a sense of what you put him through.”

She might as well have slapped me full-force.  Worse, I deserved it.

So this is what it’s like to be on the opposite end of a Tattletale attack.

“There,” she said.  She smiled a little, but it wasn’t a grin, exactly.  If it was an attempt at being reassuring, it wasn’t something she had a lot of practice in.  “I’ve said what I needed to say.  I do have your back, here.  Now we need to figure out how we’re going to fix this.”

Which I was okay with, except I wasn’t sure what this was.

This isn’t easily reversed,” Bonesaw said.

She had returned, and she’d brought others.

Marquis, and two of Marquis’ lieutenants.  They’d been delivering wounded up until a bit ago, but their hands were empty now.  Marquis was a little dusty, but still elegant and elaborately dressed without being feminine, his hair tied back into a ponytail.  He was accompanied by the hyper-neat guy and the guy with arms black from fingertip to elbow.  All three looked like they were in full on business mode.

“I’m open to trying,” Tattletale said.

Marquis surveyed the situation with a cool gaze.

“I’m not hearing a resounding yes here,” Tattletale said.

Marquis strode forwards.

“Careful!” Tattletale called out.

I might have dodged if I’d had full control over my own body.  I might have dodged if I’d been a little more focused.  Hell, I probably would’ve dodged if it wasn’t for the realization that Tattletale was warning Marquis instead of warning me.

I thought she had my back, I thought, as Marquis’ shaft of bone caught me dead center in the chest.  I couldn’t have dodged if I’d had full control over my body and my flight suit.  It hit me in the sternum, broad and flat, and shoved me back and away.

The bone changed as it pushed me, splaying out in two branches.  The backwards momentum made it impossible to get my feet under me, which meant I hit the ground, rump first, then a heavy hit with the hard shell of the flight pack, and finally a crack of my skull against the hard stone floor of the cave.

I came to a stop, and was just beginning to get my bearings when Marquis continued extending the pole.  I was shoved further back until my back was against a stone, five feet from the cave mouth, five and a half feet away from the sheer rock ledge above a sheer drop I couldn’t measure with my bugs.  The two branches of bone sat on either side of my neck, like the arms of a dowsing rod, pinning me in place.

The skin of his other hand had ripped and torn as the bones of a massive skeletal hand had erupted from his wrist.  Judging by its position around Lung and Panacea, he’d apparently used the hand to push or slide them back away from me.

“Oh god,” Panacea was saying, “Oh shit, oh god.”

A sudden display of emotion, as confusing to me as everything else here.

And here they were, Marquis, his men, Lung, Panacea, Canary, Tattletale and the portal duo from Cauldron, staring me down.

“Sixteen feet,” Tattletale said, her voice quiet.  “Fifteen point nine-eight feet, to be exact, but we can ballpark it.”

Marquis nodded.  “Parahuman abilities wax and wane depending on one’s mental state.  Given how volatile she may be…”

“It’s not going to change,” Panacea said, not making eye contact with anyone.  She was staring at the backs of her hands, which were flat against the cave floor, or staring at the tattoos that covered them.  “I felt how it changed…  Not connected to her emotions or those parts of her brain.  Not anymore.”

“I see.  Good to know, thank you,” Marquis said.  He approached three paces, and the bone shaft that extended between his arm and the branches that pinned my neck shrunk a corresponding amount.

He was keeping a distance, a good twenty or twenty five feet away from me.

Why did Tattletale say sixteen feet?

“What are you guys talking about?” Canary asked.

“I would have burned her,” Lung growled the words, ignoring her.  “But I thought you would be upset if I burned Amelia in the process.”

“Quite right,” Marquis said.  He didn’t take his eyes off me.

“Oh god,” Panacea was saying, her hands moving to her head, her fingers in her hair, inadvertently pulling it from the ponytail.  “Oh fuck me, oh god.”

“Hush,” Marquis said.  He laid a hand on her shoulder.

“Well, this is a step forward for you, Ames,” Tattletale commented.

Don’t,” Panacea hissed the word.  “Don’t you fucking dare.”

“…This time you got consent before you screwed someone up beyond your ability to fix it.”

“I’ll fucking kill you,” Panacea snarled.

There was a distant rumble, intense enough it could be both heard and felt through the doorway that Doormaker had open between us and Earth Gimel.  The fight was ongoing, and it sounded like maybe they were leading Scion away from the settlement.

My friends were out there.  Rachel, Aisha.  Here I was, doing nothing.

My hand slid on the stone beneath me as my body tried to push itself to a standing position, only to meet the ‘v’ of bone at my neck.  Why had I done that?  I hadn’t actually made the decision.

Passenger?  I thought.

Was it making decisions with my body, too?

Not a question I could answer definitively.  I turned my mind to a question I could focus on.

Sixteen feet. 

I saw how the others were spreading out, forming a line behind Marquis, their attention on me.  I saw the length of the column of bone.

It belatedly clicked.  Sixteen feet was the distance they needed to keep from me.

“I’d like to say I’m sorry for being a little rough,” Marquis said.  “I was in a hurry, trying to get my daughter to safety.”

Aahheuuhhhmmm.

It took me long seconds to wrap my head around the fact that the sound had come out of my mouth.  Not the right syllables, not even something that sounded like words.  My hand flew to my mouth.  My fingertips dug through the thick spidersilk fabric for some purchase on my lips, as if I could somehow manually get them to start working again.  Even the movement of my hand was clumsy.

I was a puppeteer trying to make the puppet move by tugging the strings from some remote place.  Something as complex as speech was beyond me.

I tried to form words with the swarm, to speak or to spell.  I failed.

Far, far beyond me.

I could see Tattletale reacting too, her entire body going rigid.  She took a half-step back.

I lowered my eyes to the cave floor.  My fingers were moving, grasping, and it wasn’t me doing it.

“Ah,” Marquis said.  “Shame.  A communication problem makes it harder to gauge how much we can trust her.”

Trust her, he’d said, instead of trust you.  Like there was no point to saying it to me directly.  Marquis was talking to Tattletale to refer to me in the same way someone might talk to the family member or companion of a mentally disabled individual or small child, instead of the diminutive individual themselves.

As though I was so fucked up I apparently needed a guardian to act as a translator or advocate.

“I can tell you how she is,” Tattletale said.

“You’re biased, to be frank,” Marquis said.  “I’m not willing to put myself, my family, or my underlings in a dangerous position because you have a sentimental spot for Weaver.  And before you launch into a spiel, I should warn you that Amelia here has filled me in on you.  I’m aware of how convincing you can be.  Spruce, Cinderhands, Lung?  You have my permission to mutiny if you think she’s gaming me.  I even recommend it.”

“Hardly fair,” Tattletale said.

“It’s rather fair, all things considered,” Marquis said.  “If you can convince all of us, then it must be a legitimate and sound argument.”

“I think you’re underestimating how eager Lung is for an excuse to hurt something,” Tattletale said.

“Maybe so,” Marquis said.  He glanced at Lung.

“You are too soft with women and children,” Lung said.  “If she starts something, I will break your rule for you and immolate her.”

“I suppose that’ll do,” Marquis said, sighing a little, he gave Tattletale a look, and she nodded a little.

There was another distant rumble.  A sound like a thousand men screaming in unison.  I felt a chill.

“Let’s put this issue to rest,” Marquis said.  “A compromise.”

“Sure.  I’m open to compromise,” Tattletale said.  “Beats being immolated.”

Marquis turned.  “Doormaker?  Another portal, please.  We’ll change locations and set up a triage unit somewhere else.  We link it to Gimel, and we close all doors leading to and from this cave.”

“I’m not sure I like this compromise,” Tattletale said.

“Weaver is an unknown quantity.  We’ll leave her here, as safe as anyone on any Earth is, and we conclude this fight against Scion, win or lose.  When all’s said and done, we come back and we see what we can do for her.”

There was a long pause.

Stay here?  Not participating?

I tensed.  My bugs stirred.

Right.  I still had my bugs.  My control was down, but only just.  Anything I touched or manipulated would be like I was using my left hand instead of my right.

Problem was, I didn’t exactly have a wealth of bugs to work with.

“It’s… sorta hard to argue with,” Tattletale said.  “But I don’t like it.”

“Nature of a compromise is that it leaves everyone more or less equally unhappy,” Marquis said.  “I’d feel happier if she was under secure restraints, but I’m content to break this rod and leave her free to forage and look after herself while we’re gone.”

No thread left.  I’d used too much of it when we’d made the platform back at the Cauldron base.

There was a new dimension to my power, at a cost to everything else.  Sixteen feet of range.

I just needed to figure out how to use it.

Tattletale shook her head.  “If Doormaker dies, she’s stranded here, all alone, more than a little borked in the head and in the heart.  Possibly for the rest of her life.”

“If Doormaker dies, I think we’re all in dire straits,” Marquis said.  “This is the fairest solution.  I think you realize that.”

I raised my hand, fingertips going vertical, moving my stump in that general direction, knowing she could draw the conclusion.  Best I could do in terms of a pleading gesture, with only one hand to work with.

Tattletale stared.  “…Yeah.  Except for one thing.”

“There’s a snag,” Marquis concluded, sounding a little defeated.

“Sure.  Life isn’t fair, and I’ve got a hell of a lot of faith in that girl.  Besides, we agreed not so long ago that we wouldn’t leave each other behind.”

“Unfortunate.  Lung, Cinderhands?  Make Tattletale leave.  Drag her if you have to, but don’t hurt her.”

“You test my patience with this gentleness of yours,” Lung growled, but he took hold of Tattletale’s arm with one claw.  Cinderhands took her other arm.

“Watch for her gun.  If she gets a hand free, she’ll use it on one of us,” Panacea said.  She followed the trio.

I struggled to reach my feet, but the ‘v’ of bone at my throat held me.  I slumped back down to the ground, staring at the ones who remained.

“Stop struggling, Weaver,” Marquis said.  “Please relax.  You took a gamble and you lost.  You sit this one out.”

I narrowed my eyes behind the lenses of my mask.

“Spruce?  Can you use your power?  Not too much.  Enough she can break free before too long?”

The tidy man shook his head.  He turned his hand over, and a little sphere swirled in it, looking like a cabbage made of stone.  He closed his hand, and it winked out of existence.  “Ten years ago?  Sure.  Right now?  I don’t trust my accuracy.  I’d be worried about the structure of the cave if my power touched anything to either side or behind her.”

Marquis nodded.  “Go look after the others, then.  Be ready to shut the door the moment I’m through.”

Spruce turned to leave, ushering Doormaker and the clairvoyant out.

“I know you have tricks up your sleeve.  You have bugs, you have the pepper spray.  You have other tools I probably don’t know about.  I’m going to assume you’re in a state of mind to use those tricks.  I’m going to hope you’re in a state of mind to listen when I ask you not to use them.  Stay here, pull yourself together, and we’ll come for you when we can.  If we can.  I give you my oath that I’ll do my utmost to keep Tattletale safe in the meantime.”

My hands were clenching and unclenching.  Not by my own volition.

Eeeeuunnh,” I growled.

“I’m very optimistically going to take that as a reluctant yes,” he said.

It took me a moment to get the motions in order, but I managed to shake my head very slowly from side to side.

“Alright,” he said.  He put an arm on Canary’s armored shoulder.  “Canary?  Please step through.  I’ll be right behind you.”

She started to obey, then stopped.  “I… I really know how you feel, Weaver.  Sort of.  I took Cauldron’s stuff, it messed me up, physically.  I felt horrible, I went a little crazy.  And maybe three years after I picked myself up and pulled it all together, everything went to shit.  Like life was reminding me of the mistake I made.  So I- I know what you’re feeling.  But you can make peace with it.  So… don’t beat yourself up too hard?  Take it from someone that’s done that too much.”

“It was kind of you to say that,” Marquis said.  “Please step through?”

Canary nodded.

He was watching her go.

I heaved myself sideways, freeing my left arm to reach to my right hip.  In the process, I managed to move the branch of bone a little to one side.  Not enough to get my head free of it, but enough to get some elbow room.

“Heads up!” Marquis called out.

My hand fumbled for my gun, and I pulled it free.  I raised it to the point where the branch split in two and fired.  The thickest point.

Perhaps a little insane, to fire upwards, at something as hard as bone, inches from my face and throat.

But the bone shattered and splintered.

I was free, and Marquis was already taking action.  Armor of bone surrounded him, ornate, decorative, but with enough coverage that the bugs near him were either crushed against his skin or they failed to find a way through.  I didn’t have any bugs small enough to fit through the vertical slits around the eyes and mouth.

The spear of bone began branching out, becoming a veritable tree, filling the cave between myself and Marquis with forking and dividing limbs.  He was backing away, creating more bone to stay connected to the base of the tree.  He knew what I’d try to do next.

I didn’t stand.  I couldn’t afford to take the time.  I used the flight pack, extending the wings with the thrusters, and launched myself at the wall of the cave.  I hit it a little harder than I might have liked, one wing bending, and then scraped against it, flying in Marquis’ general direction, moving along the cave ceiling where there were less branches.

The amount of space I had to maneuver in was rapidly closing. My dangling leg caught a branch, and I nearly lost all of my momentum.  I was forced to put the thrusters away, but one didn’t fold away properly where it had bent in the collision.

Tree branches of bone closed around me.  I activated the thruster on the remaining wing, and I opened fire, blind, in the hopes of clearing a route.

Marquis moved to the side, creating a shield of bone in front of himself and Canary.  The bullets weren’t really on course for them, but it worked out in my favor.  He’d broken the shaft of bone to free himself to move, and the ‘tree’ was no longer growing.  I flew through the biggest available gaps, snapping the thinner spears and spines of bone on my way through.

Twenty feet away from Marquis.  He moved back, and then grabbed the ‘tree’.

A disc of bone unfolded in front of me, as though the tree were a parasol.  A wall, a barrier.

I shot at the edge, and a chunk broke off.

But more flowed free before I could wedge myself into the resulting gap.  It sealed the cave off.  I shot again, but it was too thick.  The trigger clicked as I pulled it again and again, fruitlessly.  The movement was so frantic and jerky that the gun fell from my clumsy grip.

“Terribly sorry,” Marquis murmured.

Panic and fear welled up inside me.

I don’t want to stay behind.  I can’t.  You don’t understand.  I’ll lose my mind, more than it already feels a little lost.

Gorrugh,” I hissed.  The armor of my mask clicked against the bone as I rested my head against it.

The fear, the panic, no…

I felt it, but it wasn’t mine.  Neither was the fear and paralysis I’d felt before, or the anger.

I was so used to my power being automatic, I wasn’t used to having to exert any kind of will.

I tapped into the feeling, I focused all of my attention on my ability.

Sixteen feet.  Marquis was out of my range, but Canary had been slower to move, her reflexes not as good.  She’d been caught up in watching, maybe not wanting to turn her back on a fight in progress, and she hadn’t moved as quickly.

I was touching the wall of bone, and Canary was fifteen or so feet away, on the other side.

Now that I was taking the time to look, to sense, I was aware of Canary’s body in the same way I’d been aware of Lung’s.  As Panacea’s, to a lesser degree.  Her steady, measured breathing, the complete lack of movement.

Just like Lung and Panacea had been frozen.

Waiting for instructions.

I couldn’t move her closer to Marquis without putting her outside of my range.  Instead, I turned her around.

“Ah… damnation,” Marquis said.

Her movements weren’t much more fluid than my own ones here.  A drawback, among many.  She marched towards me and the wall Marquis had created.

He snared her, throwing out shafts of bone and surrounding her upper body with a cage of the stuff, interlocking the two pieces.

But she wore the Dragonslayer’s armored suit.  She bent her legs at my order, and then lunged forward.  She broke the bone that surrounded her, and with her fist free she struck the wall of bone.

Two, three, four times.

Marquis stepped forward, very carefully, and planted a foot on the base of the shaft of bone.  The wall began to thicken, faster than Canary could smash it.

Her power…

I looked, and I had enough of a sense of her inner workings to get a sense of her general state of well being, where she was sore, her fitness, and her power.

She began to sing.

Bring him closer.  Bring him in.

The song changed.  The relentless, almost machinelike drum against the wall of bone continued, cracking it with the power of the suit, and I could sense Marquis wavering.  He lowered his foot from the shaft of bone and began to approach Canary.

I was so used to a buzzing, to a dull roar of power in my ears.  This was so much more complex.  Complex and seductive, the emotions I was tapping into.  Linking myself to Canary on some level.

I could remember being in Dragon and Defiant’s grip, being hauled along on the way to the roof, so soon after killing Alexandria and Director Tagg.  Struggling, futile, hopeless.

I could look beyond that surface memory, and I could see what was beneath it, a general sensation, a recollection of a feeling.  Canary, struggling, helpless and bound, terrified and panicking, with a dull sense of guilt over what she’d done, a reality that she hadn’t quite processed and might not fully process for weeks or months.

She was me and I was her.  Shared experience.  She was an extension of myself.

There was no way to know if that was a good thing.  I was starting to feel a little unhinged again.  A little disconnected from me.

The only thing scarier than that fact was the knowledge that it was only going to get worse.  This was my tool.  This was what I’d sacrificed my mind, body, range, and control to obtain.  Sixteen paltry feet of range.  Sixteen feet of range that, according to Panacea, I wouldn’t be able to increase through my emotions.

I made myself climb to my feet, pushing my way through the smaller branches of bone, reaching up with my hand to grab a larger branch for balance.  My legs were shaky beneath me, my head a little lopsided, and if I hadn’t been holding on to something, I suspected my arm would have hung utterly limp at my side.  I couldn’t… I couldn’t dig for that knowledge of how my body was supposed to be in a resting state.

I saw the first crack spread on my side of the wall.

Better yet, Marquis was getting closer.  One or two more reluctant steps our way, and-

-And I never got to find out if I’d be able to leverage his power.  Lung stepped into the hallway, and he filled it with fire.

Canary was armored, though her hair was set on fire where it flowed beneath the helmet.  Marquis, too, was armored.  Neither was positioned to be turned into a crisp.

But the fire drowned out the singing.  The fire stopped, and Canary could hear Marquis’ footsteps as he ran, hands pressed to where his ears were covered by his helmet.

I had Canary punch through the wall.  She reached through the wall and grabbed me by the straps of my flight pack, hauling me through.

The doorway was closing.  Canary, it seemed, was being left behind.

I had her throw me, and I used my flight pack to get extra speed.

I slid through the doorway two seconds before it was too narrow to pass through.  I lay there, the group staring down at me.

Coohugggah,” I mumbled, with more than a little anger in my voice, as I slowly made my way to my feet.  Nobody offered me a hand, but that was my choice, not theirs.

My stump of an arm was throbbing, and the rest of me felt alien.  My movements weren’t all my own choice, with the passenger apparently doing something to help me manage.

I looked through the other portal, beside us.  Gimel.

I left the others alone, not controlling them.  When Spruce was in my way, I pushed him aside with physical strength.

I’m fighting, I thought.  I’m fighting Scion.  Somehow.

I could see myself through their eyes.  Each image was slightly distorted, just different enough to be uncanny and out of sync.  I had more awareness of myself through them than I had with my own eyes.

I stepped into the damaged fast food restaurant, and over the rubble at the front where one attack or another had clipped the building.  As I made my way to the front, the others behind me found themselves out of my reach, free to move of their own volition again.

Free to attack me if they wanted.

Marquis, Panacea, Bonesaw… not so dangerous.

Lung?  No.  If he was going to kill me, he’d let me know just before he did it.

Spruce?  Cinderhands?  They were maybe the type to attack me, because of pride and the fact that I’d momentarily seized control of them.

Tattletale was freed.  She dashed forward, hopping over rubble and debris to get closer to me.  She stopped three or four paces from me.

A fraction more than sixteen feet away.

But she didn’t say a word.

Scion was there.  Tearing through people with a ferocity, this time.  People were scrambling for cover that did so very little against Scion, trying to erect defenses, hiding and fleeing.

Had we already lost?

A collection of capes, many carrying wounded, headed our way.  Rachel, Imp and Bastard were among them.

I moved to the side, but I failed to anticipate their path.  I’d expected them to head into the sandwich-place-turned-hospital, but they moved straight towards me.

I backed away, taking flight, while Tattletale rushed forward, her footfalls tracing a curved path around a bubble that only she seemed to be conscious of.  She stopped in their way, arms outstretched, shouting, “Go around!  Dangerous power!”

Most of them listened.  Only one, looking over his shoulder at Scion, stumbled past Tattletale, into my range.  I was looking for it this time, and I could feel his being snap into my mind’s eye.  He froze in place.

No sooner did I have control than Tattletale grabbed the guy by the back of the collar and hauled him out.

“The fuck?” Imp asked.

Tattletale let the guy go, and he fled.

I couldn’t reply, so I focused on gathering my bugs.  No use dismissing a resource that had once been vital.

Someone volunteered herself for noninvasive brain surgery from the lunatic with a sister complex.  Or, just as likely, she asked the lunatic psychopath for invasive brain surgery and the other lunatic stepped in.  Now Skitter’s broken.”

“That didn’t look broken,” Imp said.  “That guy…”

“Hrrrrrn,” I said.

“Hrrrrn,” Imp replied, nodding sagely.  “Now I understand.”

“She can’t talk,” Rachel said, more a statement than a question.

I shook my head.  Can’t move as fast or as well as before…

I belatedly realized that Rachel had hopped off of Bastard.  She reached her hand forward, as if feeling her way.

I backed away, but she stepped forward faster.

A conception of Rachel’s entire being bloomed in my consciousness.

I made her step back away.

“Mm,” Rachel grunted.

“Why the fuck would you do that?” Tattletale asked.

Because she trusts me far too much, I thought.

“She’s smarter than I am,” Rachel said.  “Let her do what she needs to.”

I shook my head, backing away with my flight pack.

Controlling Rachel wouldn’t achieve anything.  I wouldn’t get any special knowledge of her whistles or commands, or her instinctive understanding of the dogs.

But I needed to do something.

Marquis and the others were approaching, on guard, looking tense.

I was a wild card, now, something they couldn’t wholly trust.  A little unhinged, a little unpredictable, and my power would be more dangerous and debilitating in their minds than it was useful.

“You’re going?”  Tattletale asked, almost realizing it before I had.

I nodded.

“Good luck,” she said.  “You know where to find us.”

I nodded again, taking to the air with my damaged flight pack, but it was with a heavy heart.

I’d told myself, not so long ago, that I’d know the route to victory when I saw it.  I had an idea of what I needed to do now.

Maybe it was good I couldn’t speak, because I would’ve said the words if I’d had the ability, and we’d sworn not to.  I had to think it instead, and this way, they didn’t need to hear it.

Goodbye, Undersiders.

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Cockroaches 28.3

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“You have something in mind?” Defiant asked.

“No,” I said.  “But we’re dealing with problems on a massive scale.  We need to look for solutions on that same scale.”

“Um,” Imp said.  “You just leaped from the subject of talking about the Endbringers to talking about solutions.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I think we definitely need to think about solutions, Endbringer-wise.”

“Oh, well, of course,” Imp said.  “This is doable.  Something we’ve managed once in the last thirty years, taking down Endbringers.”

“Shh,” Tattletale said.  She turned to me.  “There’s more to this.”

“Dinah told me the defending forces would be divided into five groups.  Armies, individuals, some of the biggest capes, and unknowns.”

“She said that to others.  It’s on record in the PRT,” Defiant told me.

“Five groups in different places, and Dinah couldn’t see why they were there, she couldn’t see the particulars.  She said there could be too many precogs there, but what if that’s not it?  What if she’s blind about the particulars because the Endbringers are there?”

“A coordinated attack?” Narwhal asked.

I nodded.  “It’s possible.  Either it’s Leviathan, Simurgh, Tohu, Bohu and Khonsu, or Scion’s there and Tohu and Bohu are together, as usual.”

“I can’t imagine the defending forces would hold the line for very long, if at all,” Defiant said.  “Not if we’re spread that thin.”

“A situation this dire brings out all of the people who might not otherwise fight,” I said.  “Parian wasn’t a fighter, but when Leviathan hit Brockton Bay, she stepped up to the plate.  As things get worse, we might see some people doing the same.”

“If it’s five Endbringers and Scion we’re up against, we might see people giving up altogether,” Narwhal pointed out.

I nodded.  “Tattletale already said something like that.  Yes.  A lot hinges on whatever comes next, whether we can get people on board.  Whether others are doing the same.”

“Alright,” Defiant said.  “You have something in mind for the Endbringers?”

“A pre-emptive attack,” Narwhal said, her voice quiet.  “If it provokes them to lash out, well, at least it’s not a coordinated attack, and at least it’s at a point in time when Scion’s busy elsewhere.  The Simurgh is standing still.  We could hit her with something like what we used in New Delhi or Los Angeles.”

“We could,” Defiant agreed.

“Let’s think on it?” I suggested.  “We can’t do this without laying out the groundwork, and that means convincing people this isn’t hopeless, it means gathering information, getting resources together.”

“Then do your thinking as you get ready,” Defiant said.  “Gear up.  Gather anyone you think you need.”

“I’m set,” Tattletale said.  Imp and Rachel nodded.

“I’ll need my spare costume pieces from the Dragonfly,” I said.  “I parked it in Gimel before I left for the rig.  Hoping my flight pack has enough of a charge.”

“Go,” Defiant said.  “I’ll see to Saint.”

“And me?” Canary asked.

“We can get you a standard Protectorate costume.  Spider silk,” Narwhal said.  “Durable, flexible.  No frills, nothing fancy, but it’ll be better than nothing.”

Canary frowned.

“What?” Narwhal asked.

“Just… skintight suits.”

“Got a bit of pudge there?” Imp asked.  “Fat thighs?  Cankles?”

“I don’t have cankles,” Canary said.  “Or fat thighs.  But it’s not…”

She trailed off.

Imp plucked the fabric of her own costume. “I’ve been there.  You think looking this good is easy?  Skintight is a bitch to pull off.  Diets, exercise, keeping up with the patrols and the life or death fights.  Surprised you didn’t get that while you were in the slammer.”

“Not a lot of choice in food, or freedom of movement when you can get cut in half for setting one toe in the wrong spot,” Canary said.  She was frowning, now.

“You can wear your clothes over it,” Narwhal suggested.  “We can get you some tools.  Nonlethal weapons.  So you’re able to defend yourself.”

They’d work it out.  I shook my head a little.  Had to focus on my own thing.

“Doorway, please,” I murmured.  “Gimel.  By the Dragonfly, New Brockton Bay.”

The portal began to slide open.

“I’ll do you one better, Canary,” Saint said.  “I’ll give you one of the spare Dragonslayer suits.”

“It’s… a good offer, but I think I’d feel like I was betraying Dragon if I took it.”

“You wouldn’t be able to pay her what you supposedly owe her if you died, either,” Saint said.  “This is freely offered.  No strings attached.  I’ll give you the ability to fly, Canary.  Better nonlethal weapons than the ones they have Masamune manufacturing.”

“I don’t know,” she said.

I hesitated in the doorway to listen.  Tattletale, Rachel and Imp walked past me on their way through.

“Do it,” Defiant said, not looking at Canary or Saint.  His eyes were on the laptop.  “Saint?  I’ll be looking over everything for tricks and backdoors.”

“Noted,” Saint said.

Defiant opened the door to Saint’s cell.

Saint stood, then rolled his head around, as if getting kinks out of his neck.  He looked so small next to Defiant, but he wasn’t a small guy.  His face was marked by lines of stress, but his gaze was hard.

“You don’t leave my sight,” Defiant said.  “Any access you have to a system is routed through me.  I double-check it.”

Saint nodded.

I passed through the portal, entering the field where I’d set down the Dragonfly. Some kids were climbing around the outside of the ship, but they ran the second they saw us, shouting.

The wind blew, making waves in the tall grass.  I turned to face it so my hair wouldn’t blow into my face.  I was left looking out over the water, while I moved bugs into the necessary channels and manipulated the switches, bidding the ramp to open.

“It doesn’t get said enough, but this is pretty damn cool,” Tattletale said.  “Outclassed convenience-wise by the portals we’ve got access to, but yeah, nice.”

“Yeah,” I said.  My mind was almost someplace else, considering everything that was in play, the threats, the necessities.

I paused, glancing out at New Brockton Bay.  Brockton Bay Gimel.  Tents and shelters were spread out everywhere, with ramshackle shelters dotting the landscape with little sense or organization.  Here and there, there were paths forming, where the passage of hundreds of people were tramping down grass and disturbing the earth.  Crews of people working in groups to erect basic shelters, bringing down trees and reducing them to basic components that they could form into shelters.

I felt a stirring, a mix of emotions, at seeing that.

Looking at them, I could almost sense that they were blissfully unaware.  They didn’t know how badly we’d lost in our initial foray, or their attitudes would be different.  There wasn’t anything like television or radio to spread the word.  There would only be word of mouth.

Had someone told them, only for the masses to dismiss it as hearsay?  Dismissing it because they didn’t want to believe we were well and truly fucked?  Or had the word simply failed to spread, with enough people keeping quiet, believing that it wouldn’t do any good for people to know?

They were lucky, to be able to face the end of the world without full knowledge of what we were up against.  Without the knowledge of what Scion was, or the looming, patient presence of the two Endbringers on Earth Bet.

It was arrogant, even condescending, but I felt a kind of warmth in the center of my chest when I looked at the people down there, like a parent might feel for a child, accompanying a sort of pity.

And somehow, when I pictured the people going to work, sweating, dirty, hungry and scared, getting eaten alive by flies, selflessly carrying out barn raisings to give shelter to the old, the infirm and the very young, I couldn’t help but picture my dad in their midst.  It was the sort of thing he’d do.

Nobody had explicitly said he’d died, and I’d gone out of my way not to ask.  Still, I felt how wet my eyes were when I blinked.  No tears, but my eyes were wet.

I could envision Charlotte down there.  Sierra.  Forrest.  The kids, Ephraim, Mason, Aiden, Kathy and Mai, I imagined, would be bringing water to the people hard at work.

Except Sierra had other duties, and the orphan children from my territory were older.  The kids would be doing basic jobs by now, overseeing new batches of kids with the errands, sweeping, and other stuff in that vein.  Still, it was a mental picture that defied logic, like seeing my dad down there.  I pictured them with the water bottles.

I shook my head a little to rid myself of the mental image, and in the doing, I stirred myself from the daydreaming entirely.  I was still standing at the foot of the ramp.

“Lost in thought?” Tattletale asked.

“Sorry,” I said.  I turned to make my way up the ramp, Tattletale keeping pace beside me.  Rachel had already settled in, lying on a bench, Bastard lying on the ground just below her.  Imp had settled outside in the grass, her head turned towards what would have been the south end of the city, if the city existed in this world.

“No need to apologize.  Constructive thought?  Strategy?”

“No.  Not constructive at all,” I said.  “Thinking about the people.”

“The people?” Tattletale asked.  “We keep telling them to split up, that we’ll give them portals to different spots around Gimel, or to other Earths.  The ones down there are the ones that refuse to go.  Sitting there, clustered into a massive target for Scion, the Endbringers, or the Yàngbǎn to take out.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “Everything I’ve said in the past stands.  Humans are idiots.  They’re selfish and injust and unfair, they’re violent and clumsy and petty and shortsighted.  Don’t get me wrong.  Every part of that applies to me, too.  I’m not setting myself above them on any level.”

“Mm,” Tattletale responded.

I began gathering the components for my suit.  I’d wear the same thing I did to the fight against Scion.  Just needed the individual parts.

“But at the end of the day, sometimes humanity isn’t so bad.”

“Sometimes,” she said.  “Took me a while to realize that.  The more you find out, the uglier things tend to look.  But you keep looking, and it’s not all bad at the end.”

I nodded, reaching into my pocket to get the little tube of pepper spray I’d claimed from my ruined costume.  I moved it into the belt of the new costume, then began stripping out of the casual clothes I wore.

I paused when I had my shirt off and my hair more or less in order, holding the bundle against my chest.

“I want to save them,” I said, surprising myself with the emotion in my voice.

“Scary thing is,” Tattletale said, “I know what you mean.  Most times, I’m just not that fond of people.  Seen enough ugliness in them that I don’t… care?  No.  That’s wrong.  I care, I cared, past tense.  But I didn’t… mind, if something happened to them.  That’s closer to the mark.”

I nodded.  I wasn’t surprised at that.

“But we’re getting to this point where I want to do something for them like I wanted to do something for you.  Probably a bad omen.”

“No,” I said, quiet, as I strapped on armor.  I looked at her.  “Do you regret reaching out to me?”

“No,” she said.  “But that doesn’t mean it was all right, know what I mean?”

I nodded.

Tattletale gave me a pat on the back before making her way to the bench opposite Rachel, grabbing a laptop and lying down with her head and shoulders resting against a bulkhead.

Belt on.  I hesitated before donning my mask, but I pulled it on anyways, then clasped it behind the neck, unrolling the bit from the body-portion to bury the clasp.

Then I pulled on the spare flight pack.

Depending on how things went, I might not get the chance to charge it again, to refuel the Dragonfly or anything in that vein.

If Scion or the Endbringers didn’t kill us in the coming handful of days, we’d eventually run out of fuel.  Communications would falter, and we’d run through stores of food, medicine and other amenities.  There was no way to establish new supplies as fast as we needed them.

We’d only been able to evacuate with limited supplies.  Then there were the supplies we’d brought over in advance.  Gimel was one of the more fortunate Earths for that.

I checked my armor, then tightened the straps.  Maybe a bit tighter than necessary, but I wasn’t going to stress over it.

I opened and closed my hand.  It felt weird, still, but not so much that it would be debilitating.

“Doorway,” I said.  “To Panacea.”

The doorway unfolded, and noise poured forth from the other side.  I got Imp’s attention with a swirl of butterflies, then drew the other bugs in the area to me.  Once Imp was inside the Dragonfly, I bid the ramp to close.

The rear door of the Dragonfly was still slowly shutting as we passed through the doorway and into the center of what looked like a makeshift hospital.

The walls seemed to be rough granite in varying colors, surprisingly thick and old.  Bricks and blocks three feet across, some with cracks here and there.  There were even tendrils of grass or occasional flowers growing in some of the deeper crevices.  The ‘windows’ were openings five feet by ten feet wide, with glass set into frames that had clearly been added as a late addition.

The area was flooded with people, talking, shouting, whimpering, crying.

Patients.

People had been burned, cut, bruised, their limbs crushed, faces shattered.  There were wounds I couldn’t imagine were anything but parahuman made.  They were laid out on beds and sat on stone chairs, crammed so close together they were practically shoulder to shoulder.

Panacea appeared.  She was rubbing wet hands as though she’d just washed them.  Long sleeves were rolled up, her hair tied back.  Unlike what Canary had suggested, she was leaner as a result of her stay in the Birdcage.  She was followed by a man with hair that had been combed into a sharp part, a needle-thin mustache and heavy bags under his eyes.  Something in his bearing… he was a cape.

She walked by a row of people, and they extended hands.  Her fingers touched each of theirs for only a moment, while she didn’t give them even a glance.

“Dad,” she said, stopping.

A man at the side of the room stood straighter.  Marquis.  His hair was long enough to drape over his shoulders, his face clean-shaven by contrast.  He had a fancy-looking jacket folded over one arm, and a white dress shirt that had fine lines of black lace at the collar and the sleeves he’d rolled up his arms.  Two ostentatious rings dangled from a fine chain around his neck; the chain had a locket on it, suggesting he’d added the rings as an afterthought.  To keep them out of the way while he worked, perhaps.

“What is it, Amelia?”

For another man, the combination of physical traits and the style of dress might have led to someone mistaking them for a woman.  They might have come across as effeminate.

Marquis didn’t.  Not really.  When he’d spoken, his voice had been masculine, deep, confident.  The cut of his shoulders and chin, his narrow hips, was enough that I couldn’t expect anyone to mistake him for a woman.  I wasn’t the type to go for older guys, I wasn’t even the type to go for effeminate guys.  But I could see where women would go for Marquis.

“Broken bones here.  Shattered femur.  Some bone is exposed.  Are you occupied?”

“Nothing critical,” Marquis said.  “It won’t be comfortable, fixing that.”

Panacea touched the patient’s hand again.  “He’ll be pain-free for twenty minutes.”

“That’s enough time.  Thank you, my dear.”

Marquis crossed paths with Panacea on his way to the patient.  He laid a hand on her shoulder in passing.

I watched her reach one hand up to her upper arm, touching a tattoo.  She took in a deep breath, exhaled, and then moved on.

She got two paces before she finally noticed us, stopping in her tracks.

“Yo,” Tattletale said.

“Is there a problem?” the tidy man beside Panacea asked.

“Old acquaintances,” Panacea said, her stare hard.

“Enemies?”

One enemy,” she said, her voice soft.  “I wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing you again, Tattletale.”

“Sorry,” Tattletale said.

“I can deal with this, if it’s what you require,” the tidy man said.

“No, Spruce.  You probably couldn’t.  Don’t worry about it.  Think you could double-check on things in the back?  The equipment?”

“I will,” the tidy man said.  He turned and strode from the lobby of the makeshift hospital.

Panacea closed the distance.

You do the talking,” Tattletale whispered.  I nodded a fraction by way of response.

“So?” Panacea asked.  Her eyes roved over us, taking in details.

“I wanted to thank you for the fix,” I said.  I raised a hand.

“You tried to help me at a bad time.  It didn’t take, but you tried,” she said.

“Ah.”

“A lot of people invested in your survival.  Caught me off guard.  Used to be I was the golden child, but I wasn’t lucky enough to have anyone there to catch me when I fell.”

“Looks like Marquis caught you,” Tattletale said.

Panacea glanced at her dad, who was looking at us with one eyebrow slightly raised.

“Maybe,” she said.  “I thought you were a hero now.  You’re running with the old gang?”

Gang is such an outmoded word,” Imp said.  “So small.  There’s gotta be a better way to put it.  Ruling the roost with the old warlords again, back atop Mount Olympus once more.”

“Shh,” Tattletale hushed her.  Then, after a pause, she whispered “Olympus?  Where are you getting this?

“Not a hero, not a villain.  Just trying to get by,” I said.  “Sticking with the people I know best.  People I trust.”

“I see.  We’re trying to get by, too.  Twelve doctors, twenty nurses, me, my father and what remains of my father’s old gang.  They were sending the worst of the wounded our way while we tried to get set up to accommodate larger numbers.  Then the Yàngbǎn hit a settlement.  We’ve been flooded ever since.”

“I see,” I said.

She shifted her weight.  She had a different presence, now.  Something she’d no doubt picked up in prison.  Not posturing.  Simply more comfortable in her shoes.  She asked, “Did you need something?  There’s a reason you came.”

“I was going to say we’re mobilizing.  Dealing with some threats.  Trying to get as many big guns on board as we can, starting with the ones who weren’t on the platform.  I was thinking we could use you.”

“I see,” she said.  “I’m not particularly interested in being used.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know, but it’s still meaningful that the word came up, isn’t it?”

“No,” I said.  “No it isn’t.”

She glanced back towards her dad.  Two more people who might have been capes had approached him, while he sat next to the man he was healing.

“I can’t stop Scion,” Panacea said.  “I probably couldn’t even touch him, if I wanted to get that close, and if I did, I don’t think I’d accomplish a thing.”

“Maybe not,” I said.

“Do you think you’re going to stop him with giant dogs?  With bugs?  People tried and they failed.  This is what’s left.  Finding places where humans used to live and moving in, if we’re lucky.  Starting over from scratch if we aren’t.  Ensuring that the population is spread out enough, but not so spread out they won’t be able to repopulate.  Dividing all of humanity into groups of six hundred to a thousand people, dropping them off in the middle of nowhere.”

“It won’t work,” Tattletale said.  “Scion moves too fast, and there’s not that many places to hide, in the grand scheme of things.”

“Every time you open your mouth,” Panacea said.  She sounded as if she was going to say something else, but she didn’t.

“You’re one of the strongest capes out there,” I said.  “We need you on our side.”

“You’ll have me,” Panacea said.  “But not on the front lines.”

I sighed.

A deep rumble sounded.  An animal noise, almost.

I turned to look, and I saw Spruce, the tidy man, standing beside Lung and Bonesaw.  The noise had been Lung, an odd sound to come from him when he was still, to all appearances, in his human state.  A tall Asian man, muscular, riddled with tattoos.  New ones had been added since the first day I’d seen him.  More eastern-style dragons.  His hair was longer, and there was scruff on his cheeks and chin.

Bonesaw wasn’t dressed up like a little girl.  Her hair wasn’t in ringlets.  She wore gray sweats.

Rachel growled a little, under her breath, an eerie parallel to Lung.

Lung stepped forward, and he pushed Bonesaw, who stumbled a little.

“It’s not nice to push,” she said.

“Don’t be cutesy,” he growled.  “We’ve warned you before.”

“Okay, fine then.  Stop fucking pushing me.  Tell me where you want me, and I’ll walk there.”

He pointed towards us.

They closed the distance until Bonesaw was next to Panacea.  Lung placed a hand on top of her head and gripped her, arresting her forward momentum.

She lashed out, twisting around and slapping at his wrist with one hand.

Don’t do that,” she said.

Someone’s short-tempered,” Imp observed.  She hadn’t yet donned her mask, though she had it with her.  Her eyes were narrowed.

“I’ve had no sleep,” Bonesaw said.  “Big sis here took out all the good bits I’d stored inside myself, and she didn’t turn off the pain.  I feel too light.  I feel weird.  Can’t sit still, not that they ever let me.”

“First tier parahuman problems,” Imp said.  Her tone wasn’t as humorous in nature as the words.

“And they keep getting on my case,” Bonesaw said, apparently oblivious.  She directed her attention to Panacea and Lung.  “Trust me, I haven’t butchered you all yet, I’m not going to in the future.  You can stop testing me.”

“I remember when you were cuddly,” Tattletale said.  “You were so happy and fluffy and you had a good attitude.  You were a complete and total monster, and nobody in their right mind would cuddle you, but you were adorable.  Now look at you.”

Bonesaw scowled, but I wasn’t paying attention to that.  Tattletale had used the past tense.  You were a complete monster.  Referring to the past, or an observation on a deeper level?

She is why I can’t leave,” Panacea said.  “I’m the only one that can double-check her work.  If we’re both here, you’ve got two stellar healers on the back lines.  If I leave, you’ve got a healer with minimal combat experience on the front line and a defused bomb with nobody that’s capable of knowing if it’s reactivated.”

I couldn’t really argue that.

Well, I could, but not very well.

“There’s another way to deal with that sort of situation,” Imp said.  “Get rid of the fucking bomb.”

“We will,” Panacea said.  “If she gives us an excuse.  Any excuse at all.  But she gets one chance.”

“When you’re talking about a bomb, that’s all it needs,” Imp said.  “Then you wind up carved up, your insides decorating the walls of a room.”

“Your metaphors…” Tattletale mumbled.  “Well, that almost worked.”

Bonesaw raised an eyebrow.  “You sound upset, but I don’t remember doing that to you.”

“My brother,” Imp growled the word.

“Oh,” Bonesaw said.  She glanced to her left, then down to the floor, a frown crossing her face.  “Right.  I’m remembering now.  Shit.  That was one of the bad ones.  Not one of the bad bad ones, but bad.”

Kind of, yeah,” Imp said, not easing up in the slightest.

“I’m sorry,” Bonesaw said, still looking at the floor.  “I won’t say I’ll make amends, because there’s no way I can even come close.  I don’t know what to say, except that I’m sorry.  No excuses.  But I’m going to do what I can to make things better, and maybe I get a hundredth of the way, in the end.”

“He had a second trigger event,” Tattletale said.  “And killed Burnscar.  In case that helps you place him.”

“I said I remember,” Bonesaw said, sounding irritated.  She glared at Tattletale.

Sure,” Tattletale replied, quiet enough she could barely be heard.

I stared at Bonesaw, watching her expression shift in fractions.  Her eyes moved, as if she were watching a scene, or recalling a memory in great detail.

“You’re fighting?” Lung asked, interrupting my thoughts.

“We’re fighting,” I said, shifting my attention to him.

“Who?”

“Everyone who gets in our way,” Rachel interjected.

“What she said,” I added.

Lung stared at me, and I held his gaze.  For someone as brutal and vicious as he was in the heat of battle, Lung had cold eyes.

He’d be thinking about his losses to me.  I’d used venomous bugs to rot away his junkular area, and I’d dosed him with hallucinogenic blood before gouging out his eyes.

It was odd, but those slights probably mattered less than the real offense I’d dealt him.

I’d taken over the city.  He’d tried and failed, I’d succeeded.

Given my understanding of Lung, I suspected that was something far more unforgivable.

“Fighting Scion, Endbringers, the Yàngbǎn…”  Tattletale said.  She placed an emphasis on the last.

Odd.  I would have reversed it.  Emphasized the biggest threats.

“Yes,” Lung said.  “No need to manipulate me, Tattletale.  If you want me to join the fight, you only have to ask.”

Tattletale had a funny look on her face, fleeting.  She turned my way, one eyebrow raised, questioning.

I nodded.

“Good,” Lung said.  “Let me collect my mask.  I will be back.”

He left.

“Doorway,” Tattletale said.  “Um…?”

“To Shadow Stalker,” I said.

The portal began to open.  It was nighttime on the other side.

Tattletale gave me a funny look.

“What?”

“I brought up the Yàngbǎn because I figured he’d be ticked they attacked this spot.  I’m getting credit for brilliant insights I didn’t have.  Not even in a fun way.  That’s going to bug me.”

I shrugged.  “Take what we can get?”

She nodded.

While we’d exchanged words, Panacea had sent Bonesaw off with Spruce.

“Thank you again, Panacea,” I said.  “For putting me back together.”

She opened her mouth to speak, then seemed to reconsider.  She pointed at the portal.  I nodded, and followed her as we strode through.  Tattletale and Imp remained in the hospital lobby, and the portal remained open.  Rachel followed us through, but seemed to sense that we wanted a private discussion and wandered off a short distance.

Panacea and I walked out onto a shelf of rubble that had once been the midpoint of a bridge.

“I’m not a fighter,” she said.  “I hope you understand.”

“I do,” I said.  “But I’m kind of hoping that, in the end, we aren’t left with only the people who ‘aren’t fighters’ on the battlefield, who’ve realized they have no choice but to change their minds.  It’d be pretty tragic if we got that far and someone like you clued into the fact that you could have helped.  It would be somehow fitting, too, if that’s how humanity went extinct.”

“It would be just as tragic if we rushed headlong into a fight, and threw away a life in the process, only to realize in retrospect it was someone vital,” she said.

I nodded.

“Good luck.  Don’t turn your back on Lung.”

“I won’t.  I’m pretty good when it comes to keeping an eye on people,” I said.  I called bugs to my hand, as if to illustrate.

“Then I really hope you succeed in the fights that come.  We’re kind of counting on you.”

“Likewise,” I said.  “I mean, I hope you achieve whatever you’re striving to do here.”

She glanced back towards the portal, which glowed from the ambient light of the room on the other side.  “Second chances.”

“Hm?”

“Together, we’re giving second chances to monsters who don’t deserve them.”

“Yourself included?” I asked.

She nodded.

“I’m not sure I get it,” I told her.  I could see Shadow Stalker land to perch on an outcropping of steel reinforcement, a distance away, watching us.  “I mean, I do get the second chances thing, not deserving it.  But…”

I trailed off.  I couldn’t articulate it well enough.

“When you’re in that position, sometimes the only people willing to extend those second chances to you are the people who need them.”

“I understand,” I said.  “You know, if you’d joined the Undersiders back then, we could have given you that.”

“You could have.  I’m not sure I could have taken it.”

“Right,” I answered.  “Yeah.”

“Not all of us are like that, though,” she said.  “Lung isn’t, as far as I can tell, but maybe you’ll see it if you look for it.  Or maybe you’ll get burned to a crisp by Lung the second an enemy distracts you and you forget to watch him.”

I nodded.

“He’s not someone who builds or rebuilds.  He’s someone who destroys.”

Something in that phrase struck a chord in me.  I knew the right answer, right away.

“We just need to point him in the right direction, then,” I said.

“Best of luck with that,” Panacea said.

She’d had her hands clasped, and as she extended a hand to shake, I could feel the bugs come to life, fluttering free of the space between her palms.

Relay bugs.  Twenty.

I checked, investigating their internal makeup.  They could breed.

Even with that gift, even with the fact that she’d never done anything to me, I couldn’t help but think of the incoherent mess of details I’d seen in the records.  The pictures that catalogued the event that had preceded her voluntary admission to the Birdcage.  I saw her outstretched hand and hesitated for a fraction of a second.  From the expression on her face, I knew she had noticed.

Second chances.

I shook her hand, drawing the relay bugs to me and stashing them in my belt.  “Thank you.”

She nodded, then exited the portal as the others made their way through to my side.  Lung and the Undersiders.  I had my back turned to them as I looked at Shadow Stalker.  She remained perched on that twist of bent girders and bars from the collapsed bridge, her cloak flapping around her.

“I remember this one,” Lung rumbled.  “She shot me with arrows.  It did not hurt that much.  She is a weakling.  Why are we wasting our time with her?”

And so the struggles for dominance in the group begin.

“I’ll take weak,” I said.  “I’m just… working with known quantities.”

The flapping of the cloak quieted as she shifted into a shadow state.  The wind was passing through it, instead of pushing against it.

Shadow Stalker leaped down, floated.

Soundlessly, she landed right in front of me, remaining in the shadow state.

“Hoping you’ve changed your mind,” I said.  Hoping you’ve seen the devastation, and that it’s reached some human part of you that cares.  “That you’re interested in fighting.”

She didn’t budge, didn’t respond.

“It also means bashing some skulls,” I said.  “She been behaving, Tattletale?”

“Mostly.”

“Then she’s probably itching for a good fight,” I said, not breaking eye contact with Shadow Stalker.  “What do you say?  You want to knock a few heads?  Break some jaws?”

She shifted to her physical state.  “I’m not that easy to bait.”

I shrugged, waiting.

“Search and rescue is garbage,” she said, sounding annoyed.  “Nobody left, but there’s no place to go if I don’t want to do it, either.”

“You could go home,” I said.  “Find your family, settle down, put the crossbow away for good.”

“Capes don’t retire,” Shadow Stalker said.  “Doesn’t work.  We die in battle or we lose our minds, one or the other.”

I thought of my passenger, how it had reflexively sought out violence in the past.  How others had done the same.  Die in battle.

Then I thought of Grue.  Was Shadow Stalker right?  Would the retirement just fail to take?

I sighed.  “So?  What’s your call?”

“I’ll come.  Sure.  I kind of want to see what you’ve made of yourself.”

She had wanted to claim the credit for my becoming what I’d become.  It grated, because it wasn’t entirely wrong.  It wasn’t true in the sense she believed it was true, but she had given me my powers.

“Fine,” I said.

She cracked her knuckles.  “So, who’s first?”

“Need to talk that over with Defiant,” I said.  “We can do it over the comms, for the sake of expediency.”

“Okay,” she said.  She sounded a little pleased with herself.  “Whatever.  I’m game.”

“Doorway, please,” I said, to nobody in particular.  “Dragonfly interior.”

The portal opened.

I extended a hand, inviting the group to enter.

Lung shouldered his way past Rachel to be the first one inside.  Bastard huffed out a half-bark, then growled.

Much like Panacea had said about Bonesaw, it wasn’t about having them as allies.  Having them be part of the group, it meant they weren’t on the opposing side.  They weren’t wreaking havoc as neutral parties.

That alone was good.

But if they turned out to be destructive forces we could control

The half-thought I’d had during my goodbye to Panacea fell into place.

A plan.

I stepped through the portal to board the Dragonfly.

“You lunatic!”  Shadow growled the word.

I was silent.  The clouds above and landscape below were a blur, the individual details impossible to make out with our speed.

“Doing this with me?  With Lung?  I could almost understand that,” Shadow Stalker growled.  “But your friends?”

“Don’t care,” Tattletale said.  “We’ve always been the sort to go for the long odds.  You have to do what your enemy won’t predict.”

“Damn straight,” Imp said.  “Credo I live by.”

“Mount Olympus, now credo?”  Tattletale asked.  “It’s the Heartbroken, isn’t it?  They’re warping you into… this.”

“Leave me alone, seriously.”

“What you’re saying doesn’t make sense!”  Shadow Stalker snarled.  “Not here, not like this!

“It actually makes the most sense,” Tattletale said.  “But that’s a different story altogether.  One that needs some explanation.”

“Ten minutes before we hit our target,” I said.  We’d taken the path through the Brockton Bay portal.  Cauldron’s doorways weren’t big enough for a vehicle like this.

“Ten minutes should be enough,” Tattletale said.  “Let me get this loaded on the laptop.  Easier to show than tell.”

“Right,” I said.  My eyes didn’t leave the navigation screens.

“I’ll kill you,” Shadow Stalker threatened.  “Turn this fucking ship around.”

She moved, reaching for a crossbow bolt.  I reacted, half-rising from my seat, drawing my swarm out-

But Lung moved faster, shoving Shadow Stalker against the side of the ship.

Shadow Stalker went ghostly, brandishing the bolt like a dagger as she passed through Lung.

Rachel gripped a length of wire that extended from the laptop, holding it out like a garrotte.  As Lung had done, she moved to pin Shadow Stalker against the wall of the Dragonfly.  Shadow Stalker returned to a normal state just in time to avoid being electrocuted.

Bastard growled, snapping at her hand, and the bolt clattered to the floor.

“You’re okay with this?”  she asked.

“Yes,” Lung rumbled, by way of response.  “This might be best.”

“Fuck you, Hebert!  Pulling this shit only after you got me on board?  You’re all lunatics!”

I sighed.

Tattletale sat down on the arm of my pilot’s seat, setting one foot down beside my thigh on the seat’s edge.  “There’s stuff you need to know.  I told you before, you said you wanted to be blissfully ignorant until the last minute.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Yes.  Right.  I’m listening.”

“It’s video footage Glaistig Uaine left with me.  Last two minutes of Eidolon’s life.  Video cuts in and out, but there’s audio.  That leaves me maybe a minute or two to explain, then you can use the rest of the time to think it over.”

She had my attention, though I couldn’t take my eyes off the monitors at the front of the ship.  Shadow Stalker’s cries of anger were background noise.

The Pendragon was flying alongside us, just a little behind, carrying the capes Defiant had recruited.  Carrying Saint, Canary, and others.

Tattletale loaded up the video, filling the screen of the laptop.

I glanced once at the main monitor, then set the autopilot.

Faultline had talked about taking the simple route.  Talking to Scion.  In practice, harder than it seemed.

We were dealing with problems on a massive scale, we needed solutions on that same level.  There was no easy way to get to that level.  It meant taking risks.  Gambling.

We needed a destructive force we could direct.  Needed to turn third-party liabilities into assets.

With that in mind, I’d set course straight for the Simurgh.  We’d talk to her or we’d kill her.

Tattletale started the video, and I watched.

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Scarab 25.5

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Three days.

Nearly three days and we hadn’t managed to kill him.

A new target every thirty minutes, give or take.  Ten to twenty minutes for the defending forces to get their shit together.  The remainder of that time was our capes trying to hurt him.  Chipping away at him.

Sometimes we made headway.

Sometimes he crushed the bulk of the defending forces and then stood still, drawing those rotating columns of altered time to himself.  Not covering himself, but allowing the altered time effects to graze the outer edges of his body.  He’d heal, regenerating as much as half of the damage we’d done.

He hit major cities and small ones.  Villages, even, when he needed some elbow room to regenerate.  He’d hit a weapons stockpile in Russia, and nuclear weapons had been accelerated in time, the casings wearing down in that odd entropic, eroding effect that accompanied the time accelerations.  A nuclear detonation.  Heroes were still trying to minimize the damage.

He was teleporting less often than he had at first, and there were a number of heroes who were appearing regularly on the scene.  Legend, Alexandria, Eidolon, they were stepping up, though they’d started taking breaks, shifts.  Legend would skip one, then participate in the next two.  Alexandria would do two on, then two off.

They were tired, weary.  Everyone was.  How could you rest when he could appear where you were?  Six or eight hours of sleep meant he’d be changing location twelve to sixteen times, if not more.  And at the same time, that fatigue, it made it easier to make mistakes, and he wasn’t an opponent that let mistakes slide.

Tecton approached me, setting his hands on my shoulders.

“What?” I asked.

“You need to rest.  The others have managed it.”

“I’ve napped.”

Sleep.  You’re swaying on your feet.”

I wanted to protest.  My eyes fell on the others, and I could see how affected they were.  Scared, tired, helpless.  They were arranged around the Chicago headquarters, perpetually in costume, with no idea what to do with themselves.  Thirty minutes, and then that intense period of tension, waiting, wondering as it took the media or the PRT time to grasp just where he’d gone, to report the information.  If we were lucky, we got video footage, and we didn’t have to wonder if Khonsu had caught any of the big guns.

In a way, I’d grown used to being a little different from my peers, here.  I could be blasé about things that had them freaking out, confident.  I could put myself in the bad guy’s shoes because I’d been one, once.

Except here, I was no different.  Three days in, unable to sleep for more than an hour or two at a time, feeling my heart plummet into my stomach every time Khonsu teleported, I was on the same page as the others.

“I only ever wanted to do something to help,” I said.

“I know,” Tecton said.

“Even at the beginning, even when I was undercover in the Undersiders, I wanted to stop the bad guys.  A lot of it was selfish, me wanting to escape, but I still wanted to work for the greater good.”

“Yeah,” Tecton said.  He let his gauntlets fall from my shoulders.  I turned around to look at him.  Our man of iron, his face hidden beneath his helmet.  He was standing firm, giving no indication of how affected he was.  It let him be strong, or appear to be strong, for our sakes.

“And then I decided to be a villain full-time, but my motivations were still sort of good, even if I wasn’t.  I knew the Undersiders needed help.  That there was something wrong with a lot of them, something missing in them.  And being a part of all of that, it was a way to help Coil, when I thought his plan was something good.”

“You’re not a bad person, Taylor.”

“I’m not… being good or bad was never a thing for me.  Not really.  It was all about the actions I was taking and why, instead.  I became a warlord and I took care of people.  I helped seize the city from Coil and we started implementing changes.  Again and again, I’ve escalated in terms of the kind of power I wield.”

“Do you think you’re more powerful now?  With the Wards?”  He sounded almost surprised.

“I… think so.  Yeah.  Maybe my hands are tied, I can’t be as direct or ruthless as I would otherwise be, but I can reach out to the villains and I can reach out to the heroes, and I can affect a kind of change.  I have resources.  Tools and information I might not otherwise have.”

“Makes sense,” he said, his voice soft.  “Taylor, you need to sleep.  I can hear it in your voice.”

“I just… why is it that I get more powerful over time, and yet I feel more and more helpless?”

“You ask too much of yourself,” Tecton said.  “You could have all of the power in the world, and you’d still feel like you should do more.”

“If he hits Brockton Bay-”

“Your father and friends will be okay.  Hell, our strike squad that we used against Behemoth was made up of Brockton Bay residents, wasn’t it?”

“If I have to watch people I care about getting hurt while I’m helpless to do anything, I’ll lose it.”

“It wouldn’t be constructive to lose it,” Tecton said.  “And you’re more likely to lose it if you’re tired.  Go sleep.”

I didn’t reply.  Instead, I trudged off to the quarters that had been set aside for me.  Roughly pie-shaped, with the door at the tip, it sat at the edge of the ‘hub’.  I had a bedroom upstairs, more personal, more of a home, but I didn’t want to be that far away.  I didn’t want to lapse into being Taylor Hebert, even in a moment of rest.  Better to keep thinking, keep considering options.

I lay down on the bed, pulling my mask off.  I didn’t put my glasses on.  My vision was blurry, but it didn’t do anything to block out all of the individual little lights, some blinking, that studded the interior of my quarters.  Laptops, batteries, alarm clock, the charging station with my spare flight pack inside, the television screen, the slat of light that filtered in beneath the door… so many little points of light.  If I hadn’t been so tired, I might have blocked the lights.  Using bugs wouldn’t work, as they’d wander, but a towel at the base of the door, books propped up against various devices…

I sighed and draped my arm over my eyes, my nose in the crook of my elbow.

I spent a long span of time in the twilight of near-sleep, trying not to listen to the murmurs of people’s voices in the main hub.  Idly, I wondered how much time was passing.  Where was Khonsu attacking now?

A lot of people crossed my mind, too.  Enemies, allies.  How were they dealing?  My dad had fired off emails, asked that I let him know before I joined the fight, and right after I got away safely.

For every cogent thought that crossed my mind, two or three stray thoughts followed.  The devastation, scenes burned into my mind’s eye.  People caught and left to die of dehydration in Khonsu’s fields.

Somewhere in the midst of that, I managed to drift off, the recollections becoming dreams, or something close enough to feel like it was an immediate transition.

My uneasy rest was interrupted by a touch to my shoulder.

My eyes opened, and I could see the vague shape of a woman standing over me.

Mom?

I was awake and alert in an instant, but she was already turning away.  Not my mom.  Dark haired, but too short.  Both of my parents were taller than her.

I only recognized her when I saw the doorway.  A rectangle of light, almost glaringly bright, just beside my closet.

“Hey,” I said, as I hopped up from my bed.

She didn’t respond.  She was already gone.

But the doorway remained open.

I had to cross the length of my quarters to see the interior.  A dark hallway, with only dim lighting cast by tubes recessed into the ceiling.  The woman in the suit wasn’t on the other side.

I accessed the various storage containers for the bugs I was keeping in the workshop upstairs.  Beetles navigated the trap that kept them from flying out, then made contact with various touch panels, opening the cages where the various individual species were kept.

As a mass, they flowed down the stairs and into the hub.  The Wards who were at the command center and watching the monitor stood, alarmed, as the mass of bugs made their way across the room to my quarters.

“Taylor.”  It was Tecton speaking, hurrying to the door of my room.

The bugs filtered into my quarters through the space where the walls joined, and beneath the door.

My swarm entered the hallway.  No traps.  The woman in the suit was standing off to one side.  I stood at the threshold, and glanced down at the tracking device that was strapped to my ankle.  What the hell would happen if I stepped through?

I supposed I’d find out.  I stepped through in the same moment Tecton opened the door.

The rectangular portal closed, and I was left staring at a wall.  I turned to see the woman in the suit.  She was tidy, her hair tied back in a loose ponytail with strands tracing the side of her face, and she held a fedora in one hand.  The hat was beaded with moisture.  Another excursion she’d made before reaching out to me?

I was going to speak, when I noticed another presence.  A non-presence.  It was a shift of air currents that seemed unprovoked, affecting certain bugs when it should have touched other bugs in front or behind them.

The topographical sense I got from the movements of my bugs suggested a woman’s form, nude.  It wasn’t entirely gone when another appeared across the room.  The way they moved in sync- not two people.  One person, if she could be called a person; a phantom, flowing through the space around me and the woman in the suit.

The woman in the suit extended the hand that didn’t hold her hat, directing me to a doorway.

I glanced at the woman, noting how there wasn’t a trace of the anxiety or exhaustion that everyone else seemed to show.  My swarm checked the path.

There were people I recognized on the other side.  I stepped through.

The area was dark, but there was ambient light from a series of panels.  Large panels, floor to ceiling, eighteen by five feet, had been erected in a general circle. Two accompanying panels, only two or three feet wide, were set up on either side of each larger panel, to cast light at a slightly different angle.  A bar sat at just below waist height, a semicircle, simultaneously a handrest and a way of indicating a boundary the designated parties weren’t to cross.

A different person or group of people at each station, lit from behind rather than the front.  The light from the other stations barely reached them, which meant their features weren’t well illuminated.  Distinct silhouettes, with only a few more reflective materials catching the light.

I ventured up to the panel closest to the door I’d entered.  Tattletale stood there, and I deigned to stand just behind her and to her left.  Grue, I saw, was leaning against the panel itself, his arms folded.  Tattletale glanced at me and smiled, and I could just barely make out the white of her teeth.

“Asked if they’d pick you up,” she murmured.

“Thank you,” I said.  “What is this?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked.

She turned her attention forward, and then she was taking it in.  I didn’t want to interrupt her, with the amount of information she was doubtlessly gathering.  It was obvious, considering the general presence of those who’d gathered, even if I could only recognize a handful.

Opposite us, Chevalier’s silhouette was unmistakable.  His cannonblade was too distinct.  Exalt stood to his left, and a cape I didn’t recognize stood to the right.  I wondered momentarily if it would count against me that I was standing here.  It hadn’t been by choice, exactly, but it wouldn’t look good that I was with the Undersiders.

Bugs helped me make out Dragon and Defiant at the station to Chevalier’s left.  Both wore their power armor, but apparently the presence of firepower wasn’t a concern, here.

For the most part, that was where my ability to recognize people stopped.

To my left, there was a man in power armor with his face bared.  The tattoo across his face reflected a dark blue-green in an odd way, as though he stood beneath a blacklight, flecks of light… only the fragments flowed.  No, they were traveling a circuit, instead.  Faintly blue, the glimmers traveled a circuit that marked the interior of an elaborate, stylized cross, his eyes unlit shadows in the midst of the two horizontal bars.

I could make out a station with a woman, black, accompanied by a massive shadow of a monster with an auroch’s skull for a head.  The woman’s head hung, her hair braided or bound into dreads, I couldn’t be sure.  I moved my bugs closer to check to see if she had any weapons, and her pet shadow reached out to block the swarm.  They died so quickly it was almost as though the shadow had killed before it made contact.

I decided to leave her alone.

Further down, hard to make out due to the angle of the panel that framed them, there was a small crowd.  A young girl stood at the forefront, and others were gathered around and behind her.  My bugs noted twelve people gathered in front of the panel.

Another station had only a woman and a man sitting at a table that had been set out.  The man had his hands folded neatly in front of him, and the light from neighboring panels was reflected on the large-frame glasses he wore. The woman leaned forward, elbows on the desk, hands clasped in front of her mouth.  Dark skinned, with some kind of pin in her hair.  My bugs traced their hips – the area least likely to be unclothed, and I noted the presence of ordinary clothing.  A button up shirt for him, a knee-length skirt and blouse with accompanying lab coat for her.

Three men in robes that bore a striking resemblance to Phir Sē’s were arranged to our right.

“One moment longer,” the woman in the lab coat said.

“Quite alright,” a man answered her, from the group of twelve.  “I’m really quite excited.  Been a rather long time since I’ve had a breath of fresh air.”

Hush, Marquis,” the girl at the front of that particular group spoke, and her voice was a chorus, a number of people speaking in sync, “I will not have you speaking out of turn.  Our hosts have been gracious to invite us, you will not offend them and besmirch my reputation by association.

“My sincere apologies.”

Marquis?  I had to search for the name for a moment.  Then I stopped.  That Marquis?

Another panel lit up, and the circle was complete.  My bugs found the people gathered in front, allowing me to investigate that crowd, who had silhouettes I couldn’t make out in the jumble.  A woman with a ponytail and a number of monstrous parahumans behind her…  Faultline.

The woman in the suit arrived in the room, crossing through the darkness at the center with the steady taps of her shoe heels against the hard floor.

She joined the man with the glasses and dress shirt and the woman with the lab coat.  It clicked for me.

Cauldron.  I was looking at the people behind Cauldron.  I felt a chill, despite myself.

“Ms. Alcott declined to join us,” the woman in the lab coat said.  “As did Adalid, who wanted to be ready to defend his home in case the new Endbringer arrived there.  The three blasphemies and Jack Slash were unreachable, but we would have far fewer problems if individuals like them could be reached so easily.”

Except you didn’t do anything about Jack when it counted, I thought.

“We reached out to a number of major powers and sources of information, and you are the ones who responded.  As useful as it might be to have the Yàngbǎn or Elite with us, I’m almost glad that we can have this discussion with only those who are truly committed.  Thank you for coming.  I go by Doctor Mother, and I am the founder of Cauldron.”

I could hear a growl from within Faultline’s group.  They were directly opposite Doctor Mother, as far away as they could have been.

Probably sensible, all things considered.  Cauldron was to blame for the case fifty-threes.  I suspected they could have handled themselves if anyone in Faultline’s group were to attack, but setting a distance between the two groups made sense.

“Look,” Tattletale said, abruptly, “Let’s cut past the formality bullshit.  I know a lot of you are big on that sort of thing, but we should talk nitty-gritty tactics sooner than later, especially considering the amount of squabbling that’s sure to happen.”

“Agreed,” Chevalier said, from across the room.

Mense sterf elke sekonde van elke dag. Babas sterf in die moederskoot en die kinders doodgeskiet soos honde. Vroue word verkrag en vermoor en nagmerries skeur mans uitmekaar om te fees op hul binnegoed,” the woman with the skull-headed shadow said, her voice quiet and level.  I was startled to see that it was a human skull, now.

“I gave you the ability to understand and speak English,” a man in the group of twelve said.  “It wouldn’t cost you anything to use it.”

Ek sal nie jou tong gebruik nie, vullis,” the woman replied, her voice still quiet, though it was flecked with anger, just a bit of an edge.

The man sighed, “Well, I could use my power on everyone else here, but somehow I don’t think the offer would be accepted.”

Another person in that group, a woman, spoke.  “She doesn’t believe in using English.  Her first statement was, to paraphrase, ‘People die every day’.”

“Helpful,” Tattletale commented.  “Enough with the bullshit and posturing.  We were brought here for one reason.  Well, a lot of reasons, but the main one that ties us all together is that we’ve got that monster rampaging around and we’re not making headway.  We whittle him down, he heals.  Scion attacks, he teleports, and the golden fool doesn’t follow.  So let’s be honest, let’s talk about this and introduce ourselves before we say anything so we’re not completely in the dark-”

“Some of us have identities to keep private,” the man with the cross on his face said.

“We can’t bullshit around about secrecy and all that.  We need to dust off our weapons and the schemes we’ve been keeping on the back burner and hit that motherfucker.  More than half of us have cards we’re keeping up our sleeves for a rainy day.  Someone needs to bite the bullet and play their card.  And then we need to talk about who plays the next card, when number five comes around.  Because there will be a fifth.  Or a fourth, if you count Behemoth or not.”

“Many of us are playing on a scale where a particular play would put us at a critical disadvantage,” the man with the cross on his face said.  “Acting now, at the wrong time, it wouldn’t only hurt us, but it would put bigger things at risk.  There’s doing wrongs for the greater good, and there’s doing noble deeds and dooming ourselves in the process.”

“You’re hardly so noble, Saint,” Defiant said, his voice a growl.

“I wasn’t speaking about me,” Saint retorted.

“Either way, this is why you’re here,” Doctor Mother said.  “To negotiate.  With luck, you can barter to guarantee your safety in the future, or ask favors of others, in exchange for whatever it costs you to use whatever weapons or resources you’re holding back.”

We can barter,” Faultline said.  Her voice was hard.  “Unless you’re saying the people who’ve been creating and hoarding parahumans en masse don’t have any cards to play.”

“Unfortunately, Faultline, we cannot.  Cauldron, to be specific, cannot.  I have provided this forum for discussion, we can help troubleshoot or support plans, or even provide assistance, but our cards must remain in place.  There is nothing any of you could offer us that would be worth what it costs to act.”

“Bullshit,” I said.  I could feel anger stirring.  “No way I believe that.  Even just that portal system you’ve got, that’s enough to change the tide of this fight.”

“Not an option,” Doctor Mother said.

“Because you’re afraid,” Tattletale said.  “There’s a fear that someone’s going to come after you, trace the portal back home.  But there’s another, bigger fear, isn’t there?”

“Yes,” Marquis said, from among the group of twelve.  “And I suspect I know what it is.”

“Contessa here has informed me you do,” Doctor Mother said, cutting him off.  She was gesturing towards the woman in the suit.  “Let me assure you, it would do more harm than good to reveal the details.  Especially here, especially now.”

“Shit on me,” Tattletale said.  “You bastards figured this out.  How the hell did a bunch of prisoners in a jail that’s dangling inside a mountain get to figure it out before I did?”

“Hands on experience,” Marquis answered.

“Panacea,” Tattletale said.

“Exactly,” Marquis said.  “Clever girl.  Well, I’m not looking to stir waves.  I can’t disagree with the good doctor, so I’ll keep my mouth shut.  Back to business.”

“Damn it,” Tattletale said, under her breath.  Louder, she said, “You’re sure that this doesn’t relate to our Endbringer situation?”

“It doesn’t,” Doctor Mother said. “The Endbringers are a puzzle unto themselves, independent of every other major variable.”

“That reeks of bullshit,” Tattletale said.  “I want to think you’re bullshitting or you’re absolutely wrong and they’re connected to everything, but I’m getting the feeling it’s not.  It’s bullshit because it’s true?”

“I think we’re on the same page, Tattletale,” the Doctor said.

“Can we progress this discussion?” one of the robed men asked.

“We can,” the Doctor said.  “Thank you for getting us back on track, Turanta of the Thanda.  Let’s open the floor to discussion.  Let’s start with the possibility that we might draw from the Birdcage.”

Freedom matters little to me,” the girl with the eerie voice said.  “The true end draws nearer.

“The end of the world, you mean,” I said.

The end of all things, queen administrator,” she said.

Queen administrator?  What?  “Isn’t that the same thing?  The end of the world and the end of all things?  Or do you mean the end of the universe?”

It doesn’t concern other celestial bodies.  It doesn’t matter.  This ends, one way or another.  We and ours will carry on, in some form, whether it happens today or three hundred years from now.

“How reassuring,” Tattletale quipped.  “You won’t help?”

I am safe where I am, whether it beyond the Endbringer’s reach here or deep beneath the mountain.  I will collect from among the dead, and I will keep them company until the faerie rise from the ruins.

Oh, I thought.  She’s completely out of her mind.

“There’s no way to barter for assistance from within the birdcage then?” Doctor Mother asked.  “Nothing you want, Glaistig Uaine?”

The girl, Glaistig Uaine, responded, “A hundred thousand corpses, each being one naturally gifted by the faerie.”

“We don’t have time to laugh about like this,” Turanta, the apparent spokesman of the cold capes said.

I am not joking, astrologer.  I would like to see their lights dancing in the air.  I have seen only glimmers, fragments of the performance.  To see it all at once… yes.

I heard someone in Faultline’s group swearing.  Newter, I suspected.

Honestly, I kind of agreed.  I clenched my fists, biting back the worst of my anger.  I managed to stay calm as I commented, “I’m getting a better idea of why things are as screwed up as they are.  We’ve got all of the major players here, and half of you are willing to do nothing while the world burns.”

“All of the major players who were willing to come to the table,” Doctor Mother said.

Not any better, I thought, but I held my tongue.  Doctor Mother had turned to the girl from the birdcage.  “If you participated in the fight, I can promise there would be a number of dead parahumans there.”

I fear that would not be enough.  It would need to be all together, for the greatest effect,” Glaistig Uaine said.

“We could provide that many over a period of ten years, if required, but we’d want more assistance than simply this one fight,” Doctor Mother said.  She stopped as the man with the glasses leaned close.  A moment passed, “Or we could provide that many twenty-seven years from now.”

I felt a bit of a chill.  They were so casually discussing this, as if it were possible.

I opened my mouth to cut in, but Glaistig Uaine spoke first.

No.  No, I don’t think I’ll accept.  My word is too vital to me, and you seem to want me to war with the abominations.  I don’t fear my own death, but I would rather be together with the others than be separated until the grand celebration.  I won’t fight.  I would only grant my advice, some power here and there.

Doctor Mother sat back in her seat.  The ominous silence suggested she was still considering it.

A hundred thousand lives, being mulled over so readily.

“That’s a shame,” Doctor Mother said, in the end.

“If I may?” Marquis spoke up.  “With your permission, faerie queen.”

Granted,” Glaistig Uaine said.

“There are others who wouldn’t mind being free again,” he said.  “Myself included.  We’d fight that monster if you gave us the chance.  All we’d ask is that you let a select few others out, and that you don’t create a portal that leads back to the Birdcage after the fact.”

“No,” Chevalier said, breaking his long silence.  “No, I’m sorry.”

“Some of the strongest parahumans are contained inside that building,” Marquis said.  “Glaistig Uaine is one, but there are others.  My daughter is another.”

“Your daughter was a mental wreck the last time anyone outside of the Birdcage saw her.  There are too many dangerous individuals in there.  She,” Chevalier said, pointing in the direction of the woman with the shadowy pet with the massive bird skull, “Has killed thousands of people.  That’s nothing compared to what some individuals in the birdcage have done.  We’d be letting the wolves run free again, in the hopes they deal with the lion.”

“If there is no other way to deal with the lion, and we know the wolves have been caught in our snare once before…” Saint said, trailing off.

“We know they can be dealt with.  We’re just lacking resources.  Opening the doors of the Birdcage has to be a last resort.”

“Oh, I don’t know, I could stand for it to be the first resort,” Marquis said.  He turned toward the Doctor, “I’m staying mum about what my daughter discovered.  The details we both know that must not be shared.  Surely that’s worth some goodwill.”

“It is,” the Doctor replied.

I glanced at Tattletale.  Her eyes were moving quickly, hungrily taking in details.

Chevalier sighed.  “Dragon?  Some backup.”

“I have to say no,” Dragon said.  “The prisoners must stay within the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.  If you intend to rescue them, I’ll deploy everything I have to stop you.  Neither of us can afford the losses at this juncture.”

“But if we did try,” Saint said, “And if we did free a handful of deserving individuals, you wouldn’t be unhappy, would you?”

There was a pause, telling.  It was enough of a delay for Chevalier to look from Saint to Dragon and give her a curious stare before she spoke.  “My view on who is deserving is far different from yours, Saint.”

“Those of us standing here.  Me, my daughter, Lung,” Marquis said.

“You cannot speak for all of us on that front,” a matronly woman spoke.  “One of my girls was unfairly imprisoned, another is on the verge of losing her mind, in captivity.”

“We all have people we’d see freed,” the man who’d spoken about granting the ability to speak English said.  “Let’s say two for each of us.”

“Thirty six in all,” Dragon said.  “One in five of the people currently in the Birdcage, almost.  Six more could potentially use the opportunity to slip out, through Stranger powers or other malfeasance.  Glancing over the notes my artificial intelligences have made regarding the facility, I can guess who some of the cell block leaders would choose to release.  No.  I harbor concerns about the Birdcage, but this is not the answer to that.”

“It would do more harm than good,” Chevalier said.  “And I say that with full knowledge of what we’re up against here, today.  The last three days.”

“Their opinions don’t decide this,” Marquis said.  “If it were solely up to our officers and jailer in the first place, then we’d be free already.  You, Cauldron, have the means to send us back or not.  It’s your authority that matters.”

Chevalier shifted his grip on his weapon, but he didn’t attack.  “We’ll bargain.  Marquis is offering assistance, but the PRT has influence.  We’ll deal with you, Doctor, if it means the Birdcage remains sealed.  With the ongoing inquisition against Cauldron capes, perhaps there are one or two you’d want to be ignored.  They couldn’t be promoted, that’s the PRT’s jurisdiction, and it would only draw attention to them that I couldn’t help them avoid.  Still, I could time a transfer, allow someone to slip through the cracks.”

“A few someones,” the Doctor said.  “Yes.  I’m sorry, Marquis.  Our clients must come first.”

“You’ll be twisting our arms and escorting us through the portal, then?”

“You’ll go willingly.  This place cannot sustain life.  It’s a facility in the middle of a wasteland, and your Earth is several universes away.”

“I see,” Marquis said.  “Unavoidable, I take it.  And if I were to share the particularly valuable information that you and I both know, that you don’t want me to share with others who are present?”

“I can’t believe I’m not getting in on this,” Tattletale whispered to me.

Doctor Mother didn’t reply.  She remained still, her eyes on Marquis, as the woman in the suit, who she’d called Contessa, leaned in close, whispering.

“You won’t,” the Doctor said, when Contessa had straightened and stepped back, standing guard behind the Doctor’s chair.

“I won’t?”

“You won’t.  Teacher would, hearing that, but Teacher has a secret he doesn’t want divulged, and he now knows we know.”

Marquis turned, his shadow shifting, presumably as he looked at Teacher.  He turned back, “Ah well.  I suppose I’ll just say we’re here if you need us.”

“If we need you that badly,” Chevalier said, “Then we’ve already lost.”

“Rest assured,” Marquis retorted, “I think you’re doing a very good job at getting yourselves to that juncture.”

“It’s a failure across the board,” I said, surprising myself by speaking.  “All of us, the Birdcage prisoners excepted, we’re not doing enough.  If we don’t come up with an answer or get someone to step up to bat and fight, then we’re doomed.  We’ve got the end of the world happening in twenty-thirteen, and we can’t even band together for this.”

“Complaining gets us nowhere,” Faultline said. “Besides, it’s not like this is small potatoes.”

“Okay then,” I said.  “Let’s talk resources.  If you’ve got parahumans or information, let’s hear it.  Let’s show a measure of trust and have Marquis or Cauldron share the tidbit of information they’ve gleaned.  Let’s talk options that don’t involve fighting.  Tattletale thinks these bastards are designed.  Where’s the designer?”

“Nowhere we can find,” Doctor Mother said.  “And we have the most powerful clairvoyance we know about, alongside the most powerful precognitive.”

“Does that mean there isn’t a designer?” Faultline asked.  “That Tattletale’s wrong?”

“Get fucking real,” Tattletale retorted.  “I’m confident on this count.”

“If they can’t find the designer-” Faultline started.

“There’s other possibilities.  Lots of powers confound precogs and clairvoyants.”

“Both at the same time?”

“Be constructive,” I cut in.

“We will assist,” Turanta said.  “Sifara, Bahu and I, others beneath us in our organization.  I cannot speak for my fellow brothers, but I will ask them because we all owe a debt.  Our brother died, but Weaver helped to make it not for nothing.”

“Phir Sē died?” I asked, surprised.

“At the hands of the First, very late.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“We owe you,” he said.  “As we owe some of the others.  It is your choice how you would use this.”

“You can pay me back by helping, here,” I said.  “You’d be paying us all back.”

“We have the means,” he said. “But this hurts us, because we rely on our enemies not knowing what we are truly able to do.”

“If this goes much further,” I said, “It might not matter.”

“This is true.  Of each of you but Weaver and Chevalier, we will ask a small favor, after.  Nothing dangerous or painful to give away.  Token gestures, most.”

“Favors make for a good currency,” the Doctor said.  “Granted.”

There were murmurs of assent from others.  The woman with the shadow pet didn’t respond, but Turanta didn’t press the issue with her either.

Dragon glanced at Defiant, but ultimately relented, accepting the terms.

The Doctor spoke “Moord Nag?  We could use your assistance.”

The woman and her shadow pet with its crocodile skull looked at Doctor Mother.  “Laat hulle almal sterf.  Ek is tevrede om die wêreld te sien brand en die vallende konings te spot.  Ek en my aasdier sal loop op die as van die verwoeste aarde.”

“She says no.  Let them all die,” the woman from the Birdcage said.

“Can I ask who she is?” Faultline asked.

Tattletale was the one to answer.  I think she got a measure of joy out of rubbing the fact that she knew in Faultline’s face, “Moord Nag.  Warlord based in Namibia.  As far as the current warlords in the area go, she’s had the longest lifespan at about eight years or so, and she’s gotten things to the point where most of the other bastards around there are kowtowing, asking permission to attack this city or occupy that area, to go to the bathroom or unite two groups in an alliance.”

Die badkamer?”

Us, basically,” Tattletale said, glancing at me.  She turned her head to look at Grue, “Only on a much, much bigger scale, and she did it alone.”

Ek het dit reggekry met aasdier,” Moord Nag responded.  “Nie alleen nie.

“With your pet monster, right.”

“She said she’d be willing to let the world burn, before,” the woman from the birdcage said.  “I don’t think you have an ally there.”

“From her attitude,” Saint added, “I don’t even see why she was invited.”

“I’ll ask you the same thing I asked the others,” the Doctor said.  “What would it take for you to fight, here?”

Ek kan nie krag spandeer sonder om die nag lande hulpeloos teen hul bure te los nie.”

“She can’t spend her power, not without-”

“We’ll supply what you need to replenish it,” the Doctor said.

“No,” Dragon spoke.  “No, you won’t.”

Ek sal nie-

“It would be appreciated,” the man from the Birdcage that had granted her the ability to understand English spoke.  “Reconsider.  Don’t underestimate our resources.”

Vyf duisend, lewendig, dit maak nie saak of hulle mag het of nie.  ‘N Fraksie van wat jy die gek aangebied het.

“No,” Dragon said, before the translator could speak.

“Yes,” the Doctor said, just as readily.  “I caught the number, I can figure out the rest.  You’ll get what you need.”

“I can’t stand by and watch this, not like this,” Chevalier said.

“How many more will die if we don’t act?” the Doctor said.  “The Thanda will counteract the Endbringer’s teleportation ability, at least for a time.  Moord Nag gives you much-needed clout.  Again, at least for a short time.”

“In exchange for five thousand lives?” Dragon asked.

“A small price to pay.  How many have died as we conducted this meeting?”

Jy praat asof dit saak maak. Die kontrak is verseël. Sal ons gaan nou,” Moord Nag said.

“What did she just say?” Chevalier asked.  Moord Nag was already walking away, stepping away from the panel and into the recessed passage beside it, almost completely hidden in shadow.  I could only make out the rodent’s skull, overlarge and pale in the darkness.

“The contract is settled,” Dragon said.  “She sees it as inviolable, now.”

“I like her,” Marquis commented.  “Mass murder aside, anyways.  Woman of her word.”

“We’ll find her,” Chevalier said, to the Doctor, “After the battle is done, before you deliver those people to her.”

“You promised us a favor, in exchange for our not letting Marquis and the other cell block leaders free,” the Doctor said.  “I could ask you to leave this be,” the Doctor said.

“No.  Not this.  Not five thousand people, fed to that woman’s pet.”

“Stop us, then,” the Doctor replied.  “Or try, as it may be.  That’s one Endbringer we should be able to drive away.  As Weaver said, we may have to evacuate the planet if this doesn’t work.  Faultline, your assistance would be invaluable on that front.  You’ve already created nine, I believe?”

“Three of which were supposed to be secret,” Faultline replied.

“It doesn’t matter.  We’ll pay for several more, at major locations, and we’ll arrange your transportation.”

Faultline stared at the woman.  “No, Doctor.”

“No?”

“Not your money.  Not you.”

“Shortsighted,” Saint commented.

“I think this is pretty big picture.  Money talks, and I don’t like how this money sounds.  She spends five thousand lives like someone else would spend change.  Cauldron made innocent people into monsters.  They took everything from them.  I can’t deal with that in good faith.”

She turned to Chevalier, “We’ll give you a discount.  Escape routes in major cities across America.  Leading to the world that the Brockton Bay portal goes to.”

Fuck that,” Tattletale said.

“I’ll talk to my superiors,” Chevalier said.

“Good,” Faultline said, “that’s settled, then.”

“Leaving only the Endbringer that comes next,” I said.

“We won’t know what measures need to be taken until it makes an appearance,” Defiant spoke.

“Another meeting,” the Doctor said.  “Another day.”

I could feel my heart skip a beat at that.  I wasn’t sure I liked what this was becoming.

Then again, the nature of this meeting had been suggested from the start, with the shadows concealing identities.  Everything the PRT had been fighting to assure people that parahumans weren’t doing was happening here, in this room.  Scheming, trading lives like currency, and wielding incredible amounts of power, money and influence.

“But before we get that far,” the Doctor said, “Tattletale?”

“You asked me here for a reason,” Tattletale said.  “Multiple reasons.”

“The first being to give you an opportunity to check something for our mutual benefit.”

“You brought the major players in so I could see if anyone was the designer, the creator of the Endbringers.”

“And?”

“Nobody here.”

The Doctor nodded.  “I suspected.  They remain immune to precognition, but the designer wouldn’t be, I don’t think.  It’s good to double check, regardless.  Will you be attending if we hold another meeting, Chevalier?” the Doctor asked.

Others, the Thanda, were departing, now.  Grue had stepped away from the panel to step close to Tattletale, whispering something.

Then Grue walked past me, not even glancing my way, before disappearing into the corridor I’d used to enter.

Hurt, confused, I couldn’t speak to ask Tattletale why without possibly interrupting Chevalier, as he spoke in a steady, quiet voice.

“I don’t think I have a choice.  If I don’t come, then I’m left blind to what’s occurring behind the scenes.  I wouldn’t be able to intervene if you tried something like you did with the Birdcage.”

“That’s true,” Doctor Mother said.

“And I think that’s exactly what you wanted,” he said.  “You have that Contessa there, and she sees the road to victory.  You schemed this.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”  Chevalier asked.

“It’s not time for you to know,” she said.

Fuck that,” Tattletale cut in.  Most of the other groups were gone.  Faultline and her group lingered behind.  “I think it’s damn obvious what you’re doing.”

“A new world order,” I said.  Tattletale nodded in agreement beside me.

There were a few curious glances shot our way.  I could see the Doctor shift position.  Exasperation?  Annoyance?

I leaned forward, resting my hands on the railing in front of me.  Grue’s odd departure only fueled an anger that had been simmering, “I had a hell of a lot of time to think, in prison, in my downtime and during stakeouts.  There’s only one thing that really makes sense, as far as your motivations go.  It’s not the clues or what you’re doing, it’s what you weren’t doing.  Only Legend helped against the Slaughterhouse Nine, but he wasn’t in the know, from the looks of it.  You didn’t help Coil, and you didn’t help against Coil.  You only helped against Echidna when it looked like everything might go down the toilet.  But Alexandria steps in when I leave, confronts me after I’d surrendered to the PRT.  So I had to ask myself why.”

“I can imagine,” Doctor Mother said.

“We were guinea pigs,” I said.  “For what?  So you could be in charge?”

“Not us.  Never us,” the Doctor said.  “There’s a lot you don’t understand.”

Try us,” Tattletale said, almost snarling the words.

“All of this?  It’s small scale,” the Doctor said.  “Important?  Yes.  But it’s nothing in the grand scheme of things.”

I clenched my fists.  “Five thousand lives, nothing.  Talking about a hundred thousand parahumans to be delivered after twenty-some years, nothing.  The lies you perpetuated with Alexandria, the schemes, Echidna, the human experimentation, the case fifty-threes, everyone you watched die just so your experiment with parahumans in charge of Brockton Bay wouldn’t be tainted…”

“We’ll go down in history as the villains,” Doctor Mother said.  There wasn’t a trace of doubt or hesitation in her voice.  “But it’s worth it if it means saving everyone.”

“You sound so sure,” Gregor the Snail spoke, from behind Faultline.  He had a heavy accent.  European-ish, in the same vein as Moord Nag.

“Do morals matter, if our alternative is a grim and hopeless end?”

“I would never question your morals,” Gregor said.  “I know you have none.  I merely wonder why you are so confident you will succeed in all of this, that you will save the world and you will achieve your new world order and your parahuman leadership.”

“We have a parahuman that sees the path to victory.  The alternative to traveling this path, to walking it as it grows cloudier and narrower every day, is to stand by while each and every person on this planet dies a grisly and violent death.”

“You know how the world ends,” I said, my eyes widening behind the lenses of my mask.

“Of course,” she answered, standing from her chair.  She collected papers and a tablet computer from the table in front of her.  She collected it into a neat bundle, and the man with the glasses took it from her, holding it under one arm.  Only then did she add, “We already saved it once.”

There were no responses to that.  Confusion and disbelief warred with each other as I stared at her silhouette.  The others seemed to be in similar straits.

“You had better hurry if you want transportation to the battlefield,” she said.  Then, with the man with the glasses and Contessa following, she strode from the dark chamber.

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Interlude 22 (Donation Bonus #1)

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March 2nd, 1997

“Okay,” Daiichi said.  His Japanese was easy, a lazy drawl.  He paused at the top of the flight of stairs, sneering a touch as he waited for his followers to ascend.  “If you don’t hurry, they’ll be gone by the time we get there.”

There were grumbles from the others.

“Why isn’t there an elevator?” Ren whined.  Of all of them, he was the heaviest, the black jacket of his school uniform straining across his shoulders.  He’d dyed his hair blond, but hadn’t yet found a good style to wear it.  Ren was Daiichi’s lieutenant; most thought that was because Daiichi put too much stock in Ren’s size, ignoring the fact that he was more fat than muscular.  People who knew Daiichi better speculated that it was because Daiichi wanted someone fat and ugly that could offset his own good looks.  Only those inside Daiichi’s group and the people who crossed them knew better.

“Only three floors,” Daiichi said.  “And we wouldn’t use it if they had one.  They could have someone watching.”

“With only two of them?”  Ryo asked.

“Can’t hurt to be safe,” Arata said.

Kenta was the first up the flight of stairs.  Daiichi clapped one hand on his shoulder.  Their leader asked, “Ready?”

“Ready,” Kenta answered.  His heart pounded.

For others, for his neighbors and peers, conformity was safety.  To be the same as one’s peers, it reassured the self, reassured others.  Standing out was bad.

But Kenta stood out anyways.  He looked different.  People knew his mother was Chinese.  He was oddly tall for his age, his grades poor.  He could have struggled, but there was so little point.  He was competing with classmates who were already miles ahead of him, who were fighting to keep ahead of one another by studying after school, studying at night.

This was something else.  It was both thrilling and terrifying, to recognize those lines and ignore them.  To be brazen, to stand out on purpose.  Breaking rules, breaking convention.  He imagined it was like the rush that accompanied a fall to open water or hard ground.

“This is our springtime,” Daiichi said, and he managed to say it without sounding ridiculous.  At seventeen, he was older than any of them.

Springtime, Kenta thought.  Daiichi had it all planned out.  They would earn a reputation for themselves, then submit themselves to the Yakuza.  With luck, they would be accepted as low-level members of the ‘chivalrous organization’.  The freedom would be gone, in a way.  Their ‘springtime’, in a sense, referred to the brief period where they were free to do what they wanted, between the confines of school and membership in the Yakuza.

“There’s only two Chinese?” Ren asked, as they filed out of the stairwell and into the restaurant on the third floor.  The rooms here had thick walls and a wooden door, rather than the traditional paper.  They’d wanted privacy, maybe.  It didn’t matter.

“My cousin owns the building,” Daiichi said. “He said they paid with bundles of bills, and no other Chinese came in.  Some Western gaijin, but nobody threatening.”

Kenta looked back at their group.  Nine people for two men?  And they had an unfair advantage, besides.

“Go,” Daiichi ordered.

Kenta was stronger than Ren, so he was the one to kick down the door.  He moved aside to let fat Ren advance.  He wasn’t stupid, wasn’t ignoring the possibility the foreigners had guns. 

There was no gunfire.  Instead, he could hear someone speaking in English, very calm.

The woman is upset you did not take enough precautions,” A man said, in Chinese.  He sounded more alarmed than the English speaker.

Daiichi and Ren led the advance into the back room.  Kenta followed, looking over Ren’s shoulder to take in the scene.

There were five people in the room.  Two were Chinese, sure enough.  Businessmen, they seemed to be, kneeling on one side of a squat dining table that was neatly stacked with cash and ‘bricks’ of white powder in plastic wrap, as well as various dishes laid out with vegetables and meat.  A Japanese man sat at one end of the table, hands folded in his lap, eyes wide.

But there were two more gaijin in the room, kneeling opposite the Chinese foreigners.  A black woman in a white suit jacket and a knee-length dress, and a twenty-something woman with a European cast to her features, with dark hair and a black suit.

The black woman spoke, and the Japanese man translated it to Chinese.  “The woman recommends we stand back.  Her bodyguard will take care of the situation.”

“The woman in front is a bodyguard,” Kenta told Daiichi.

This was wrong.  The two women were too confident.

Daiichi drew a gun and pointed it at the woman.  Kenta felt his heart leap at the sight of the weapon.

Then Daiichi fired, a warning shot.  Kenta flinched despite himself.  He’d never heard a gunshot before.  Loud.

The men were cowering, trying to hide beneath the table.  The women hadn’t even reacted.

“One bodyguard?” Daiichi asked, sneering.  He made the first move.  He flared a brilliant green, then jolted as a phantom replica of himself leaped forth.

The phantom Daiichi flew across the room like living lightning, a trail of neon green smoke in its wake.

The bodyguard was already moving, her hand on a plate.  She turned it upside-down and threw it in a single motion, and it caught the air like a frisbee.  It turned in mid-air and crashed into the real Daiichi’s face.

He staggered, and the phantom he’d created dissipated a fraction of a second before reaching the bodyguard.  She shut her eyes as the residual smoke carried past her.

Kenta stared.  He’d never seen Daiichi’s ability fail him like that.

Daiichi raised the gun, and the woman raised one knife from the table, turning it around so she held the blade, the metal handle extended.  She held it out with one hand, pointing it at Daiichi’s shoulder.

Daiichi fired, and the knife went flying.  It ricocheted, spinning rapidly, striking the doorframe behind the bodyguard before flying over her head in a tall arc.  She caught it in her other hand, resuming the exact same position as before, then shook her right hand for a second.

She said something, murmuring it in English.  The knife, still held in front of her, had a dent on the end.

The black woman behind her said something else.

“What are they saying?” Daiichi asked.

“The woman in the suit just got permission to kill us,” Hisoka said.  “But the black one said not to spill any blood.”

“We should run,” Kenta said.

“You scared?” Daiichi asked.  “We have muscle.”

“So does she,” Kenta retorted.

Daiichi only smirked.

Can’t run, we’re going to get hurt if we stay…

Ren rolled his shoulders, then inhaled.

Wind rushed out of the room, and small objects were drawn towards Ren.  The intensity of the suction grew as the fat boy sucked in more and more air.

The bodyguard kicked one edge of the low table, and the wind caught it, helping it rise.  Money, plates and the bricks of white powder slid to the floor, sliding and rolling towards Ren.

Daiichi opened fire again, indiscriminate, but she didn’t even react.  Her knife blocked one shot that was directed more at the black woman, flying out of her grip, and the bodyguard walked between the rest of the shots without even dodging.  She seized a table leg in one hand.  It would have been too heavy to lift, but Ren’s suction was hauling it off the ground.  Two bullets bit into the thick wood.

Daiichi unleashed his power, creating another ghostly replica of himself, incredibly fast, stronger than he was.

The woman kicked the table, and it spun through the air as it flew towards Ren, clipping the ghost.  The phantom lost an arm and a chunk of its chest, got its bearings, then charged the bodyguard.  The damage to its chest was too grave, and it crumpled into neon green dust a pace away from her.

Ren was struck by the moving table, hit with enough force that he stumbled backwards into Kenta, Hisoka, and the other mundane members of the group.

Ren blew, and the table went flying across the room.  Kenta’s heart sank as he saw the woman, crouching low to the ground.  Her hand reached up to strike the flying table, altering its course as it flew towards the Chinese men.  It came so close to hitting them that Kenta thought it would be like the cartoons, where someone was cut but didn’t start bleeding until seconds had passed.

Except it hadn’t hit them, and the woman was too close to the ground to really be affected by the wind.

“Suck!” Daiichi shouted.

“Don’t!” Kenta said, though there was little point.

It was too late.  Ren had stopped blowing, buying her a second to move.  She stepped forward, closing the distance to the group.  Daiichi created a third ghost, rushing towards her, but she avoided the first strike.

Ren started drawing air in once more.  Daiichi’s spirit opened with a flurry of attacks, moving twice as fast as she was, but failed to land a strike.  The bodyguard took a step back and used the toe of her glossy black shoes to flick a brick of powder into the air.  She threw it, and the suction only added to its velocity as it soared to Ren’s right.

Daiichi’s spirit was fast enough to avoid the brick, but Daiichi wasn’t.  It bounced off his head, and the ghost dissipated again.  She kicked the table, and again, the suction caught it.  It flew into Ren’s shins, and he fell.

Thrice, both the ghost and Ren had been countered, almost casually.

Daiichi shouted, uncharacteristically angry.  Uncharacteristic, maybe, because he’d never lost a fight before.

The others pushed forward from behind Kenta.  Had they not just seen the fight?  They really thought they’d accomplish something?

But the force of the others charging forward from behind started him moving forward, and he was driven to keep advancing by the vague, incoherent idea of what might happen to him if he, the largest, physically strongest member of Daiichi’s group, turned coward.

He knew in an instant that it was a mistake.  Daiichi’s ghost, twice as fast and twice as strong as Daiichi himself, an expendable assailant, hadn’t accomplished anything.  Why would six or seven teenaged delinquents?

She tore through them, every movement precisely calculated to disable, to crush, blind, stun and stagger.  They were driven to stumble into one another, their weapons knocked from their hands.  She wasn’t any faster than any of them, not a martial artist, though there was a degree of elegance to what she did.  No movement wasted.

Her foot caught Kenta in the diaphragm.  She planted one hand on the back of his head as he winced from the blow, then pushed him face first into the ground.

His teeth bit into a brick of powder, puncturing the plastic itself.  Kenta tried to rise, but she stepped on the back of his head, driving him facefirst into the brick a second time, hard.

Someone else fell to the ground a short distance away.  Kenta turned to look, simultaneously coughed, and loose powder exploded around his face, filling his eyes.

The powder caked his nose, thick in his mouth, to the point that he couldn’t swallow.

Drugs weren’t a ‘big’ thing in the East, even among gangs.  He didn’t know the particulars of any powder or substance.  Only that they were bad, possibly lethal if too much was ingested.  He tried to spit it out, but couldn’t help but feel like he was swallowing more than he was removing.  The weight of the woman bodyguard was on his head, holding him there, suffocating.

He felt the rush of it taking hold, intense and seemingly without a ceiling to top it off.  His face in the dirt, in the dust, he was overwhelmed by the paradoxical sense of being like the king of the world.

That rush lasted too short a time.  He could feel the rush building until it felt like his heart was going to burst or vibrate itself into pieces.  He felt nauseous, as if he was going to throw up, but couldn’t bring himself to.

Kenta’s left arm started going numb.  He knew what that meant.

With a cold feeling in his churning gut, he thought, I’m having a heart att

He found himself out of his body.  He was an observer, an outside agent, without body or mind.  He couldn’t think.  He could only exist, as a part of some sequence of events.

Two entities, communicating in increasingly short bursts as they drew together.  Two entities, each unfolding and folding through realities, through multiple worlds at the same time.  Two entities, singing ideas through mediums he could barely comprehend.  Through light and heat and space and half-lives and gravity.

And they were looking.  Looking at a planet that was broad, more gas than solid.  A world of perpetual storms.  There were lifeforms in there, lifeforms in countless possible variations of that world.  Bloated bags of gas that flowed through and in the storms, in kalleidoscopic patterns.

He could see what they were focusing on, see them examining those possible worlds, declaring something.  Ownership here.  Claim there.  Territory elsewhere.

ack.

Kenta’s thoughts were confused as he felt the high seize him.  Three things overwhelming him at once.  The things he’d just seen, fleeing from his recollection.  His own body, dying in a violent, incomprehensible way.  The world beyond-

He blinked the dust out of his eyes, felt them burn, could only see shadows, could only hear the rush of blood in his ears.

The bodyguard had stepped away from him, freeing him to raise his head.  She’d staggered, and was being supported by the black woman.

He turned away, flipping himself over.  He could see the fat shape of Ren, on his hands and knees, Daiichi prone on the ground.

The bodyguard recovered faster.  She found her stride quickly enough.

She kicked at Daiichi’s throat, hard.  Ren, she struck in the nose with one boot.

The black woman said something in English.

S-she’ll take the cost of the lost product out of the deal,” the translator said in Chinese, his voice distant.

Kenta only lay there, his chest heaving.  He felt stronger, could feel his heart returning to some form of equilibrium.

But he knew he couldn’t win.  He lay there, doing his best to emulate the dying, as the Chinese men collected both cash and drugs in a bag, handing them to the black woman.

She spoke, and the Japanese man translated it to, “She would like to discuss delivery of the product on the way out.”

Kenta lay there long after the two women and the Chinese men had left.  He wiped caked powder from his face, though the effects had receded, the tingling and the rush long since faded.  Whatever had happened to him, the drugs did almost nothing, now.

He wiped his face with his shirt, then checked on his friends.

Daiichi, dead, suffocated, eyes bulging.  Ren lay there, eyes rolled up into his skull, his nose rammed into his brain, though the blood hadn’t leaked past the aperture of his nostrils.

Hisoka, suffocated on powder, as Kenta almost had.  Arata, gasping for air he couldn’t seem to pull into his lungs.  Ryo’s head had a dent in it, and his eyes were unfocused.  Jirou’s airway had been blocked, much as Daiichi’s had.  Both Takeo and Shuji lay dead with no apparent wounds.

All dead or dying, with no blood spilled.  Technically.

Kenta waited, holding Arata’s hand as the boy slowly died, then he straightened.

Idiots, he thought, with a degree of anger.  It had been foolish to escalate the fight after seeing what the woman was capable of.  He’d be more careful of who he fought in the future.

November 2nd, 1999

Lung toyed with a flame in one of his hands as he watched the great lizard-man’s rampage.

The Sentai Elite were battling the thing, assisted by the gaijin heroes.  Once every few minutes, someone passed him, flying, carrying wounded.  Lung didn’t care.  It was about timing.  If he was going to do this, he’d do it right.

A tidal wave rocked the area, and Lung had to hold on to a nearby building to keep from falling.  Heroes were swept up in the wash of water, and buildings were leveled.

The anticipation of a fight stirred inside him.  He could feel the scales beneath his skin, just itching to be brought to the surface.  The fire, too, was warm in the core of his body.

This was a fight that was worthy of him.  The trick was orchestrating it so he wouldn’t die before he got strong enough.  It was his biggest drawback.  The fight… the heroes were stalling in their own way as well.  He could tell by the way the heroes moved.  They fought in shifts.

Eidolon was fighting now.  He hurled globes of energy the size of small houses at Leviathan, and each one was sufficient to knock the creature away, flaying away the thing’s skin and simultaneously slowing it.  The hero’s own hydrokinesis deflected the lizard’s ranged attacks, diverting them skyward or off to one side.  Leviathan couldn’t attack from range, and couldn’t get close without getting pummeled.  He attempted to run, only for Japan’s foremost team, the Sentai Elite, to step into his way, blocking his progress.

“Are you fighting?”

Lung turned to look at the speaker.  A woman in a yellow and black Sentai costume.

“Yes,” he answered, his voice a rumble.  His power had granted him additional strength, durability, regeneration and control over fire even in his ordinary form, but the changes to his body had altered his voice.

She glanced at the fight, as if unsure whether she should be participating or talking to Lung, “You’re a yankee?”

“No.”

“You’re a villain?”

“I am me.”

Another tidal wave rocked the area.  This time, the water reached Lung, sweeping up to waist level and forcing him to hold the windowsill again to avoid losing his footing.  He caught the Sentai woman’s wrist to keep her from being washed away.

He could feel the scales beneath his skin stirring, threatening to rise, eager.

“Sumimasen deshita,” she said, once the water was mostly gone.

Lung only grunted a response.

“Why are you back here?”

“I’m waiting,” he answered.  “And you should be fighting.”

“I can’t do anything.  My power hurts people, but it doesn’t hurt him.  I’m not permitted to leave.”

The heroes were winning, slowly but surely.  Slowly more than anything.  Each tidal wave was doing catastrophic damage in the meantime.

I’ll fight, he thought.

With that very thought, his power started stirring into effect.  The scales began growing, slowly but surely, bristling like a sea urchin’s spines as they arranged themselves.  The very anticipation of the fight was serving to fuel his abilities.  When he changed, it would be rapid, accelerated by the sheer threat his opponent posed.

He abandoned his handhold and began striding through the flooded streets, towards Leviathan and the others.

He’d made a promise to himself.  He wouldn’t lose again.  Victory, it didn’t matter.  But losing?  He wouldn’t accept it, not like the loss he’d faced at the hands of the unnamed woman.

And that very thought, that certainty, it stirred his power further, as though it were something alive, something other.

Another tidal wave hit.  Leviathan disappeared in the midst of it, reappearing elsewhere.  Lung could hear the destruction as the beast clawed and tore through the base of one building that heroes were perched on.  He quickened his pace, felt himself growing stronger as he got closer.

The beast was otherwise occupied… this was the time.

“You’re going to die!” the Sentai in black and yellow shouted.

I’ll never die, Lung thought.  I might fall, but I’ll come back again and again.  I might falter, but I’ll return with twice the fury.

The waves were more frequent now.  Buildings here had been built to tight specifications, to remain standing in the face of earthquakes and tsunamis, but it wasn’t enough.  Barely a minute passed between the strikes, with each wave reaching further inland than the last, and only a handful of buildings stood at their full height, where there had been a city here only an hour ago.

It was in one of those brief moments of respite that the ground shuddered.  Lung nearly lost his footing.  When he looked up at the night sky, he could see that the tallest standing buildings were swaying, like fronds bending in the wind.

Somewhere he couldn’t see in the gloom, a building swayed too far and crashed to the ground.

Eidolon backed off, and Alexandria stepped in, flying into close quarters with the beast, battering him.  He tried to duck beneath the water, but she broke off to fly beneath, using her strength and the speed of her flight to part the water, cutting off his retreat.  He slowed as he entered open air, though slow wasn’t the word.  Legend caught him square in the chest, and Leviathan slowed long enough for Alexandria to catch him by the tail.

She flew straight up, holding the monster by the tail.  Between Leviathan’s dark scales and Alexandria’s black costume, they disappeared in the gloom.

Leviathan fell, and the resulting impact was oddly out of sync with his mass.  The water in particular seemed to react, a single ripple extending outward, clearing an area around him of any and all water.

Lung braced himself, felt the water collide with him with a force like a locomotive, was summarily dragged beneath, trapped, suffocating.

Scales pierced his skin, strength surged through him, and his pyrokinesis boiled around him, disrupting the water’s flow, rendering it to steam.

Other heroes were pushed back a hundred meters, but Lung was already standing, burning himself dry, advancing on the fight, where Eidolon was again engaging with Leviathan.

Another tidal wave struck, barely giving the defending forces time to recover from the last assault.  Lung lost his footing, lost another dozen feet of headway.

More scales were sprouting, they were growing en masse now.  His blood coursed through his veins at twice the usual speed.  Fire burned around him perpetually now.  He was naked, the burned rags of his clothes swept away by water, and he didn’t care.  He was in freefall, of a sort, but it wasn’t the ground waiting for him.  It was Leviathan.

His flame blasted out to pelt the Endbringer.  It didn’t do any substantial damage.

Lung ran, and it took him an instant to get used to his newfound strength, to find a stride and a rhythm.

The ground was shaking almost constantly, now.  The lasers, Eidolon’s strikes, the very impacts of the blows Alexandria delivered, the Sentai’s attacks, the barrages from assisting heroes.  A cacaphony of noise, light and violence.

He struck Leviathan, and was struck in turn, his bones broken, internal organs smashed.

He very nearly blacked out, but his rage won out.  He struggled to his feet, found one femur in two distinct pieces.  He knelt instead, resting his weight on one knee, the other foot planted on the ground, taloned toes biting into asphalt, and he directed a constant stream of fire at the Endbringer.

A flick of Leviathan’s tail sent him sprawling.

But Lung knew he’d reached a critical point.  His leg was already healing, the changes speeding up.  He stopped to hold his leg, pull the bones into what was more or less the right position, so they could bond.

Anyone who crosses me will pay twice over, he thought.

A Sentai in purple and green offered him a hand.  Lung ignored the man, standing on his own.  Again, a stream of fire, but the color was more blue than red.

The Sentai joined him, adding their ranged fire to his.  They had a man who mass produced their armor and weapons, each with wrist-mounted laser guns, rifles at their hips.  Sixteen or seventeen of them opened fire with both weapons at the same time.

Leviathan turned, struck.  Some Sentai used powers to soften or deflect the incoming scythe of water.

Leviathan charged, and Lung stepped forward to meet the brute, roared in defiance.

He wasn’t strong enough.  Leviathan knocked him aside, and Lung rolled, putting taloned hands and feet beneath him before rushing forward, shallow leaps that carried him over the water that was knee-high to the humans.  Barely halfway up Lung’s own calves.

He found handholds in the shallow wounds on Leviathan’s back and shoulders.  The abomination moved, and the watery echo that followed its movements crashed into Lung.  Not enough to unseat him.

The tidal wave that struck wasn’t enough either, nor Leviathan’s speed as the creature swam.  Lung dug deeper, clawed flesh away.  Deeper in Leviathan’s body, the flesh was only harder, the ichor making it slick.

Lung roared, burned head to toe as he clawed deeper still.  If Leviathan’s muscle was as hard as steel, Lung would burn hot enough to melt steel.

Leviathan surfaced, and Lung found his way up to the monster’s neck.  He tried to reach around, and his arm shifted, reconfiguring to be a fraction longer.  Lung’s legs, arms, and talons were growing as well.

Stronger, larger.  Another man might have been afraid of what he was becoming, but this was only continuing the freefall.  Freedom.

Leviathan shook him free, and Lung found no trouble in putting his feet under him.  His mouth strained, opened wider than it should have, four individual mouthparts flexing, bristling with teeth, his own lips buried somewhere deep inside, altered.

Water steamed and boiled around Lung’s calves as he stood as straight as he was able.  He’d changed more, his shoulders broadening, his chest heavy with muscle.  He had to rest his taloned hands on the ground to maintain his balance.  His senses focused on Leviathan like a laser, taking in everything, even the faint creaking of the monster’s movements and the Sentai’s muscles, and the infintesmally small burbles of ichor bubbling forth from Leviathan’s wounds.

The ground was rumbling constantly, to the point that the local heroes were starting to seem more concerned about the landscape than about Leviathan.

There was a crack, and Lung was put in mind of the gun Daiichi had fired, more than two years ago.  A loud sound, a wrong sound.

The ground shifted underfoot.  Heroes scrambled for cover, scrambled to run or save their friends, and water rushed forth.  Lung merely set his taloned toes in the ground, ignoring the water, the debris, and the people that flowed past him.

Leviathan charged him.

He can’t ignore me now, Lung thought.  He was only half the height of the Endbringer, but it was enough.  Fire against water, claw against claw.  Leviathan hit harder, but Lung healed faster.  Every second he fought without Leviathan tearing him in half was a second that was to his advantage.

The ground parted, and Lung could hear the water rushing in to fill the void.  The landmass had parted, and ocean water was streaming in from miles away.

Leviathan tried to drag him closer to the chasm, no doubt wanting to fight in that churning abyss.  Lung planted toes in the ground and resisted.

Alexandria was there in a heartbeat, helping, keeping Leviathan from finding his way inside.  She drove the monster back, bought Lung purchase.

She said something in English, but Lung didn’t know the language.  The only others who spoke Japanese or Chinese were gone, now.  They’d evacuated who they could, and the remainder were left to drown.  The only ones left were the indomitable, and for now, Lung was among them.  They fought to keep Leviathan from continuing his rampage, to keep him from carrying on until he’d wiped away all of Japan.  Lung just fought.

Fought for minutes, hours.  Fought until four wings extended from his back, and he burned so hot that the steel-like flesh just beneath Leviathan’s skin was blackening and charring to ash by proximity alone.  Until he was larger than Leviathan, until even Alexandria hesitated to get too close.

For that indeterminate period of time, Lung was king of the world.

But he began to weaken.  The lesser heroes were gone, washed away or helping others to evacuate, the greater heroes a distance away.

And Lung had nothing to fuel his power.  He was engaged in a fight of ten times the scale he’d been in before, and his power was leaving him.

The landmass disappeared beneath the pair of them, the shards of land drawn beneath the waves, and Lung was now fighting Leviathan in the monster’s home ground.

For an instant, he thought he would die.  But Leviathan, wounded, broke away and fled into the depths.

Lung only sank, too dense to float, growing wearier by the second as his power left him, the fight over.

He’d expected a feeling of satisfaction, but he knew he hadn’t delivered a killing blow, that he had been a long, long way from it, though he’d done more damage than anyone had in years.

His enemy couldn’t be killed.  Lung had become something more terrifying than the Endbringer, but there had been nobody to see.  None of the public to recognize him, to respect and fear him.

He sank, feeling a kind of despair.  Too tired to move, he touched bottom.

Alexandria found him in the depths and brought him to the surface.

August 13th, 2002

The walls of the C.U.I. prison loomed around him.

Lung fumed, but his power was denied him.  He paced, punched walls, burned the concrete with his power.  All around him, the area was pockmarked with the wounds that marked his periodic struggles.

They’d had him in regular cells before.  It had been a learning process for them.  He’d found that surviving in a prison like this involved being a true monster, so he’d bowed his head to one boss.  When this boss had discovered what he was capable of, he’d attacked another leader in the prison.  The ensuing war had ended with Lung being placed in higher security, until he fought the man who’d brought him food, very nearly escaping before Tōng Líng Tǎ, who never showed herself, encased him in a mountain of stone.

All in all, three years since he’d fought Leviathan.  Two years since he and his mother had come here to Chaohu.  A year and eight months since he’d been arrested by the Yàngbǎn.

A year and four months since Tōng Líng Tǎ had buried him here at the base of this pit, with the same routine.  Twice a day, he would get two packages with food.  Every day, he would pace, trying to tap into his abilities, finding them beyond his reach.  He would struggle, fume, scream, and wonder if he was going mad with the solitude.  Sometimes it rained, and he found himself knee deep in water.  Sometimes it was cold enough he couldn’t sleep.  Always, he was here, in a pit so deep that the hole at the top looked no larger than his handspan when he held his hand overhead.

Every seven days, Tōng Líng Tǎ used her powers on the walls.  The floor, she left alone, but the walls were wiped clean, her power to manipulate stone turning the four impossibly tall walls of Lung’s cell into flawlessly smooth surfaces.  She would absorb any and all of the trash that remained from his meals, any of the wildlife that had accidentally found their way into the pit, and all of Lung’s leavings, which he customarily left in one corner of his cell.

Every fourteen days, like clockwork, the Yàngbǎn opened communications.

Lung was waiting, waiting for Tōng Líng Tǎ to use her power.  Like a ripple traveling over the surface of water, he could see her power extend down the walls of his cell.  It touched the base of the wall and traveled along the floor.

Lung didn’t resist as the ground swept over his legs, trapping him from the knee down.

They appeared, descending from above, floating.  Two of them this time.  They made no mention of his lack of clothes or his shaggy hair.  Both wore identical uniforms, red jackets and pants, their red masks turning their faces into overlarge, featureless gemstones with coverings over their ears

At each of their shoulders, there was a number.  One-six and two-seven.  Not ones he’d met before.  No names.  No identities.

Will you join us?

Always, the same questions, always in Chinese.  He didn’t answer.

The American heroes approached you.  What deals did you strike?

Again, he didn’t answer.  He’d tried to tell them the truth, that he’d told the heroes to go away.  The Endbringers couldn’t die.  There was no point to fighting them.  Twice they had approached him with better deals, promising him the world, but he’d turned them down twice in turn.  He’d considered the idea of taking the third offer, but then he’d followed his mother to the C.U.I. states and lost touch with the Americans.

Not a real concern.

You will stay here until you answer our questions.”

I will join,” he told them.

They exchanged a glance between them.

He moved one hand and saw them flinch.  They wouldn’t burn any more than the other Yàngbǎn members had, but they still feared him.

It made him feel better than anything in the past long months.

The Yàngbǎn is the solution,” the taller of the two said.  “You agree this is truth?”

No,” Lung said.

That is a shame.”

I want out of here,” Lung told them.  “That is all.  If I must kneel, I will.”

We need to hear the right answers before we can go any further.  We will come again in two weeks time and we will ask you again.  If you give us the answer we require, we can move on to the next step.”

And, Lung thought, carry down the chain of questions, steps, and procedures until I fail.  You will break me and brainwash me until I am one of you.

Worst of all, they would take his powers, most of them, and give him others in turn.  This was the reason they imprisoned him, the reason they sought to break him.

He would risk it, and accept the offer.  He would do whatever they required of him, and then he would kill whoever he needed to and escape.

March 23rd, 2011

With every defeat, a matching ascent.

“The ‘Azn Bad Boys’ is a shit name,” Bakuda said.

Lung didn’t react, staring at her.

“Just saying.”

“It was the name of the group I joined when I came to America.”

“See, that’s what I don’t get.  You’re a badass, fine.  You tested the waters, took on a whole team of local heroes, and you walked away.  Right?”

“I fought Armsmaster, Dauntless, Miss Militia, Velocity, Challenger, Assault and Battery,” he said.  “Yes.”

“Except you’re small time.  You’ve got all this power, and what do you have to show for it?”

“Fear,” he said.

“I don’t fear you,” Bakuda said.  Her pale blue eyes stared at Lung, unflinching.

“You will,” he answered her.

She shrugged.  She paced, looking around the building.  Two of Lung’s whores sat on a couch, looking distinctly uncomfortable, as if they didn’t know how to hold themselves, the pose to take.

“There are two kinds of fear, Bakuda,” Lung said.  “The first is common.  Fear of the unknown.  A questioning fear.”

“Uh huh,” she said.  He could tell he had her attention.

“This is fear of unanswered questions.  If I fought him, would I win?  How is he going to hurt me?  Who or what is he?”

“And the other kind?”

“A fear of knowing.  Of realities.  If I fight him, I lose.  I know him, and I quiver to be in his presence.  I know he will hurt me and I know it will be the worst pain imaginable.”

Bakuda didn’t reply.

“I have found that the first is a weak fear.  It breaks.  It ends when you have answers, when others give you their support.  The other?  It is a fear that breeds itself.  It is a disease, and it only gets stronger when you fight it and fail.  I have situated myself here to engender that kind of fear.  The residents know me.  Those I want for my gang, I take.  My influence grows, and my enemies know not to cross me, because I always have my vengeance.”

“But the ‘Azn Bad Boys’?”

“A reminder, to my enemies, of what I’ve done before, what I could do again.”

Bakuda frowned.

“I defeated many gangs, many groups.  Some had powered members, others did not.  I recruited some.  Oni Lee was one.  The rest I killed.”

“And the heroes didn’t stop you?”

“The heroes see me as a double-edged sword.  They fear me.  They know what I am capable of when the situation calls for it, they know I am too strong to defeat as a group.  For now, I wait.  They leave me be because the only aggression they can see is that I inflict on other criminals, and I amass power, swelling in reputation.”

“And the fact that you, a halfbreed, recruited me, a halfbreed, and built a gang of a bajillion different races, it’s totally not a freudian thing, tying back to some childhood issues.”

“No,” Lung growled.

Bakuda only smiled.  “And what happens down the road?”

“I have enemies,” Lung thought.  “Those who have slighted me, those who have won.”

“Like Leviathan?”

Lung shook his head.  “Leviathan, I beat, if you can even call it an enemy.  It is a force of nature.  No, I speak of other enemies, insults old and new.  I will defeat each of them in turn, and then I will rule.”

The woman in the suit, the Yàngbǎn.

“So petty.  And you want me to help?”

“You will help,” Lung said.  “Because you think like I do.  In terms of power and fear.”

Bakuda took a seat at the end of the couch.  The two whores inched away from her.

She smiled at that.  “Alright.  You got me.”

July 14th, 2011

“…and that’s the gist of it,” Amelia said.

Lung watched Teacher’s expression change as he considered the idea.  The man seemed so ordinary, so unassuming.  To hear the man talk about it, he’d been one of the foremost criminal masterminds until the heroes trumped up charges against him.

“I might not be explaining it right,” Amelia said, “How my power works, hard to interpret.  But I think I’ve worked it out.”

“I can see where it makes sense to you,” Teacher said.  “But for those of us with no conception of these power granting entities, we don’t have enough solid ground to found the idea on.”

Amelia frowned.

Teacher shook his head.  “There’s holes in your logic.  The Endbringers?”

“I don’t see how they fit in,” she admitted.

“A developmental step forward?”

“No,” Amelia said.

“A step backwards, then?”

“No.  At least, I don’t think so.  Something else entirely.”

“To be frank,” Teacher said, “I don’t know whether to hope you’re right or wrong.”

“It’s both,” Amelia said.  “It’s bad, but at least we know how bad.”

“With nothing we can do about it until someone lets us out,” Teacher said.

Amelia frowned.  She rested her elbows on her knees, as she sat on the edge of Marquis’ bed.  Plastic crinkled with the movement.  The tattoo artist who was working on her arms had scrounged up plastic sheets from the meals that came down the shafts, sterilizing them and then taping them in place.  The freshest tattoos and the irritated flesh around the markings were blurry just beneath.

Panacea had complained about how idiotic it was, because she couldn’t get sick, but any artist had their rules and peculiarities, and Marquis had told her to accept them.

“Well,” Marquis said.  “It’s food for thought.  I’d suggest a breakout attempt, given how grave this all seems, but we know how that tends to go.”

“Yes,” Teacher agreed.  “Our deal stands?  You won’t replace my dentists or doctors?”

“That wasn’t the deal,” Marquis chided.  “We’ll price match.  A little competition will keep your employees honest.”

Teacher frowned.

“It’s the best deal I’m willing to-”

Marquis stopped short.  Lung turned to see Spruce at the entryway into the cell.

“Hey, boss,” Spruce said.

“What is it?” Marquis asked.

Spruce gave him a curious look before turning back to Marquis, “Big news. TV.”

Lung took his time walking down to the televisions.  Marquis, Spruce and Amelia made their way down, where a crowd had gathered to watch.  It was rare, that the same thing would be on all of the working televisions.

It was due to a concerted effort this evening that we were able to stop Alexandria before more damage could be done.

“What’s this?” Amelia asked.  She gave Lung a nervous glance as he approached.

“Alexandria bit it,” Cinderhands said.

With that, each of the new arrivals turned their attention to the screen.

“…will recognize Taylor Hebert, revealed to be Skitter in a controversial confrontation at the school just a week ago, a confrontation Alexandria ordered.  Taylor Hebert played a crucial role in stopping Alexandria in a moment of crisis, ending the fight.

“No shitting way,” Panacea said.

Lung remained quiet.

“She’s the one who arrested you, isn’t she?” Cinderhands asked, looking over his shoulder at Lung.

“No,” Lung said.  “We fought twice, I was arrested by others.”

“But she beat you?”  Cinderhands asked.

“Shush, C.H.,” Marquis said.

It marks change, and it marks a step forward.  A chance to fight Endbringers and other threats without sabotage, without worrying who stands beside us, or whether our leadership is compromised.

“Anyone else thinking that we really should get a chance to appeal our cases?”  someone in the crowd asked.  “If the organization is this fucked up, the arrests can’t count.”

“Yes,” Marquis said, his tone condescending, “I’m quite sure the Protectorate will be apologizing to the public, then they’ll throw open the Birdcage’s doors and let us all loose.”

“…hope.  We’ve investigated the portal to another world, and confirmed that there are resources and even shelter, a possibility of escape in a time of emergency…

And new allies, as unlikely as they might be.

Panacea stared as the girl on the television stepped forward at Chevalier’s bidding, She removed the black sweatshirt and pants the PRT had issued her, revealing a costume of white and gray beneath.

Amelia’s hands went to her mouth.

Marquis glanced at Amelia.  Lung took that glance in all it’s import.  The two girls were opposite sides of the same coin.

Lung’s eyes fixed on the new heroine, then narrowed.

I admitted to reprehensible things.  I won’t challenge that, or pretend I didn’t say or do those things.  By all rights, I should go to jail.  I may serve a sentence, if the courts will it.  I won’t challenge that.

“is it reassuring?” Teacher murmured.

Lung turned, realizing that Teacher was talking to him.  “Why would it be?”

“You lost to her, but she’s strong enough to defeat Alexandria.  Less of a wound to your ego?”

“I lost once,” Lung said.  “An underhanded trick, but a loss.  I’ll credit her that.”

“Mm hmm,” Teacher replied, wordlessly.

The girl continued, “I seized a territory in Brockton Bay.  I led the local villains, and we defeated all comers.  I was secure in my position.  I had wealth, friendship, love and respect.  People depended on me.  It was everything I’d ever wanted, if not quite the way I’d initially imagined it.  I could have stayed and been comfortable. Except there are bigger things.  More important things.

“She was stronger before,” Lung spoke his thoughts aloud.

“More powerful?  Likely,” Teacher said.  “Stronger?  I wonder.”

Lung shook his head.

I believe in the idea of a new PRT that Chevalier is talking about.  I believe in it enough that I was willing to turn myself in and take action to bring it to fruition.  That I was willing to leave everything I had behind.  If I have to serve time in jail first, then so be it.  If I face the Birdcage… I hope I don’t.  But at least I could tell myself that seeing the supervillain step up might convince others to come back.  Change the minds of heroes who gave up on the PRT for one reason or another.

“Noble,” Marquis said.  “Foolish at the same time, but the line between the noble and the fool is a thin one, or even a matter of perspective.”

“On this, we may agree,” Lung rumbled.

“I’ll endeavor to see that as something other than a veiled insult,” Marquis said.

This is what I want to do, above all else.  Given the chance, I’ll serve the people.  As I fought Leviathan, the Slaughterhouse Nine and other evils, I’ll fight to the last gasp to protect all of you.  When-  …When and if I do take up the job, you can call me Weaver.

The broadcast ended, with news reporters discussing the fallout, reiterating details.

The noise of it was broken down by singing, echoing through the Birdcage.  A dirge.

The yellow feathered girl who was in the truck, Lung thought to himself.

“That’s for Alexandria, I imagine,” Marquis said aloud.  “Undeserved, I think, but I imagine Lustrum gave her cell block a very good reason to honor the woman.”

“I wouldn’t have imagined you’d care,” Teacher commented.

“I don’t, really,” Marquis answered.  “But I have a lot of respect for people who keep to a particular code, whatever that code might be, and very little for traitors and wafflers.

“Like this new ‘Weaver’?” Teacher asked.

“I would defer to my daughter’s opinion on that.  She knew Weaver.”

Amelia frowned.  “She’s… both?  She’s stuck to her own personal code, even when it made her a traitor.”

“I see,” Marquis mused, rubbing his chin.

Lung frowned.  All nonsense, and none of it mattered.  That was out there, this was here.

“A word, Lung?” Teacher asked.

Lung nodded.  Anything to get away from this intolerable talk of morality and this singing.  His cell wouldn’t afford much relief, but it would be a touch quieter.

They departed, but Teacher led the way out of Marquis’ cell block, rather than to Lung’s cell.

“I believe I can be useful to you,” Teacher said.

“You have nothing to give me,” Lung said.  He bristled at the implication.

“You know how my power works, yes?”

“You make others smarter.”

“I turn others into lesser Thinkers, into Tinkers.”

“At the cost of their independence.”

“Yes.”

“Not something I want,” Lung said.

“You have strength, good instincts on a primal level, and all the potential in the world.  Yet you’ve failed here and there.  You’re here, after all.”

“And so are you,” Lung said.

Teacher nodded.  “Exactly my point.  Think on that for a moment.  We’re almost to my cell block, now.”

“You were captured because you lacked muscle,” Lung said, “I was captured because…”

Lung didn’t like the implication.  Of a lack of brains?

“Because of your incompetent underlings,” Teacher finished for him.  “Who escalated the feud with the heroes into a war while you were incarcerated, leaving you to sustain what they had started.  And, more apropos to our conversation, because your power has a drawback.  It requires a certain mental state.”

“Yes.”

“Amelia, Marquis’ girl, she won’t fix that.”

“I wouldn’t let her,” Lung said.

“Because it involves tampering with your brain,” Teacher said.  “My offer is… less invasive.  We can break down that barrier, give you the ability to control when you change.”

“At the cost of my identity,” Lung said.  “No.”

“A temporary cost to your willpower,” Teacher said.  He extended a hand, welcoming Lung into his cell block.

There was no conversation in Teacher’s cell block.  The residents were neat, tidy, and well groomed.  Some seemed functional, reading on their own or watching television.  Others were more disabled.  Lung could see one individual rocking in place, tapping something out on a table.  Another was walking in small, tight circles.

“My groupthink,” Teacher said.  “Rest assured, I wouldn’t subject you to something this grave.  We would dig deep enough to discover the true nature of your power, fast enough that you didn’t feel the side effects at their worst.  Then we would use what is effectively a hypnotic state to unlock your power as it truly should be, effectively a second trigger event.  If Amelia is right, the entity that grants you your power will resist… but we can get around that.”

Lung frowned.  “There is no point.”

“There is every point!  Come.  I’ll show you.  But first you need to tell me, are you and Marquis friends?”

Lung shook his head.

“Peers, then.”

Lung considered the word.  There were some that came up in English that he still wasn’t quite familiar with.  “Yes.”

“Then you’ll keep a secret?” Teacher asked.

“I will keep a secret,” Lung answered.

“Good, good.”  Teacher led Lung to one TV in the row.  “Trickster?”

Lung arched an eyebrow.  Trickster… the name rung a bell.  It didn’t matter.

“Connect,” Teacher said.

Trickster reached up to the power button on the television, then began a sequence of turning it on and off, with very specific pauses.  A code.

The sequence was still going on when Teacher said, “Stop.  Leave it on.”

The screen showed a face, the image grainy, flickering.  The face had a tattoo of a cross on it.

“Lung, meet Saint,” Teacher said.

Lung didn’t answer.

“He speaks when we give him something to say,” Teacher said.  “But I may have been too eager to find a way of contacting the outside world, and I’ve irritated him.  Saint explained what happened.  The PRT showed him Dragon’s equipment, asked if he could commandeer it, and Saint found an opportunity to insert a discreet backdoor.  He has a channel in, a way to observe, but our channel out is poor at best.”

“This matters nothing to me.”

“It matters a great deal,” Teacher said.  “Saint can see what Dragon sees, even if he’s blocked off from the Birdcage itself, while Dragon is occupied elsewhere.  It buys us a window of opportunity to communicate something, a message in code.  The program that Dragon has observing us with every moment tracks the activity of our televisions.  Turn it on, turn it off, and do it in a systematic enough way, and patterns emerge in a way that Saint can observe.  This allows us to coordinate.  He can’t rescue us, or empty the Birdcage, but, we could do something.  We could communicate with the outside world, and with the hypothesis that Amelia has posed… well, that’s a world changing set of information, don’t you imagine?”

Lung didn’t speak.

“The alternative, Lung, is that we unlock your power, and we use other information that Saint has collected through his backdoor.  We use it to leave the Birdcage.”

“To escape?”

Teacher shook his head.  “We wait, and we let things devolve to the point that they are willing to open the door and let us go, for the assistance we can give.  Dragon has files dictating scenarios in that vein.”

“They will not let us go free,” Lung said.  “Not the true monsters.”

“Most likely not.  It’s a question: do we gamble, or do we take a modicum of comfort in knowing we’ve perhaps saved the world a great deal of grief and maintained the status quo?  The way things are, if you’re not familiar with that particular phrase.”

Lung folded his arms.  “I have no attachment to the current state of things.”

“Then you agree?  I should tell Saint to bury the information, maybe push events here and there, if it means we could go free?”

Lung nodded.

“And your power?  If I-”

“My power will be left alone,” Lung said.  “It is enough.  If you want a bodyguard for a time after we’ve walked free, you will have it.  I will keep your secret about this Saint for now.”

“Alas,” Teacher said.  “But I’ll take the offer.  By the time this comes through, I’ll have a small army of parahumans at my disposal.  Some will be… under my sway, but I’d rather have your feral instincts to offset my own wit than have you as a slave.”

“I would kill you for trying,” Lung replied.  “You use your power on me, I will see you dead for it.”

“Very well,” Teacher answered.  He smiled.  “I’ll have Trickster pass on a message to Saint, then.  We’ll scrub Dragon’s records of this conversation, and any cases Amelia has talked of the power-granting entities, and we’ll leave a request, perhaps.  I have large sums of money stashed away.  That should be enough to convince Saint to perhaps set some events in motion, in the hopes that things sour just enough that they might open the Birdcage’s doors.”

Lung nodded.  “Do what you must.  I only care for our deal.  I walk free, I will assist you for a time thereafter.  The other things do not matter to me.”

“Very well.”  Teacher extended a hand, and Lung shook it.

Lung turned to leave.

As with the Yàngbǎn, he would stay with Teacher until he had what he needed: freedom.  Then the man would die.

The woman in the black suit, the Yàngbǎn, Skitter, and now Teacher.  People he would have his revenge on, at a later date.  People who had looked down on him, who had tried to manipulate him.

He could feel his power rippling under his skin.  Against Leviathan, he’d waited hours before engaging the beast, had fought longer than he ever had.  Now that he knew he might leave… this would be a two year buildup.

The scale of the event Teacher had spoken of?  That Amelia had alluded to?  Fear and power beyond anything he’d ever experienced, freedom without limits.  That very idea gave Lung a taste of that exhiliration he hadn’t experienced for so long.

Lung returned to Marquis’ cell block.  Marquis and Amelia were sitting at one table, drinking green tea and conversing with one another.

Marquis glanced at Lung, then poured out another mug of green tea without asking.  He gestured to the bench opposite, slid the mug in Lung’s direction.

Acceptance, the idea caught Lung by surprise.  He had a place here, odd as it was, as different as he and Marquis were.

Bakuda had taunted him over how he’d sought a kind of connection to others, how he’d recruited his gang to fill a void.  At the same time he found himself thinking of the restrictions he’d faced in school as a youth, the joys of rebellion, the Yàngbǎn and everything they’d threatened to take from him.

If there was a middle ground between acceptance and conformity, was this it?

“Marquis,” Lung spoke, carefully.

“Hm?” Marquis quirked an eyebrow.

Teacher is working to undermine everything you and your daughter are striving for, Lung thought.

“The tea is good.  Thank you.”

“Quite welcome,” Marquis replied, absently.

And Lung fell silent.

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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 15 (Donation Bonus)

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

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

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

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

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

“I am too.”

“I want to go home.”

“I know.”

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

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

He set down the food and then turned to leave.

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

The door slammed shut after him.

“You thanked him?” The words were accusatory.

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

“Let’s… let’s just eat,” she spoke.

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

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

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

“You’re back?”

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

“In case the city is condemned?”

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

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

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

“Everyone in the office is pitching in.”

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

She shook her head.

“Talk to me.”

Carol sighed.

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

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

He nodded.

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

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

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

Alan shook his head in amazement.

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

“Richard mentioned it.”

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

“Amy’s a healer, isn’t she?”

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

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

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

“I don’t understand.”

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

“Something else happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carol nodded, then sighed.

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

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

“Carried off by who?  Or whom?”

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

“So Victoria’s missing, now?”

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

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

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

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

She shook her head.

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

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

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

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

“Carol, wake up.”

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

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

Then he moved the lantern.  A stranger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!”  Sarah shrieked, her voice raw.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She felt betrayed and she couldn’t understand why.

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

Then silence.

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

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

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

More cracks.

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

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

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

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

A mate?  A partner?

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

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

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

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

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

The betrayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why did you want me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daughters?  Plural?

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

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

“Stand down,” Brandish ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Careful!” she shouted.

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

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

“What are you protecting?” Lady Photon asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was he distracted?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This would take some courage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No longer on the defensive, Manpower charged the villain.

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

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

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

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

“Damnation,” Marquis muttered the word, sagging.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Marquis said.

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

“Six,” Marquis answered.

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

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

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

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

The idea disturbed her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl shrank back into the closet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sarah-” Brandish started.

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not a good idea.”

“Why are you so reluctant?”

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

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

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

“Mark will be there for Amelia too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially if she’s Marquis’.

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

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

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

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

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

Liar.

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

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

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

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

No.

“Explain.”

“I- I don’t- No-” Amy stuttered.

She could have slapped the girl.

“What happened to my daughter!?”

Amy flinched as though she’d been struck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy stopped as her voice cracked.

“Keep going,” Lady Photon urged.

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

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

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

Again?

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

Her voice hitched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brandish clenched her fists.

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

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

“I don’t know what to do.”

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

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

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

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

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

She looked like Carol had, all those years ago.

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

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

Carol watched Amy through the window.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy turned to face her as she approached.

For a long minute, neither of them spoke.

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

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

Carol couldn’t bring herself to speak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s it?” Carol asked.

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

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

“Your husband decided not to come?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I see.”

“If it’s no trouble, could I watch?”

“What are you wanting to watch, specifically?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

She walked over to the screen.

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

“Would you like sound?”

“It doesn’t really matter.  Yes.”

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

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

How long would it take?

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

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

He looks older.

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

Not the bogeyman that had haunted her.

And that’s Lung behind him.

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

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

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

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

“I’ve been waiting,” he spoke.

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

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.

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