Venom 29.1

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Tattletale stirred.  I could see the usual confusion that went with waking up in unfamiliar surroundings.  She adjusted faster than most.  There was no flailing about for a point of reference so everything could start to make sense again.  Her power supplied it.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” I replied.

“Think the world’s going to end today?”  she asked, as she stretched, still lying down.

“World already ended, if we’re talking about our world.  Too much damage done.”

“Maybe,” she said.  “Humans are resourceful.  Resourceful and stubborn.  But you kind of live that, don’t you?”

I nodded.  “Guess so.”

Tattletale picked a bit of grit out of the corner of her eye with a fingernail.  “You didn’t sleep.”

“Not so much.”

“Idiot.”

“I’ve learned to deal.  Pulled enough stakeouts to adapt.”

“Idiot,” Tattletale said again.  She raised herself to a sitting position.  “You need to be in top fighting shape.”

“I slept for three days after getting cut in half,” I protested.

“Only shows how much you needed the sleep,” she said.

“The Simurgh was being eerie, singing you a lullaby.  You really expect me to sleep after that?”

“The lullaby wasn’t for me,” Tattletale said.  “And I didn’t sense any hostile intent.”

I turned my head.  My expression was hidden, but she read my confusion anyways.

“I mean, I think some of it was for my benefit, but it didn’t fit like that was the be-all and end-all of the singing.  She was doing something else.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Neither do I.  But she’s not exactly an easy one to get.  Who knows what she sees?  Maybe she’s singing for a reason that isn’t apparent yet?”

That was unsettling.  I thought of what the Simurgh had said.

It didn’t serve to keep secrets right now.  It’d be disastrous in the worst case scenario, and Tattletale was the best person to go to when I needed answers.  “She apologized.”

“The Simurgh?” Tattletale asked.  She gave me a funny look.

“Believe it or not.  She said ‘I’m sorry’.”

“She doesn’t talk,” Tattletale said.

“I know.  But I heard it.”

“Anyways, she isn’t sorry,” Tattletale said.  “I’d put money on it.  I’ve got a lot of money to put on it, if anyone’s willing to take the bet.  Couple million in liquid assets.”

I shook my head.  “I won’t take that bet.  Look, just keep it in mind.”

“Filed away,” Tattletale promised.

“For now though, we should mobilize,” I said, as if I could distract myself.  “Get everyone on the same page, start putting heads and powers together.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Tattletale responded.  She pulled off a glove, then reached into her belt to get a small tin from one pouch.  “Two minutes to get myself presentable.  Could do with a shower, but I think people are a little past that right now.”

I nodded.  Most of the capes I’d seen were just a little rougher around the edges.  The shine gone from their costumes, a little dustier, their hair greasier, chins unshaven.  Psychologically, it was much the same.

This had hit all of us hard.  I liked to think I was rolling with it better than some, if only because I’d had two years to anticipate it.  Then again, I was good at self-delusion.

I thought about Clockblocker, his optimism.  When I’d been talking about expecting the worst, he’d argued for the opposite.  I didn’t want to diminish what I felt about him being dead in the general sense by thinking about something so petty, but a part of me was disappointed I couldn’t talk to him now, after the fact, and see how he was doing.  If he was coping better than I had.

It wasn’t that I was coping, exactly.  I wasn’t happy, confident or unafraid.  The only thing I could say was that I’d been able to brace myself.  I’d bought into Dinah’s prophecy more than just about anyone else.  I’d braced myself and I’d nearly broken, regardless.  I could tell myself that the point where I’d been floating over the ocean by New Brockton Bay had only been a desire to get away, nothing darker, but I wasn’t sure I was telling myself the truth.  I could think back to the point where I’d snapped after being cut in half by Scion and tell myself I was lucid, but I wasn’t sure that was true either.

Hard to say I’d held my own when I wasn’t sure how much of it was me and how much was the adrenaline at work.  Or other things.

Any opinion, passenger?  I asked.  We’re going up against your maker.  You going to hold back or are you going to go all-out?

No response, of course.

Tattletale was smearing black greasepaint around her eyes.  She’d finished the hardest part, around the eyelashes, and spoke up as she filled the rest in,  “You get in touch with everyone you wanted to talk to?”

“Almost everyone.”

“Ah.  I can guess who you didn’t actively look for.  This denial worries me.”

I shrugged.

“No use dwelling on it.  Your decision in the end.  Let’s move on to a happier topic.  You ever think we’d make it this far?”

“To the end of the world?”  That’s a happier topic?

“To the top of the heap.  As far up there as we could hope to be.”

“We’re not big leaguers, Tattletale.  Not the most powerful capes out there.”

“But we’re talked about around the world.  We’re on speaking terms with some of the biggest and scariest motherfuckers out there.”  Tattletale gestured towards the window.  Towards the Simurgh.  “We’d be front page news, if the news still existed.”

“I’m not sure being news would be a good thing,” I said.  “Which isn’t to say word isn’t getting around, you know.  Charlotte knew.”

“Charlotte’s connected to Sierra and the rest of our infrastructure in Gimel.  That doesn’t really surprise me,” Tattletale said.  She pulled her hair out of the loose ponytail she’d had it in, then combed her fingers through it to get it more or less straight.  It still had kinks and waves where it had been braided.  Something she would have fixed before going out in costume in more ordinary circumstances, for caution’s sake.

“Mm,” I acknowledged her.  Maybe I was tired.  My thoughts were wandering some.

“I tried to set things up so we’d have some way of maintaining communications and getting some information in, getting information out.  Like, I told people about what you said about Scion hating duplication powers.  Anyways, only the very high tech and very low tech have really survived.  Satellites and hard copies.”  She lifted one of the files I’d stacked on the floor, as if to give evidence to the point. “Reading up?”

I picked up a file as well, leafing through it.  “I wasn’t sleeping, so while you were out, I got in touch with Defiant and one of your minions, arranged for only the most essential status updates to come in on paper.  I figured I could update you after you got up.  The deliveries stopped a good bit ago, but one of the last status updates was about Dragon, so I guess she’s handling her old duties while Defiant recuperates from the last few days.”

“Guess so,” Tattletale said.  I turned my head to see what she was doing, but she was already crossing the room.

“Doormaker is napping as well, I guess,” I said.  “He just decided to leave one open, and he hasn’t been responding.  I double checked the portal, making sure he wasn’t trying to tip us off to anything important, but it opens to a pretty remote area of Earth Bet.”

Tattletale went still, “Doormaker doesn’t sleep.”

I raised my eyebrows, realized Tattletale couldn’t see them, and cocked my head quizzically instead.

“There’re lots of capes who don’t sleep.  About a year ago, I started digging into the PRT files.  Hired the Red Hands to steal a more up to date set, even.  I was looking into clues for understanding this whole thing, y’know?  Best leads at the time were memories and dreams.  Clues popping up here and there, relating to people’s dreams, or gaps in memories.  Dreaming differently, seeing things instead of dreaming, case fifty-threes suffering from their amnesia… Well, there are a number of ‘Noctis’ cases.  Named after a vigilante hero that was up at all hours.  The opposite of what I was looking for, but a good data point anyways: capes who don’t dream because they don’t sleep.  PRT confirmed a few members of their own, Miss Militia included, as examples.  Others have only been marked down as guesses.  Doormaker and Contessa were among them, they said, going by the times the ‘bogeyman’ was showing up.”

“So if he doesn’t sleep, why leave a door open and ignore us?” Tattletale asked.

I shook my head a little.

“Doorway,” Tattletale tried.

There was no response.  No portal, no door.

“Door?  Portal?  Open sesame?”  I tried.

“That’s worrisome,” Tattletale said, keeping her voice low.  She clipped on her belt, tapping each of the pockets, as if to check the contents were still there.  She drew her gun and checked it for bullets.

“We should go,” I said.

“We’re definitely going,” Tattletale said, but she didn’t budge as she double-checked her gun, pulling the slide back.  I resisted the urge to comment on just how useless a gun was, considering what we were up against; I could remember how she’d fared when the assassin targeted her, Accord and Chevalier.

There were other threats.

“Right,” Tattletale said, finally finishing, grabbing her laptop and tucking it under one arm.

That was our go signal.  We broke into stride.

We passed a soldier, and Tattletale signaled him, raising a finger.  He stopped and wheeled around, following.

“We’re going,” Tattletale said.  “Ship up, move out.  If we come back and settle in here, then so be it, but let’s not plan on it.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Get someone to collect my things.  All the files, the computers, the food.  Everything.  Get it all to the far side of the little doorway…”  Tattletale looked at me.  “Where’s the doorway?”

“A bit outside the front doors,” I said.

“What she said,” Tattletale told her mercenary.  “If we’re gone, just hold position.  If we’re still gone after twenty four hours, assume we’re dead.  Get my data and the backups of my notes to someone who matters, then consider the job done, collect your payment, go on your merry way.”

“I’ll make sure everyone’s informed.”

“Do,” she said.  Then, as if to offset the curt command, she added, “Thanks, Tug.”

He gave us a sloppy salute as he broke away, turning down a different corridor.

I had my phone out before I was outside.  My bugs let me navigate the stairs without taking my eyes from the screen, as I input commands.  It was cold out, almost cold enough it would impair my bugs, and a heavy fog hung in the open clearing.  The stout military building stood in an open, overgrown grassland, encircled by evergreen trees.

No reception.  Not a surprise, but inconvenient.  I watched as we got closer to the portal Doormaker had left open.

Tattletale, for her part, turned around, walking backwards as we reached the bottom of the steps.  With the phone still dark, I took a moment to look in the same direction.  I was treated to the intimidating image of the Simurgh passing over the building.  She moved as if she were as light as a feather, but I knew that wasn’t true.  She was heavier than she looked, by a considerable margin.  Had she set her full weight on the roof, she would plunge through.

Like someone playing hopscotch on the moon, the Simurgh set one foot down on the roof, hopping forward, set another foot on the very edge and pushed herself off.  She floated down to the space beside the portal, then unfolded her wings, drawing the halo out to its full breadth.  The movements sent swirls of dust and fog rippling across the edges of the clearing, stopping only as they crashed into the line of trees.

“She changed the guns?” I observed.

“She did,” Tattletale observed, “Cosmetic changes.”

Each of the Simurgh’s guns had been streamlined, the outer casings, barrels and handles reworked into wings.  Three concentric circles of interconnected guns, all redesigned to appear like an extension of her own wings, behind her.

“Why cosmetic?”

“Way I understand it, she needs to have a tinker in her sphere of influence to borrow their schematics, or a specific device, if she wants to copy it.  Thinkers, too, I think she borrows their perception powers as long as she’s tapped into them.  Might be why she’s attached to me.  Either way, she didn’t have schematics or anything she’d need to modify the guns.”

“Or she can modify them, and it’s a card she’s been keeping up her sleeve for the last while.  I mean, it was only three years ago or whatever that she really showed off her ability to copy a tinker’s work wholesale.”

Tattletale nodded.  She frowned.  “I don’t like being in the dark.  But that’s the gist of it.  She made cosmetic changes because she couldn’t make concrete ones.”

“Well, it’s unnerving to think about, but anything about the Simurgh is,” I commented.  “When I asked about the aesthetics, though, I wasn’t asking about the why so much as the…”

“So much as the why?”  Tattletale asked, emphasizing the word.

“Yeah,” I said, lamely.  “Why does she care?”

“Why does she have feathers and wings?  For all intents and purposes, she could be a crystal that floats here and there.  The end result is pretty much the same.  A few less weapons.  Behemoth?  I mean, you saw what he was, when we reduced him to a bare skeleton.  All the extra flesh, it’s decorative.  He doesn’t really need any particular parts, except legs to move around.”

“It’s there to dress them up so they make better terror weapons,” I said.

“Basically,” Tattletale said.

“That’s not a good omen,” I said.  “Because Scion doesn’t feel fear.  I’m pretty sure.”

“Maybe he doesn’t, and this is a little embellishment for our sake, for when she turns on us,” Tattletale said.

“Can you not spell that out when she’s standing twenty feet away?” I asked.  My pulse picked up a little at the idea, my heart kicking a little in my chest as it switched to a different gear.

“She knows we’re thinking it,” Tattletale said.  “And she knows there’s another explanation we could make.  Maybe it’s a clue.  A hint.”

“About what?” I asked.  “About Scion?”

“About Scion,” she said.

A hint that he can feel fear?  It didn’t ring true, but I preferred it to the alternative.

“Let’s go through and…” I said.  I couldn’t bring myself to say I hoped.  “…Maybe the Simurgh can make her way through the portal, and maybe we’ll find out.”

“Yep,” Tattletale said, smiling a little.  She probably knew the reasoning behind my word choice.

For that matter, it was very possible the Simurgh did too.

Which left me with the question of why I’d even bothered.

Going through, I thought.  Hopefully there’s people on the other side that can’t read me like a book.

My phone lit up as a connection was established to a satellite.

A moment later, the connection was secured.

The clock changed, followed by a time zone and a symbol.  Four forty-six, Eastern standard time, Earth Bet.

I stared at the world that stretched out before us, and it was wrong.  Perspective was skewed.  Lines bent where they should have been straight, and the expanse to our left was somehow more extensive than the space to our right.

The horizon should have been straight, or at least a gentle curve to accomodate the planet’s natural curvature, but it was almost a wavy line.

“The fuck?” I muttered.

“Vista,” Tattletale said, very matter-of-factly.

The Simurgh reached the portal.  I was reminded of Leviathan breaking into the shelter beneath the library as I saw her put one hand on each side of the portal.  She wasn’t quite as large as he was, until you added up the wings and wingspan.  Put all the wings together, and her mass was probably equivalent to her older brother’s.

She passed through with little effort, dropping almost to her knees to get her head through.  The wings followed, each wing stretched all the way behind her.  The feathers rasped against the boundaries of the portal as she floated forward.

The outer edges wavered a fraction, as if the stress threatened to bring the portal down entirely.

Then she was through.  She flexed her wings, then folded them around herself.  The halo came through in pieces.

“That answers that,” Tattletale said.  She added a very unenthusiastic, “Yay.”

The Dragonfly made its way to us, stopping no less than four times.  With each stop, it descended to the ground and refused all incoming commands.  A minute would pass, and then it would take off again.

It took me a bit to realize why.

Vista.  The autopilot didn’t seem to like her power.

“Just how much area is she manipulating?” I asked.

“She was only ever held back by the Manton effect,” Tattletale said.  “Number of people in the area.”

“And there’s not many people left in Bet,” I spoke my thoughts aloud, as I made the connection.

“Consider it a bonus,” Tattletale said, raising her head as the Dragonfly came into view, “In a sad, not-really-a-bonus sort of way.  Empty earth makes for a convenient battleground.  If we’re able to fight here, that is.”

The Dragonfly set down, the ramp opening before it was even on terra firma.

It took a minute to plot out the route the Dragonfly should take, looking at what the cameras had tracked, seeing where the distortions were.

“Something’s really wrong,” Tattletale said.

“With the distortions?”

“The distortions are a band-aid.  Vista’s trying to fix something that’s gotten fucked up,” she said.  “How do you plot the course?”

I mapped out a course to take us to the Gimel portal.

Tattletale changed the course, adjusting it to match the distortions we’d mapped and some we hadn’t.

It took several minutes, all in all, but the resulting trip was fast.  The Dragonfly’s onboard system kept trying to calculating the remaining time for the trip based on our location, only to get tripped up by the folded and pinched space.

Then we hit Silkroad’s power, and accelerated to nearly three times the speed.  Tattletale was caught off guard, standing beside my chair, and fell, dropping her laptop onto the hard floor.

Both the distortion and Silkroad’s power stopped when we were a distance from the portal.  The effect was disorienting.

Corridors of folded space with the dim pink corridors of Silkroad’s power stretched out in every direction.  Connecting points.

Towers surrounded Brockton Bay, set on mountaintops and high ground within the city itself.  It necessitated a careful approach.  As we passed between two, I saw that they were communication towers, crafted to put satellite dishes at high points rather than provide shelter.

The craft settled down, and we climbed out.  They’d finished the ramp leading up to the portal, and it was easy enough to make our way up.  I opted to walk beside Tattletale instead of use up my jetpack’s fuel.

Twelve percent capacity remaining.  An hour or two of flight.

Vista stood at the top of the platform, on our side of the portal.  A Chinese woman in an elaborate Sari-style dress stood beside her, as did a man I recognized as the Knave of Hearts from the Suits.  Others were nearby, but seemed less like part of the group and more like bystanders.  Kid Win was sitting at the edge of the platform, tools and a gun in his lap, abandoned as he stared at the Simurgh.

The Knave of Hearts muttered something in what I was guessing was Dutch.  Louder, he commented, “They weren’t joking.”

“What happened?”  I asked, the second we had their attention.

“Cauldron’s running with their tail between their legs,” Vista said.  “Big promises, excuses about having all the power and being the only ones who can really put the screws to Scion, and then they run at the last minute.”

“Let us not be hasty,” the Knave of Hearts said.  “It is possible Scion hit their headquarters.  We won’t know until we have more information.”

“We can’t get information,” Vista said.  “Because they never gave us a better way of getting in contact, and they never told us where their headquarters are.”

“Yes,” Knave said.  He looked at me.  “We have no portals but the ones that were left open.  We cannot communicate by opening a door and talking to the other person.  Vista, Silk Road and I are attempting to patch together an answer.”

“A workaround,” Vista said.

“Fast transportation between key areas,” Tattletale observed.  “Your power and Silk Road’s to make the corridors…”

“I am handling communication and pinpointing the other portal locations,” Knave said.  “The Hearts of the Suits have good relations with other teams and places.”

“I can give you the coordinates,” Tattletale said.

“We have the coordinates,” Knave said, sounding annoyed.  “All but the concealed portals.”

“I think I know where those are,” Tattletale said.

Knave looked even more annoyed at that, but he nodded.  “Step through, talk to the guys at the station, they’ll get you set up.  We’ll handle the ones we know about while we wait.”

The station was on the other side of the portal.  A way to keep the civilians from trying to go back to Bet to loot and getting themselves killed or stranded, and a place where they could organize things.

Tattletale and I both gave up our phones.  The technicians on the other end changed settings to bring them on board with the hodgepodge arrays they’d put up on both Bet and Gimel.

Tattletale reclaimed her phone, then paged through the contents, checking settings.  When she was satisfied, she looked at me.  “I don’t expect you to hang around while I’m doing the geek thing and pointing those guys to the right places.”

I nodded.  “I’ll see how the others are doing and get back to you.”

Getting the Endbringers on board had marked the point we’d stopped reeling and started preparing again.  I could see the results.  The Gimel settlement was swiftly transforming from a sprawling refugee camp to a standing ground.  Refugees were being escorted or transported to other locations, packing up tents and possessions and climbing into trucks and helicopters.  It made room for the capes that were here.

Miss Militia was at the center of it, giving orders, managing the capes and the civilians in charge.

Squads were organized, many from the Protectorate, not in rank and file, but clustering according to their respective teams or organization.  Here and there, they’d gathered in more specialized groups.

I could see Rachel, Imp, Foil and Parian with the Chicago Wards, sitting or lying on the closed bins that held supplies for the settlement.  Only Golem was absent.

I felt a moment’s trepidation.  I had doubts, regrets, even a kind of shame, when it came to the Chicago teams.

I’d said it out loud, but I’d never really faced the decision I’d made: giving up on being a hero.

Still, I found myself walking up to them.

“Here she is,” Grace said.  “Make your way here okay, Weaver?”

“Doormaker left a door open for us,” I said.

“He left doors open for everyone,” Tecton said.  “But navigation’s a little tricky.  Can’t always make it from point A to point B.”

“We did okay,” I said.  “Vista was saying this is a cut and run on Cauldron’s part, but I can’t imagine this as something malicious or cowardly.  They wouldn’t have left the portals here if it was.”

“I agree,” Tecton said.

“Who’s looking into it?” I asked.

“Satyr and the other ex-Vegas capes,” Grace replied.

“Isn’t that like sending the fucking fox to guard the henhouse?” Romp asked.  “Except it’s sending the confusing mind-game head-fuckers to answer the confusing, fucked-up riddle?”

Yes,” Imp said.  “Totally.  God, it’s nice to finally have someone who can explain situations clearly.”

“More like,” Foil said, “sending a group that’s very well versed in conspiracy and subterfuge to deal with the sort of thing they’re very good at handling.”

“Now you’re being confusing,” Imp said.

“Where’s Tattletale?” Rachel asked.

“Outside.  Helping Vista and Silk Road to put together new rapid-travel routes.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Do you miss her?” Imp asked, turning around.  “Like, actually?”

“She’s a member of the team.”

“But you miss her!  That’s awesome!”

“I don’t,” Rachel said.  Then, after a moment’s thought, she added, “And that means it isn’t awesome.”

“I thought you couldn’t stand her.”

“I can stand her, and it took a long time to get that far.  That’s all it is,” Rachel said.

“But you asked.  Like, for the first time ever.”

“I have a question for her.  That’s all.”

Romp looked at her teammates, turning to Grace, then Tecton.  “Am I the only one who hears these guys talk and wonders how the fuck they ever got to be in charge of a city?”

“Don’t fucking swear,” Grace said, saying the line as if it were reflexive by now.  Romp looked annoyed, but Cuff smiled, and I could see Tecton looking away, as if he was forgetting that people couldn’t see his face while he had the helmet on.  I, too, smiled.  Romp was completely unware about why it was funny that Grace was admonishing her on the swearing.

I turned to Rachel, “What’s the question?  Something I can help with?”

She shrugged.  “This dork with Miss Militia was telling me some tinker was wanting to try something with my power.  Give my dog some drug shit a rat made?  I didn’t follow, and he kept talking to me like I have brain damage, which I don’t, so I didn’t listen.”

“Which made the guy step it up even more,” Imp commented.  “Until it sounded like he was talking to a five year old.”

“I walked away,” Rachel said.

“Stuff a rat made?” I asked.

“Lab Rat,” Imp said.

“Wouldn’t work,” I said.  “Her power burns up toxins and chemicals in the dog’s systems.”

“I said that when they said they wanted to use drugs,” Rachel said.

“They know that already,” Imp said.  “They wanted to try anyways.  Have some things left over from the previous fight.

Dosing mutated dogs with Lab Rat’s leftover transformation serums?

Would the gains be additive?

“The drugs they’re talking about are the only reason I’m still here,” I said.  “Honestly, I’m seeing only two outcomes.  Three, maybe: the effects stack up and Rachel’s dog gets even tougher or more versatile; the dog ceases to be a dog while the serum’s active and Rachel’s power stops working; or it’s made for humans and not dogs, and we get a negative reaction.”

“Two out of three odds,” Romp said.

“Actually,” Tecton said, “Nothing’s guaranteeing that the odds of any result are even.  Could be a ten percent chance of the first, five percent chance of the second and an eighty-five percent chance of the last one.”

“And a five percent chance it’s something else entirely,” Imp said, sagely.

Tecton shook his head.  “That doesn’t add up.”

“Ignore her,” Parian said.

“The numbers don’t mean anything to me,” Rachel said.  She frowned, making eye contact with me.  “You think I should?”

“I do.  Anything and everything we can think of to mix things up or combine powers is good.  I really like that there are people out there thinking outside the box.  It’s exactly what we need right now.”

“Right,” Rachel said.  She hopped down from the lid of the supply container.  “Going to go talk to her then.  If that guy tries baby-talking to me again, I’m going to make Bastard bite him.”

“No way.  You gotta fuck with his head,” Imp said.

“Biting people is more satisfying,” Rachel responded.

“No, look… uh… Tecton.  You gotta give me something really smart and scientific sounding.  Like, say what Taylor said, but in smart-guy words.”

“Critical mistake here: you’re implying Tecton is smart,” Romp said.

Tecton sat up straighter.  “Hey.  Just because I’m not your team leader anymore-”

“-You’re totally not the one who gets to order me around,” Romp replied.  “Deal with it.”

“Run a lap,” Grace said, her voice quiet.

Romp turned around, eyebrows raised.

“A lap?”

Two laps,” Grace said, her voice quiet, cold and dangerous.  “For not moving the second I gave the order.”

“What am I supposed to fucking run around?”

Three laps for swearing, four because you’re still here.  We can do five if you don’t move now.  Start running, and if you don’t pick a big enough area to run around, I can give you another few laps.”

“This is balls,” Romp said, hopping down from the bin’s lid.

“Five laps, then,”  Grace said.

“I know I’m getting more laps by talking, but I needed to state the truth for the record.”  She kept talking, speaking with each footfall.  “Balls, balls, balls.”

The moment she was out of earshot, Grace and the others broke into laughter.  Foil was the only member of the Undersiders who seemed to get it, her shoulders shaking in silent laughter.

“I can’t believe she actually went,” Cuff said.

“Don’t let her exhaust herself,” Tecton said.

Grace shook her head, still smiling.  “I’ll stop her after she finishes the first lap.”

“Okay, I need something to write on,”  Imp said.  “Anyone?”

“Here,” I said, getting a notepad from my belt.  I handed it to her.  “Why?”

She handed the notepad to Tecton.  “So Tecton can write something down.  And I hold it up, like a cue card, and Rachel recites it, sounding like a genius, and we blow dr. baby-talk’s mind.  And if he turns around, I use my power, so he’s never the wiser.”

Tecton nodded, “I can do that.”

I winced.  “There’s a flaw in that.”

“It’s brilliant,” Imp said.  She looked around, turning to Parian and Foil.

Parian only extended a hand towards Rachel.

“What?” Imp asked.

Parian gestured again, pointing.

“I don’t get it… Rachel… oh.”

“I don’t read much,” Rachel said, blunt.

“Annnd now I feel like a dick,” Imp said.

“I don’t care,” Rachel said.

She probably doesn’t.

“That doesn’t make me any less of a dick.  How often do I get reminders about the reading thing?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Rachel said.  She looked annoyed.  “This is why I don’t talk to people.  Why are we still talking about this?”

She was more irritated at the fact that Imp wasn’t dropping it than the fact that her illiteracy had been brought up.

“Maybe if I come with?” Tecton offered.  “I’ll distract whoever Dr. baby-talk is, and you can talk to Miss Militia about dosing your dogs.”

“Or you can tell me what you were going to write down and I memorize it,” Rachel said.

A few people in the group exchanged glances.

“Really simple solution,” Rachel said.  Except now she was talking to us like we were the idiots.

“I’m not sure I could memorize it,” Tecton confessed.

“The kid that’s running the lap said you weren’t that smart,” Rachel answered.  “Try me.”

“Okay, uh.  ‘I see three possible outcomes’…”

Rachel repeated what he’d said.

They continued, Imp leaning forward and kicking her legs where they dangled from the edge of the bin.

Grace interrupted my observations.  “You’re wearing black.”

I felt a bit of guilt welling.  No, guilt wasn’t the right word.  I was at peace with my decision.

I just felt a little ashamed that I hadn’t been more upfront about it, with the people I’d spent years working with.

“Yeah.”

“I suppose you’re not going to get around to having that meeting with the PRT guys, getting yourself moved up from the Wards to the Protectorate?  Unless I’m reading too much into the costume choice.”

“You’re not,” I said.  “No, I suppose I’m not going to have that meeting.”

“Is it that we failed with the Jack thing?”

“That’s not the entirety of it,” I said.

“But it’s part of it, right?  Isn’t that unfair?  We had, like, a four percent chance of success going in, and we didn’t stop it from coming to pass, so you bail?”

“I said it’s only part of it,” I repeated myself.

“I know,” she said.  I could see Tecton and Rachel pause, catching something in Grace’s tone.

When Grace and I remained silent, they resumed.  “…the cross species interactions…”

“…the cross species interactions.”

“I know,” Grace said, after a pause.  “I get that.  I get that there’s other reasons.  Like the fact that you love those guys and you never loved us.  Cool.  Makes sense.”

“I liked you guys.”

“But you didn’t love us.”

“No,” I said.

“I get all that.  But Golem’s pulling away too, and I know that’s because that we had only that fucking four percent chance and we failed.  So I draw a connection, think maybe you’re more bothered about that than you let on.”

I looked at Cuff, who was watching me intently.  She looked even more intent and focused than Grace did.

Then again, she was a little more invested in how Golem was doing than most.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Probably.”

“It’s shitty,” she said.  “Both Golem and you, drifting away.”

“I know, and it feels shitty,” I said.

“Then that’s consolation enough, for me,” Grace said.  She relaxed a little, then glanced at Cuff.

“I’m not really the type to nurse grudges,” Cuff said.  “I just want Golem thinking straight again.  He took it hard.  So you’ll get my forgiveness if you go talk to him.”

“I think that’s something I can do,” I answered her.

She smiled.  “He’s at the phone bank, near the station, if you want to find him.”

Now?

But Cuff was smiling, looking so intent.

Weaponized niceness.

“Right,” I said.  I turned to go.

And I could see people moving, running.

I felt a pit swell in my stomach.

“No,” Imp said, following my line of sight.  She could see squads getting into formation.  In the distance, the aircraft that had been moving refugees were turning around, coming back to us.  “No, no.  We had such a good joke going, don’t you dare ruin it.”

Romp returned to us, breaking into a run to close the remainder of the distance.  “Someone’s saying he’s hitting Samech.  It’s one of the Earths Cauldron was going to watch over.  There’s only Dragon, the Guild and some Protectorate guys there.”

“Let’s move,” I said.  “Through the portal.  We’ll use the Dragonfly.  Faster than waiting for another ship.  Rachel, look for doctor baby-talk, if we can grab something from him before we leave, great, but let’s not dawdle.”

There were nods all around.

I could see the other heroes.  Miss Militia and Glaistig Uaine.  Revel and Exalt.  Protectorate teams, sub-teams of the Suits, including the non-combat teams of the Hearts and Cups.

People hurried to organize, pulling on costume pieces they’d left off and checking weapons, clearing out of the open spaces where shadows grew as the aircraft descended.

One by one, the ships began to take off, flying through the tall, narrow portal.

Three ships, then four.

But the fifth didn’t take off.  I reached out with my swarm, trying to catch what people were talking about, to make sense of the situation, but everyone important was already on a ship.

King of Hearts was the only person of any meaningful rank who spoke the same language I did and who wasn’t mobilizing to leave.  The leader of the Meisters, Vornehm, was giving orders in German.  A scary-looking Master class cape with an army of clay men carrying tinker weapons was ordering other people around with the same harsh voice he was commanding his own troops.

But there was no explanation of why more ships weren’t taking off.

Had the fight already ended?

“Keep moving,” I said, ordering the teams forward.  Tattletale will know.

As confusion descended, people started falling back into their previous state, gathering in clusters of familiar people.  It almost seemed like we were the only group with direction, pushing against a milling crowd.  We weren’t, but the illusion was there.

And that same effect made it possible to see when the crowd did find direction, a common, mutual interest.  Heads turned, chins raised.  People found postures where their feet were set apart, as if ready to move at a moment’s notice.

Scion.  Here.  Floating above the bay like he’d floated above the ocean in his first appearance.

He’s targeting us, I realized.  Two of our organized settlements in as many minutes?

His hands hung at his sides.  The golden light that radiated from him cleaned his clothes and hair, but there was enough blood on his costume that the light wasn’t rendering it as pristine as it should.  His eye sockets were dark, with the way his forehead blocked the sun’s light.  That same sunlight made the edges of his hair and body glow with the light that wasn’t completely blocked.

He didn’t even raise his hand before he fired.  Lights no bigger than basketballs streaked forward, leaving trails glittering behind them.

Two of Dragon’s ships detonated violently.  Occupants dead or grievously injured, people in the area of the craft wounded by the fallout.

By the time I’d turned my head to see his follow-up, Scion had closed the distance, moving right into our midst.

Capes with reflexes better than mine were already reacting, throwing a multitude of effects in his way.  He plunged through the defenses like they weren’t even there.

Something got in his way, but he flew around it without a second thought.  He stopped right in front of a cape.  Quite possibly the cape that had stalled him momentarily.  A dark-skinned man in gray.

A swirling gray effect swelled between him and the target.  He struck it with a glowing hand, and the effect distorted, growing thin.  Another strike, and the effect dissipated.

Other capes were hurling effects at him.  Most glanced off.

He caught his target around the throat.  Didn’t squeeze.

But the golden light began to eat into the target’s body and costume.  Scion let the man drop.

Not a scream.  Only twitching, frantic thrashing as the golden light continued to consume.

Foil raised her arbalest.  I could see our entire group tense as she raised it, Parian’s hands going to her mouth.

A moment later, Parian’s cloth was unfurling from behind her back.  Rachel was making her dogs grow, while Cuff was manipulating a shotput into a blade like the one from a circular saw.

For my part, I began drawing the bugs into decoys, sending them into the air.

Oblivious to it all, Foil took aim, then ran her hand along the bolt she’d loaded in place.

I could see her draw in a breath.  I’d taken marksmanship classes.  Squeeze the trigger as you exhale.

The shot flew through the air.

Scion wheeled around and caught it.

It wasn’t just his costume, I could see.  All the lines of his body, his hands, lines that made it so he didn’t look wholly artificial, they were filled with the detritus of smoke and blood and other grit, and the golden light had only washed the surface clean.  The deepest cracks held the remainder.  It made fine lines look more like crags.

I was almost glad that it took away from his human appearance.

He let the arbalest’s bolt drop to the ground.

His eyes were on Foil.

A golden light swelled in his hand.

We spread out, but Foil didn’t even flinch.  Even as Cuff backed away, Foil reached out to touch the sawblade, imbuing it with power.

Scion reached out, and Parian used her power, encircling Foil with the end of a length of cloth.  Not an animal, only an arm.

In the instant Scion loosed the bolt of light, Parian flung Foil away.  Not a simple throw, but a reckless, inhumanly strong one.

Foil was removed from the battle.  Sent beyond what would have been the outskirts of the city, if we were in Bet, cast out in the direction of the Bay itself, until she was only a speck.

The bolt hit ground, fifty or sixty feet behind us.  Other people died instead.  People I didn’t know.

No longer interested in Foil, Scion turned to the nearest cape, lunging.

Cuff threw her circular blade.  Without even looking, Scion batted it aside, striking an unaffected part towards the middle.  His attention was on a cape, and he swiped a glowing hand through the cape’s abdomen.

What didn’t burn spilled forth.  His screams were joined by that of a friend, another cape who screamed in horror over what had happened to him.  Scion very deliberately walked past this other cape to attack someone else.

Picking us off, choosing targets.

Maximizing pain and suffering over raw destruction.

Experimenting.

And there was precious little we could do about it.

Precious little I could do about it.  My bugs formed into more decoys.  Other bugs searched for the key players.  Where was the man Rachel had described?  The one with the serums?  Where was Miss Milita?

The Simurgh was passing through the portal, and people who’d been trying to flee to Earth Bet were now scattering, trying to flee both the Endbringer and Scion at the same time.

Horribly timed, as entrances went.  Our best hope was that he’d keep toying with us, that enough time would pass that capes stationed at the other major portals could use the fast-travel routes to get to us.

Something like an Endbringer was all too likely to change his mind.

It’s the beginning of the end.

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Sting 26.5

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Unholy screams and screeches followed us as we made our retreat, landing beyond the walls of Ellisburg.  In moments, Nilbog’s fairy wonderland had become a hell on earth, thousands of demons crawling from the literal woodwork to attack.  The ground split as subterranean creatures emerged, while others climbed out of buildings that seemed to have been built around them.  One was somewhere between a dragon and a gargoyle in appearance.  Big, leathery wings, with a gnarled body and a leering, fanged face.

The flying creatures, the gargoyle-dragon included, took flight perching atop the walls, then backed down as a barrage of gunfire and superpowered attacks assaulted them.

“Shuffle!” Revel cried out her lieutenant’s name.

Shuffle stepped forward and used his power.  Teleportation, but not teleportation of living things.  Not people, anyways.  Grass didn’t hinder him much.

He teleported the landscape.  A hill was bisected and placed against the ruined entrance of the facility.

His power was unpredictable.  There were metrics he couldn’t quite grasp or understand.  Teleporting things in sometimes teleported things out.  In attempting to shore up the wall, he created gaps.

But this was a known issue, one he’d been dealing with for some time.  Unsurprised, he fixed the resulting hole with two more followup teleports.  If any terrain was removed, it was inside the structure, unimportant.

Something inside Goblintown struck the wall, hard, and then started clawing at it.  I could sense it’s silhouette with the few bugs I had near the area.  It was four-legged, with all of the most effective parts of a rhino, bear and elephant combined, and it was big enough that I suspected it could make its way through the great concrete wall.

Defending capes had gathered in a loose ring around Ellisburg.  Revel and Shuffle were among them, which I took to be a sign that Golem’s group had handled whatever issues had arisen in Norfolk.  The heroes opened fire as the gargoyle-dragon thing explored the upper edge of the wall again, and it disappeared, only to make an appearance further down, trying to find a spot where the defensive line was weaker.

This was the worst case scenario, on so many levels.  We couldn’t afford to be dealing with this.

“Two more attacks,” Revel said.  “Just minutes ago.  Two different cities.  The situation in Redfield is still ongoing, which means we have three crisis situations set up by the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Four, if you count this,” Shuffle said.

The creature hit the wall again.  Shuffle shored it up, placing the other half of the hill against it.

“This is getting out of control,” Revel said.

“You’re implying we had control,” Jouster said.  He stood off to one side, with the defensive line of capes.

More out of control,” she said.

I’d been placed on the ground as the capes landed.  I was aware that someone was checking me for injuries, but it seemed secondary.  I stared up at the overcast sky, watching the rare raindrop tap the lens of my mask.  My mind was whirling while my swarm was feeding me information on the ongoing fight, both inside and outside the walls.

I stirred as I heard Golem’s voice.  He was sitting a short distance from me.  “This is my fault.”

“It was a lose-lose situation,” I said.  I moved my arm to allow the medic to check my ribs.  “Jack set it up this way.”

“I could have done something.  Said something different.”

“No.  We played the cards we had available, it wasn’t enough.  Bonesaw’s power and Siberian’s invulnerability made for ugly trump cards.”

“There had to be a way.”

“We’re coping,” I said.

“Are we?” he asked.  “It doesn’t feel like it.”

“We came through every challenge he set in front of us so far.”

“That doesn’t mean we’re doing okay,” he responded.

I didn’t have a response to that.

He stood.  “I’m going to go talk to some of the people in charge, find out where I can be useful.”

“Okay,” I told him.

He walked off, and I let my head rest against the ground.

Jack had a game plan here, and the more I thought about it, the more the ‘game’ seemed to be a farce.  He knew we were helping.  He was setting up situations where we had to help.  When we’d started winning, maybe even winning faster than he’d anticipated, he’d ratcheted things up.

Just as it had at the outset, the situation now seemed to offer Theo the same dilemma as Jack had aimed to provide early on.  To go after Jack or focus on bigger things.

It was measured, calculated, and it suggested that Jack was fully aware and fully in control of what was going on.

A cape knelt beside me.  “Are you alright?”

We’d only gone through a small fraction of the Nine.  Even assuming every group we had run into had been exterminated, there were so many left to deal with.

My strengths lay in problem solving.  Jack’s strength lay in problem creation.

We came up with a solution to whatever crisis he posed, he responded by creating another, something offbeat enough that we had to change things up.  Specialized groups of his pet monsters, two scenarios at once, and now we had new issues popping up before we’d finished with the last round.

The clones weren’t as fleshed out as the originals.  A little more reckless.  They were being set up to fail.  Were they scary?  Yes.  Were they effective?  Yes.  But we were winning, and Jack wasn’t using them in a way that kept them alive.  They were expendable assets.

It was all too possible that we could keep winning, if the game continued down this road.  We’ll lose some, but we’ll come out ah-

No.

Golem was right.  We’d achieve a steady stream of victoriesNothing more.

“Weaver?”

I pushed myself to my feet.  A cape put his hands on my shoulders, to try to get me to stay still.

“I’m fine,” I said.  “I got the wind knocked out of me.”

“If you have an injury-”

“I’m pretty experienced when it comes to being injured.  I’m fine.  Really,” I said.

He didn’t move, but he did let his arms drop from my shoulders when I pushed them off me.  I found my feet, straightened, and felt aches all across my back where I’d collided with the ground.  I’d be one giant bruise tomorrow.

Then again, if we saw tomorrow, it would be a bonus.

The fighting against Nilbog’s creations was still ongoing.  The flying gargoyle-thing had made it over the wall and was being swarmed by defending capes.  Others were just now starting to climb over, and did their best to avoid the ranged fire that pelted them.  Eight or nine more creatures flew over, only these ones carried smaller ‘goblins’.  The winged ones were shot out of the sky, but many of the smaller creatures managed to survive the fall into trees and the midst of the heroes.   The ones that did went on the offensive with zero hesitation.

“Need the Azazels!” someone shouted.

I directed the few bugs I had in the area to attack, assisting with bites, stings and silk cord.

I would help, but I wouldn’t join the battle.  Not this one.

No, I’d used up every bug in my reach, and the damned goblin-things were too good at killing them.  Nilbog had no doubt designed them to live off of a diet of insects, to supplement their diminishing supply of protein.

I made my way to the Dragonfly, my flight pack dangling from the damaged straps I’d looped around my shoulders.

I’d very nearly told myself that we were coming out ahead.  Golem had been a dose of reality on that front.  We weren’t coming out ahead.  Jack was spreading fear, he was killing innocents, and he was whittling us down.  Doing so with such expendable forces cost him nothing.  Now, with Nilbog in his possession, he had access to that many more monsters and freaks that he could just throw away.

There was no guarantee we would continue down this road unfettered.  Just the opposite.  I fully expected Jack to turn to the rules he’d established at the very beginning and state how blatantly we were cheating.  Then he’d carry out his threat, murder those one thousand people, and move on.

I reached the console, shrugged out of my flight pack and sat down.

I pressed a button, “Defiant.  Not a priority, but get in touch when you can.”

It took a minute before I had all of the individual windows open.  I set it so I could track the feeds provided by the various members of the Wards and Protectorate.  Some were here, others were investigating the sites where more members of the Nine were taking action.

Redfield.  The Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards were holding a defensive position, their backs facing one another.  Foil took a shot at a flesh toned blob that leaped between rooftops, then swiftly reloaded.  Skinslip.

Skinslip was a minor regenerator with a changer ability, allowing him to manipulate his own skin.  I could see him using it to scale a surface.  He extended that ability by flaying people and crudely stitching or stapling their skin to his own.  The regeneration connected the tissues and extended his power’s breadth and reach, but it didn’t prevent all rejection or decay, forcing him to replenish it from time to time.  He was a newer member, but they’d still cloned him.

A quick check of the computer noted the members of the Nine they’d seen and fought.  Three Skinslips.  Three Hatchet Faces.  Three Miasmas.  Three Murder Rats.

Hatchet face excepted, they were enemies who were exceedingly mobile.  Skinslip’s skin acted like a grappling hook, it let him climb, and it broke any fall.  He could also smother and bludgeon his opponents with it, if he felt the need.

Miasma was a stranger, invisible and undetectable but for an odorless gas he gave off that wore away at other’s minds, causing headaches, ringing in the ears, watery eyes and eventual blindness, memory loss and coma.

Murder Rat, for her part, was agile.

It meant they were up against nine opponents that were fast or slippery enough that they couldn’t be caught.  That group was supported by a trio of Hatchet Faces that could steadily lumber towards the group, keeping them moving, ensuring they couldn’t simply maintain a defensive position.

The camera images that Clockblocker and company wore shifted as they scrambled away.  There was a shudder as a mass landed in their midst.

Hatchet Face, dropping down from a vantage point somewhere above them.

Rachel’s dogs went on the offensive, attacking him, but their flesh was already sloughing off, their connection to Rachel shut off, their bodies disintegrating.

Parian’s creations were already deflating.

More range than the Tyrant had possessed, and the power loss was immediate.

Foil shot her crossbow, but it did surprisingly little damage.  Hatchet Face pulled the bolt from his shoulder with no difficulty.

“Behind us!”

The camera swiftly changed direction.  A Murder Rat had landed opposite the Hatchet Face, sandwiching the group between the two villains.  The camera panned, taking in the area, and I could see the silhouettes of other villains on nearby rooftops.  More Murder Rats and Skinslips.

Hatchet Face threw the last dog aside.  It collapsed in a slurry mess of loose skin and muscle.  The dog fought its way free, shaking itself dry.  Bastard was already free.

Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Imp said.  “My power’s gone.

Mine too,” Crucible said.  “Turned off like someone flipped a switch.

I closed my eyes.  I was too far away to help, couldn’t think of advice to offer.

We’re not powerless,” Grue said.  “We’ve got strong costumes.  We know how to fight.

Tattletale’s voice came over the comms, “He’s strong enough to swing that axe through a car, tough enough you could flatten him with a steamroller and he’d get back up when you were done.

We run then,” Grue said.  “We deal with Murder Rat and then we scram.  Make some distance.

He’s not fast, but he’s not a slowpoke either.  You don’t have muscles like that and find yourself unable to run.

Be constructive,” Grue said.  “Solutions?  Options?  Any ideas?

Yeah,” Rachel said.  “This.

She wheeled around, pointing.  Both of her dogs bounded towards the Murder Rat.

I couldn’t see Hatchet Face with the directions the cameras were pointed, but I could see the groups converge on Murder Rat, bull-rushing her as a mass.

Murder Rat swatted at the dogs, slashing Bastard along the ribs, but Rachel stepped in the way, blocking the follow-up attacks with the sleeves of her silk-weave jacket.

Murder Rat, about to be surrounded, leaped up to position herself on a wall, slamming her claws through a plate-glass window to grab the inside of the windowframe.  Blood ran down her wrists.

Foil took aim and fired, and Murder Rat leaped before the bolt made contact.

She tagged the dog.  Mouse Protector’s power,” Tattletale said.  “Watch out.

A camera, Vista’s, focused on the dog.

“Hatchet Face incoming!”

Clockblocker, Crucible and Toggle turned around, but Vista remained fixated on the animal.

The moment the group was distracted by the incoming titan, Murder Rat appeared.  She drove her elbow into the side of Crucible’s throat, bringing one foot up to rake the side of his leg, but didn’t get any further.

Vista fired her gun straight into the villain’s back, then wheeled around and shot Hatchet Face in the chest.

Grue blanketed the area in darkness a moment later, the monitors going silent and dark.

I realized I’d been clenching my fists.  I loosened them, then opened and closed them a few times to ease the strain.

Escalations, I thought.

The situation outside was worsening, but the Azazels had mobilized.  They laid down the metal poles along the tops of the wall, opening fire with their lasers.  That done, they joined the fight against the dragon-gargoyle thing that was continuing its suicidal attack against the defending capes.  Chunks of it were being blasted and torn away, but it was doing a little damage to the defending capes.

The metal poles blossomed into the branching ‘gray blur’ nanotech barrier that would disintegrate on touch.

On the set of screens to my left, the Chicago Wards were joined by others as they ventured into what seemed to be a warzone.  Civilians were fleeing in a panic, while the heroes advanced against the press of the crowd with a steady, wary caution.

The nature of the threat became clear.  Rounding the corner, a single entity trudged forward.  It was tiny, and it bore a large white cube on its back.

To look at it, I almost thought it was an Endbringer.

It wasn’t.  It was only the second-scariest member of the Nine, xeroxed.

Eight Siberians.

One carried the cube, no doubt a container bearing the Mantons within.  The other seven followed a pattern, lazy loops that brought them back to the cube every few minutes.  They plunged through walls and into apartments and businesses, they returned with blood wicking off of their hands, feet and faces like water off a duck’s back.

I opened a communications channel.

“Weaver here.  Don’t fight.”

Wasn’t going to, but what the hell are we supposed to do?” Tecton asked.

Eight Siberians.  Even without any other members of the Nine on the sidelines, it was an impossible fight.

“You need to run.”

Run?  The civilians-

“Will have to run as well,” I said.  “There’s nothing you can do.  Accept it.  You can’t slow her down, you can’t deny her what she wants.”

We have to be able to do something,” he said.

“There are options,” I said, “But it’s not worth it.”

What?  Saving civilians is-

“You’d die,” I said.  “It would be a distraction, but you’d die.  The civilians would die all the same.”

What is it?

“She’s still subject to gravity.  Far as I know, she can’t fly.  You drop her into a hole, she’ll climb out.”

No point,” Grace said.

“No point,” I agreed.  “Unless you get lucky.”

Lucky?

“Drop the one that’s carrying the cube into a fissure or pit, if she falls far enough and the cube gets wedged in the crack, you’ll separate her from the cube.  You’d have to destroy it before another Siberian makes contact with it, kill all of the Masters that are generating the Siberians.”

It could work,” Wanton said.

“Unless she moves fast enough to avoid the fissure,” I said.  “Which she can.  Unless she’s digging her claws into the outside of the cube for a handhold, which she might be.  Unless another Siberian returns before you manage to break into that cube, which is very possible, considering that cube looks like something a Mannequin made.”

“We have Grace, and we’ve got Cuff.  We have Cadence and Enforce here, too.”

Enforce?  Oh.  N-Force.

“I don’t think it’ll be enough,” I said.  “There’s too many maybes.  You become a target of the Siberians the instant you try something, and you die if this doesn’t work out perfectly, which it won’t.”

You want us to let civilians die.

I stared at the screen.  They were backing away swiftly now.  A Siberian hopped onto the top of the cube, then looked directly at the group of heroes.

A moment later, she leaped off to one side.

Flaunting their invulnerability.  Taunting.

“Walk away,” I said.  “We’ll send others in.  Others who can do something.”

Who?”

I thought of how Rachel had changed tacks, ignoring the biggest target to go after the Murder Rat.  It hadn’t been much, but it had caught the villain off guard, baited the Hatchet Face into an aggressive charge rather than a slower, more strategic advance.

“Switch it up.  Go to Redfield.  You guys specialize in containing and crushing the enemy.  The Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards can head to your location at the first opportunity.”

I didn’t wait for a response.  My console was displaying an incoming message.

“Gotta go,” I said, closing the comms channel, hanging up on Tecton.  I responded to the message.

Defiant here.”

“Was just about to contact the Undersiders.”

I heard.  I’m already giving orders for them to back out.  Sent a helicopter in to pick them up, hoping it gets to take off again.”

“Helicopter?”

A.I. suits aren’t cooperating.  I’d send one against Hatchet if they were-“

Defiant?

“One suit just took off.  Reinforcing the Undersiders.”

I could sense the fighting outside.  My bugs were doing precious little against Nilbog’s rioting army.  The capes were whittling them down, killing them in droves, but it was time and effort taken away from containing the Nine.  Which was exactly what Jack wanted.

In the same instant Defiant had talked about the suit taking off, one of the Azazels had gone still.

Something was seriously wrong.

What do you need, Weaver?  I have things to handle.”

“Two years ago, I was told we couldn’t go after the Nine, because we can’t decode the portal without knowing the exit point.  They just used one.”

It’s in Ellisburg.

“It’s our fastest route to Jack.  How long does it take to tap into the portal?”

Depends on the means we use.  It doesn’t matter.  The portal isn’t accessible.

“We’re losing, Defiant.  We’re winning the fights but we’re losing in the long run.  We need to act decisively.  End this.”

You want to use the portal entrance, knowing where it is?

“Yes.  We just… we need capes that we can count on, on a lot of levels.  And I need your help.  Can you arrange for a sturdier ship?  The Dragonfly won’t cut it.”

Yes,” he said.  “That can be arranged.  I’ll have to pilot it myself.

“If this doesn’t work out, if we get overwhelmed, then that’s it.  We can’t afford the losses at this juncture. I get that.  But we can’t afford to not take this opportunity.”

Another pause.  Was he typing something?

“What’s the status?”

“We’re losing containment in Ellisburg.  Siberians are racking up casualties, and Redfield isn’t doing great either.  Your Undersiders will be evacuating if they can make it another two blocks to the helicopter without getting intercepted… I’m not sure what they can do against eight Siberians.

“More than the Chicago Wards can.  But that’s not enough on it’s own.  We need to call in the big guns.  We know Jack’s nowhere nearby.  It’s a safe time to put them into play.”

We have people on call, but we’re holding them back,” Defiant replied.  “Jack will hold his strongest cards in reserve for last.  Chevalier advised that we catch him off guard.

“There’s no point anymore.  Stop holding back.  Jack’s escalating when we do.  We established a tempo, he’s matching us.  Let’s go all-in.  We’ll get him to play every card he has on hand, and maybe in the process, we’ll see him make a mistake.”

He’s not one to make mistakes.

“We lose nothing, and we gain time,” I said.  “Which big guns do we have?”

The Thanda.  Cauldron has volunteered the services of their two elite members.  The Las Vegas Capes offered help, as did the Ambassadors.  The Alcott girl has her ability to foresee the future, but she’s trying to reduce the strain she experiences so she can offer more assistance at the most critical juncture.

“The fight with Jack.”

Yes.

“Okay.  That… probably makes sense.  Listen, I’ll handle what I can from here, take some of the load off your hands.  I’ll see if I can’t get recruits from among the capes I trust to handle their own.”

Do.  And I would appreciate it if you would consider me one of them.  I’ll be there with the Pendragon in twenty minutes, I just need to pick up the technology for hacking the portal.”

“Bring me some bugs when you come.”

“Yes.”

That said, he hung up.  No pleasantries.

It was a relief.  Down to business.

Fifteen minutes to go.

I waited impatiently for the capes in question to gather.  We needed good capes, powerful capes.  Too many were occupied elsewhere.

A whole contingent had deployed to Hyde Park.  None of my teams.  Dragon’s Teeth, the New York teams, the Texas teams.

I picked Jouster’s point of view.  I knew him, and it would afford me the most opportunities to see other capes and figure out their identities.

Population of three thousand five hundred, and the place was empty.  No victims, no members of the Nine.  No blood, no violence, no signs of any disruption.

But the first wave of capes had been whittled down, going silent on the radio before disappearing entirely.

Now, as the teams moved through the city, there was nothing on the video, which ruled out Nice Guy.  That left only a few options.

Stranger protocols in effect,” the captain of the Dragon’s Teeth reported.  “We’re going full dark.  Eyes on the lightning.

“Eyes on the lightning,” I responded.  For the moment, I was filling in for Dragon’s absence and Defiant’s preoccupation.  I knew about the Dragon’s teeth, had studied their operations book.  I wasn’t an armchair general, but I’d have to settle for being one here..

They were using those full-face helmets to block off all sight, to shut out all sound.  Their uniforms offered full coverage.  The only things they would rely on were video cameras on their helmets and the battle computers that were wired into their helmets.

It wasn’t enough, apparently, to see anyone or anything.  Things seemed eerily quiet.

Jouster jumped as one cape cried out.  The man’s back arched, first one way, then the other.

“Psychosoma,” I reported.  “Stranger four, master seven.  First squad, get guns trained on him, everyone else, scan the area.  Master protocols.  Confirm everything.”

“Don’t shoot without confirmation,” someone warned, off-camera.

“How the fuck are we supposed to confirm?  Let them attack us?”

Nobody responded to that.

Still, they obeyed the instructions.  Jouster was among the ones who turned to search the surroundings.  The point of his lance was visible in the corner of the screen, as he held it ready.

Nothing.

The man screamed louder.

He twisted, his ribs distending, his mouth yawning open.

It’s an illusion, I thought.

Kind of.  Sort of.

Not really.

It was really nice to think of it as a really convincing illusion.  That was a reassuring way of handling it.

Because the alternative was that Psychosoma was doing the sort of thing Labyrinth did, pulling otherworldly things into our reality to replace objects and people.

When killed, they’d revert back to how they’d been before.

The man continued to twist and distort until he wasn’t recognizable anymore.

The thing whirled around, reaching back with one claw, preparing to strike at a comrade.

A cape incinerated him before he could get any further.

The illusion was dispelled.  The wrong illusion.  Purple smoke flowed out from around the corpse of the young hero.

Nyx!” someone spat the word.

Jouster swiftly backed away.  Every cape in the group was wearing a gas mask, but that was not an absolute guarantee.

Two more people in the group began changing.

A mix of Psychosomas and Nyxes.  Who else?

“She’s covering the area with her smoke,” I spoke, over the channel.  “You need to clear it.”

“On it.  Cover your eyes!”  Jouster hollered.

Jouster raised his lance, then struck out at a light pole.  Lightning flared out, impossibly bright, and the camera briefly went on the fritz.

Somewhere in the midst of that, reality became clear.  Bloodstains everywhere.  Corpses were draped over every surface where the investigating capes weren’t likely to step – on car hoods and roofs, on light poles and in trees.

And in the midst of the crowd, there were the enemies, simply standing and observing.  Nyxes, Psychosomas and Night Hags.  The Nyx were women with pale red skin and black eyes, fog bleeding out of the vents at their arms and backs.  The Psychosomas were men, tall, bald and narrow, with pencil-thin mustaches and beards, spidery fingers and clothing that hung off them like it had been draped on.  The Night hags, by contrast, were women, dark haired, dressed in black, with skin as white as chalk.  Their dresses seemed to bleed into the surrounding landscape, so that everything within fifteen feet of them was covered in that crumpled-looking black cloth.

The Nyx clones and Psychosomas ran for cover.  The Night Hags were the cover.  D.T. soldiers and Wards opened fire.  Hoyden struck a car with literal explosive force, and sent it flying.  Ninety percent of the offense was directed at the Night Hags.

The women practically disintegrated as the bullets, flames and other projectiles made contact.  Their bodies shattered into thousands of black shards.

Moments later, they emerged from the landscape.  One park bench distorted and reconfigured into a new Night Hag.  That Night Hag was summarily slain, and reformed herself out of a nearby patch of grass.

Location possession, in a way, but it was shallow.  She was most effective with materials that stood above the ground’s surface.

In the midst of dealing with the approaching Hags, the D.T. officers and heroes were left to handle the victims who had appeared to be transforming.  When the smoke had burned away, one had been revealed to be fine, crouching with his hands over his head, the other was still afflicted.  They shot the victim and broke the effect.

More smoke was flowing in with surprising speed and quantity, erasing the images of blood and bodies.  The Night Hags were turning translucent, nearly invisible-

And they were gone.

Jouster moved to strike the light-post again, only for black hands to grab him and pull him into darkness and illusory fog.

The image on my screen distorted, then went utterly black.

There was a sound, like a slow, wet grinding sound.  Chewing, as if from a dozen mouths at once.

I changed camera perspectives.

“-break up the fog!”  someone shouted.  Two more of their allies were starting to change.

Someone threw a flashbang.  It didn’t disrupt the smoke.

What do we do!?” one of the capes shouted.  He was almost more frantic than the Dragon’s Tooth soldiers around him.

The sound of a gun being cocked turned heads.

The camera turned as well.

It was Contessa, accompanied by the Number Man.  Both held guns.

She shot one of the afflicted, then walked past the other, ignoring him.  She opened fire in the fog.  One clip, each shot aimed and measured, fired with a peculiar rhythm.  One, then two in rapid succession, one, then two in rapid succession.  She reloaded with an almost casual ease, then slid the gun into its holster.

The Number Man had her back.  He fired into the darkness three times.

It took two minutes for the smoke to clear.

Two Nyx dead.  Three Psychosomas.  Four Night Hags.

The doorway was already opening for the pair to make their exit.

“Dude, who the hell are they?”

“The bogeymen,” Hoyden said.

“Shit,” someone said.  One of the capes.

“They’re on our side?”  Another asked.

“Apparently.”

“Then why don’t they go after Jack?” a cape asked.

Because she fits in the same category as Eidolon, I thought.  Too dangerous to allow her to make contact with the man.

I wasn’t even that comfortable with them helping here, but there weren’t a lot of excellent options for thinker capes who could simply cut right through the layers of deceptions the enemy had been using.

I noted the capes who were present and still in fighting shape.  I’d hoped for Jouster.  No such luck.

I dialed Hoyden’s phone, watched her pick up on the video.

“Need a hand with something,” I said.  “I’m going to send a ship your way.”

Ten minutes to go.

The Undersiders stood far enough away from the Siberian cube that the camera couldn’t even make out the one who carried the thing.

“This,” Imp said, “Is your classic case of putting all your eggs in one basket.  Really.”

He finds the Siberians boring, I imagine,” Tattletale commented, over the channel.  “Before, they were an enigma.  Now they’re just… the same thing, over and over.  Tearing people apart.”

“Just tell me this isn’t going to be the moment of idiocy that ends the world,” I said.

No way,” Tattletale said.  “I promise.”

“You’re absolutely certain?”

Ninety… three percent certain.

“That’s not good enough.”

Geez.  You’ve lost your sense of humor these past few years.  I’m kidding.  I’m sure.

“You’ve been wrong.”

I’m right.  I swear.  Now stop fretting!  Wait…

The Siberians left, engaging in another brief spree, attacking civilians.

“Let’s not wait too long,” I said.  I felt a sick feeling in my gut.  Had I been right to send away the Chicago Wards?  Seven or so people were dying every one or two minutes.

Wait…

The last group of Siberians abandoned the cube, leaving the carrier holding it.

Wait…

One more returned after a very brief trip, cast a glance around, and then fled.

Now.

Clockblocker fired his threads from his gauntlet.  They surrounded the cube-carrier, and he froze them.

Unstoppable force against an immovable object.

Which won?

The Siberian made contact with the thread and flickered out of existence, and the thread went limp.  The cube fell with a crash.

Others began to return.  Vista was distorting the cube, creating gaps, weak points.

Thanda,” Tattletale said.

Clockblocker activated the device on his back.  A dome unfolded around him, almost like a tent, though more rigid.

Rachel had already fled with her dogs.  Even so, it was tight, everyone pressed together inside.

He froze the dome.

I regretted that I didn’t get to see the follow-up attack.

The Thanda had a cape that was sort of in the same vein as Shuffle.  A teleporter of landmasses.

This cape didn’t need to teleport things onto solid ground.  In fact, he specialized in the opposite.

A large building was teleported into the stratosphere, where it summarily fell on the cube.  I could hear the crash through the cameras the Brockton Bay Wards wore.

Siberians down, I thought.

One more group to handle.

“Rachel’s on her way to me,” I said.  Grue was out – I didn’t trust him in a face to face confrontation against the Nine, and he hadn’t volunteered.  Imp was out as well.  Too risky, too much of a coin toss, whether her power would be seen through.  “Foil?  You know what we’re doing.”

On my way.

I’m coming too,” Parian said.

I’ll be on the comms,” Tattletale responded.

Tecton slammed his gauntlets into the ground.  Murder Rats were knocked down from the walls.  The streets had been shattered, and the dismantled craft lay in the streets, with one dead Miasma nearby.

Another slam, combined with an activation of both piledrivers, and he created a fissure, breaking up the ground beneath the two remaining Hatchet Faces.

They made steady progress anyways.  They were too strong, their stride too long.  Tattletale had been right.  Running was difficult at best.

Cuff used her metallokinesis to heave a small disc of metal.  Effective enhanced strength, along with the ability to control the rotation of the projectile, the ability to control the flight of it after it left her hand…

It slammed into a Hatchet Face’s collarbone, burying into his flesh.

He broke into a run, axe held aloft.

She prepared to throw another disc, only for a Murder Rat to leap onto her from above.

The metal blades of Murder Rat’s claws were swept aside as if Cuff had parried it with something physical.  Cuff settled for striking Murder Rat across the eyes with the razor edge of the discus.

Grace followed up with a crushing kick from a steel-toed boot.  A Murder Rat pounced on her, then vaulted off with enough force that Grace’s head struck the ground.  Grace didn’t get up.

Skinslips moved to flank, simultaneously reaching out with cloaks made of skin and shielding their real bodies with the amorphous limbs of stolen flesh.

Romp’s animated constructions stumped forward, providing just as much raw mass to defend against the reaching attacks.  They picked up speed as they moved, charging like bulls, catching the Skinslips well off guard.

The fight was well in hand.  Murder Rats leaped up onto building faces so they might be able to leap down and strike a vulnerable target, but Tecton made the entire neighborhood shake.  The Murder Rats were trapped where they were, clinging to the surfaces, unable to attack.

One caught a discus with her claws, then let it fall to the ground.

No.  There was one more threat.  Tecton’s helmet caught it on camera as it loomed on a nearby building.  A Mannequin.

Only it was three times the usual size.  Fat.

Cuff flung another discus.

It’ll glance off, I thought.

It penetrated.

Pressurized moisture exploded outward, crusted immediately into a small, spiky mass of ice.

Ah.

It leaped down, and the ground shook.

Then, casually, it grabbed the most unhurt Hatchet Face with both hands and whipped its upper body a full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees around to fling him into the mass of defending heroes.

Tecton punched, his piledriver extending, but it did surprisingly little damage.

And with the Hatchet Face so close, the Chicago Wards were left powerless.  Only tinker devices worked.

The Mannequin charged.

Being a tinker, the Mannequin didn’t suffer at all in the midst of Hatchet Face’s power.

Direct your attacks on the Hatchet Face, now!” I ordered.

A piledriver-gauntlet hit him, followed by another.  Cuff used a discus to slash at his throat, but it barely cut.

He was still alive – his power wasn’t canceled out.

The Mannequin let blades extend from his wrists and elbows.   Not long, sleek, elegant blades like the original Mannequin had used, but heavy, crude ones, like axe heads.  Cuff screamed as he brought one down onto her armored shoulder.  She folded over in an awkward way as she collapsed to the ground.

He spun around, almost skipped to one side to avoid Tecton, then directed attacks at Romp.

She took shelter behind her no-longer-animated creation, and the Mannequin-thing turned away, directing his attention at Tecton, who was trying to bash the Hatchet Face’s head in.  It was a narrow window of opportunity, here.  The other, injured Hatchet Face was approaching.  If he didn’t manage it in five or so seconds, there would be two to contend with.

A heavy bullet caught the Mannequin in the back of the head.  Ice cascaded out the back in a giant spike.

Tecton used the opportunity to slam the upper ridge of his gauntlet into the Hatchet Face’s mouth and extend the piledriver full-force.

That did it.

More bullets pummeled the Mannequin.  One resulting chunk of ice partially encased Tecton, only to shatter when he pulled back.

Further shots followed, but they veered in awkward directions, sinking to hit the ground too early.

He has another power.  One that was being canceled by Hatchet Face.

Winter’s Power, I realized.

But Grace had powers now too.  She grabbed Hatchet Face’s weapon and swung it, was nearly trapped in the ice that exploded out from the wound.

Romp’s creation charged the ceramic man, and Tecton raised a shelf of ground around him to limit his movements.

He was being abused, battered.

Tecton’s head turned, and I could see Chevalier on the camera.  Revel was beside him.

Chevalier fired his cannonblade again.  One shot to polish off the remaining Hatchet Face that was closing the distance, and another directed at the Winter-Mannequin.  The Winter-Mannequin’s power took the impetus out of the second shot.

The Wards were moving slower now too.  Reacting slower.  Tecton barely resisted as the Mannequin seized him in one hand.

Didn’t even get up after the Mannequin virtually punched him into the ground.

Blades extended from his palms, the Mannequin spun like a top.

Chevalier charged, and the Mannequin changed tacks immediately, using a chain to draw himself up to a rooftop, where he clumsily climbed over the edge.

Ranged attacks didn’t work, and he was deceptively dangerous in short range.

Revel launched energy-orbs, but they barely seemed to touch the Winter-Mannequin hybrid.

Then Wanton closed the distance.

Ice chipped away, and the resulting chunks flaked away at the other pieces of ice.  It was soon a localized blizzard, and the large hunks of ice that clung to the Mannequin’s suit began to break away.

More ice appeared, but it, in turn, was broken by the yet-larger chunks that had been picked up.

The storm began to slow as the Winter-Mannequin concentrated his power on a smaller area.  The storm came to a standstill.

Chevalier raised his cannonblade to fire, only to stumble, dropping his weapon.

Miasma.

Indiscriminate attack, Chevalier!” I said.  “Revel, get down!”

Chevalier swung, very nearly striking Revel as she dropped flat to the ground.  He connected with something, and Miasma appeared in an explosion of thick green smoke.

The villain rolled, then disappeared again.

But Revel was following up, spitting orbs of energy out of her lantern.  Miasma wasn’t fast enough to dodge all of them.  He, and another Miasma behind him were burned, holes the size of softballs punched through their torsos.

Cuff was helping Tecton stand, using her metallokinesis to push at his armor.  Once he was standing, they worked together to outfit Tecton with one of the specialized shots we’d prepared.

The Mannequin wasn’t going to go down to fast moving projectiles or short-range attacks.

They’d take him down the same way I’d fought him ages ago.

Tecton used his piledrivers as a sort of gun, launching two cup-shaped hunks of metal with material strung between them.

The net unfolded in the air, and it draped over the Mannequin.  Spider Silk and metal wire interwoven.  It caught on the ice and the extended blades, and snagged on fingers and chains.

The Mannequin was still struggling to escape when Chevalier slowly closed the gap, bringing his sword down like a great guillotine.  He had one hand pressed to the side of his helmet.  Blood streaked down his arm.

Last group, for now.  I watched as they checked on the injured.  Chevalier’s eye had been stabbed, but not perforated, and Grace had suffered a heavy blow to the head.  Cuff’s shoulder socket had been broken by the Mannequin.

I almost hated to ask.

“Tecton,” I said.  “We’ve got a game plan.  Maybe a way to get Jack.  You up for helping?”

My team isn’t in good shape.

“If you want to stay, keep doing this-”

No,” he said.  “No.  Just… maybe my team should sit the rest of this out.”

You’ve all done good work,” Chevalier said.  “Above and beyond the call of duty.  You don’t even have to ask.

I’ll come on this mission, if you have a use for me,” Tecton said.

“I do.”

I’ll come as well,” Chevalier said.

“You’re injured.”

A pause, as if waiting for me to realize what I was saying.  This was the guy that had gone up against Behemoth face to face, scarcely an hour after suffering critical injuries in an assassination attempt.

I’ll come,” he said, again.

“Glad to have you,” I said.

It was suicidal.  Returning to Nilbog’s kingdom, where his creations had riled themselves up, hungry for blood.  I could only hope that their forces would be thinner towards the center, with the sustained attack on the surrounding capes.

I glanced around the back of the craft.

Chevalier.  Revel.  Hoyden.  Tecton.  Bitch.  Two dogs and Bastard.  Foil.  Parian.  Me.

Two Dragon’s Teeth to round out the group, so we had people trained in the use of containment foam and other PRT munitions.  Veteran PRT soldiers outfitted with the best gear the Guild could provide.

And Defiant up at the cockpit, rounding out our group.

I felt my pulse quicken.  My hand traced over the box that Defiant had brought, with all the bugs I needed.

Nilbog’s army seemed endless.  We’d only seen a fraction of it.  It flowed over, under and through the walls, in numbers that tied up the defending capes.  Our battle lines couldn’t hold a position for long before something threw them off.  Someone vital would get injured, or a creature would burrow out from beneath the ground.  Something would fly over to land in the middle of the back line, forcing a reorganization.

We weren’t being overwhelmed.  Any cape was stronger than the typical starved, desperate, reckless monster.  But this was definitely not helping.

A man’s voice came over the comms.  “Three new locations with attacks.  Coordinated strikes.  Harbingers sighted.  They are reinforced by Nilbog’s creations.

Bonesaw got something set up already, I thought.

Defiant was clenching his fist.

Who was the man?

“Doesn’t matter,” Defiant said.  “Our focus is here.”

“Fuckin’ right,” Hoyden said.  She turned to smile at Rachel.  “Right?”

Rachel only frowned, turning her attention to the dogs that sat between and on either side of her legs.

Hoyden punched Rachel in one arm, then grinned. “Right?”

“Right.”

“Right!”  Hoyden grinned.

Heavy metal boots banged against the ramp as our last attendee made his way into the back of the craft.

Golem sat down opposite me, silent.  He briefly met my eyes, and I nodded.

He didn’t react, casting his eyes downward.

It was nothing.  A minor thing in the grand scheme of it all.  I tried to tell myself that he was strong when it counted, whatever his doubt in the quiet moments.

The ramp closed with a bang.  Golem jumped a little at that.

It didn’t do a lot for my confidence.  I glanced around at the others, wondered who else had seen it.

The Pendragon took off.

And off we go, into the lion’s den.

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Scarab 25.3

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Wind stirred the snow that had piled up at the rooftop’s edge.  As it entered the space over the Chicago street, city lights caught the flurry and made it almost luminescent, whirling clouds in intense, intricate patterns.

I was, in other words, bored beyond comprehension.

Stakeouts?  Not nearly as interesting as they were in the movies.  Not even as interesting as they were in the TV shows where nothing happened and the cops complained about how dull things were.

No, this was a special kind of boring, where I was told to limit how much I moved, because of the half-a-percent chance that the targets in the building on the other side of the street might look out a window, and the ensuing one-in-a-thousand chance that they might actually be able to see me perched on the rooftop, surrounded by snow in my dark gray and white costume.

A boring, even, where I wasn’t allowed to read or listen to music.

Weaver,” the voice came through my earbud.

“Talk to me.  Please.”

Grace complied.  “Police chief and the Mayor are talking to Revel and the Director.  Thought you’d want an update.”

“You could give me minute by minute updates on golf and I’d love you forever.”

Hyperbole.  That’s not like you.

“It’s been a while,” I muttered.  I shifted position to bring my feet up onto my ‘bug box’.  The case was insulated, but there was some heat loss, so it included a heater that turned on periodically to maintain a consistent internal temperature.  At the same time, I was wearing a PRT issue winter-weather costume beneath a doublethick silk ‘Weaver’ costume, complete with a hood, shawl and something of a skirt.  It took time for my fingers and toes to get cold, so things more or less evened out with the heater.

Well, this is your five minute check-in.  Again.”  I could hear the noise of a show or something on in the background.

“Thank you, Grace.  Situation unchanged.  Target’s grabbing a late dinner.  There’s seven others working under him.  Nothing special in their chatter.  There’s plainclothes capes in there, but they’re not using names.”

You’re sure they’re capes?”

“He warned them when they stepped inside that he’d act the second they used powers, so… yeah.”

Gotcha.  I’ll be in touch in another five min.”

“These five minute check-ins make it so much worse,” I groused.  “It’s like, if it weren’t for those, I could let time slip by, but no.  I get measured reminders of how long I’ve been here.”

This was your idea.”

“Dumb idea,” I commented.

You were the one who wanted to do the stakeout, even,” she reminded me.

“Kind of thought I’d get to read,” I said.

That, and it had been a way to finally get some time to myself.  We had run it by the Director, and I’d known right off the bat that he was itching to shut me down.  Orders from above, no doubt.  A way to get credit with the guys upstairs.

Still, I’d explained how my bugs would let me track the target’s movements.  Our boss had okayed the job, with certain restrictions.  The surveillance had to be airtight, with the check-ins, a mandate that any breaks had to fall between check-ins, and the restrictions on entertaining myself or drawing attention.  At the same time, he’d said with a smile, the PRT rulebook said a Ward couldn’t be forced to undertake or carry out a mission.  If I wanted to walk away, I could.  If I got too cold I had to.

He wanted me to quit.  To exercise a measure of control over me, so he’d have something to leverage against me at a later date.

Six hours in, I’d left for three bathroom breaks, each between four and a half and five minutes in duration, and had relocated three times, as our target went out to lunch and then returned to check on the business.  Wanton and Annex had both come to keep me company, until the Director had found something else for them to do.

Then Revel had come on shift, and I had an ally who wasn’t just ready to go to bat for me, but able to.  She was working reduced hours after her head injury, deferring more tasks to Shuffle, but she was still the boss.  She’d read the logs from the check-ins, called me to verify facts on the drugs and guns I’d noted moving through the apartment, and then reached out to the Director.

That had been two hours ago.  Somewhere in the midst of her battle with the Director, she’d reached out to the police chief and mayor.  She would be trying to sell them on our plan.

Or, it was easily possible, they were sold and they were trying to get the ducks in a row and favors pulled to make our plan a reality.

And with all the excitement that was no doubt happening over there, I was sitting here, a little cold, wishing I’d saved a little something from the lunch I’d packed into my plastic Alexandria lunchbox.

The lunchbox was a memento, really, an impulse I’d justified in the moment by telling me it fit with my general camouflage, that it was ironic.  I hadn’t counted on how long I’d be left to stare at it, while my bugs tracked the target going about his day.  It made for a long time spent ruminating on past events, debating just how the bureaucrats could sabotage me, intentionally or otherwise.

For several dangerous minutes, I’d seriously considered going back to the Undersiders if this mission got derailed.  I’d stopped myself before I got too far into that line of thinking, knowing it was a trap that would lead to me compromising, giving up in a way.  Playing into the Directors’ hands.

No, I wouldn’t go back.  I missed them; scarcely an hour went by where I didn’t wonder how they were getting by, but I wasn’t allowed to contact them.  I wanted to know how Imp had changed in response to Regent’s passing, if Grue was getting enough support, or if Rachel was managing in the cold on the other side of the Brockton Bay portal.  Was Tattletale using her power too much, still?  How was Sierra managing as a corporate magnate and front-man for a villainous organization?

Hell, how was the Boardwalk getting on?

They were questions I couldn’t ask or answer without raising red flags with the people who were watching me for the slightest excuse.  I’d cheated and sent letters, written by my bugs, delivered to a mail box while I was hundreds of feet away, and I’d received ‘fan letters’ with coded messages from Tattletale.  It wasn’t enough, didn’t have the details I craved.

Five minute check-in,” Grace said, interrupting my train of thought.

“Situation unchanged,” I replied.

Stuff’s happening over here.  Revel is right beside me.  She’ll fill you in.

I perked up a little at that.

Weaver.  Revel here.  I’ve talked it over with everyone that matters and too many people that don’t, and they’re saying it’s okay.  Tecton and the rest of the Wards, minus Grace and Wanton, will be mobilizing shortly.”

We’re good to go?”

Shortly.  PRT trucks are already en route and will be standing by, when they’re not actively transporting your teammates.  Campanile, Brazier, Shuffle and Gauss will be a short distance away, but they won’t engage unless this goes belly-up.  This is your show.  You and the Wards.  Quite a few people hoping you guys can pull this off.  A handful hoping you fail.”

Like the Directors.  “Got it.  Do me a favor and fill me in on everyone else’s status and locations until they’re within a twelve-hundred feet of me.  Coordination is going to be key here.”

Grace will handle it.

Not a hundred percent necessary, but it would keep me sane.  I suspected the remaining minutes of waiting would be as bad as the first three hours had been.

We’re controlling traffic,” Grace said.  I could hear others speaking in the background.  “Flow through the area should slow and eventually stop.

“Good to know,” I said.  My eyes roved over the face of the building opposite me, while my bugs tracked our quarry.

Where do you want your team?”  Revel asked.

My team?

“Keep them in the vehicles,” I answered.  “I’ll let them know where to set up when things are underway.”

I stood up from my perch, making sure that our target and his employees weren’t watching out the windows before I stretched.  I was alternately cool and toasty warm, where different body parts had been closer to the vent, and my costume layers thicker.  Not cold, though.  Not so much that I’d be affected.

Snow slid off the top of my hood as I bent down, lifting the insulated box with my bugs inside and setting it on the roof’s edge.  It was essentially a thermos, but as lightweight as the materials were in the case and the heating system, the bugs I’d packed inside made it heavy.

I worried it would be an issue in my plan.  With roughly eight hours by myself to think, I’d considered various ways this could go.  Tactics our enemies could employ, things that could trip us up, ways our supervisors could derail the plan, but this forty pound box was something that rested entirely on my shoulders.

We’re close to the perimeter,” Tecton reported, his voice buzzing in my ear.

I pressed a finger to my earbud, “I’m going to get us started.  Sound off from all corners, please.”

Roger from HQ,” Grace said.

“Roger-roger from the field team,” Tecton said.  “Just reached perimeter.  Sending Annex and Cuff your way.  Golem and I will be working.”

I stepped over to the rooftop’s edge.  The streets had gone quiet.  The unsteady evening traffic that had a way of continuing in the dead of night had stopped, leaving the area more or less isolated.   I’d spent the better part of the day organizing bugs in the surrounding buildings, and I now moved them into position.  Swarms formed into large ‘x’ marks on major exits, elevators and stairwells.  In higher traffic spots where people were more likely to move, I drew out words with the swarm.

‘Cape fight in progress.’

I suspected this was a not-insignificant part of how Revel had managed to get the police chief and mayor on board with the plan, despite any protests or manipulations from the Director.  The chance of bystanders getting caught up in this was minimal.  As minimal as it was possible to get in the midst of a larger city, anyways.

I activated my flight pack and crossed the street, simultaneously making my way down to the ground.  Not so hard, with the extra weight that made up my burden.

The doorway that led into the lobby of the apartment building required a keycard or a number punched into a resident’s phone upstairs.  Not so difficult, after a day’s surveillance.  My bugs were already prepared to knock a phone off the hook in an older woman’s apartment, a moment after I’d found her name on the board and dialed the number.  Much as I’d done in Tagg’s office, I had my bugs punch the buttons.

The door buzzed.  I walked backwards into it, carrying the insulated box, then dropped the box in the base of the lobby, opening the little door.

The bugs flowed out of the box and disappeared into the air vents.  Slowly, they made their way up to the apartment of a local supervillain.  A black market storehouse first, an apartment second, really.  The only reason it seemed he slept here was convenience.  The old adage of not shitting where one ate fell apart when ninety percent of the day was spent eating.

I knew how easy it was to fall into that trap.  I thought of the Boardwalk and felt a trace of nostalgia.

The apartment was one of many detours in an extended distribution chain that saw guns and drugs making their way to the Folk, one of the rare criminal organizations that predated capes and still functioned in more or less the same fashion today.  Topsy and his underlings were guarantors, middlemen who made it possible for diehard enemies to do business.  If a fight erupted, he and his minions would deal with the situation quickly, promptly and efficiently.

It was a simple job, and it was one he’d done for nearly a decade.  In the process, he’d apparently grown exceedingly rich, and he had recently started to become more ambitious.  Campanile and Shuffle had interfered with a deal, and Topsy had hired some mercenaries to seek out retaliation.  If the escalation of the situation wasn’t bad enough, the mercenaries had crossed lines, and Topsy had been relocated to the heroes’ shit list as a consequence.  He was an acceptable target.

The only thing that would make Campanile and Shuffle happier than us fucking up and giving them an excuse to step in would be a perfectly executed operation and a humiliating loss for Topsy.  I’d do my best to oblige on that front.

Finding the way through the building’s ventilation system was a question of mapping the system.  Once I knew the way, the bugs abandoned the map and made their way into the apartment.

I could have gone on the offensive right away, but this wasn’t a conventional attack.  Every step of this had to be considered, measured, and plotted.

Minutes passed as I followed Topsy’s movements through the apartment.  One by one, I collected his underling’s phones, as they put them down.  A girl in the group said she needed to make a call, couldn’t find her phone, and borrowed one from someone else.  The second she put it down and turned her back, cockroaches swept it into the space between the table and the wall, and then proceeded to nudge it well out of reach, beneath furniture.

Topsy’s phone was the only one left, and he wouldn’t put it down long enough for me to claim it.  I focused on the front hall instead, bugs collecting around jackets, boots and the winterized costume pieces, complete with warm coverings.

I could sense Annex and Cuff through the bugs that were warm and safe in the folds of their costumes.  They trudged through the two inches of snow that had accumulated on the plowed sidewalks.  Cuff seemed oddly more comfortable compared to Annex, who clutched his cloak around his shoulders.

“Annex, Cuff, I’m half a block up and to your right,” I said, one finger on my earpiece.  “Look for me in the lobby.”

“Got it,” Annex reported.

Back to the preparations.  The goal here wasn’t to defeat Topsy, but to break him.  Part of the goal, anyways.

Silk lines tangled zippers and bound laces.  Gloves, both the ones for costumes and the ones for regular winter wear, were knotted with more silk, or they became home to wasps, cockroaches and millipedes.

Bugs too large or too small to be crushed found their way into boots.  Cockroaches bit and chewed at the finer straps that held the inner lining of jackets against the exterior.  The bugs I’d laced with capsaicin were relatively few in number due to the fact that it would kill the bugs next to them in the box, but I didn’t need a lot of the stuff.  I transferred some to scarves and balaclavas by rubbing their bodies against the fabrics.

Annex knocked on the glass door, then melded into it and passed through before I could approach to open the door.  He rubbed at his upper arms as he opened the door for Cuff.

“You okay?” I asked.

Annex only nodded.

There.  I snapped my head up to look in the direction of the upstairs apartment, as though I could see through the walls.  Topsy had put his phone down on the kitchen counter to grab a beer, setting the thing to speaker mode while he looked for a bottle opener.

Bugs from the front hallway of the apartment flowed into the kitchen and swept the phone into the half-full sink.  Topsy didn’t notice right away.

“Creepy when you do that,” Cuff said.

“Hm?”

“Zoning out.”

“I’ve disabled their communications,” I said.  “Let’s go.”

I moved the empty box to a corner of the lobby, hidden in plain sight, then led the way out of the building, with Cuff and Tecton following me into the adjacent alleyway.

Topsy was swearing as he nearly dropped his beer in his haste to rush to the sink and push his sleeves up to dig for the smartphone in the mess of dishes and scummy water.  I could taste how much old food was in the water.  It wasn’t a sense that translated well, but I could detect a thin, strong scent permeating the kitchen, one a select few of my bugs were attracted to.

“Tecton, Grace,” I said, “Annex and Cuff are here, we’re standing aside while I engage.  I’m not forcing this.  Longer it takes them to catch on, the better the psychological effect.”

“Roger you,” Grace answered.

It was all about thinking a step ahead.  I sent bugs into the room with the money and drugs and set them to destroying the plastic bags and eating through the paper bands of money.  Wasps and other hostile bugs nestled in the gun cases and around handles.  I didn’t have many bugs to spare, so I used the others from the building that I hadn’t deployed to make warning signs for the residents.

All in all, I managed about five or six minutes of quiet, steady destruction before one of the underlings walked in and saw what was happening.  I rewarded him by flying two capsaicin-laced insects into his eyes.

“They’re sounding the alarm,” I said.  The thug was hollering, and Topsy was shouting something about calling for the reinforcements, directing some swear words at the fact that nobody apparently had a working phone on hand.

That swearing swiftly became a stream of curses aimed at ‘that fucking bug bitch’.

“Annex, inside,” I said.

“Good,” Annex said.  “Because I just stepped outside, and now I’m going back in.  It’s a pain to move through walls this cold.  Sucks the heat out of me.”

“Warm up inside,” I said.  “Take your time, but try to move upstairs.  Keep your head poked out so you can hear me.  I’ll let you know what route they take.”

“Right,” he said, reaching into the wall.  “Fuck, that’s cold.”

Then he was gone.

My swarm continued to plague Topsy and his people.  I slowly escalated the intensity of the attack, until Topsy gave the order to retreat.

“Get what you can and get the fuck out,” Topsy ordered, “Yeah, you too.  I’m paying you, aren’t I?  Go find the bitch.”

Not so cheery for a guy with a playful name like ‘Topsy’.  Then again, I’d caught him at the end of his work day.  By contrast, I’d woken up, donned my costume and started my stakeout.  Eight hours, starting at four, watching and following as Topsy and his men conducted their business.  He was more tired than I was, and he was both a little drunk and a little high.

It meant he was a little more likely to freak out when their outdoor clothing turned out to be festooned with stinging, biting insects, falling to pieces or too entangled in silk to use.

“Bitch!  That bitch!” the girl in the group cussed.

They knew who I was, apparently.  Fame had its disadvantages.

“Get downstairs, carry everything.  I’ll bring the rest.  We’ll take the trucks,” Topsy said.

I smiled a little, “Cuff, garage entrance.  Spike strip.”

“On it,” she said, disappearing out the front door.

Once the majority of his underlings were out of the apartment, Topsy leveraged his power, reorienting gravity to shift the boxes and piles of stuff.  They hit the wall, slid down the hallway, and finally tumbled through the open front door of the apartment in a heap.  With money bands cut and bags chewed open, much of the merchandise in Topsy’s stock was scattered to the wind.  My bugs could sense the clouds of powder filling the air.  Evidence, if nothing else.

He wasn’t screaming, now, which I found odd.  Now that his underlings had gone ahead, he’d settled into a grim and quiet attitude.  He turned to the sole remaining underling.  “Anything?”

“Too far to see,” the man said.

“Keep looking as we head down.”

Topsy was tricky.  Part of the reason for the surveillance had been to identify the other parahumans in his group.  He hired mercenaries, paying well, and there was no sure way to tell who he had with him, short of seeing them in costume.  Trouble was, his people were defaulting to heavier clothing over their costumes, due to the cold weather. Identities were doubly hard to discern, and Topsy wasn’t one to blab over the phone about who was working for him.

“Annex,” I said, touching my earpiece, “They’re heading for the stairwell.  Do what you can, but let them keep moving forward.”

Got it.”

I sent bugs ahead of the group to check the way.  Annex flowed up the stairs to intercept them.  Some steps became slopes instead, others had the supports removed, so the stairs collapsed underfoot.  Each of Topsy’s underlings fell at some point, their burdens thrown from their arms or crushed beneath them.  An unlucky or clumsy few fell more than once.

“Annex,” I said.  No use.  He was inside the stair’s surface.  An unfortunate side effect of his power was the fact that his senses were limited while he was inside an object.  He was blind, deaf, and his ability to feel was limited by the material he occupied.  He could sense heat as much as the object could hold heat, could sense vibrations as much as the material could receive them.

“Annex,” I tried again.

I’m here.

“Back off.  They’re catching up to you, and Topsy’s on his way down with an avalanche of stuff.”

Right.

I could see Cuff returning.  She saw my hand at my ear and didn’t speak, giving me a thumbs up instead.

Annex spoke, his voice low, “Okay.  I’ll take a detour, fix the damage I did to the stairs, then rendezvous.

Very calm.  Assured.  It wasn’t even something we’d plotted out beforehand, but there was no urgency here, no panic or distress.

Not on our end, anyways.

Topsy’s crew reached the first floor of the basement, which included the parking garage.  Topsy followed right after with the piles of goods, abused by their rough tumble down a dozen flights of stairs.  The packages of powder virtually floated in the air, with Topsy batting them in the direction of his people.

“Everything with red tape is highest priority,” Topsy said.  “Load it into the trucks first.  We can take a loss on the rest, pay the fucks back and claim intervention of bug bitch.”

“Two trips,” the man I took to be Topsy’s lieutenant said.  “Bug girl can see what her bugs see.  She’ll be on our heels.”

I’m not even fifteen paces away, I thought.  I’d worried they would exit at the ground floor, but it was safe.  I made my way inside to grab my insulated box.  Heavy.

The lieutenant continued, “Mockshow, open the garage doors.  Get some cold air in here.”

“I’m already freezing,” the girl of the group said.  “We left our jackets up there.”

“Don’t fucking care.  Bit of cold will deal with these bugs faster than it hurts us.  Move.”

Mock obeyed, while the others loaded up the trucks.

“Be advised,” I reported, my hand to my ear, “They’re attempting retreat in vehicles.  Original plan may hit a snag.  Topsy’s got a newbie supervillain working for him.  Mockshow.  If I’m remembering right, she’s a master-slash-shaker six.”

Roger,” Tecton said.

Hold on,” Grace said.

Mockshow touched the garage door, and the mechanisms shifted to life.  Cold air flooded into the garage.  I was forced to pull my bugs back, drawing them into the stairwell and through the vents to the box I held.  Only the bugs nestled in the villains’ clothing remained.

I could barely hear as the lieutenant spoke to Mockshow, “See?”

Bosses are advising we try plan as detailed,” Grace said.  “If it fails, orders are to abort.

And there was our first bit of interference.  The Director didn’t want us to succeed.  Topsy wasn’t a likable guy, was dangerous in his own way, even, but he was a known quantity.  Manageable.

Fuck that, I thought.  I didn’t sit in the snow for eight hours, bored to tears, to have this  mission end at the first excuse.

I didn’t say it aloud.  I focused on what our targets were doing.

The trucks had apparently been loaded up, because the villains were gathering into three vehicles.  They peeled out with a squeal both I and my bugs could hear.

No less than ten seconds later, they ran over the chain that Cuff had laid in the snow just past the garage door.  She’d reshaped it so spikes jutted out, I knew.  I could hear the tires pop, and pieced together the scene from the movements of the people and boxes within the trucks.  The second truck had made it halfway across the spike strip losing its front tires, but the collision of the third truck ramming it from behind drove its rear wheels over the strip.

Two of three trucks disabled.

I stayed where I was, letting the last of my bugs finish gathering in the insulated box, then carried it outside to Cuff.

“Spiked chain worked,” I commented, my voice a murmur.

Cuff pumped a fist.

I touched my earpiece.  “Two cars disabled and a third trapped behind.  They-”

“Watch,” Topsy said, as he climbed out of the truck.

Not a statement.  A name.  I felt my heart sink a touch.  Of all the motherfucking people he could have hired-

“What?” his lieutenant asked.

“They’ve got to be close.  Take a second, look for them.  Mockshow?  Get us moving.”

It didn’t take Watch two seconds to turn and face the alley where Cuff and I were hiding.

It’s Watch,” I whispered, “They’re on to us.  Go.

Cuff nodded and reached for her left ear.  I seized her wrist to stop her.

She gave me a funny look.  “Mission’s a bust.”

“Mission is on,” I hissed the words.  “Go.”

I lifted the box, as Watch and Topsy made their way up the snow-covered ramp to us, underlings following them.  An adjustment of gravity removed the issues the slope posed.  Watch was saying something I couldn’t make out over the rush of wind.  Something about our location.  We didn’t have long.

Watch was a package deal like Grace or Circus.  A lot of powers, flexible.  His specific powers weren’t on record, but it was fairly well known that he was capable of short bursts of intense, short-ranged clairvoyance.  He could see people’s biology, ignore the issues of light, darkness or intervening objects, and he had a limited super speed coupled with what had been dubbed ‘phantom hands’.  The ability to reach through people like Shadow Stalker might, targeting particular aspects of people’s body to shred arteries or tear through nerves with his fingers and fingernails.

He was a monster who left his victims dead if they were lucky, quadriplegic if they weren’t.  Maybe that was ableist, but I didn’t fancy being left to rely on the care of others for the rest of my natural life, suffering what was, by all accounts, an indescribably painful case of phantom limb.

It said a lot about Topsy and the direction he was taking his enterprise, that he’d hire this bastard.

I nearly dropped the box, slick as it was with the snow that had melted while it sat in the lobby.  Cuff helped me catch it.  A moment’s delay, but enough time for Topsy, Watch and the others to crest the top of the ramp that led from the basement level to the street.

As we ducked behind cover, taking our steps into the alley, the snow that had accumulated on the ground began to fall in reverse, in thick, wet clumps.  I felt the same kind of lift that accompanied a use of my flight pack, and both Cuff and I were lifted off the ground as well.

The weightlessness ceased, and we fell.  Only we fell up.

My flight pack kicked to life, and the wings unfolded so I could use the propulsion.  I reached for Cuff with one free hand, nearly grabbing one of her braids, but found her wrist instead, felt her hand clasp my wrist in return.  Snow and ice pummeled us as it broke free of the sidewalk and flew skyward.

It also, I noted, helped to obscure us.  Some gunshots sounded, though we were safe around the corner.

With the flight pack, I managed to steer us towards the fire escape, throwing the box down -or up- and seizing a handhold.  I found a grip and started to swing Cuff towards the railing when gravity shifted again.  Cuff jerked, and I found myself half-folded over the railing, trying to keep her from falling through the open mouth of the alley and into Topsy and Watch’s sights.

Her legs dangled towards the street we’d just left, and I couldn’t muster the upper body strength to lift her.  Worse, her grip was too tenuous for her to risk letting go to climb up my arms and shoulders and reach safety.  Her right arm still wasn’t as strong as it should be.

The arms of my flight pack reached out to try and grip Cuff, but the angles of our bodies didn’t offer anything substantial to grab.  Her braids?  No.  Nothing on her costume either.

The chain looped around her back?  Yes.

“Chain,” I gasped the word in the moment her gauntlet slid from my grip.  The insectile arm at the side of my flight suit snagged the chain and passed it to my hand in a sudden, jerky motion.  She caught the lower half of the loop and jolted to a stop, her lower body dangling out in sight of Topsy and his men.

They opened fire, and Cuff shrieked in alarm.

Not quite so calm, leisurely and confident, now.  Damn it.

Still, we managed to reel her in, her climbing, me hauling the chain in, inch by agonizing inch.  The men with the guns rounded the corner, still shooting, as they kept out of the way of Topsy’s power.  I had to duck low to take some cover behind the insulated metal box and the metal slats of the fire escape.  More bullets ricocheted off of Cuff’s armor.

She found the railing, and I gripped her armor to help pull her over.

Getting reports of shots fired,” Grace said.  “Bosses are worried.”

Fuck the bosses.  “All good,” I responded, injecting calm into my voice.  “We weren’t in danger.  They’re ticked and shooting indiscriminately.”

“Roger,” Grace said.  “Be safe.”

“Not in danger?” Cuff practically snarled the question at me.  It was out of character for her, but that was excusable considering she’d just been shot at.

“You’re bulletproof.  I’m bulletproof, even.  Between the new Darwin’s bark spider silk costumes, and your armor, you were safe.”

As if punctuating my statement, a gun went off below, making the railing sing with the impact.

“Annex,” I said, communicating using the earpiece.  “I can sense your location.  Climb two stories and give me an exit on the north face of the building.”

Which way is north?

“Your left.”

Gotcha.

“The way you worded that…” Cuff said.

“You’re not coming with,” I told her.

Gravity shifted again.  Our backs slammed against the side of the building, the two of us grunting in unison.  My metal box scraped against the metal of the fire escape to land beside me.  We were now more or less lying down on the building’s face.

Watch and Topsy’s men were making their way along the side of the building, walking on it.

I pulled off my flight pack and handed it to Cuff.

“I don’t know how to fly this,” she said.

I’ll fly it,” I told her.  I noted the hole Annex was making.  “Go over the top of the building to the roof.  Fall.  It’ll take you out of range of Topsy’s power, you’ll be returned to a normal orientation.  Drop again, off the other side of the building, sneak around and stop Mockshow.  If she gets the group moving, we won’t be able to intercept and carry out the plan.”

“We’re supposed to report if we run into trouble, cancel the mission.  This is a lot of trouble.”

“Trust me,” I told her.  “Please.  Go fast, before Watch catches up.”

She nodded, and I gave her a boost with the flight pack to move her along as I dropped into Annex’s hole.  I made it ten feet into the hallway before getting out of range of Topsy’s power and skidding to a halt on the carpeted floor.

Cuff sprinted for the ledge that was the rooftop.  She fell only three or so feet before gravity reasserted itself, driving her into the snow and gravel.

I noted Mock, but I couldn’t see much of what she was doing.  Her power, though, put her in the same general category as Rachel.  She empowered minions.  They even fit into the same general weight class as Rachel’s dogs.  The difference, though, was that they were inanimate.  Loose, telekinetically animated servants, typically with the size, clout and general strategy of a grown rhino.  Charge things, hit them hard, repeat.

I had no doubt she’d be working on the truck.  Maybe multiple trucks.  Bugs were still inside the vehicles, and I could sense things shifting and lurching as she reconfigured it into a more or less mobile form.

Watch was suffering with both the winter weather and his lack of proper footwear.  He was fast, but the terrain was slowing him.  Ice and snow had been thrown against the side of the building by Topsy’s power, and every other step threatened to send Watch tumbling.  His super speed wouldn’t help him much when he had to plot his movements like this, but it still made him incredibly dangerous if he did get one of us in reach.

He crested the top of the building as Cuff reached the other side of the roof and jumped down.

Propulsion and antigravity together weren’t enough to slow her fall.  A miscalculation.  She was too heavy, with her armor.

I promised myself I’d owe her one and slowed her the only way I could – I used the flight pack to push her against the side of the building, using friction and drag to slow the fall.

She hit the alley on the far side of the building at a speed that was probably too fast to be comfortable, not so fast she was gravely hurt.  I used the propulsion in the flight pack’s wings to help speed her along as she stumbled, jogged, then sprinted towards the front of the apartment building.

Cuff rounded the corner just as Mockshow led her quadruped truck-minion outside.  I folded the wings in just as she made contact.

Cuff could use her short range metallokinesis to manipulate her armor, effectively granting herself increased strength.  She could, it seemed, also use it to impact the metal she was hitting.  She wasn’t moving that fast, but everything my limited senses could tell me suggested she delivered a hit like a freight train striking a car that had stalled on the tracks.

“No!  Fuck no, fuck damn!” Mockshow shouted.

Cuff threw out a chain with an audible clatter, then caught the end, moving like she was winding it around the villain.  She reconsidered as Topsy and his minions reacted to the noise of the collision and came after her.  She was nearly at the far end of the street when Topsy used his power.  He reoriented gravity, and she veered to one side, striking the wall beside the alleyway rather than disappearing inside.  The tilt continued, and she turned away, moving with the tilt.

He leveraged his power further, only this time, it was his namesake topsy-turvy ‘up is down’ variant.  It was his most offensive power, the ability to hurl large numbers of people or objects into the city’s skyline, then revoke his power to let them fall.

Cuff, to her credit, was ready.  I could sense her catching ahold of the building’s face, using the cover of the rising snow around her to climb up and disappear into the alley.

Status, Weaver?” Grace’s voice came over the channel.

“All kosher,” I replied, managing to sound calm.  I walked to the far end of the hall and turned a corner, until I stood by a window with a view of the villains.  “Waiting to see which way they go, so sit tight, Golem and Tecton.”

Fuck,” Topsy was saying, as he approached the wreckage.  Mockshow was using her power to animate the chain and help herself out of it.

“What the hell was that?” Mockshow asked.

“Wards.  … this, it’s a trap,” Watch said.  He’d made his way back down the side of the building, where Topsy’s power had oriented gravity at a right angle.  He was calm as he spoke, “They shut down this … area, and they’re making …cal strikes to disable us.  Even the fact that …show here doesn’t have a … and I’m wearing sneakers instead of boots, they wanted that.  They want us unprepared, angry, even cold.”

“I’m paying you to get me out of this kind of situation,” Topsy said.  “Do your job.  How do we handle this?”

“They want us pissed enough to fight,” Watch said.  “Don’t.  Also… yeah.  Bug bitch tagged us.  Here.”

He reached for Mockshow, and she slapped his hand away.  He caught her wrist, simultaneously capturing her arm and blocking the path of the cockroach I’d hidden in between her sweatshirt and her jacket.  He plucked it out.

“Ew!  Ew, ew!”

With a systematic, accurate and patient series of movements, Watch began catching and killing every single one of my bugs.  Slowly but surely, I was being rendered blind and deaf.  It would make tracking a great deal harder.

“Cuff,” I communicated over the earbud, “Let me have the flight pack.”

Dutifully, she unhitched the harness and let me pilot the thing back in my general direction.  Annex and I made our way outdoors, back to the fire escape, as Watch killed the last bugs.

“Ew, ew, ew,” Mockshow moaned, with each bug that was revealed.

“… … think we should fight?” Topsy asked.  “… …ing kids.  … money, my rep…”

“Could fight,” Watch said.  “…ther plan.  Let me kill these last few, then I’ll …”

Over the ensuing four or five seconds, he killed the bugs I’d planted on him despite my best effort to retreat them to inconvenient and inaccessible areas.

My flight pack returned to me, and I strapped it on, before flying to the roof for a better vantage point.

“Going to be hard to track,” I reported.  I could see them running.  “Watch killed my tracking bugs.  They’re heading north, along Addison. roughly four hundred feet away from my location.”

It was Revel’s voice, not Grace’s, that came over the channel.  “Watch?”

“With Topsy and Mockshow and five underlings with guns and no apparent powers.  They’re on foot, trucks are disabled.  Can I get a roger?”

Roger,” Tecton said, “Moving to intercept with Golem.

Belay that,” Revel cut in.  “I’m not throwing my Wards to the wolves like this.  Abort.  Protectorate moves in.

“You let them face Behemoth,” I said.

Different story.”

“We’re safe,” I said, taking flight to keep my eyes on the villains.  “There’ more danger if you derail the plan.  They won’t even see us.”

Watch sees everything,” Revel answered.  “Everything within range of conventional eyesight, from every angle.

“Revel,” I said.  “We won’t get close to him.  Promise.  I’ve been on the team for six months, I’ve shown you guys I can play nice, play safe, avoid making trouble.  But you guys brought me on board to be the shot caller in the field, with Tecton as the leader.  Let me do what I’m supposed to do and call the shots.  It’ll be a win for the good guys, I promise.”

There was a long pause.  I’m up against Revel and the Director, now.  My advocate had switched stances.

I took flight again to maintain a good distance.  I wasn’t sure, but I thought maybe Watch had briefly turned my way.

He knew I was following, but he didn’t seem to mind.  He had a plan.  Maybe more than one.

They wasted no time in putting it into action.  Topsy used his power over a wide area, reversing gravity’s effect.  Snow began to fly in the air, and was soon joined by a pair of cars.  They reached the top of Topsy’s effect, caught between the two gravities, and began to rotate aimlessly in the weightless middle-ground between normal gravity and the area Topsy had altered.

Then he shifted gravity’s direction again.  An attack, such as it was.  The snow and cars fell in my direction.  Were flung, for lack of a better term.  I flew for cover, ungainly as I raised the insulated box as a shield, snow and ice slamming into the buildings around me, pinging off of the metal.  I managed to duck out of sight.  The cars, for their part, were only thrown into the street a block away.

It wasn’t an attack he’d aimed, but a scattershot approach, meant to scare, to allow the possibility that he’d get lucky.

And it had given them the chance to try and slip away.  A few minutes, while I recouped and tried to get my sights on them in the midst of the stirring snow and limited visibility.

Okay,” Revel said.  “Only because we can’t move the Protectorate heroes there fast enough.  You are not to engage.”

“Roger,” I reported, my relief mixed with a frustration that the go-ahead had come so late.

Their attempt to occupy me and break away might have worked, if it weren’t for Golem and Tecton.  The villains had come to a complete stop as they reached the barrier.  A row of asphalt and concrete hands, the gaps filled by Tecton’s power.  The wall was as tall as the buildings on either side of it, spanning the breadth of the street.

Topsy began to use his power, moving snow at the far left of the wall, no doubt intending to scale the structure, move over the wall.  Watch stopped him.

They turned to run instead, moving parallel with the wall.

Watch, I guessed, had seen Tecton, Golem, and the two PRT trucks on the other side of the wall, ready to spray the villains with containment foam.

By the time Topsy and his crew reached the next street over, the PRT van had pulled to a stop.  Golem was outside the vehicle, creating another barrier.  The implication was clear.  Every escape route would be cut off.

This was a battle of attrition, a patient fight, with civilians kept out of reach.  We’d let them get tired, frustrated, cold, and we’d break their spirits.

The goal here wasn’t just to win.  It was to win so irrevocably that we took the fight out of them altogether, left them without any hope that they could win the next time.

Topsy hit Golem and the truck with flipped gravity.  Both moved, but neither lifted off the ground.  Even before he started raising the wall, Golem would have used his power to hold his feet against the ground, to grab the truck’s axle.  Tecton would be waiting inside, ready to leap out and break the hands if necessary.

The villains could have continued.  In their shoes, I might have.  It made sense, to force Tecton and Golem to stop and start until an opening presented itself.

Except they were cold, tired, and being countered at every turn was starting to take a psychological toll.

They might have split up, scattered, but they didn’t.  Again, they suspected a counterplan.  Which we did have.  Golem and Tecton could have tripped up the most problematic combatants while the rest of us picked off the weakest members one by one.  I didn’t have bugs, but I could fly, and I had coiled lassos of silk cord that I could use in a pinch, along with a taser that I could use if I wanted to end things sooner than later.  A good attack from above, I could manage.  If they went inside, I could unload the bugs I had in my insulated box.

They had a different plan in mind.  They reversed direction and headed straight for a restaurant with a sign showing a gold dragon against a red background.

“Grace,” I said.  “Wei shu wu?  Does typing it into the computer turn up anything?”

A cover business for a group with affiliations to the Folk,” Revel volunteered.

“We safe to harass them, or-”

No.  They have people with powers, and that’s beyond the scope of this manhunt.

“Can you find the number at the building?  A restaurant, Wei shu wu.”

“Weaver,” Revel said, her tone a warning.

“Please,” I said, as the villains disappeared inside.

Revel only sighed.

A moment later, the phone rang, and I could hear a voice.

Wei shu wu dining.  Would you like delivery?  We can also arrange reservations if needed.

“We would, if it’s no trouble,” I said, hoping I was connected.  “Eight criminals just entered your restaurant on Addison.  They’re cold, bedraggled, a little desperate.  It’s an ugly situation, and I’m sorry for the trouble that’s found its way to your doorstep.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

Playing dumb?

“It was trouble they started,” I said.  “They crossed lines, and now that we’re coming after them, they’ve come running to your place for shelter.”

“We can hardly offer anyone shelter.”

“I know,” I said.  “But call your boss, if you need to.  Let them know that the heroes aren’t going to start a fight, but the villains inside the building need to leave and get taken into custody.  If this goes any further, we’re not going to press you, but it’s going to draw attention.  People will wonder why the bad guys are hiding there.”

Weaver,” it was a man’s voice this time, over the comms.  “You don’t have the authority to make promises or offers.

We can’t make them leave,” the man from the restaurant said, his voice a whisper.  “We don’t have ability to make threats.”

Because you’re hapless restaurant owners or because your gang doesn’t have the clout there to go head to head with Topsy?

“Don’t hang up the phone,” I said, “Use your cell phones, talk to anyone you can think of that might help.  Bosses, franchise owners, whoever.  Fill them in.  Let them know that the guests in your store include men called Topsy and Watch.  If they ask who I am, you tell them I’m a superhero called Weaver.”

“From the video?”

“From the video,” I said.

His tone changed, as if he’d shifted mental gears, at that.  He sounded vaguely plaintive.  “You’re talking as if my boss is an important man, but-”

“You’re just a restaurant employee,” I said.  “I understand.  Call whoever.  We’ll figure this out together.”

There was a muffled sound, as if he was covering the phone’s mouthpiece with his hand.

You’re talking as if you’re on the same side,” the man said.  The Director, I was pretty sure.

Weaver,” Revel chimed in, sounding annoyed.

“Mute me so he doesn’t hear?” I asked.

“Already done,” Revel said.  “This isn’t the way we should do this.”

I bit my lip.  I wanted to retort, to argue, but I knew there were too many listening ears.

This is exactly what we should be doing.

“They’re people,” I said.  “They’re bad guys, maybe, but they’re all people.  Topsy and Watch and Mockshow want the same things we do, to be safe, warm, dry and well rested, and we’re taking that away from them.  And the people who work with this restaurant?  They don’t want to deal with people like Topsy and Watch.  All we have to do to resolve this is make it easier to deal with us than to deal with the other villains.”

We shouldn’t be dealing with them, period,” the Director said.

“We-” I started to reply, then I stopped.

Topsy, Watch and Mockshow had stepped from the building.

“They just decided to leave,” the restaurant employee said.  His voice shook a little.

I could see the body language of the three villains and their henchmen.  Topsy kicked the window at the outside of the restaurant, and a crack appeared in it.  He shouted something I couldn’t make out from my vantage point.

I’m sure they did, I thought.  But I only said.  “Thank you for cooperating.”

“Thank you for talking me through this,” the man said.

With that, he hung up.

Something had gone on that I hadn’t overheard.  An exchange of words, a message from the Folk?

It didn’t matter right now.  I watched as the villains made their way down the street, then broke into a store to find shelter from the cold.

It was over.  I could read it in their body language.  As much as the Director had wanted to wear me down, to have me sit in the cold with nothing to occupy myself with but the five minute check-ins, we’d achieved the same thing against the villains, and we’d been successful in doing it.  This was only residual stubbornness.

My arms were stiff with the weight of my bug box.  I was glad to set down on the roof and deploy the bugs, flooding the building and driving the villains out into the elements.  They had winter clothing they’d stolen, but it wasn’t enough to restore the warmth they’d already lost.

By the time they found more shelter, Annex and Cuff had met up with a PRT van and been delivered to the scene.  Annex approached from behind, slithering close, and then used his power to open up a closed storefront, allowing cold to pour into the building’s interior.

This time, when the villains emerged, they did so with arms raised in surrender.

“We did it,” I muttered.

Be wary of Watch,” Revel said.  “Containment foam him first, then move him to a truck.  Good job, Wards.

I watched Mockshow on the monitors.  She was young.  Well, young was relative.  She was fourteen or so, and now that she had her costume with her, she wore a hard mask sporting a stylized smiley-face, a headband with screws sticking out like antennae.  She’d lost the outdoor clothing and had donned her mask, as if it were a shield between her and us.

I glanced over at our superiors.  Revel was in a discussion with the Director, the Mayor and the police chief.

Mockshow’s eyes widened as she saw the bugs filtering into the interrogation room.  The tables and chairs had been removed to deny her anything solid enough to use her power on, so she had nothing to hide behind as they began forming into a mass.

“Aw hell no,” she said, as she backed into a corner.  “No, no, no, no…”

They gathered into a rough humanoid shape.  My shape.  A swarm-clone.

“No!” she shouted, as if her refusal to accept it could banish the thing from existence.

Let’s chat,” I communicated through the swarm.  “Off the record.

“Screw you!  Driving me out into the cold, fucking with us without a fair fight?  Go die in a fire!”

I’ve been in a lot of fights,” I commented, “Rare to have one that’s actually fair.  Most are pretty brutally one sided.

“Do you not hear me?  Screw yourself!”

The swarm advanced a little, and she shrunk back.

Paradigm is changing, Mockshow.  I want to make that clear, so you know what people are talking about when they offer you deals.  People aren’t going to be inclined to play nice.”

Nice?”

The three strike rule, cowboys and indians, counting coup…

“You’re cracked.  The fuck are you talking about?”

It doesn’t matter.  Things are shifting.  People are relaxing when they shouldn’t be, because Behemoth died, and-

“Pat yourself on the back more, why don’t you?  I saw that video.”

Everyone did, I thought.

I couldn’t let her get me off topic.  “I’m going to tell you what I would’ve wanted to hear if I found myself in your shoes, at this point in time.

“Oh, so generous.”

There’s two groups of people.  There’s the people who’re preparing for the end of the world, who are on pins and needles waiting to see just what hits us next, how the dynamic’s going to change.  I’m in that group, understand?  In my book, in our book, anyone who isn’t keeping the peace and isn’t helping doesn’t deserve any mercy.  They’re detriments.  You’re dangerously close to falling into that category.”

“Whatever.”

And the other group?  They’re the people who’ve finally found a glimmer of hope, and they’re relaxing, thinking maybe we can take out the remaining Endbringers, maybe the world can go back to normal.

She snorted.

Yeah.  Exactly,” I said.  I glanced at the others.  The Director wasn’t participating in the conversation anymore.  He was staring at a monitor, but his reaction didn’t suggest he was watching me interact with Mock.

Either way, I had to wrap it up.  “But those guys?  They aren’t on your side either.  Once upon a time, they’d be the same people who’d push for people like you to go free.  Because maybe you’d help somewhere down the road.  Now?  They have no reason to give you that slack.  You’ve got no help here, and I think you’ll be surprised at how hard they come after you.”

“I didn’t do shit.  I’ve barely had my powers a month.”

“You signed up with Topsy.  With Watch.  This is as much about them as it is about you. Making Topsy uncomfortable, denying him a resource they’d just acquired.  Stripping away his conveniences, leaving him wondering if you’ll plea out.”

“Fuck that.  I’m good.  Not saying a word.”

“Probably,” I said.  “But take it from someone who’s been there.  You don’t want to go down this road.  The heroes will come after you hard, the villains will never trust you.  Honestly?  I don’t care if you stay a villain or become a hero.  But it’s not worth it to be a villain and stick with guys like Topsy.  The gains aren’t worth what it costs you.”

“I turn traitor and walk away, I’m fucked.”

“Join the Wards,” I suggested.

I experienced a momentary flashback to my first night out in costume, talking to Armsmaster.

Holy shit, have I become him?  Pursuing my agenda, offering the options I know she won’t take, steering her towards my self-serving goal?

It chilled me, bothered me far, far more than Mockshow’s snort of derision.

“Or go be a scumbag, but be a scumbag who helps save the world,” I said.

She rolled her eyes.

“Us or them, Mockshow,” I told her.  “Saving the world or getting in the way.  If you’re helping, we pull our punches, the charges don’t stick, whatever.  You get in the way, well, every night can be like tonight was.”

She scowled.

“That’s all.”

“Fucking rich.  You’re just pushing me to go join your old team.”

“I’m suggesting that you consider your options.  Pay fucking attention to where you’re going.  I wish I had.  That’s all.  If you want to contact me, that door will be left open.  I’ll pull strings to make sure of it.”

“I gotcha,” she said.  Her shoulders slumped a little, as if in defeat.  She glanced up at me, and I could see a glimmer of vulnerability in her expression.  “Weaver?”

“What?”

“Can I ask you something personal?”

“Yes.  Of course.”

She opened her mouth, then closed it.  She stuck her hands in her pockets, then glanced at the windows, which were partially obscured with half-closed blinds.

Finally, she spoke.  “Would you please, please go fuck yourself?  Upside-down and backwards?”

I sighed, dissipating the swarm.

I felt my hair stand on end as the Director approached.  I’d always felt a little caught off guard by him.  He looked more like a classic politician than the generals and soldiers I was used to associating with the PRT, with dimples, styled sandy hair and a tidy suit.  His demeanor, body language, everything, it was warm.  That warmth didn’t reach his eyes.  Not when he’d looked at me.  Especially not right now.

He’d seen the swarm-clone in the interrogation room.  I knew it.

For long seconds, we stared at each other.  I’d thought he would say something, but he didn’t.

“Thanks,” I said, “For playing ball.”

“I didn’t.”

“You could have made that harder.”

“Making it harder would have done more harm than good,” he said.  “I’ve still got two teams to run, a specialized police force to organize.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Mockshow.  Was she receptive?”

I shook my head, but I said, “Maybe.  Maybe something will sink in.”

“Teenagers have a way of being bullheaded,” the Director said.  “Villains too.  Teenaged villains?  Well.”

His eyes didn’t move one iota away from me as he said it.  It left no question about how he’d compartmentalized me in his head.

“I suppose you’re right,” I said.

“Having Topsy off the streets is going to be a feather in a few caps, I think,” he said.  “It’s messy to credit you.”

“I really don’t care,” I said.  “I just want to make some steps forward in this mess.  Prepare for the worst.”

He studied me in a very slow, careful way, as though taking everything in.  Assessing the target.

“I could raise an issue with you being in that interrogation room.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “It’d look obvious, that you were coming after me.  I didn’t say anything really problematic.  But it’s an option.”

“You withheld details.”

“It’s kind of crazy out there, in the midst of a fight.  You lose track of stuff.”

“I know,” he said.  “I used to be a soldier.”

That caught me off guard.  He didn’t look like he’d ever been in a fight, let alone a war.  He was so young, too.

“You haven’t been a cape for long,” he said.

“A year.”

“A year.  But you’ve been through a lot.  I’d hope you were better about minding those details.”

A slap in the face, not calling me out on the fib, but turning it against me.

He seemed content with that for the moment.  He didn’t press the offensive.  I didn’t either.

“We both got what we wanted tonight,” I said.  “It’s a win, isn’t it?”

He didn’t reply, glancing at the Mayor.  The man seemed happy as he talked to Revel and the police chief.  Not giddy, but happy.

“Is this going to let up?” I asked.  “Or are we going to be fighting each other constantly?”

The Director glanced at me.  “You want this to stop?”

“It’s a waste of energy.  There can’t be compromise?”

He didn’t even have to think about it.  He shook his head, briefly pursing his lips.  “No compromise.”

I clenched my fist.  Damn him.

“A balance,” he said.  “Maybe a balance.”

“What’s the difference?”

“I think,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “That a compromise would be disastrous.  You’re not going to be confined.  You showed that in the interrogation room in Brockton Bay, when you murdered Director James Tagg and Alexandria.  You’re not going to be confined by law.  I haven’t seen a single case where you’ve followed the rules that were outlined for you.  Boundaries don’t work, in any sense.  If we reached a compromise, worked out some kind of a deal, you’d find a way around it, extending your influence.”

“That’s not fair,” I said.

“It’s reality.  It’s a horrible waste of energy, a tragedy, really, but I’m forced to dedicate time to reining you in, controlling you, keeping you in check.  If that results in nights like tonight, we have a balance.  Hardly a compromise, but we’ll manage.”

“I suppose we’ll have to,” I said.

“I’d tell you to avoid leaking the fact that you played a major role in tonight’s events, but we both know you wouldn’t listen,” he said.  “I’d threaten punishment, but you’d do what you wanted and even enjoy it, feeling vindicated.  So we’ll go another route.  If you don’t play ball and let us share this narrative the way we need to, I punish the other Chicago Wards.  Inconvenient shifts, extra volunteer work, more paperwork.”

“I told you, taking credit isn’t a concern for me.  I’ve got other priorities.”

“Good,” he said.  He flashed me a smile.  White capped teeth.  “Good.  Then this is ideal.  We may not have a compromise, but a consensus?  It’ll do.”

“It’ll do,” I said.

“Just do me a favor?  Try not to murder me like you did the other three Directors.”  He winked.

It was a jibe, a verbal thrust, delivered with humor and offhandedness, but it struck home, stirred ugly feelings.

He turned to rejoin the others.  The Mayor looked at me, and Revel waved me over.  I knew the Director wouldn’t want me to, so I walked over with confidence, my head held high.

Eight hours?” the Mayor asked.  “Sitting in the cold?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Is that even legal?”

The Director stepped in, “It wasn’t on the clock.  For all intents and purposes, she wanted to take the day off, have some time by herself.  We had the tracking device monitored by GPS, so we knew she wasn’t going anywhere she shouldn’t.  Being the workaholic she is, she wanted to get intel while she had her alone time.”

I didn’t argue the point.  He wasn’t wrong.  That was how it was going down in the paperwork.  Part of the deal we’d arranged to get this off the ground.

The mayor smiled.  “Well, good to see our most controversial member is doing her part.   You should smile more.  Can we get a smile out of you?”

I smiled a little.

“Better, better!  You do bide your time, then make a big splash, don’t you, Ms. Weaver?”

He was managing to sound a little condescending, which was at odds with the events he was alluding to.  How did one make me sound so diminutive when making vague reference to the death of an Endbringer, to the murder of Alexandria and the takeover of a city?

I didn’t mention it.  I had my pride, but it wasn’t something worth fighting over.  I wanted to pick my battles, and any moment now-

“Hopefully we’ll see more of the same from you in the future,” the Mayor said.

The Director started to speak, deflecting, but I cut in.  “Actually-“

Eyes fell on me.

Picking my battles.  If the Director wanted this to be a war, if he thought I needed to be tempered by an opposing force, then I was game.

I glanced at the Mayor.  “Tecton went over it with me, we’ve got more plans like we had for tonight.  If you guys are willing.”

“Willing?  I can’t imagine why not!” the Mayor said.  He smiled at Director Hearthrow, who smiled back.

The moment the Mayor wasn’t looking, the Director shot me a glance, a dangerous, warning look.

I told you, I thought.  My priorities are elsewhere.

“How soon?” the police chief asked.  Her stare was hard, judgmental, but there was curiosity in her tone.

“The sooner the better,” I said.  “Before they catch on about what we’re doing and adjust.  I think I know where a few possible major players are situated.  I’ve spent the past few months looking for them.  I gathered the intel in my spare time, on my morning runs and patrols.  Just like Director Hearthrow was saying.  I’m a bit of a workaholic.”

“Like, two weeks?” she asked.

“Give me a day to recuperate, maybe two days if the other Wards need it, I’d be down for another.  We could potentially hit seven or eight major targets in the next two weeks, if you wanted.  Each of them would be major targets, villains who aren’t playing along, who are more trouble than they’re worth.”

The Director shook his head.  “I think that may be extreme.  The resources expended, funding-“

“Funding can be conjured up for a project like this,” the Mayor said.  “Imagine the impact.  Can we do this with the Protectorate team as well?  Switch off with the minors?”

“It’s a good idea,” Revel commented.  “Weaver’s capable of handling her own in high pressure situations, but the other team members might not be.  They have school, family, other concerns.”

“I agree,” I chimed in.  “Makes sense.  We could have the bad guys reeling.”

“We can’t set our hopes too high,” the Director warned.  He gave me another dirty look.

The Mayor chuckled.  “No.  Of course not.  But the impact.  And to do it with so little risk?  They barely interacted with the villains, by all accounts.  It would be insane to pass up the opportunity.”

“Insane,” Revel said, her tone flat.  I couldn’t read her feelings on this.  I hoped I hadn’t provoked her as much as I had the Director.

“If you’re willing to allow me to suggest some targets,” the police chief said, “I think I could adjust shifts, ensure we have enough squad members to limit or stop traffic inside potential sites of conflict.”

It was consent, in the form of a negotiation.  The mayor and police chief were interested, Revel was probably on board.  The Director would be forced to play along.

It was done.  I was all set to hit the ground running, like Glenn had recommended.  Big moves.  Actions with momentum.  Here on out, I’d have to keep moving so they couldn’t get me.

And hopefully, in the midst of this, we’d be able to organize things for our potential end of the world scenario.  Eliminate the obstacles, big and small, train up the rank and file troops.

If anyone thought I was cleaning up Chicago, they were wrong.  Like the Director had said, I’d take as much rein as they gave me, use all of the leverage and momentum I could get my hands on.  Topsy was a small fry in the grand scheme of things.  A test run.  I wanted to hit big targets in other cities.  To get as many Mockshows into the interrogation rooms as possible, to play the odds and increase the chances that we could get those people on the fence and make sure they were positioned appropriately.

The clock was ticking.

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