Scarab 25.2

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“Sorry… I’m… so…”

He didn’t finish the sentence.

I could sense him slowing, using the bugs I’d planted on his costume.  I stopped and waited for him.

“It’s fine, Theo.  You’re doing me a favor.”

“Doesn’t feel like it,” he said.  He bent down, hands on his knees.

I waited for him to get his breath.

“I might throw up,” he added.

I backed away a step.  “Just getting the chance to run, it’s cool.  Not many others are willing to meet me at seven to run, much less six weeks in a row.  Grace is athletic, but she got sick of it fast.”

He mumbled something I couldn’t make out.

“What?”

“I’m not athletic.”

“You’re getting better.  We just got a whole two blocks.  That’s not bad.  About as good as I was when I started.”

“Not fair to you, make you suffer for how much I suck.”

“It’s fine.  It’s nice to get outside.  Kind of a pain to have to get someone to come with if I want to go outside for no particular reason.  If I don’t get the exercise here, I can use the treadmill back at the headquarters.  Don’t feel obligated, if you’re not enjoying this.”

“I don’t.  I’m… it’s good.  I want to get fit.”

“Well, in that case, don’t worry about it.  We’re both benefitting,” I said.

He made it another few steps before he was hunched over again, still breathing hard.

I felt a pang of sympathy, suppressing a smile at the same time.  “Come on.  We’ll walk one block, then try running another, walk the rest of the way.”

He was still panting for breath as he obliged.

I found myself missing Brockton Bay.  It wasn’t the most beautiful city, or the most active.  Or the most anything.  There were already things going on around the portal, but it wasn’t a city with a lot going for it, and it hadn’t been even before the intense series of events had laid waste to the shoreline, set a water-filled crater in the northwest corner of the downtown area and left an entire swathe of the city so fucked up with random, horrifically dangerous effects that it had to be walled off.

Maybe I wouldn’t have felt the same way if I hadn’t grown up there, but I liked the balance in Brockton Bay.  The way there was everything I could want, as far as malls, shopping centers, theaters.  It was a big enough city.  Yet there was just as much room to wake up early in the day, when others weren’t out, and have Brockton Bay to myself.

Chicago wasn’t like that.  It was busy, and it was busy in a way that got in my way.  People were already up if I got up at six in the morning to go run.  Some were still up from the previous night, having spent the entire evening at clubs or whatever else.  Everything was taken to an extreme, it seemed, in drama, opinions and ideas.  It made it a little harder to sympathize with Chicago’s equivalents to the people I’d been helping in Brockton Bay.  A little harder to sympathize with anyone, really.

I was feeling cramped.  I wasn’t a social person at my core, and being here, like this, never allowed to be out and on my own, it rankled.  I liked time on my own, with the internet or a good book, even a bad book, to get my mind settled down, my thoughts in order.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like people, that I didn’t like company, but too much was too much, and I had no elbow room here.

Whether they knew it or not, the PRT directors had found a fitting way to punish me.  Hopefully it wouldn’t go any further than this.  I’d done as they asked, I was staying under the radar, and though I didn’t plan to stay there, I didn’t think they had any reason to make my life more difficult.  I had my suspicions that my phone and computer were tapped, so I was careful about what I browsed and how I communicated.

With luck, they would forget about me until I was active again.  With more luck, I wouldn’t have to worry about them much longer.  The Director from Toronto, the guy I hadn’t been able to place, had already quit.  Wilkins and West were still active, but the woman at the end of the table was under scrutiny.

There was stuff going on behind the scenes, and speculation was rampant on the Parahumans Online site.  Satyrical’s name had come up.  As far as  could tell, the Vegas capes had gone rogue, and they were apparently targeting the more corrupt elements of the PRT.

I wasn’t a hundred percent sure how to feel about that, but I wasn’t complaining if someone was taking down my enemies for me, especially if it was in a more or less safe, legitimate way.

“Hey,” Theo said.

I turned to look at him.

“When you were dealing with the Slaughterhouse Nine back in Brockton Bay, you fought Jack Slash, right?”

“Yeah.  Kind of.”

“Kind of?”

“He doesn’t really fight, unless he’s got his people around him and the fight’s unfair.  Mostly, I was chasing him around, trying not to get killed in the process.”

He frowned.

“Worried?” I asked.  “You’ll have help.”

“So will he,” Theo pointed out.

“True.”

“I’m… I’m not good at this.  Everything Kaiser was, I’m not.”

“That’s not a bad thing.  He was an asshole.  You aren’t.”

Theo managed a weak smile.  It was hard to identify just how he would react in regards to things.  Backed against a wall, faced with a serious threat, he showed courage.  I’d seen him on patrol, and for all his worries, he did follow through.  He had against Behemoth, in what was almost his first time out in costume.  Talking about his family, though, I couldn’t pin down just what he’d say or do.

The feeble smile, was that genuine?  Had I hurt him, left him in a position where he wanted to defend his family but couldn’t because of what they were?

“I don’t fit the typical cape mold,” Theo said.

I resisted the urge to tell him I didn’t either, but I didn’t.  I remembered a tidbit of advice I’d heard Tecton giving, and listened instead.  “You’re feeling nervous.  Anyone would.”

“The running, I don’t feel the difference,” he said.

“Slow gains, but they’re there.”

“The training helps,” he said.  “The training feels concrete, like I’m getting significantly better.”

“You want to train when we get back?”

“I don’t have long before I have to patrol.  A short one?”

“Sure.  Come on.  Run one more block, throw up if you have to, then we walk back.”

He made a sound partway between a gurgle and a groan, but he followed me as I took off.

Running at first, then walking, we took a different route coming back than we’d taken on our way out.  The trees by the lake were aflame with autumnal colors, and I could see a handful of college students and older folk gathered, enjoying the serenity of the lake, the perfect temperature.  Tranquil.

That was something I could get behind.  I would have loved to sit by the lake, given the opportunity.  The trouble was, I never got the chance.  I was leashed to other people’s schedules, my excursions had to be in another person’s company, and nobody had really seemed keen on the idea of going out solely to go and sit at the lakeside.

As penance went, it was pretty light, but the overall effect of this restriction was wearing on me in a way that the jail cell hadn’t.

We reached the PRT headquarters, one of two in Chicago. It was squat, broad, and not terribly pretty, but it sported a statue on the roof that had been paid for by an old member, Stardust.

Once inside, we made our way up to the top floor, where the Wards’ rooms and the ‘hub’, as the others called it.  It was a label that made me think of prison, and that, in turn, pushed me to think of it more as a common area or a lounge.

“Gym?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Theo said.  “Let me get my stuff on.  I’ll meet you there.”

I tapped into the supply of bugs that were stored in my workshop, withdrawing an assortment of flies, beetles and cockroaches, depositing the ones that I’d collected during the ‘run’.  It wasn’t many, but I didn’t need much.  Enough or three or four swarm clones.

I stopped by the kitchen to collect some silverware, then made my way down one floor to where the gym was.

Golem arrived a minute after I got there, decked out in his costume.  It had changed from its first iteration, complete with a layer of spider silk and heavy armor over top of it.  He wore a mask with a neutral, almost solemn face, and fan-like decorations at his waist and shoulders, the spaces stretching between the slats painted white, a darker metal composing the frame and edges.

The image consultant was having fits, no doubt, but the first and most important goal was for Golem to be effective.  We were getting there.  Image would come later.

“Hey,” Kirk greeted us, stepping out as Golem arrived.  He wore a t-shirt and yoga pants, and was glistening with sweat.  His head was shaved, and his skin was a striking jet black.  “You guys sparring?”

“Training,” I said.  “Not sparring, really.”

“Can I watch?”

I looked at Golem, “Are you okay with it?.”

“I’m the one embarrassing myself, you mean.”

“I think you’re past the point where you’re embarrassing yourself,” I said.

“You can watch if you want, Annex.  Wouldn’t mind helping clean up,” Golem said. “I can’t promise it’ll be anything special.”

“Not a prob,” Kirk responded.  “Kind of curious to see where you’re at.”

We made our way inside.

The area was divided, with workout machines taking up one half, and an open area for sparring and dance and whatever else on the other half.  Floor panels, varying in the depth and degree of padding offered, were neatly stacked in one corner.

We moved to the open area, but we didn’t set up any padding for the floor.  My bugs flowed through vents and from the hallway outside, and they filled the room, covering every surface.

The bugs congealed into a human figure, and Golem took action.  His fingertips ran along the white ‘fans’ at his waist, then he jabbed one hand inside.  A hand of concrete lunged out of the floor to dissipate the swarm.

A little slow, but not bad.

Another part of the swarm congealed into a rough decoy, and Golem clutched it in a fist of concrete.  Faster this time.  The bugs seeped out through the gaps in the fingers as the hand retreated into the floor’s surface.

Each panel of the fan was a different material.  Concrete, steel, granite, wood.  Common materials were in easy reach.  Less common ones were a gesture away.  Two at once, this time.  Two figures to strike.  Golem caught one with his right hand, but I moved the other as he reached for it with his left.  He wasn’t quick enough to catch it, and the angle was poor.

I drew a butter knife from the pocket of my shorts, raised it above my head.

Golem was watching for it.  He dug his fingertips into the topside of one panel, his thumb into the underside.  Identical digits sprouted from the knife, forming half of a fist that had closed around the edge.  The knife became a club, one with no cutting edge.

I threw the weapon aside and turned my attention towards creating more decoys.

I feinted, now, misleading him about where my clones were moving.  He struggled but managed to deliver the hits.  Dragonflies and faster insects formed a more mobile body, and I avoided the strikes, right up until he started creating hands that sprouted forth from limbs that were already sticking out of the ground: branching barriers to limit movement.  I tried to simulate the general effect of the obstacles, and Golem took the opportunity to deliver a finishing blow, crushing another swarm-decoy..

“Hit them harder now,” I said.  Running, I tried to raise expectations for myself.  Here, I did much the same for Golem.

The movements became more violent.  A hand cupped around one swarm and then pulled it against the ground, melding back into the surface.  Bugs were squished against the spacial distortion field, and my swarm’s numbers were severely reduced.

Another was squashed against the wall, but the surfaces were different materials, and the hand couldn’t simply sink back in.  This time, there was an audible thud, eliciting a heavy rattling from the exercise machines on the other side of the gym.

I drew my swarm together into a rough shape, not a person, but something larger, a touch bigger than Crawler, smaller than Echidna, bipedal.

He hit it, and I reformed it.

“Hit it harder,” I said.

He hit it again, drawing two hands together as if he were squeezing it.  There was no substance to the monster’s body, though.  I judged that he wasn’t doing enough damage and simply reformed it.  The monster advanced on him.

I stepped a little closer, raising my voice.  “Come on, Theo!  Hit harder!”

Golem dropped a foot as one leg slipped into the concrete floor.  A facsimile of his boot rose out of the floor, complete with cleats.  The speed and force of it would have been enough to lift one of Rachel’s dogs, so I obliged by moving the ‘body’ of the swarm monster, raising it.

As the foot continued to rise, Golem’s leg disappearing up to the knee in the floor, he pushed one hand into the fan, causing a limb to drop from the ceiling right above the rising spiked platform that was Golem’s boot.  My creation was sandwiched between the two, and the collision had enough of an impact to make Kirk and I stumble.  I had to turn my head to keep the dust from getting in my eyes.

“Is that-” Golem started.

Before he finished the sentence, I had a second butter knife drawn, the tip pressed to his throat.

“Keep your eye on the threats,” I said.

“Not very fair,” Kirk commented.  “Playing dirty.”

“No,” Golem said.  His voice wavered, which was odd, considering I wasn’t doing anything that was actually threatening.  Something else had shaken him.  Had he taken the lesson to heart?  “I’s good.  That’s the kind of lesson I need to know.  It’s why I’m training.”

“Jack’s going to throw some scary motherfuckers at you,” I said.  “But he’ll be looking for an opening.  Always, always watch your back.  Don’t forget to watch your friend’s backs too.  You probably won’t die if you do, but you might wish you were dead, when you see what Jack and his gang do to them.”

Golem withdrew his arm from the panel, but his leg was harder to free from the ground.  By the time he was standing straight, the leg that stuck out of the floor had become more or less permanent.  In another area, fingertips stuck out of the floor.  There were also the branching ‘trees’ of hands that had formed barriers.  Without us even asking, Kirk stepped forward, his body liquefying as he flowed into the surface, smoothing it all out as though we’d never been there.

When he was done, he emerged to survey his work.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Interesting to watch.  Figuring out ways to apply his power?”

“Pretty much.  Tricks for his repertoire, building some familiarity with using his abilities, attacking to recognize threats and attack without hesitation when needed.”

“You really buy that Jack’s going to wake up from some cryogenic sleep just to fight some kid who didn’t even have powers when they last met?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Believe it or not, with what I know of Jack, it makes perfect sense.”

“Huh.”

“You’re on board, right?” I asked.  “With the plan?”

Kirk nodded.  “Seems a little crazy, but doesn’t hurt, given the stakes.”

“End of the world,” Golem said.

“End of the world,” I agreed.  “We’ll get as many on board as we can.  Either we avert it, or we soften the blow.”

“Assuming we can figure out what it is,” Golem said.

“Yeah,” I said. “You said you had patrol soon?”

“Eight twenty.  Then school after that.  I’ll see you this afternoon?”

“Yeah,” I answered.  I made my way to the common area and took the first unoccupied spot at the computer.  Grace was there, but she wore a school uniform, and had homework spread around her.

“Don’t say a word,” she told me, clearly annoyed.

“Wasn’t going to,” I responded.

I logged in, and was greeted by the customized desktop.

C/D: Endbringer
-3:21:45:90

C/D: End of World
593:19:27:50

The first counted upward, the other counted down.

Three days had passed since the estimated arrival of either the Simurgh or Leviathan.  Behemoth had been early, but whatever factor pushed that to occur wasn’t at play here.

It made sense that they wouldn’t maintain the schedule they had been.  Since the Simurgh had arrived, roughly three and a half months had passed between each attack.
These coming days and weeks would speak volumes.  Were the Endbringers going to alter their tactics?  Would the schedule continue at its accelerated pace, with Behemoth appearing in seven to ten months?

Something else altogether?

My eyes fell on the second clock.  The countdown.

593:19:25:23

“No joke?” I asked, the second the elevator doors were open.  Cuff was waiting on the other side.

“She’s here,” Cuff said.  “Not here, here, but she’s showed up.”

I was in full costume, my flight pack on, an insulated box for my bugs tucked under one arm. my phone in hand.  I was chilled to the core of my body, my lenses fogging up from the adjustment from outdoor temperature to indoor temperature.

I didn’t need to ask who.  I knew well enough.  It was a question that had been lurking on everyone’s minds.  Which one, where?

I pulled off my mask as I followed her to the common area, and reached out to accept the glasses my bugs were already fetching to me, putting them on.  The same images played on each of the screens.

The Simurgh, her silhouette barely visible in the midst of the clouds.

“What city?” I asked.

“Not a city,” Tecton said.

Sure enough, the camera angle changed.  Water.  Coastal?

No.  Too much water.

Ocean.  She was attacking the ocean?

It clicked when I saw the text at the bottom of the screen for one news report.  BA178 under siege.

Of all of the sensitive locations in the world, the Simurgh had chosen a passenger airplane.

“Are we-” I started to ask.

“Can’t,” Tecton said.  “No solid ground, and none of us fly.”

“I fly,” I said, but I could already guess the follow-up answer.

“Vehicles and tinker equipment aren’t going to cut it.  Too easy for her to interfere with,” Tecton said.

“Order came down from the top.  Natural fliers only,” Wanton added.

“We’re too late to join in anyways,” Grace said.  “I can’t imagine this’ll be a long, drawn-out, knock down fight.  We got almost no warning.  It’s like she dropped straight down from where she was and picked a fight with the closest target.”

I thought of Armstrong’s insistence that we capitalize on our victory, mass in numbers to allow for another decisive victory, instead of showing up in smaller groups, with inevitable attrition.

All this waiting, all of the restlessness, watching the countdown clock tick well beyond the estimated date, and we couldn’t even fight.  I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

I watched on the screen as Legend, Alexandria and Eidolon engaged the Simurgh.  She avoided the worst of their attacks, primarily through the only cover available – the airplane.

Half of the screens were showing the same video footage, though they were different channels, different organizations.  The other half were showing information.  The flight route, the people in the plane.

If anything here was special, the only one who knew would be the Simurgh.

My teammates didn’t talk much as we watched the fight progress.  In one instant, it seemed, the dynamic changed.  The heroes began trying to attack the plane, and the Simurgh started trying to defend it.

For eleven minutes, she managed, using her telekinesis to move the craft, her wings and body to block it from being damaged.

A fire started on the body of the ship as Eidolon tore into the Simurgh with a reality warping power of some kind, complete with lightning, fire, distorted light, and ice.  The Simurgh cast the craft aside in the following instant, letting it flip, burn and tumble before hitting the water and virtually disintegrating.

That done, the Simurgh ascended, rising into the clouds.  A few capes tried to follow, but Scion wasn’t among them.

“How long was the fight?” I asked.

“Not long enough for Scion to show,” was all Wanton said.

“Forty minutes?” Tecton asked.  “About forty minutes.”

I’d spent more than half that time hurrying back to headquarters, hoping I wasn’t missing my ride.  Now this.  It was a farce.

“Now we wait,” Grace said, “And if we’re lucky, we find out what she just did.”

That was it.

It was almost a letdown, more than a relief.  I couldn’t say she’d been softballing us, because it was the Simurgh.  For all I knew, this was the most devastating attack yet.  We wouldn’t know until later on.

Virtually no casualties, the planeload of people excepted.  Nobody was reporting anything about heroes dying, but it had been clear enough from the footage that this hadn’t been a serious loss.  Barely forty capes had been out there, and I hadn’t seen any die.

Yet I felt irrationally upset, if anything.

I turned and walked away.  I let the strap of the incubation box slip from my shoulder to the crook of my elbow, caught it with my hand, and then transferred it over to the arms of my flight pack.  It meant I didn’t have to stop or bend down to set the incubation box at the base of the stairs.  I didn’t go up to my room or my workshop, though.  I made my way downstairs, instead.

I was grateful to see that Mrs. Yamada hadn’t left yet.  Her things were packed, but she’d settled into the office, and was reading a small book.  A television was on in the corner, muted, showing what was happening with the Simurgh.

“Taylor.”

“Do you have a minute?”

“Of course.”

She stood and crossed the room to close the door.  I hadn’t realized I’d left it open.

“It was about the best we could hope for, going by what we know now,” I said, “And I feel worse about it than I did about New Delhi.”

“You’ve been preparing for this, anticipating it, for some time.  Mentally, you were preparing yourself for more losses, steeling yourself.  That takes a lot out of you, and you were robbed of a chance to do something.”

My phone buzzed.  I glanced at the screen.  My dad.  I sent him a message letting him know I was fine.

“Sorry,” I said, putting the phone away.  “It was my dad.”

“Don’t be sorry.  It’s a good sign if you’re reaching out to your dad, or vice-versa.”

“It’s bad manners,” I said.  “But okay.  Back to what we were saying before.  I’m almost feeling… disarmed?”

“Disarmed.  Good word.”

“I’ve been sort of enjoying the peace, the fact that the Protectorate are dealing with the meanest bastards around, the Folk, the Royals, the Condemned.  But I was telling myself it came down to the Endbringer fight.  That I’d participate, I’d wake up, fight.”

“Isn’t it better if you don’t have to?”

“No,” I said.  I stared down at my gloved hands.  “No.  Not at all.”

“You came from a bad place, and, like we’ve talked about, you reinvented yourself.  Maybe a lot of your identity is rooted in your concept of yourself as a warrior.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “But whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t change how I feel.”

“I expect a lot of people around the world feel the same way.  It’s very possible she calculated things to achieve this effect.”

I nodded.

“What do you think would be a best case scenario, Taylor?  If everything went the way you were hoping it would, deep down inside, what would happen?”

“New Delhi would happen,” I said.  Except without the severe losses.  We’d lose people, some place would get damaged, but we’d kill another Endbringer.”

“Is that realistic, do you think?”

“No,” I said.  “I know it isn’t realistic.  We went decades without killing one, and it’s stupid to imagine we could kill two in a row.”

“What’s a more reasonable expectation?”

“That she’d show up, and we’d fight, and we’d drive her off without too many casualties.”

“In either of these scenarios, do you envision yourself playing a role?  Maybe as big a role as you played in New Delhi?”

“I’m… Sort of?”

She didn’t seize on anything there, nor did she ask a follow-up question.  I took the opportunity to reflect on it.

“Yeah,” I eventually said.  “Maybe not as big a role.  Again, that’s unrealistic.  But I want to help.”

“If the Simurgh wanted to deliver a hit to morale, this would be a way to do it,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “After New Delhi, a lot of capes were hoping to make a difference, to be heroes.  Her choice of venue, the short battle, the narrow focus, it denied everyone the chance.  Not just you.”

“I need to be stronger,” I said.  “I’m supposed to be one of the people that’s around for this prophesied end of the world.  Except I’m not getting chances here.”

“Can you talk to your superiors?  To Revel?”

“I’ve hinted at it, that I could stand to sidekick around on patrols.  Nobody’s taken the deal.  Not with me.  They took Golem, but the adult capes like him, because he’s polite to a fault, works his ass off, and his power is good.  I’m good, but I wind up being a partner more than a sidekick.”

“You’ve been training with Golem.”

“Yeah.”

“You’re due some of the credit for his forward strides, I’m sure.”

“I’m not-” I started, then I made myself stop.  Too much emotion in my voice.  Calmer, I said, “I’m not looking for reassurance, or for compliments.  I’m just…”

I struggled for a way to end the sentence.

“Let’s use the ‘I feel because’ line.  Frame your emotions better.”

I drew in a deep breath, then sighed.  “I feel spooked, because something’s coming and it’s going to be ugly, and I’m not prepared.  I feel less prepared with every day where nothing happens.”

“I imagine your teammates feel spooked too.  You’ve mentioned what they’re going through.  Golem is likely going to be baited out by Jack Slash at some point in the future.  Cuff has limited dexterity with her right hand, to the point that she’s having to relearn to write and type.  I’m not discussing anything confidential, to be clear; only what you’ve mentioned to me in our previous sessions.”

I nodded.

“Golem has your support, I know.  They all do, in some respect.  In terms of what Cuff is going through, I know your team is dividing the workload in helping her with paperwork.  That says a lot.”

“Supporting each other.”

“It sounds trite, but I think there’s a truth in it.  You have legitimate fears about what comes down the road.  But keep in mind that you’re not alone in this.  Maybe you’ve hit a ceiling for the time being, in your own growth and development.  But you can still progress, if you’re helping your teammates, assisting them in conquering their demons and improving their abilities.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It doesn’t feel like enough.”

“It may not be, but it’s constructive.  Perhaps you’ll feel less disarmed if you focus on the tools and, so to speak, the weapons at your disposal.”

“Maybe,” I answered her.  “But I hate feeling helpless.”

“Part of the reason you feel that way is because you’re waiting for opportunities to come to you.  You waited for the Endbringer, so you could flex your talents in unimaginably high stress environments.  It’s good, I think, that you waited, that you had a moment to breathe.  I think you should strive to retain that peace, because it may help you enter a better headspace.”

It was similar advice to the parting words Glenn had left me with, but they opposed on one front.  Mrs. Yamada would have been happier in general if I maintained this indefinitely.  Glenn would be wanting to see me acting.

It was time to act, whatever Mrs. Yamada said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“You feel a little better?”

“Not really,” I admitted.  “I’m not even sure I understand all my feelings.  But I feel like I’ve got more of a plan, now.  I appreciate it.”

“It’s what I’m here for.  Or at least, I’m here for one more hour, and then I fly back to Boston.  I’ll be around next Friday, after I finish another circuit.”

“Cool,” I said.  “I’m glad you were here today.”

“I am too,” she answered.

When I stood from my chair, she did too.  She stepped forward and gave me a hug.

I wasn’t sure how normal that was, but I’d remarked once on how few hugs I got, and how some hugs I’d given or received in the past had been meaningful moments for me, and she’d asked if I wanted one from her.

Somewhere along the line, t had become something of a habit, as we ended our sessions.  I gave her a little smile as we parted.

I made my way back to the common area, and seated myself at the computer.  The others were still following what was happening on the larger monitors.  The defending heroes had frozen the plane’s half-submerged wreckage and they were preparing quarantine measures.

Whatever the reason for this particular attack, I doubted it would be clear anytime soon.

Instead, I seated myself at the computer, and logged myself in.  The timers ticked away.

Once I’d updated the timer for the recent attack, it read:

C/D: Endbringer
149:22:59:59

C/D: End of World
579:07:14:53

Inching down steadily.

Mrs. Yamada had been right, I mused, as I found the files on the local kingpins and warlords.  I was doing myself a disservice by waiting for opportunity to come to me.  If I was going to do as Glenn had suggested, and make a calculated play, I needed to act, rather than hope for another chance like we’d had in New Delhi.

Looking at the others, I wondered if it was best to manipulate them or get them on board.  Manipulation was almost kinder, because it absolved them of guilt.  Simply making sure we were in the right place at the right time, luring a local power into a fight, with  a plan already in mind…

No.

Chevalier’s Protectorate, ups and downs aside, was more about honesty.  I wanted to tap into Skitter’s strengths, her ruthlessness, but I also wanted to be a hero.  That was at the core of what I had achieved in New Delhi.

“Tecton,” I called out, as my eyes fell on a portrait of a supervillain with a mask of an upside-down face.  An established power, located at the city’s edge for nearly ten years.

Too established?  I didn’t want to set another ABB fiasco in motion.  There were advantages to being open.  The ability to ask questions, get feedback.

“What is it?” he asked.

“There’s something I want to talk to you about.”

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Drone 23.4

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“I’m so sorry I’m late.  I never do this,” Mrs. Yamada said.  She entered the office, a raincoat, boots and a messenger bag in her arms, her hair a touch damp, clearly flustered.  “What a way to start us off.  I’m so embarrassed.”

“It’s okay,” I said.  “It’s not like I’m going anywhere.”

I knew right away that it wasn’t her office.  It just didn’t fit her, in any sense.  She was average in height for a woman, which put her a little taller than most Japanese women, her hair cut short in what I took to be a utilitarian choice, but was styled enough to show a degree of effort.  Her clothes and shoes were much the same.

The room, by contrast, clashed with her demeanor.  There was a level of care that went into it.  Like, I couldn’t help but feel that the desk in the corner and the chairs were antiques, or at least very expensive.  There were model airplanes on the shelves and pictures of airplanes on the walls, and Mrs. Yamada didn’t give me the impression of an airplane afficionado.  The sheer heft of the chair and desk seemed out of proportion with Mrs. Yamada as a person.

Was she borrowing a colleague’s office?  For the last while, I’d been ferried here and there.  Dragon and Defiant were my custodians, and between them, they were traveling all over America, making it relatively easy to schedule a pick-up and drop-off.  It was almost easier for me to go to Yamada’s office than for her to come to me, but we’d come here instead.

“It’s a matter of professional courtesy,” she said, more like she was talking to herself than to me.  She was still getting herself sorted out, her raincoat hung up, rain boots replaced with slippers she’d been holding beneath the coat.  “Being prompt, it indicates that I respect and value your time.  You can’t confide in me if I don’t respect you.”

Respect me?

I looked down at the floor for a moment.  She was looking at me when I raised my eyes to her.  “With all sincerity, it was due to forces entirely out of my control, with complications at every turn.”

“Bureaucracy,” I said.

“You’re not wrong,” she said, “But it was something else.  A patient of mine, institutionalized, she’s reacted badly to certain events in the last month.  Someone she idolized left the Wards, and-”

I could see her stop, composing herself, the stress and preoccupied attitude melting away.

“-And this isn’t about that.  This session is about you.”

“About me.  This could be a long session,” I said.

“My instinct,” Mrs. Yamada said, as she settled uncomfortably into the large, somewhat ostentatious chair, “Would be to ask about the little details you’ve seeded into the conversation already.”

“Details?”

“How you seized the idea that it’s bureaucracy that would be holding me back,” she said.  “Or your facial expression when I said I want to approach this meeting with respect.  But there’s other points I think we should cover first.  We’ll get back to that, if you’re interested.”

I shrugged.

“FIrst off, let’s start off with the basics.  How are you?”

Pretty basic.  “Fine.”

“You’re in prison, and will be for at least two years, maybe longer.  By all reports, you’re chafing under the new restrictions you face as a member of the Wards.  That’s without touching on the fact that, two weeks ago, you murdered Alexandria and Director James Tagg out of fear for your safety and the safety of your friends and teammates.  In this room, or wherever we go to talk, it’s okay to answer ‘how are you’ with an admission that you’re not okay.”

“I’m- I feel better, after talking to Glenn and Chevalier.”

“How did you feel before?”

“Restless.  I still am, really.  Very restless.  If one feeling is taking hold of me, it’s that.”

“How so?”

“Before I was in jail, I ran every other morning.  I can’t run now, but my body still wants me to, at the usual time and the usual pace.”

She nodded, making a note.  “When did you start?”

“About a month after I got my powers.  February.”

She nodded.

I went on, “And there’s the other stuff.  You might not believe me, but I was helping people.  Hurting people from time to time, but mostly helping.  I was getting food out to people who were hungry, checking everyone had what they needed, laying long-term plans for the future, so that people who’ve never had a chance in their lives would finally get one.  I’m helping people less now that I’m going out with the Wards.”

“Do you think that maybe you’re hurting people less?”

“But the sum total is worse.  It’s like, if you go back to the very fundamentals of right and wrong, you have to ask, ‘if most people acted the same way I’m acting right now, would society be better off?'”

“Okay,” she said.  “And you think society would be better off if everyone acted like you?”

“Sort of,” I said.  “Yes, I hurt people, but I hurt people who deserved it.  When I had the resources to do it, I helped a lot of people.”

“In this hypothetical reality where most people think like you, correct me if I’m wrong, transgressions would be punished?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Guess so.”

“Would it be fair to say they’re punished harshly?”

She was thinking of Alexandria and Tagg, no doubt.  Maybe Valefor.  “Yeah.”

“Kind of medieval, isn’t it?”

It reminded me of my dad, that idea.  “Guess it is.  But capes are naturally violent.”

“And what about the Wards?  I wasn’t there at the time, but one of my colleagues started seeing the Brockton Bay Wards a short time after Leviathan attacked the city.  Did they commit a transgression that warranted the pain they suffered at your hands?  The ones that aren’t Shadow Stalker?”

I didn’t have a ready answer to that.  She waited in silence for long seconds before I shrugged.  “There was stuff, the fact that they tolerated people like Shadow Stalker, but I’m not sure I could explain it now.  Feels like a long time ago.”

“A lot’s happened all at once.  It might contribute to the restlessness you feel now that things are quieter.  You said you felt better after you talked to Glenn and Chevalier.  Why?”

“I got a chance to talk stuff through.  More of a sense of why they were putting obstacles in my way.  And on my way over here, I gave Dragon some notes on an updated costume and gear.  She’ll probably email it out, they’ll discuss the options and tear the proposal to shreds.  If they accept any of it, though, I’ll bring me a step closer to being me, to being more comfortable with what I’m doing.”

“That’s a good lead-in to the next big question I had in mind.  Who are ‘you’?  I make a point of asking all of my clients this, but what should I call you?  Weaver?  Taylor?  Skitter?”

“All of the above?  Maybe call me Weaver.  I’m still trying to get used to the name.”

“Okay, Weaver, and my next easy question is whether I can get you anything?  Water?  I remember you had a coffee cup in front of you in the interrogation room in Brockton Bay.”

“It was tea,” I said, “And not right now, thanks.”

“Okay,” she said, making another note.

“Writing down some profound insights?” I asked, gesturing towards the pad of paper she had in her lap.

“Details about you, your tastes and priorities.  Maybe I’ll have tea ready the next time we meet.  Black, green, herbal?”

“Black.”

“Okay,” she said.  Another brief note.  “This is the first date, Weaver, if you’ll excuse the metaphor.  This is when I get a sense of who you are as a person, the fundamentals of who you are.  I then use that to help you and inform you.  You aren’t obligated to take my feedback without question, or to take my advice as orders, but if we wind up being a good team, then hopefully you’ll want to, because you find it genuinely helpful.”

I nodded.

“I know only a little about you from context, but I don’t want to be one of the people who jumps to conclusions about you, so I’m second guessing every detail that you don’t personally share with me.  I drew up a timeline, which was why I asked when you started running, trying to get a sense of what was happening for you and when.”

“Any insights?”

“Some, but we can talk about that another time.  Later today, maybe.  My point is, I’m trying to figure you out.  So please forgive me if any of my questions seem too simple, or if I’m asking about things I should already know.  The next set of questions are a little more serious.  Do you want therapy?

“It’s kind of obligatory,” I said.

“I’d change my approach depending on whether you hated this but were playing along, if you really did want help figuring things out, or if you wanted therapy but didn’t want it with me.

She let that last bit hang in the air.

When I didn’t respond, Mrs. Yamada said, “I would understand if you felt like you had to be on guard against me.  When you were dealing with the Protectorate and PRT in Brockton Bay, it might have looked like I was one of the enemies.”

“You were pretty decent to me, all things considered.”

“Good,” she said.  She smiled a little.  “Thank you.  Let me pose the question another way.  You’ve said you’re able to tolerate my presence?”

I nodded.

“Okay.  Given that you’ve accepted me, I’m wondering what you think my goal is.”

“You’re going to report back to the guys in charge of the PRT and the Protectorate and tell them whether or not I’m of sound mind, whether I can join the Wards team without snapping and murdering someone.”

“That’s not it,” she said.  “In fact, I may well do the opposite, depending on how this meeting goes, and avoid commenting altogether.  My only goal is to help you.”

“Help me?”  I asked.

“There’s two very different paths we could take.  The first is simple.  I’d act as your therapist.  I would be an objective ear, and I could equip you with tools to handle things like stress, anger, or anything else that concerned you.  Anything you said would be entirely confidential, and I would decline to comment when the time came for your placement in the Wards, so as to preserve that confidentiality.”

“Isn’t that damning?” I asked.  “If you don’t have anything good to say, they’ll naturally assume you know bad things.”

“I don’t think so,” she said.  “I’ve had upstanding heroes choose to exercise their right to confidentiality.  If we started off by establishing this as therapy right off the bat, there would be enough forewarning that it wouldn’t reflect badly on you.”

“Okay,” I said.

“The second route would involve me not being your therapist, but your advocate.  We’d set you up with someone else as a therapist, and I’d focus on serving as a middleman, in working with the PRT, Protectorate, the Wards and the warden at Gardener.  I could, for example, talk to the warden about you getting a chance to run in the mornings, testifying that it’d be a good, healthy release.  When the time came for you to be placed with the Wards, I’d testify with all of the good and the bad, from what we’ve talked about here.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” I said.

“There’s a middle ground between the two options,” she said, “I could certainly be an advocate for you if you were coming to me for therapy, or offer you a listening ear if you were coming to me for advocacy.”

“With the knowledge that anything I said could be used against me, in that case.”

She nodded.  “So long as you know.”

“I could really use an advocate,” I sighed.

I thought of how she’d composed herself, pulling herself together.  It struck a chord.

“But I think I’d rather have you for a therapist.”

“Thank you,” she said.  “And I respect that you’re willing to ask for help.  That takes a kind of strength.”

I shrugged.

“Is there any particular place you’d like to start?”  she asked.  “We already touched on bureaucracy, you seemed a touch bewildered that I would respect you.”

She paused, as if waiting for me to chime in.

“There’s other things, but it’s hard to articulate them.”

“Give it a try.  It’s sometimes easiest if you start with the underlying emotion.  I feel, followed by the emotion, then talk about why.”

I nodded.  “I feel… anxious, because I’m worried I’m not a very good hero.”

“Assuming it isn’t inexperience, is that so terrible?  Being less than stellar?”

“Doesn’t it say something ugly about me, if I make a pretty excellent villain and a crappy hero?”

“Maybe it says something about your power, or it’s simply past experience.  I stress, you are new at this.”

“When I was new at being a villain I took on established heroes and robbed a bank, walking away with a small fortune.”

“You had a team with you.”

“I felt a hell of a lot more effective, when I count everything that’s happened without teammates at my back.  I dunno.”

“So you’re restless and anxious-”

“And genuinely afraid,” I said.  I sighed.  “I feel… afraid, because I’m starting to think that maybe my power isn’t entirely under my control.  There’s a monster taking up real estate in my brain, deciding to use my power when I don’t want to, and I’m pretty sure it’s been getting more effective over time.”

“Is this monster metaphorical?”

“That’s a very good question,” I said.  I leaned on my knees and stared at my hands.  “Is it just me?  Or is it my ‘passenger’, some inscrutable life form from a parallel universe that decided to give me powers, currently helping me manage those powers so my brain doesn’t overheat?  Or is there even a distinction?  Did my trigger event fuse us to the point that the line is blurred beyond recognition?”

“I can see where the idea would be frightening,” she said.  “I’ve heard of some of these things, though the particulars and names differed.  We don’t know enough about them, about powers, even, and the unknown is daunting, especially when it affects you as deeply as your power seems to affect you.  This lack of control, it-”

“If I tell you I’m dangerous, that I’m going to hurt someone, intentionally or by accident, are you obligated to report it?”

“Yes, if the risk is grave.  Forgive me for asking, but are you going to hurt someone?  Accidentally or otherwise?”

I shook my head.  “No.  But it makes me wonder if something like that is a possibility.”

“I’ve worked with a lot of young parahumans who had uncontrollable powers.  There are options.”

“Like?”

“It depends on the form this lack of control takes.  Is it perpetual?  Does it hinge on you losing focus?  On your being tired?  Illness?  Anger?”

“I’m not entirely sure.  Sometimes when I’ve been knocked out, I’ve found that my power keeps going without my instruction.  It’s not brilliant, it makes mistakes, and the logic isn’t always there, but I’ve had my power keep working when I was unconscious, after a concussion, and when a cape used their power to wipe away my volition.  When I was tranquilized, after setting my bugs on Director Tagg, they apparently kept going after him.”

“Let’s start with the fundamentals, then.  I almost always recommend relaxation exercises and meditation to my patients with control issues.  There’s almost always a degree of improvement.  The next trick is to find a way to track this.”

“I’m getting a new costume.  Maybe a camera?  The most recent time I noticed it was when I was with Glenn Chambers, he showed me a video, and I saw myself using tricks I’d never taught myself.”

“Perhaps a camera, then.  Is it reassuring, to know that there are answers?”

“I’ll be reassured when I see improvement,” I said.  “No offense.”

“None taken.  But you raised two problems.  Your lack of confidence about being a hero.  That’s more immediate, if less ominous?”

“It’s pretty ominous, honestly,” I said.  “I staked a lot on this.”

“You have options in mind, am I right?  You said that you were suggesting a new costume and new equipment.”

“But that doesn’t fix things if I’m a round peg in a square hole.  I’ve thought about compromises, stuff beyond the gear and costumes, but I feel like I’m almost betraying myself.  The me that spent three months after getting powers, with the idea that I’d be a hero.  I had all of this idealism, all of these ideas of how I’d help, big and small, and I wind up doing more good as a notorious villain than as a hero.”

Jessica Yamada made a note on her pad of paper, then set it on the small table to her right.  She glanced at the window, then at me, “Are you still restless?”

All the time,” I said.

“Want to go for a walk?”

“Hell yeah.  Am I allowed?”

“I’ll need to make a few phone calls.”

Middle schoolers swarmed around a very unhappy looking team of Wards, pushing, jostling, calling out, reaching to touch armor and costumes.  The overcast sky was only just clearing up, causing the colors in the park to be all the more vivid.

Why?” I asked.

“Why are we here, or why is this happening?” Mrs. Yamada asked me.

“Yes.”

“This is happening because of you, in a roundabout way,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “When your secret identity was revealed, it didn’t take the media very long to discover that you’d been bullied in high school.”

“Oh hell no,” I muttered.

“People asked why more hadn’t been done to reach out to you and individuals like you.  This was the response.”

“I’m not sure this is a good thing,” I said.  “These assemblies and events were always atrocious, with really bad speeches.”

“I saw enough of them when I was in high school, I know.  But superheroes have the ‘wow’ factor, at least.”

I looked at the very uncomfortable Boston Wards.  They had enthralled the kids, but they couldn’t do anything with them, with the crush of bodies.  The teachers seemed to be enjoying the break, sitting on the far end of the field, in the shade.

“Want to wow them, too?”

I glanced at her.

“Not a fight, but a chance to be heroic.  The PR that’s been forced on your head won’t be a handicap here,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “And maybe it will help you feel a little more human, at a time when you’re worried about the monster inside you.”

“A little heavy-handed,” I commented.

“A lot heavy-handed,” she said, smiling.  “But it’s a chance to be outside, instead of cooped up in yet another room, without worrying your life’s at risk.”

“I’ll take it,” I said.  “Thanks.”

I ventured into the fray.

A hundred kids, all probably from one school.  I almost would have rather been up against Bambina.

I called on every butterfly in the area, across the whole park.  It took nearly a minute before they were gathered.  I sent them into the crowd, flying over and around the mass of kids.  Some of them screamed, others ducked, covering their heads.

Not quite the delight I’d hoped for.

Was this another point where I was underestimating what the effect of the swarm was, or were the kids just overreacting?  It was only five or six hundred butterflies.

“Whoever catches the most wins!” I called out.  “Go!”

The kids stared at me.  Some were still reacting from the rush of butterflies.

“Go!” I said.  “There’s a prize!  A good one!”

They scattered.

Butterflies wove in around one another, around trees, out of reach and over heads, between legs and under tables.  I watched the crowd, got the kids to bump into one another, gathered them into clusters where I had ten or twenty students running after one group of butterflies, conserving effort and increasing the confusion when two groups ran into one another.

When the mass of kids had burned off their initial energy, I joined the Wards, still controlling the butterflies.

“Thanks,” said one heroine in pale blue.

“A bit much?”  I asked.

A guy with a fox mask said, “You can’t really interact with them when there’s this many.  There’s no point.”

“Good memories,” I said.  “Better than nothing.”

“But not great,” fox-mask said.  “Good memories aren’t exactly why we’re here.  Somewhere in that group, there’s kids who could be the next wave of capes.”

I watched the kids run.  They’d succeeded in surrounding one group of butterflies, and some had taken off rain jackets to form improvised butterfly nets.

That kind of organization deserved a reward.  On the flip side of things, they were liable to murder one another over a handful of butterflies.  Competition trumped reason.

Making the butterflies simply rise into the air was too easy, and there were some kids who were sitting on each other’s shoulders, to get more height in anticipation of the tactic.

I swept up butterflies with dragonflies, carrying them out of reach, through the crowd.

Some of the kids rushed up to me, red in the face with exertion.

“You’re cheating!”

“Not fair!”

“I used to be a supervillain,” I said.  “I’m allowed to be a jerk.  Go!  You two are in second place, but you’re falling behind while you complain.”

They gave me death glares, then ran off.

I focused on my power.  The power I wasn’t entirely sure I could trust anymore, and I identified the stragglers.  The ones without a group.  The ones who weren’t participating, or who weren’t able to maneuver around the crowd, solitary in the midst of groups of friends.

“Can you guys do me a favor?” I glanced at fox-mask.

He nodded.

A few quick instructions, and the Boston Wards were mobilized, tapping on shoulders, saying hi to each of the ones I’d identified.

We gathered at the picnic tables.

“What’s the point of this?” one kid asked, a twelve or thirteen year old with hair draped over half his face.  Never understood that hairstyle.

“A break can be nice,” I said.  “Whether it’s from school or saving the world.”

“Inviting us here, I mean.”

“You want the cheesy answer or the real one?”

“Cheesy,” one heavyset girl said, with just a touch of snark.

“Cheesy answer is you didn’t seem interested in going squee over these guys, you didn’t feel like chasing butterflies, so I figured I’d invite you to hang.”

“It’s so fake, ridiculous,” she said.

“It is,” I said.  “Fake can be good.  Reality sucks sometimes.”

“What’s the real answer?” the guy with hair over his face asked me.

“The real answer is that this whole thing is a ploy by the good guys,” I said.

He rolled his eyes.

“They want to get on your good side, just in case you get powers,” I said.

He rolled his eyes again.

“Powers?” another kid asked.  He was shorter than all the others, and his eyes were disproportionately large for his face.

“Powers,” I said.  “And you guys, I’m thinking, are among the most likely to get them.”

I was getting funny looks.

“Do you know what trigger events are?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“Um,” one of the boy heroes said, “Not sure this is approved.”

I cocked my head, turning to the kid with the hair in his face, “See?  It’s a ploy.  Big secrets.”

“Not that big,” Fox-mask said.

“I didn’t find out about trigger events until months after I’d had mine,” I said.  “It’s how you get superpowers.”

Okay, that had their attention.  Twelve or thirteen pairs of eyes were fixed on me.

“It takes something pretty lousy to happen to you,” I said.  “You get attacked, or you get hurt, or someone attacks someone or something you really care about, and you have nowhere else to turn, and you get powers.”

“It doesn’t work if you force it,” Mrs. Yamada said, approaching the table, “so don’t try.”

“Right,” I said, though I was digesting a tidbit of information I hadn’t had.

“Why are we going to get powers when they won’t?” another kid in our cluster asked me.

“Because you were alone.  It’s a bit of a trend, I think, one I’ve noticed.  I’ve seen a lot of powers, and I’ve seen a lot of people with powers who had similar things wrong with them.  Labyrinth, Bakuda, Night, Fog, Mannequin, Siberian, Lung, August Prince… again and again, it’s their ability to communicate that’s missing, either because of their powers or because they chose to hide or mask their voices.  I was thinking about it, and I think we parahumans tend to be loners by nature.”

Which might explain why we struggle so much as a community.

“So you’re here to make nice, just in case?” the boy with hair in his face asked me.

“That’s the gist of it.  I think the PRT’s cunning plan is to get you on board before you get powers.”

“As if,” the boy retorted.

“Hey,” fox-mask said, “Not cool.  We’re trying to be nice here.”

I could see a scowl, the glance away on the kid’s face.  I was put in mind of Regent for an instant.  A similar personality?

“No, let’s be fair,” I said.  “Being a villain’s an option.”

“You did not say that,” Fox-mask said, incredulous, “It’s not an option at all.”

The girl in blue looked at Mrs. Yamada, “Ex-villain’s corrupting the kids, and you’re not stopping her?”

Mrs. Yamada was frowning at me.

“I’m going somewhere with this, honest,” I said.

“If you’re sure,” she said.  “I can stop you at any time.”

“You can.”

I looked at the gathered kids.  A few of the less successful butterfly catchers had drifted away and approached.

“I always hated the speeches when I was in school, the preaching in auditoriums, the one-note message.  Stuff like saying drugs are bad.  It’s wrong.  Drugs are fantastic.”

“Um,” Fox-mask said.

Mrs. Yamada was glaring at me, but she hadn’t interrupted.

“People wouldn’t do them if they weren’t.  They make you feel good, make your day brighter, give you energy-”

“Weaver,” Mrs. Yamada cut in.

“-until they don’t,” I said.  “People hear the message that drugs are bad, that they’ll ruin your life if you do them once.  And then you find out that isn’t exactly true because your friends did it and turned out okay, or you wind up trying something and you’re fine.  So you try them, try them again.  It isn’t a mind-shattering moment of horrible when you try that first drug.  Or so I hear.  It’s subtle, it creeps up on you, and you never really get a good, convincing reason to stop before it ruins your life beyond comprehension.  I never went down that road, but I knew a fair number of people who did.  People who worked for me, when I was a supervillain.”

I had their attention now, at least.

This was probably going to hit the news as something like, ‘Ex-supervillain Wards member recommends drugs to kids’.  Whatever.

Maybe I’d get a shit placement in the Wards, but I felt more like the Weaver I wanted to be.

“It’s the same, being a villain.  I went there, I did that for a few months.  Risked my life, hurt people, made an incredible amount of money, but I look back, and it wasn’t worth it.  I value the people I got to know and love far more than I do the money, the power, the fame.  They’re the only thing I regret leaving behind.”

“How much money?” the heavy little girl asked, grinning.

“You’re missing the point,” Fox-mask said.

“Fifteen or twenty million,” I said, ignoring him.

“Shhh-ugar,” one of the heroes muttered, just behind me, deciding on a new word midway through.

“That’s so worth it,” a kid said.

“I think this is bordering on counterintuitive,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“Do you have a piece of paper?” I asked.

She only frowned at me.

One of the young heroes, a boy with goggles, handed me a pad of paper.

“Pen?”

He handed me a pen.

“What’s your name?” I asked the boy with hair in his face.

“Ned.”

I wrote it down.  “Ned.  And you?”

I got the names of all of the kids I’d picked out.  The stragglers.  Maggie, Bowden, Ryan, Lucas, Jacob, Sophie… the list went on.  Fifteen kids in all.

I ripped off the sheet, then tore another sheet into squares.  “More pens?”

The goggle-guy handed me a handful of pens.

“Each of you write down the most horrible thing you can think of, that you can reasonably expect to happen to you in the next few years.  No need to get too complicated.  Think of something horrible that would give you a trigger event.  Write it down.”

I waited while each of the kids wrote something down.  Other kids were gathering now, but they’d be bystanders.  It was the stragglers who were the focus now.

“Hand your sheet to the person to your left.  Boston Wards, help me on this score.  We’re going to make up powers that sort of fit the trigger events, in a vague way.  No need to be specific.”

“If it helps,” Mrs. Yamada said, “More mental powers for mental stress, physical powers for physical stress.”

“She’s the expert,” I said.  “Let’s go.”

“I want to pick my own power,” Ned said.

“Too bad.  You don’t get to in real life,” I said.  “You think I wanted bug powers?”

By the time we’d finished, more of the butterfly catchers had come back.  They were watching, now.

“Ned gets the ability to fly.”  I’d left him for last. “And some sort of ranged attack.  Kind of like Legend.”

“Sweet.”

“But no power is really that simple.  So… you fly by blowing.  Like a balloon with the end untied, only with more control.  You attack by blowing too.”

“No!  That sucks!”

“Too bad,” I said.  “It’s not all fun and games.  What was your trigger event, Maggie?”

The heavyset girl frowned, blushing a little.  “Um.  Someone chopped my wiener off.  How does that-”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.  Someone hurt you badly, and you got a more physical power?”

“Reynard said I got super strength, and regeneration.”

She looked at Fox-mask.  I had his name now.

A little boring, whatever.  “Okay.  Now, on the back of the sheet, write down whether you’re a hero or a villain.  Your choice.”

“This has got to be a trap,” she said, “So hero.”

“Okay,” I said.  “And do you join the Wards, or no?”

“Join us,” Reynard whispered, urging her.

“Kind of seems like a pain.”

Reynard groaned.  “I’m wounded!”

“So you’re on your own, or you join another group?”

“Another group.”

“Okay.  And… Bowden?”

The kid smirked.  “Screw that.  I want fifteen million dollars.  Villain.”

“Okay.  Ryan?”

We went around the circle, until everyone had their affiliation.

“I don’t suppose you’d have any dice?” I asked the Wards.

The goggle-hero handed me a handful of dice.

“Oh shit,” Ned said, “You conned us into playing dungeons and dragons!”

“Nothing so complicated,” I said.  “Roll, Ned.  A three is bad luck about your powers, a two is bad luck about your life as a cape, and a one is really bad luck.”

He rolled.  A three.

“Aw, what?  No!”

“Okay,” I said.  “Your powers came with a drawback.”

“I blow air!  I already got screwed.”

“Your power came with the ability to understand air currents, which you need to fly,” I said.  “But they erased something else.  Your sense of direction is gone, unless you’re using it to fly.  Wherever you go, you get lost.  It’s bad enough that you can’t do anything on your own.  Unless someone here asks you to join their team, your life is ruined.”

What?”  He asked.  He glowered.  “Fuck you.”

“Language,” Fox-mask warned.

“It happens,” I told the kid.  “Let’s hope others have more luck.”

We went around the table, there were a few more with bad luck.  I found it interesting when the Boston Wards volunteered penalties.  One involved a trigger event so public that a kid had to abandon the idea of a secret identity.  Another was traumatized by theirs, and wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep for ten years.

“Now let’s talk about what you do with your careers,” I said.  “Ned?  You found a team, and your power’s pretty good, so let’s say you win a fight against the heroes on a two or better.”

He rolled, “Six!”

“Now you fight other villains, who want to steal the money you just got.  Roll.”

“I’m a bad guy, I’m not fighting them!”

“Bad guys fight villains and heroes,” I said.  “But you can give up the money if you want to run.”

He scowled, shaking his hand in anticipation of rolling, dragging it on far too long.

“And because bad guys don’t always play fair, these guys kill you if you roll a one, and they win on a two,” I added.

He rolled.  A two.

“Money gone, you’re hurt, embarrassed, but still alive.  Maggie, your turn.”

The exercise continued.  Once we had a general system in place, crude rules or no, the Boston heroes took up the job, until each of us had three ‘capes’ and a small crowd of spectators.

“I’m not sure I get the point,” Maggie said, after a few rounds.  She looked a little nervous with a crowd looking over her shoulder.

“Okay,” I said, clapping my hands.  “Villains, raise your hands.”

They did.

“If you’re dead, maimed or in jail, lower your hands.”

More than half of them did.

“Heroes, raise your hands if you’re okay.”

Most of the other kids raised their hands.

“Sophie chose to be a rogue,” Fox-mask said, “She’s been in one fight, but she came out okay.”

“You’re screwing the villains,” Ned said.  “It’s not really one fight after another.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but was interrupted.

“Being a villain is hard,” Mrs. Yamada said.  Odd as it was, she seemed to have a measure of authority I didn’t, here.  Weird, that the kids would listen to her because she was an adult, and not someone who’d actually been in the thick of it.

Weird and frustrating.

“One in twenty might make it in the long run,” I said.  “If they’re lucky, if they’re good, if they have friends they can count on.”

“Pat yourself on the back a little more,” Reynard said, a little sarcastic.  The girl in blue elbowed him.

I made sure to look each of the participants in the eye as I spoke, “I wasn’t satisfied doing what I was doing, as a villain.  I switched sides by choice.  Think about that.  Even after all of that, after everything I had, even though I felt pretty good, spending all of that money on helping people in my neighborhood, being front page news, I gave it up.”

I knew it wasn’t time for it, that I should let that sink in, but people were talking more in the back of the crowd, jostling or getting restless.

“So let’s say there’s an endbringer attack,” I said.  “Time to decide.  Do you volunteer?”

Nobody moved.

“We need volunteers, or it’s over,” I said.  “Hero or villain.”

Maggie put her hand up.

“One,” I said.  “Not enough.”

Others raised their hands in turn.  Five volunteers out of the eight who were still in the game.  Ned was among them.

“Roll,” I said.  I handed over the dice, “One in four chance you die.”

The kids rolled, one by one.

Three dead.

“You rigged the system,” Ned said, a little petulant.

“I’m being a little harsh,” I said, “But this is it.  It sounds dumb, but being a cape means beating the odds, again and again.  If you’re a villain?  The reward is pretty damn good, but the risk is bigger.  You saw how few villains actually survived intact.  Even then, a lot of them lost their money, or got hurt.”

I glanced around the group.  “That’s my pitch.  Take it from someone who’s been on both sides.  Being on the side of good?  It’s safer, a hell of a lot smarter.  Know that there’s always going to be someone out there that’s stronger, and-”

The ringing of phones interrupted me.  Multiple phones, all at once, both the Wards and Mrs. Yamada.

A sick feeling welled in my gut.  The Wards looked at their phones.  Mrs. Yamada was the only one to raise hers to her ear.  I closed my eyes.

“Yes,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “You’re coming here?  Okay.  Yes.  Of course.  The Boston Wards are here.  Yes.”

I felt like my chest was clenching around my heart.  The kids had fallen silent.

“Weaver,” Mrs. Yamada said.

My voice was quiet, “I’m not ready.  My new stuff, it’s not prepared.”

“Defiant says he has your old costume, he can spray it white, if you want, swap out the lenses.  It won’t be pretty, but it’ll be better than what they gave you.”

I opened my eyes.  The kids were wide eyed.

“Which one is it?”  I asked her.

“Behemoth.  Seismic activity building in New Delhi.  He hasn’t appeared yet.”

I nodded.

“You don’t have to go,” she said.

I shook my head.  I thought of the Undersiders.  “I’ll go.  Have to.”

“Can I hitch a ride?” Reynard asked.  “At least to the HQ?”

I nodded, glad for the solidarity.  I wasn’t in this alone.  “Probably.”

I looked at the Wards, could see how some were standing taller, grim, fatalistic, but confident in their own way.  Others averted their eyes.  Shame, that they weren’t coming.

“Hey,” Ned said.

I glanced at him.

“Is it really a one in four chance?” he asked.

“Those are the numbers they gave me when I fought Leviathan,” I said.  “They probably won’t be so generous this time around.”

“They call him the herokiller,” Reynard added.

That thought hadn’t even crossed my mind.  We’re not ready.  None of us.  We’re still reeling from Echidna, from Alexandria.

The kids who were still in the field fled as three Dragon suits set down, crossing the park to rejoin the teachers who’d been sitting in the shade.  Doors opened and ramps lowered to welcome us into the dark interiors.

Defiant and Dragon were inside the Pendragon, waiting for me, Defiant carrying my Skitter costume, Dragon holding a new back compartment, wings extended, two mechanical limbs sticking out each side.

It wasn’t everything I’d asked for, but it was something.

I glanced back at the kids. The ones who hadn’t cleared the way for the crafts to land in the park were still at the tables, along with one or two Wards who apparently weren’t coming.

“Still owe you that prize,” I said.  My voice sounded funny.  “Was going to con Defiant here into giving you a ride.”

“Doesn’t matter,” a girl said.  She had the most butterflies.  “Really.”

I nodded.

It had meant something to me after all, getting the chance to do this.  I met Mrs. Yamada’s eyes, nodded.

She nodded back.

Gathering the Skitter costume and the lightweight jetpack into my arms, I watched the kids as the doors slid closed.

None of them wished us luck.

Maybe we didn’t need any further reminders about our chances.

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Drone 23.1

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“Weaver,” the voice had a slight digital twang at the edges, to the point that I thought it was Bakuda for a second, even if the two voices were entirely different.

I lowered my book.  Defiant stood in the doorway to my cell, flanked by two of the prison guards.

I swung my feet to the ground, simultaneously sitting up.  “If you’d asked me a few weeks ago, I’m not sure I would have believed that I’d actually be happy to see you.”

“You’ll be coming back,” he warned me.  “This is a temporary leave.”

“I know,” I said.  I marked the page in my book, placing it in a corner, where it joined twelve others.

“And yes, I’m not surprised you had hard feelings.  We weren’t on good terms then, and even now…”

He didn’t finish the sentence.  Even now, we aren’t friends?

“A lot of books,” he noted the stack of prison library books.  “You’ve read them all?”

“Yeah.”

“In seven days?”

“Lots of time to myself.  I don’t have classes, but I have homework and self-study, and that cuts into reading time, or I’d have read more.  But it’s kind of nice, if you ignore… pretty much everything else.  I’ve had time to think for the first time in months.”

“I know what you mean,” Defiant said.  “I remember worrying every day if that would be the day innocents were caught in a crossfire between Coil and Kaiser, or the day a member of Empire Eighty-Eight was initiated into the group, with the requisite assault of an ‘acceptable target’.”

I grimaced at that.  He extended an arm, indicating I was free to leave the cell.

He continued as we walked, flanked by the guards.  “…And then there was the team, handling the internal politics, Assault’s harassment of Battery, the Wards and their individual issues.  The countless requests for appearances, for photo shoots, interviews, and demonstrations, figuring out which have to be accepted, which can be turned down, knowing that too many refusals in a row could mean a negative article.  And then there were the threats, of course, dealing with powered criminals.  Every team member becomes a resource, and those resources have to be allocated judiciously.”

“And in the midst of all that, you’re still trying to find time for you,” I said.

“Free time is the easiest thing to sacrifice,” Defiant said.  “It costs you, to give it up, but there’s little guilt.  Time to yourself is best spent preparing.  Developing new technology, strategizing, adjusting equipment-”

“Weaving costumes, pre-preparing lines of silk,” I said.

Defiant nodded.

“I may have inadvertently screwed Miss Militia over,” I said.

Defiant shook his head.  “She’s a natural leader.  I wasn’t.”

“That might make it easier to handle,” I said, “But she’ll still be in a position where she has to worry, has to prioritize and make sacrifices, and I don’t know if she asked for it.”

“She’ll manage,” Defiant said, as if that was that.  I couldn’t tell if it was trust in his teammate or if he wasn’t particularly empathetic on that front.  Miss Militia was the one who’d supplanted him as team leader.  Were there still hard feelings?

We stopped at the end of the hallway, and the guards stopped to check in at the control station that managed which doors opened and when.  There were procedures for seeing a prisoner out, and it took some time.

I could see into cells near the gate.  Prisoners glared at me.  I was a villain to everyone who had a grudge against supervillains, a hero to everyone who had a grudge against ‘cops’.  A traitor.  A murderer.  The person who’d killed one of the strongest heroes in the world.  Who’d killed someone who had fought for decades to save the world, again and again, and who may have doomed us all.

The other prisoners were still trying to assess me, I was pretty sure.  Nobody spoke to me or approached me when we filed off to get our meals or when I visited the library.  The words printed on my uniform were probably daunting for the unpowered.

The judge had seen fit to assign me to a close security prison, a wing in a medium security facility.  It was somewhat backwards, as rulings went, everything taken into consideration.  I’d been charged as an adult, for one thing, so juvenile detention was out.  Too many crimes under my belt.  I was apparently too dangerous for a minimum security institution, but the PRT had asked for leniency, and this was the compromise they’d come to.

As far as I could figure it out, it was everything I might have expected from a medium security prison, complete with a station that controlled the opening and closing of cell doors, constant supervision, and escorts wherever we went.  The only difference was the emphasis on programs.  We were here to be rehabilitated, to find work, get an education and get therapy.  All mandated.

I’d already started studying.  Now, with Defiant here, I’d get okayed to start other projects.  I hoped.

The warden was waiting for us in the ‘hub’, the room with benches where we’d waited to be assigned to our cells.  She wasn’t what I’d expected from a person in charge of a prison.  She made me think of a stern teacher, instead.  She was old, pushing sixty if not well past it, and ramrod straight, and thin.  Her graying hair was tied back into a short braid that didn’t quite reach the bottom of her neck.  She was tough in a gnarled, craggy sort of way, like the veteran actors of cowboy movies, but female.

“Taylor Hebert,” she said.

“Ma’am.”

“Every rule in my prison applies while you’re outside.  You know this.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I know you capes are magnets for trouble.  If a fight happened to erupt while you were en route and it came down to you fighting back or getting stabbed, I expect you to get stabbed and then graciously thank your attacker, you understand?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“That said, best if you don’t get hurt.  Running would be preferrable, so long as you don’t run.  Trying to escape would be the worst thing you could do, and it wouldn’t succeed.”

“You want me to stay out of trouble.  I understand, ma’am.”

“It’s a cushy deal you have here, but one word from me, and that changes.”

“I get that, ma’am.  Really, I do.  I get that I did some sketchy things.  I get that this is a kind of penance, probably not as harsh as I deserve, and I welcome it.  I think, given a choice between walking away free right this second and continuing my sentence, I’d choose the latter.”

She studied me for long seconds.

“We have a no-tolerance policy on powers, Ms. Hebert.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“What appeared to be an emerging case of body lice in the main prison seems to have abruptly corrected itself, according to our physicians.  The roach traps in the kitchen aren’t catching anything, either.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“There’s a part of me that would like to think you’re doing us a service, cleaning things up.  Which would still be a violation of the zero-tolerance rules, but somewhat forgivable given the intent.  Another part of me has to be concerned that you’re hoarding these in the same manner another prisoner might hoard makeshift weapons.”

“No, ma’am.”

“Which is it?”

“I sort of hoped to talk about it with my therapist, on our first meeting, and figure out the best way to approach it before talking to you.”

She made a ‘continue’ gesture with her hand, arms still folded, her gaze hard.

“My power is always on.  It takes a conscious effort to block them out and let them act normally.  I feel what they feel, sense what they sense, sort of.  It’s… not fun with lice, crawling around in prisoner’s pubic hair, you know?  Being aware of that, across eighteen, nineteen prisoners, twenty-four-seven?”

“My concern, Ms. Hebert, is what you’re doing with those bugs.”

“Nothing,” I said.  “I- moved them away from the prisoners.  I’ve mostly left them where they were, let them starve.  I can’t leave them stationary like that where there are rodents, or they’ll only feed the rodent population and you’ll have a bigger problem.  I could kill the rodents, but then you’d have dead rats in your walls, and-”

“This isn’t acceptable.  You understand why this isn’t acceptable?”

“You have to protect other prisoners,” I said.

Even if it means letting them have lice?  I didn’t say that last part.

“If bugs are your weapon of choice, I can’t let you have access to them.”

“What about a bucket?” I asked.

“Hm?”

“Set up a bucket in some back room, fill it with something caustic enough to kill them on contact.  I’ll drown every bug I can reach in the bucket, and you’ll be able to see for yourself, by the volume of bugs that are in there.”

“Let’s postpone measures like that,” Defiant cut in.  “Go change.”

I nodded, happy for the escape route.  I made my way to the combination shower-and-change room area, pausing to collect my civilian clothes from the guard in the bulletproof glass enclosure that overlooked the hub.

I would have liked to shower in relative privacy, but I didn’t think anyone outside was planning on waiting.  I stripped out of the prison uniform, a lightweight, gray one-size-fits-all cotton tunic and pants that felt more like pyjamas than real clothes.  Mine weren’t as threadbare as the clothes the other prisoners wore.  For one thing, I was a ‘small’.  Sort of.  It was a choice between either wearing a medium-sized tunic and have it hang around me like a tent, or wear a small and have it barely reach my beltline.  I’d chosen the latter.

The other reason I got a uniform that hadn’t been worn a hundred times by a hundred other prisoners, was that I wore a special prison uniform with ‘Sp. Inmate’ printed across the shoulders and sleeve, informing everyone who saw me that I had powers.

After folding the garments, I donned my ‘Weaver’ costume.  I’d have to update it.  It wasn’t real, wasn’t fit for fighting.  The underlying bodysuit was something generic they kept on hand, no doubt similar to what made up Clockblocker’s costume.  Much in the same way his costume had been elaborated on with armor panels, mine had armor that Dragon had 3D-printed prior to arriving at the PRT headquarters.

It felt wrong, especially the way the straps fit into it, and I didn’t like knowing how flimsy it was.

I didn’t wear the mask or the armor panels, merely holding the bundle that contained them.  Instead, I pulled on clothes over the bodysuit, rolling up the sleeves until they were midway up my biceps.  The same short-sleeved, button-up shirt I’d changed into after we’d met with the judge, and jeans.

When I emerged, Defiant and the warden were talking.  She had enough presence that even Defiant, six feet tall and clad in armor, looked like he wanted to back down.

She tapped him in the center of his chest to punctuate her words, “…before lockdown.  And I want all paperwork, as soon as you get it.”

“You’ll have it,” he responded.

“Hand out,” the warden said, turning to me.

I extended a hand.

She strapped a device to my wrist, like a pager, but with a coarse black strap attached.  “So we know where you are.”

“Okay.”

The warden looked to the guard in the bulletproof glass enclosure.  She gave him a hand signal, and he opened the front door to the prison.

We made our exit down a corridor of double-layered fences topped with barbed wire.  We entered the parking lot, where a small crowd had gathered around Defiant’s ship, staring.

They parted to let us board, and then backed away as the jets started to thrum with life.

“We’re alike in some ways,” Defiant said, from his seat at the controls.  I sat behind him, having belted myself in.

My response was cut short as we started moving, and inertia hit me like a pressure  wave against the front of my entire body.  I managed only a “Hm?”

“We’ve both been leaders.  We’ve both made our mistakes, and we’ve faced a form of detention for it.  You with your prison, me with my retirement.”

Oh, he was back to that?  We’d been interrupted.

“Guess so,” I managed.  “And Dragon?”

“Not a leader,” Defiant answered me.  “Not unless you count the artificial intelligences that operate the other suits.  But her prison?  It remains worse than any you or I have faced.”

“Remains?”  I asked.

“Yes,” he said, but he didn’t elaborate.

How could her prison be worse than jail?  And how could she still be in it, unless… was she disabled?  Cerebral palsy, partial or total paralysis, something else?

I wasn’t sure how that factored in with her current inability to communicate.  If she relied on a computer to speak for her, maybe something in the program had broken?

The craft changed direction.  Defiant tapped a button, then let go of the controls.  Autopilot?

“Whatever happens,” he said, “You’re a member of the Wards.  That’s done, but the nature of your membership is still very much in question, understand?”

“I’m not sure I do.”

“Before, I mentioned the tasks of being in charge of a Protectorate team.”

“Allocating people.”

“Yes.  Today you’re going to meet some people who are going to play a very crucial role in deciding how you are allocated.  Best case scenario, we put you on a team in the thick of something.  Not the quiet you’ve been enjoying in your cell, but you’d be helping.  Everyone benefits.”

“And the worst case?”

“The worst case is they say it’s a mistake, and you go to jail for the foreseeable future.  I don’t see that happening.  The second-to-worst case is more likely, where there are no team leaders willing to take you on board with all of the inherent risks.”

“You just said I was a member of the Wards.”

“I did.  Miss Militia has your back, but there’s no way you could join the Brockton Bay Wards, under her.  Conflict of interests, animosity…”

“I figured.”

“Chevalier’s interests are in restoring the PRT and Protectorate programs.  We’ve committed to helping in any world-scale crisis events, which means participating in the next Endbringer program.  He respects Miss Militia’s opinion, and your appearance before the media means we’ve committed to keeping you.  That was partially intentional.”

“Intentional?”

“Because it throws a wrench in the plans of anyone who might want to maintain the status quo.  But as much as Chevalier is on your side, if the capes directly under him in the command structure deem it necessary, he could easily send you to a place where you couldn’t do any damage and bring you out of hiding for media appearances and Class-S threats.”

“A place where I couldn’t do any harm?  Like?”

“Guard duty at the quarantine area in Madison, perhaps, or a town without a cape presence, where you’d be doing little more than making appearances and talking to kids.”

“I’m… I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I’m better than that.”

“Mm hmm,” he said.  “Let’s hope they think so.”

He pressed the button and took hold of the controls.  “New York.  The central headquarters of every Protectorate team in America.”

With Defiant beside me, my civilian clothes removed, costume donned, I entered the common room of the local Protectorate team.

The interior wasn’t dissimilar from the Wards’ headquarters in Brockton Bay.  I’d visited that spot when we’d stolen the data from their server.  The layout was similar, with what seemed to be interchangeable or connecting pieces defining the interior.  The difference was in the quality of the pieces.  Gold or faux-gold trim marked pillars and short walls.  There wasn’t any brushed steel or ceramic.  It was marble.  This would be where they held the interviews and wowed the people who invested in the merchandising side of things.

Inspiring, in a way.  Intimidating.

Equally intimidating, if not more so, was the crowd that waited for me.  Eleven people, arranged across the room, most of them capes.

“In the lead, we have Prism, second in command of the New York team,” Defiant told me.

Prism’s lips flattened into a tight line as she looked at me.  We’d met, at the Mayor’s house.  She’d been one of Legend’s people.  I supposed that Chevalier would have wanted someone who knew the city and the routines as his second in command.

“Rime, team leader of Los Angeles,” Defiant said.

Taking over for Alexandria, I thought.  A cape with black hair in a blue skin-tight costume with fur.  I recognized her from the Echidna event, the cape who made ice crystals.  I remembered how she’d been following Chevalier’s orders.  His second in command?  It made sense he’d promote someone he knew to the second largest team in America.

“Revel, team leader of Chicago.”

Revel was a woman I hadn’t seen before, even in the background of the various Class-S fights.  I was pretty sure I would have recognized her.  She was clearly Japanese, with a painted mask covering her lower face, and a massive lantern on a stick that rested against one shoulder.  She wore a white skin-tight outfit with straps at the shoulders, the legs ending mid-thigh, giving her a degree of modesty that the stylized crimson kimono didn’t.  The kimono hung loose around her, held in place more by belts and what must have been wires in the fabric, elbow-length and just barely long enough to be modest.  Her shoulders were bare and narrow, her expression… one eyebrow was raised as she studied me.

“Dispatch, the second in command of Houston.”

Prism at least had an apparent reason to dislike me, but Dispatch’s expression suggested he’d come to that conclusion all on his own.  His costume was white, with steel points rising from his shoulders and either side of his brow.  The mask that covered the upper half of his face was sculpted into a perpetual frown.  I might not have given it a second thought, but his mouth… the frown left me little doubt he didn’t like me, right off the bat.

“You may recognize some of the captains of the respective Wards teams.  Jouster from New York, Vantage from Los Angeles, Tecton from Chicago and Hoyden from Austin.  You know Clockblocker.”

I nodded.  Tecton, in what looked to be a fresh outfit of bulky rust-red power armor, gave me a salute.  Jouster was playing up the medieval theme, a spear in hand, while Vantage was a black guy in forest green and silver… his costume looked a touch flamboyant, at a glance.  Hoyden looked more like a desperado than a superhero, with a costume that incorporated a kerchief with eyeholes over the upper half of her face, her blond curls tumbling behind, and a jacket and jeans in what looked like black-painted chainmail.

Clockblocker leaned against a desk, unreadable.

“Mrs. Yamada, you’ve met, if the records are right.”

I nodded at the Japanese woman in a casual dress-suit who was standing beside Revel.

“And I’m Glenn Chambers.  PRT head of Image,” a man spoke.  He approached me to offer a fat hand for me to shake.  He had a firm grip. Glenn didn’t look like someone who was particularly invested in image.  He was obese, his clothes not flattering, his hair not quite cut into a mohawk, but gelled into something resembling one.  He wore rectangle-framed glasses that made it easier to see how he seemed to perpetually squint – a result of long eyelashes.

“And I suppose I’m Weaver,” I said.  Eleven sets of eyes, all on me, judging me.  I hooked my thumbs into my pockets.

“I’m surprised Chevalier hasn’t shown up,” Defiant commented.  He glanced at Prism.

It wasn’t Prism who answered.  Dispatch, the Texan cape, spoke instead.  “I asked the same question.  He brings us all the way here, but he doesn’t show himself?”

“He’s handling a small crisis,” Prism said.

“We’re all handling crises,” Dispatch said.  “Half of us have no experience as team leaders, we’re dealing with capes in mourning, with government capes auditing our team rosters for Cauldron capes-“

“Leave it be, Dispatch,” Rime interrupted him.  “We should get down to business.  The sooner this is settled, the sooner we can get back.”

Mrs. Yamada cleared her throat.  “What are you thinking, Weaver?”

Suddenly put on the spot.  “Honestly?”

“Honesty is good,” she said.

“I’m intimidated,” I said.

“How do you usually handle something like that?”

By being more intimidating in exchange, I thought.  It wouldn’t do to say that out loud, to explain how I’d fallen back on being scary and ruthless for so long that I wasn’t sure how to approach something like this.

“I’m not so sure anymore,” I said.  It was the truth, and it wasn’t self-incriminating.

Mrs. Yamada nodded.

Defiant spoke , “Let’s ensure we’re all familiar with what’s going on. We’ve had capes with criminal backgrounds join the Protectorate and Wards teams, though that has remained largely discreet, and Weaver’s civilian identity is public knowledge.  We’ve had experienced capes join, as well, forcing us to adapt to their experience and retrain them where necessary.  Weaver is both.  She’s currently serving time in Gardener.  Under the terms of her sentence, she’ll be continuing her high school studies independently, she’ll be getting therapy as soon as we’ve settled on a schedule, and she’ll be ferried out to various teams for testing and evaluation.”

“A lot of hassle for a little girl,” Jouster said.

A little girl?  I kept my mouth shut, but it took some effort.

Clockblocker, however, was chuckling.

“What?” Jouster asked.

“She beat Alexandria,” Hoyden said, “He’s laughing because you’re putting down the girl who killed Alexandria.”

“Not a selling point,” Hoyden’s boss, Dispatch, cut in.

“She’s an absolute nightmare to fight,” Clockblocker said.  “I’ve been on the receiving end enough times to know.  So when Miss Militia told me she was in custody, I started asking questions, trying to get a sense of what was happening and when.  I don’t even have to be here, and I’m picking up extra patrols later this week to make up for it, but I wanted to come and say this:  I don’t like her, not really.  But if my word counts for anything, as someone who’s only spent half the time dealing with the shit in Brockton Bay that she has?  We want her on our side.  Somehow, in some form.  Because the alternative sucks.”

“Thank you,” I said, my voice so quiet I wasn’t sure everyone heard me.  He was standing up for me, in a way, at a point in time I wasn’t sure how to voice those sorts of things myself.

I could see Jouster’s eyes behind his helmet, as he gave me a once-over.

“She killed Alexandria,” Hoyden said.  “And, what, she was there for Leviathan, she was there for the Slaughterhouse Nine, for Echidna…”

“She went head to head with each of those,” Clockblocker said.  He looked at me.  “Right?  Like, you weren’t just there.  You were in the thick of it, exchanging blows?”

I nodded.

“Today is numbers,” Prism said.  “Power evaluation, interviews.”

“No, no,” Dispatch said, shaking his head.  “Ridiculous.  You don’t invite us here, then make us sit through that nonsense.”

“We need to evaluate her abilities,” Defiant said.

“Do it on your own time.  And skip the interview,” Dispatch said.  “Your own notes, Defiant, say she’s a manipulator and a liar.”

“I’ve retracted those statements,” Defiant said.

“And who’s to say she hasn’t manipulated you?  You and Chevalier were arguing for a cleaner, shinier Protectorate, didn’t you?  Let’s not get off on the wrong foot.  We vet her thoroughly, and if we don’t get a consensus that she’s an asset to the team, then that’s that.”

“What would you suggest, in place of testing and an interview?”

“We do what we’re doing with the Cauldron capes, run her by our thinkers,” Dispatch said.  “We can get a more concrete assessment of her now, with a field exercise, than by any amount of talking.  If I’m remembering right, a notice went out, didn’t it?  A New York group of villains is poaching Wards and Protectorate members?”

“The Adepts,” Revel said.

“Two birds with one stone,” Dispatch said.  He looked at the collected captains of the Wards.  “We want to know how she functions in a team environment, let’s put her in the thick of it.  If there’s trouble, or if the mission doesn’t look good, the rest of us can step in.”

Eyes turned my way.

“You’re serious,” I said.

“As cancer,” Dispatch told me.

“I don’t have any of my stuff, and the costume Dragon gave me isn’t my usual.  Besides, you’ll be expecting me to follow different rules.”

“You’ve read the handbook, haven’t you?”

I nodded.  But I haven’t completely thought of ways around the restrictions.  I’d picked the name Weaver based on the idea that I’d be using thread more, but I didn’t have any prepared, not here, not yet.

“I’m sure Prism will let you have access to the New York teams’ supplies.  Largest cape groups in America, they’ll have a little of everything.”

I frowned.  If I said no, it’d be a black mark in my record, and some of these people were obviously not interested in giving me any slack, unless it was to hang myself with.

“Okay,” I said.

“The Adepts don’t kill,” he said.  “If there’s a problem, it’s on you.”

There should be a rule against saying things like that, I thought.  I didn’t care that he was putting me on the spot, or blaming me for stuff that hadn’t happened yet.  He was implying this would be easy, practically ensuring this would be anything but.

“Adepts,” Jouster said.  “I assume everyone’s up to date?”

Tecton was walking in front of our group, his tank of a suit giving us enough presence that the crowd parted before us.  “Don’t be a jackass.  You know Skit- Weaver hasn’t read the files.  They’re in your city, you fill us in.”

“I know the basics,” I said.  I’d read the file in Tattletale’s office.  “They’re wizards, or they pretend to be, like Myrddin.  Led by a time traveller.”

“They’re led by Epoch,” Jouster said, without looking at me.  “Group is very organized.  Thing you gotta know about New York is it’s bigger.  Everything is.  So these guys, there’s a lot of them.  They’re organized into tiers, and they compete with one another for placement in the tiers, challenging ones in higher tiers, paying a penalty if they fail the challenge.  There’s one tier one, two tier twos, three tier threes… all the way down to the tier fives.”

“Fifteen in total,” I said.

He gave me a hard look, then fell silent.

Am I not allowed to talk?

“This city sucks to move around in,” Hoyden said.  “Crowds, traffic… how do you get anywhere?”

“We have different sub-teams for different roles,” Jouster said.  “Lancer group for fast response, those of us who can fly or move over rooftops.  Another group of heavier hitters who’re old enough to ride the bikes and licensed to travel the tracks.”

“Tracks?”  Hoyden asked.

“Subways.  You use a computer to help know which tracks you can stay on and when, so you don’t get hit by a train.”

“And the ones who aren’t old enough, or aren’t naturally mobile?”  Tecton asked.

“Foot patrol, or sidekick duty with a Protectorate member,” Jouster said.

“Loads of fun,” Hoyden said.

“Am I the only one who likes doing the ride-along thing?” Vantage asked.

“Yes,” Hoyden said.  “Definitely.”

Jouster shook his head.  “It’s the job.  They grumble, sure, but it’s a few years at most before they get to do the bike thing.”

“I’m guessing you’re one of the ‘lancers’,” I said.

Jouster gave me a dirty look, “What of it?”

“Nothing,” I said.  “Just made sense.”

“Flechette was one too,” he said.  “She was going to lead the squad when I moved up to the Protectorate, with Shelter taking over as Wards captain.”

“I believe it,” I said.

“Seem to recall that she’d defected, joined your old team.”

“I don’t know anything about that, honestly,” I said.  “Only that she had romantic interests towards one of us Undersiders, and-”

“The doll girl,” Jouster said.

Vantage punched him in the shoulder.

“I didn’t know if she was ‘out’, so I didn’t want to say,” I said, feeling lame.

“That’s right,” Vantage said.  “That’s how you’re supposed to act.”

The earbud I’d been supplied with buzzed with a woman’s voice.  Prism?  They own the building up ahead.  Cut the banter and focus on the job.”

A male voice.  Talk us through everything you’re doing, Weaver.

“Focusing on my bugs,” I said.

“Tap the earbud twice to start the feed,” Tecton said.

I tapped it twice, and it beeped faintly.  “Focusing on my bugs.  I’ve been collecting them as we moved from the headquarters to this spot, so I have quite a few.”

Lethal and venomous bugs aren’t allowed, you know that.”

Tying my hands.  It was fine.  “I didn’t plan on using them anyways.  I’m selecting the smallest and most discreet, and sending them out.  It’ll take a minute at most, but I’ll be able to track their movements.”

The Adepts?”

“Everyone.  I mean, the area’s dense, but once I have tabs on the Adepts, I’ll have an idea of where the civilians are, too.  It means we can keep them out of danger, and we’ll know if anyone runs into the line of fire.”

There was silence on the line in response.  Were they talking about me?  Discussing the particulars?  Hell, was I already breaking rules by violating people’s privacy?

I spoke, hoping that I was interrupting them if they were saying something along those lines.  “I have other bugs on the periphery, drawing out cords of silk.”

Show us.  We have a camera in Tecton’s suit.

Okay, this was getting borderline annoying.  Second guessed every step of the way.

My swarm moved in front of Tecton, swirling.

Image, Weaver,” it was a different man who spoke.  The fat one… I couldn’t remember his name.  “We need to do something about appearances, here.”

“Appearances?”

The black, amorphous swarm.  It conveys the wrong ideas.  It’s disturbing to any onlookers, and if photos of you using your power on any greater scale made the rounds, it could be fodder for some ugly articles.  You already face an uphill battle, with your reputation as an ex-supervillain.

“You’re serious,” I said.  I tapped my ear to shut off the channel, looking at the others, “Is he serious?”

“Glenn is always serious,” Clockblocker said.  “When I first picked my name, Clockblocker, and announced it in front of a live camera so they couldn’t retract it, they punished me with intensive lessons with Glenn.”

“They do that any time you screw up on the PR front, like swearing on camera,” Hoyden said.  “And in the sessions, he talks to you about your hair, about redesigning your costume…”

“How to talk so you command attention,” Vantage said, over-enunciating his words.

“How to hold yourself,” Jouster said, straightening his back, squaring his shoulders and raising his chin a touch.

We can hear you, you know,” a woman said through the earbud.  Rime?

Maybe we need lessons in decorum,” Glenn’s voice buzzed in our ears.

Hoyden made a pained expression.  She glanced at Tecton, then ducked low, avoiding the camera, while she walked around to Tecton’s back.  She pushed at his shoulder, urging him to turn around.  He rolled his eyes and sighed as he obeyed, and Hoyden prodded him forward until he was standing right in front of a wall.

“I really don’t know what you expect,” I said.  “It’s my power.”

By all reports, you’re a clever girl,” Glenn said  “Surely there’s a way to present your power in a less threatening way.

I opened my mouth, but the sheer number of protests that came to mind all jumbled together.  I looked at the Wards, trying to see if I was the butt of a joke.

“Lucky, lucky you,” Clockblocker whispered to me, covering his ear with his hand, “You get his attention right from the start, and I’m willing to bet he’s not going to leave you alone.  It almost makes me feel better about the time you crammed those bugs into my mouth and ears.”

Vantage made a face at that.

“So worth the extra shifts I’m pulling this week,” Clockblocker commented to Jouster.  “Just to see this.”

“I’m not sure what you want, Glenn,” I said, after tapping my earbud,  “I could send my bugs in one at a time.  That’s not threatening, right?”

Your sarcasm isn’t appreciated, Weaver,” Defiant informed me.

“I’m willing to play ball,” I said.  “I just want to figure out what the he- heck you want, first.  Do you want, like, ladybugs?  There’s color there, a nice red cloud.  There’s only, um, two hundred and twelve ladybugs in my range.  But I could use them.  Or… butterflies?  There’s more butterflies than ladybugs.”

I accessed the butterflies in my swarm, drawing them to me.

“Tekky,” Hoyden said, “Turn around.  They’ll love this.”

Tecton,” he mumbled, stressing the word.  “I hate ‘techy’, ‘tech geek’ and all those names.  Just like I hate being the camera guy, the guy who the PRT gets to fix the vans when they want to cut work early…”

I drew the butterflies into formation, a stream of them following after one another.

“I just want you to realize that this is what you’d be asking me to-”

Yes,” Glenn said, cutting me off.  “Excellent!  They did say you were smart.

“You’re serious,” I said.

Clockblocker was laughing silently, his shoulders shaking.

“Serious as cancer,” Hoyden mimicked her superior.  “All Glenn cares about is the image, the PR.  Up to you to figure out how to hold yourself like a ‘lady’ while you’re dealing with street thugs with guns.”

You would know, Hoyden,” Glenn said.  “I’d hoped something would sink in for you, with you having more meetings with me than anyone has in the past year.

Stick to business, please.  Where did you get all those butterflies, anyways?” I think it was Rime, on the comms.

“Rooftop gardens,” I said.  “There was a whole block with older buildings and a garden on every roof, while we were heading this way.  Lots of balcony-mounted flower troughs, too.”

We’d need to get you a steady supply,” Glenn said.  “I wonder how we arrange that.

“They’re really going to make me the butterfly girl?” I asked.

Clockblocker only laughed harder.  I was pretty sure he was faking it, at this point.  He couldn’t find it that funny.

If this is a problem,” Defiant said, the earbud’s digital sound only compounding the faint digital note of Defiant’s voice, “We can cancel the job, take a few days to discuss the tools you need to do the job effectively.”

The worst of both worlds.  I’d be backing down, they’d probably argue for this as a way to keep me ‘tame’, and I’d look disobedient.

“No,” I said.  “You want me to use butterflies, let’s do that.”

“For real?” Hoyden asked.

I nodded.  “We’re picking a fight with the Adepts?”

This is only a branch,” Prism said, over the comm, “They have three primary properties.  They don’t hold territory, so the local gangs leave them be.  The idea is to discourage them.  Fight only so long as you’re confident you’ll win.  Communicate what’s going on, and we’ll step in if need be.  With luck, this will be a setback for them, and cause to stop headhunting from our side.

“Okay,” I said.  “Who’s in charge?”

“Me,” Jouster said.

It would be weird to not be the leader, after heading the Undersiders.  “You okay with me as recon?”

“Suppose you have to be, if you’re limiting yourself to butterflies,” he said.

“I wasn’t going to limit myself to recon,” I said.

“You’ll tear them to shreds with butterfly bites,” Vantage said.  “Do butterflies bite?”

“They don’t have mouthparts that can bite,” I told him.  “They have proboscises.”

“So are you like, super smart or something?” Hoyden asked.

“No,” I answered her.

“Don’t get distracted by the new member,” Jouster said.

I noted what my bugs were telling me.  “There’s three of them inside.  Two men, one woman.  The men have groupies with them, I think.  In their bedrooms.  There might be more, but they don’t have costumes on.”

“They should have numbers on their sleeves.  Roman numerals.”

“I can’t really see through the bug’s eyes,” I said.  “One second…”

I found the woman, sitting on the couch, a laptop on a coffee table in front of her.  The bugs traced her sleeve.

“It’s not embroidered, I can’t sense anything raised, and the bug’s eyes can’t make out the letters.  Sorry.”

“Check the surroundings,” Jouster said.  “Tools?  The group’s practices involve using tools, ritual, rites, chants, and all that crap to try to achieve better control over their abilites.”

“Kind of makes sense,” I said.  “Abilities get stronger when you’re in a mental state closer to how you were thinking before your trigger event, so-”

“Wait, what?”  Clockblocker cut me off.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I triggered while I was in a locker.  I’ve been thinking, I get just a little stronger when I feel trapped, or when I despair, or when I feel betrayed.  My range extends.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jouster said.  “Three of them.  No tools?”

“Sort of a tool.  A rod, short, barely a foot long, and blunt, no barrel or anything.  Carved, I think.”

“Not sure,” Jouster said.  “Doesn’t ring any bells.”

“Um.  But if you look,” I pointed.  “There’s birds.  Usually they’ll pick off a few bugs that get too close, but they aren’t moving.”

“And there’s some inside?” Jouster asked.

“Three… five birds in cages inside the apartment,” I said.

“Felix Swoop, tier three member of the group,” Jouster said.  “Master-blaster hybrid.  Controls birds, but not as much control as you seem to have.  Thing is, he applies fire immunity and pyrokinesis to the birds, programs them with movements.  You said he’s distracted?”

I noted Swoop’s presence in the bedroom, tried not to pay too much attention to the particulars of what was happening inside.  “Definitely occupied.”

“Let’s move,” Jouster said.  He began striding across the street.  He raised his voice, “Back away from the building!”

No reaction from the men in the bedroom or the woman on the sofa.  They couldn’t hear it.

I directed my swarm.  Bugs moved through the crowd, and I organized the swarm so it was surrounded by butterflies, masking the core of the ‘disturbing’ black swarm within.

Cheating, maybe, but I’d do what I had to.  The irritating part of this was that I had to look at the swarm to make sure everything was in place.  It’d become natural sooner or later, but I really didn’t need more handicaps.

Back away from the building.  You can watch the fight, but watch from the other end of the street,” I spoke through my swarm.

So weird, to be doing this with a veneer of legitimacy.

What are you doing, Weaver,” one of the capes asked me, through the earbud.

“Warning the crowd.  I can mimic my voice by using the sounds my swarm produces, only I’m using mainly butterflies.”

A bit of a fib, but it would fit what Tecton was seeing by way of his camera.

Keep us updated on your thought process and strategies.

Jouster led the way into the building.

“I’m using the silk cords I prepared earlier to hamper the birds on the balconies,” I said.  “There’s a pigeon roost above, but I’m covering the door, so hopefully Swoop won’t have access to all of those pigeons.  And I’ve got other bugs surreptitiously gathering in the clothing that Swoop and the other male discarded.  I’m assuming I can use the scarier bugs if the public isn’t about to see?”

That goes against the spirit of what I was talking about,” Glenn told me.

“Yeah,” Hoyden said, from just behind me, “You should want to use butterflies and butterflies only.”

Tecton pushed the door open, splintering the lock and snapping the chain with just the strength of his power armor.

Tecton in last,” Prism said.  “We’ll want eyes on the scene.”

“I’m the toughest of us,” Tecton protested.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Hoyden said, patting his chest as she walked by.

“Two upstairs there, with two more that might be initiates, might be civilians,” I said, raising my voice a fraction.  I pointed in the direction of the two men.  I moved one hand to point at another point.  “One woman there.  All two floors up.”

I hung back as the heroes ascended the stairs, and got to see as Tecton placed his hands against the frame of the door.

“Let me know when,” he said.  “And brace yourselves.”

We’d gone over the powers in this particular group before we left.  I knew what Tecton and Clockblocker were capable of, obviously.  That left Vantage, Jouster and Hoyden.  I could track them as they broke into the apartment.

Jouster’s blaster-striker hybrid power involved his lance, a power that conducted along the usual channels, only the form it took varied.  He speared through the computer, then swung the blunted side of the weapon at the couch.  The woman rolled out of the way, and energy rippled away from the lance, freezing and shredding cushions.

He could choose the effect, making it fairly versatile.  Concussive blasts, fire, ice, lightning, suction and disintegration, among other things.  Trick was that he had to hit to deliver the effect.

The advantage, conversely, was that he had another power.  With a brief-lived burst of superspeed, he closed the distance to the woman, coming to an abrupt stop just in time to kick her in the midsection.

Clockblocker followed, stepping forward to touch the woman and freeze her.

Woman is Paddock,” Jouster said, through the earbud.

Caught her,” Clockblocker said.

Hoyden and Vantage were already breaking into the other rooms, interrupting the men and women at play.

Vantage had super strength, but his strength and reflexes scaled up as the number of opponents rose, with diminishing returns.  He wasn’t especially durable, but he packed short-range teleports.  Very short-range – a matter of two or three feet, at best.  He teleported to help close the gap to Swoop and slammed one hand into the man’s collarbone.  The woman scrambled for cover.

Anyone want to break the wishbone?” he quipped.

The other man raised a hand at Hoyden, and she stopped in her tracks.  He almost leisurely stood, taking the hand of the girl beside him, then reached down to collect his robe, and recoiled in horror at the bugs that festooned it.  He couldn’t get to the rod, whatever it was supposed to do.

“Heads up, Hoyden’s ensorcelled or something,” I said, communicating through the earbuds.

“Nuh uh,” I could hear her speak through the earbud.  She caught the cape from behind, then hurled him through the doorway, at Clockblocker.  He stepped on the man’s bare back, and the man was frozen.

“Cape two captured,” Clockblocker said.

Hoyden was one of the capes with a mess of powers.  Things she hit exploded, things that hit her suffered a retaliatory explosion.  She was stronger, more durable, and to top it all off, she had a peculiar resistance to damage and powers that improved as she got further from her target.

Between them, they each had the ability to apply their abilities in devastating ways.  They were team captains for a reason.

Wait, was this okay?  I’d barely done anything.  I was used to hanging back, supporting my allies, and delivering decisive strikes where necessary, but I was supposed to be proving something.  Would I be able to say I’d achieved anything definitive?

Was that intentional?

I hurried up the stairs in double time.  I reached the door frame, and I got a look from Jouster.

Definitely intentional.  He’d had his team bulldoze through the capes, leaving nothing for me.  I’d provided recon, but would that be enough?

“Securing the bystanders,” Clockblocker said, from across the room.  He approached one of the women, and she made a squeak of alarm as she jumped back from his reaching hand.  “Shhh, it’s okay.  Doesn’t hurt.  If you’ve done nothing wrong, there’s nothing to worry about.  You’ll wake up in a few minutes, visit the police, and then go home.”

She glanced at Jouster, as if looking for confirmation, and Clockblocker touched her, freezing her.

The other woman was pulling on pants, the kind of skinny jeans you pulled up inch by excruciating inch, if you were lucky enough to have actual hips.  She still wore a black bra, and way too much eye shadow.

“Last one,” Clockblocker said.  “You can call in the PRT vans.”

She buttoned up her jeans, then ran her thumb along the chain that ran from her belt loop to her pocket.

“Wait,” I said.  The chain- there were charms on it.  “Those charms.”

“My embellishment,” she said.

“Shit!” Jouster said.  “Clock!”

Clockblocker lunged, but she leaped back.  Landing on his hands and knees, Clockblocker reached out, firing the fingertips of his glove at her, each trailing cords that extended to his gauntlet.  Two of the cords looped around her limbs as they made contact.  Thick, I noted.  Not fishing lines that might cut when they were frozen in time.

He froze them, then freed his hand from the glove.  She was immobilized.

It wasn’t enough.

“It’s Standstill,” Jouster said.  He broke into a run, charging her with his lance held ready.

“Thirteenth Hour, now,” she retorted.  Her eyes flared with light, and I felt my body jolt.

Tecton!” I spoke through my bugs.

My heartbeat slowed to a glacial pace, my breathing slowing.  My outstretched hand started drifting down, the strength to hold it up slowly leaving my body.

Thirteenth Hour collapsed, going limp in the midst of Clockblocker’s suspended wires.  Jouster, mid-stride, did much the same.

My thoughts were slowing down, volition gone.  The others were the same.  My sense of time…  I was reminded of a dream I’d had, of being put under a spell by Coil.  Scopolamine.

Clockblocker’s power wore off the various Adepts, one by one.  They composed themselves, dressing.

Swoop dialed a number on his phone, approached the sleeping Thirteenth Hour while holding it to his ear.  He lifted her chin and kissed her, staying beside her to catch her as the cords were released.

“Spot of trouble,” he said, with a faint accent.  Australian?  British?  “Wouldn’t mind one of the top tiers.  They’ll have reinforcements.”

My eyelids drifted closed.  I didn’t have the will to raise them.

But I could follow my bugs as they stirred, converging, moving as if with a mind of their own.

Following my unconscious directives?

The bugs went on the offensive, biting, stinging.

No.  It wasn’t even a coherent thought.  I’d get in trouble.

No,” the bugs whispered, their droning forming crude words.

Swoop and the others startled at that.  I could sense their movements through the accumulated bugs.  He made a hand gesture, murmured a phrase, and birds took flight from the cages around the apartment.  After a moment, they ignited, winging their way through the thickest areas of the swarm.

The others would be arriving soon.  I had to do something.

That urgency, more than anything, seemed to translate into an order for my swarm.  They began moving, bearing silk threads.

That, I was okay with.

The binding they performed was carried out as if from some deep-seated, creative part of me, the part of me that would doodle absentmindedly in the margins of my notebook when I was tired in class.  Instead of aimless doodles, however, it was cords and lines of silk extending from table legs to feet, from wrists to earrings and between the loops of shoelaces, and it was all accompanied by the butterflies that I was still maintaining in formation.

Swoop’s improvised phoenixes couldn’t get close enough to burn those things without burning the individuals in question.

The other Adepts were arriving.  My sense of time, still, was obscured.  Where were the Protectorate capes?

How long would we be stunned like this?

Swoop, one hand pressed to his collarbone, moved his other arm to allow a flaming pigeon to rest on one hand, then winced in pain as he wound up nearly yanking an earring out.  “Curses!’

He really said things like ‘curses’.

I did not want to lose to these guys.

The bugs were still moving, aimless, without my active direction, but they were using the silk cords.

Butterflies, I thought.

The butterflies I’d been prepared to use moved into the formations I’d instructed, joining and complementing the swarms of bugs that were weaving webs of silk over and around the four Adepts, including the sleeping Thirteenth Hour.  I could sense her breathing.

How to break the spell?

Tecton.

He was under the effects.  I could tell, by how his arms had drooped from where he had them on the door frame.

If this was simply a kind of hypnosis…

I called bugs to me, directed them to gather on my face.

Not enough… they couldn’t get through my mask.

Without me asking it to, a cockroach started chewing through the fabric.  The fabric that wasn’t nearly as strong as spider silk.

The female Adept that Jouster and Clockblocker had attacked as they entered the apartment made her way toward the kitchen, stumbled as a silk cord around her knees failed to give her enough give.

“Annoying,” she said.

“Admirable, almost,” Swoop commented.  “This is the sort of thing we hope to train, and she’s already a fair hand at it, isn’t she?”

“Whatever,” the woman said.  She drew a kitchen knife from a wooden block on the counter, then began cutting the most obvious threads.

Seconds, minutes, hours passed.  I couldn’t say for sure.  There was fighting outside.  Capes fighting capes.  I couldn’t focus my attention on it.

With the hole in my mask now large enough, the cockroach wormed his way in.

Two ways this could go, I realized, as it dawned on me what I was doing.  What my passenger was doing?  Either this worked, or it would fail disastrously, and they’d be distracted, at the very least.

The cockroach reached the back of my throat.  I gagged and coughed.

And that disruption was enough to shake off Thirteenth Hour’s influence.  My thoughts began to coalesce into something more coherent.

Still coughing, fighting the urge to throw up into my mask, I directed bugs into the eye holes of Tecton’s mask, down to his mouth, to do much the same.

“No,” the cape with the rod said.

Another mind-affecting power.  I could see my spiders getting larger as they crawled, the apartment getting smaller, I felt vertigo…

Tecton reached out to the doorframe and made the building shudder with enough force that everyone stumbled.

Everyone woke, Thirteenth Hour included.  The hallucinations stopped.

“Again!” Swoop shouted.

Thirteenth Hour’s eyes glowed, her power flaring…

But I was ready.  A cockroach mobilized to set off my gag reflex a second time, and I was alert before the effect had even sunken in.

So gross.

Vantage and Jouster wore masks that covered their mouths.  It’d take a second to get into Tecton’s, and I didn’t want him to unwittingly wake Thirteenth Hour again…

I woke Hoyden instead.

I wasn’t making friends or allies here, I suspected.

Hoyden strode forward, coughing and wiping at her mouth.  A flaming bird soared at her face.  In the instant it made contact, it detonated in a ball of flame and unburned feathers.  She was thrown backwards.

Another homed in on me.  I wasn’t durable, like Hoyden.  I shielded my face with my arms.

The armor protected me, the cloth didn’t.  I could feel it as though something scraped against my flesh, felt the hot prickle that promised future pain.  A burn.

“Stop,” the cape with the hallucination power said.  He made a sign with his hands, extending his rod at me.

Again, I felt the sensation of things distorting.

I was free of Thirteenth Hour’s power, though, and my bugs were winding silk around his arm and face.  He clawed at it, to little effect, and the more butterflies that settled on his face, the less effective he seemed to get.

Hoyden had returned, and endured a barrage of more flaming birds.  The larger birds weren’t obliterated as they exploded, and circled around to strike her again.  I ducked below one I could sense only by the bugs it burned along its path, then backed away.

The one with the knife.  I tied some silk around the knife handle, connecting to the silk between Swoop’s leg and the table.

She tried to bring the knife down to cut something, and the cord went taut, pulling it from her hand.  She tried to bend over to pick it up, and the thread between her throat and the light fixture pulled taut.

What was her power, even?

I wasn’t interested in finding out.  I navigated the threads by using the bugs to track their placement.  The armor Dragon had fashioned didn’t have compartments inside the armor panel at the back, but I had a taser dangling from my belt.  Before she could figure out a way to break a thread, arm herself or use her power, I jabbed her with the taser.

She fell, momentarily suspended by the threads.  I had the bugs near the light fixture manually break the thread before she strangled.

That left Swoop and Mr. Hallucination, who was apparently suffering for not having removed more threads from himself earlier.  He swatted at the butterflies.

I reached Jouster, shaking him.  When he didn’t rouse, I shook him harder.

Nothing.  Not jarring enough.

I kicked his leg out from under him, and he sprawled.

“Fuck you,” he mumbled, as he began to climb to his feet.

“Wake up Clockblocker and Vantage,” I said.

“You don’t give me orders,” he said.  He approached Swoop.  The man smacked Hoyden with one more bird, whirling around to face Jouster, and then got slammed in the chest with the fattest part of the lance.  The third tier Adept flew into a wall and went limp.

Jouster wanted to clean up?  Fine.  I tazed the hallucination guy, then hurried to Clockblocker’s side.  When shaking him didn’t rouse him, I raised his head from the floor and then smacked it down hard enough to startle him.

“Jerk,” he mumbled.

Jouster had poked Vantage awake.

“Our reinforcements are fighting their reinforcements,” I said.

“Good to know.  We get Tecton and back them up.”

“You kicked their asses with butterflies,” Clockblocker said, as we made our way to the stairs.

“I cheated.  The butterflies are superficial, decorative.”

“No, no, no,” he said.  “If anyone asks, you kicked their asses with butterflies.”

Defiant and I walked back through the corridor of double-layered chain-link fence.  There was a long pause as the gates opened.

“You may have won over some of the ones with doubts, but Rime was grumbling about your attitude, and I suspected she was on your side to start with.”

“My attitude?”

“I don’t know.  Something to ask her, when the time comes.”

I sighed.

“Your arms?”

“Hurt,” I said.  I extended my arms, prodding at the bandage on my forearms.  “Nothing serious.  Will probably peel like a motherfucker.”

“Language,” he said, as we entered the hub.

The warden was there, waiting for us.

“You got injured.”

“In the line of duty,” Defiant said.  “Permitted duty.”

“I told you to keep her out of trouble.”

“Wasn’t my choice,” Defiant said.  “I can give you my superior’s number if you’d like.”

“I would like.  Taylor Hebert?  On the issue with the bug population of my facility, I feel it would be a very bad idea to provide you with a caustic substance to give your bugs, given what your file says you achieved with capsaicin.  I had a bug zapper purchased, and you should be able to access it with each and every one of your tiny soldiers.  I expect to see it used, understand?”

I nodded.

“Go change.  I’ll have a guard waiting here to escort you to your cell.”

“Okay,” I said.

I changed back into a fresh prison tunic and pants, leaving my shoes behind.  It pained me to leave everything behind, but I did.  The female guard patted me down when I’d emerged and handed the bundle of clothes to the guard at the hub’s office, then led me to my cell.

I was cognizant of my fellow prisoners, who watched me.  Prisoners who, I had little doubt, saw my injury as a sign of weakness, a reason to descend on me like wolves with wounded prey.

Being out among the Wards had shaken me, on a level.  I still needed to find out how to fight like a Ward.  A more effective Ward than the ones I’d encountered in the past, ideally.  I needed to adjust my tactics, the very way I thought.  To build a measure of self-confidence that wasn’t borne by fear and intimidation.

I settled down on the bunk with my book.

I shifted restlessly.  I still had trace amounts of adrenaline in my system.  The rush of a fight.  My arms hurt, too, despite the over-the-counter painkillers I’d tossed back.  A second degree burn, and like so many other injuries of the hands and arms, they seemed as though they had been strategically placed where they’d be most irritating and debilitating.

Tonight is going to suck, I thought.  How was I supposed to get comfortable like this?

My bugs found the bug zapper, and I began systematically eliminating every cockroach, louse, fly and ant in the building.

The spiders, I kept on hand, directing them to the burned corpses.  They could breed, in time, and I could put them somewhere where they wouldn’t encounter any people.

Breaking the rules, maybe, but it was something to occupy my thoughts.  It made me feel just a little safer, a little more like myself.

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Cell 22.2

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Miss Militia handed me a phone and uncuffed one hand from the table.  I dialed the number I’d memorized and waited while she and Director Tagg watched.

Mr. Calle, Esquire,” the voice on the other line said.  He sounded distracted, and the voice was slightly muffled.  I could hear noise in the background, voices.

“It’s time,” I said.  “I’m at the PRT headquarters, second basement floor.”

Ms. Hebert!  Excellent!  I was just telling myself that I’d almost run out of things to see in your city, here, and was about to let myself start being concerned for your welfare if it got much later.  I’m in your territory as we speak.

“My territory?”

Getting a sense of who you are as a person and a personality.  There’s a number of people here who are very concerned for your welfare.  They don’t quite believe me when I say I’m looking out for your interests.

“Okay,” I said.  “Big guy?  Beard?”

A young lady, dark-haired.

I thought for a second.  “Tell her ‘fly in a paper box.'”

He didn’t cover the mouthpiece of his phone as he spoke the phrase.  There was a pause, then Mr. Calle spoke into the phone once again, “That did it.

I don’t really care, I thought.  I just didn’t want him getting in any trouble.  “How soon can you be here?”

“A five minute drive.”

“It’s not a five minute drive from there to here.”

“I’m a fast driver.  No need to worry, but… maybe don’t mention it to the law enforcement officials that are looking over your shoulder.  Do you have any preferences for donuts?  Coffee?”

There was a murmur on the other end.

“Someone’s telling me you want tea,” he asked.

“Just-” Just get here, I was about to say, then I reconsidered.  I knew where he was, and I was tempted at the thought.  Besides, I knew Tagg was watching me.  “A BLT on toasted white and a sugar donut.  And tea.”

“They don’t sell any tea here, but I’m sure we can contrive to get you some in a timely manner.  I trust you haven’t said anything to the glowering heroes?”

“No.”

“Excellent.  Keep your mouth shut, now.  I’ll be there in six.”

With that said, he hung up.

“A sandwich, donuts and tea,” Tagg said.  He had his arms folded.

I smiled a little, but I didn’t reply.

“Very casual,” he mused.  He took the phone, gripped my wrist in his hand and set the handcuff back into place.

I shifted position, and the movement raked the chain of my cuffs against the ring that held them fixed to the table.  It was hard to get comfortable.  The table and chairs were bolted to the floor, and my hands were held in front of me.  I got the impression the setup was meant for villains just a touch taller than I was – I couldn’t quite lean against the chair back without the cuffs cutting into my wrists.

“I’m trying to figure you out,” Tagg said.

I ignored him.

“My aims aren’t very high.  I’m not a psychologist, like Mrs. Yamada, I’m not experienced in the ins and outs of the traumas you capes go through or the damage that shit causes.  You and I haven’t really squared off yet, like you have with Miss Militia.  Those two understand you on levels I never could.”

I glanced at Miss Militia.  Her expression was inscrutable behind the stars-and-stripes scarf she wore over the lower half.

“I’m setting my sights lower than that.  I’m trying to figure out if you really think you have the upper hand, here, if you’re arrogant enough to expect everything will go your way…” Tagg paused, studying me, as if looking for a response.  “…or if you intend to martyr yourself.  Is that the idea?  You go to the Birdcage, but you make some demands first?”

I would have put my head on the table and tried to close my eyes for a minute, but the setup wasn’t very accommodating.  I didn’t want to try to then realize I couldn’t get comfortable.

“Maybe you don’t really get what the Birdcage is.  See, I hate it.  I was in Lausanne in two-thousand two through oh-three.  Fought a whole mess of ugly.  People that couldn’t be reasoned with, people who were hopeless, in the grand scheme of it.  Victims, as much as anyone else.”

I found myself listening, despite myself.

“We shot them, the people who heard too much of the Simurgh’s song, who weren’t just walking disaster areas, but who’d listened long enough that they lost something.  Men, women and children missing that moral center that people like Miss Militia and I have.  Hell, even you’ve got morals.  They didn’t.  I’m sure you heard about it, you’re not that young.  Suicide bombers, dirty bombs.  Terrorism, if you will.  Eleven year olds and old men making their way to Amsterdam or London and opening fire in a crowded area.  Just like that.”

Tagg slammed his hand down on the metal table, coinciding with the ‘that’.  I jumped a little, despite myself.

He’s just trying to rattle me.

“Once we realized what was happening, we had to act, contain the damage.  Contain families.  Had to act against people who went home from a day of trying to kill the rest of us and cooked a nice dinner, oblivious to just how fucked they were in the head.  People who were otherwise good, who got warped on a fundamental level, left open to the preaching and the incitement of their angrier neighbors.  Two years of fighting before we got the word down from on high, that they couldn’t rehabilitate the ones they’d captured, the ones who’d listened too long.  The poor assholes would play nice until they saw an opportunity, then they’d take it, do as much damage as they could.  Two years fighting good people who’d been convinced they had to throw their lives away fighting an enemy that didn’t exist.  So we closed the perimeter, bombed them out, herded them and gunned them down.”

I glanced up, briefly meeting his eyes.  The lines around them seemed just a little deeper.  I wasn’t sure if it was emotion, memories coming to the surface, or if it was just the lighting in this interrogation room.

“Which takes me back to my original point,” Tagg said.  “The Birdcage.  I hate it.  Hate what it stands for, the affront to our freedoms.  The farce of it.  You know what that word means, little girl?  Farce?”

I almost took the bait and responded, bit my tongue instead.

“Guess not.  And Miss Militia said you were smart.  When it comes to the monsters and the menaces who are more trouble than they’re worth, I wish with all my heart that we had another option.  Look me in the eyes, now.  I want you to see I mean what I say.”

I met his eyes.

“I’d rather do what we did in Lausanne than use the Birdcage.  End result’s the same.  You’re gone from this world.  It’s more merciful, understand?  If it was legal, if I got the okay from on high, I’d make you kneel in the center of this very room and end you with one well placed bullet.  Better than you getting in a van and getting disappeared, dropped into a pit that some of the scariest, meanest capes around haven’t figured out how to escape, a literal hell on earth.”

Disappeared.

“But as much as I hate the Birdcage, I’ll gladly use it if it gets menaces like you off the streets and out of the way of civilized Americans who are trying to live their lives.  And my bosses know that.  They know I’m just as stubborn as the worst of them, because I’ve fought bastards like the sad souls in Lausanne, who didn’t even know how to yield, and I outlasted them.”

I wasn’t sure I could have responded if I’d been willing to open my mouth.

“I want you to think on that.  As much as you see me as an asshole, maybe you look down on me because you think you’re smarter than I am, but you think about what it means that I’d sooner shoot a misguided sixteen year old girl than send her to that place… and I’d sooner send you there than let you go free to keep perverting the system.”

“My lawyer’s here,” I said.  I could sense him, striding through the lobby to talk to a receptionist at the front desk.  “Mr. Calle.  He’s upstairs.”

“Someone will show him the way down here,” Tagg said.  “You and I, we can keep chatting here.”

I shut my mouth, frowning.  Miss Militia wasn’t acting, wasn’t saying a thing.

“I wonder if you realize what you’ve really done.  Pulling the shit you have in this city.  Forget the PRT, forget me and the people I work for.  Let’s talk about the grander perspective.  The precedent this shit sets.  You know there’s already been others who tried to do what you’re doing?  Take over?”

People have been trying to take over for a long time, I thought, but I didn’t say it aloud.

“People are getting hurt, hurting others, trying to follow in your footsteps.  You’re a fucking pioneer, aren’t you?  Do you get that?  That part of what we’re doing, here, is not just stopping you, dealing with you Undersiders, whatever your excuses might be.  It’s the effects that reach across this entire country.  The world.”

I didn’t reply.  My focus was on Mr. Calle, who was making his way downstairs in the elevator, accompanied by the same PRT soldier who had taken me to my cell.

“What’s the name of the fellow who tried to take over that town in Alaska just a few days ago?  You remember, Miss Militia?”

“Hiemal.”

“Hiemal.  How many did his people kill?”

“Three.”

“Three dead,” Tagg said.  He pulled a chair away from the table, set one foot on it, so he was looming over me.

Mr. Calle appeared in the doorway.  I’d looked him up prior to first contacting him, and I’d seen his photos online.  I was caught off guard, nonetheless, on two very different fronts.

“Good afternoon,” he said, putting his briefcase down before extending a hand to Miss Militia, smiling in a way that showed off his very white teeth.  I’d assumed that his prim appearance in the pictures had been because he’d been anticipating having his photos taken, or because he’d been appearing in public.  His black hair hadn’t just been cut, it had been styled, his eyebrows shaped.  He had long eyelashes, I noted, and a small cleft in his chin.  He was an exceptionally handsome Latino guy, in a light gray suit with a white vest beneath, and a red tie.  He had a folder and a paper bag under one arm, in addition to the briefcase he’d put down.

His immaculate appearance was the first thing that caught me off guard, and it set a stark contrast with the corner of one nostril and one of his cheekbones, where, apparently, one of his clients had done some damage.  It was a cut, but puckered around the edges where it had been burned, either with fire or some kind of acid.

He extended a hand to the Director, who glowered but shook it.  He flashed another white smile at Tagg, “Quinn Calle, I-”

“I know who you are,” Tagg replied.

“Excellent.  That should make the rest of this easier.  I’d like some time alone with my client.  I already have the bulk of the paperwork, but if you could give me anything that came up in the last short while, I’d appreciate it.”

“I’ll see what we have,” Miss Militia said.  She and Tagg turned to leave.

Calle brushed the seat clear where Tagg had stepped on it, then sat down just to my left.  “And Director?”

Director Tagg paused in the doorway.

Mr. Calle pointed at the one-way mirror at one side of the interrogation room.  “This is a confidential meeting with my client.  I would never imply that anyone in the PRT would be so crass as to listen in, but… let’s leave that room empty until further notice, okay?”

Tagg visibly bristled at the implication.  Wordless, he turned to leave.

“And cameras stay off!” Mr. Calle called out at the Director’s back.

Tagg shut the door with a little more force than necessary.

“Ms. Hebert,” Mr. Calle said, without looking at me.  He set the folder on the table and began sorting out the contents.  He waited until the paperwork was all arranged in front of him before he turned his attention to the paper bag, retrieving my sandwich, a small carton of six donuts, and a small thermos.  He met my eyes and spoke, “We finally meet.”

Again, that smile, the kind of smile someone could only really give if they were attractive and they knew it.  He didn’t seem to mind the blemish on his face, acted as though it weren’t there, as if that dictated how others would react to it.

“Can we cut out the charm and get to business?” I asked, as I reached for the thermos and sandwich.  “There’s something of a time limit.”

The smile dropped from his face, and he was all business.  “A time limit.  Can I ask?”

“It’s twelve past one,” I said.  “We have until eight-thirty.”

“Very well.  Let’s get moving.  First off, I want to get some things clear.  I’m an excellent lawyer, I’ve worked with more than a few big-name villains, as well as heroes who went astray.  I have the rest of my firm backing me, and their talents are but a phone call away.  But.  He paused in a very deliberate way.  “You should know that I’m not the lawyer you want at a jury trial.  We’ve run simulations, and I don’t sell when it comes to juries.  This little mark is a good part of that.”

He touched his face, where the scar was.

Mr. Calle continued, “If it comes to a serious trial, I’ll take the backseat and one of my senior partners would represent you.”

“Okay,” I said.  “That’s fine.  I don’t want this to go to trial.”

“Alright.  We can work with that.  In the meantime, let’s see what we’re up against…”

He turned the first page in one of the neatly bound sheafs of paper.  “Charges… chime in, but don’t panic, alright?”

“Okay,” I said.

“April tenth, criminal negligence with a parahuman ability, sixteen charges of assault, sixteen charges of battery with a parahuman ability.”

I tried to think.  April tenth?  Early in my career?

“Lung,” I said, “I attacked him and his gang.  They’re seriously charging me for attacking Lung’s henchmen?”

“They’re going to charge you with everything they think they can get away with and see what sticks.  Depending on who they could actually find and convince to testify, they’ll drop charges after the fact.  We can maybe use that, or we could, if circumstances were different and we were wanting to take this to trial.  No need to worry.  Gut reaction?  Could they make it stick?”

“The Lung part, yes, but the rest… probably not.”

“Okay.  Let’s run down the list.  April fourteenth.  Thirty two charges of willful felony assault with a parahuman ability.  Thirty two charges of hostage taking, technically domestic terrorism, each perpetrated with a parahuman ability.  Robbery with a parahuman ability.  Willful damage to government property.  Disturbing the peace.”

“The bank robbery.  I didn’t damage any property.”

“Right.  April twenty-fourth?  One case of battery.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“An… Emma Barnes.  She appeared-”

“Right.  No, I remember what that was.  It happened, didn’t think anything would come of it.”

“One of the girls who bullied you.  Odd that they took their time filing charges on it.  Only this past week.”

Tagg must have talked to her.  I shrugged.

“Moving on, then.  Incidents taking place at the… Forsberg Gallery, May fifth.  Five cases of assaulting a law enforcement officer.  Five cases of battering a law enforcement officer, three performed with a parahuman ability.”

“That’s attacking the heroes?”

“No.  That’d be an entirely different charge, and…” my lawyer flipped through the papers, “Just double checking… there’s a conspicuous lack of charges involving your altercations with major heroes.  It could be that they discussed it and didn’t feel it necessary.  Things get complicated when capes take the stand, given the issues of identity and character, and they might not have wanted to dredge up old business.  If not that, the only way I could imagine it is if the heroes in question withdrew all charges?”

He pitched his voice to make the statement into something of a question.

I thought of Armsmaster.  Him?  Maybe.  But Assault?  Miss Militia?  That was harder to picture.  The Wards?  Harder still.

“I don’t know which it is,” I admitted.

“All right.  Something to look into, if we have time.  Still on May fifth, eighty-one charges of willful felony assault.  Still at the fundraiser.”

He raised one eyebrow.  I only nodded confirmation.

“Skipping ahead a month to June third, we’ve got… complicity towards one count of kidnapping using a parahuman ability.  This was-”

“Sophia Hess.”

“One of the girls who bullied you.  Extenuating circumstances, perhaps,” he said.  He made a note in the margins of the document.  “June fourth, you’re supposedly complicit in class two extortion with a parahuman ability, criminal negligence with a parahuman ability and false imprisonment with a parahuman ability.”

“They… can probably make that stick.”

“June fifth.  Treason.”

“Treason.”

“That would be, in effect, declaring war against the government of the United States of America.”

“That’s not what I did.”

“It’s what they’re going to say you did when you took over the territory.  I’d expect they already have strong arguments lined up on that front.  On the same day, thirty cases of assault and battery.  Six cases of aggravated assault with a parahuman ability.”

I nodded.

“June eighth, eight cases of assault with a parahuman ability.  June ninth, we’ve got twelve more.  June tenth, three cases of assault with a parahuman ability, one case of assault in the third degree.”

“Alright,” I said.

“Thirteenth, we have three more cases of assault with a parahuman ability.”

“Makes sense.”

“Sixteenth of June, disturbing the peace, property damage.”

I nodded.  The days were starting to blend into one another, to the point that I wasn’t sure I could guess which charges were referring to which events.

“Seventeenth, five charges of assault and battery.  One charge of aggravated assault with a parahuman ability.  One charge of criminal extortion.”

“Attacking the mayor,” I said, almost relieved to be able to pinpoint the crime in question.

“And his family, it seems.”  Mr. Calle paused, then paged through the rest of the pad.  “June eighteenth.  Destruction of government property, four counts.  Hostage taking, assault and battery of a law enforcement officer.  June nineteenth, complicity in another count of treason.  Complicity in manslaughter, nineteen counts.”

I nodded.  Dragon and fighting in the debate.  Given Dragon’s response in the cafeteria, I’d almost expected her to drop any charges involved in the destruction of the suits she’d sent against me.  Maybe people higher up than her had charged me anyways.  Then there was the manslaughter.  “Apparently the murders were staged.”

“We’ll have to look into that.  And… that’s the last we have in our actual records.  The PRT was slow in sending us the rest, but Miss Militia should deliver it soon.  There’s been more in the last week, I take it?”

“More assault and battery,” I said, feeling a touch weary.  “Whatever charges come up with the thing at the school.  I sort of arranged to have a psychopath kill herself.  Um.  However you’d charge putting maggots in someone’s eyeballs.  In self-defense.”

He didn’t even flinch at that.  “I see.  And any other charges that might catch us by surprise?”

“Premeditated murder,” I said.  “Of a law enforcement officer.  Miss Militia knows, but she’s kept quiet on it.”

“I see,” Mr. Calle said.  He frowned briefly.

“It was Coil.  Director Thomas Calvert was Coil.”

“Alright, then,” Mr. Calle said.  He met my eyes, then smiled.  “Believe it or not, I’ve handled worse.”

I wasn’t sure if I should feel relieved at that.

“Now let’s talk about our goals.  For the record, if we took this to trial, I think we could knock off most of these charges on a lack of evidence and degrees of amnesty surrounding your participation against the various class-S threats.  They’re going to want to put together a jury that hasn’t heard of you, which would be difficult.  To those people, it’s going to sound downright preposterous that a sixteen year old girl is being charged with treason and terrorism, especially after we reduce the number of assault and battery charges to single digits.”

“I don’t want a jury trial,” I said.  “I’ve said this twice now.”

“I know,” Mr. Calle said. “Hear me out.  I’m wanting to make sure our expectations are realistic.  Theoretically speaking, I think we could get you charged as a minor.  Paint a picture of a bullied teenager pushed to the limit, caught out of her depth and, following the Leviathan attack, ensnared in an ugly situation where she’s trying to protect people and the heroes are being unreasonable in how they interact with her.  We could use the unwarranted unmasking to indicate just how aggressive and ruthless the PRT has been in regards to you.”

“And if I decided to plea down, in exchange for certain considerations?”

“We can still reduce the charges, which would help reduce the penalties you’d face, but where I’m confident we could get you off in a trial by jury, you’d face some consequences if you insisted on taking this route.”

“Alright,” I said.  “I can live with consequences.  In terms of holding them to the terms I stipulate, is there any way to set it up so they can’t change their minds after they’ve gotten what they want from me?”

“We can prepare a contract, but that only imposes financial penalties,” Mr. Calle answered me.  “The PRT could theoretically get it thrown out of court, and that’s ignoring the possibility that you could be sent to the birdcage.  It would depend on the penalties you’re able to levy against them…”

He trailed off.

I thought of Tattletale.  “I think I have some ideas.”

“Excellent.  But the best way, I’m thinking, is to make it all common knowledge.  Let the rest of the country hold them to it.  It would depend on whether we could share the details with John and Jane Q. Public.”

“Can we talk about the terms, then?” I asked.

“We can.  I got the impression you were able to tell time?”

“It’s one twenty-seven.  Six hours and three minutes left.”

“Right then,” he made a pained expression.  “A good thing I told my wife I wouldn’t make it to dinner.  I’ll get a few of my coworkers on the line.  They can pitch in and put an intern to typing things up while we hash this out.  You don’t have much ground to stand on, but we can make the legal ramifications as ugly as possible for them if they throw you under the bus.”

It took one and a half hours, roughly, to get everything worked out and organized.  After that, I had to put up with twenty minutes of waiting while Mr. Calle’s law firm typed it and emailed it to us.  It took ten more minutes for my lawyer to run to a nearby print shop and get the paperwork we’d put together.  Mr. Calle then insisted on reading the entire thing through.  The wait was almost intolerable.

Fifteen more minutes passed as he went through it page by page, with agonizing slowness.  I winced a little every time he stopped and went back to check earlier details against whatever it was he was reading.

“It’s bare bones,” he finally said.

“I didn’t expect much else,” I said.

“We could have done better with more notice, I have to say.”

“Too many variables to lay anything out ahead of time,” I said.

“Very well.  Let’s bring them in.”

More minutes ticked away as we waited for the others to arrive.  Director Tagg, the Deputy Director, Miss Militia, Clockblocker, and Mrs. Yamada… they were gathering in force.  Tagg took a seat opposite us, Miss Militia to his left, his second in command to his right.

“Let’s hear it,” he said.

Mr. Calle stood, then walked around the table, handing each person present a copy of the document.  I was the only one who didn’t have one in front of me.

“My client, Taylor Hebert, is offering official surrender to the PRT, for a select handful of crimes.  This surrender and an admission of guilt would be televised locally, nationally and possibly internationally, dependent on which outlets were prepared to cooperate.  In exchange, my client, Taylor Hebert, known by the alias ‘Skitter’, requests some concessions from the Protectorate, PRT and Wards.”

“Televised?” Tagg asked.

“It serves as insurance for my client, and it serves to signal the Undersiders to stand down, should they be considering any sort of aggression for the capture of their leader and friend.”

“Right,” Tagg said.  “Let’s pretend she didn’t plan for that.  Go on.”

“To begin with, the remaining members of the Undersiders will be given leniency for past crimes.  With the understanding that the Undersiders are serving to police this city’s underworld where the Protectorate is unable, the group would cease to be the target of any aggression or harassment on the part of the PRT, Protectorate or Wards.  This fact would not be disclosed to the public, but would serve as a truce to allow both sides to carry out their respective duties in the service of Brockton Bay.”

“You’re kidding me,” Clockblocker said.

“You want us to play nice,” Tagg said.

I watched Miss Militia.  We’d already discussed this point.  I’d gauged her response.  Now I was putting it out there in simple, clear terms, making it official.  I couldn’t be sure if she’d hold to her word or if it would collapse under the bureaucracy.

I’d tested her once, and she’d informed Tagg of what I was planning.  This would be a second test, of sorts.

“Special allowances,” Mr. Calle said, “Would be made for crimes committed in the future, within specific limits detailed on page three of the paperwork you have in front of you.”

“You want to neuter us,” Director Tagg said.  “Stop us from policing the criminals who run this city.”

“As my client phrased it, Director, we’re hoping to free you to focus your efforts on real targets.”

“You can want it and begin again,” Tagg said, “But I won’t stand by and watch it happen.”

“Quite alright,” my lawyer responded.  He flashed a smile, “I expect that’s why Ms. Hebert has asked that you retire, Director Tagg.  Her colleague, known by the alias Tattletale, has apparently confirmed that you’ve put in the requisite number of years.  You could collect your pension without issue.”

I watched as Tagg leaned back in his seat.  He gave me a smug look.  He thinks he got to me.

“You’re dangerous,” I said.  “You’ve got a soldier’s mentality at a time when we need peace.  You’d let the world burn to… give me a bloody nose.  You said it yourself.  You’re unyielding, and we need compromise.”

“A reality that Ms. Hebert feels Miss Militia would be better equipped to accommodate,” my lawyer added.  “That’s our third term.”

There weren’t any retorts or rebuttals from the ‘good guys’.  Instead, they exchanged glances across the table, everyone looking between Miss Militia and Director Tagg.

“The PRT is led by non-capes,” Miss Militia said.

“That can change,” I said.  “Nearly a week ago, you and I had a conversation.  We talked about the issues within the PRT, the fact that you had to kowtow to non-capes and all the problems that posed.  I think the non-capes who tend to find powerful positions in the PRT are getting there by dangerous roads.  They tend to have backgrounds with the police, military, and anti-parahuman strike teams.  It sets up a combative mindset, where we don’t need one.  With a cape in charge of the local team, at the very least, I could hope that there’d be a shared perspective.”

“You think Miss Militia would be easier to manipulate,” Tagg accused me.

“I think she’s a no-nonsense type.  I know she’s a respected cape, that her power… it’s not one you want to cross paths with, so there’d be little doubt she could put up a fight if it came down to it.  And she listens.  She doesn’t always do what I’d want her to, but I can live with that.”

“This sets a precedent,” Miss Militia said.  “One that I doubt our superiors would be happy with.  One I doubt the public would be happy with.”

“When I showed up the night you guys outed me to the public, Tagg was boasting about your fantastic public relations department,” I said.  “How virtually anything could be sold to the public, given time.”

“It’s ultimately up to the Director,” Triumph said, “But what if, hypothetically, we had a figurehead leader, with Miss Militia as the person that was really calling the shots?”

I shook my head.  “Not good enough.”

“You actually have the temerity to play hardball?” Tagg asked, his voice rising a notch.  “I think you’re missing the fact that you’re securely in our custody, and you already surrendered.  If it comes down to it, we can see you shipped off with Dragon and Defiant, keep you airborne and away from any large body of insects until your trial by teleconference.”

“And my teammates?” I asked.

“That’s up to you,” he said, “But I don’t think you have it in you to sacrifice them for… this.”

“I guess I have a higher estimation of them than you do.  Don’t tell your people to stop underestimating me, only to slip up and expect to win wholesale against the rest of the Undersiders.  I think they’d surprise you.  Surprise all of you.”

“You said you need compromise,” Miss Militia said.  “But you won’t budge on this point?  A figurehead leader would keep the public content and give you what you’re asking for.”

“What I want,” I said, “Is to set a precedent.  Fixing Brockton Bay doesn’t do a thing, if we don’t leave doors open to fix things elsewhere.  If one cape becomes head of the local PRT, then it could happen elsewhere.”

Director Tagg drummed his fingertips on the metal table for a few seconds.  When he spoke, his tone was derisive.  “Your arrogance boggles the fucking mind.  You want to change the world, and you think a confession on television and the threat of your friends attacking the PRT will be incentive enough?  You’re not that big a fish.”

“I don’t want to change the world,” I said.  “I want to make it possible for things to change.”

“Semantics.”

I sighed.  My glasses were slipping down my nose.  I had to bend over to put them in reach of my hand so I could push them up.

“Is that it?” Miss Militia asked.

“One more thing,” Mr. Calle said.  “My client has a request.”

All eyes turned to me.  I straightened.  “I recognize that I’m asking for some big things.  I’m hoping that the… scale of some of what I’m asking for is tempered by the fact that this is all constructive.  It puts us in a better place and leaves us prepared to face down the real threats: the impending apocalypse, the Endbringers, the forces who’d want to move into this city and abuse the portal.  I’m going to ask for one more thing in that vein.  Don’t send me to the Birdcage.  Don’t send me to juvie, or hang me for treason.  It’s… not constructive.”

“What would you have us do?” Mrs. Yamada spoke up.

Use me.  I get that it wouldn’t work, having me join the Wards.  Too much baggage.  But… the end of the world hinges on Jack Slash doing something within the next two years.  You absolved Armsmaster of his crimes and sent him out to hunt them down.  Do the same with me.  I can cover a lot of ground in a search, I have experience fighting them, and if you needed it, nobody would even have to know I was doing it.  I’d be one more body on the ground, relatively discreet, and maybe that gives us all a slightly better chance of keeping Dinah’s prediction from coming to pass.”

I wasn’t even done talking when I saw the looks, felt a sinking in my gut as the various people in charge exchanged glances.  Tagg smiled a little.  Miss Militia looked… concerned.  The only person who looked as confused as I felt was Clockblocker.

“What?” I asked.

“Your intel is out of date,” Tagg said.  His heavily lined eyes were staring at me, studying me.

“What?” I asked.  “You already stopped them?”

“No,” he said, and the word was a growl.  He didn’t elaborate further.

“Taylor,” Miss Militia rescued me, “Do you know where the Slaughterhouse Nine went after leaving Brockton Bay?”

“A series of small towns, then Boston,” I said.

“Yes,” she said.  “And they struck one target after Boston.  Toybox.”

I remembered seeing the name on Tattletale’s bulletin board.  “Who or where is Toybox?”

What’s Toybox, you mean,” the Director said.

“What’s Toybox?” I asked.

“May I?” Miss Militia asked Tagg.  He gave her a curt nod, and she took hold of the laptop in front of him.  It took her a few moments to log in and open the page.  She unplugged the cord from the laptop and handed it to Mrs. Yamada, who handed it to my lawyer.  He set it so we could both see it.  Mr. Calle clicked the touchpad to page through the various images and documents.

“Toybox is a black market organization,” Miss Militia said.  “Tinkers who operate solo find life rather difficult, due to a lack of resources and the fact that gangs and government organizations are very, very persistent when it comes to recruiting them.  Faced with the prospect of spending their lives on the run, trying to avoid being forcibly recruited into one organization or another, most turn to the Protectorate or the Wards.  For those few who don’t, Toybox is… was a refuge of sorts.  Tinkers would join, share technology, stay in the enclave as long as they needed to build up a reputation and whatever tools they needed, they would share thirty-three percent of any proceeds with the rest of the group, helping to keep others afloat.  Toybox sustained itself with barter, by moving frequently, operating between the scope of heroes and villains, and by selling less-than-legal goods to criminal groups.”

I could see the images, grainy black and white photos of various tinkers huddled together, or standing behind tables loaded down with ray guns and the like.  There was a chronology of sorts, to the point that I could see the group evolve, some leaving as others joined, the enclave shifting from a group as small as four members to as many as fifteen.

“The Slaughterhouse Nine attacked them at the end of June,” Miss Militia said.  “In doing so, they appropriated all of the tinker technology and all of the tinkers that were staying with the group.  See page thirty-six and on.”

Mr. Calle paged forward until the images showed up.

Pyrotechnical.  A tinker focusing on flame manipulation, special effects, guns.

Cranial.  A tinker specializing in neurology.  Brain scans, draining thoughts, recording thoughts.

Big Rig.  A tinker who built drones that built things in turn, particularly buildings.

Bauble.  A girl who specialized in glassworking and glassworking tools, including tools that could turn inorganic matter into glass.

Dodge.  A boy, twelve, who made access devices for pocket dimensions.

Toy Soldier.  A powersuit user with a suit the size of a small building.

Glace.  A tinker specializing in cryogenics and stasis.

“The Nine have access to all of their work?”  I felt an inarticulate feeling of horror creep over me.  I couldn’t imagine anything particular, but anything that enhanced the capabilities and options that Slaughterhouse Nine had at their disposal?

“And access to the work of Blasto, a cloning specialist they assaulted and kidnapped in Boston,” Miss Militia said.

I sat back and the chain of my cuffs went taut, my arms stretched out in front of me.  “This doesn’t change things.  If anything, you need all of the help you can get.  This is serious.”

“It’s complicated,” Miss Militia said.

“Seems pretty damn simple,” I said.

“No,” she said, shaking her head.  “Because they’re gone.  They stopped.”

I shut my mouth, staring.

“The Slaughterhouse Nine attacked Toybox, taking the group’s devices for themselves, and they disappeared.  We suspect they used Dodge’s devices to exit into a pocket dimension, and by the time we’d found a way to follow, they’d exited elsewhere.”

“They’re dimension hopping?”

“Dodge’s devices only exit from Bet to pocket worlds he creates with his devices, back to Bet.  We believe they exited somewhere on Bet, possibly in another state, then used another device to hide.  Which would be where they are now.  Without knowing where they entered that particular pocket, we can’t hope to find them,” Miss Militia said.  “We know their patterns.  They tend to cut a swathe of destruction across North America, and it’s rare for even a handful of days to pass without them taking any action at all.  Between the PRT’s past experience with the group, our thinkers, and the fact that they haven’t made an appearance in nearly ten days, we believe we’ve worked out what they’re doing.”

I stared at the laptop.  It was still on the last page.  Glace.

“Cryogenics,” I said.

“Stasis,” Miss Militia agreed.  “The pressure grew too intense, with Defiant and Dragon’s pursuit, they weren’t recovering from losses fast enough.  They’ve gone into hiding, and we think they plan to wait.”

Wait, I thought.

“How long?” Clockblocker asked.

“We can’t know for sure,”  Miss Militia replied.  “But if they’ve put themselves in a cryogenic sleep, they could wake and resume their normal activities days, weeks, months or years from now.  Depending on the resources they have available, they might well emerge with clones of their current members at their side.”

Tattletale should have told me, I thought, even as I knew why she hadn’t.  Her power had been out of commission.  She’d been out of commission.  We’d known the Nine attacked the Toybox, but we’d missed what that meant in the grand scheme of things.  Through a combination of Tattletale’s ailment and a hundred other small distractions, we’d missed out on the reason Defiant and Dragon had been able to abandon their hunt for the Nine and visit Arcadia.

“Does Jack know?” I asked.  “I mean, I know he knows he’s supposed to end the world, but does he know he sets it in motion within two years?”

Miss Militia shook her head.  “We don’t think so.  Which means that, unless there’s something specific they want to wake up for, we can’t even begin to guess when he’ll have his team wake up.”

Silence hung in the air for long seconds.

“Now you know.  These are your demands?”  Tagg spoke up.

“We’ll need to discuss things and revise our terms with this new information in mind,” Mr. Calle said, glancing at me.  I nodded once.

“Better do some heavy revision,” Director Tagg said.  “And do it fast, because it’s not that long until sundown, and I won’t be accepting any of your terms as they stand.  You said it yourself, nobody wants this fight.”

I frowned, watching each of them making their way out of the interrogation room.

Tagg joined Miss Militia’s side, and I couldn’t help but notice the way she adopted a guarded position, folding her arms as he approached.  It gave me a flicker of hope.

Until the bugs I’d planted inside the fold of Tagg’s collar caught a fragment of something he was saying.

“…her father.”

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Cell 22.1

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I remained where I was, hands folded on the back of my head, kneeling, while the PRT officers bellowed at me, almost incoherent, impossible to obey as they gave me contradictory orders.  Down on the ground, stand up, throw any weapons to the side, do not touch anything.

They were afraid to approach, too, apparently.  Maybe word had gotten out about what happened to Armsmaster when he’d gotten ahold of me at the fundraiser.  They each stopped about ten feet from me, forming a loose ring.  I’d thought they might have hit me with one of their nonlethal weapons, but they didn’t shoot.  Maybe the audience was giving them second thoughts.

Miss Militia broke the stalemate, such as it was.  I could see her put one hand on Clockblocker’s shoulder, giving him a gentle push.

In his white costume, he advanced.  He was inscribed with images of clocks in gray, some animated, little hands spinning at different speeds at his shoulder, the center of his chest, and the backs of his hands, places where the armor panels were broadest.  He crossed the perimeter of guards, getting closer to me.

When I didn’t react, they seemed to take that as permission to move closer.  The bellowing reached a crescendo, and one officer was apparently unhappy that I wasn’t already lying prone on the ground.  He planted a heavy boot between my shoulder blades, then thrust me into the ground.  I only barely managed to turn my head to avoid cracking my chin on the floor, pulling my head back so I didn’t smash it.  I felt the air huff out of my chest, pain jolting through me.  My chest wasn’t large, was a ways from ‘medium’, even, but that didn’t make it any better when it bore the brunt of the impact.

The other guards were alternately herding the civilians out of the area or forming a wall to keep them from watching.

“Hey!” Clockblocker said.  “That’s enough.  I got this.”

The shouting stopped.  There was only the noise of the guards on the far ends of the room, giving orders to tourists and staff members, taking charge of the situation and escorting people out.

I had to twist my head to look up at Clockblocker.   For his part, he stared down at me, his expression hidden by the featureless white pane of his mask.

“This is a trick,” he said.

“Yeah,” I admitted.  “But not the way you’re thinking.”

He didn’t respond to that.

“Do you need me to take a different position?” I asked.

“Once upon a time, I would have had something clever to say in response to that,” he said, quiet.

“What?”

“Nevermind.  Kneel, with your arms behind you.”

I moved slowly, so I wouldn’t provoke any rash actions from the uniforms, climbing to my knees, then extending my arms behind me.

He reached out and touched the top of my head.

What felt like an instant later, my arms were weighed down.  Clockblocker was behind me, his hand on the heavy metal restraints to keep them from slamming into my tailbone.  Everyone else in the lobby had moved.  The Wards filled the area, along with the members of the Protectorate, new and old.  Flechette was only a short distance away, while Miss Militia stood just beside Clockblocker.  Even heroes that had presumably been on patrol were back, along with more PRT members than I’d counted in the building when I’d surrendered.

Tagg was there too, flanked by two PRT uniforms and one man who was wearing a suit, rather than a uniform.  The deputy director?

I’d lost control of my bugs while I’d been timed out.  In many cases, it wasn’t a problem.  Still, I’d lost the ability to track most of those who were present, as mosquitoes, flies and ants went about their merry way.

“Stand,” Miss Militia told me.

I tried to stand, but found more restraints on my ankles.  They were connected to the massive metal handcuffs I wore, which only made an awkward setup worse.

“Clockblocker,” Miss Militia said.  She reached under one of my arms.  Clockblocker took her cue and did the same.  Together, they hauled me to my feet.  They stayed beside me, holding my arms, as they led me past all of the gathered heroes and PRT officers.  All people I’d hurt, people I’d humiliated.

I had no friends here.

Director Tagg was lighting up a cigarette, despite the prominent ‘no smoking’ signs nearby.  As I passed, he gave me a hard stare, heavily lined eyes glaring beneath thick black eyebrows, his face otherwise expressionless.  He pointed, and a PRT uniform joined our group.

Miss Militia handed me off to Triumph, and he helped Clockblocker lead me through the corridor to the PRT elevator.  The doors whisked shut, sealing the four of us inside.

Damn, these handcuffs were uncomfortable.  They had to be a design meant for the heavy hitters, for capes who could rend steel with their bare hands.  Was it spite that made them use these cuffs?

They weren’t reading me my rights.  Was there a reason?  I might have asked, but I didn’t want to show ignorance.  Better to be confident, to act as if I knew exactly what was going on.

Above us, Tagg extinguished his cigarette, barely touched, fished in a nearby trashcan for a soda can, and dropped the butt inside before disposing of it.

I couldn’t quite make out his words.  Not enough bugs in position.  “- now.  PRT-”

All of the capes mobilized, joining Tagg and his immediate underlings in entering the stairwell.  The PRT moved as well, but in a wholly different direction.  They were taking defensive positions, leaders barking out orders.

I couldn’t be absolutely sure, given how little I knew about guns, but I was pretty sure the PRT was packing more in the way of lethal weapons than they had been on my last visit.

The elevator stopped, so gently I might have missed it if my bugs didn’t give me perspective on a larger scale.  We stepped out into a brightly lit hallway.

“This is an E-type containment cell.  Countermeasures include containment foam and these beauties,” Triumph said.

Beauties?

He was pointing up.  I followed the direction and looked.  Spheres the size of beach balls, chrome, with small windows on the bottom.  Familiar.

“Touch the door, make too much noise or use your power, and the room gets flooded with an electric charge,” Triumph explained.  “Calculated so it’s only a little less powerful than it’d need to be to do permanent damage.  Push it any further and the room is flooded with containment foam.  The same measures are packed into this whole hallway.”

Ah.  They were the same devices that had been loaded into the drones that one of Dragon’s suits had deployed.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “I don’t plan on escaping.”

“What are you planning?” Clockblocker asked.

“Don’t engage her,” Triumph said.  He brought us to a stop by one metal door.  There was a letter etched on the surface of the metal, a large ‘E’, and smaller codes in boxes beside it.  M-21, CC-2, Bat-4

He tapped his phone against the wall, and two sets of metal doors slid open.  Very similar to the elevatorSame design?

Thick walls, I noted.  The walls that framed the door were a foot and a half deep.  It somehow made the small cell a little more claustrophobic.  It was daunting as it was, six feet by six feet, with sheet metal laid out over the floor and walls, welded together where they joined, with openings cut in where necessary.  There was a vent above me, pumping in a constant flow of fresh air, a little too cold, and another vent beneath the bed, blocked off by a grid of metal bars that extended between the bed and the floor.

The bed itself featured a mattress no thicker than my hand, covered in plastic and laid out on an arrangement of metal strips that wove into one another.  The ‘toilet’ wasn’t a toilet at all, but looked to be a urinal, horizontal and sunken into the ground, a shallow chrome basin with a drain and three thick buttons where it met the wall.  On the opposite wall, a television was set into the wall, protected by a clear pane.  I didn’t see controls or anything resembling a remote.

Above me, another one of those beachball-sized orbs was embedded into the ceiling.  Ominous.

Everything was sealed and reinforced twice over.  Everything but the vents, but they were too small to crawl through.  Was this the kind of cell they put Lung in?  With all the metal and the relatively meager amounts of cloth, I didn’t imagine even his pyrokinesis would do much, unless he’d grown considerably.

I turned around to look at my three escorts, and noted that Clockblocker and Triumph had backed off.  It was just the PRT uniform, now.

I felt a moment’s trepidation.  Was this the point where the PRT officer beat me within an inch of my life, while everyone else turned a blind eye?

“Kit, and one bundle,” the PRT told Clockblocker.  I was surprised to note that it was a woman’s voice, behind the featureless helmet.  The junior hero hurried off to the end of the hall opposite the elevator.  She wrenched me around until my back was to her, then bent down to remove the leg restraints.  Triumph stared at me, arms folded, while she did it, the threat implicit.  She removed my hand restraints as well, then handed the gear to the hero.

The officer stepped into the cell with me, and the door shut behind her.  “Clothes off.”

Oh.  Worse than a beating, then.

I tried to tell myself to stay calm, to not be embarrassed.  This was a combination of procedure and psychology.  They wanted me off guard, feeling vulnerable.  In the time Clockblocker had me on pause, Tagg had likely outlined orders to this extent.

I kicked off my shoes, removed my top and running pants, folded them, and set them aside.  There were no shelves, so I left them in one corner of the room.

The PRT officer undid the neat folding, rifling through pockets for something, anything, then left my clothes in a heap.

Once I had my underwear off, she checked it, then gave me my next order.  “Glasses.”

I removed my glasses and handed them over.  She turned them over in her hands, twisted and manhandled them until I worried the frames would snap.

“Shower.  Rinse off until I say stop.”

I gave her a quizzical look, and she pointed.

I crossed the room to investigate.  Above the toilet, there was an opening in the wall, about four feet above the ground.

“Three buttons,” the uniform said.  “Flush, sink and shower.  Squat to use the bathroom, get on all fours or squat to shower.  If the screen flashes yellow and beeps, that means cameras are going on and someone’s got something to say to you.  You’ll have six seconds to finish your business and cover up.  Screen flashes red, beeps twice, it means door’s opening.  Again, six seconds to cover up.”

A little inhumane, I thought.  Would that be more psychological pressure?  Regular visits?  Interrupting my sleep?  Unreliable privacy?

“Rinse,” she repeated.

Maybe Tagg wants me to snap and attack her, I mused.

But I did as she’d asked.  The spray was lukewarm, and the stream was directed into the toilet, using the same drain, which made it awkward to get underneath without actually crouching in the toilet itself.  That was only compounded by the fact that the vent was still blasting in cool air, chilling the parts of me that weren’t immediately under the stream.

I grit my teeth, told myself that Lung had probably dealt with it, wedging his six-foot-plus frame beneath the stream.  It would have been worse for him, being larger, blind, missing something between the legs.  Except he maybe hadn’t had a guard in the room with him.  Too dangerous.

For an instant, I wished I had enough of a reputation that this woman wouldn’t be there, watching me.

The door opened partway, while I stood there dripping.  She was kind enough to block the opening with her body, so I didn’t flash the two young heroes.

She threw a bundle onto the bed.  A towel?  Clothes?

I started to move towards it and she barked out, “Stop.”

Apparently I wasn’t allowed to dress.  She had more things in her hands.  A tool kit.  She fished out a set of sterile gloves.  “Allergies?”

“I’m allergic to bee stings,” I said, trying to inject some levity into the proceedings. I couldn’t see her expression.

Damn it.  I was wet, beaded with moisture, my hair clinging to my scalp, and doing my best not to shiver as I cursed the cold air that flooded the room.  I used my fingers and fingernails to comb my hair back away from my face.

“Latex allergy?”

“No,” I said, “And I was joking about the bee stings.”

Not even a recognition of the joke.  “Are you on any medications?”

“No.”

“Birth control?”

“No.”  Condoms, I thought.

“Two ways we can do this.  You cooperate, takes five to ten minutes to do a full search.  You fail to cooperate, if you fight me, bite or struggle, I step outside and we turn on the countermeasure, and then do a search while you’re incapacitated.”

Her head lifted fractionally, as if she was glancing up at the electricity-dispensing orb above.

“I’ll cooperate,” I said.

Oh, how glad I was, that I could focus my power elsewhere, distract myself.

Tagg had arranged everyone in a conference room upstairs.  The heroes, suits and uniforms I presumed were key members of the PRT, and one or two more, who sat a distance away from the Director and his people.

“Plans,” Tagg said, “Go.”

“We bring Defiant and Dragon in,” Miss Militia said.  “They ship her to another PRT office where we can hold her until a trial.”

“Sensible,” Tagg said, “Except we expose ourselves to attack while …ing her.”

“We’re vulnerable to attack here,” Miss Militia said.

“We can’t act until we know what she’s doing,” another cape said.  A woman with a high collar.  Dovetail.  “What’s her plan?”

There was a silence.

“Thoughts, Miss Militia?” Tagg asked.

“She’s… intelligent.  In every case we’ve crossed paths with her, she’s proved resourceful.  She was confident and self-assured when she turned herself in.  Whatever this maneuver is, it was calculated.”

“Mrs. Yamada?” Tagg asked one of the people in suits at the far end of the table.

“I’ve read up on her, studied the records you have of her, talked to the students that knew her best, for better or worse.  Greg Veder, Emma Barnes, Sophia Hess, Madison Clements… her teachers, her father… I’m not so convinced.”

“You disagree with Miss Militia?”

“I can’t say for sure without talking to the girl, but actual surrender isn’t impossible, given my understanding of her.”

“I’m not saying she’s not surrendering,” Miss Militia said.  “I’m saying she’s plotting something.  The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.”

“She could be attempting to bring down the PRT,” Assault said.  “Do it from within.  With the charges we have lined up against her, she can request a jury trial.  She uses that as a platform to dish out dirty secrets.  Confidential data on Armsmaster, details from records they stole from the database, the Echidna event and the fallout therein…”

“Given how that’s gone,” Dovetail said, “She’d be digging her own grave.  We all thought the details would leak, but Cauldron’s cleanup is efficient.  Anyone who tries to leak details gets… censored.”

“Killed,” Adamant clarified.  “Or disappeared.”

“It would be unfortunate if she were killed in our custody,” Tagg said.  “She’d be safer in the Birdcage.”

“With the public support she has within the city?” Miss Militia asked.  “Good luck getting her there without a fair trial.  There’s going to be a lot of eyes on this.”

“So she’s forcing our hand,” Tagg said.  “The question is why.”

“To oust you,” Miss Militia said.

“Revenge?” Tagg asked.

“I don’t know, but I had a conversation with her a few days ago, and she said she had something in mind that she could use against you.  I didn’t know what it was before now.”

“I see,” Tagg said, rubbing his chin.

Back in the cell, I sighed.  I could see the uniform flinch in reaction.  She had her fingers in my mouth, feeling beneath my tongue and around the base of my gums.  When I didn’t bite like she’d feared, she finished and removed her fingers from my mouth.  She removed the gloves, where they joined the first pair she’d donned.

Miss Militia had told Tagg.  I wasn’t surprised; she gave me the impression of someone who followed the letter of the law.  As willing as she’d been to open negotiations, she would still do what it took to keep her job and maintain the peace.

I was maybe a little disappointed.  I hadn’t demanded she keep it a secret, and it wasn’t liable to change anything, but it made for a small breach of faith.

The PRT officer finished off the search by combing my hair with a metal comb that I suspected was sharpened at the points to double as a wood saw.  It felt like it, at least.  The combing wasn’t done to look tidy, but to search my hair for any foreign matter or tools.  I was just glad they hadn’t decided to shave it all off.  I wouldn’t have put it past them.

“Towel is in the bag,” the PRT officer said.  She shook a plastic bag to open it, then began putting my clothes inside, leaving me only the underwear.

I opened the drawstring bag, which was missing a drawstring, then sorted out the contents.  A thin towel, a single sheet so thin it was translucent, a pillow and pillowcase that looked to be the same fabric as the mattress, folded double, half the size of a normal pillow.  There were prison sweats, black, with the word ‘Villain’ printed across the shoulders and down the right leg in white, with a white t-shirt with the same word in black.  There was a small kit with a rubbery, flexible thimble-toothbrush that fit over one finger and a small tube of toothpaste, three tampons with soap, three cardboard applicators, and three pads.

Not that it mattered.  I’d been under enough stress the past few months that I’d missed my periods entirely.  I might have panicked, if the timing of it had been different.  I was safe.  Ninety-nine point nine percent sure I was safe.

She waited until I had quickly toweled dry, put the underwear and prison sweats on, then handed me my glasses and opened the door.  I caught a glimpse of Triumph and Clockblocker before she blocked my line of sight.

“Sit tight, princess,” she said.

The door whisked shut, leaving me confined in a space so narrow that I could lay down and touch two opposing walls with toe and outstretched hand.  Only the ceiling was out of reach.

I adjusted the sweats, leaving the front open, headed to the bed, laid down the pillow and stretched out.

“…Alcott girl,” Tagg was saying.  “Is she here?”

“On her way,” the deputy director answered.

“Then I think it’s time to settle on a game plan,” the Director said.  “I’m Skitter’s target, or one of them.  …ssination?”

“Coercion,” Miss Militia said.

“I see.  Her power extends to the remainder of this building, even now, am I right?”

“Arthropodokinesis, arthropodovoyance,” the Deputy Director said.  “She’s on record as a master eight, thinker one.  The thinker classification is key here: ex-Director Piggot noted Skitter can see through her bugs’ eyes.”

“Can she lipread?” Tagg asked.

“No idea,” the Deputy Director replied.

“I said it before,” Miss Militia said.  Her voice was a fraction quieter than before, but I couldn’t read her tone with the bugs’ hearing.  “She’s resourceful.  I’d assume she took the time to learn, if it would expand her capabilities.”

Director Tagg nodded slowly, then rubbed his chin again.  The movement of his wrist against his armrest nearly killed the bug I had in between his dress shirt and jacket.  “Agreed.  I already informed each of my officers to treat her as though she had a two point classification in every category, or two points higher in cases where she’s already received scores.  Brute two, mover two… all the way down the list.  It won’t do to underestimate her.  Let’s anticipate that she’s put herself in this position to have full access to the building by way of her power.  Until further notice, staff aren’t to access any confidential files, we don’t speak on any private matters while within her reach, capes are to remain masked at all times while on the premises, and we’ll devote all remaining resources to preparing for any conflict.”

Clockblocker and Triumph had entered just as he finished speaking.

“Conflict?” Clockblocker asked.  He took a chair among the other Wards.

“It remains a possibility.  If her teammates were to attack, she’d be positioned to use her power to hamper us, up until we used the nonlethal measures to incapacitate her,” Tagg replied.

“I could use my power,” Clockblocker said.  “Put her on pause, repeat the process until we have other measures in place.”

“No,” Tagg said.  “We need you elsewhere, and each contact gives her a chance to act against you or escape.  She’s confined, and we can use countermeasures to incapacitate her if need be.”

The Director set his elbows on the table and leaned over, covering his mouth with his hands.  I missed some of what he said, as his words were muffled.  “And … her stew for a while.”

Ah.  So the psychological pressure extended another step.  A strip search, a claustrophobic cell, stripping away my possessions, and now he planned to keep me cooped up in here until my composure cracked.  Not so effective if I was being put on pause, with only a fraction of the time passing.

“The alternative,” Assault said, “Is that this is exactly what she wants.  She wants us to react.”

“It’s possible,” Tagg said.  “Getting us agitated, getting media attention, having us call in assistance, only to humiliate us further.”

“You’re bringing in help?” Miss Militia asked.

“We’ll see,” Tagg said.  He touched his face as he spoke, and it muddled his words, “In the …, see to the … I recommended in dealing with her.  It would be best if you didn’t use your computer, with her … watching-”

“No need.  I remember what we discussed,” Miss Militia said.  “I’ll arrange it.”

“Make any and all calls outside of her power’s range.”

“We will,” Miss Militia said.

“If she’s … fight a war over the city’s heart, let’s make the first move.  We contact the media, control … … they have access to, make sure the first thing the public hears is our side.  Make sure we make some mention of Accord, and Hellhound’s penchant for chewing up people who trespass on her territory.”

“I’ll see to it,” the deputy director said.

Odd, to be so utterly helpless while I watched my enemies maneuver against me.  I couldn’t, wouldn’t use my power here.  I couldn’t talk to them, or request anything.

I shifted position, and the metal bands squeaked.  I couldn’t find a position to lie down, and wound up sitting.  I toweled my hair ineffectually in an attempt to get it dry.

An officer, out of uniform, appeared at the door to the conference room.  “Media already has the story.  Vickery, with channel twelve.  He’s asking us for final comments before the story goes live.”

“Is he on the phone right now?”

“Yes sir.”

Tagg stood, “Tell him I’ll talk to him when I’m done here, and I’ll make any wait worth his while.”

“Yes sir.”

As the uniform left, Tagg remained standing at the end of the table.  “Anticipate confrontation, but don’t seek it out.  Whatever they have planned, they’ll want to rescue her.”

“We can seal off the stairwell access with containment foam,” Kid Win spoke up.  “Seize the elevator, to prevent access to the cells.  If there’s an attack, we shut down the elevator.  In the worst case scenario, they can’t get her out before reinforcements arrived from other cities.”

“You can do it fast?”  Tagg asked.

“Very,” Kid Win said.

“See to it.  Where do things stand with the defense system against the bugs?”

“Not done, but I could wrap it up soonish with Sere’s help, maybe.”

“Sere?  You’ll cooperate?”

“Yes,” Sere replied.  “Of course.”

“Then it’s settled.  Everyone else, double the number of patrols, form pairs at a bare minimum, focus on recon more than fighting.  Track the Undersiders, meet with contacts.  Consider this a mid-to-high priority situation, keep that in mind if you’ve any favors to call in and you’re weighing whether you should.  Miss Militia?  Ready the measures we discussed, and use the Wards.  We don’t want them in a direct confrontation, and they can fend for themselves if ambushed.”

“Yes sir.”

With that, the meeting was broken up.  Tagg headed to his office, the Wards moved to the elevator to head down to their headquarters, below the cell that held me, and the Protectorate headed out on patrols.

My power’s range was about five blocks.  It should have been larger, going by the running theory that feeling ‘trapped’ extended my reach, but I was in here by my own device.  I couldn’t necessarily force it.

Five blocks felt oppressively small, in the grand scheme of things.  I was in a six-foot by six-foot cell with thick walls, nothing to read, no television to watch, and only dull metal and chrome to look at.  The vague blur of my reflection in the walls was only a dark shadow, the occasional gleam of light of my glasses.

Around me, the PRT office buzzed like an anthill I’d kicked.  People were heading here and there on tasks and missions, reacting, preparing, anticipating some form of attack.  The higher-ranking members of the PRT made calls to contacts, prepared, and set security measures in place.  PRT uniforms got geared up, off-duty teams were called in and prepared, organized in defensive lines around the building.

Miss Militia, for her part, sent Flechette on an errand, instructing her to make a phone call and return as soon as possible, and then started organizing the Wards.

I set bugs on the minute and hour hands of a clock.  It was both a curse and a blessing, because it made me acutely aware of how slowly time was passing.

“Things are going crazy,” Crucible said.

“This is big,” Clockblocker said.

“I’m just saying, you’d think things get calmer when the kingpin- queenpin-“

“Crime lord,” Clockblocker said, “It’s easier.”

“When the crime lord of the city turns themselves in.”

Vista spun around in her chair to face Crucible, “She’s probably planning something like getting put in jail, then breaking out and showing us there’s no point in trying to catch her, because we can’t keep her.  And she’ll do it with teeny-weeny bugs, make Tagg look bad, maybe get him fired.”

“Fits,” Clockblocker mused.

“But she can’t know she’ll escape.  What if we did have Dragon and Defiant move her halfway across the country?”

“She used my power to cut Echidna in half,” Clockblocker said.  “She could deal with that, too.”

“Again with the Echidna thing,” Crucible said.  “Can’t you tell-”

“Classified,” Clockblocker, Kid Win and Vista said, at the same time.  Kid Win didn’t even look up from the containment foam dispenser he was tinkering with.

“Fuck you guys.”

The screen in my cell flashed yellow, then beeped once, a sound loud enough that it made me jump.

I stood from the bed and walked around until I faced the screen.

It stayed yellow for long seconds, then went dark.

Checking on me?

I sat back down.

The minutes were ticking away.  Tagg was counting on this confinement wearing on me.  Putting me in a different headspace for when he finally decided to come down and grill me.  It… was working, but probably not to the degree he was thinking.  Being manhandled by the PRT officer had been another attempt at getting me outside of my comfort zone, no doubt a gambit, where any resistance from me would be met by a shout from Triumph, a beating and a use of Clockblocker’s power before the door was shut in my face.  A lack of resistance only making me uncomfortable, putting me in my place, for lack of a better phrase.

But again, it didn’t matter.  My concerns were on bigger things, on the space beyond this cell, on everything I needed to achieve.

A family made their way to the lobby.  I assumed them to be tourists, until the guards let them into the building.  Two adults and a young girl.  The Alcotts.

Dinah had cut her hair short.

Reinventing herself?  Distancing herself from being Coil’s ‘pet’?

Tagg met them at the end of the lobby, then ushered them upstairs to the conference room.  They were joined by Mrs. Yamada, her cousin Triumph, and Miss Militia.

Tagg waited until everyone else was seated before sitting at the head of the table.

He pressed a key, and the monitor in my room beeped.  I lay down on the bed before the six seconds were up and the cameras went on.

When he was done looking in on me, he closed the laptop.

“She turned herself in,” Dinah said.

“Your power pick up on that?”  Triumph asked.

“We watched the news,” Dinah’s mom said.

“When you said sending Defiant and Dragon into the school would virtually guarantee that Skitter was brought into custody,” Tagg said, and his phrasing was odd, as if he were choosing words carefully or there was a tone my bugs’ hearing wasn’t picking up on, “you didn’t say anything about this.”

I did catch the emphasis on ‘this’ as he finished.

“This?” Dinah’s father asked.

“That she’d surrender, nearly a week later.  The timing of it, the fact that it could be a ploy.”

“I didn’t know,” Dinah said.

“If you have an accusation,” Mr. Alcott said, “Say it outright.”

“I’m saying your daughter was helping Skitter, not us.  That everything seems to suggest she was aiding and abetting a known criminal.”

“Are you insane?” Mr. Alcott asked.  The volume of his voice rose.  “Those thoughts don’t even connect!”

“I don’t necessarily agree with the Director’s line of reasoning, Dinah,” Miss Militia said, “But Skitter’s a known criminal mastermind, with an emphasis on the latter.  She’s a capable strategist and a battlefield tactician.  As far as we were aware, she was well situated as one of the more powerful villains in North America, judging by her control over this city.  In the past week alone, she’s … two villainous organizations and folded a third into her own.  There’s no reason for her to surrender.  The only way any of this makes sense is if there’s a greater plan at work.”

“And you think Dinah had something to do with that plan?”  Mrs. Alcott asked.

Mrs. Yamada leaned forward, “It’s very understandable if Dinah feels indebted or attached to Skitter, to Taylor Hebert.  She owes her a great deal.”

Dinah mumbled something.  I wasn’t sure if it was even a word.

Mrs. Yamada continued, “We’re only trying to make sense of this.  Wanting to help someone who’s done a great deal for you isn’t a bad thing, Dinah, understand?  But there’s other things going on.  Sensitive things.  Skitter may unwittingly do a lot of damage or put herself at risk, if she says the wrong things and the wrong people hear.”

“…,” Dinah said something under her breath.

“Beg pardon?” Mrs. Yamada asked.

“Good.  If she does a lot of damage, then good.”

Director Tagg started to speak, but Mrs. Yamada cut him off.  “Why is that good, Dinah?”

“Can’t say.  Won’t say.”

“You are working with her, then,” Tagg said.  He shifted position in his chair.

“No.  Yes.  Both.  I’m working for everyone.  I don’t think Skitter’s very happy with me, really.  But she’s still here, because I told her to be.”

“You’ve been in communication with her?” Miss Militia asked.  I could tell how much gentler her voice was than Tagg’s.

“No.”

“Oh my lord,” Tagg said, leaning back in his chair and staring up at the ceiling.  “I think I’m about to have an aneurysm.”

Dinah didn’t reply.

“Do you hate the PRT, Dinah?” Miss Militia asked.

“No.”

“Or heroes?  Do you blame us for not helping you when you needed it?”

“No.  A little, but that’s not important.”

“But you want Skitter to do damage?  To hurt us?”

“She’ll do damage, one way or another.  If she didn’t come here voluntarily, she probably would have become meaner.  It would have turned into a big fight, and she would make a mistake eventually and get brought in.  But she decided to surrender, so the same thing happens.  I’m glad that happened.”

“All because we revealed her identity,” Yamada said.

“Yes.”

“But we don’t know the ramifications of this ploy of hers,” Miss Militia said.

“I do,” Dinah replied.  “But I’m not telling.  And I’m charging ten times as much if you ask me for a number, and then I’ll lie, and I won’t be able to use my power for a while after.  And your bosses don’t want that.  Not with an Endbringer coming soon.”

“You’ll charge us for a number you won’t provide?”  Tagg asked.

“Yes.  Because I charge you for asking.  I can’t help but look for the numbers, so I have to look.  And that makes my head hurt if I do it too much.”

Tagg let his hand drop to the table with enough force to make a noise and make the lid of the laptop in front of him clatter.

“Why, Dinah?” Miss Militia asked.  “Why do this?”

“For everyone.  Because we got this far, it makes the numbers a little better.  Whatever happens from here on out, it makes the end of the world a little less bad.”

“A little less bad,” Triumph echoed her.

“But it still happens,” Tagg said.

“Almost always.  The world ends, in two years or in fifteen or sixteen.”

Tagg opened his laptop, “Do you have anything to say to Skitter?”

“No,” Dinah said.  “I’m done.”

“Done.”

“Yes.  I’m busy.  It’s only because my cousin works here that I even came.”

“You seem to be playing a dangerous game,” Tagg said, “Testing our goodwill, manipulating us for your own ends.”

Everyone’s ends, and I didn’t manipulate you.  You asked for a number, I gave it.”

He ignored her.  “Helping her when you should be helping us.”

“I don’t have to help you,” she said.  “I’m not a good guy.  I’m not a bad guy.  I’m done working for other people, answering their questions when I don’t want to.  I work for me, and for everyone.”

Odd, to think how much time I’d dedicated to Dinah, and how little I really knew her.  There was this, only now, and the discussions we had prior to me taking her home.  So little.

Tagg was rubbing his temples.  “Fine.  Now, when you said that the outcome of this improves the numbers, I understand that includes sending her to the Birdcage?”

“When I said I was done, I meant it,” Dinah said.  She pushed her chair back.  Her parents joined her, standing.  “You want more answers, get in contact with my dad, he’ll let you know my rates.  They change every day.”

“Not a wise business decision for a rogue starting out,” Tagg said, without rising from his chair.  “Offending an organization like the PRT, a young lady like you mouthing off.  We could cooperate, instead.”

He was threatening her?  I clenched a fist.

Dinah looked back at him.  “I don’t think you have any conception how valuable my answers are.  I could answer one question a week for people in Asia and I’d be set for life.  I don’t care if I offend you.”

“And you don’t care about your savior, locked away in that cell?” Tagg asked.

Dinah stopped in her tracks.  “Are you threatening Taylor?”

“I don’t know,” the Director said.  “You said she’ll do damage in some form.  Maybe we need to stop that from happening.  And you said that no matter what happens, the outcome’s more in our favor than it was before she surrendered.  Why?  Is it that important to remove her from Brockton Bay?  To unseat her from her throne?”

“I’m not answering any more questions.”

“You’ll answer what I ask you to answer,” Tagg said, “Because we need to go into this with our eyes open.  We can’t have Skitter damage us.”

“Director,” Mrs. Yamada said, “This isn’t constructive.  The last thing she wants-”

“The last thing I want is another arrogant dickface telling me what to do,” Dinah said.  “You want answers, Director?  Fine.  Twenty two point eight one three percent chance you die painfully, over long, slow minutes or hours.  Maybe soon, maybe in twenty years, but it’ll bring you to tears, and you’ll wail in pain.  That’s a freebie.  Want more details?”

“Guys,” Miss Militia said.

“You assume I care about that,” the Director said.

“You will.”

“Guys,” Miss Militia said, louder.

“If you refuse to give us assistance, and people get hurt, then that’s on your head,” Director Tagg said.

“I deal with that every day,” Dinah said.  “I’ll cope.”

“Guys!”  Miss Militia stood from her chair, the feet screeching against the ground.  She raised her voice another notch.  “Look.”

She pointed at the window.

I moved my bugs to check for whatever it was she was pointing at, then stopped.

She was pointing at the bugs.  They’d reacted to my irritation, and were swirling just beyond the window of the conference room, clustering on the glass surface.

“Is she making a move?”  Tagg asked.

“No.  They’re… just there.  Reacting,” Miss Militia said.  “To this.  Here.”

“She’s watching,” Tagg said.

“Watching what?  There’s nothing to look at,” Miss Militia said.  “Think about it.  What this is to her.”

“She hears,” Mrs. Yamada finished the thought.

I shut my eyes, swore under my breath.  I’d let my guard down.  I’d been too focused on what was going on inside the building, letting bugs cluster on the outside, that I’d given my reactions away.  So much for gathering intel.

Tagg faced the window, no doubt staring at it, at the bugs.

“Arthropodaudience,” Miss Militia said.  “She’s fully aware of everything that’s been going on in this building.”

“I’m gone,” Dinah said.  “I can’t communicate with her or the numbers change.  I’ll be letting the PRT know you pissed me off.  They can expect prices to go up five percent from here on out.”

With that, Dinah was gone, saying something to her parents that I couldn’t make out.

My focus was more on Tagg.

“So,” he said, his voice low, “You can hear me.”

Yes,” my bugs replied, speaking throughout the building.  They were distributed evenly enough that it would barely be audible.  A thin, almost imperceptible sound.  More than a few people jumped in reaction to it.

“I see,” the Director said.  “You tipped your hand.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  I had.

He turned to Miss Militia.  “See that Kid Win gets the defense system online sooner than later.  I’d like this building cleared of bugs.”

“I’ll talk to him.”

“And you,” the Director said.  I was getting used to his voice.  I caught the emphasis there.  “You stay put and be good.”

I shifted position, sitting on the end of the bed, elbows on my knees, staring at the floor.

Waiting, listening, watching.

Another twenty minutes, forty minutes, sixty minutes passing, with irregular check-ins by way of the monitor.  Every member of the PRT was set in place, some near the PRT headquarters, others elsewhere in the city.  Heroes went on patrol and came back, making short trips, no longer than half an hour each.  Each hero in a pairing took turns reporting to Tagg.

Rachel had been seen crossing the city earlier, as had Grue.  A meeting at the Forsberg Gallery.  If they were following Tagg’s orders, there was now a PRT wagon stationed nearby, ready with a containment foam turret, in case the villains decided to meet there again.

Miss Militia got a list of phone calls to make from Tagg, then left, exiting my range.

Another half hour.  Another check-in, a group of four heroes teleported in, Miss Militia returned and whispered back and forth with Tagg.  There was a long discussion between the new heroes, Assault, Miss Militia and Tagg about how concentrated the forces were, now.  Too many PRT uniforms and heroes in one place, the danger if they were all wiped out.

In a matter of minutes, they’d organized another distribution.  Expanding control over the area, keeping two major groups out of my reach.

Only five minutes after the groups had departed, Kid Win activated his system.  Floating drones started to roam the PRT headquarters, each no larger than a toaster, each with multiple settings that they rotated between.  They emulated Sere’s power on a low enough level to kill bugs in the area without doing undue harm to any people, then became laser turrets, firing an invisible beam every second for about a minute, killing a bug with each shot.  Then they shifted focus and accelerated, veering to a different location with unpredictable trajectories.

Kid Win was making more, too.  He was joined by one of the heroes that had just arrived.  Another tinker.  I caught a snippet of what they were talking about before the next drone kicked to life and killed the bugs I had on the new arrival.  Workshop talk.  Improving designs.

Damn tinkers.

Avoiding the drones became something of a game, occupying my attention to the point that I was still able to keep tabs on a few important people, but I was badly limited in terms of my ability to listen in.  Fifteen minutes passed without me seeing or hearing anything significant.  The monitor flared yellow for another check-in.  Two minutes later, there was another.  Irregular, unpredictable.

As a plus, Tagg seemed to be getting restless, if the movements of his blurry form within his office were any indication.  He’d arranged his forces, and the only thing he could do now was wait.

We were both waiting.  Both biding our time in the hopes that the other would crack first, make the first move and initiate conversation.

Miss Militia left to make another batch of calls outside my range.  She returned sooner than before, made a beeline straight for Tagg, and exchanged a few more whispered words.

Together, they made their way to the elevator.  The Protectorate tinker that had just arrived was sealing off the staircase, and there was only one way down.

As a pair, Miss Militia and Tagg walked down the length of the hallway, stopping outside of my cell.  I combed my hair out of my face, squared my shoulders and faced the door.

The screen turned red.  A matter of seconds later, the doors slid open.

“Flechette?” Miss Militia asked.

Flechette?  Had my allies done something?

“Did you plan this?” Miss Militia asked.

I elected not to answer.  This was a small victory, no matter what they were referring to.  Tagg had broken first, had come to me more on my terms than his.  I was going to play it for everything it was worth.

I met Tagg’s glare with a level stare of my own.

“If you used Regent to make this happen-” Miss Militia said.

Regent?

“Not Regent,” I said.  I hope it’s not Regent.

“You’re admitting you planned her defection, then?”

Defection?  I thought of Parian.

“I… left the door open for it to happen,” I said.  True, though not nearly to the extent I was implying.

“And this plays a role in your greater plan?” Miss Militia asked.  She was doing all the talking, here.  It seemed Tagg didn’t want to break the silence.

I thought for a second.  “Consider it symbolic.”

“Of?”

I smiled a little, then shrugged.

That seemed to be the point where Tagg lost his cool.  He didn’t get angry.  Instead, he merely said, “Interrogation room B.”

Miss Militia held a pair of ordinary handcuffs in one hand, a taser in the other.  I turned and extended my hands behind me, and she set the handcuffs in place, holding my arm as she led me down the length of the hall, around the corner and into a large room with only a table, a chair, and more sheet metal covering everything.

“One o’clock,” I said, when I’d taken my seat.  Miss Militia was unclipping my cuffs, moving my hands around in front of me to slip them through the reinforced table.

“I think it’s about one,” Miss Militia said.

“Exactly one,” I said.

“Is the time important?” she stepped away from the table.

“Her friends will move to attack at a set time,” Tagg said.  “She won’t share that time, because she wants us to squirm, to be on high alert.”

“Eight thirty,” I said.  “Sunset.”

I could see his heavy eyebrows rise in mild surprise.

“You planned something for eight-thirty?”

“No,” I said.  I smiled a little, looking down at the table.  “I didn’t plan anything.  I didn’t say goodbye.  I walked away, and I turned myself in.”

“You’re acting like that’s something special,” Tagg said, leaning against the wall by the door, his arms folded.

“The only instruction I gave was to Tattletale, to hold the others back until sunset, and to give them direction when they do act.  They’ll have time to get angry in the meantime.  They’ll be mad at me, but they’ll take it out on you.  You have to understand, even at my worst, even when I’m as mad as I was the other night, when you’d outed me, I was sensible, reasonable in terms of how I dealt with you and held back.  Now you get to see how unreasonable the rest of the Undersiders can be, without me to rein them in.”

“I thought this might be it.  A lesson in the role you play here.  Leading us to think that we need you,” Tagg said, “To keep them in line.”

“That’s not it,” I said.

“No?”

“It’s not even secondary, in terms of what I’m looking to achieve.  I don’t think I could go back to them and return to my position if I wanted to.  And I don’t.”

“Then what?” he asked.

“It’s a time limit.  You saw what we were willing to do to Butcher, to Valefor.  Even with that, even there, we were holding back as a group.  Trust me when I say that I know my friends.  If you stand between them and me?  If you hurt me?  They’re going to go thermonuclear on you.  On the PRT as a whole.  Tattletale will make sure of it.  She’ll keep them on target, guide them, and maximize the damage.  She’ll do most of the damage.”

“You said you weren’t going to do any harm to the PRT,” Miss Militia said.

“If things go that way,” I said, “It’s because the PRT is hurting the PRT.  Which wouldn’t be an isolated incident.”

“Cute,” Tagg said.

I met his eyes.  “I’m just saying.  It’s really up to you guys.  Send me to the Birdcage, you lose everything.  Things get ugly for the PRT at a critical point in time.  I suffer, the Undersiders suffer, you suffer, the world suffers.”

I stopped, watching him for any sign of doubt, for a waver in his eyes, for a change in his expression or posture.  His poker face was good.

Miss Militia shifted position, but didn’t speak.

“Or?” Tagg finally asked.

“Or you let me call my lawyer, and then you hear my demands,” I said.

“Demands?” he growled the word.

“Demands.  I have several conditions you guys will have to meet before I capitulate.  I’ll bow my head, appear in public, plea bargain, do whatever you want.  You get me, wholesale, no contest, and no complications.  The PRT gets a victory at a point in time when, like I said, it’s most vulnerable.”

I studied his expression, then looked at Miss Militia.

“It’s your choice.  You won’t like my demands.  They call for big changes.  But the alternative is an all-out war.  I think Miss Militia will agree with me here, if the PRT doesn’t hear me out, it deserves what it gets.”

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Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus #3)

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Thursday, June 16th, 2011, 22:11

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

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

A… M…

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

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

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

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

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

“A, b, c, d, e, f, g, h…”

Another blink.

“H.  Okay.”

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

A blink.  Affirmation.

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

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

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

The sensation didn’t fade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I  don’t care.

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

Again, the letters.

N.  O.  T.  M.  I.  N.  E.

Not mineNot in my best interests.

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

Two blinks.  Negation.

“You… that’s not what you meant?”

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

A.  L.  O.  N.  E.

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

No blinks, now.  Long seconds passed.

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

B.  A.  T.  H.

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

Two blinks.  No.

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

One blink.

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

“Well?” the head nurse asked.

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

“She’s upset.  Understandably.”

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

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

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

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

“She won’t break?  Or tear?”

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

“I see.”

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

“Sveta.”

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

Jessica sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is she your last patient for the day?”

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

“Sadboy.”

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

“Any plans?” the head nurse asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“O-okay.”

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

“But something popped in the suit just now.”

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

Jessica hated lying to her patients.

“It’s not- it’s okay?”

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

“Christmas?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you think you were a ‘bad guy’?”

“I killed people.  Yes.”

“It wasn’t you.  It was your power.”

“I still killed people.”

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

“Okay.”

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

Sveta’s eyes lit up.  “Yes please.”

“I can’t make any promises.”

“I understand.”

“Now, have you been keeping that journal?”

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

“May I?”

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

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

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

“I… why aren’t you scared of me?”

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

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

Friday, June 17th, 2011, 10:15

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boy let himself sink into the chair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shadow Stalker.”

“Yeah.”

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

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

“Did you care about Shadow Stalker?”

“She was a teammate.”

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

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

She let herself smile a little, “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

“A worse fate?”

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

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

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

“Scary business.”

Dennis shrugged.

“Are you sleeping well?”

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

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

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

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

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

“No?  What word would you choose?”

He paused.  “I dunno.”

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

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

“You feel as though you’re losing?”

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

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

“Maybe.”

There was a long pause.

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

“I see.”

“I… I regret this.”

“Regret what?”

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

“Talking to me?”

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

“Could be.”

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

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

“I know.”

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

“Psychobabble,” he said, smiling a little.

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

Friday, June 17th, 2011, 13:01

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

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

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

“Have you picked a name?” she asked.

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

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

“So.  A lot’s happened,” she said.

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

“Yes.”

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

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

“What kind of picture does it paint?”

“Of?”

“Of the city.  Of us?  The villains?”

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

“Thanks for saying so,” Weld said.

“You don’t sound convinced.”

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

“Where are you at?”

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

“I heard.  I’m sorry.”

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

“No?”

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

“Does that matter to you?  Career?”

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

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

“It’s how it was explained to me.”

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

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

“Is there anything-“

She stopped as his phone rang.

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

“I totally understand.  Please, go ahead.”

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

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

“Go.  You have a team to lead.”

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

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

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

Friday, June 17th, 2011, 18:01

“Fuck them!  Fuck her!”

“Lily-“

“Fuck!  Fuck!”  Lily paced.

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

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

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

“They got her.”

Jessica felt her heart sink.  “Who?”

“Parian.  Skitter got to her.”

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

“Turned.”

“Turned?”

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

“Power?  Money?”

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

“A lot of money.”

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

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

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

“Did you tell her about those feelings?”

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

“Do you think she reciprocated?”

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

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

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

“How’s that?”

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Jessica asked.

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

“And what are those two answers?”

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

“And this satchel contains the answer?”

“It does.”

“May I?” Jessica leaned forward.

“No.”

Jessica stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

“You could.”

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

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

She couldn’t say that, though.

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

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

“Are you going to answer?”  Jessica asked.

“Can’t.  Not like this.”

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

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

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

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

“Which hospital?”

“Oh god,” Lily said, eyes going wide.

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

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

I will.

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

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

“Anaphylactic shock,” Jessica answered.

“Skitter.”

Jessica didn’t answer.

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

Jessica nodded.

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

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

The phone rang five minutes later.

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

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

“I know,” Miss Militia said.

“They’re losing faith.”

“I know.”

Saturday, June 18th, 9:01

There was a knock on the door.

“Come in?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I can imagine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kid Win shook his head.

“Nothing?”

“I don’t know if this is me.”

“If what’s you?”

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

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

“Metaphor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 18th, 11:06

“Um?  Hi?”

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

“Vista.”

“Vista it is.  Nice to meet you.”

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

“I heard they called in the big guns.”

“Dragon.”

“Pretty big as guns go,” Jessica said.

“Are you doing that on purpose?”

“What?”

“Talking down to me.”

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

“It sounded condescending.”

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

“Have you been here?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why do you ask?”

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

“I went to school for a long time.”

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

“Are you talking about Triumph?”

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

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

“Hmph,” Vista huffed..

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

“Sucks,” Vista said.

“I can believe it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can imagine him saying it.”

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

Jessica nodded.

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

Jessica almost replied, but kept her mouth shut.

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

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

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

“But what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was she serious, or was it a challenge?

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

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

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

Vista nodded.

Sunday, June 19th, 17:39

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

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

Monday, June 20th, 12:50

Jessica paced back and forth in her office.

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

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

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

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

The Wards were okay, at least.  Physically.

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

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

Tuesday, June 21st, 6:10

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

“Mrs. Yamada?”

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

Oh.  Wow.

Eidolon.

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t understand.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.  I think so.”

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

“You’re talking about dying?”

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

To the death.

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

“Surely you have something else to live for.”

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

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

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

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

She stared at him.

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

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

He nodded.

Then he took off.

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