Scarab 25.5

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Three days.

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

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

Sometimes we made headway.

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

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

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

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

Tecton approached me, setting his hands on my shoulders.

“What?” I asked.

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

“I’ve napped.”

Sleep.  You’re swaying on your feet.”

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

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

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

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

“I know,” Tecton said.

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

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

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

“You’re not a bad person, Taylor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If he hits Brockton Bay-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom?

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

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

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

She didn’t respond.  She was already gone.

But the doorway remained open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” I said.  “What is this?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I decided to leave her alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My sincere apologies.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not an option,” Doctor Mother said.

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

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

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

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

“Hands on experience,” Marquis answered.

“Panacea,” Tattletale said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We could provide that many over a period of ten years, if required, but we’d want more assistance than simply this one fight,” Doctor Mother said.  She stopped as the man with the glasses leaned close.  A moment passed, “Or we could provide that many twenty-seven years from now.”

I felt a bit of a chill.  They were so casually discussing this, as if it were possible.

I opened my mouth to cut in, but Glaistig Uaine spoke first.

No.  No, I don’t think I’ll accept.  My word is too vital to me, and you seem to want me to war with the abominations.  I don’t fear my own death, but I would rather be together with the others than be separated until the grand celebration.  I won’t fight.  I would only grant my advice, some power here and there.

Doctor Mother sat back in her seat.  The ominous silence suggested she was still considering it.

A hundred thousand lives, being mulled over so readily.

“That’s a shame,” Doctor Mother said, in the end.

“If I may?” Marquis spoke up.  “With your permission, faerie queen.”

Granted,” Glaistig Uaine said.

“There are others who wouldn’t mind being free again,” he said.  “Myself included.  We’d fight that monster if you gave us the chance.  All we’d ask is that you let a select few others out, and that you don’t create a portal that leads back to the Birdcage after the fact.”

“No,” Chevalier said, breaking his long silence.  “No, I’m sorry.”

“Some of the strongest parahumans are contained inside that building,” Marquis said.  “Glaistig Uaine is one, but there are others.  My daughter is another.”

“Your daughter was a mental wreck the last time anyone outside of the Birdcage saw her.  There are too many dangerous individuals in there.  She,” Chevalier said, pointing in the direction of the woman with the shadowy pet with the massive bird skull, “Has killed thousands of people.  That’s nothing compared to what some individuals in the birdcage have done.  We’d be letting the wolves run free again, in the hopes they deal with the lion.”

“If there is no other way to deal with the lion, and we know the wolves have been caught in our snare once before…” Saint said, trailing off.

“We know they can be dealt with.  We’re just lacking resources.  Opening the doors of the Birdcage has to be a last resort.”

“Oh, I don’t know, I could stand for it to be the first resort,” Marquis said.  He turned toward the Doctor, “I’m staying mum about what my daughter discovered.  The details we both know that must not be shared.  Surely that’s worth some goodwill.”

“It is,” the Doctor replied.

I glanced at Tattletale.  Her eyes were moving quickly, hungrily taking in details.

Chevalier sighed.  “Dragon?  Some backup.”

“I have to say no,” Dragon said.  “The prisoners must stay within the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.  If you intend to rescue them, I’ll deploy everything I have to stop you.  Neither of us can afford the losses at this juncture.”

“But if we did try,” Saint said, “And if we did free a handful of deserving individuals, you wouldn’t be unhappy, would you?”

There was a pause, telling.  It was enough of a delay for Chevalier to look from Saint to Dragon and give her a curious stare before she spoke.  “My view on who is deserving is far different from yours, Saint.”

“Those of us standing here.  Me, my daughter, Lung,” Marquis said.

“You cannot speak for all of us on that front,” a matronly woman spoke.  “One of my girls was unfairly imprisoned, another is on the verge of losing her mind, in captivity.”

“We all have people we’d see freed,” the man who’d spoken about granting the ability to speak English said.  “Let’s say two for each of us.”

“Thirty six in all,” Dragon said.  “One in five of the people currently in the Birdcage, almost.  Six more could potentially use the opportunity to slip out, through Stranger powers or other malfeasance.  Glancing over the notes my artificial intelligences have made regarding the facility, I can guess who some of the cell block leaders would choose to release.  No.  I harbor concerns about the Birdcage, but this is not the answer to that.”

“It would do more harm than good,” Chevalier said.  “And I say that with full knowledge of what we’re up against here, today.  The last three days.”

“Their opinions don’t decide this,” Marquis said.  “If it were solely up to our officers and jailer in the first place, then we’d be free already.  You, Cauldron, have the means to send us back or not.  It’s your authority that matters.”

Chevalier shifted his grip on his weapon, but he didn’t attack.  “We’ll bargain.  Marquis is offering assistance, but the PRT has influence.  We’ll deal with you, Doctor, if it means the Birdcage remains sealed.  With the ongoing inquisition against Cauldron capes, perhaps there are one or two you’d want to be ignored.  They couldn’t be promoted, that’s the PRT’s jurisdiction, and it would only draw attention to them that I couldn’t help them avoid.  Still, I could time a transfer, allow someone to slip through the cracks.”

“A few someones,” the Doctor said.  “Yes.  I’m sorry, Marquis.  Our clients must come first.”

“You’ll be twisting our arms and escorting us through the portal, then?”

“You’ll go willingly.  This place cannot sustain life.  It’s a facility in the middle of a wasteland, and your Earth is several universes away.”

“I see,” Marquis said.  “Unavoidable, I take it.  And if I were to share the particularly valuable information that you and I both know, that you don’t want me to share with others who are present?”

“I can’t believe I’m not getting in on this,” Tattletale whispered to me.

Doctor Mother didn’t reply.  She remained still, her eyes on Marquis, as the woman in the suit, who she’d called Contessa, leaned in close, whispering.

“You won’t,” the Doctor said, when Contessa had straightened and stepped back, standing guard behind the Doctor’s chair.

“I won’t?”

“You won’t.  Teacher would, hearing that, but Teacher has a secret he doesn’t want divulged, and he now knows we know.”

Marquis turned, his shadow shifting, presumably as he looked at Teacher.  He turned back, “Ah well.  I suppose I’ll just say we’re here if you need us.”

“If we need you that badly,” Chevalier said, “Then we’ve already lost.”

“Rest assured,” Marquis retorted, “I think you’re doing a very good job at getting yourselves to that juncture.”

“It’s a failure across the board,” I said, surprising myself by speaking.  “All of us, the Birdcage prisoners excepted, we’re not doing enough.  If we don’t come up with an answer or get someone to step up to bat and fight, then we’re doomed.  We’ve got the end of the world happening in twenty-thirteen, and we can’t even band together for this.”

“Complaining gets us nowhere,” Faultline said. “Besides, it’s not like this is small potatoes.”

“Okay then,” I said.  “Let’s talk resources.  If you’ve got parahumans or information, let’s hear it.  Let’s show a measure of trust and have Marquis or Cauldron share the tidbit of information they’ve gleaned.  Let’s talk options that don’t involve fighting.  Tattletale thinks these bastards are designed.  Where’s the designer?”

“Nowhere we can find,” Doctor Mother said.  “And we have the most powerful clairvoyance we know about, alongside the most powerful precognitive.”

“Does that mean there isn’t a designer?” Faultline asked.  “That Tattletale’s wrong?”

“Get fucking real,” Tattletale retorted.  “I’m confident on this count.”

“If they can’t find the designer-” Faultline started.

“There’s other possibilities.  Lots of powers confound precogs and clairvoyants.”

“Both at the same time?”

“Be constructive,” I cut in.

“We will assist,” Turanta said.  “Sifara, Bahu and I, others beneath us in our organization.  I cannot speak for my fellow brothers, but I will ask them because we all owe a debt.  Our brother died, but Weaver helped to make it not for nothing.”

“Phir Sē died?” I asked, surprised.

“At the hands of the First, very late.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“We owe you,” he said.  “As we owe some of the others.  It is your choice how you would use this.”

“You can pay me back by helping, here,” I said.  “You’d be paying us all back.”

“We have the means,” he said. “But this hurts us, because we rely on our enemies not knowing what we are truly able to do.”

“If this goes much further,” I said, “It might not matter.”

“This is true.  Of each of you but Weaver and Chevalier, we will ask a small favor, after.  Nothing dangerous or painful to give away.  Token gestures, most.”

“Favors make for a good currency,” the Doctor said.  “Granted.”

There were murmurs of assent from others.  The woman with the shadow pet didn’t respond, but Turanta didn’t press the issue with her either.

Dragon glanced at Defiant, but ultimately relented, accepting the terms.

The Doctor spoke “Moord Nag?  We could use your assistance.”

The woman and her shadow pet with its crocodile skull looked at Doctor Mother.  “Laat hulle almal sterf.  Ek is tevrede om die wêreld te sien brand en die vallende konings te spot.  Ek en my aasdier sal loop op die as van die verwoeste aarde.”

“She says no.  Let them all die,” the woman from the Birdcage said.

“Can I ask who she is?” Faultline asked.

Tattletale was the one to answer.  I think she got a measure of joy out of rubbing the fact that she knew in Faultline’s face, “Moord Nag.  Warlord based in Namibia.  As far as the current warlords in the area go, she’s had the longest lifespan at about eight years or so, and she’s gotten things to the point where most of the other bastards around there are kowtowing, asking permission to attack this city or occupy that area, to go to the bathroom or unite two groups in an alliance.”

Die badkamer?”

Us, basically,” Tattletale said, glancing at me.  She turned her head to look at Grue, “Only on a much, much bigger scale, and she did it alone.”

Ek het dit reggekry met aasdier,” Moord Nag responded.  “Nie alleen nie.

“With your pet monster, right.”

“She said she’d be willing to let the world burn, before,” the woman from the birdcage said.  “I don’t think you have an ally there.”

“From her attitude,” Saint added, “I don’t even see why she was invited.”

“I’ll ask you the same thing I asked the others,” the Doctor said.  “What would it take for you to fight, here?”

Ek kan nie krag spandeer sonder om die nag lande hulpeloos teen hul bure te los nie.”

“She can’t spend her power, not without-”

“We’ll supply what you need to replenish it,” the Doctor said.

“No,” Dragon spoke.  “No, you won’t.”

Ek sal nie-

“It would be appreciated,” the man from the Birdcage that had granted her the ability to understand English spoke.  “Reconsider.  Don’t underestimate our resources.”

Vyf duisend, lewendig, dit maak nie saak of hulle mag het of nie.  ‘N Fraksie van wat jy die gek aangebied het.

“No,” Dragon said, before the translator could speak.

“Yes,” the Doctor said, just as readily.  “I caught the number, I can figure out the rest.  You’ll get what you need.”

“I can’t stand by and watch this, not like this,” Chevalier said.

“How many more will die if we don’t act?” the Doctor said.  “The Thanda will counteract the Endbringer’s teleportation ability, at least for a time.  Moord Nag gives you much-needed clout.  Again, at least for a short time.”

“In exchange for five thousand lives?” Dragon asked.

“A small price to pay.  How many have died as we conducted this meeting?”

Jy praat asof dit saak maak. Die kontrak is verseël. Sal ons gaan nou,” Moord Nag said.

“What did she just say?” Chevalier asked.  Moord Nag was already walking away, stepping away from the panel and into the recessed passage beside it, almost completely hidden in shadow.  I could only make out the rodent’s skull, overlarge and pale in the darkness.

“The contract is settled,” Dragon said.  “She sees it as inviolable, now.”

“I like her,” Marquis commented.  “Mass murder aside, anyways.  Woman of her word.”

“We’ll find her,” Chevalier said, to the Doctor, “After the battle is done, before you deliver those people to her.”

“You promised us a favor, in exchange for our not letting Marquis and the other cell block leaders free,” the Doctor said.  “I could ask you to leave this be,” the Doctor said.

“No.  Not this.  Not five thousand people, fed to that woman’s pet.”

“Stop us, then,” the Doctor replied.  “Or try, as it may be.  That’s one Endbringer we should be able to drive away.  As Weaver said, we may have to evacuate the planet if this doesn’t work.  Faultline, your assistance would be invaluable on that front.  You’ve already created nine, I believe?”

“Three of which were supposed to be secret,” Faultline replied.

“It doesn’t matter.  We’ll pay for several more, at major locations, and we’ll arrange your transportation.”

Faultline stared at the woman.  “No, Doctor.”

“No?”

“Not your money.  Not you.”

“Shortsighted,” Saint commented.

“I think this is pretty big picture.  Money talks, and I don’t like how this money sounds.  She spends five thousand lives like someone else would spend change.  Cauldron made innocent people into monsters.  They took everything from them.  I can’t deal with that in good faith.”

She turned to Chevalier, “We’ll give you a discount.  Escape routes in major cities across America.  Leading to the world that the Brockton Bay portal goes to.”

Fuck that,” Tattletale said.

“I’ll talk to my superiors,” Chevalier said.

“Good,” Faultline said, “that’s settled, then.”

“Leaving only the Endbringer that comes next,” I said.

“We won’t know what measures need to be taken until it makes an appearance,” Defiant spoke.

“Another meeting,” the Doctor said.  “Another day.”

I could feel my heart skip a beat at that.  I wasn’t sure I liked what this was becoming.

Then again, the nature of this meeting had been suggested from the start, with the shadows concealing identities.  Everything the PRT had been fighting to assure people that parahumans weren’t doing was happening here, in this room.  Scheming, trading lives like currency, and wielding incredible amounts of power, money and influence.

“But before we get that far,” the Doctor said, “Tattletale?”

“You asked me here for a reason,” Tattletale said.  “Multiple reasons.”

“The first being to give you an opportunity to check something for our mutual benefit.”

“You brought the major players in so I could see if anyone was the designer, the creator of the Endbringers.”

“And?”

“Nobody here.”

The Doctor nodded.  “I suspected.  They remain immune to precognition, but the designer wouldn’t be, I don’t think.  It’s good to double check, regardless.  Will you be attending if we hold another meeting, Chevalier?” the Doctor asked.

Others, the Thanda, were departing, now.  Grue had stepped away from the panel to step close to Tattletale, whispering something.

Then Grue walked past me, not even glancing my way, before disappearing into the corridor I’d used to enter.

Hurt, confused, I couldn’t speak to ask Tattletale why without possibly interrupting Chevalier, as he spoke in a steady, quiet voice.

“I don’t think I have a choice.  If I don’t come, then I’m left blind to what’s occurring behind the scenes.  I wouldn’t be able to intervene if you tried something like you did with the Birdcage.”

“That’s true,” Doctor Mother said.

“And I think that’s exactly what you wanted,” he said.  “You have that Contessa there, and she sees the road to victory.  You schemed this.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”  Chevalier asked.

“It’s not time for you to know,” she said.

Fuck that,” Tattletale cut in.  Most of the other groups were gone.  Faultline and her group lingered behind.  “I think it’s damn obvious what you’re doing.”

“A new world order,” I said.  Tattletale nodded in agreement beside me.

There were a few curious glances shot our way.  I could see the Doctor shift position.  Exasperation?  Annoyance?

I leaned forward, resting my hands on the railing in front of me.  Grue’s odd departure only fueled an anger that had been simmering, “I had a hell of a lot of time to think, in prison, in my downtime and during stakeouts.  There’s only one thing that really makes sense, as far as your motivations go.  It’s not the clues or what you’re doing, it’s what you weren’t doing.  Only Legend helped against the Slaughterhouse Nine, but he wasn’t in the know, from the looks of it.  You didn’t help Coil, and you didn’t help against Coil.  You only helped against Echidna when it looked like everything might go down the toilet.  But Alexandria steps in when I leave, confronts me after I’d surrendered to the PRT.  So I had to ask myself why.”

“I can imagine,” Doctor Mother said.

“We were guinea pigs,” I said.  “For what?  So you could be in charge?”

“Not us.  Never us,” the Doctor said.  “There’s a lot you don’t understand.”

Try us,” Tattletale said, almost snarling the words.

“All of this?  It’s small scale,” the Doctor said.  “Important?  Yes.  But it’s nothing in the grand scheme of things.”

I clenched my fists.  “Five thousand lives, nothing.  Talking about a hundred thousand parahumans to be delivered after twenty-some years, nothing.  The lies you perpetuated with Alexandria, the schemes, Echidna, the human experimentation, the case fifty-threes, everyone you watched die just so your experiment with parahumans in charge of Brockton Bay wouldn’t be tainted…”

“We’ll go down in history as the villains,” Doctor Mother said.  There wasn’t a trace of doubt or hesitation in her voice.  “But it’s worth it if it means saving everyone.”

“You sound so sure,” Gregor the Snail spoke, from behind Faultline.  He had a heavy accent.  European-ish, in the same vein as Moord Nag.

“Do morals matter, if our alternative is a grim and hopeless end?”

“I would never question your morals,” Gregor said.  “I know you have none.  I merely wonder why you are so confident you will succeed in all of this, that you will save the world and you will achieve your new world order and your parahuman leadership.”

“We have a parahuman that sees the path to victory.  The alternative to traveling this path, to walking it as it grows cloudier and narrower every day, is to stand by while each and every person on this planet dies a grisly and violent death.”

“You know how the world ends,” I said, my eyes widening behind the lenses of my mask.

“Of course,” she answered, standing from her chair.  She collected papers and a tablet computer from the table in front of her.  She collected it into a neat bundle, and the man with the glasses took it from her, holding it under one arm.  Only then did she add, “We already saved it once.”

There were no responses to that.  Confusion and disbelief warred with each other as I stared at her silhouette.  The others seemed to be in similar straits.

“You had better hurry if you want transportation to the battlefield,” she said.  Then, with the man with the glasses and Contessa following, she strode from the dark chamber.

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Drone 23.2

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Every part of the Las Vegas team’s reaction to our arrival screamed dissatisfaction.  Folded arms, the way none of them would meet our eyes, the very way they were positioned, so they were just enough in our way to make it clear they didn’t agree with what was going on, but not so close as to be with us.

Except it wasn’t me that was the problem, this time.

Satyrical, Satyr for short, wore a helmet sculpted to look like a goat’s head, the mouth in a perpetual smile.  On a good day, I imagined his eyes were bright with mischief, his shaped eyebrows quirked behind the large eye-holes of the helmet.  This wasn’t a good day.  There were circles under his eyes, and he glowered.  With the smile on his helmet, it made him look… I didn’t want to say deranged, but it was the word that sprung to mind.

His bare chest was muscular, waxed hairless, the belt and leggings of his costume slung low enough that I could see the lines of his lower stomach that pointed to his… yeah.  It was admittedly distracting.  It was meant to be distracting.

Nix, Blowout, Leonid and Floret joined Satyrical in their anger.  Heroes in more flamboyant and colorful costumes than normal, their moods a contrast in how dark they were.  Spur and Ravine seemed more lost than angry, but the way they retreated into their group as we passed told me that they would side with their team over us.

If there was something to be said, words of encouragement or apology, nobody I was with seemed ready or able to come up with them.

We approached the elevator and made our way down, and none of the local heroes joined us.

“Thoughts?” Vantage asked me.

“For a city like Las Vegas, I’m surprised the building is so…” I trailed off.

“Dull?  Like a giant tombstone?”

“No windows,” I said.  “Just the front door, walls all around it, no decoration except for the PRT logo on the face of the building, no lights except for spotlights.”

“Stands out,” Vantage said.  “There’s contrast.”

“And it’s required.  Vegas is one of the worst cities for sheer number of villains,” Rime said.  Her entire demeanor was rigid, which maybe fit in a way with her ice powers.  “Vegas employs a group of unsponsored thinkers and tinkers to monitor the venues, much like the PRT does with the economy, ensuring that everything is above-board, that everything is being conducted fairly and that the numbers add up.  Vegas changed as a result, developed a different cape dynamic.  In Los Angeles or New York, it’s the people who can blow down buildings that are seen as true ‘heavy hitters’.  Here, they’re trying to game the system, and the heroes are trying to game them.  In Vegas, it’s thinkers, tinkers and strangers who rule the underworld.”

“A different sort of cops and robbers,” I said.

“Cops and robbers?”  Vantage asked.

“A way my teammate once explained it to me.  The, for lack of a better word, healthy way for heroes and villains to be, is for all of this to be a game of sorts.  Trading blows, counting coup, but ultimately leaving the other side without any permanent damage.”

“Counting coup?” Leister asked.  He was the sole subordinate that Vantage had brought along.  Rime, by contrast, had brought Usher and Arbiter from her team.  Prefab from San Diego had shown up as well.

I explained, “The term came from the Native Americans’ style of warfare.  In a fight, one person makes a risky, successful play against the other side showing their prowess.  They gain reputation, the other side loses some.  All it is, though, is a game.  A way to train and make sure you’re up to snuff against the real threats without losing anything.”

“Except,” Rime said, “Things escalate.  One side loses too many times in a row, they push things too far.  And there’s always collateral damage.  I notice civilians don’t factor into that explanation.”

“I’m not saying I agree with it a hundred percent,” I said.  “I didn’t, even from the beginning.  But it sounds like what you’re describing.”

Rime shook her head.  “No.  The strip is dying.  Every successful job the villains pull causes catastrophic damage, sees venues shutting down.  More villains arrive, hearing of the last group’s success, or because there’s room for them, and they settle in the more desolate areas.  The problem feeds itself, gets worse.  This building is a fortress and a prison because that’s what the city needs, that’s how bad things have gotten.”

“And the heroes?”

“Flamboyant, as brilliant and attention-grabbing in the open as the villains are discreet and hidden in plain sight.  The Vegas team is largely made up of strategists, charlatans and borderline scoundrels.  Individuals who can foil cheats and frauds, or throw a wrench in the works of the local masterminds, who think like they do.  Which is why this is such a problem.”

The last sentence had a note of finality to it.  I decided not to push my luck with further questions.

We made our way out into the corridor with the cells.  It was deeper, more developed than Brockton Bay’s.  There were two tiers, with one set of cells above the other.

Rime moved her phone next to a television screen, then tapped it.  There was a pause as a row of black squares with white outlines gradually lit up.  She leaned forward a little, her hand resting against the wall beside the television.

The screen came alive.  I saw a man in a cape uniform within, without a mask.  He had albinism, to the point that the velvet purple of his costume overwhelmed the little of his skin that was showing.  The irises of his eyes were a dark pink.

“Pretender,” Rime said.  Her voice had a harder note than before.  “What have you done?”

“Don’t place all of the blame on me.  You forced my hand.”

“No,” she said, “There had to be another way.  You could have admitted-”

“A death sentence,” he said.  “You’re an upper-echelon cape now, and you have the clearance.  You know about her.  The bogeyman that comes after anyone who tries to release information they want to keep secret.”

I glanced at Vantage, who only shrugged.

“We could have protected you,” Rime said.

Pretender only chuckled.  “No.  No you couldn’t.  I’m dead anyways, one way or another.  I surrender, it’s the end of my career, and that’s all I have.  I talk, I die.  This was the best option.”

The hand that Rime was using to lean against the wall clenched into a fist.  Her voice was tight as she asked, “Killing a government thinker was the best option?”

“Yes.”

Rime straightened, but it was more of a defeated gesture than anything, her hand dropping from the wall.  “You were one of the good ones, Pretender.”

“Still am,” he said.  He crossed the length of his cell, sitting on the corner of the bed.  “I’d explain, but it would only get us all killed.”

“We’re going to have to take you to a more secure facility,” Rime said.

“Well, I didn’t expect you’d let me go.  Do what you have to.  I made a deal with the devil, you caught me, for better or worse,” Pretender said.  In a quieter voice, he said, “About time I pay the price.”

Rime turned off the television.  She looked at Arbiter.

“My riot sense was going off like crazy as he talked,” Arbiter said.  “There’s something at work here.”

“Describe it.”

Arbiter touched her middle fingers and thumbs together, forming a circle, “Orange.”

She moved her hands further apart, “Red.”

Then further apart again, until the implied ‘circle’ was as big as a large pizza.  “Yellow.”

“That bad?”  Rime asked.

“Bad.”

“Then we move now,” Rime said.  She raised her hand to her ear.  “Dragon?  Cancel your errands.  We’re in for some trouble, almost guaranteed, and I’m thinking we want to clear out before it descends.”

There was a short pause.

The digital voice of Dragon’s A.I., the same one I’d heard through her drones and the armbands, informed us, “Kulshedra model en route to Las Vegas Protectorate Headquarters.  ETA two minutes.  Tiamat to join in t-minus eight minutes.”

“Okay,” Rime said.  “It’ll be here before we’re on the roof.  Let’s get Pretender packed up.  Standard stranger protocols in effect.  Usher and Arbiter, you handle it.  Everyone else with me.”

Once we were all in the elevator, I figured I was clear to ask without sounding too much like a newbie.  “What was Arbiter talking about?  Riot sense?”

Rime explained.  “She’s a social thinker, in addition to her minor blaster and shaker powers.  Her danger sense is mild at best, not something she can react to immediately, but it makes her aware of associated individuals and the threat they pose.  She wouldn’t be able to see much from Pretender alone, but she knows that there’s a moderate to high danger posed by those closest to him-”

“His team, probably,” Prefab said.

“She’s predicting a massive risk from people who have an intimate but less immediate association or those who have a recent but less familiar association with him…”

“Old teammates or family that he doesn’t see regularly,” Prefab said, “Or people he’s hired for help that he isn’t as familiar with.”

Rime finished, “…And a moderate risk from people or things on the periphery of his real-life social network.”

“The bogeyman?” I asked.

Rime didn’t answer.  Instead, she looked at the digital display above the door of the elevator.  “Prefab, look after our Wards.  I’m going to have words with Satyr.  See if we can’t work out what the angle is.  Wait on the roof for our ride.”

“Stranger protocols mean you don’t go anywhere alone,” Prefab said.

“Of course.  I’m thinking…  Vantage,” she said, beckoning.

Vantage nodded, stepping forward.

The elevator doors opened for Rime to exit, then shut.  The three of us continued up to the roof.  Prefab was large, and his armor made him look larger, with shoulderpads that looked like the tower-tops of a castle, each probably weighing twice as much as my entire outfit, equipment included.  He carried a heavy cannon, obviously tinker made.

Leister was a teenager in lightweight silver armor with the edges molded into wave-like forms.  Beneath the armor was blue cloth with a similar wave-like design embroidered on it.  He held a trident, as ornate as his armor.  As lightweight and sprightly as Prefab was a veritable tank.

“This bogeyman-” Leister started.

“Based on what we know,” Prefab said, “Arbiter giving us a yellow that possibly includes her is more worrying than a red alert involving just about anyone else.”

“You don’t know anything about her?”

“We mainly see her censoring information,” Prefab said.  “Silencing and disappearing people who are talking about sensitive stuff, and doing the same with everyone they talked to.  Only details are slipping through the net, now.  About Cauldron, about Alexandria, the formulas.”

“Too much for one person to handle?” I suggested.

“Speculation from the top is they’ve probably stopped caring,” Prefab said.  “Thinkers believe she’s letting things leak, because it doesn’t make sense that they’d keep things this tight and then slip up like they have been.”

“What’s her classification?”

“Thinker.  Don’t worry about the number.  Just run.”

I frowned.

“Exactly how many capes are like that?” Leister asked.

“A handful.  Enough.”

“I’m beginning to feel like I’m out of my depth,” Leister said.

“You get used to that,” I said.  “With the sheer luck involved in powers and the crap we wind up facing on a daily or weekly basis, it’s only a matter of time before you wind up going up against someone you don’t have a chance against.”

“Yeah, but Fab’s talking-”

Prefab,” Prefab growled.

“Sorry.  I mean, Prefab was talking about opponents we couldn’t hope to fight, and I’ve only had two real fights so far.  One of them wasn’t even a real fight.”

“You’re new?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.

“I’ve only been a Ward for a month.”

Only two fights in a month.  I felt a pang of envy.

“Let’s hope there isn’t a fight today,” Prefab said.  “But let’s be ready if there is one.

We ascended to the rooftop.  Dragon’s suit had already landed.  A bulky craft, twice the size of a helicopter, with what looked to be a cargo bay.  Letters stenciled on the edge of the wing read ‘Kulshedra v0.895’.

Inside, in boxes, there were butterflies.  Innumerable varieties.  Sadly, quite a few had died due to a lack of food or being crushed under the weight of the others.  The idea was clear.  The PRT wanted me to change how I operated.  Dragon, at least, was willing to give me the means.

It was still stupid.  Ridiculous.

The back of the craft opened, giving me access to the hatches.  I stepped up onto the ramp and found the buttons to open the boxes.

“Go, my pretties,” I said, monotone.  “Go, seek out my enemies and smother them.”

They took off, moving in colorful formations, organized by type, drawing fractal shapes in the air as they spread out.

I stepped down off the ramp to see Leister staring at me.

“I know you were joking,” Prefab said, “But no smothering.”

“No smothering,” I said, sighing.  I looked up.  The sky was darkening.  “If there’s a fight, it’s going to be at night.  It’d be pretty stupid to use butterflies at night, when half of my tricks are subtle.”

“You’d have to ask Rime.”

Was I supposed to use non-butterflies to scout for trouble?

I considered asking, but I was suspicious I already knew the answer.

Best not to ask, and beg for forgiveness later.

Insects and flies moved out over the surrounding cityscape.  There were too many buildings here, too many that were sealed off, but I could check rooftops and balconies, and I could investigate the ground.  Tens of thousands of people, all in all.

“Sniper rifle,” I said, in the same instant the thought came together.

“Wha?” Leister asked, incoherent and confused.

Prefab’s head snapped my way.  “You sure?”

“I’d point,” I said, “But he’d notice.  Our masks and helmets cover our faces, or I’d be worried about lip-reading.”

“Don’t panic, don’t give away that you’re afraid.  Into the craft.  Go,” Prefab said.

I nodded, wishing I had my real costume, though I knew it might not be tough enough to withstand a bullet from a sniper rifle.

Prefab was the last to step inside, slowing down as he approached the ramp.  I could see light glittering around the edges of the roof, growing more intense over the course of seconds.  Ten, fifteen seconds passed, until there was more of the light than there were spaces in between.  The light was most intense near the edges.

In a clap of thunder, a rush of wind and a flare of… anti-sparks, crenellated walls appeared, extending fifteen feet up from the lip of the roof’s edge.  The sparks, such as they were, were black at their core, surrounded by shadow.  They spun in the air before drifting to the ground, where they flickered out of existence.

“Does that block his line of sight?  I can make them taller,” Prefab said.

“I don’t think he has the right angle to shoot over the wall,” I said.

“No weapons?  Costume?”

I used my subtler bugs, but he was already packing away the rifle in record time, then swiftly moving away from the roof’s edge.  He brushed away my bugs as they converged, kicked a hatch open with his foot, then climbed inside with a speed that almost made me think he’d fallen.  Only the fact that the hatch closed firmly after him convinced me otherwise.

The only way he’d have evaded the swarm like that was if he’d known what I was doing.

“No costume,” I said.  “He brushed away the bugs before I could get anything substantial, but I think… glasses?  And a dress shirt.  I think he noticed what my bugs are doing.  That’s rare.”

“We’ve got trouble,” Prefab said.  I realized he was using his phone.  “Sniper on a rooftop nearby.  Possible Thinker.  Barricades should make for safe elevator exit.”

We’re on our way up,” Rime said, through the speaker.  “Four capes and the containment box.  Hold position, play safe.  If Pretender arranged a jailbreak, he won’t have just one person working under him.  Arriving in eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one…

The elevators opened.  Rime, Arbiter, Vantage and Usher made their way out, wheeling a box along with them.

“Password?” Prefab asked.

“Twenty-three-aleph-pater-newfoundland-washington-vikare,” Rime said.  “Arbiter’s group is already confirmed, they haven’t left my sight.  First half of your first password?”

“Eight-nine-three-scion,” he responded.  “And the other two are clear.”

“Good.  Let’s move. A hand?”

Prefab gave Rime a hand in moving the box.  It couldn’t have been comfortable: four feet by six feet by four feet.  Enough to stand in, but not enough to lie down.  The thing had four wheels, and was dense enough that it took some muscle to get it up the ramp.  I would have joined in, if I didn’t fear I would get in the way more than I’d help.  I wasn’t the strongest person around.  Fit, yes, but not strong.

Instead, I focused on bringing my butterflies back.  I couldn’t get them all back in time, but a loss of a hundred or so wasn’t a tragedy.

A loss of all of the butterflies wouldn’t be a tragedy.  I’d feel bad, if only because of the trouble Dragon likely went through in acquiring them, but yeah.

Gosh, if they all just happened to die or get left behind, maybe I’d have to use something else.  Tragic.

They finally managed to settle the box at the center of the cargo bay, pulling a switch to close clasps at the base of it, lowering a solid metal pillar from the roof to the top of the box.

I doubted it would budge if someone crashed a bus into it.

I called back some of the butterflies closest to me, keeping others around the building with the sniper.  He hadn’t set up again.

“I’m worried about that sniper,” I said.  “If he was coming after us, why is he giving up so easily?  If he wasn’t coming after us, who was he after?  A civilian?”

“Identify the building as we get airborne.”

“Through a window?” I asked, looking forward, to the ‘head’ of the craft, that looked out onto the city.

“Bulletproof glass or no, let’s stay away from the windows for now,” Rime said.  “Kulshedra, show Weaver what your cameras see.”

Monitors changed from red text on a black background to high-resolution images of the surrounding walls and rooftop, a different image for each one.

A second later, the ramp closed, and we took to the air, the craft vibrating softly.

I studied the monitors, watching, getting a sense of the surroundings and of which buildings corresponded with what I was looking at.

“Kulshedra,” I said, pretty sure I was mangling the name, “The leftmost monitor on your left side.  Zoom in, a little up and left.  There.  Building to the left of the one in the dead center.”

I tapped the screen as the ship highlighted the building in question.

“Good job, Weaver,” Rime said, peering at the monitor.

“Was on the roof, moved below through hatch when I used my bugs.  Hasn’t left the building,” I said.

Rime touched her earbud.  “Vegas teams, be advised, armed individual in a building at… 125 West Sahara.”

“It’s port,” Leister murmured to me.

“Huh?”

“You said ‘left side of the ship.  It’s port.”

“Isn’t that boats?” I asked.

“Can be aircraft.”

“Best leave it,” Vantage said.  “Leister’s a little stubborn.”

“So am I,” I said.

“Maybe ‘tenacious’ is the word you want,” Vantage offered.  “There aren’t a lot of people who get knocked out and still manage to win a fight.”

“Are you all this pedantic?”  I asked.

Vantage only laughed, though I saw Rime glancing at me, and she didn’t look pleased.

“Alexandria was always hard on us,” Arbiter said.  Her voice had a strange tone to it, oddly melodic, “Getting us to focus on grades, extracurricular stuff, on top of what we did as a part of the team.”

“We were challenged to be better than the other teams in everything, academics included,” Vantage said.  “But we were the only team with a leader who cared about it.”

“Except the capes in Fresno,” Arbiter said.  “I was still a Ward, then.”

Vantage smiled, “Oh yeah.  The bastards in Fresno.  They caught on, probably because we were complaining so much.  Small team, but they started studying like crazy, just so we’d be in second place, academically.  Didn’t matter why we were second, Alexandria was still annoyed at us.”

“All those sermons on being top-notch, on acting like the people we wanted to be, and… she turned out to be a monster,” Arbiter said.

“A monster slain by Weaver, here,” Usher spoke.

All at once, I felt very on the spot.  Each of the capes here, Rime and Prefab excluded, had worked with Alexandria in some capacity.  Except Rime and Prefab were team leaders, and Defiant had commented on how every cape in a position of power had some experience working under the Triumvirate, so even they knew her to some extent.

“Weaver did what had to be done,” Rime said.  “Not pretty, not kind, but sometimes you have to use a knife to cut out a cancer.”

All eyes were on me.  Nobody was speaking.

“I asked you to come along on this job for a reason, Weaver,” Rime said.  “I’ve read the incident reports that involved your interactions with the PRT and the groups under the PRT’s umbrella.  The bank robbery, the fundraiser, the theft of the database with the Shadow Stalker kidnapping, and your ultimate surrender, a little over a week ago.”

I nodded, not sure where she was going, not wanting to interrupt.

“On the latter two occasions, you and your team perverted the natural course of justice.  You pretended to be defeated by Shadow Stalker in order to ambush the Wards, and you later surrendered, only to get off rather lightly for your crimes.”

“I think I follow,” I said.  I glanced at the others, but they were all busy trying not to look like they were listening to our conversation.

Rime nodded, “It’s about-”

The ship lurched, and Rime broke off mid-sentence to catch herself before she fell to the floor.  Usher fell and nearly slid across the floor, but Vantage caught him.

“Kulshedra!” Rime shouted, “Report!”

Incoming fire.  Taking evasive maneuvers.”

“The sniper,” I said.

Not likely,” the ship reported.  “Unless the sniper is capable of moving great distances, he is approximately point seven three five miles away.  The missile came from a perpendicular direction.

Missile?” Leister asked, sounding very alarmed.

Projectile,” the ship corrected.  “Humanoid in shape.”

I saw Leister relax a fraction at that, which I found oddly charming.  He was relieved it was just a person.  Experience told me that small-to-medium sized explosives were less daunting than the prospect of fighting an unknown parahuman.

“Let me out, Kulshedra,” Rime said, “Before they attack again.  Follow my orders on comm channel two.”

The back of the ship cracked open, and wind rushed into the cabin.  Several of my butterflies were torn free of their roosts.

“Prefab’s in charge,” Rime said.

“Got it,” Prefab answered.

“Usher?” Rime asked.  “Hit me.”

Usher didn’t respond, still struggling a bit with his precarious position, holding on to Vantage’s hand.  He did close his eyes, and Rime began to glow, a sheen radiating over her hair, skin and costume.

With that, she was gone, pushing her way out of her seat, leaping and taking flight, flying out of the open hatch.

An instant later, the ship swayed again.  Prefab used his power to create a short half-dome over Usher.  The back hatch closed, and Usher was finally able to relax, with solid ground and something to hold on to.

Projectile was rotating rapidly, along both horizontal and vertical axes.  Rendering composite image from video footage.

The monitors showed a gray expanse, but it began to rapidly take shape in what was first a distorted sphere, then a crude face, and finally a face complete with details.

Arbiter, Vantage, Leister and Prefab all groaned in unison.  I suspected Usher might have joined in if he had a better angle..

“Fuck you, Pretender,” Vantage muttered.  “Fuck you.  You had to hire the worst mercenaries possible, didn’t you?  You asshole.”

I looked at the image.  Not a face I knew, but one I recognized from TV, from the internet, and one very brief encounter.

“That’s B-”

The ship swerved, but it didn’t manage to avoid the hit this time around.  This time, the shifting center of gravity was compounded by a sudden impact, heavy enough to cave in the front of the craft.  Each and every one of us were thrown out of our seats.

From there, things went south quickly.  No longer flightworthy, the ship struggled to maintain altitude.  Bugs that had collected on the outside of the ship made me aware of how the jets that had been driving the craft forward were now angling towards the ground.  They worked double time to keep the Kulshedra from spinning as it fell and to give downward thrust to counteract the pull of gravity.

Rime’s power froze the Kulshedra in mid-descent, catching it between two buildings, suspended in the midst of a bridge of ice.

The projectile struck us again, from directly above.  The ice to our left, our port side, shattered.

“Seatbelts on!”  Prefab bellowed.  “Hold on tight if you can’t get to one!  Deep breath, don’t tense with the impact!”

I climbed up to a point where there were benches, and belted myself in.  One over each shoulder, one over my lap.  The headrest- it wasn’t there.  There was only metal.  My butterflies found the real headrest above me.  I reached up and found the clasps to lower the softer bundle until it sat at the right height to cushion any impacts.

The ice on our starboard side cracked, an agonizing, gradual break.  My heart leaped into my chest as we plunged towards the street below.

The Kulshedra hit ground, and the impact was so heavy my thoughts were jarred out of my head.  For long seconds, I couldn’t think, but could only experience, could only feel every part of my body hurt, aches and pains I didn’t know I had magnified by the jolt.

It was a small relief that my passenger didn’t take the opportunity to act without my consent.  I was bewildered enough without any added complications, stunned, sore where the straps had pulled against my shoulders and gut.

“Kulshedra!” Prefab shouted.  “Lights on!”

Auxilary offline.  Emergency lighting failed in six attempts carried out in two seconds.”

“Uhhhh,” he said, drawing out the sound, “Damage report?”

A.I. bank one offline.  Aux offline.  Propulsion offline.  Weapons offline.  Helm offline.

“Why are you speaking strangely?”  I called out.

A.I. bank one offline.  Advanced linguistics, memory, geography-

“Enough,” Prefab said, cutting it off.

I almost told him to let it continue, just so we had an idea, but he was the boss.

“Protectorate, Wards, sound off!”  Prefab shouted.

“Arbiter.  Fine.”

“Vantage, mildly injured,” Vantage said.  “My hand.”

“Usher, bleeding from a bad scrape, but otherwise okay.”

“Weaver,” I said, “I’m fine.”

There was a pause.

“Leister?”  Prefab asked.

“Mostly okay,” Leister said, but his voice sounded strained.  “Took a hit to the gut.”

“Let’s get ourselves sorted out,” Prefab said.  “If you can reach your phones, use them for light.  There’s an exec on the second page, if you haven’t mucked with them to add ten pages of games.”

“Don’t-” Leister said, still sounding odd, “Don’t diss the games, when you make us sit around waiting for stuff all the time.”

I didn’t get a phone yet, I thought.  But hey, I’ve got the damn butterflies.

At my order, the butterflies that had been clustered on the outside of their cage took flight, spreading out over the ship’s interior.

I spoke, “Kulshedra.  Roof got crushed, lights with them, am I right?”

Yes.

“No lights in floor?”

Not at present.  Standard floor fixtures in Kulshedra model precursor were removed for containment box fixtures. Lights included.”

“Any power to monitors?”

Yes.”

“Video footage of exterior, stat,” Prefab ordered, cutting in.

Monitors flickered to life.  One in three showed only the ground beneath us, and another third were broken.

“Change the focus of any monitor displaying only asphalt,” I said.

A.I. bank one is offline.  Discrimination no longer possible.

“Monitors with video from any camera on the ship’s upper half.”

Restate, please,” the A.I. said.

“Nevermind,” I said.  “Um.  Nine working cameras, four on port side, five on starboard, am I right?”

Yes.

I worked on unbelting myself, ensuring my legs were fixed in the bars beneath the bench, so I wouldn’t fall.  “Label monitors with numbers from one to nine.”

One by one, the monitors displayed numbers instead of the video feed.

“Weaver-” Prefab said.  “This isn’t helpful.  We need information on our surroundings.”

“No immediate threats nearby, according to my swarm,” I told him, checking with my bugs.  “Ship, monitors one, three and seven weren’t displaying a usable feed.  Restore a feed to each other monitor.”

The videos reappeared.

“Monitors two, six and eight are broken and are not displaying anything coherent.  Display white instead, maximum brightness, on those screens and any ones not displaying any video.”

Monitors lit up.  It wasn’t much, but it was marginally better than what the Protectorate-issue phones were granting.

“How the hell do you know your way around this thing?”  Vantage asked.  I could see him below me, one hand outstretched, the other held behind his back.

“Defiant and Dragon have been ferrying me between the PRT and court, and between prison and these little field exercises, so I’ve gotten a sense of them,” I said.  “And I fought a bunch of others back in Brockton Bay.  You figure them out, kind of.”

“I saw that bit about Dragon’s visit to Brockton Bay in the news,” Vantage said.  “Here, fall.”

I twisted myself around until I hung by my hands, then let myself drop from the bench.  Vantage caught me with the one hand.

The others were getting themselves sorted out.  A few minor injuries, but it wasn’t as bad as it could be.

My head snapped around as our opponent landed just outside the ship.  She let go of her companions, setting them down on the ground beside her.

Hellooooo,” a girl’s voice sounded over the system.  I had to turn around, checking all of the cameras, before I found the one where she was displayed, upside down.

“Ship, flip monitor, um, monitor four, one-eighty-degrees vertical,” I said.

It flipped the right way around.  I could see a young girl on the opposite side.  She was flanked by two other small children, one a male with a widow’s peak and a severe expression for his age, ten or so, the other a girl of about twelve, in overalls that ended at the knee, a star at the chest, and far too much makeup.

“Fuck me,” Vantage muttered.  “Bambina brought her team.”

Come out and plaaaaay,” Bambina called out.  A second later, she leaped.  The small detonation that followed in her wake was quenched by the appearance of Rime’s ice crystals.

Sniper’s active,” Rime’s voice came through the earbuds.  She was panting.  “Deliberate, accurate shooter.  I’ve taken three bullets, ice armor took most of the force out of the shots.  Bambina is accompanied by Starlet and August Prince, um.  Shooter’s shots ricochet.  Can’t dodge.  There’s wounded just outside craft.  Traffic caught underneath when you fell.

“Stop talking and get inside,” Prefab said.

 “Can’t close the gap to the Kulshedra without getting shot again.  He’s cutting me off.”

“Use crystals to form a wall, get inside, damn it,” Prefab said.

Ricochets,” Rime stressed.  “I- shit!”

I found her with my bugs, setting them on her costume.  “She’s okay, just fleeing from Bambina and Starlet.  The shooter doesn’t seem to be targeting the kids.”

“My power makes her immune to Bambina,” Usher said.

“Maybe to the explosions,” I said, “But the impact?  Or something else?”

He frowned.

“They’re not on the same side,” Arbiter said, “The shooter and the child villains.”

“Good,” Prefab said.  “Let’s-“

Bambina collided with the Kulshedra again.  It rocked, nearly tipping over onto one side.

“Kulshedra,” Prefab said, “Open ramp!”

The ramp opened, and I sent the butterflies out.  Nothing substantial, but it was something.

Okay, not really.  But it was an opportunity to lay out some silk.  I emptied the reserves I had contained in my costume.

Prefab began working on a structure, forming it out of the same flashes of light and sparks of darkness he’d used before.  It took time to pull together, and the way it joined with the wall next to it, it didn’t seem like he was designing it on the fly.

Similar to Labyrinth, but it was only natural that powers might run in parallel.

The shooter wasn’t in my reach.  Bambina was horrifically mobile, bouncing off of walls and the street, creating explosions with most of the impacts.  Her teammates were along for the ride, apparently unscathed by her power.  Going on the offensive would be hard, even if I was using my full complement of bugs.

I was having a really hard time justifying Glenn’s rule on pretty bugs only.

Prefab’s wall appeared around the craft.  “Priority one is the wounded!”

We made our way out of the craft.  Odd as it was, I felt a mixture of relief and… an emotion I couldn’t place, at the realization that I didn’t have to fight to convince my teammates that we had to help other people.

Three cars had been caught beneath the wings of Dragon’s craft, another smashed by a chunk of ice.  The passengers of one car had fled, another two cars had people trapped inside, and the people in the fourth were unconscious.

I helped Arbiter with the unconscious ones.

“I alerted Dragon,” Prefab said.  “The Vegas teams know too.  This is a waiting game.  We help Rime, and we keep the prisoner contained.  If he gets loose, or if Bambina destroys the containment vessel, this gets a lot more complicated.”

The prisoner, I noted the word choice, not Pretender.

“If I can get closer to the shooter, I can disable him,” I said.

“Too dangerous.”

An explosion against the exterior of the wall Prefab had pulled together marked another attack from Bambina.

“I can do dangerous.  Let me take the kid-gloves off, and-“

No,” Rime’s voice came through my earbud.  “No.  Stay.

I grit my teeth.  “You’re underestimating me.”

We’re well aware of what you’re capable of.  I’m doing you a favor,” she said, and her voice was strained.  “Stay, follow Prefab’s orders.

I considered running, then stopped.  “Okay.  I’m giving you some backup, Rime.  Best I can do.”

With that, I sent butterflies her way, clustering them into human-shaped groups.  When one group reached her, they surrounded her.  Decoys.

“Hard to see,” she said.  I didn’t even need the earbud to understand, with the butterflies near her.

I kept the bugs away from her face.  I wasn’t sure that was ideal, but it was her call.

Arbiter and Prefab had enough medical training to check the civilians over before we moved them or moved them further.  With my power, I tracked Bambina as she ricocheted through the area, causing innumerable explosions across the landscape.  Rime struggled to evade both Bambina and the detonation, while maintaining some degree of cover against the gunman.

“Last one,” Prefab said.  “Weaver, help.”

I helped him get the older woman to her feet, and keep her standing as we led her into the back of Dragon’s ship.

I stopped abruptly, as Bambina’s trajectory swiftly changed.

“Trouble!” I called out.

Bambina landed atop the wall.  Her teammates landed beside her, each holding one hand.  They looked a little worse for wear.  Starlet was firing darts of light at Rime, the darts exploding mid-way through the air to block Rime’s path when she tried to advance.  Between Starlet and the sniper, she wasn’t able to advance.

 “You were there for the Leviathan fight,” I spoke to Bambina.

“Can’t really bounce on water, it turns out,” she said.  “Wasn’t worth the trouble.  Ducked out.”

Prefab let go of the older woman, leaving me with the burden as he faced Bambina square-on.  “Lots of attention on Pretender all of a sudden.”

“Paying pretty well,” Bambina said, “And he promised a favor, too.  He set some rules, but considering how we’re going above and beyond the call of duty, I’m hoping he’ll bend them.  You know how fucking awesome it is to have a favor from a body snatcher?  He zaps himself into some hunky celeb that’d never touch me otherwise, then…”

Bambina launched into a lewd explanation of what she’d have him do to her, and vice versa.  I averted my eyes and did my best to turn off my ears.  I’d started out spending months suppressing my powers to varying degrees, and I’d learned to ignore some sensations from my bugs.  I wasn’t so lucky when it came to my hearing.

“…with my feet,” Bambina finished.

Starlet, still firing on Rime, glanced over her shoulder to look at us, cackling at Bambina’s audacity, while August Prince didn’t seem to react.

I’d backed away, helping the older woman hobble forward on her bad ankle, and we were close enough to the ramp for her to make her own way up.  I stepped forward, my eyes still on Bambina.

“Worst thing ever,” Vantage murmured from behind me.  “Fighting kids?  You win, you get zero credit, no matter how good their powers are.  They’re children, after all.  But if you lose, well, they’re kids, your reputation is fucked.”

“Focus,” Prefab said.  “We know who these three are.  We’ve got a Mover-shaker six, a blaster-shaker four, and a master-stranger three.”

“Hey, Weaver,” Bambina called out.  “You’re that supervillain-turned hero, right?  Offed Alexandria?”

“Yeah,” I said.

Odd, how I felt more at home in this situation than I had fifteen minutes ago.  Or even helping the civilians.  I’d liked helping civilians, but this was where I felt most able to reach into myself and be strangely calm.

“You fucked up my rankings for a straight week, worst fucking time, too.  I’d planned an escapade, was supposed to rise to number thirty, but your news took the front page instead, and I dropped to forty-five instead.  I haven’t been that low in a year!”

“Rankings?” I asked.

“Rankings!  Don’t you even pay attention?  It was embarrassing.  My mom’s still giving me a hard time over it, and it’s like, that’s less money from our sponsors.  So I’m going to make you deepthroat my fist, okay?  Break your arms and legs and make you suckle it.”

She stamped, and fire rippled around her.  Both August and Starlet flinched.

Worse, it destroyed the silk I’d been tying around her leg.

She leaped down, holding August Prince’s hand, and Arbiter took action.  The heroine directed a sonic blast at Bambina with one hand, but Bambina kicked the wall, changing the direction she was moving.  Arbiter blocked her with a forcefield, then raised a hand to shoot again-

And stopped, standing still instead.  A look of consternation appeared across her forehead, above her mask.

Bambina ricocheted off of Dragon’s craft, hitting it hard enough that it shifted, then flew at Prefab.  One hit, and he was out of action.  The explosion hadn’t even been that large.

Prefab, who had his cannon raised and hadn’t even pulled the trigger once.

Bambina whipped around, rotating crazily before touching ground, her feet skidding on the ground.  She set the Prince down.  Starlet, up on the wall, laughed.

“Can’t touch the Prince, can you?” Bambina asked.  “Go, August.”

The little boy advanced.  He held a scepter, different from Regent’s.  More of a mace.

Arbiter was backing up rapidly as he advanced, and I-

I thought briefly about what the heroes had said about Alexandria, about how she’d wanted them to act like the person they wanted to be.

I’d done that, in a way.  It reminded me of how I’d formed my identity as Skitter.  I’d acted fearsome, acted as if I expected people to be afraid, expected them to listen, and they had.  Even Dragon had, at one point.

But maybe I didn’t need to be feared here.  I could do something as Weaver.  Confidence.  I didn’t back down as the August Prince approached.  I sent butterflies his way.  No problem.

Tried to move them so he would be blinded… and found they didn’t listen.

Tried to bite and sting with the nastier insects I’d hidden inside the butterfly swarm, and again, no response.

He closed the distance to me, swinging at my knee with the mace.  I ducked back out of the way.

His fighting style was graceless, without any particular fluidity.  He held the mace with two hands and swung it, and then took seconds to recover.  An opening to strike, and my body refused to follow up on it.

That would be his power then.  Something in the same department as Imp’s ability.

My bugs continued past him, and I sent them straight for Bambina.

She only laughed as the butterflies landed on her, stomped hard to kill most of them.  “No way.  You offed Alexandria.  I’m not-  Ow!”

Bees, wasps and hornets stung simultaneously, targeting her eyes, mouth and earholes.

She stomped, and soared up to the top of the wall.  “My face, fuck you!  This is going to swell!  This fucking…”

I didn’t hear the rest.  I was more focused on the little kid who was striving to cave in something vital.

The Prince swung at me, and I caught the mace.

It was a mistake.  He let go and tackled me, gripping my leg, hauling on it to put me off-balance.

I couldn’t fight to pull him off, couldn’t use my bugs.

This was annoying.

Then I saw Bambina point, saw Starlet stop taking potshots at Rime and turn my way, reaching.

If the Prince was the master-stranger hybrid, and Bambina the mover-shaker, then that left the blaster power to Starlet.

“Arbiter!”

Arbiter threw a forcefield between us.  It didn’t matter.  The dart of light she fired exploded against the forcefield, and the ensuing implosion pulled me off the ground.  August Prince held on as I tumbled, then climbed up me before reaching around my throat.

I tucked my chin against my collarbone, preventing him from getting a decent hold, and he started clawing at me, struggling to get fingers, a hand, between my chin and my neck.

If this goes any further, Clockblocker’s never going to let me live this down.

The second thought was a little more grave.

If this little bastard kills me, the Undersiders will never forgive me.

The others were helpless to assist me, due to the peculiarities of the Prince’s power, but they could direct their focus to Bambina and Starlet.  Leister thrust out his trident, and it distorted, stretching the distance between himself and the two kid villains on the wall.  He struck Starlet in the face with the shaft of the trident.

Bambina kicked him, and he went flying to a point on the other side of the wall.  His spear distorted and brought him to the ground, but the kick- it hit too hard.  He didn’t rise.

Seeing one of her Wards get taken out of action, Rime made a break for us, my decoys moving parallel to her.

The sniper fired, and she went down.  One guess, and it was accurate.

Tumbling through the air, she used her power in one singular burst, and was encased in a two-story high tower of ice.

Vantage leaped onto the top of the craft, then onto the top of the wall.  Starlet’s blast nearly moved him.  Bambina leapt, bouncing off a nearby building, then flying towards Vantage.  He teleported out of her way, then threw a bola, catching her.  She fell from the wall, landing hard.

One down.  Two to go.

I’m better than this.

The rules about interacting with the Prince were strictly defined.  I could hold him, but I couldn’t hurt him.  Which category did silk fall under?  I had some on my person.  Twenty feet in all.  Twenty feet disappeared fast when it was wound around something.

I chose his neck.  Not hurting him, not directly.  His power allowed it.

One of Starlet’s implosions sent Prince and I tumbling.  Too far from anything I could hold.  He found the opportunity to seize me by the neck.

“Someone!”  I said, “Come closer!”

Usher approached, and Starlet blasted the ground behind him, pulling him off his feet.  He was mere handspans from where I needed him.

“Rime’s out of commission!” I said, my voice strangled as Prince did his best to choke me.  “Your power isn’t affecting her.  Give it to me!”

Usher focused his power on me.  I felt it ripple through me, felt something, but it didn’t break the spell.  I still couldn’t turn the slightest amount of aggression towards the kid.

“No,” I said.

Usher focused his power on Vantage instead, and Vantage flared with light.

Starlet’s power hit him, and it didn’t do a thing.  He punched her in the gut, then caught her as she went limp.

And Prince… was harder to deal with.  Usher approached, and I tied thread around his leg.

I tried to tell Usher to run, knowing what would happen with the thread around Prince’s neck.  My voice wouldn’t come out, and it wasn’t due to the feeble but persistent attempt at strangulation.

So many heroes around me, and they couldn’t touch this little bastard.

Move, I thought.  Move, move, move.

“Your power immunity isn’t making me immune to the kid,” Vantage said, helplessly.

Don’t talk, move.

In the midst of the Kulshedra, I could sense moving air currents.  A woman emerged from thin air, from a place cooler than the interior of the ship.  The civilians we’d rescued shrieked and backed away from her.  She didn’t respond, barely reacted.  Someone with long, dark hair and a suit.  She fixed her cuffs, then moved with purpose.

But I found myself less fixated on her than on her surroundings.  Oddly enough, I could feel a different structure behind the woman, a hallway.

I tried to speak, but couldn’t find the air.  Damn this little bastard.  Damn Usher for not doing something.

“What a mess,” Satyr called out.

Heads turned.

The Vegas Wards had arrived, perched on top of the nearest wall.  They didn’t move to help, didn’t leap to intervene.  Satyr glanced at Bambina, who was struggling to free herself from the bola.  There was something in his eyes.

Were they in on it?

“Help us!” Vantage called out.  “Rime’s out, and we can’t save Weaver!”

Satyr didn’t speak.  He glanced at the ship.  He couldn’t see from the angle he’d approached, but the woman inside had pulled the lever, and the door at the back was slowly closing.

I drew out words on the side.

Pretender in danger

The heroes turned, eyes going wide.  Satyr, Blowout and Leonid rushed forward, joined by Vantage.

Then Usher stepped forward to help, and the August Prince choked, giving me a little slack.  I sucked in a gasp for air.

Arbiter heard, whipping around, and threw a forcefield between us.  I pulled away.

She managed to sandwich the little bastard between her forcefield and the ground.  I rolled away, sitting up.

The ramp was nearly closed by the time they arrived.  Vantage slammed one hand against the door, but it was too heavily armored to give.

“Kul-,” I gasped out.

The woman turned and walked up to the ruined nose of the craft, and began threading wires together.  She didn’t even flinch as sparks flared between them.  She was measured, even patient, as she worked at fixing the panel.  When she was done, she tapped something out on the broken, unlit touch panel.

“Kulshedra, shut down,” I managed.

Restate request.”

The pillar rose from the top of the box, freeing the upper part of the box’s door.

“Kulshedra, contact Dragon,” I tried.

Dragon is currently unable to reply.

“Contact Chevalier.”

Calling.

The woman tapped out another code, and the clamps on the bottom came open, freeing the bottom.

Yet another code typed out, and the system spoke, “Type two safety override accepted.

The woman in the ship struck a single button.  The A.I. spoke, “Call ended.

“Kulshedra, call Chevalier,” I repeated.

Nothing.

The woman inside typed out a final code, and the door of the box opened, releasing Pretender.

And then she spoke, and I could hear through the bugs that surrounded her.  “The Doctor will see you now.”

“Right-o,” Pretender said.  “Gotta be better than the Birdcage.”

They stepped through the gateway that led to the cool, air-conditioned hallway, and then they were gone, the butterflies in the hallway no longer in my reach.

I felt my blood pumping, roaring in my ears.  “They got him.  They collected Pretender.”

“Who?”

“Her.  The shooter’s partner.  Cauldron.”  I clenched my fist.  “Rime’s down.  We have to help her.”

“The shooter-” Vantage started.

“He’s gone,” Arbiter said.  “Not sensing a threat.  You guys go.  I’ll look after Prefab and Leister, and make sure Weaver’s okay.”

Usher nodded.

Satyrical gestured, and most of his team joined the L.A. team members.  I was left kneeling, still catching my breath.  Satyr and Nix hung back, arms folded, exchanging surreptitious glances.

Arbiter didn’t look at them as she spoke, “You hired them.  Bambina’s crew.  You wanted to break him out.”

Satyr didn’t respond.

“You were going to leave the Protectorate?  You had to have been.”

“Yeah.”  It was Nix who spoke, not Satyr.

“Just like that?”

Nix shook her head.  “It’s gone.  Doomed.  We lost Alexandria, we lost Legend and Eidolon.  The new team doesn’t hit half as hard.  Look at Rime.  Taken out of action like that.  Protectorate’s a shadow of what it was.”

“She was beaten by monsters the Protectorate refuses to even classify,” I said.  I coughed a little.

“Alexandria would have managed.”

“Alexandria worked for them,” I said.

Nix shrugged.

Arbiter looked up at Satyr and Nix, “If you leave, the Endbringers-”

Nix interrupted, “We’ll still fight Endbringers.  But the Protectorate was going to take Pretender from us because of how he got his powers.  It’s ridiculous.”

“He was still going to be on the team,” Arbiter said.  “Just… we can’t let him be leader if he’s beholden to a group like that.”

“It shouldn’t matter.”

“Cauldron’s evil,” Arbiter said.  “They experimented on people to get the powers Pretender has.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Satyr said.  His voice was rough.  “Pretender’s gone, and so are we.  We’ll get our teammates and we’ll go.”

He nudged Nix, and they turned to go.

One Protectorate team gone.

Arbiter dialed her phone, shifted restlessly.  “Chevalier.  It’s an emergency.”

There was a long pause.

“The Vegas team,” she said, finally.  “They’ve broken ranks.  There’s more, but if we’re going to arrest them, Dragon needs-”

A pause.

“No,” she said.  “They aren’t.  No.  Yes.  Yes, sir.”

There was a defeated tone to her body language as she let her arm fall to one side, disconnecting the call.

Arbiter looked from her phone to Prefab.  “Dragon collapsed just before this began.  She was meeting a Las Vegas Rogue.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I thought of the woman who’d been so handy with the computer.  The censor, the bogeyman.  They’d taken out Rime, no doubt because she could have sealed the box behind a wall of ice.

Yet they hadn’t taken out Prefab, who could have done much the same thing.

Every step of the way, every action perfect.

“The Vegas heroes?”  I asked.

“He said to let them go,” she said, her voice small.  “That we need them, even if they aren’t Protectorate.  He’ll send people to talk to them and arrange something later.”

I nodded, mixed emotions stewing in my midsection.  It was bad, it was disappointing, to see a failure on this level, after I’d given so much up to help the Protectorate out.

“We lost on every count,” I said.

“Rime’s alive,” Arbiter said, looking at her phone.

“Every other count, then,” I said.

“There’ll be better days,” she said.

Not like this, I thought, and it wasn’t a good thought.  As nice as the feeling of rescuing civilians had been, this was an ugly idea, a pit in the depths of my stomach.

The person I wanted to be, the person I was, reconciling them wasn’t so easy.  The hero on one side, Skitter on the other.

This has to change.

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Interlude 21 (Donation Bonus #1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He hadn’t always been this bland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which he had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No reply, of course.

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

Again, no reply.

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

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

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

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

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

No, this was a threat from within.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They learned after the first time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He extended his left hand, “Or no?”

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

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

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

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

“Damn,” he said, meaning it.

It was on the fourth floor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He paused, concentrating.

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

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

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

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

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

That said, he pushed the door open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other was to strike.

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop,” he said.  “There’s no point.”

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

“My name is Reyner!”

“You lost that name when you came here.”

“Why!?”

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

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

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

“I do not know the word.”

Not in his lexicon?

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

“Between what?”

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

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

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

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

Morally.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I… no.”

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

“Threats?  To my family?”

“Yes.  To everyone.”

“You’ll save them?”

“We’ll try.”

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

“I could kill you, if you wished.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m aware.”

“We’ll need to change our approach.”

She turned around.  “How?”

“We need Contessa closer to home.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Very likely.”

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

“Unlikely anything would have come of it.”

“But if it had?”

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

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

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

“Skitter turned herself in.”

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

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

“Is it settled?”  He asked.

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

“Then it’s not necessarily over.”

“We can’t interfere.”

“I’m aware.”

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

“What risks?”

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

“Creating more deviations.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hopefully not too much,” he said.

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even the smell, it brought back memories.

1987

The pair of them were breathing heavily.

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

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

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

We’re nearly opposites in more than hair color.

“He can die after all,” Jacob mused.

“Yes.”

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

“Maybe not.”

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

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

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

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

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

“They won’t believe us.”

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

“We have names.”

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

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

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

“I don’t see the point.”

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

“Yes,” Harbinger said.

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

Harbinger shook his head.

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

“Jacob.”

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

“Okay… Jack.”

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

“I’m… no.  I won’t.”

Jack wheeled on him, knife in hand.

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

The look in his eyes… hungry.

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

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

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

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

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

Or…

“I’ll play, though,” he said.

“Play?”

“Make a name for myself.”

Jack smiled.

Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And more to the point: why?

Was Jack, perhaps, in particular sync with his agent in mindset?

And if he was, did that suggest something about their motives?

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Interlude 15 (Donation Bonus #3)

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August 20th, 1986

She was being poisoned by people with smiles on their faces.

She hated those smiles.  Fake.  Pretending to be happy, pretending to be cheerful.  But she’d spent enough time here to know that her friends and family would be crying the second they thought they were out of earshot.  The strangers had a weariness that spoke to the inevitable.  The older they were, the more reality seemed to weigh on them.

Somewhere along the line, they had stopped telling her that the chemotherapy would make her better.  The smiles had become even more strained.  There was more emphasis on making her comfortable.  Less explanation of what was going on.

So when her mother came in to check on her, bringing the mug of heated chicken broth, she pretended to be asleep.  She hated herself for it, but she couldn’t stand the lies, the fakeness.

If it wouldn’t have given her away, she would have winced as her mother sat down by her bedside.  It meant she might be staying a while.

“Becca,” her mother murmured from behind her.  “You awake?”

She didn’t respond, keeping her breathing steady.  She tried to breathe through her nose, so the sores that filled her mouth wouldn’t sing with pain at the contact with the air.

Her mother ran one hand over her head.  Her hair was mostly gone, and the contact was uncomfortable to the point that it was almost painful.

“You’ve been so brave,” her mom whispered, so quiet she was barely audible.

I’m not brave.  Not at all.  I’m terrified.  I’m so frustrated I could scream.  But she couldn’t.  Everyone had painted her as being so courageous, so noble and peaceful in the face of the months of treatment.  But it was a facade, and she’d passed the point of no return.  It was too late to break composure, too late to stop making bad jokes, faking smiles of her own.  She couldn’t complain or use her mother’s shoulder to cry on because everyone would fall apart if she did.

She was their support.

“My little superhero,” her mother said.  Rebecca could feel her mother’s hand on her bare scalp once more.  She wanted to slap that hand away, yell at her mother.  Don’t you know that hurts?  Everything hurts.

“You’ve been trying so hard.  You deserve better.”

And just like that, from the tone and the word choice, Rebecca knew she was dying.

She felt a mixture of emotions.  Relief, in a way.  It would mean the chemotherapy could stop; she could stop hurting.  There was anger too.  Always some anger.  Why couldn’t her mother just tell her?  When would they get up the courage to deliver that news?

Apparently not tonight.  Rebecca heard the scrape of the chair moving as her mother stood, the muffled footsteps as she retreated down the hall.

Tears had been harder to come by since the chemo had started.  Most days, her eyes were red and itchy, her vision blurry, too dry to cry.  But it seemed this occasion deserved them.  For a long time, she lay on her side, staring out the window at the cityscape of Los Angeles, tears running sideways down her face, across the bridge of her nose and down to her ear, soaking her pillow.

There was a sign that caught her eye, because it was so bright a yellow against its immediate background of blues and dusky purples.  The classic logo of a fast food restaurant.

It struck her that she would probably never get to eat there again, never get a special kids meal with the dinky plastic toy that was meant for kids ten years younger than her.  She’d never forget about the toy afterward, letting it clutter the top of her dresser along with the other colorful trinkets and keepsakes.

She’d never get to read the third book of the Maggie Holt series, or see the movie they were making of the first book.

She’d never have a real boyfriend.

It was dumb, but those stupid trivial things hit her harder than the idea that she’d never see her family, her friends or her cats again.  The steady tears became sobs, and her breath hitched, making her entire chest seize in pain.  The involuntary clenching of her empty stomach was twice as bad, and she started to think she might need to throw up.  Or dry heave.  Experience told her that would be worst of all.

She’d started moaning without realizing it, quiet and drawn out, trying to replace those painful lurching sobs with something else.

“Do you need morphine?”

The gentle voice startled her, interrupting both the moans and the sobs.  Morphine wouldn’t help the most basic, terrifying, inevitable reality she faced.  She shook her head.

There was a whispering.

“I’m going to increase the drip just a little, Rebecca Costa-Brown.”

“Who?”  Rebecca stirred, turning around to see who was speaking.  A black woman with long hair in a doctor’s get-up was messing with the IV bag.  But… no name tag.  And there was a teenage girl with pale skin and dark hair standing behind her, wearing knee-high socks, a black pleated skirt and white dress shirt.  “You’re not one of my doctors.”

“No, Rebecca.  Not yet,” the woman replied.

Quietly, Rebecca asked, “Are you one of the doctors that takes care of people that are dying?”

The woman walked around to the end of the bed.  The teenager stayed where she was.  Rebecca gave the girl a nervous look.  She was staring, her expression placid, hands at her side.

“Who are you, then?”

“Shh.  Lower your voice.  It would be a shame if the nurses happened to come by and eject me.”

“So…” Rebecca started, making a conscious effort to speak more quietly, “You’re not supposed to be here.”

“No,” the woman replied.

Rebecca closed her mouth.  She could feel the effect of the morphine.  If nothing else, it was helping ease the uncomfortable sensation where her stomach had been cramping, her skin feeling raw against the stiff hospital sheets.  She didn’t know what to say, so she fell silent instead.

“To answer your question, I’m a doctor, but not one that works in this hospital.  I’m more of a researcher and scholar than anything else.  And I came to make you an offer.”

“Shouldn’t my mom be here for this?”  My mother makes all of the decisions.

“Normally yes, when dealing with a minor.  But this is a private deal.  Just for you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You’ve heard about the superheroes?  On the television?”

“Yeah.  There’s, like, a bunch.  Twenty or something?”

“No less than fifty, now.  They’re appearing all over the world, with thousands upon thousands estimated to appear by the turn of the millennium.  I confess I have something of a hand in that.  Which is why I’m here.”

“You… make superheroes appear?”  Rebecca could feel herself getting foggy with the morphine.

“I make superheroes, but it’s not easy.  The risks are high.  The files?”

The teenager on the other side of the bed stepped forward, pulling off her backpack.  She reached in and withdrew a file folder.

The woman moved the wheeled, adjustable bed-desk that still held the chicken broth Rebecca’s mother had brought.  She moved the plastic container and put the file folder down.  Opening it, she spread out the glossy photographs that were contained within, until six images sat side by side.

A man with gnarled skin like the wood of a tree.  A woman with tentacles everywhere.  A beetle-man.  A boy with skin that seemed to be melting like wax.  A burned husk of a body. A little girl without eyes, only flat expanses of skin where they should be.

“Right now, in the early stages of my project, only one in seven succeed.  Two of those seven die.”  The woman tapped the pictures of the burned body and the boy with melted skin.  “Four experience unfortunate physical changes.”

“They’re monsters.”

“Yes.  Yes they are.  But of those seven, statistically there’s one who experiences no major physical changes, who gains powers.  All anyone has to do is drink one of my formulas.”

Rebecca nodded.  Her eyes flickered over the photographs.

“And I’ve stumbled on a little side-benefit, Rebecca.  I mix those potions a certain way, and it not only helps reduce the severity of any physical changes, but it also has a restorative effect.  The body heals.  Sometimes just a little.  Sometimes a great deal.  I think we could heal you.”

“Heal me?”

“I’m not asking for money.  Only that you take this leap of faith with me and help me build something.  I know the risks are great, I wouldn’t normally ask someone to face them, but I suspect you don’t have much left to lose.”

Rebecca extended a hand to touch the photos, but it was herself she looked at.  Her fingers so bony, her skin mottled yellow with bruising around the knuckles.  I’m already a monster.

She tapped the photo.  “If… if it was just this?  If you were offering to save my life and make me one of those monsters?  I’d still accept.”

August 21st, 1986

“I think we can mark this as a success,” the Doctor spoke.

Rebecca opened her eyes.  She’d seen something fragmented but profound, but it slipped away as fast as she could think to recollect it.  She staggered to her feet, wobbled.  The girl in the school uniform caught her before she could fall.

“I’m not a monster?”

“No.  In fact, I don’t know if it could have gone better.”

Rebecca extended one arm.  Her skin was a healthy pink, her hand thin but not so emaciated as it had been.

“I’m better?”

“I would guess so.  In truth, I’m not sure how the regeneration affected the cancer, it might even have exacerbated the symptoms.  For the time being, however, you seem to be well.”

“I feel really light.”

“That’s promising.”

Rebecca allowed herself a smile, letting go of the girl’s hand.  She could stand under her own power.  Everything around her appeared sharp.  She hadn’t realized how bad her vision had become.

Even her mind seemed to be operating like a well oiled machine.  Had the drugs and poison made her stupid?

No.  She’d never been like this.  It was like her brain had been a bicycle and now it was a Ferarri.  Even as her eyes flicked over the interior of the warehouse, she could tell she was processing faster, taking in details and sorting them better, as if her thoughts were no longer limited to the confines of her skull.

“What can I do?”

“I’ve yet to start categorizing the results.  For the time being, I’m playing a game of battleship, creating what I can and logging the results.  I hope to find the patterns and the factors at play, given time.”

“You’re going to keep doing what you did with me?”  Rebecca bounced in place.  It took so little effort to move so high.  She was better.  She was alive, like she hadn’t been for months and months.

“I’m going to find an alternative as soon as possible.  The risks are too high, at present.  You can understand that what I have is valuable, and every time I approach a potential patient, I face the possibility that I’m going to be exposed.”

“They’ll stop you?”

“They’ll try.  I have her to guard me,” the Doctor nodded in the direction of the dark-haired girl.  “But I’d rather work without interference.”

“So what do we do now?  What do I do?”

“I have ideas.  Would you object to accompanying me for some time?  I could use another bodyguard.”

“I don’t even know what I do.”

“Nor do I.  But I think it would be a bad idea for you to return home.”

Rebecca stared down at her hands, clenched and unclenched them.  What would her parents say?  What would the doctors and nurses say?

She walked across the empty building.  By the time she reached the other end, she was floating, her feet not even touching the ground.  She set her hands on the wall, dragged her fingertips through the concrete, then crushed it in her hands.  It should have ruined her skin, left scrapes or torn her fingernails, short as they were, but it hadn’t.

I used to be a shadow of a person, barely there.  Now I’m something more in every way.

When she turned around, the girl in the school uniform was whispering in the Doctor’s ear.

The Doctor spoke, “Two years, then you decide if you want to stay.”

Rebecca looked down at the concrete dust that had settled in the lines and folds of her hands, met the Doctor’s eyes and nodded.

May 1st, 1988

“Alexandria,” the Doctor called.

Alexandria waited patiently as Contessa adjusted her cape, then strode through the door.  The Doctor was there, of course.  Professor Manton, too.  The boy with the math powers was there, standing next to a boy who was staring off into space.

“She’s young,” Legend said, sizing her up.

“She’s also one of my best yet,” the Doctor said.

“I’ve heard of her,” Hero said.  “Los Angeles?”

Alexandria nodded.

“You took down Strongarm and Mongler.  It was impressive,” he said.

“Thank you.”

The Doctor spoke, “She’s as strong as any parahuman we’ve recorded.  Flies at speeds that match your own, Legend.  Near-perfect memory retention, accelerated processing and learning.”

Legend gave her another serious look.  She wore a black costume with a skirt, knee-high boots and elbow-length gloves.  A heavy cape flowed behind her back.  Her black hair was held back out of her face by the metal visor that covered the upper half of her face.

“It’s more typical for heroes to wear brighter colors,”  he said.  “It conveys a more positive image.”  His own costume was a testament to that philosophy, blue with flames and lightning stencils in white.

“Black’s more utilitarian,” the Doctor said.  “Harder to see in the dark.”

“And it’s easier to get the blood out,” Alexandria added.

Legend frowned.  “Do you get a lot of blood on your costume?”

“I hit really hard,” she said, deadpan.

He didn’t seem to appreciate the humor.  It didn’t matter.

“Okay,” Hero said, folding his arms.  “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Alexandria.  But I’m not sure I see the point of this, Doctor.”

“You each committed to assisting my enterprise, in exchange for the powers I could grant.”

“Yeah,” Hero said.

“Now I have two things I’d like you to consider.  The first is… well, you could consider it a new arrangement.”

“Alright.  I can keep an open ear,” Legend said.  Eidolon and Hero nodded in agreement.  “What’s your proposal?”

“It’s not my proposal.  Alexandria?”

Alexandria felt her heart skip a beat as the three heroes turned their attention to her, but she kept her emotions from her face.

“This room, I would argue, contains the most powerful parahumans in the world, Scion excepted.  The good you accomplish is undeniable.  Even if villains outnumber the heroes, powers have come to benefit the world in the long run.  A golden age, if you will.”

Legend nodded.

“But we know that trigger events tend to produce damaged, disturbed and unbalanced individuals.  Any traumatic event will do that, and a trauma punctuated by the acquisition of superpowers is going to leave a lasting impression.  Trigger events produce more villains. We know this.”

The Doctor cut in, “And I’m producing more heroes than villains.  For now, the proportion favors us, and you’ve been able to keep the criminal element in line.  For the most part.   But even as I expand my operations, I have come to the realization that I can only produce so much.  And the rate of parahuman growth is expanding.  The next twenty years are projected to produce a total number of six hundred and fifty thousand people with powers, worldwide.”

Alexandria spoke, “I’ve looked at the numbers, at the growth, the trends, checked and double checked them.  Even if the rate decreases, we’re going to get outpaced and we’re going to get outpaced hard.  The people with trigger events will outnumber the Doctor’s clients, and we’ll wind up with three to ten villains for every hero that steps forward.”

Legend, Eidolon and Hero were paying attention.

The Doctor spoke, “Alexandria and I have discussed this at length.  A recurring worry is that as much as I’ve been able to gift you three, you four with exemplary abilities, we could see other threats of comparable power.”

“Is there any evidence of this?”  Hero asked.  “You haven’t explained how you create the powers, but what you’ve said leads me to believe you’re producing something purer than what everyone else gets.”

“Purer?  Perhaps.  But the purer something is, the more fragile it becomes.  The process seems to be influenced heavily by psychological strain and stress.  Almost an inverse of the trigger event phenomenon.  You know there’s a possibility that the formula can become tainted, giving inhuman characteristics to the unfortunate subjects.  This is despite the most sterile conditions.  I’m improving the results over time, with Professor Manton’s help, but there are no guarantees.”

“The point we’re getting around to,” Alexandria spoke, “Is that even if the Doctor can get better results with time and effort, the explosion in the natural parahuman population is inevitably going to produce an individual with powers that outstrip our own.”

“So we lose in the long run?” Eidolon asked.  “We’re doomed?”

“No.  Because I’d like to propose a solution.  A way to assert control.  I want to band together.  Form a team.”

Legend leaned against the wall.  “There are teams forming already.  Yes, we’d be powerful, influential, but I don’t see how that addresses the problems.”

“Simple.  We do what the government’s been pushing for.  We regulate.  We bend to the government’s yoke, all four of us together.  We follow their stipulations and regulations.”

“That sounds like a horrendously bad idea,” Eidolon spoke.  “Why?”

“Because if it was us four, together?  We could afford to push back if they pushed too hard, and they’d know that.  And just by being there, we could make the project attractive enough to bring others in.”

Legend turned, “And how does this benefit you, Doctor?”

“It doesn’t.  Not directly.  That’s why this is Alexandria’s proposal.”

“But,” Manton spoke, his voice gravelly for his relatively young age, “We could send some of our clients to you.  Happier clients are better for business.”

Legend folded his arms.  “And you’d want to be in charge, Alexandria?”

“No.  I think you or Hero would be a better choice, to portray a kind face and a positive image.  You two wear the colorful costumes.”

“Not Eidolon?” Hero asked.

“He’s too powerful.  Not saying either of you aren’t, but we wouldn’t be able to convey the impression that it’s the government in control of the heroes if it was Eidolon front and center.”

Legend nodded.  “You’ve given this a lot of consideration.”

“More than a little,”  Alexandria admitted.  “I have an eight stage plan to incorporate parahumans into society, I’ve also researched and developed plans for marketing and monetizing capes.  America is the most powerful country in the world, and it’s a capitalist nation, first and foremost.  We’ll use that.”

“Seems to be getting away from the idea of doing good deeds for the sake of doing good deeds,” Eidolon said.

“It is, but that’s inevitable.  The post-baby boomer generation is growing up.  Couple that with the explosion in parahuman numbers, and this situation threatens to get well out of control.  We need structure and organization if we’re going to keep things intact.”

“There’s no guarantee your plan will survive contact with government,” Legend said.

“There’s one guarantee.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m estimating that it will take at least five years to establish this plan nationwide.  In that span, we’ll start with only a few groups in the largest cities, we’ll gradually and gratefully accept involvement and oversight from government and law enforcement.  We’ll also create a sub-group for minors with powers, so we can strictly structure their environment and development.  Those are the key points.  That gives me time to address your doubts.”

“Again, how?”

“I expect we’ll be able to employ the remainder of the plan, the eight-stage integration of parahumans with the public, because I will be in a position of power in the government.  I, my civilian self, can be in charge of the government-sponsored superhero teams within eight years.”

“There’s too many holes in that plan.  People will wonder why Alexandria and your secret identity aren’t in the same place at once.”

“There’s more than one solution to that.  For one thing, I can work faster and better than my unpowered peers.  For another, the Doctor thinks she can find a suitable body double with similar powers before the deadline.  I designed this costume to be elegant without being attention-getting.  No color, as you pointed out.  And I don’t seek leadership of the team.  Instead, I will content myself with working to guide legislation to where we need it.”

“It seems so manipulative.  Everything people feared we’d be doing,” Hero said.

“I have booklets of paperwork you can look over.  All of the math, all of the projected issues for the future, and all of my proposals and plans.  You don’t have to give me an answer right away.  Just consider it.”

“Okay,” Hero said.

“And,” the Doctor said, “I think it goes without saying that everything said in this room stays in this room?”

There were nods all around.

“Good.  Thank you.  There’s one more thing I would like to show you.  If you’ll accompany me?”

She turned to the girl in the suit and the young man with the thousand-yard stare.

“You know where to take us.”

The girl in the suit placed her hands on his shoulders, tapping one twice.  In response, the boy raised his hands, bidding the back wall of the room to fold out into an area that shouldn’t have been there.  Bright sunlight streamed down around them, a salt-scented wind blowing in their faces.

“My god,” Legend said.

“He gained a very valuable set of powers, but there was an unfortunate effect on his perceptions.  He sees too much at once.  He’s effectively blind and deaf.  He agreed to work for me in exchange for care and comfort.”

Eidolon and Hero advanced to the edge of the window, staring out at a landscape of tidy concrete buildings and overlarge trees.  There was a coast there, too.

“I will be locating my operations there in the future.  Doormaker will shuttle you to and from my base in the future.”

“Where is it?”

“Another Earth.”

“Like Earth Aleph?  The one Haywire opened the portal to?”

“In some respects, yes.”  The Doctor gestured, and Contessa squeezed the boy’s shoulders again.  The portal shut.  “My assistant will hand you the booklets Alexandria prepared for her project.  Doormaker will then take each of you home in turn.  Thank you.”

One by one, the others departed.  Legend was first through the doorway Doormaker created, taken to New York.  Both Eidolon and Hero made their way to Chicago.  Professor Manton and the others left.

Only Alexandria and the Doctor remained.

“You didn’t tell them about our long-term goals,” Alexandria spoke.

“No.  There’s issues that have to be addressed first.  We’ve already discussed several.”

“Anything I can do?”

“You have your end of the project.  I feel they’ll come around.  Focus on that.  I’ll handle the projected issues on my side of things.  Just need to find the right individual.  Someone I can groom, perhaps.  Between you and I, one of us is bound to succeed.”

Alexandria nodded.

“Your two years are up in three months.  Will you be returning to your family?”

“I nearly forgot.  I’ve been so busy.”  Alexandria frowned.

“It might do you good to see them.”

“Maybe.”  Why did she have her doubts?  Why didn’t she want to go home?

“Good.  I do expect you’ll return?”

“Of course.”

Maybe, she realized, it was because every memory of her family was tinged with the feelings of despair, of loss.  With the Doctor, she had hope.

December 13th, 1992

Big.

The clawed hand speared toward the sky, followed by an arm the size of an oak tree.  When it turned to slam against the ground, bracing for leverage, she could feel the impact rippling through the air.  The dry ground shifted, bulged and cracked as he shouldered his way up and out from underground.

Really big.

Forty-five feet tall at the very least, he climbed forth from underground.  His skin was crusted with black stone that might have been obsidian, layers of what might have been cooled magma sloughing off of him as he planted his feet on the ground and stood straight.

‘Straight’ might have been too generous.  He was built like a caricature of a bodybuilder, or a bear-human hybrid.  He rippled with muscle, his skin gray, thick and leathery like the hide of a rhinoceros or elephant.  His black obsidian horns were so heavy his head hung down.  They weren’t rooted in his forehead, but in the middle of his face, a half-dozen curved shafts of black crystal twisting their way out of his face and back over the top of his head, some ten feet long.  A single red eye glowed from between the gap in two horns, positioned too low.  His mouth was a jagged gap in his lower face, twisting up to a point near his temple, lined by jagged horn-like growths that were too irregular to be called teeth.

His claws were the same, not hands in the conventional sense, but mangled growths of the same material that made up his horns, many of the growths as large as Alexandria herself.  He could flex them, move them, but they were clearly weapons and nothing else.

The rest of the Protectorate was present, and the local heroes, the Mythics.  Rostam, Jamshid, Kaveh, Arash.

It somehow didn’t feel like enough.  They’d come anticipating earthquake relief.  Not this.

The creature roared, and as invulnerable as she was, it almost hurt.  A whirlwind blast of sand ripped past them.  Kaveh stumbled back, collapsed, blood pouring from his ears, one of his eyeballs obliterated.

The fight hadn’t even started, and they’d lost someone.

“Hero,” Legend spoke with the smallest tremor in his voice, “Call for help, as much as you can get.”

The creature, the Behemoth, stepped closer, raising one claw and pointed at Kaveh.  Kaveh the Smith, the builder, the forger.

The man ignited from the inside out, flame and smoke pouring from every orifice as he was turned into a burned-out husk in a matter of seconds.  His skeleton disintegrated into fine dust and ash as it crashed to the ground.

He can bypass the Manton effect.  She thought, stunned.  She flew forward, trying to draw his attention, interjecting herself between the Behemoth and the others.

He pointed his claw once more, and she braced herself, gritting her teeth.  Time to see how invincible I am.

But it wasn’t fire.  A lightning bolt flashed from the tip of Behemoth’s claw, arcing around her and striking one of her subordinates in a single heartbeat, before leaving only the smell of ozone.  She flew in close, slamming her hands into his face, driving him back, throwing him off-balance.

He struck her and drove her into the ground.  His flame burned through her, the sand was turning to glass around her, burning her costume, but it didn’t burn her.

But she couldn’t breathe.  She flew back and out of the way until she had air again.  She stared at the scene that was unfolding, the heroes beating a hasty retreat as that thing advanced, slow and implacable.

Shit,” Hero’s voice came over the communications channel.

“What?” she responded.  Legend was pelting the thing with lasers that could have burned buildings to the ground, and he was barely leaving a mark.  Eidolon was manipulating the sand, creating barriers while simultaneously drawing sand out from beneath their enemy, while pelting it with laser blasts that he spat from his mouth.

At least he’s too slow to dodge or get out of the way of trouble.

Guys back home say we’re close to some major oil fields.

She shook herself free of glass and dirt and threw herself back into the fray.  A bad situation was suddenly critical.  The creature roared again, and the force of the noise threw her flight off course.  Eidolon’s makeshift walls collapsed and more heroes fell, bleeding from heavy internal damage.

They’d been right after all.  Dumb luck had created a parahuman as dangerous as what the Doctor could create by design.

Fire, sonic, lightning.  And he hit me harder than he should have, even being as big as he is.  Kinetic energy, too.  

Her eyes widened.  Not individual powers.  Those were all the same power.  She pressed one hand to her ear, opening communications to the rest of her team.  “He’s a dynakinetic!  He manipulates energy!  No Manton limitation!”

How do we even fight something like that?

But she knew they didn’t have a choice.  She threw herself back into the thick of the fight.

January 18th, 1993

“I, Alexandria, do solemnly affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the director appointed over me, according to the regulations of the PRTCJ.”

Applause swelled around her.  As far as the eye could see, there were crowds and flashing cameras.  President Griffin extended a hand and she shook it.

He leaned close, “You do us proud.”

“Thank you, James.  I’ll give my all.”

He squeezed her hand and moved on.

“I, Eidolon, do solemnly affirm…”

She gazed over the crowd, saw her mother standing there with eyes glistening.  The lesser members of the Protectorate were in the front row as well, her subordinates among them.

Turning further right, she saw Hero looking at her, almost accusatory.  She turned and faced the crowd.  Regal, unflinching, dressed in an updated costume.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the Vice President spoke into the microphone, “Let me introduce the founding members of the Protectorate of the United States of America!”

Invincible as she might be, she thought her heart might burst as it swelled with pride, the crowd cheering with such force that the stage shook.

September 15th, 2000

Alexandria and Hero were last to arrive on the scene, entering through the window.  Legend pressed one finger to his lips.

“We’ve got her cornered?” Hero whispered.

“Think so,” Legend replied, his voice as quiet.  ”We’ve got teams covering the drainage and plumbing below the building, and the entire place is surrounded.“

“She hasn’t tried to leave?”  Hero asked.  ”Why not?“

Legend couldn’t maintain eye contact.  ”She has a victim.“

Alexandria spoke, stabbing one finger in Legend’s direction, “You had better be fucking kidding me, or I swear-“

“Stop, Alexandria.  It was the only way to guarantee she’d stay put.  If we moved too soon, she’d run, and it would be a matter of time before she racked up a body count elsewhere.“

I’m in this to save lives.  Sacrificing someone for the sake of the plan?  She knew it made sense, that it was even necessary, but it left her shaken, a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.

“Then let’s move,” she responded, “The sooner the better.“

“We’re trying an experimental measure,” Legend spoke, “It’s meant to contain, not kill.  Drive her towards main street.  We have more trucks over there.“

They operated with a practiced ease.  Legend blasted down the door and Alexandria was the first through.

Siberian was there, kneeling on the bed, her body marked with stripes of jet black and alabaster white, her arms slick with blood up to the elbows.  The man who lay on the bed – there would be no saving him, even if Eidolon manifested healing abilities.

She looks familiar, Alexandria thought, even as she soared across the room.

They’d underestimated their opponent.  Alexandria’s fists collided with Siberian and didn’t budge a hair.  She flew out of the way before Siberian could claw at her with long fingernails.

Legend fired beam after beam at Siberian, but the striped woman didn’t even flinch.  She was invincible on a level that surpassed even Alexandria.

Eidolon cast out a cluster of crystal that exploded into a formation around Siberian on impact, encasing her.

Siberian shrugged it off like it was nothing, lunged forward, going after Hero.

Alexandria dove to intervene, to guard her teammate, but Siberian was faster.  She reached Hero first, her hands plunging through his chest cavity.  When she pulled her arms free, she nearly bisected him.

Eidolon screamed, flying close to scoop up the two pieces of Hero, carrying them outside.

Siberian leaped after them, missed only because Legend shot his comrades with a laser to alter their trajectory.

Their enemy plunged to the street, landing on both feet as though she were light as a feather.

The ensuing moments were frantic, filled with screamed orders and raw terror.  Alexandria chased Siberian to try to scoop bystanders out of the way, to catch the PRT vehicles that Siberian flung like wiffle balls.

And they were losing.  Eidolon was trying to heal Hero, to teleport people out of danger when Alexandria and Legend proved unable, and changing up his abilities every few seconds to throw something new at Siberian in the hopes that something would affect her.  She waded through zones of altered time, through lightning storms and force fields, tore through barricades of living wood and slapped aside a projectile so hyperdense that its gravitational field pulled cars behind it.

Alexandria moved in close, hoping to stop Siberian, to catch her and slow her down, saw Siberian swing, pulled back out of the way.

Her visor fell free, clattering to the ground.  Then she felt the blood.

Saw, in her one remaining good eye, the chunks of her own face that were falling to the ground around her, bouncing off her right breast, the spray of blood.

It had been so long since she’d felt pain.

Legend called out the order and buried her in containment foam, hiding her from sight.

September 16th, 2000

Alexandria sat in the hospital.  Eidolon’s healing had only been able to do so much.  She held a glass eye in one hand, the remains of her other eye in the other.

She looked up at the Doctor.  “William Manton?”

The Doctor nodded.

“How?  Why?”

“I don’t know what predicated it.  His daughter’s in our custody.  One of our failures.”

“He gave his daughter the formula?  Without the usual preparations and procedures?”

“I suppose he thought he was qualified to oversee all that.  Despite my strict instructions that staff weren’t to partake.  Or he had other motivations.  It could have been a gift from a father trying to buy his daughter’s affections.”

“Or her forgiveness,” Alexandria looked down at the glass eye, then back up to the Doctor.

The Doctor’s eyebrows were raised in uncharacteristic surprise.  “Did you see anything suspect?”

“No.  I only met his daughter twice, and it was brief, her father wasn’t around.  But I know the divorce between Professor Manton and his wife was pretty bad, as those things go.  He was angry, maybe did some things he regretted?”

The Doctor sighed.

“So that was him?

“Almost certainly.  He gave his daughter one of our higher quality formulas, and she couldn’t handle it.  When he realized what he’d done, realized that he couldn’t hide it from us, he took one formula for himself and fled.  I didn’t know what it had done for him until tonight.  The resemblance between Siberian and Manton’s daughter is subtle, but it’s there, and the footage from Hero’s helmet-camera has been run through every facial recognition program I could find.”

“What did Legend, Eidolon and…”  Alexandria stopped when she realized that she’d been about to say Hero.  “What did they say?  About Manton?”

“They don’t know.  I suppose we should tell Eidolon.  He reacted badly when his powers informed him of our other plans and projects.”

Alexandria hung her head.  “How do we stop him?  Manton?  If he’s transformed into that…”

“The sample he took, F-one-six-one-one, it tends to give projection powers.  I suspect his real body is unchanged.  But I’m wondering if we shouldn’t leave him be.”

Alexandria stared at the doctor, wide-eyed.  “Why?

“So long as he’s active, people will be flocking to join the Protectorate-”

Alexandria slammed her hand on the stainless steel table beside her cot.

Silence rang between them in the wake of the destruction.

“I will not condone the loss of life for your ulterior motives.  I will not let monsters walk free, to profit from the fear they spread.”

“You’re right,” the Doctor said.  “I… must be more shaken by Manton’s betrayal than I’d thought.  Forget I said anything.”

If Alexandria saw a hint of falsehood in the Doctor’s body language, she convinced herself it was the strain of one eye compensating for the job she’d used to perform with two.

“You realize what this means, don’t you?” The Doctor asked.

“That we’re no longer doing more good than evil?” Alexandria replied, bitter.

“No.  I still feel we’re working for the forces of good.  Manton was a selfish man, unhinged. The exception to the rule.”

Alexandria couldn’t quite bring her to believe it.

“No, this means we simply need to step up our plans.  If we’re going to go forward with the  Terminus project, we need to advance the overall efforts with Cauldron.  And we need the Protectorate effort to succeed on every count.”

“Or we need your project to work out,” Alexandria replied.

The Doctor frowned.  “Or that.  We still have to find the right individual.  Or make him.”

April 10th, 2008

Mortars, bombs and air-to-ground missiles rained down around her. It had been a decade and a half since she had really felt pain, and she still couldn’t help but flinch as they struck ground in her immediate vicinity.  Still, she continued walking, her cape and hair fluttering behind her.

Two people lay face-down on the edge of the street, a teenage boy and girl holding hands.  She knelt and checked their pulses.  Dead.

But she could see others.  She quickly strode over and kneeled by a young man.  His stomach was a bloody mess, and he was gasping for every breath.

“To gustaria livir?” She asked, in the local’s anglo-spanish pidgin.  Do you want to live?

His eyes widened as he seemed to realize she was there.  “Eres an gwarra engel?”

“No,” she replied.  She brushed his hair out of his face with one hand.  “No an engel.”  Not an angel.

Livir,” he breathed the word before slumping over.

She swept him up in her arms, quickly and carefully.  Keeping an eye out for any falling mortars, she quickly ascended into the air.

She was at the cloud-level when the door opened.  She stepped into the brightly lit corridors of Cauldron’s testing laboratory and strode down to the cells.

Thirty cells, filled with subjects.  Thirty-one now.  The cells didn’t appear to have doors, but  the individuals within were all too aware of the dangers of stepping beyond the perimeters of their cells, or of trying to harass Alexandria as she strode by.

Only two-thirds of them were monstrous, affected by the formulas.  Others would go free with alterations to their memories.  Some would have fatal weaknesses inserted into their psyches, reason to hesitate at a crucial moment against a certain foe.

But they would be alive.  That was the most important thing.  They had been destined to die, in places where the wars never stopped, or where plague was rampant, rescued from the brink of death.

Entering one cell, she brushed the hair from the young man’s face once more, then propped him up while she administered the sample the Doctor had left for her.

She stepped back while he convulsed, his wounds filling in, his breathing growing steady enough for him to scream.

His eyes opened, and he stared at her, wide-eyed, still screaming as sensations returned to him and pain overwhelmed every sense.

“Eres okay,” she said, in his language.  “Eres livo.”

It’s okay.  You’re alive.  She forced herself to smile as reassuringly as she could.

So long as they lived, they could have hope.  Living was the most important thing.

And here I am, administering poison with a smile on my face.

She turned and walked away.

June 18th, 2011

“…I guess we have another unanswered question on our hands,” Eidolon said.

Legend sighed, “More than one.  William Manton and his link to Siberian, the tattoo on his right hand, our end of the world scenario and the role Jack plays as the catalyst.  Too many to count.”

“None of this has to be addressed today,” Alexandria said.  ”Why don’t you go home?  We’ll consider the situation and come up with a plan and some likely explanations.”

Legend nodded.  A small smile touched his lips.

The Doctor turned to Eidolon, “You want another booster shot?”

“Probably another Endbringer attack coming up, it’s best if I’m in top form.”

“A month or two, either Simurgh or Behemoth if they stick to pattern,” Alexandria said.  She watched as Legend strode out of the room.  Eidolon paused, then gave the hand signal.  No bugs, and Legend wasn’t listening in.

The Doctor already had the booster shot ready.  Eidolon extended one arm, clutching his bicep to help make the vein more pronounced.  The doctor injected.

“The boosters aren’t cutting it anymore,” Eidolon said.  “I’m getting weaker.  Powers are taking longer to reach their peak, and their maximum strength isn’t what it used to be.  If this keeps up, then I won’t be able to offer anything during this end-of-the-world scenario.”

“We’ll find a solution,” the Doctor said.

“You were too calm,” Eidolon spoke.  “I was worried you’d miss my warning.”

“Very clever, burning the words into the paper in front of me.  Thank you.  Was I convincing?”

“You managed to feign skepticism over this apocalypse scenario,” Alexandria spoke.

“Well, that’s the most important thing,” the Doctor spoke.

“He’s suspicious.  He knows or suspects we’ve been lying to him,” Alexandria said.

“Unfortunate.  Will he expose us?”

Alexandria shook her head.  “No.  I don’t think he will.  But he may distance himself from us to lower the number of opportunities we have to see his doubt for what it is.”

“We’ll manage,” the Doctor replied.  “In the worst case scenario, we’ll explain the circumstances, explain our plan.”

“He won’t like it,” Eidolon spoke.

“But he’ll understand,” the Doctor said.  “If the Terminus project is a success, the end of the world isn’t a concern.  And I believe we will succeed.”

“Provided we come up with a solution to the bigger, more basic problems we’re facing,” Eidolon said.  “Or we’ll simply find ourselves in the same circumstances after we’ve gone to all this trouble.”

Alexandria nodded.  “The Protectorate is proving to be a failure on that front.  Recent events haven’t given me much hope in that regard.”

“So that leaves only my end of things,” the Doctor said.

“Coil,” Eidolon said.  “And if he fails?”

“Ever the pessimist,” Alexandria said.

“This revelation about the possible end of the world has decimated our projected timeline.  We don’t have time to prepare or pursue anything further,” the Doctor said.

“If we assist him-”

“No,” the Doctor spoke.  “If we assist him, there’s no point.”

“In short?” Alexandria leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table.  “He doesn’t even know it, but everything rests on his shoulders.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 14.5 (Bonus Interlude)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“It’s just going to be another minute or two.  The data has to compile and upload.  It’s not my work, so I played it safe and went for the slowest, heaviest compression method that I could.  It’s going to take a bit.”

“That’s fine.  Thank you.”

Kid Win shifted position uncomfortably, falling silent.

You don’t have to be intimidated.  I’m just a man.

Legend stared out the window.  He wouldn’t miss this city.  There weren’t happy memories here, and there was little he was proud about.  Most of the time, he was able to feel that he’d made an impact, that the world was a better place for his being there.  That wasn’t the case here.

“How long have you been in the Wards?” he asked, to make conversation.

“Two years.”

“I’ve seen your records.”

Kid Win cringed.

“No, don’t act like I’m going to say something bad.  The Deputy Director in charge of the Wards, I can’t quite remember his name, he had some glowing praise for your ability to engage with the public.”

“Engage with the public?  I don’t remember doing much of that.”

“Something about speeches to other youths at school?”

“Oh.  That wasn’t a big deal.”

“The guy who’s rating your performance seems to think it was.  Can’t quite place his name, the suits sort of start to blur in with one another-”

“Deputy Director Renick,” Kid Win supplied.

“Yes.  Thank you.  He seemed to think you connected with the crowd, and you did it better than any of your teammates. You were frank, open, honest, and you stood out because of how you handled yourself when the students started getting rambunctious and heckling you.”

“Director Piggot yelled at me for drawing the gun.”

“It was something that could have backfired very easily, but you struck the right tone and you defused the situation with humor.  I think that’s a good thing, and so did the staff at the school.  The teachers sent emails a few days after the event, commenting on the overall positive impact you had on the students, the hecklers included.  And when I say you, I mean you specifically.”

Kid Win shrugged, tapping a few keys on the laptop to rotate through a series of progress bars and graphs.  “Nobody told me about that.”

“That’s a shame,” Legend said, turning his gaze to the window to relieve some of the pressure his very presence seemed to put on Kid Win.  “The ability to manage yourself with the public is crucial if you intend to go on to make a career out of working with the Protectorate.”

“It’s kind of weird, that someone as important as you are is making such a big deal out of an event I barely remember.”

“I study the records of everyone I intend to work with, and I studied yours.  I try to make a note of individual strengths.  That event stuck in my mind when I was reading through your files.  It was a very easy mental picture to put together, especially the part with the gun.”

Kid Win smiled a little.

“You remind me of Hero.”

The smile fell from Kid Win’s face.  He looked startled.  “Really?”

“I imagine he was very much like you when he was younger.”

Kid Win looked uncomfortable.

“You can talk about it,” Legend assured him.  “It’s okay.  It was a long time ago that he passed.”

“I sort of modeled myself after him.”

Legend studied the boy.  Red and gold body armor and a red-tinted visor.  There were additions that seemed to be more recent, judging by the lack of wear and tear, but if he looked past those, if he imagined the boy with a helmet covering that brown wavy hair, replaced the red with blue chain mesh, he could see the resemblance.

“I can see that.”

“I didn’t mean to copy him, or to ride off his fame or anything.  I was younger when I started, I totally meant it to be respectful-”  Kid Win stopped as Legend raised a hand.

“It’s okay.  I think he would be flattered.”

Kid Win nodded, a little too quickly.

“He was the first real tinker, you know.”

“Before we knew tinkers have specializations,” Kid Win added.

“I’ve thought about it.  The disintegration gun, the jetpack, the sonic weapons, the power sources and explosives that were surprisingly effective for their size.  I suspect his specialty tied into manipulating and enhancing wavelengths and frequencies.”

Kid Win’s eyes went wide.  He glanced at the laptop.

“I know enough other tinkers to know that look.  You just had a stroke of inspiration?”

“Sort of.  More like a bunch of half-assed ideas all at once.”

“Don’t let me distract you.  If you want to take a minute to make some notes on whatever came to mind, I won’t be offended in the slightest.”

“It’s okay.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.  I-” Kid Win paused.  “I guess I’d rather keep talking to you than write down ideas that probably won’t work out.”

“Thank you.  I’d say you shouldn’t worry too much about trying to emulate Hero.  It’s heartening, if I had to put a word to the feeling, that you look up to him and carry on his legacy.  But you have your own specialization and your own strengths.”

Kid Win nodded.  “I’m figuring that out.  I spent a long time trying to be like other tinkers and struggling.  Ninety percent of my projects just stopped before I finished it.  The stuff I finished, I finished it because it was simple.  Guns, the floating hoverboard… well, I used to have a floating hoverboard.  I sort of copied Hero’s approach.  ‘Board instead of jetpack, but I made the guns, tried a few disintegration rays.  Maybe part of the reason I finished that stuff was because I felt like I’d be insulting Hero by trying to copy his style and making a mess of it.”

“Makes sense,” Legend spoke, primarily to show he was listening.

“But lately I’ve started to relax about that.  Maybe it helps that we’ve been working as hard as we have.  I’ve been too tired to keep to the rules I thought I was supposed to follow.  Still have to spend time in the workshop, I think I’d go crazy if I didn’t, but I’m winging it more.  I’m trusting my instincts and spending less time using the computers to get the exact numbers and measurements.”

“To help compensate for your dyscalculia?”

“I didn’t know you knew about that.  I didn’t know the PRT knew about that.”

“Dragon’s talents make for very comprehensive records, sorry.”

Kid Win frowned, his expression changing fractionally as he stared down at the keyboard in front of him.  He seemed to come to terms with the idea, because he moved on. “Anyways, I think it’s working for me.  I’m getting the feeling that I do have a specialization, but it’s more of an approach than a particular field.  Equipment with multiple settings and uses, modular weapons, gear that’s adaptable to different situations, I guess?”

“That’s fantastic.  The fact that you’ve struggled and then found your strengths the hard way could be an asset.”

“An asset?”

“If you wind up leading the Wards or a team in the Protectorate, it means you’ll be better equipped to help out teammates who are having their own problems.”

“I’d be horrible in a leadership position.”

“Hero said the same thing, and I think we’ll both agree that he was wrong.”

That seemed to give Kid Win pause.

“Think about it.”

“Okay,” Kid Win replied.  “Not that I’m not majorly grateful that you’re giving me the pep talk, but you said you were in a bit of a hurry and I think we’re done here.”

“The compiling is done?”

“I could refine it further, try to give you some additional features, but the coding and the hardware I’m working with here is so tightly structured that I think I’d do more harm than good.  It’s like the techie equivalent of trying to put toothpaste back in the tube after you’ve squeezed it out… you can’t, so maybe you try to make more tube that sticks out of one side, but you keep doing it and you wind up with this kludgy mess that you can’t even use for its original purpose.  For getting toothpaste.”

“I think I understand what you mean.  Thank you for this.  It’s already uploaded?”

“Yeah, and it was my pleasure, really.” Kid Win smiled.

Legend stood and stretched a little.

The goodbyes had already been made and he’d had his meeting with Emily.  Business was wrapped up here.  He’d called home to let Arthur know he wouldn’t make it to dinner but that he hoped to be back before midnight.

A light smile touched his face.  He even felt a little giddy at the thought of getting home, wrapping Arthur in a hug.  Growing up, he’d never thought that he’d feel giddy about his husband after six years of marriage.

But he had something to take care of first.  The notion put a damper on his pleasant mood.

“I’m going to go, then.  You and I,” he promised Kid Win, “Should talk again sometime.  You can tell me if you’ve figured out your specialty, and if you’re leading a team.”

“Maybe the next time you’re in Brockton Bay?”

“Maybe.”  Legend smiled, but he was thinking, does he know?  This whole region might be condemned.

Maybe Kid Win was being optimistic.

Legend turned and opened a window, then let himself float through.  He took a second to get his bearings, to inform himself of which direction was up, down, north, east, south and west, then he took off.

Powers were classified into categories, and the ‘breaker’ classification was used to mark those powers which were limited to one’s own body and their immediate vicinity.  Though it had initially been used to cover individuals who could make themselves stronger, denser, larger or change the materials they were made of, it was slowly expanding to include others.  There was a theory that was gaining traction, suggesting that the breaker classification was one of the most common powersets, if not always the most pronounced.  Innumerable people with powers had also adapted innate defenses that kept their own powers from harming themselves.  Pyrokinetics tended to be resistant to flame. There were automatic shutoffs, biological and mental, for various other powers.  Even beyond that, there were other adaptations that were so subtle as to be almost undetectable.  His weren’t.

Legend’s flight powers let him accelerate to a speed that exceeded sound and continue accelerating, to no hard limit.  The soft limit was that he had breaker powers that kept the acceleration from tearing him to shreds, altering his body into something else entirely as he gained speed.  The drawback to this was that his brain also shut down on a cognitive level as the transformation occurred.  He had never let himself go so fast that he lost the ability to consciously control his movements.

There were other benefits too.  He was better at registering and processing light waves, regardless of which state he was in.  He could see with perfect clarity up until the point that an obstactle intervened or the atmosphere occluded his vision.

If an opponent attacked and struck him, he instinctively transitioned into his energy form for a split second.  In that state, he absorbed energy of a variety of kinds, including the kinetic energy that was transferred with a punch or with a bullet.  His opponents were forced to whittle him down, each attack only a fraction as effective as it might otherwise be.  Even then, a share of that small amount of damage was healed a second later as he used the absorbed energy to mend his body.  Conversely, his enemies could try to hit him with enough speed and force that even a hundredth of a second of contact was sufficient to take him out of the fight.  Leviathan and Behemoth had managed to land blows of that magnitude.

Siberian has as well.  He set his jaw and increased his speed a notch.

He traveled over the Atlantic Ocean, moving so fast that the water appeared to be one flat plane.  His thoughts became a blur, and he was forced to focus on his destination, letting all other thoughts and doubts fall by the wayside.

It was refreshing, in a way, cleansing himself of the responsibilities and the thousands of problems he was forced to handle as the leader of the Protectorate.  Still, it always scared him just a little.

It took him only an instant to reach a complete stop.  He let himself settle down into his real body once more.

He’d wondered sometimes if his ability to fly was meant for travel on an interstellar level.  What if he kept accelerating?  His breaker power would let him weather the void of space, his ability to see would be that much more powerful if there was no atmosphere to occlude his vision over miles… even the boredom of traveling for years was nothing if his conscious mind shifted into a rest state.

Not that he’d ever test it.

He’d absorbed light, heat and ambient radiation while he flew, and he felt restored.  Even the mildest wear and tear had been tended to, his body restored to peak condition.

His mind was another matter, his emotions.  It was like waking up in a warm bed, the man he loved beside him, only to experience a sinking feeling as he came to dread the coming day.

He drifted closer to the oil rig, and settled down on a fence, using a touch of his flight ability to stay balanced.  In every direction, as far as the eye could see, there was only water.

“Any time now,” he said.

It began as a pale square in mid-air, then unfolded rapidly, three-dimensional.  When it opened up further, the interior of a building loomed in mid-air, the exterior absent.

He floated forward and set foot on the white tile of the hallway.  He felt the distortion as the space shifted, felt the rush of wind as air pressure adjusted.  It took only a couple of seconds.  When he glanced over his shoulder, the oil rig was gone.  There was only more hallway behind him.

He walked onward, confident in his ability to navigate the maze of rooms and corridors.

When he pushed open the double doors and stepped into the conference room, there were a few looks of surprise.

“Legend,” the Doctor spoke, “I thought you were occupied in Brockton Bay.”

“Jack escaped.”

“That’s… really unfortunate,” Alexandria said.

“Quite,” the Doctor replied.

Legend glanced around the room.  Alexandria leaned back in her chair, her helmet on the table in front of her, a star-shaped scar at the corner of one eye.  Beautiful, Legend was sure, but more in the way a lioness was beautiful.  In her black and gray costume, she was intimidating, her expression regal.

Eidolon was the opposite.  He had lowered his hood and removed his glowing mask, revealing a middle-aged man with thick eyebrows, thinning hair and heavy cheeks.  He looked more like an average family man who was getting dressed up as Eidolon for a costume party than he looked like Eidolon himself.

There were others around the table.  The Doctor: dark-skinned, hair tied into a prim bun with chopsticks stuck through it, wearing a short white dress beneath a white lab coat.  The Number Man, with his laptop set in front of him, looking more like a businessman than one of the most influential and lesser-known parahumans on the planet.  There was also the woman in the black suit, who had never introduced herself or been introduced by name.  Whenever Legend came here with the others, the woman was there with the Doctor.

Insurance, he thought.  The Doctor thinks that woman can face us if we turn on her.

Would she win?  Legend harbored doubts.  He’d met a lot of powerful individuals over the course of his career, and he’d learned how to measure them.  This woman didn’t relax for an instant, where someone who was assured of victory would be more willing to let down her guard.  More likely that she’s supposed to stall or stop us if there’s a problem, buying the doctor time to escape.

“Jack escaped.  What about the other Nine?” the Doctor asked.

“We suspect that Bonesaw and Siberian also escaped, with Hookwolf as a new member of their group.”

“I see.”

“It’s unusual for you to show any interest in what’s going on outside the realm of your business and research.  Any reason for the curiosity?”

The Doctor smiled. “Hard to keep track of what goes on beyond these walls, sometimes.”

Legend nodded.  He took a seat to Alexandria’s right.  He considered for a moment, then spoke.  “There are some things that concern me.”

“Is this tied to why you came here today?”

“Yes.  Let me begin by saying that there’s apparently a precog in Brockton Bay that’s pretty damn certain that the world’s going to end shortly.”

“Precogs are notoriously unreliable.  I tell many of my customers that when they express interest in seeing the future.  I think I even told you.  Or was it Alexandria that I discussed it with?”

“It was,” Alexandria replied.

“You’re right,” Legend said, “Most precogs are vague.  They have to be, because the future is vague.  But all reports point to this precog being very specific.  Jack Slash was mentioned as the catalyst for an event that occurs in two years.  More specifically, she said this occurs if Jack escaped Brockton Bay alive, which he did.”

There were nods around the table.

“What do you mean when you say the world ends?” Eidolon asked.

“Thirty-three to ninety-six percent of the population dies in a very short span of time.  I assume the aftermath of this scenario leads to more deaths in the long run.”

The Number Man spoke.  “Depending on the circumstances of death, the demise of even one in three individuals would lead to further casualties.  Lack of staff for essential services and key areas, health, atmospheric and ecological effects of decomposition on a massive scale, destabilized societal infrastructure… The best case scenario is that Earth’s population drops steeply over twenty years, until it settles to forty-eight point six percent of where it currently stands.  Three billion, three hundred and ninety-one million, eight hundred and three thousand, five hundred and four.  Give or take.”

“That’s the best case scenario?” Alexandria asked.

The man shrugged.  “It’s unlikely it will occur.  The bare minimum of people would have to die, there couldn’t be any bodies, and there wouldn’t be anything left unattended that could cause uncontrolled fires or nuclear incidents.  If I were to ballpark a number, talking about events that could kill one-third to nearly all of the world’s population, I’d say roughly seventy-two percent of the earth’s population are likely to die.  That leaves one billion, nine hundred and fifty million alive.  More than half of those individuals would die over the following twenty years, and more than half of those who remain would die in the ten years following that.  Keeping in mind these are estimates, of course.”

“Of course,” The Doctor said, “Precogs are unreliable.  I’m surmising this girl doesn’t know exactly how this occurs?”

“No.  Her employer didn’t say anything on the subject.”

“We’ll take measures,” Eidolon said.  “Evacuation, we’ll also push for automatic shutdown controls on power grids and nuclear facilities.  With the Endbringers out there, it would be sensible to do it anyways.  We can reduce the potential damage.”

“Unless,” Alexandria said, “The numbers the precog provided are already accounting for us having this conversation and taking the extra measures.  If she does view the future, it’s very possible she saw this very meeting and everything that followed, in a manner of speaking.”

That was sobering.

“We’ll do it anyways, of course,” Eidolon said.

Legend and Alexandria nodded.

“Let’s remember,” the Doctor said, “The numbers already pointed to an endgame situation at the twenty-three year mark.  If the Endbringers continue doing the damage they’ve been doing at the current rate, things won’t be sustainable.  We’ll be forced to withdraw from damaged and dangerous areas, populations will condense, the Endbringers attack those pockets…  and that’s without considering the possibility that they achieve something big in the interim.  We’ve talked about the crisis scenarios: Behemoth triggering a nuclear winter, Leviathan obliterating or tainting the world’s renewable water supply.”

“You’re saying we’re already facing an end of the world situation,” Alexandria said, “And this is just accelerating the timetable.”

“Yes.  Any measures we take are still vital.  They’ll help here, with this scenario, but if it never occurs, it will still help against the Endbringers.”

“Are we assuming the Endbringers are at the core of this end-of-the-world scenario?” Eidolon asked.

“Likely,” Alexandria said, “But let’s not rule anything out.”

“Provided this is really occurring,” the Doctor spoke.

“We can’t afford to say it’s not,” Legend said.  “You have precogs among your staff and customers?”

“Some,” The Doctor answered.  “I can ask them about this end of the world scenario.”

Legend nodded.  “Good.  Eidolon, you want to try your hand at it?”

“If my power lets me.  It only gives me what it thinks I need, not what I want.”

“We need all the help we can get.  Let’s see if we can’t figure out how this happens, so we can stop it or mitigate the damage.  There’s a lot of capes out there with the thinker classification.  Get the word out, call in favors, offer favors.  Anything to get more information on this.”

There were nods and noises of agreement from his fellow Protectorate members and the Doctor.

Legend quietly cleared his throat, glancing around the table.  “Speaking of great minds… there was another point I wanted to address, that came up during my stay in Brockton Bay.”

He had their attention.

“Alexandria, I expect you read the reports already.  You didn’t seem that surprised when I talked about the precog and her end-of-the-world scenario, you’ve probably read up on my notes here.”

Alexandria had originally named herself after the Library of Alexandria, though she’d ceased mentioning that, choosing to leave enemies in the dark instead.  As strong as she was on a physical level, her mind was equally formidable.  She never forgot a detail, absorbed information quickly, reading two pages of a book with a glance, and she learned quickly, retaining everything she picked up.  She knew most commonly spoken languages, no less than ten styles of martial arts and she could match some of the best non-tinkers in the world when it came to computers.  Not only was she rated well in the brute classification, but she held high scores in the mover and thinker categories.

“I read what you provided, though I’m not sure what you’re referring to specifically.”

“Siberian.”

He saw a change in her expression, saw Eidolon flinch as if he’d been slapped.

“I’ll explain for those of you who lack access to the PRT records or the time to peruse them.  Siberian is not a brute-class cape.  Siberian is a ‘master’, and the striped woman is a projection.  I caught a glimpse of the man who is creating the projection before they retreated.”

“And?”

“And he had Cauldron’s mark tattooed on the back of his left hand, a swan on his right.”

With the exception of himself, the Number Man and the woman in the suit, everyone present reacted with surprise.

“You don’t think that was William Manton?”  Alexandria asked.  “But why the mark on his right hand?”

“I don’t know.  It doesn’t fit on a lot of levels.  A top parahuman researcher becoming one of the Nine?”

“It happened to Alan.  To Mannequin,” Eidolon said, his voice quiet.

“There’s nothing in the records,” Alexandria said, “Nothing saying he was present at any of the places the quarantine protocol was put in effect.”

She would know.  She read every record, could call them to mind with perfect accuracy.

“He could have stolen someone’s identity.”

Alexandria nodded, “True.”

“We have confirmation he’s alive,” Eidolon said, his voice quiet.  “We suspected, but-”

“We made assumptions, and we were way off base.  That’s what concerns me.”  Legend leveled a hard look at the Doctor.  “See, we’ve been going by the assumption that William Manton, from the time he left Cauldron to the present day, has been continuing his work.  We’ve been assuming he’s traveling across the world, experimenting on human subjects, giving them powers with physical mutations as a side effect, then releasing the victims back into society with Cauldron’s symbol tattooed on their bodies.  Or at least, that’s what you told us.”

“You’re implying I lied?” the Doctor asked.  She didn’t look bothered in the slightest.

“I’ve looked at the timelines.  It’s not likely that William Manton could be conducting experiments to give some poor girl tentacles in Illinois at the same time Siberian’s busy attacking people in Miami.  Not to mention he barely looked capable of taking care of himself, let alone conducting research.”

He glanced at the others.  Eidolon’s brow was creased in concern, while Alexandria looked pensive.

“The pattern doesn’t fit,” he said, to drive the point home.  He looked at the Doctor, “Which leaves me to wonder just who is conducting experiments on human subjects.”

“We have no need for human experimentation.  The Number Man can calculate the odds of success for a given formula.”

“Maybe that’s the case.  But just who is conducting experiments on human subjects, who knows enough about Cauldron to tattoo or brand them with the mark while simultaneously having access to these kinds of resources?”

“It’s not us,” the Doctor spoke.

Legend stared at her, studying her.  “And you don’t know anything about how William Manton is connected to all this?”

“I’m as mystified as you are.  If it would assuage your suspicions, you can examine this complex,” the Doctor suggested.

“You and I both know this place is far too large to explore in one lifetime,” he answered.

“True.”

“And if we were to surmise that you’re the culprit here, there’s nothing saying you couldn’t have your doormaker maintain a path to another alternate reality where you have captives stashed away.  It would even explain why there haven’t been any real missing persons cases that we can link to the case-fifty-threes, if you’re simply snatching them from another reality and depositing them in our reality when you’re done.”

She spread her arms wide.  “I don’t know what I can say to convince you.”

“You trust me, don’t you?” Alexandria asked.

“Yes,” Legend said.

“I’ve trained myself in kinesics.  I can look at a person’s face and body language and know if they’re lying.  And I can tell you the Doctor is telling the truth.”

Legend sighed.  “Right.”

“We’re okay, then?” the Doctor asked.

Legend nodded.  “I’m sorry to accuse you.”

“It’s understandable.  This situation doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“I can’t add anything here, and my power’s not volunteering anything that could help to solve this particular mystery,” Eidolon spoke.  “I guess we have yet another unanswered question on our hands.”

Legend sighed, “More than one.  William Manton and his link to Siberian, the tattoo on his right hand, our end of the world scenario and the role Jack plays as the catalyst.  Too many to count.”

“None of this has to be addressed today,” Alexandria said.  “Why don’t you go home?  We’ll consider the situation and come up with a plan and some likely explanations.”

Legend nodded.  The thought of holding Arthur and Keith in his arms energized him.

The Doctor turned to Eidolon, “You want another booster shot?”

“Probably another Endbringer attack coming up, it’s best if I’m in top form.”

While the others talked and planned, Legend stood and left without a farewell.

An opening between realities unfolded before he was half of the way down the alabaster white hallway.  He stepped through the opening to the oil rig, and then began his flight back to New York City.

But he didn’t go home.

Instead, Legend descended on the rooftop of the NYC Protectorate offices.  A tinker-made scanner verified who he was and opened the doors for him in time for him to walk through.

He nodded a greeting to everyone he passed.  When people asked him how things had gone, he offered them a response that was polite but short enough that it was clear he wasn’t looking for further conversation.

He reached his office and closed the door.

He was careful to start up a virtual operating system preloaded with the standard PRT databases and software.  Nothing that would leave a trace on his regular OS.  He unplugged the fiber-optic cables and disabled the wireless.

The precautions were little use if he was already being watched, but it made him feel better.

Once his computer was isolated from outside influences, he withdrew a USB cable from one drawer, plugging one end into the keyboard.  He reached up to one ear and withdrew an earbud.  The other end of the USB cable connected to it.

ASCII art of Kid Win’s face popped up as the earbud connected to the computer, along with the text, ‘thank you’.

He couldn’t bring himself to smile.

Problems of self-confidence aside, Kid Win had produced an interface that was easy to use.  Legend clicked on the yellow button and waited.  Voices played from the computer’s speakers.  He adjusted the volume and listened.

“We suspect that Bonesaw and Siberian also escaped, with Hookwolf as a new member of their group.”

“I see.”

“Any reason for the curiosity?”

“Hard to keep track of what goes on beyond these walls, sometimes.”

Text appeared, transcribing what was being said.  The program paused, the image of the yellow button popping back out.  A red word appeared below the last statement: LIE.

A vague lie, but not a damning one.  His pulse was pounding as he hit the waiting yellow button to resume the record.

“We have no need for human experimentation.  The Number Man can calculate the odds of success for a given formula.”

LIE.

He clicked again.

“…Who knows enough about Cauldron to tattoo or brand them with the mark while simultaneously having access to these kinds of resources?”  His own voice was the one playing from the speakers.

“It’s not us,” the Doctor’s voice answered his.

LIE.

He sat staring at the screen, horrified.

Cauldron had given him his powers, had given him what he needed to be at the very top, to lead the largest collection of superheroes in the world.  They hadn’t wanted much in exchange.  He kept an eye out to make sure nobody got too curious about Cauldron, diverted them if they did.  He’d greased the wheels for some of Cauldron’s top customers.  He was also ready to defend Cauldron if and when it became public knowledge.  It was for the greater good, he told himself.  There was no way for Cauldron to operate otherwise, lest the world’s governments fight over the ability to create whole armies of people with powers and interfere with the organization’s ability to operate.

It would operate, he knew, it obviously wasn’t in a location where it could be raided or seized by military forces, but it wouldn’t be able to reach nearly as many people, and capes would come under scrutiny with the possibility that they’d purchased their powers.

He’d committed to this because Cauldron was essential.  With the rise of the Endbringers and threats like the Slaughterhouse Nine, the world was in need of heroes.  Cauldron produced more heroes than villains, because there was none of the trauma of a trigger event to throw them off.  Even for those individuals who turned to crime, Cauldron was able to leverage the favors that were part of the contract in order to guide their path.  More superheroes meant better chances for everyone when it came to fighting the Endbringers and dealing with the big threats.

It struck him that this wasn’t necessarily true.  If the Doctor had lied about human experimentation, she could have lied about those details as well, too.

Human experimentation on a large scale.  Unwitting, or perhaps unwilling to connect the dots, he’d helped it happen in a way.

His hand shook as he reached for the mouse.  He clicked the button once more, hoping there would be something he could use to convince himself that this was a mistake.  A false positive, a clue that Cauldron was really a force for good after all.  Hadn’t Armsmaster said that his lie detection system was imperfect?  Or maybe Kid Win had generated errors in the code.  The alterations had been minor but comprehensive:  Legend hadn’t wanted to be informed in real-time about the lies, lest he give something away.

“And you don’t know anything about how William Manton is connected to all this?”

“I’m as mystified as you are.”

LIE.

He knew what came next, with the conversation fresh in his memory.  He didn’t want to press the button again, but there was little choice.

“I’ve trained myself in kinesics.  I can look at a person’s face and body language and know if they’re lying.  And I can tell you the Doctor is telling the truth.”

The red text popped up as the last four and a half words appeared.  LIE.

Alexandria knew.  Of course she had.  Her ability to read people, her vast troves of knowledge, her ability to see patterns.  And she was the most willing of their group to take the hard, ugly road.  Had been since Siberian had hospitalized her.

Click.

His own voice.  “I’m sorry to accuse you.”

LIE.

Had he been lying?  He supposed he had.  He didn’t like the Doctor, and he hadn’t truly felt sorry for his suspicions.  Ever since he’d seen William Manton with the Slaughterhouse Nine, he’d harbored doubts about what was going on.

Those doubts had become quiet conviction after he’d gone to see Battery in the hospital.  One of Bonesaw’s mechanical spiders had cut her suit.  He knew exactly the kind of disorientation, hallucination and waves of paranoia she would have experienced as the gas took hold.  While she reeled and tried to get a grip on reality, she’d likely left herself open for further attacks.  Whatever the case, one of the spiders had injected her with a poison Bonesaw had devised.

Her death had been slow, painful and inevitable.  It had been engineered to strike those notes in a way that millions of years of evolution had yet to refine a plant’s toxin or an animal’s venom.  Lying in the hospital bed, still delirious, Battery had used halting sentences to tell him about Cauldon, about buying her powers, and about Cauldron asking her to help Siberian and Shatterbird escape.  She’d planned to pursue the Nine, to offer assistance and then kill one or both of the villains.  Battery had begged him for affirmation that she’d tried to do the right thing, that he would find the answers she didn’t.  He’d reassured her the best he could.

She’d died not long after.

He almost couldn’t bring himself to click the yellow button again.  Alexandria had been lying to him.  And that only left…

Click.

Eidolon’s voice came from the speakers.  “I can’t add anything here, and my power’s not volunteering anything that could help to solve this particular mystery.  I guess we have yet another unanswered question on our hands.”

The word was in red letters on the screen.  It could have been his own pulse behind his retinas, but the letters seemed to throb with a heartbeat of their own.  LIE.

“All lies,” Legend whispered the words to himself.

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