Snare 13.1

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Brian was waiting for me as I passed through the door and into Coil’s underground base.  He held a paper out to me.

Sirs and Madams,

The terms of engagement are as follows:
1.  Three days to each member of the Slaughterhouse Nine so we can conduct our tests.  Tests will be performed one after the other, with eight rounds in total.
2.  A successful test or the removal of a candidate who has failed a test will earn the tester bonus time.  3-12 hours for a successful test depending on the number of candidates remaining and 24 hours for an execution.
3.  Should a tester suffer a sound defeat at the hands of any individual during their allotted time, they will be penalized one day of allotted time.
4.  Each tester operates independently, with no hands-on assistance from other members of the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Assistance may be bought, bartered or otherwise rendered in a hands-off manner, possibly including medical assistance, information, provided equipment and suggestions.
5.  Candidates may receive assistance, hands-on or otherwise, from Brockton Bay residents only.  We are fully aware that Legend and his teammates are in Brockton Bay.  Should they interfere with a tester, all candidates will lose the protection of any rules, all terms offered here will cease and the threat implied in point eight will be carried out.  This only applies to confrontations with the active tester.
6.  The Slaughterhouse Nine will handle the punishment of any members of their own team, in the event of failures, the inability of the tester to perform at least a partial round of testing or killing a candidate without notification.
7.  Should the defending parties have two or more candidates remaining when the eighth round of testing concludes, the Slaughterhouse Nine will depart Brockton Bay without incident and refrain from returning for three years at a minimum.
8.  If and when the Slaughterhouse Nine do eliminate five of the six candidates, or if any candidates leave the city, the Slaughterhouse Nine are prepared to penalize the city for their failure.

Mannequin is the first to carry out his round of testing.  He has two days remaining.

We will be in touch.

“Where is everyone?” I asked, handing the paper back to him.

He pointed down the hall.

“Christ,” Brian said, shaking his head as he walked, rereading the terms.  He opened the door for me.

Coil was inside, at the end of a long table.  The Undersiders sat at one side of the table, with Circus sitting at the farthest edge, beside Coil.  The Travellers, minus Noelle, sat along the other side.  I took note of the blond teenager who wasn’t even wearing part of a costume.  Oliver.  Coil was the opposite, as fully covered as ever.  Everyone else was costumed but they had their masks and helmets off.

I got my first good look at Lisa since I’d left her bleeding in Ballistic’s headquarters.  The scar ran from the corner of her mouth to the corner of her jaw, and dark stitches ran down the length of it.  The slang term for this kind of injury was a Glasgow smile or a Chelsea smile, but the term seemed ill-fitting.  Where Lisa often had a grin on her face, the cut pulled the corner of her mouth down into a perpetual lopsided-frown rather than a smile.

Bitch gave me a dark look as I entered, but many of the others were smiling.

“The people in my territory are singing your praises, Skitter,” Ballistic said.

“My territory too,” Alec added.

“I didn’t do anything that special.  My power did the work.”

“And you kicked Mannequin’s ass,” Trickster said.  He leaned back in his chair, balancing on two of the legs, his feet on the table.  “You had a busy night.”

“Honestly, I didn’t kick his ass.  He got some of my people, he thrashed me, I got a piece of him.”

“No,” Lisa said, her voice quiet.  She couldn’t really move one corner of her mouth when talking, so her words came out slightly slurred.

I saw her work her tongue in her mouth and then take a sip of water, wincing.  Brian had updated me: the cut had probably damaged one or more of her salivary glands, and she’d have dry mouth until it healed.  Maybe forever.  The really scary part was that she might have suffered some nerve damage as well.  How much of that half-frown was because of the direction of the cut and the way the stitches pulled, and how much was because her nerves were damaged enough that her face was drooping?

She caught me looking and gave me a wink.  She took another gulp of water and cleared her throat before speaking again.  “They took one day from Mannequin because they thought he lost.”

“If the enemy thinks they lost,” Brian said, “That’s a good enough reason to think you’ve won.”

I privately disagreed, but I didn’t say anything.  I pulled up a chair and sat at the corner of the table furthest from Coil, wincing at the pain in my ribs as I bent down.

“So,” Brian said, “You intend for something like this to happen when you made your suggestion, Tattletale?”

Lisa shrugged, “Sorta.  Thought he’d take the bait, didn’t know how far.”

“It’s not all advantageous,” I said, thinking aloud.  “Yes, we’re now in a position where we could win, with some planning or luck, and the plan we were hashing out at our last meeting might be easier, now.  But we’re also facing pretty heavy consequences if we fail… heavier consequences.  And there’s a lot of places where this could go wrong.  We don’t even know who all the candidates are.”

“Me, Bitch, Armsmaster, Noelle, probably Hookwolf and someone in Faultline’s crew?”  Alec said.

“No.  Jack said they picked two heroes.  Hookwolf, yes.  But their last pick is a hero, not one of Faultline’s,” Lisa said.

“And we can’t say for sure who this person is or what actions they plan to take,” I said.  “Too much hinges on everyone else’s willingness to cooperate and play by the rules, and the stuff that happened at the last meeting of the city’s villains makes me skeptical.”

Brian nodded.  “It’s important that we find this person, make sure they play along, so we don’t wind up losing before this game of theirs even starts.”

“There’s other problems here,” I said, “We can’t forget what Dinah said about Jack.  If he leaves town, it could mean disaster.  If we win, we could all lose in the long run, because it’d mean he left town and Dinah’s prophecy would come true.  Hell, a lot hinges on whether the Protectorate is on the same page as us.  If they arrest him and take him out of town…”

“It could mean the end of the world.”

“Right,” I said.

“Hookwolf has proposed an all-out attack,” Coil spoke for the first time since my arrival.  “He wants to gather the more powerful members of his alliance together into an army and attempt to overwhelm the Nine and kill Jack Slash in the chaos.”

“That won’t work.”  Brian shook his head.  “These guys specialize in dealing with crowds, and they’re experienced when it comes to that sort of thing.”

“Hookwolf believes our local capes are collectively strong enough to do what other groups couldn’t.”

“Maybe they are, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  We should be focused on what we can do,” Brian said.

“You guys are better set up for information gathering and escapes,” Trickster said.  “We could take them on, depending on who it is and how small the group is, but I don’t know how well we’d do in those circumstances.”

“We should mix up our teams, then,” Brian said.  “Just between us, we’ve got three candidates.  Noelle, Regent and Bitch.  Three targets.”

“Crawler couldn’t reach Noelle where we’ve got her stashed,” Trickster said, “I’m not sure what the others could do.”

“What about when Siberian comes after Noelle?” I asked.  “Will the same measures stop her?”

“Probably not,” Trickster replied.

“This would be a lot easier if you’d tell us more about her,” I pointed out.  “Unless you think she can hold her own against the Nine, we’re going to be helping protect her.”

Trickster frowned.  “There’s not much to say.  She’s in containment, and if she doesn’t stay where she is, things would get worse, fast.”

“So she’s dangerous, and she’s not entirely in control of her power?”

He tilted his chair forward until it was flat on the ground and set his elbows on the table, hands clasped in front of his mouth.  He glanced down the table at his teammates.  I wasn’t sure, but I thought maybe he glanced briefly at Coil.

With a resigned tone, he told us, “She’s dangerous enough that if Siberian got to her, I think she’d make it out okay.  The rest of us wouldn’t.”

The table was silent for a moment.  I could see something in the faces of the Travelers.  Pain?  It wasn’t physical, so perhaps it was emotional?  It could be fear, guilt, regret, or any number of other things.

Trickster’s words reminded me of what Sundancer had said back when she and I had fought Lung.  Sundancer had held back in using her power because she was frightened about hurting bystanders or killing the people she attacked.  Her power was too hard to use without hurting someone.  Ballistic was the same.  Was Noelle another case of the same thing?  That same too-powerful ability, only on a greater scale?

Brian sighed.  “We’ll deal with Noelle’s situation when it comes up.  We have three targets they’re going to be coming after, with a fourth if we consider that Mannequin’ll be after Skitter.  If we split into two groups, then we can maintain enough offensive power to defend ourselves against the ones like Mannequin, Burnscar, Jack or Shatterbird.”

Sundancer cut in, “Which makes me wonder…  Sorry if this is a crummy idea, but what if we waited for Jack’s turn, and then tried to kill him?”

“No guarantees there,” Brian answered her.  “I think we’ll have to be proactive in going after him.  Maybe we can use Hookwolf’s distraction, maybe he’ll get cocky and make a mistake.”

“Doubt it,” Tattletale said, “He’s lasted years doing what he does.”

I couldn’t help but nod in agreement.

“Besides, he goes last,” Tattletale finished.

“To get back to what you were saying, you were proposing dividing the teams?” Coil spoke.

“Yeah,” Brian said.  “Bitch has offensive power of her own.  Skitter does too.  If there’s no complaints, we could play this largely geographically.  Maybe me, Imp, Bitch and Skitter?  If you guys can put your differences aside?”

“No problem,” I said.

“Whatever,” Bitch answered, noncommital.

It was only when Brian mentioned Imp that I realized Aisha was present.  I’d almost missed her.  I wanted to believe that it was because she was sitting at the end of the table and there were four of my teammates between us, but I couldn’t be sure.  It would be damn nice if there was some sort of gradual immunity to her power.

“And maybe someone else who isn’t raw offense?  Circus?”  Brian suggested.

Coil spoke before Circus could reply.  “No.  I pulled her off of a task as a precautionary measure, as I had one aspect of my long-term plans derailed last night with Trainwreck’s demise at the Nine’s hands.  I would rather she did not fall to an unfortunate coincidence of the same nature.”

“What happened?”  Sundancer asked.

“They’ve eliminated the Merchants,” Coil said.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.  The Merchants were scum of the worst sort.  It wasn’t just that they polluted everything they touched and did some reprehensible things.  They reveled in it.  They wanted to be the lowest of the low.  On the other hand, it was a point for their side.  Seven or eight parahumans we no longer had to fight the Nine with.

“Also, I would prefer her involvement in my operation stay under wraps.  She can defend Noelle and myself for the time being.”

“Then Trickster?  Or Genesis?”  Brian asked.

“I would rather stay close to Noelle,” Trickster said.  “If Genesis is willing, that would be fine.”

“And that leaves Ballistic, Sundancer, Trickster, Noelle, Regent and Tattletale for the second group.  We stay together, we keep an eye on our territories to watch for trouble from Hookwolf’s contingent, and we keep an eye out for opportunity.  Tattletale?  You’re good watching the downtown areas?”

Lisa nodded.

“And Skitter has the sensory abilities to check areas of the Docks where the Undersiders have territory.”

“I’ll need to visit each area in turn.  Unless we have some people to pass on messages, and a means of communication.”

“I arranged a delivery,” Coil said.  “You’ll each be provided with a satellite phone before you leave, with mobile phones to use when the towers are in operation again.  It won’t be immediate, but I have shipments of new generators, appliances, laptops and other necessities on the way.  With the information Hookwolf has provided us about Shatterbird’s power, I think we could shield the most necessary pieces of equipment with soundproofing in case of a repeat incident.”

“My bugs did hear something just before the blast hit,” I said.  “Is her power ultrasonic?”

“Something like that.  Tattletale believes that Shatterbird’s power causes glass to resonate at a very particular frequency, where it generates that same resonation in other pieces of glass with the aid of her power, perpetuating the effect until it runs out of large pieces of glass to affect.”

“And,” Lisa said, “She probably has a reason for hitting the entire city like she does.”  She took another drink of water.  “Big pieces of glass help transmit the signal, maybe smaller shards help her in another way.  Probably helps or allows more delicate movements.”

“I’m not saying I’m not happy to be getting more concrete information on how they operate.  I just wish it was against the ones we don’t have any idea how to stop.  Like Crawler and Siberian,” I said.

“We use the same strategy we used to fight Aegis,” Brian said.  “When fighting an opponent who won’t go down, you run, you distract, you occupy them with other things, and you contain them to buy yourself time to do what you have to do.”

He was right.  It just wasn’t ideal.  Avoiding or containing them was easier said than done, for one thing, and it was less an answer than a stopgap measure.

“We’ve addressed the most pertinent crisis, then,” Coil said.  “Is there anything else?  Any ideas or requests?”

“I had an idea,” Aisha said.

No,” Brian said.  “I know what you’re about to say, because we talked this over.  It’s a bad idea.”

“Let’s hear it,” Trickster spoke up, leaning forward.  Brian scowled, and Aisha smiled wickedly.

“The biggest threat from these guys is that they could strike at any time, from any direction.  So why don’t we spy on them?  We find out where they are, and then we keep tabs on their movements.  I can handle one shift, Genesis does the next.  They won’t notice me, and Genesis can stay concealed.”

“It’s far too risky,” Brian said.  “You joined this team so I could stop you from getting yourself killed.”

“It would be nice to know what they’re up to,” Trickster cut in.

“They won’t even know I’m there.”

“You think they won’t know you’re there,” Brian said.  “There’s a distinction there.  It’s important, and it could either lead to a minor advantage-”

“A huge advantage,” Aisha said.

“-Or it could lead to you being turned into a human test subject for whatever fucked up idea Bonesaw had recently,” Brian finished, ignoring her.

“No!  I got a power, and it’s a useful power.  Except you don’t want me to use it, because you think it’s going to stop working all of a sudden, or someone is going to see me-”

Dragon saw you,” Brian said.  “And you’re only alive because she doesn’t kill people.”

Looking at Brian and Aisha, I knew this discussion would get worse before it got better.  I cut in before either of them said something regrettable.  “Imp.  It’s a good idea, but they do have a way of sensing you.  Cherish can sense emotions, and if Dragon is any indication, your power primarily works through sight, hearing and touch.  Like Grue’s.  She can probably find you and track you down.”

“We don’t know that,” Aisha said.

“It’s a pretty good educated guess, I think.  I know you want to be useful, but we can make more use of you if you’re with us, going up against someone like Mannequin or Shatterbird, who are far less likely to be able to see you.  Help us defend ourselves.”

“This sucks!”

“Imp,” Grue said, as he glanced at the others at the table and frowned, “We’re in the company of our employers and our peers.  Let’s stay professional and discuss this after.”

Professional?  You asshole, you’re the one who’s refusing to use my talents because I’m your sister.  I’ve been on the team longer than Skitter was when you guys were robbing a bank and fighting the ABB.”

“You’re younger, and she’s more level-headed-”

“Enough,” Coil said.  It served to shut them both up.

For a few seconds, anyways.  Aisha scowled.  “Enough is right.  I’ll see you guys later.”

“Hey!”  Brian stood from his seat.

I think I wasn’t the only one to look up at him and wonder why.  He looked at us, similarly confused, and then sat down just as quickly as he’d stood.

Lisa looked pensive.  I nudged her and asked, “You okay?”

“Yeah,” she replied.  Then she looked at Coil, “Hey, while you’re asking for suggestions, I have an idea?”

“Anything helps.”

“You think you could get your hands on some surveillance hardware?  Skitter’s working on some new costumes, and I was thinking we could have something like small cameras mounted on our masks or helmets.”

“I can inquire with my usual suppliers.  Why?”

“Well, we’ve got one teammate that’s sort of hard for the rest of you to keep track of, and I think it might help.  And if nobody objects, I’m kind of wanting to take a less hands-on approach from here on out.  I’ve batted a pretty low percentage as far as injuries over the last few months of action… Glory Girl, Bakuda, Leviathan, now this incident with Jack.  If I had a means of communication and the gear to give me some eyes on the scene, I think I could be more useful.”

Coil looked at Brian.

“I gave you a hard time about your having to take the same risks as the rest of us, back when you first joined, but I think you’ve done your share.  So long as you’re contributing,” Brian said.

Coil nodded. “I’ll see what we can prepare.”

Lisa smiled a little, using only the one side of her mouth.

Our canine mounts raced through the streets with impunity.  The glass that covered the roads, the lack of windows, windshields or working dashboards in the few cars that still ran all contributed to the glacial pace of traffic.  There was little for the dogs to watch out for, no moving vehicles and few bystanders.  Every stride the dog took made the bag I was carrying bang against my hip and made every injury I had explode with pain.  I clenched my teeth and endured it.  There weren’t many other options.  I could hardly complain to Bitch.

Bitch was well in the lead, and there was a kind of aggression to how she rode.  She pulled ahead, evading cars by only a couple of inches, forcing them to swerve, and she goaded Bentley faster with kicks and shouts.

We hadn’t raised the topic of Bitch and her nomination for the Nine.  I think the others hadn’t wanted to add tension and the possibility of argument or violence to the already complicated situation.  I know I hadn’t.  My last real interaction with Bitch was when we’d parted ways after the fight with Dragon.  I’d told her we were even, but there had been some anger and hurt feelings on both sides.  I was the last person she wanted to have grilling her.

Bitch made Bentley slow to a walk as she reached my territory.  It still took us a good thirty seconds to catch up.

Using my power, I signalled Sierra and Charlotte.  Grue, Bitch and I climbed down from our dogs and then led them forward.

“Mannequin slipped by you once,” Grue said.  “You going to be able to keep an eye out?”

“I had some ideas, but I’m running low on resources,” I said.  “Let me see what I can do.”

Genesis began to appear a short distance away, near Bitch.  A blurry, beige and yellow, vaguely human-shaped figure coalesced into being.  The shape then sharpened into features and alter in hue until there was the figure of a teenage girl, vaguely cartoonish.  By the time we reached her, she looked indistinguishable from a regular girl.  She had auburn hair, freckles, and thick glasses.  A small smile touched her face as she stretched her arms and legs.

“Everything good?” Grue asked her.

“Good enough.  I’m going to keep this shape until Coil’s people can deliver my real body.  Then I’ll need to recuperate some.”

“Sure.”

Bitch scowled at me.  Bastard, her puppy, stood beside her.  He had received the brunt of her power, and looked roughly as large as an adult great dane.  The features were different from her usual dogs.  The spikes had more symmetry to their arrangement, and the muscles looked less like tangles.  It tugged briefly on the chain that led from her hand to its collar, and she pulled back sharply.  It didn’t pull again, though it was easily powerful enough to knock her over.

My people met us as we entered the neighborhoods where my lair and the barracks we’d set up were.  Sierra and Charlotte were in the lead, the three ex-ABB members behind them.  The O’Daly clan stood at more of a distance, all either members of the family, friends or romantic partners.  Other, smaller families filled in the gaps.  My ‘gang’ numbered nearly fifty people in total.

“Holy crap,” Genesis said.

“It’s why we wanted to set up base here,”  Grue said.  “Skitter’s the most established of us.”

“I’ve been focusing on structural repairs and building when I’m not helping my teammates,” Genesis said.  “I don’t have many threats to get rid of, and it was the best way for me to be productive.  And meanwhile you’re further than I expected to get in half a year.”

I couldn’t bring myself to feel proud.  “I guess I’m motivated.”

Genesis whistled, looking around.  There were some looks of confusion as she strode forward into the crowd.  I suppose it was unusual for a teenage girl to be in the company of three known supervillains and a mass of monstrous dogs.

“Sierra,” I said.  “Status?”

“We’re nearly done with the second building.  There isn’t a lot of elbow room, so we’ve been cleaning up the road.”

“Good.  No trouble?”

“Not that I know of.”

I pulled the bag from over my shoulder and handed it to her.  “Distribute these to the people in charge of the various groups.  Work it out so you can pass on messages quickly, and get any necessary information to me asap.”

“Okay.”  She grunted as she took the bag.

“Genesis,” I spoke.  “You said you were doing some rebuilding?”

She slapped her stomach, “Made some mortar, just a matter of sticking stuff back where it’s supposed to be, if it’s obvious enough.”

“Want to see what you can do, before your body gets here?”

She nodded and headed off.  My minions rapidly backed away from her as she began dissolving.

“Charlotte?”

“Yes?”

“How set up is the building you guys were working on?”

“Mess is cleaned out, but we haven’t moved much in.”

“That should be fine.”

“We ready?” Grue asked.

I turned to face him and Bitch.  “Just about.  Bitch, there’s a space set aside that we can use for your dogs.  We’ll patrol through the various territories in an hour or so, stop by your territory and pick up some supplies for them, and you can bring your dogs here.”  I had to resist adding an ‘if that’s okay’.  Firmness would work best with her, even if it did carry the risk of provoking her.

“Fine.”

“Good,” Grue said.  “Let’s go rest and eat.  We can wait for Genesis and the other gear Coil’s dropping off.”

I had enough bugs nearby to start setting up my early warning system.  With the assistance of a horde of flying insects, I began guiding spiders through various points of my territory.  They drew out lines of silk across alleyways and doors, windows and rooftops.  I couldn’t spare the spiders, so I placed ants on each line.  They would feel it if there was a vibration, not as well as the spiders, but well enough.

Ten thousand tripwires for Mannequin to navigate past.

My expectation was for the lines to maybe give me an early warning of Mannequin’s approach, sometime in the coming hours, maybe in the dead of night.

I didn’t expect to find him in the span of a minute.  A figure on a nearby rooftop was striding through the webs and avoiding the bugs.

I stopped.  “Mannequin.”

Everyone else froze.  Even the dogs seemed to mime their master’s stillness.

But he was already leaving, moving with surprising swiftness as he pushed through another few lines of webbing at the edge of the roof furthest from us.  A second later he was on the ground, moving through an alleyway.

“We could go after him,” Grue asked.

“We couldn’t catch him, I don’t think,” I said, “And he may be trying to bait us into a trap.  Or maybe he wants to loop around while we give chase and kill my people.  Shit, I didn’t think he’d come so quickly.”

“We weren’t exactly inconspicuous.”

I frowned.

Mannequin was on guard for a trap, enough that he’d probably noticed the tripwire and decided to retreat.  Mannequin and I had an estimation of one another, now.  Neither of us wanted a direct confrontation.  Both of us would be wary of traps or trickery.  He was a tinker, he would have prepared something to ward against the tactic I had employed last time.  Topping it off, amassing people to please Coil had the unfortunate side effect of making me more vulnerable to Mannequin’s attacks.  He could hurt me without even getting close to me, the second I let my guard down and gave him an avenue for attack.

The only ambiguous advantage we had over him was that he was working with a time limit.  He needed to test Bitch and get revenge on me, in addition to dealing with all of the other candidates, and he had less than forty-eight hours to do it.

I wasn’t so sure that was a good thing.  It was beginning to dawn on me what we were in for.  Forty eight hours of being on the edge of our seats, unable to sleep deeply, constantly watching for attack from Mannequin or from Hookwolf’s contingent.

When we were done, we faced seventy-two hours of the same thing.  We’d be that much more tired, that much more likely to make a mistake.  Then we’d have to do it again.  And again, and again.  Eight rounds in total.  From my altercation with Mannequin, I knew we wouldn’t make it through even the first few encounters without some loss, some injury or casualty.  By the time the eighth round of testing rolled around, what kind of condition would we be in?  What condition would my territory be in?

I’d initially seen Tattletale’s deal with Jack as a good thing, a miniscule chance at success, with some drawbacks and negative points.

The more I dwelled on it, the more daunting it seemed.

“You okay?” Grue asked me.

“A little spooked,” I admitted.

He set a hand on my shoulder.  “We’ll make it.”

Speaking from the perspective of someone who had gone toe to toe with these guys, I wasn’t so convinced.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.3

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Fuck!” Grue swore the second his boat hit land.

“Let me guess,” Regent remarked to Bitch, “He’s been swearing since we left.”

Bitch nodded.

The Travelers had already arrived.  They stood in a huddle by the water while Genesis disintegrated into several vague floating body parts.

“Coil just bent us over and fucked us,” Grue said.

“I dunno,” Tattletale answered.  “That might have been the only way for him to play things, with the way his power and operations work.”

“That would do a hell of a lot more to ease my concerns if I had any idea what his power was.”

Tattletale only offered an apologetic half-smile and a shrug to that.

I tried to help her out.  “Look, we do know that Coil is smart, he’s proud, and he’s at his best when he’s managing his enterprise.  Being cooped up, he’d be hit hard in all three areas.  Limited tools to work with, limited access to his people, and he’d be less powerful in a way that everyone would be aware of.”

“That doesn’t excuse how thoroughly he just screwed us, without even trying to help us out.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think he’s completely screwed us over.  We know Coil’s got at least one undercover agent, Trainwreck-“

Tattletale interrupted to say, “He’s got a whole lot more than one.”

“Thought he might.  Doesn’t it make sense that he’d assist us by being one himself?  I get the impression he likes the control it affords him and the amount of information he can get this way.”

“Maybe,” Grue conceded.

“We should focus on where we go from here,” I said.

“Agreed,” Trickster called out.

Genesis had finished disappearing, and Trickster was walking over to our group, followed by Sundancer and Ballistic.  He extended a hand for Grue to shake, then turned to Tattletale, me, Regent and Bitch to do the same.  Bitch didn’t take his hand, turning away to focus on her dogs instead.  Trickster took the snub in stride.  “If nothing else, I’m glad we get a chance to talk.  Unless things get a lot worse from here, I’m hoping we’ll all be working side by side for a little while.”

“Let’s hope,” Grue agreed.

Trickster said, “We just sent Genesis back in a more discreet form to listen in.”

“Imp is staying behind as well,” Tattletale informed him, “So we’ve got redundancy there.”

“Christ,” Grue snapped his head from one side to the next, as if he could spot his sister that way.  With a note of alarm in his voice, he asked, “Imp’s still there?”

“She’s okay,” Tattletale reassured him, “They won’t notice her.”

“They could.  We don’t know how consistently her power works, or if it works in a group that large, and we can’t be sure we know every power the people there have, if anyone has some extra senses that might bypass her ability.  Fuck!  This is the exact type of situation I wanted to keep her away from.  The whole reason I let her join this group was to keep her close enough that I could rein in this sort of recklessness.”

“She’s a bit of a rebel, but she’s not stupid,” Tattletale said, “Trust her to hold her own.”

“I wouldn’t trust myself to hold my own in her shoes,” Grue told her.  “Christ.  Skitter, can you send a few bugs over that way, tell me if she’s in one piece?”

I nodded, while Trickster slapped his forehead.

“The bugs,” he said, “I could have told Genesis to stick around while you scouted, wait, no.  Why send Imp if you have the bugs?”

“I can’t see or hear through the swarm, really.  Not well enough to listen in.”

“You did once,” Tattletale told me.

That surprised me.  “When?”

“After the fight with Bakuda.  You were doped up, hurt, you had a concussion, but you were able to tell us the kind of music someone was listening to, and he was way out of earshot.”

“Seriously?  And you didn’t tell me this?”

Grue shook his head.  “Just speaking for myself, I had a lot on my mind, between you and the others being in rough shape and the ABB setting off bombs across the city.  I completely forgot until just now.  Sorry.”

Tattletale nodded.

“That’s huge,” I said, “Do you know how much I could use something like that?”

“Why can’t you now?” Trickster asked.

“Bugs sense things so differently, my brain can’t translate what they see and hear into something I can process.  It’s all black and white blotches, high-pitched squeals and bass throbs.”  I paused.  “Imp’s perfectly fine, by the way.  At least, I can’t find her, but nobody’s reacting like they found a spy in their midst.”

Grue sighed, “Okay.”

“So this sensory part of your power, you stopped trying?” Tattletale asked.

The way she phrased that nettled me.  “In the three months between my getting my powers and first going out in costume, I saw zero improvement in that department.  None, zilch.  When I did start going out in costume, I was worried the useless sights and sounds might distract me at some crucial juncture.  Between that and the fact that it was like hitting my head against a metaphorical brick wall…”

“You gave up,” Regent said.  He was trying to get on my nerves, I knew it.

“I stopped trying.  But now that I know it’s somehow possible, I dunno.  I can start looking for a way.”

The degree to which it would expand my capabilities, it was tempting.  That kind of expansion of my sensory abilities could be a matter of life and death at some point.  I could theoretically listen in on most of the people in my territory.  Would I want to, though?  The invasiveness of that kind of creeped me out, and I had a pretty high creepiness tolerance.

“It might be like your range boosts.  Tied to your mental state,” Tattletale said.

“Except my range boosts are probably linked to me feeling trapped, and I somehow doubt I felt that way when I was doped up and waking up in that hospital bed or ambulance or wherever.”

“It’s something you can work through,” she said.  “And now that you know to look for it, you should push yourself to use that part of your power so you can see when it’s stronger or weaker.”

I nodded, and willed myself to tear down all the mental barriers and safeguards that walled my brain off from the sights and sounds the bugs wanted to send my way.

It was every bit as grating and annoying as I recalled.  This would take some getting used to.

“Listen,” Trickster said.  “Ballistic’s HQ is close by.  Since my group is going to be waiting for Genesis, and you guys will want to hang around and pick up Imp when she’s done, maybe you want to come by and we can discuss strategy in the meantime?”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Grue said.  “Thanks.”

Ballistic gestured toward a nearby street and we all started walking in that direction.

Grue started us off.  “Number one, we know that they were here to recruit.  Who were they recruiting?”

“Me,” Regent said.  That drew a few looks of surprise from the Travelers.  He elaborated, “My sister is their newest member, replaced Hatchet Face.  She did it to fuck with me more than out of a genuine desire to have me join.”

“Armsmaster is another,” I pointed out.  “According to Miss Militia, Mannequin wanted him.”

“The, uh, sixth member of the Travelers is the next recruit, I guess,” Trickster admitted.  “Crawler hit Coil’s place.”

“Sixth?” I asked.  “If there’s four of you, then-“

“We have two group members who don’t see any combat.  They spend most or all of their time at Coil’s headquarters.  I understand if that raises a lot of questions, but I –we– would really appreciate it if you guys could leave it at that for now.  I’m thinking we’ll introduce you to the others soon.”

“I’m okay with dropping it so long as you’re not withholding anything crucial,” Grue said.  “I’m happy to stay on topic as much as possible anyways.”

Trickster tipped his hat.  “Appreciated.  Looked like Hookwolf got hit.  His entire group did.  Shatterbird?”

“Yeah,” Tattletale replied.  “Can confirm that one.”

“Shatterbird, Crawler, Mannequin and…” I trailed off, looking at Regent for help in placing the name.

“Cherish.”

“If the condition of Faultline’s crew was any indication,” Tattletale said, “We can make an educated guess that Burnscar paid them a visit.  Thing is, I can’t even begin to guess who she visited.  Spitfire’s too nice, and none of the others really have the, I dunno, edge?”

“In any case, that leaves the people who Jack, Siberian and Bonesaw nominated.  Any ideas?”

I glanced across our groups.  Nobody moved to reply.

“Maybe they’re not done?” Sundancer spoke up, “Or maybe some of them aren’t picking new members?”

Maybe they’re not done,” Tattletale spoke, “But I think they are.  From what I’ve read on them, and from what my power is giving me, I have the distinct impression they all would have made some kind of move by now.  They either hit all at once, shock and awe, or they draw it out.  This is the former.”

“But are they all picking new members?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “No clue.  We know of four, at least.”

Ballistic led us into a parking garage.  We walked between rows of cars that had been pummelled by the floodwater.  Panels had been dented, windows shattered, and some of the cars had been lifted and pushed into one another.

Sundancer formed a tiny ‘sun’ and held it up for light, while Regent turned on the flashlight he’d brought.  We descended into the bowels of the garage, and stopped at the ramp between the second level down and the third.  It had collapsed, and both rubble and two or three cars sat in the water that flooded the floor below.

“This way,” Ballistic said.  He grabbed a length of pipe that stuck out where the ramp had collapsed and climbed down.  Trickster gestured and we moved to follow.

Clever, clever.  Out of sight from any vantage point on the level above, short walls had been set around the fallen ramp.  They ensured that the flooding and the wreckage were all contained to one area to sell the illusion, and kept everything else on the lowest level of the basement dry.  Cars had been removed, clearing the area for use as an underground base.

Ballistic pulled off his mask and tossed it onto the bed that sat in one corner.  He cleared a few dirty dishes from the table in the middle of the area and invited us to sit while he fetched some extra seats.

He had a bit of a heavy brow and a snub nose, and his short brown hair, damp with sweat, made me think of the jocks that always seemed to gravitate towards Sophia.  Still, he wasn’t a bad looking guy.  If a guy like him had asked me out in some alternate universe where Emma had never stopped being my friend and I’d never been bullied?  Just going by his looks, I might have said yes.

Trickster unmasked as well.  He definitely didn’t remind me of one of the jocks.  His hair was longer than many girls wore theirs, he had light brown skin and an unfortunate hook nose.  Combined with his intense stare, he gave me the impression of a hawk or some other bird of prey.

Grue, Tattletale and Regent all unmasked as well while they got themselves seated.  Trickster offered each of them a cigarette, then offered one to me.  I turned him down, as did the others.

“So what are we discussing here?” Sundancer asked from behind me.  I turned and saw a rather attractive blonde girl with a long neck and delicate features.  Her hair was expertly pinned up behind her head.  “I was under the impression that the Slaughterhouse Nine were pretty much unbeatable.”

“No,” Brian said.  “Some of them, maybe, but others are as vulnerable as you or me.  Thing is, Dinah told us that our odds against these bastards aren’t good.  Our chances of winning are pretty low, and it’s pretty damn likely we’ll get killed if we confront them head on.”

“So we don’t confront them head on,” Trickster said.

Feeling conspicuous as the only one with a mask on, I pulled mine off.  It took me a second to adjust to the blue tint that everything had after I’d spent over an hour looking through the pale yellow lenses of my mask.  I realized Trickster was setting up a laptop.  He placed it at one corner of the table, facing the rest of us.

“Oliver?”

“I’m here, Trickster,” a male voice came from the computer.

“Feel like patching in Noelle?”

“Sure.  She’s in an okay mood.  A little drowsy.  I’ll be right back.”

Trickster pressed a button on the keyboard and then turned to us, “Tattletale.  I’ll be as quick as I can.  Coil promised he’d get you to help us, but he’s taken his time introducing you to our group.  The cynic in me suspects there’s a reason, and the pessimist in me says that reason is that he’s already figured out what you’re going to tell us, and it isn’t going to be pretty.”

“Okay.”  Tattletale was all business.

“Noelle’s going to ask you for help.  Lie to her.  Tell her you’re already on it.  Roll with it if she gets angry, or if she gets impatient.  She’s sensitive.  I don’t know how your power works, really, but if you realize whatever it is that Coil doesn’t want us to know, don’t tell Noelle.”

“She’s the one Crawler visited?” I asked.

Trickster nodded once.

“Hello?’  A girl’s voice came from the computer.  Trickster hit a key, which I assumed was to take himself off mute.  He hit another combination of keys and a webcam feed snapped up to cover the screen.

Noelle had long brown hair and she wore a red sweatshirt.  She looked like someone who was ill.  She was horribly pale, she had dark circles under her sunken eyes, and her lips were chapped.  I was reminded of drug addicts in an early stage of addiction, where they were deteriorating because the drugs took a higher priority than taking care of themselves.  Was Coil drugging her too?

”Noelle, “ Trickster said, “You’ve asked to be included more.  I thought you’d be okay with this?”

She nodded.

“Left to right, we have Grue, Regent, Skitter, Bitch and Tattletale.”

There wasn’t a flicker of a smile or any interest on her face until she heard that last name.  “Tattletale?”

“Noelle,” Tattletale spoke, “It’s nice to finally meet you.  Listen, I’m working on your situation.  Coil’s filled me in on the basics and I’m chasing down some leads, but something’s come up with the Slaughterhouse Nine, and everything’s on hold until we can be sure they won’t try to kill us in the meantime.”

I could see Trickster tense.  Was Noelle so high strung or desperate that she’d throw a tantrum over being asked to wait?

“Coil was telling the truth,” Noelle said, in a small voice, “You can help?”

“Honestly?  I don’t know.  But I’m a fucking genius when it comes to getting answers, and Coil’s got all the resources in the world.  If there’s help to be had, we’ll give it to you.”

“How soon before you know?”

“No idea.  I don’t think it’ll be as fast as you want, but it’s doable, and it won’t take so long that you should give up.”

“Okay.”

“In the meantime,” Trickster cut in, giving Tattletale a thumbs-up gesture from a position outside of the laptop’s  field of view, “We need our old field commander’s brain on the Slaughterhouse Nine sitch.”

“A distraction would be nice,” Noelle smiled for the first time.

Field commander.  She used to be the leader of their group?  I wondered if I could dig up any information about her if I hunted far enough back.

I could see Brian fidget under the table.  He wasn’t liking the constant distractions from the subject at hand.

“Eight enemies,” Trickster said.  “Now, I’m not a serious player of the game, I’m sorry to any of you Undersiders who are irritated by the way I’m about to butcher it, but the way I see it, their leader is like the king in chess.  More raw power than a pawn, but in the end, he’s simultaneously the second weakest piece in the game and the one everything hinges on.  We take him down without getting massacred in the process, I think we win.”

“Jack Slash,” Noelle said.

“Right.  Siberian’s like the queen.  She’s fast, mobile, one of the strongest physically, and the bitch of the matter is, she can’t be taken off the board, and she can’t be contained.  A special queen, if you will.  Physically she’s an unstoppable force and an immovable object any time she wants to be.”

To my right, Bitch picked up the puppy and settled it in her lap.  It curled up and nestled against the cupped circle of her arms and hands.

“Then there’s Crawler, who visited us the other night.  Maybe not as fast or agile as Siberian, and he can be contained, but he can’t be taken off the board.  A special rook.”

“I’m wondering how far you can stretch this chess analogy, Trickster,” Ballistic commented.

Trickster ignored him.  “Shatterbird and Burnscar are like bishops.  They’ve got mobility, reach, and they can bury you damn fast if you don’t have the right kind of cover.”

“What about Mannequin?  Another rook?”  I asked.

“I’d peg him a knight.  He’s more close range, but he’ll catch you from an oblique angle, maybe slip past whatever defences you think you have.”

“Which leaves Cherish and Bonesaw,” Grue said.  “We’ll have to trust Regent to give us the details on Cherish.”

Regent nodded and tapped his finger against his chin, “My sister.  I don’t know if you could call her a third bishop or a knight.  Long range on her power, gets stronger as she gets closer.  Affects your emotions and as far as I’m aware, there’s no way to defend against it or to take cover.  If she decides she wants to hurt you or make you hurt yourself, she can find you and she’ll make it happen.”

“But she has no special defences,” Grue cut in.  “She’s vulnerable to pretty much any knife, gun or power we can hit her with.”

“Can we gang up on her?” Sundancer asked.

“She can affect multiple people at once,” Regent said.  “So it’s not that easy.”

“That means we have to beat her at her own game,” Trickster mused, “Track her, beat her in long-range warfare.”

“I could use puppets to go after her,” Regent said, “But she can paralyze them with the kind of uncontrolled physical reactions I can’t cover with my power.  I am immune to her, for all the good that does.”

“How far does her offensive range extend?” I asked.

“No clue.  I’d guess she can sense emotions across the entire city, which is how she’s finding people, but in terms of attack? I don’t have any basis to make a guess.  Farther than my dad, Heartbreaker, but not city-wide, no.”

“The ability to track us by our emotions is a good enough reason to take her out of action ASAP,” Trickster said.  “So long as she’s active, it’ll be that much harder to catch the others off guard.”

“Maybe…” I started, then I hesitated.  Feeling the pressure of everyone’s attention on me, I said, “…Maybe my power will outrange hers?  Not in terms of what we see and sense, but in terms of who can do more damage from further away?”

“It’s a thought,” Grue agreed, “Risky, but we don’t have many options.  Trickster, where does Bonesaw fit into your analogy?”

Trickster shook his head, “She doesn’t.  She’s relatively weak in terms of raw power, but her presence on the field threatens to change the rules.  She’s a medical tinker.  The medical tinker.  So long as she’s in play, we can’t be certain of our enemy’s attack power, we can’t know that any enemy we clear from the field will stay gone, and there could be harsh penalties if they catch or kill one of us.  It sucks to think about, but if Bonesaw got her hands on, say, Sundancer, I’d be a hell of a lot more worried than if Hookwolf or Skidmark did.”

Sundancer muttered something to Ballistic, but I couldn’t make it out.

“What about our side?” Noelle asked.

“Lots of playing pieces, not all cooperating, and we have one debatable advantage,” Trickster said, “We know in advance, pretty much for a fact, that if any of us, Undersider or Traveler, try to fight these bastards, we’re going to lose, and we’ll lose hard.”

“Tattletale say that?” Noelle asked.

“Coil did,” Trickster answered.

Odd.  So Noelle was staying with Coil, but she didn’t know about Dinah?  Another secret or white lie from her team?

“I can’t help but think of the Desecrated Monk scenario,” Noelle said.  I saw Trickster, Sundancer and Ballistic all nodding.  When I turned to my team, they looked as confused as I was.  Was this Desecrated Monk someone the Travelers had gone up against at some point before they came to Brockton Bay?

“Go on,” Trickster encouraged her.

“The rules are unfair.  Half of our opponents are pretty blatantly cheating.  But we have to deal with them anyways.  So either we cheat back-“

“Which we can’t.”

“Or you guys handle it the way we did it before.  You don’t fight the way they want to fight.”

“Okay,” Trickster nodded, “So the first question we ask ourselves is how they want to play this.  What do they want?  In terms a five-year-old could understand.”

“They want their ninth member,” I said.

“Right.”

“They want to hurt, scare and kill people,” Tattletale put in her two cents.

“Why?”

“Reputation, entertainment,” Tattletale said, “These guys are monsters, and pretty much anyone who watches T.V., surfs the web, or reads the papers knows it.”

I saw it out of the corner of my eye.  Noelle’s expression shifted all at once from being animated and engaged to the same look she’d worn when the webcam feed first went live.  Disinterested, hurt, hopeless.

She’d been scouted.  Unlike Regent, it hadn’t been to mess with her.  It had been because a freak like Crawler legitimately thought she was one of them.

If Tattletale was sitting next to me, I would have kicked her under the table.

Noelle suddenly perked up, saying, “They want to hunt.  They’re predators.”

“Okay, how can we use that?” Trickster leaned forward to look at the screen.

“They want to be the predators, we make them prey,” Noelle said.  She was looking more animated again.

“Not sure that’s possible, but keep going.”

“It’s not possible because, um.  You described them like they’re chess pieces, and we’re thinking in terms of a chess game.  What if we changed the game?”

“I always preferred Go,” Trickster said, “But Go is about territory, give and take, less about aggression than an educational sparring match between two master swordsmen, each walking away with a new kernel of knowledge.  Go applies more to taking over the city than it does to this scenario.”

“Shogi?” Noelle suggested.

Shogi.  I got her meaning almost immediately, and I wasn’t alone. Tattletale, the Travelers and I all looked at Regent.

Regent, Bitch and Grue, for their parts, were left looking bewildered.

“Maybe you should clarify?” Grue suggested.

“Shogi is an Eastern variant of chess,” I said, “Some of the pieces move a little differently, though I can’t remember how.  But the big difference is that there’s a rule that says you can take any of the opponent’s pieces you’ve captured and place them on the board as your own.”

“More or less right,” Trickster said.

“So the question becomes,” Grue thought aloud, “Who can we beat in an indirect confrontation, capture and control?”

“Jack, Bonesaw-“ I said.

Grue shook his head.  “They know they’re vulnerable.  Either they’ll be watching their backs or the others will watch their backs for them.”

Regent said, “Siberian is out, and while we might theoretically be able to catch and contain Crawler or Mannequin, I dunno if we could keep them still long enough for me to use my power on them.  If I can.  Their bodies are different.”

I counted the enemies off on one hand, “Leaving Cherish-“

Regent shook his head, “She knows me, has measures in place.”

“Burnscar and Shatterbird,” I finished.

“The bishops,” Trickster said.

“Easier said than done,” Grue sighed.

Noelle’s face disappeared from the webcam, and a blond boy popped up in its place.  Oliver?  “Trickster, Genesis is waking up.  She’s done whatever you had her doing.”

“Long stint,” Trickster replied, “She’ll be groggy.”

“That means Imp is probably done too,” Grue spoke.

“She’ll need a ride back,” I finished his thought.

“Should leave her there for a bit as punishment for staying behind,” Grue grumbled.  Still, he stood and pulled on his helmet.  “But it’s not worth the grief she’ll give me.”

“Softie.” Tattletale grinned.

“Are you coming back?” Trickster asked.

“How long will it be before Genesis is able to brief us on the meeting?”

“Fifteen, twenty minutes?”

“Then we’ll be back to finish the strategy session,” Grue responded.

Trickster turned to his teammates, “Mind giving Noelle and me a minute to talk?”  Sundancer and Ballistic stood.

Joined by the two Travelers, we made our way up the disguised ladder to the second sub-level of the parking garage.  As one of the last to head up, I saw the adorable sight of Bitch managing the sleeping puppy, tucking it against her body with one arm so she could scale the ladder one-handed.

As she reached the top, I could hear Sundancer cooing, “It’s so cute.  Is it a he or a she?”

“He.”

“What’s his name?”

“Bastard.”

“I’m guessing you named him?” Regent asked, as I reached the top and stepped down onto solid ground.  I missed Bitch’s response.  Had she nodded?

“I was surprised you brought him tonight,” Grue said, being remarkably delicate about the fact that Bitch had undercut any presence our group had by bringing the cute ball of fluff.  It would have been better if he’d brought it up earlier, but he might have felt the same way I did about provoking Bitch before a major event, when she’d been so short tempered lately.

Bitch’s response was surprisingly verbose.  “Had to.  For the first year and a half, he’s going to be like a dog.  Need to train him as much as I can, get him used to me.  It’ll be too hard if I wait.”

Like a dog?” I asked.  In the corner of my eye, I could see Tattletale’s expression change as she looked at the dog, clearly realizing something.  As fast as I could turn her way to try and piece together what that was, something else got her attention.

“Shit,” she breathed.  She clutched at my arm with one hand and at Bitch’s with the other, stepping back to pull us with her.  Bitch pulled her arm from Tattletale’s grip, looking angry at the invasion of personal space.

“Oh fuck,” I muttered, as I saw through the darkness to spot what Tattletale’s power had noticed first.

Four of the Slaughterhouse Nine were stepping through the entrance of the parking garage.  The Siberian was in the lead, her waist-length hair blowing in the wind from outside, her eyes practically glowing in the gloom.  Behind her, Jack Slash held Bonesaw’s hand as the young girl skipped to make it so she only walked on the yellow lines that divided the lanes.  They were accompanied by a young woman who might’ve been eighteen or so years old, who bore a striking resemblance to Alec.  Cherish.  None of them wore costumes.  The Siberian didn’t wear anything.  She was as nude as the day she’d been born, her skin patterned with stripes of alabaster white and jet black.

Jack Slash noticed us, and his his eyes drifted around the arch that led from the parking garage to the wet outdoors.  He smiled, “This is not an exit.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 11f (Anniversary Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

If each of the tens of trillions of universes were like pictures, then they were organized into a mosaic, constantly rearranging itself and shuffling.  Taken in as a whole, it was a muddle.  Depending on how it shuffled, sometimes patterns emerged.  A predominant color, perhaps, or lots of scenes that were blurs of motion and activity.

But there was more to it.  There were faint sounds, for one thing, and they weren’t just two-dimensional.  Just the opposite – they were each a fully realized world, and each was continuous, like a slideshow or film reel that extended vast distances forward and backward from any of the scenes of focus.  Things got even more complicated when each of the slideshow reels forked out and branched as they moved further away.  The only thing stopping them were the terminus points.  The first terminus wasn’t complicated.  The now, the present.  It moved inexorably, steadily forward, consuming the individual realities as they ceased to be the future and became the now.

The other terminus was somewhat more ominous.  Every branch ended at some point, some sooner than others.

Dinah Alcott knew that those branches were ones where she had died.  Right now, there were a lot of them, more coming into view with every passing second.  Almost all of the images in the mosaic were either black or crimson.  Either the lights were on and everything was covered in blood, or they were off, and she was effectively blind.

She concentrated, and the mosaic organized into two portions, one slightly larger than the other.  In one half, that death-terminus came very soon.  In the other, it was some distance off.  She judged the size of the individual parts, and the number snapped into her head.

43.03485192746307955659 percent chance she would die in the next thirty minutes.  The chance was steadily ticking upward with each passing second, with possible realities becoming impossible and fading from her view, or being replaced with other possibilities, effectively shifting over to the other side.

Anxiety crept up on her.  She wanted her ‘candy’, to take the edge off, to help clarify her thoughts.

She knocked on the door to her room.  She heard Coil say something on the other side and tested the knob.  Finding it unlocked, she stepped through.

Coil sat at his desk, on the phone.  She didn’t want to talk to him, but she wanted to die less.

“It’s unfortunate,” Coil was saying.  “Step up recon, call in a secondary team to ensure twenty-four seven surveillance.  We’ll want a replacement for our Leah the moment they start recruiting again.  Yes.  Good.  Let me know.”

He hung up.

“Coil?”

“What is it, pet?”

“Forty-four point two zero three eight three percent chance I die in the next half-hour.”

He stood from his desk.  “How?”

“Blood or darkness.  Don’t know.”

“The chance I die in the next thirty minutes?”

She thought, and felt the mosaic shift into a new configuration.  Coil’s face predominated each tiny scene, active, speaking and alive in some, unmoving or dead in the others. “Forty two point seven zero nine percent for the worlds where I don’t die.  Don’t know about the worlds where I’d die first.”

“And, say, Mr. Pitter?  The chance he dies?”

“Forty point-”  She stopped as Coil raised a hand.

“So whatever it is, it happens here, and involves everyone here.  Chance of survival if we leave?”

“Ten point six six four-”

“No.  Chance the average person in the city lives if we leave?”

“Ninety-nine point-”

“So we’re targets.  It’s not an attack on the city.  If we mobilize the squads?  To one decimal place?”

“Forty-eight point one percent chance I survive, forty-nine point nine percent chance you survive.”

“No difference.  Worse if anything,” he said.  She nodded, and he rubbed his chin, thinking.

Time was running out.  She fidgeted.

“I need some candy, please.”

“No, pet,” Coil said, “I need you focused.  What-”

She interrupted him, which always she tried to avoid doing, but she was feeling desperate.  “Please.  I’ve been using my power a lot.  I’m going to get a bad headache, and then I won’t be useful to you.”

“No,” he said, with more ferocity than she had expected.  “Pitter isn’t here to administer it, and won’t be until this situation is over.  Listen.  Chance that we survive Crawler’s attack if my soldiers use the laser attachments I’ve provided?  The purple beams?”

Crawler?  It took her a second to get her mental footing.  Coil was using his power.  She wasn’t sure how it worked, but she could always tell when he was doing it because the numbers always started changing all at once, and he knew things he couldn’t.  He’d know about things and numbers she might have told him, except she didn’t remember telling him.

“Thirty Nine point one-”

“If I deploy the Travelers that are on site at the moment?”

“Thirty point-”

He pushed his monitor off his desk in a fit of anger.  It crashed to the floor, pieces of screen rolling and sliding onto the rug at one end of the room.

Striding around the desk, he seized her by the arm and pulled her out of his office.

“Candy.  Please,” she said, whispering.

“No.”

Gripping her wrist so hard it hurt, he drew her into the main area of his underground complex.

“Get battle ready!” Coil shouted.  It was so out of character for him to shout.  “Threat incoming!”

The soldiers that were at ease in the lower area of the base jumped to action, grabbing weapons and protective wear.

It wasn’t going to make a difference.  The numbers weren’t changing enough.  But he was already upset, so she didn’t tell him that.

Trickster, Oliver and Sundancer appeared, running along the metal catwalk.  Sundancer had her mask off, and her permed blond hair was damp against her scalp with sweat.  Oliver was in casual clothing, like Trickster.  He was good looking, his features chiseled.  Athletically built.  Trickster wasn’t.  He had a hook nose and long hair that didn’t suit him, but she knew he was smart, and she would have guessed it even if she didn’t know, just going by the way he looked at stuff.

“What’s going on?” Trickster asked.

“My pet has graciously informed us that Crawler of the Slaughterhouse Nine is less than thirty minutes away from entering this complex and murdering us all.  Suggestions outside of the obvious would be appreciated.”

“Trickster and I could go and try to stop him,” Sundancer suggested.

Outside of the obvious, Sundancer.  I’ve asked my pet.  You try that and we’re all more likely to die.”

“Why?”

“He’s a regenerator,” Coil answered, sounding irritated at having to explain, “And he regenerates exceedingly quickly.  More to the point, he has the added advantage that any part that grows back is stronger than it was before, typically with extra features, growths and increased durability to render him more resistant to whatever hurt him or give him other capabilities.  These adjustments are not only permanent, but he’s been working on it for some time.”

Trickster added, “I read up on these guys after you mentioned them the other night.  Crawler eventually becomes immune to whatever was hurting him, and he’s that much less human, afterward.  He wants to get hurt, wants to further his transformation, like a crazed masochist or someone with a death wish.  Throws himself into suicidal situations and then comes out stronger.  Which may be why he’s here.  The soldiers?”

Coil shook his head, “He’s immune to conventional ammunition and explosives, and most likely to most unconventional forms of ammunition and explosives as well.  The laser attachments might have some small effect, but not enough to draw him here.”

“Which makes me wonder all of a sudden how he found us,” Trickster added.

Coil shook his head, “One thing at a time.  If he is here because he’s seeking someone who could harm him, the only individuals on site who would be capable are Sundancer and your Noelle.”

That gave the three teenagers pause.

“Noelle?  But who even knows about Noelle, except-”

Coil raised his hand to silence Trickster.  “Pet, the chance that Crawler would seek out Noelle first, given the opportunity?”

She felt the images filter out until she was looking at a pattern of scenarios.  The vague shape of the hulking figure, the open vault door.  The images snapped into two groups, one vastly larger than the other.

“Ninety three point four percent.”

Shit,” Trickster swore.  “That’s why he’s here.  Just like Leviathan, Crawler’s coming after her?”

“I find every piece of evidence we gather only supports our working theory on your teammate,” Coil said.  He turned to Dinah, “The chance of survival if we were to give him what he wanted?  Give him access to Noelle?”

“Hey, no,” Trickster said.

“Eighty-one point nine percent chance we survive the next hour-”

“A start,” Coil noted.

Something about the image bothered her.  She pushed forward, seeing the possible realities that unfolded after that.  Very, very few extended any meaningful distance into the future.

“Six percent chance we survive the next five hours.”

Coil stopped, then sighed.  “Thank you, pet, for clarifying that.”

She nodded.

“Awesome,” Trickster responded, his voice thick with sarcasm.  With a more serious tone and expression, he said, “Let’s not give him access to Noelle.  Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Coil conceded.  “Any further ideas?”

Time’s running out.  She looked at the numbers for herself, even though she felt the initial throbbing pains at the base of her skull that foretold the encroaching headaches.  53.8 percent chance I die in the next thirty minutes.

“Pet,” Coil said.

What she didn’t get from his tone, she grasped from the vague images she saw of her most immediate possible futures.

“No,” she pleaded, before he’d even told her what he wanted.

“It’s necessary.  I want you to look at a future where we survived, and I want you to tell us what happened.”

“No.  Please,” she begged.

Now, pet.”

“Why is she so against this?” Trickster asked.

“Headaches,” Dinah answered, pressing her hands to her head,  “It breaks my power.  It takes days, sometimes weeks before everything is sorted out and working again.  Headaches the entire time, until everything is sorted out, worse headaches if I try to get numbers in the meantime.  Have to be careful, can’t muddle things up.  Can’t lie about the numbers, can’t look at what happens, or it just becomes chaos.  Safer to keep a distance, to make and follow rules.  Safer to just ask the questions and let things fall into place.”

“We don’t have time to play twenty questions,” Coil said.  “Would you rather die?”

Would she?  She wasn’t sure.  Death was bad, but at least then she’d go on to the afterlife.  To heaven, she hoped.  Finding an answer and surviving would mean days and weeks of absolute hell, of constant pain and not being able to use her power.

“Pet,” Coil said, when she didn’t give him an immediate response, “Do it now, or you won’t get any more candy for a long while.”

She could see those futures unfolding.  He would.  She could see the pain and the sickness she experienced, the full brunt of her power without her candy to take the edges off, complete with all of the details she didn’t want.  Worst of all were the feedback loops.  To go through withdrawal from the drugs, from her ‘candy’, while simultaneously being able to see and experience echoes of the future moments where she was suffering much the same way?  It was a massive increase in the pain and being sick and mood swings and insomnia and feeling numb and skin-crawling hallucinations.  There was no limit to these echoes, the feedback from her futures.  It would never kill her, knock her out or put her in a coma, no matter how much she might want it to.

She had come close to experiencing it once, early on in her captivity.  Never again.  She would obey Coil in everything he asked for before she risked that happening again.

“Okay,” she murmured.  She picked out one of the paths where they survived.  Even looking too closely at it made her head throb, like it was in a massive vise and someone had just cranked it a fraction tighter.  Some of the possible worlds around the fringes of her consciousness disintegrated into a mess of disordered scenes as she pushed forward.  The scenes and images of the less possible worlds flew around her mind like razor-sharp leaves in a gale, cutting at everything they touched.  “It hurts.”

“Now, pet.  As quickly as you can.”

He didn’t know.  It was something else, like trying to will herself to stick a hot poker in her body, in her brain, knowing it would remain there and burn her for weeks before it cooled.

But she did it, because as much as it would hurt, it would hurt more if she didn’t get her candy.  If Crawler got his hands on her, it wouldn’t hurt at all after those first few moments of pain, but that was bad too.  It meant dying.

She focused hard on that scene, taking it from an image small and vague enough that it could have fit on the end of a pencil to something full size.  Her head exploded with pain.  She caught fragmentary images as she felt herself double over and heave the contents of her stomach onto the metal catwalk and Sundancer’s legs and feet.

Sundancer could have yelled, but she didn’t.  Instead, she fell to her knees and grabbed Dinah by the shoulders to steady her.  It was just in time, because Dinah felt fireworks erupt in her brain, felt her body go spastic.  Too much, too fast.  The image was overly sharp and detailed, overwhelming her senses, shredding all sense of time and present.

It was long moments before she could even piece together what the others were saying and doing.  She was lying down, her head on Sundancer’s lap, a cold cloth against her forehead.  Oliver leaned next to her, holding a bowl of cold water.

“-running out of time!” Trickster shouted.  Coil stood just behind Trickster, arms folded, staring out over the railing, at his underground base.

“Give her a moment,” Sundancer said.  “Whatever that was, it just knocked the poor kid out.”

“That deadline she gave us?  It’s here.  Now.”

“I know, but pressuring her won’t help anything.”

A smell hit her.  Like the bitterest black chocolate in the world and overly strong coffee, the odor so thick on the air that she could taste it.  With her already upset stomach, it made her want to retch.

“Smells bad,” she said.  “Make the smell go away.”

“She’s conscious.  Is this smell a clue?” Trickster turned.

“No.  It’s a symptom,” Coil answered him, not turning to look at her or them.  “She may be dizzy, dazed, or she may rub or scratch at herself until she fully recovers.  Don’t let her scratch her corneas or rub herself until she bleeds.”

Dinah tried to recall what she’d seen.  “Darkness.”

“You mentioned that earlier, pet.”

“We were in the dark, and it smelled like meat.  It smelled like sweat, too.  And we were all pressed in close together.”

Where?” Coil asked.

“There was a metal door in front of us.  Big.  The vault door downstairs.”

“Noelle’s room,” Trickster said, an instant before Dinah put the pieces together.

“How many of us, pet?”

“Everyone here was there,” she looked towards the soldiers.

“Is she in there?”

“She was.  Yes.”

Coil turned and swept her up in his arms.  Her skin crawled at the contact of her body against his.  She didn’t say or do anything about it, in part because she wasn’t able, too sick, hurting too much.  The other reason was because she had seen the numbers shift each time she flinched away from his touch or made her disgust known.  Little differences.  He was angrier with her, more curt, if she pulled way, if she complained about it.

There was safety in the numbers, in following the rules she set on herself.  It kept her power in order, it ensured Coil was tolerant with her, and it meant she didn’t have to go without her candy for even a short time.

Coil took the stairs two at a time as he descended to the ground floor, Trickster, Oliver and Sundancer hurrying after him.

“You,” Coil called out, not even bothering to recall the employee’s name, “The vault door.  Open it.  Squad leaders, organize your groups!”

There was a faint crash in the distance, and a vibration rippled through the complex.

“Pet, the chance that Crawler kills us, now that we’ve undertaken this route?”

“I don’t.  I can’t.”  Her head hurt so much.

Try,” and in his hard tone, she heard the unspoken threat of having her candy taken away.

She did.  The scenes had no order to them.  They were all jumbled, and trying to pull some semblance of order and sense into them was like thrusting her hands into fire and razor blades, thrusting her mind into fire and razor blades.  A long groan of pain was drawn from her throat, and the strength went out of her body.

“You’re killing her!” Sundancer gasped.

“No,” Coil said, as if from a place far away.  “I’ve had her use her power to check.  This may be miserable for her, but she can’t die from it.”

Coil touching her, that overpowering phantom smell, the fear, the nausea…

“I need to barf.”

Coil set her down and held her by the wrists as she leaned forward to cough up mouthfuls of bile.  Her stomach was already empty of food.

“The number, pet?”

Sundancer bent down to hold her, so her shoulders weren’t being twisted with her arms held behind her by Coil.

“Three point one percent,” Dinah gasped out.

“Reassuring,” Coil said.  The vault door opened before them.  “Trickster?  Would you announce our imminent arrival to Noelle?”

“Yeah,” Trickster sighed.  “Fuck.  I hate to do this, but can I get a number?”

“Trickster!” Sundancer admonished him, sounding horrified, “You can see how much pain it’s causing her.”

“It’s important.  Kid, what’s the chance that Noelle kills us?”

There was another series of crashes, closer.

Dinah shook her head, “Please.  I just want to put everything back together.  Every time I use my power, it all falls apart and it hurts.”

“Pet, it’s the last question we’ll ask you tonight.  I promise,” Coil said.

So she did.  She reached for the number.  It can’t kill me.  It doesn’t do permanent damage.  It just hurts.  It’s my brain telling me my power shouldn’t be used to find answers like that.

The words she used to convince herself did little to soften the pain that came with digging for a number once more.  She screamed, and tears flowed down her face as she sank into Sundancer’s arms, screwing her eyes shut.

“Nine point eight percent,” she managed.  Was she being carried?  They were venturing inside, past the first of the two heavy vault doors.  How much time had just passed?  Where was Trickster?

“That’s good information to have, pet,” Coil said, from somewhere near her.  “Squad leaders.  As you gather inside the containment room, I want you organizing your troops into ranks, your backs to the door.  Weapons need to be locked, loaded and ready to fire.  Be sure to equip the laser attachments and battery packs.  Don’t venture any further than ten paces inside.”

There were affirmative responses.  Dinah could hear guns cocking.

Another crash, the closest yet.  The sound of rubble and concrete falling echoed through the underground complex.

“He’s here,” Coil said.  “Last people inside, hurry.  Close the first door.”

Dinah opened her eyes.  They were in a concrete room with steel girders at set intervals, as if forming a cage against the inside of the room.  It smelled like meat that had gone bad.

The second vault door slowly swung closed as the last few stragglers slipped through the gap.  Employees, technicians, people in suits, some soldiers.  They packed in close at the end of the room closest to the door, their bodies pressing against her.  Three fifths of the chamber were left unoccupied.

And on the other side of the room – darkness.  Trickster was emerging.

“How is she?”  Coil asked.

“Scared.  Hungry.  She said she didn’t get her meal tonight,” Trickster answered, his voice quiet.

Coil folded his arms.  “She did.  I personally observed the delivery.  I suspect she’s needing more food as of late.  Unfortunate we find this out now.”

“She asked me to turn out the lights on this end of her room.  Said it would be easier if she can’t see us.”

“Do it,” Coil ordered.  He strode over to one of his squad captains and spoke in the man’s ear.  Dinah thought she might have overheard something about night vision goggles.  She closed her eyes, as if it could help shut out the pain that continued to tear through her skull.

The pink of the light shining through her eyelids turned to black as the lights went out.

“I’m sorry,” A girl’s voice whispered in Dinah’s ear.  Sundancer?

Dinah tried to answer, but her voice came out in a croak.

“I’d help you if I could, but I can’t, you understand?” Sundancer whispered to her.  She had her arms around Dinah.  She smelled like barf, but that was Dinah’s fault.  “It’s not just that my friends and I are in a bad spot, or having to help Noelle, or even that I don’t think I could save you on my own…  We made a promise to each other, when everything began.  Fuck, it sounds so stupid, sounds so lame, when I say it like that.”

There was a crash nearby, the sound of metal on metal.

Then a massive impact against the vault door made the room shudder.

Sundancer kept talking, as if oblivious to the ongoing attack.  “When you’ve been through hell and back again with a group of people, when you’ve all lost everything, and you collectively stand to lose more?  I- I don’t even know what I’m saying.  Maybe there’s no justification for letting you go through what you are.  I just… they’re all I’ve got.  I’m sorry.”

Dinah reached up and fumbled around until she found Sundancer’s hand.  She didn’t have a response, couldn’t speak if she’d been able to think of what to say.  She just held the hand tight.

A series of hits collided with the metal door.  A roar rattled through the air, painfully loud despite the muffling effect of the intervening wall.  It was a roar heavy with frustration and anger.

There was the sound of guns cocking.  She almost missed it in the midst of the steady, relentless crashes that came from the metal door.

“I’m so hungry,” a girl’s voice echoed through the chamber.  She’s close.

“I know, Noelle,” Trickster answered.  “Just a little while.  Let’s go back to the other side, away from these people.”

Noelle sounded like someone who was very, very tired.  “Can’t wait.  Can’t wait at all these days.  I can smell them.”

She wants food as badly as I want my ‘candy‘, Dinah thought.  The difference is that she can and will take what she wants, even if it means eating one of us.  I don’t have that power.

God, her head hurt.  Worse, she knew this was the calm before the storm.  Her head would hurt more with every passing hour until she wanted to die.

“You can hold on,” Trickster said, his voice gentle.  “You don’t want to come any closer than that.  You know what your power does.  None of us want that.”

“No.”

“And these guys, as good as they are, I can’t be positive that one of them won’t shoot you in a moment of panic.  We don’t want that either.”

“I’d live.  Don’t want to, but I’d live.”

“You would.  But would I?  Would Oliver and Marissa, if you went berserk?  They’re in here too.”

Sundancer spoke up, calling out, “Remember the promise we made together.”

Noelle didn’t reply.  The silence lingered, punctuated by the heavy blows on the metal door, echoing through the concrete chamber.

“Come on, Noelle.  Let’s go back, before you or someone else here does something they’ll regret,” Trickster urged.

The banging continued.

“Come with me, Krouse?  We can talk alone?”

“That sounds good,” Trickster said.

Dinah felt the tension in the room ease.  The pain in her skull didn’t get any better.  She set about the tedious task of trying to reorganize the images in her head.  Building a house of cards in an unpredictable wind.  Every time the numbers changed, what she’d started to sort out fell apart.

She’d have to wait until a period of calm before she made any real headway.  The passage of time would help as well.  Then it wouldn’t be so painful to use her ability.

She got caught up in the painstaking operation, and it was some time before she realized the banging had stopped.  Still, the gathered people in the room waited.  Just in case Crawler was bluffing them, waiting until they opened the door.

Long minutes passed before Coil gave the order.

Dinah was blind.  Her power too fragile and painful to use, so she couldn’t see the future that awaited them outside the door.  Her heart pounded in her throat as the door was opened.  The first squads moved out, fanning through the complex to find if Crawler was lurking in some corner of the underground base.  They returned and gave the all-clear.

Emerging from the gloom, she squinted in the face of the flourescent lights.  Claw marks gouged the outside of the solid steel of the vault door, each at least half a foot deep.  The catwalk had been torn down at one side of the complex, and innumerable boxes of weapons and supplies had been crushed or scattered across the floor.

“Candy?” she asked.  “My head hurts.”

“You can have your candy, pet.  Go to your room, I’ll call Pitter in and send him to you.”

With her armed escort, she headed to her room.  She collapsed gratefully on her bed.

She knew she’d regret it, but she used her power.  She had to know.  It would be one more use, to hold her over, and she would stop using her power for the next few days, at least.  Weeks, if Coil let her.

She clutched her covers and bit her pillow as her head erupted with pain.  More than half of the groundwork she’d so carefully laid in place over the past hour fell apart as she pulled the scenes into two groups.  Minutes passed before she had her number.

31.6%.

More than four percent higher than it had been yesterday.

Thirty-one point six percent chance she’d get to go home someday.

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