Interlude 11h

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Amy sat on her bed, staring at the piece of paper in her hands.  The header at the top was stylized, a silhouette of a superhero with a cape flowing, with a script reading ‘The Guild’ extending to the right.

Mrs. Carol Dallon.  Brandish,

Let me open by stating my condolences for the loss of your brother-in-law, nephew, and your husband’s injury.  I have heard New Wave is currently considering disbanding, and you have my best wishes, whatever route you end up taking.  We have too few heroes and heroines to lose them, and even fewer of the truly good heroes and heroines who set the standard for everyone else, parahuman and human alike.  If finances ever become a concern, know that all you need to do is ask, and we will find you employment among the Guild’s uncostumed staff.

Knowing what you have been through as of late, it is with a heavy heart that I send you this message with further bad news.  Marquis, interred in the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center, confided to another inmate that he fears for his daughter’s life.  I have checked the facts to the best of my ability, and the details I have been able to dig up match with his story.  I must warn you that Allfather may have arranged for Amy Dallon to be murdered at some future date, in revenge for his own daughter’s death at Marquis’ hands.

She had to stop reading there.  The paper had been on Carol’s bedside table, and Amy had found it while collecting a change of clothes for Mark a week ago.  Carol had probably been reading it to him late the previous night, and maybe forgot to put it away due to a mixture of exhaustion and the distractions that came with waking up each morning to a disabled husband and a ten-year career in jeopardy.

Amy knew she shouldn’t have read it, but the header had caught her attention.  With her family’s fate uncertain, she had found herself reading, to see if they were joining the Guild, if something else had happened that could distract them from this.

Now that door was open, and she could never shut it again.  She didn’t care so much about the possible hit on her.  No.  What shook her was that she now knew who her father was.  She even suspected that, like Tattletale had told her months ago, she’d always known.  She just hadn’t dug for it, hadn’t put the pieces together.

Marquis had been an aspiring crime lord in the bad old days of Brockton Bay.  It had been a time when the villains had been flocking to the city to profit off the booming tech and banking sectors, to recruit mooks and henchmen from the city’s unemployed dockworkers.  It had been an era when the heroes hadn’t been properly established, and the villains had been confident enough that some didn’t give a second thought to murdering any heroes who got in their way.  Marquis included.

The bad old days were how Carol and Mark referred to that time.  There were more heroes now, and there was more balance between the good guys and the bad, but things were arguably worse now.  Everything was in shambles.

Marquis had been an osteokinetic.  A manipulator of both his own bone and, provided some was exposed, the bones of his enemies.  He’d been notorious enough that she’d heard about him despite the fact that he’d been arrested more than a decade ago, that the city and the public had remembered him.  He’d lived in the outskirts of the city, residing in a large house in the woods, just beneath the mountains.

She thought maybe there was something familiar about that idea.  Was it imagination when the vague image of a house popped into her mind?  The study with the black leather chair and countless bookshelves?  Or was it memory, something recalled from her early childhood?

To all reports, the man had been heartless, callous.  Wasn’t she?  She couldn’t bring herself to care anymore when she went to the hospitals to heal the injured and sick.  It was a chore, something she made herself do because people wouldn’t understand if she stopped.  There were only so many people she could heal before she became desensitized to it.

What else did she know about Marquis?  She vaguely recalled Uncle Neil talking about the man when he’d been talking to Laserdream about villain psychology.  There were the unpredictable ones, the villains who were hard to stop because you couldn’t guess where they’d strike next, but who were less practiced in what they did and made mistakes you could leverage against them.  There were also the orderly ones.  The ones who were careful, who honed their methodology to perfection, but they repeated themselves, showed patterns that a smart hero could use to predict where they struck next, and often had rules or rituals a hero could turn against them.

Which wasn’t to say that one was smarter than the other, or that one was better.  Each posed problems for the local authorities and capes.  Marquis had fit into the latter category, the perfectionists, the pattern killers.  He’d had, as Neil explained, a warped sense of honor, underneath it all.  He didn’t kill women or kids.

Not hard to pull the pieces together.  She could remember how quickly Neil had dropped the subject when he realized she was listening.  He hadn’t outright said that they’d caught Marquis, but she could imagine that the weaknesses that Neil had been outlining had been what they’d used.  Send Lady Photon, Brandish and Fleur against the man.  Add the fact that Amy had been there, a toddler, and Marquis had been too concerned about collateral damage to go all out.

It was him.  She didn’t want it to, but it all fit together.

It was all so fucked up.  She was so fucked up.

There was a knock on her door.  She hurried to hide the paper.

“Come in,” she said, trying to compose herself in the span of one or two seconds.

Carol opened the door.  She was pulling on the gloves for her costume.  “Amy?”

“Yeah?”

Carol took a few seconds before she looked up from her gloves and met Amy’s eyes.  When she did, the look was hard, accusatory.

“There’s word about some strange howling near the Trainyard.  Glory Girl and I are going on a patrol to check on it.”

Amy nodded.

“Can you look after Mark?”

“Of course,” Amy said, her voice quiet.  She stood from her bed and headed to the door.  Carol didn’t move right away.  Instead, Amy’s adoptive mother stayed where she was, staring at Amy.  Amy reached the door and had to stop, waiting for Carol to speak.

But Carol didn’t.  The woman turned and left the doorway, Amy meekly following.

They don’t understand.

Mark was in the living room, sitting on the couch.  No longer able to don his costume and be Flashbang, Mark could barely move.  He had a form of brain damage.  It was technically amnesia, but it wasn’t the kind that afflicted someone in the movies and TV.  What Mark had lost were the skills he’d learned over the course of his life.  He’d lost the ability to walk, to speak full sentences, hold a pen and drive a car.  He’d lost more – almost everything that let him function.

What little he regained came slowly and disappeared quickly.  It was as though his brain was a shattered glass, and there was only so much he could hold in it before it spilled out once again.  So they’d patiently worked with him, helping him to hobble between the bedroom, living room and bathroom.  They’d worked with him until he could mostly feed himself, say what needed to be said, and they didn’t push him to do more.

Victoria was in costume as Glory Girl, but she was unclipping a bib from around his neck, something to ensure he didn’t stain his clothes while he ate.  Amy’s adoptive father turned and smiled gently as he saw the other two members of his family.  It was all Amy could do to maintain eye contact, smile back.

“Ready, mom?” Victoria asked.

“Almost ready,” Carol said.  She bent down by Mark and kissed him, and he was smiling sadly as she pulled back.  He mumbled something private and sweet that his daughters weren’t privy  to, and Carol offered him a whispered reply.  Carol stood, then nodded at Victoria, “Let’s go.”

They left without another word.  There was no goodbye for Amy, no hug or kiss.

Victoria can’t even meet my eyes.

The slight hurt more than she’d expected.  It wasn’t like it was something new.  It had been going on for weeks.  And it was fully deserved.

Amy felt her pulse pounding as she looked at Mark.  Made herself sit on the couch next to him.  Does he blame me?

It was all falling apart.  This family had never fully accepted her.  Being in the midst of a family that all worked together, it was hard to preserve secrets.  Amy had learned a few years ago, overhearing a conversation between Carol and Aunt Sarah, that Carol had initially refused to take her in.  Her adoptive mother had only accepted in the end because she’d had a job and Aunt Sarah didn’t.  One kid to Aunt Sarah’s two.  When she’d taken Amy in, it hadn’t been out of love or caring, but grudging obligation and a sense of duty.

Mark had tried to be a dad.  He’d made her pancakes on the weekends, taken her places.  But it had always been inconsistent.  Some days he seemed to forget, others he got upset, or was just too distracted for the trips to the ice cream store or mall.  Another secret that the family hadn’t kept – Mark was clinically depressed.  He had been prescribed drugs to help him, but he didn’t always take them.

It had always been Victoria, only Victoria, who made her feel like she had a family here.  Victoria was mad at her now.  Except mad wasn’t the right word.  Victoria was appalled, seething with anger, brimming with resentment, because Amy couldn’t, wouldn’t, heal their father.

They’d fought, and Amy hadn’t been able to defend her position, but still she’d refused.  Every second that Victoria and Carol spent taking care of Mark was a second Amy felt the distance between her and the family grow.  So she took care of Mark as much as she could, only taking breaks to visit the hospitals to tend to the sick there.  She’d also needed a few to process the letter she’d received.

The letter.  Carol wasn’t angry in the same way Victoria was.  What Amy felt from her ‘mother’ was a chill.  She knew that she was only justifying the darker suspicions Carol had harbored towards her since she was first brought into the family.  It was doubly crushing now, because Amy knew about Marquis.  Amy knew that Carol was thinking the same thing she was.

Marquis was one of the organized killers.  He had his rules, he had his code, and so did Amy.  Amy wouldn’t use her power to affect people’s minds.  Like father, like daughter.

“Do you need anything?” she asked Mark, when the next ad break came up.

“Water,” he mumbled.

“Okay.”

She headed into the kitchen, grateful for the excuse to leave the room.  She searched the dishwasher for his cup, a plastic glass with a textured outside, light enough for him to lift without having to struggle with muscle control, easy enough to grip.  She filled it halfway so it wouldn’t be as heavy.

Tears filled her eyes, and she bent over the sink to wash her face.

She was going to lose them.  Lose her family, no matter what happened.

Which meant she had to go.  She was old enough to fend for herself.  She would leave of her own volition, and she would help Mark as a parting gift to her family.  She just had to work up the courage.

Drying her face with her shirt, she carried the mug into the living room.

The TV was off.

Had Mark turned it off because he’d wanted to sleep?  Amy was careful to be quiet, stepping on the floorboards at the far sides of the hallway so they wouldn’t creak.

A girl stood in the living room, five or so years younger than Amy.  Her blond hair had been curled into ringlets with painstaking care, but the rest of her was unkempt, filthy.  She stared at Mark, who was struggling and failing to stand from the couch.

The girl turned to look at Amy, and Amy saw that some of the dirt that covered the girl wasn’t dirt, but crusted blood.  The girl wore a stained apron that was too large for her, and the scalpels and tools in the pocket gleamed, catching the light from the lamps in the corner of the room.

Amy recognized the girl from the pictures that were hung up in the office.

“Bonesaw.”

“Hi,” Bonesaw gave a little wave of her hand.  A wide smile was spread across her face.

“What- What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to see you.  Obviously.”

Amy swallowed.  “Obviously.”  Was it possible that Allfather had arranged for a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine to murder her?

Amy’s eyes roved over the room, looking for Bonesaw’s work.  Nothing.  She looked over her shoulder and a shriek escaped through her lips.  A man was not two feet behind her, tall and brutish, his face badly scarred and battered to the point that it was barely recognizable as human.  A long-handled axe sat in one of his massive, calloused hands, the head resting on the floor.  Hatchet Face.

“Runnn,” Mark moaned, urging her.  She didn’t give it a second thought.  She dashed for the front door, threw it open with enough force that a picture fell from the wall.

Hatchet Face stood on the other side, blocking the doorway.

“No,” she gasped, as she backed towards the living room, “No, please.”

How?  How had he gotten there so fast?  She turned around and saw he was still there, still in the hallway.

There were two Hatchet Faces?

Then the first one exploded into a cloud of white dust and blood spatters, momentarily filling the room.  Amy could hear Bonesaw’s giggling, felt her heart sink.

“Get it?  You figure out what I did?  Turn around, Hack Job.”

Amy had figured it out, but Bonesaw’s creation demonstrated anyways.  He turned his back to Amy, and she saw what looked like a tumorous growth on the back of his head, shoulders and arms.  Except the growth had a face, vaguely Asian in features, and the lumps inside the growth each roughly corresponded with organs and skeletal structure.  The jaw of the figure that was attached to the back of Hatchet Face’s body was working open and closed like a fish gasping for air.  The stitches were still fresh.

“You mashed them together.  Oni Lee and Hatchet Face.”

“Yes!  I can’t even begin to tell you how hard it was.  I mean, I had to conduct the operation from a remote location, using robots, because I would lose my Tinker powers if I got too close to the big lug.  And I had to fit their bodies and nervous systems together so that they could use their powers without messing up the other.”

“Oh god,” Amy mumbled.  Is this what she’s going to do to me?

“Had to add in a control frame and perform a spot lobotomy so Hatchet would obey me, you know.  He didn’t lose much.  Was never very bright.”

“And Oni Lee?” Amy was almost afraid to ask.

“Oh, I barely touched his brain.  He suffered some moderate brain damage from his close brush with death, but I revived him.  His brain’s more or less intact, even.  He can’t control his body, but he’s alert and aware, and he feels everything Hatchet does,” Bonesaw smiled wider.

“That’s horrifying.”

“It’s not a perfect mesh.  I only just started doing these mash-ups.  Still practicing.  Hatchet’s power isn’t working as well anymore, and I’m worried about physical wear and tear as they teleport, but it’s still one of my better works.  Took me four whole hours.”  Bonesaw clasped her hands in front of her, shifting her weight from foot to foot, waiting expectantly.

Amy swallowed.  She didn’t have words.

Bonesaw smiled.  “I thought you’d appreciate this more than anyone.”

“Appreciate this.”

“You’re the only other person who works with meat.  I mean, we’re different in some ways, but we’re also really similar, aren’t we?  You manipulate people’s biology, and I tinker with it.  The human body’s only a really intricate, wet machine, isn’t it?”

Others were entering the room now.  From the kitchen, a woman, the structure of her face altered into something that was more rat-like than human, conelike, ending in a squashed black nose that had staples around it.  Bonesaw had added a second set of teeth, all canines, so that the woman would have enough as her jaw was stretched forward.  Drool constantly leaked between her teeth in loops and tendrils.  She was pale, except for her face and patches all down her body, where patches of ebon black skin were stapled in place.  Her hair was long, dark, and unwashed, but most unnerving of all were her fingers, which had been replaced by what looked like machetes.  The clawtips dragged on the hardwood as she stumped forward on feet that had been modified in a similar way, no longer fit for conventional walking.

The third was another Frankenstein hodgepodge of two individuals, emerging from the hallway where the amalgamation of Oni Lee and Hatchet Face -Hack Job- had exploded.  The lower half was a man who must have been built like a gorilla in life, rippling with muscles, walking forward on his knuckles.  His upper body grew up from the point the other body’s neck should have begun, an emaciated man with greasy brown hair and beard, grown long.  He was not unlike a centaur, but the lower half was a brutish man.

Then there were the other things.  They weren’t alive.  Spidery contraptions of scrap metal, they lacked heads, only consisting of a box half the size of a toaster and spindly legs that moved on hydraulics, each ending in a syringe or scalpel.  A dozen of them, climbing onto the walls and floor.

“Murder Rat used to be a heroine, called herself the Mouse Protector.  One of those capes who plays up the cheese, no pun intended.  Camped it up, acted dorky, used bad puns, so her enemies would be embarrassed to lose to her.  Ravager decided she’d had enough, asked the Nine to take Mouse Protector down.  So we took the job.  Beat Mouse Protector, and I took her to the operating table.  The other Nine tracked down Ravager and collected her, too.  Just to make it clear that we don’t take orders.  We aren’t errand boys or errand girls either.  Now Ravager gets to spend the rest of her life with the woman she hated, making up.”

Amy swallowed, looking at the woman.

“The other, I’m trying to figure out a name.  The one on the bottom was Carnal.  Healer, tough, and healed more by bathing himself in blood.  Thought he had a place on our team, failed the tests.  The one on the top was Prophet.  Convinced he was Jesus reborn.  What do you call a mix of people like that?  I’ve got a name in mind, but I can’t quite figure it out.”

“I don’t know.”

“So you’re bad at names too?” Bonesaw grinned.  “I’m thinking something like shrine, temple… but one with multiple floors.  Um.”

“Pagoda?”

“Pagoda!  Yes!”  Bonesaw skipped over to her creation, wrapped her arms around one of his, “Pagoda!  That’s your name, now!”

None of the three monsters moved or reacted.  Each stared dumbly forward, Murder Rat drooling, the others appearing to be in a daze.

“That’s good!”  Bonesaw smiled at Amy, “I knew we’d make a good team!”

“Team?”  What could she say or do to escape?  Failing that, was there anything she could use to kill herself, so Bonesaw couldn’t get her hands on them, turn them into something like those things?  In the worst case scenario, she could use her power on Mark before finishing herself off.

Except she wasn’t sure it would matter.  Amy was incapable, but there was nothing saying Bonesaw couldn’t raise the recently dead.

“Yes, team!  I want you to be my teammate!”  Bonesaw was almost gushing.

“I don’t-” Amy stopped herself, “Why?”

“Because I always wanted a big sister,” Bonesaw replied, as if that was answer enough.

Amy blinked.  Sister.  She thought of Victoria.  “I make a pretty shitty sister.”

“Language!”  Bonesaw admonished, with surprising fierceness.

“I’m sorry.  I- I’m not a very good sister, I don’t think.”

“You could learn.”

“I’ve tried, but… I’ve only gotten worse at it as time passed.”

Bonesaw pouted a little.  “But think of the stuff we could do together.  I do the kludge, the big stuff, you smooth it over.  Imagine how Murder Rat would look without the scars and staples.”

Amy looked at the onetime heroine, tried to picture it.  It wasn’t any better.  Worse, if anything.

“That’s only the beginning.  Can you even imagine the things we could make?  There’s no upper limit.”

There was a beep from the answering machine.  It began playing a message.  “Amy, pick up!  We’re looking at dealing with Hellhound, and there’s injured.  Call Aunt Sarah or Uncle Neil over to look after dad and get over to the-”

The message cut off, and there was the sound of a clatter, a distant barking sound.

“I don’t think I have it in me to do stuff like that,” Amy said.  If nothing else, I can’t disappoint Victoria any further.

“Oh.  Oh!”  Bonesaw smiled.  “That’s okay.  We can work through that.”

“I- I don’t think we really can.”

“No, really,” Bonesaw said.  Then she snapped her fingers.

Hack Job flickered into existence just in front of Amy, and there was little she could do to escape.  She cried out as the man’s massive hand smashed her down onto her back, a few feet from Mark.

Mark struggled to stand, but Murder Rat darted across the room to light atop the back of the couch and press one of her three-foot long claws against his throat.

Amy was pinned.  She tried to use her power on Hack Job through the contact he was making with her chest and neck, only to find it wasn’t available.  She couldn’t sense his body, the blood flowing in his veins, or any of that.  Even her own skin felt quiet, where she normally felt the pinprick sensations of innumerable, microscopic airborne lifeforms touching her.  She’d barely even realized that was happening until it stopped.

“Jack’s taken me on as his protegé.  Teaching me the finer points of being an artist.  What he’s been saying is that I’m too focused on the external.  Skin, bone, flesh, bodies, the stuff we see and hear.  He’s told me to practice with the internal, and this seems like a great time to do that.”

“Internal?” Amy replied.

“It’s easy to break people’s bodies.  Easy to scar them and hurt them that way.  But the true art is what you do inside their heads.  Do you have a breaking point, Amy?  Maybe if we find your limits and push past them, you’ll find yourself in a place where you’ll want to join us.”  A wide smile spread across Bonesaw’s face as she settled into a cross-legged position on the floor, facing Amy.

“I- no.  Please.”

“You’re a healer, but you can do so much more.  Why don’t you go out in costume?”

Amy didn’t respond.  There was no right answer here.

“Are you afraid to hurt someone?  That could be our first exercise.”

Amy shook her head.

“Murder rat, come here.  Hack Job, back off.”

Hack Job let go of her, and she tried to scramble away, but Murder Rat pounced on her, pressing her down against the ground.  The woman smelled rank, like a homeless person.

“So here’s the lesson,” Bonesaw said, “Hurt her, take her apart.  If you go easy on her, or if you leave her in a state where she can move, she’ll cut you, and then she’ll cut a body part off that man on the couch there.”

Murder Rat placed a blade against her cheek, scraped it down toward her chin, as if giving Amy a close shave.

She reached up and touched the woman’s chest.  Without Hack Job touching her, her power was coming back quickly.  She felt Murder Rat’s biology snap into her consciousness, until she could see every cell, every fluid, every part of the woman.  The two women.  She could see Bonesaw’s work, the integration of body parts, the transfusions of bone marrow from one woman to the other, the viruses with modified DNA inside them, skewing the balances and configurations until she couldn’t tell for sure where one woman started and the other began.

She could also see the metal frames inside the woman, interlacing with the largest bones of her skeletal system, the needles in her spine and brain.  Bonesaw’s control system.  There was something around the heart, too.  Metal, with lots of needles pointing inward.  She was rigged to die if the control frame was ever disabled.  The woman, no, the women, were awake in there.  One and a half brains contained in a synthetic fluid in her skull.

She targeted the ligaments at the woman’s shoulders and hips.  Cutting them was easier than putting the things back together again.  Dissolve the cells, break them down.

The woman collapsed onto a heap on top of her.

“Excellent!  Pick her up, H.J.”

Hack Job picked up the limp Murder Rat, put her down a short distance away from Amy.  Bonesaw walked over to her creation and propped up Murder Rat so she had a view of the scene.

“I’m surprised you didn’t kill her.  The healer, letting someone suffer like that.  Or are you against mercy killing?”

Again, there was no answer she could give that wouldn’t worsen her situation.

“Or are you against killing in general?  We can work on that.”

“Please.  No.”

“Pagoda.  Your turn.”

Pagoda approached with an awkward lurch, and Amy managed to stand and run.  She got halfway to the front door before Hack Job materialized in front of her, barring her way.  He pushed her, and she fell.  Pagoda lurched over to her and pressed her down.

“I use my creations to collect material for other work.  It’s a circle, using them to get material for more creations.  Having the Nine was essential to get things started, and to help get things going again if a hero managed to put down a few, but now I’m in good shape.  I stick around because they’re mostly fans, and they’re kind of family.  I want you in my family, Amy Dallon.”

“Please.”

“Now, I’m willing to make sacrifices to see that happen.  Same thing as with Murder Rat.  You don’t stop Pagoda, I’ll have him hurt the man on the couch.”

Amy used her power on Pagoda, felt his body, much the same as Murder Rat’s in so many respects, though the metal frame with the needles in his spine was different.  She reached for the ligaments at his shoulders and hips, separated them.

The first had grown back before she’d started on the third.

“He heals,” Bonesaw informed her.  “Two regenerators in one.  There’s only one good way to stop him.  Try again.”

Pain.  She inflicted pain on Pagoda.  No reaction.  She’d have to reach into his brain to make it so he really felt pain again.  She tried atrophying his muscles, with no luck.  Anything she did was undone nearly as fast as she could inflict it.

“Five seconds,” Bonesaw announced.  “Four.”

Sending signals to his arms to get him to move.  No.  The metal frame overrode anything she could do with her power to control him.

“Three.”

Amy used the only option available to her.  She disconnected him from the metal frame that Bonesaw used to control her subjects.  She could sense it as the metal shifted into motion around his heart.  Not needles, as there had been for Murder Rat, but small canisters of fluid.

“Two… one… zero point five… Ah, there we go.”

Pagoda lurched backward and broke contact with Amy, her power no longer giving her an insight into what was happening with him.  He sat down, using one hand to prop himself up.  A moment later he slumped over, his eyes shutting.  His breathing stopped.

“A chemical trigger for something I already put in his DNA, when I was patching his regeneration abilities together.  Reverses the regeneration so it does the opposite, starting with the heart.”

Amy looked at her hand.  She’d just taken a life.  A mercy, most probably, but she’d killed.  Something she had promised herself she would never do.

She shivered.  It had been so easy.  Was this what it was like for her father?  Had she just taken one more step toward being like him?

“Ready to join?” Bonesaw asked, looking for all the world like a puppy when her master had the leash out, ready for a walk.  Eager, brimming with excitement.

“No,” Amy said.  “There’s no way.”

“Why?  Whatever’s holding you back, we can fix it.  Or we can break it, depending.”

“It’s not- don’t you understand?  I don’t want to hurt people.”

“But we can change that!  We’re not so different.  You know as well as I do that anything about anyone can be changed if you work hard enough.”

“Then why don’t you change?  You could be good.”

“I like the other members of the Nine.  And I couldn’t make anything really amazing if I was following rules.  I want to make something even more amazing than Hack Job, Murder Rat or Pagoda.  Something you and I could only make together.  Can you imagine it?  You could use your power, and then we could make one superperson out of a hundred capes, and all of the powers would be full strength because you helped and we could use it to stop one of the Endbringers, and the whole world would be like, ‘Are we supposed to clap’?  Can you picture it?”  Bonesaw was getting so excited with her idea that she was almost breathless.

“No,” Amy said.  Then, just to make it clear, she added, “No, it’s not going to happen.  I won’t join you.”

“You will!  You have to!”

“No.”

“I have to do like Jack said.  He said I won’t be a true genius until I’ve figured out how to get inside people’s heads.”

“Maybe- Maybe you won’t be inside my head until you realize there’s no way I’m going to join the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

Bonesaw frowned.  “Maybe.”

Amy nodded.

“Or maybe I need to figure out your breaking point.  Your weak spot.  Like that man there.”  Bonesaw pointed at Mark. “Cherish said you sleep here, and you’ve been around him for a while… so why haven’t you healed him?”

Amy shivered.

“Who is he?”

“My dad.”

“Why not fix your dad?”

“My power doesn’t work on brains,” Amy lied.

“You’re wrong,” Bonesaw said, stepping closer.

“No.”

“Yes.  Your power can affect people’s brains.  You have to understand, I’ve taken twenty or thirty people apart to figure out how their power works so I can put them back together again the way I want them.  I’ve learned almost everything about powers.  I’ve induced stress of all kinds on people until they had a trigger event, while I had them on my table and wired to computers, so I could record all the details and study their brains and bodies as the powers took hold.”

Twenty or thirty people she’s taken apart.  However many others she’s tortured to death.

Bonesaw smiled, “And I know the secrets.  I know where powers come from.  I know how they work.  I know how your power works.  You have to understand, people like you and me?  Who got our powers in moments of critical stress?  The powers aren’t meant for us.  They’re accidents.  We’re accidents.  And I think you could see it if you were touching someone when they had their trigger event.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You don’t have to.  What you need to know is that the subjects of our power, the stuff it can work on, like people?  Like the fish lady in Asia?  The boy who can talk to computers?  Our powers weren’t created to work with those things.  With people or fish or computers.  It’s not intentional.  It happens because the powers connect to us in the moments we have our trigger events, decrypt our brains and search for something in the world that they can connect to, that loosely correlate with how the powers were originally supposed to work.  In those one to eight seconds it takes our powers to work, our power goes into overdrive, it picks up all the necessary details about those things, like people or fish or computers, sometimes reaching across the whole world to do it.  Then it starts condensing down until there’s a powerset, stripping away everything it doesn’t need to make that power work.”

Amy stared.

“And then, before it can destroy us, before we can hurt ourselves with our own power, before that spark of potential burns out, it changes gears.  It figures out how to function with us.  It protects us from all the ways our power might hurt us, that we can anticipate, because there’s no point if it kills us.  It connects with our emotional state at the time the powers came together, because that’s the context it builds everything else in.  It’s so amazingly complicated and beautiful.”

Bonesaw looked down at Amy.  “Your inability to affect brains?  It’s one of those protections.  A mental block.  I can help you break it.”

“I don’t want to break it,” Amy said, her voice hushed.

“Ahhh.  Well, that just makes me more excited to see how you react when you do.  See, all we have to do is get you to that point of peak stress.  Your power will be stronger, and you’ll be able to push past that mental block.  Probably.”

“Please,” Amy said.  “Don’t.”

Bonesaw reached into her apron and retrieved a remote control.  She pointed it at Mark, where he sat on the couch.  A red dot appeared on his forehead.

“No!”

One of Bonesaw’s mechanical contraptions leaped across the room, its scalpel legs impaling the suede cushions on either side of Mark.  One leg, tipped with a syringe, thrust into Mark’s right nostril.  He hollered incoherently, tried to pull away, only for two mechanical legs to clutch his head and hold him firm.

Amy’s screams joined his.

“I’m doing you a favor, really!”  Bonesaw raised her voice to be heard over the screams.  “You’ll thank me!”

Amy rushed forward, hauled on the metal leg to pull it from Mark’s nostril, pulled at the other legs to tear it from him and then hurled it away.  Lighter than it looked.

“Now fix him or he’ll probably die or be a vegetable,” Bonesaw told her.  “Unless you decide you’re okay with that, in which case we’re making progress.”

Amy tried to shut out Bonesaw’s voice, straddled Mark’s lap and touched his face.

She’d healed him frequently in the previous weeks, enough to know that he was remarkably alert in a body that refused to cooperate or carry out the tasks he wanted it to.  Not so different from Bonesaw’s creations in that respect.  She’d healed everything but his brain, had altered his digestive system and linked it to his circadian rhythms so he went to the bathroom on a strict schedule, to reduce the need for diapers.  Other tune-ups she’d given him had been aimed at making him more comfortable, reducing stiffness and aches and pains.  It was the least she could do.

Now she had to focus on his brain.  The needle had drawn ragged cuts through the arachnid layer, had injected droplets of acid into the frontal lobes.  More damage, in addition to what Leviathan had inflicted with the head wound, and it was swiftly spreading.

Everything else in the world seemed to drop away.  She pressed her forehead to his.  Everything biological was shaped in some way by what it had grown from and what had come before.  Rebuilding the damaged parts was a matter of tracing everything backwards.  Some of the brain was impossible to restore to what it had once been, in the most damaged areas or places where it was the newest growths that were gone, but she could check everything in the surrounding area, use process of elimination and context to figure out what the damaged areas had tied to.

She felt tears in her eyes.  She had told herself she would heal him and then leave the Dallon household.  Actually doing this, fixing him, taking that plunge, she knew she would probably never have found the courage if she hadn’t been pushed into it.

It wasn’t that she was afraid to get something wrong.  No.  Even as complicated as the mind was, she’d always known she could manage it.  No, it was what came after that scared her more than anything.  Just like finding out about Marquis, it was the opening of a door she desperately wanted to keep shut.

She restored his motor skills, penmanship, driving a car, even the little things, the little sequences of movements he used to turn the lock on the bathroom door as he closed it or turn a pencil around in one hand to use the eraser on the end.  Everything he’d lost, she returned to him.

He moved fractionally.  She opened her eyes, and saw him staring into her eyes.  Something about the gaze told her he was better.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured.  “I’m so sorry.”  She wasn’t sure what she was apologizing for.  For taking so long to do it, maybe.  Or for the fact that she would now have to leave.

His attention was on his hands.  She could feel it through her contact with him, the power he was just barely holding back.  And Bonesaw?  The little lunatic was somewhere behind her.

She drew Mark’s hands into his lap, between her body and his, where Bonesaw would be less likely to see.

An orb of light grew in his hands.

“It worked!  Yes!” Bonesaw crowed.

Mark flicked his eyes in one direction, offered the slightest of nods, his forehead rubbing against hers.  Amy flung herself to one side as Mark stood in one quick motion, flinging the glowing orb at the little girl.

Hack Job flickered into existence just in time to have to orb bounce off his chest.  It exploded violently, tearing a hole into his stomach and groin.  The villain flew backward, colliding with Bonesaw.

But two more copies of Hack Job had already appeared, and the scalpel spiders were responding to some unknown directions, leaping for Mark and Amy.

Amy grappled with one spider, struggled to bend its legs the wrong way, cried out as the scalpels and needlepoints of the other legs dragged against her skin.

A blast sent her tumbling, throwing her into the couch and dislodging the spider.  Mark could make his orbs concussive or explosive.  He’d hit the spider with the former, nothing that could seriously hurt Amy.  She climbed to her feet, picked up the oak side-table from beside the couch and bludgeoned the spider with it.

More explosions ripped through their living room as Mark continued to open fire, hurling the orbs with a ferocity that surprised Amy.  When Hack Job tried to block the shots with his bodies, Mark bounced them between Hack Job’s legs, off walls and off the ceiling.  Almost as if he could predict what his enemy would do, he lobbed one orb onto the couch.  It exploded a half-second after one of Hack Job’s duplicates appeared there.

More duplicates charged from either direction, and Mark dropped a concussive orb at his feet, blasting himself and one of the duplicates in opposite directions.  He quickly got his footing and resumed the attack, fending off one duplicate that turned his attention to Amy, then going after Bonesaw.

Bonesaw had retreated into the hallway that led into the bedrooms at the back of the house, the basement and the kitchen at the side.  Mark threw an orb after her, obliterating the hallway, but Amy couldn’t see if he’d struck home, not with the clouds of dust that were exploding from Hack Job’s expired duplicates.  Between the time it had taken to create the orb, throwing it and the lack of a scream after it had gone off, Amy knew Bonesaw would have gotten away.

There was an extended silence.  Bonesaw and Hack Job were gone, leaving only Pagoda’s body and the limp Murder Rat.  Long seconds passed as the dust settled.

“That woman.  Can you help her?”  Mark’s voice sounded rough-edged.  It hadn’t been used in its full capacity for a long few weeks.

“Her mind is gone, and not in a way I think I could fix,” her voice was hushed.

“Okay.”  Mark walked over to Murder Rat and adjusted her position against the wall until she was more horizontal, almost lying down.  He crossed her claws over her chest, and then formed an orb of light the size of a tennis ball.

“Rest in peace, Mouse Protector,” he said.  He placed the orb of light in the gap where two claws crossed one another, just over her heart, then stepped away.

There was a small explosion and a spray of blood.

“I’m sorry,” Amy said, “So sorry I didn’t help you sooner, that-”

Mark stopped her with a raised hand.  “Thank you.”

She didn’t deserve thanks.

“Are you okay?” He asked.

She looked away.  Tears were welling out.  “No.”

“Listen.  Sit yourself down.  I’m going to call your mother and sister, make sure they’re all right after dealing with Hellhound, let them know what happened.  Then I’ll call the Protectorate.  Maybe they can help guard us, in case Bonesaw comes after you again.”

“She will.  But I- I can’t sit.  I’m going to my room.  I’ll pack so we leave sooner.”

“You sure?”

She nodded.

“Shout if anything happens.”

She nodded and turned to go, picking her way through the destroyed hallway.  The floorboards that looked like a giant-sized version of pick-up-sticks.  She was only halfway when she heard Mark on the phone.

“Carol?  It’s me.”

Her face burned with shame.  She made her way to her room and began packing her things into a gym bag.  Clothes, toiletries, and other things, mementos.  A small scrapbook, a memory card filled with pictures of her, her cousins and her sister.  She found a pad of post-it notes and scribbled out a few words.

I’m sorry it took me so long to help Mark.

Good bye.  I love you all,

Amy.

She wouldn’t be coming back.

Amy opened her bedroom window and climbed out, pulling the bag out behind her.

It would be better this way.  Maybe, after weeks or months, she could stop worrying, stop waiting for the other shoe to drop, for everything to fall apart in the worst way.  She’d already had to face finding out about Marquis.  She’d taken a life.  She’d broken one of her cardinal rules.  She wasn’t sure she could take any more.

She just had to get away.

Amy cursed the curfew as she saw the figure in the air above her.  When people weren’t allowed out on the streets after dark, it made those few who did venture out that much more visible.  Not what she’d wanted, not when she was trying to avoid this exact conversation.

It was even more problematic when she walked at maybe three or four miles an hour, limited to following the paths the roads and alleys allowed her, when her sister could fly at fifty miles an hour.  She should have hid, instead of trying to make some distance.

Victoria stopped midflight and hovered in the air, five feet above the ground and five or six paces in front of her.

“I was just at the house.  I don’t even know what to say,” Victoria spoke.

“Pretty self-explanatory.  One of the Nine came, house got trashed, I healed Mark.”

“Why?  Why heal dad now, when you couldn’t before?”

“I only did it because I had to.”

“That’s what I don’t get.  Why couldn’t you?  You’ve never explained.”

“I can’t tell you.”

“So that’s it?  No explanations?  You just up and leave?” Victoria asked.

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

Amy looked away.

“We could get you a therapist.  I mean, Mom was setting aside money for Dad’s care, we could use that to give you someone to talk to.”

“I… a therapist wouldn’t be able to help.”

“Geez, what’s going on?  Amy, we’ve been together for a decade.  I’ve stood by you.  I’d like to think we were best friends, not just sisters.  And you can’t tell me?”

“I can’t.  Just let me leave.  Trust me when I say it’s better.”

“Fuck that!  I’m not about to let you walk away!”  Victoria floated closer, reaching out.

Don’t touch me,” Amy warned her sister.

Looking lost, Victoria stopped and spread her arms.  “Who are you, Amy?  I don’t even recognize this person I’m looking at.  You go berserk at the bank robbery over some secret I’ve totally not gotten on your case about.  You apparently say something to Skitter that causes this huge commotion in the hospital after the Endbringer attack.  You… I don’t even know what to say about your reaction to Gallant’s death, the way you distanced yourself from me at a time when I was hurting the most.”

Amy looked down at her feet.

“And most of all, you just leave dad to suffer, when you could have healed him?  You lash out at me, here, when I’m trying to mend fences and be your sister?”

“You want to know who I am?” Amy asked.  Her voice sounded hollow.  “I’m Marquis’s daughter.  Daughter of a supervillain.”

“Marquis?”

Amy nodded.

“How did you find out?”

“Carol left some paper out.  I think it’s under my pillow, if you want to look for it.”

“You have his genes, but you’re Carol and Mark’s daughter,” Victoria replied, her voice firm.  “And they’re going to be worried.  Come home.”

“They don’t care.  They don’t love me, not really.  Trust me, this is better for everyone.”

I love you,” Victoria said, stressing the ‘I’.  She dropped to the ground and stepped closer.

“Don’t touch me!”

“Idiot,” Victoria grabbed her sister by the shirt collar and pulled her into a painfully tight hug.

“Don’t,” Amy moaned into her sister’s shoulder.

“All of this?  We’ll work it out.  As a family.  And if your idea of family means it’s just you and me, then we’ll work it out together, just the two of us.”

All it took was one moment of weakness, and she was weak.  At the end of her rope, desperately lonely, haunted by her father’s shadow, her shame at being unwilling and unable to help Mark until now, the idea that one of the Slaughterhouse Nine thought she belonged with them?

She was losing everything so quickly.  Victoria was all she had, and it was the choice between abandoning that for everyone’s good and keeping Victoria close.

She felt Victoria’s body more acutely than she felt her own.  Every heartbeat, every cell brimming with life.

Like a flame at the end of a long fuse, leading to a stick of dynamite, her power traveled from the side of Victoria’s neck to her brain.  It was barely a conscious action on Amy’s part.

Victoria let go of her, pushed her away.  “What did you just do?”

Amy could see the revulsion slowly spreading across Victoria’s face.

The magnitude of what she’d just done hit her with a suddenness and pain she likened to a bullet to the chest.  “Oh god.  Please, let me undo it.”

She reached out, but Victoria stepped back.

“What the hell did you do?” Victoria asked, her eyes wide, “I felt something.  I feel something.  You’ve used your power on me before, but not like this.  I- You changed the way I think.  More than that.”

Tears welled at the corners of Amy’s eyes.  “Please.  This is what I was afraid of.  Let me undo it.  Let me fix it and leave, and you can go back to Mark and Carol and you three can be a family, and-”

“What did you do!?”

“I’m sorry.  I… knew this would happen.  I was okay so long as I kept following my own rules, didn’t open that door.  Bonesaw forced me to open it.”

“Amy!”

“You have to understand, for so long, you were all I had.  I was so desperately lonely, and that was at the same time I was starting to worry about my dad.  I got fucked up, my feelings got muddled somewhere along the line, and it’s like… maybe because you were safe, because you were always there.”

“You have feelings for me,” Victoria answered.  She couldn’t keep the disgust out of her voice, she didn’t even try.  “That’s what Tattletale was using as leverage, wasn’t it?”

Amy couldn’t meet Victoria’s eyes.  She looked at her hands, appalled at what she had just done.

“And Gallant?  I was thinking you secretly liked him, but-”

Amy shook her head.  “I hated him.  I felt jealous because he had you and I never could… but I never acted on those feelings.  I never acted on any of my feelings, until just now, and all I want to do is to take that back.”

“When I was at the lowest point in my life, when the boy I thought I might marry someday was dead, were you secretly elated?  Were you happy Gallant died?”

“No!  Vic- Victoria, I love you.  I wanted you to be happy with him.  I just… it hurt at the same time.”

“Oh my god,” Victoria whispered, the revulsion giving way to something worse.  Realization.

“I- I tried to keep things normal between us.  To act like your sister, keep it all bottled in.  It’s just tonight was such a nightmare, and I’m so scared, and so tired, and so desperate.  Bonesaw forced me to ignore all the rules I was imposing on myself.  All the rules I was using and following so I wouldn’t do anything stupid or impulsive.”

“Anything stupid.  Like what?  What did you do?”

Amy’s voice was a croak as she replied, “…make it so you would reciprocate my feelings.”

She chanced a look at Victoria’s face, and she knew that the horror she saw in her sister’s expression didn’t even compare to what she felt.

“Please.  Let me fix it.  Then I’ll leave.  You’ll never have to see me again.”

“What in the world makes you think I’d let you use your power on me again!?”  Victoria shouted, taking to the air, out of reach.  “Who knows what you’re going to do to me!?”

“Please?” Amy begged.

“I can find someone else to fix it.  Or maybe, at the very least, I can show some fucking self-control and realize it’s my sister I’m having those feelings about.”

“You can’t.  I- Oh fuck.  You’re underestimating what I did.  Please.  If you never ever give me anything else, if you never talk to me or look at me again, just let me fix this.”

Victoria shook her head slowly, then scoffed.  “Good job, Amy.  You just did an excellent job of taking every instance of me defending you, every instance of my giving you the benefit of a doubt, and proving me fucking wrong.  You were worried about being as fucked up as your dad?  Congratulations, I’m pretty goddamn sure you just surpassed the man.”

With that said, Victoria was gone, flying into the distance.

Amy sank to her knees on the flooded street.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Hive 5.7

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Lung’s there,” I echoed, as much to let Sundancer and Labyrinth know as to help myself process the idea.

“He’s with Kaiser.  I can’t get to them.  Kaiser blocked the door with giant knives.”

“Ignore Lung!” I stressed.  If Kaiser wanted to go it alone, he could reap the consequences.  “Priorities are Newter and Oni Lee!  Can you get upstairs to rescue Newter?”

“I can’t ride Brutus in there, I’d have to dismount.”

“Then draw him outside!  Watch your back!”

I hung up, shoved the phone into the compartment behind my back, and drew my baton and knife.

“What are you doing?” Sundancer asked.

“Oni Lee’s a freaking assassin.  I can’t leave Bitch on her own.”

I didn’t wait another second.  I bolted for the warehouse, drawing more bugs from the surroundings to help back me up.

Bitch, still riding Brutus, came rushing out the loading bay door, Judas only a step behind.  They skidded to a stop, facing the building.  Through the hole the explosion had made in the wall, I saw Angelica climbing up the stairs.

As Angelica reached the top of the stairs, Judas lunged up and through the windows at the opposite end of the second floor hallway, trapping Oni Lee in between them.

Oni Lee barely seemed to care.  I could see him in his black bodysuit with belts and bandoleers of knives on it, his mask with the demonic face and leering, fanged, ear-to-ear grin.  He glanced at one dog, then the other, then looked out the window.

I knew his power was a hybrid between duplicating himself and teleportation.  He could teleport, but when he did, he left a body behind that could act autonomously for a few seconds.  So when I saw him glance out the window, I followed his line of sight, and saw he had already appeared just behind Bitch, half-crouching on Brutus’ back, one hand on a hook of bone to help him balance.  There was a flash of steel in his other hand as he reached around her throat with a blade.

“Bitch!” I screamed.  It didn’t matter.  At the same time as I opened my mouth, a red dot and a mist of red appeared out of the back of his head.  A split second later, another dot and spray of red appeared on his back, around his heart was.  He fell on top of Bitch’s shoulder, limp, then collapsed to the ground.

A second later, he exploded into an opaque cloud of white ash, ten feet across.

I glanced over my shoulder, saw the dark silhouettes of Coil’s men lying down on the edge of the rooftop.  One had a pair of binoculars, the other was set up behind a long rifle with a prominent scope.  A sniper team.

Anyone else would be dead by now, but the fact that the body had exploded into dust meant it was just a clone, a leftover remaining behind after Oni Lee had teleported away.  He probably wasn’t remaining in one place for more than a second.  My bet was that he was appearing, immediately looking for a new target or vantage point, then making a quick exit, leaving the clone to do the deed.

I reached Bitch and cast a nervous glance over my shoulder for Oni Lee. “You okay?”

“Felt the fucking steel on my throat,” she rubbed her throat as if she was checking it was okay.  “Where’d he go?”

I saw Oni Lee for only a fraction of a second, as he fell from the roof of the warehouse, before he exploded into another cloud of white dust.  Another point for the sniper team.  Why had he been up there?  Who or what had he been trying to see?

“The snipers,” I breathed, whirling around.

Where the sniper team had been, there were four figures now.  I saw the rifle fall from the edge of the roof as the two soldiers struggled with a pair of Oni Lees.  Then, puff, the clones were gone, and there was enough white dust around them that they wouldn’t be drawing a bead on him again, even if they hadn’t lost the rifle.

But where had he gone from there?  I looked around, feeling the panic begin to set in.

Brutus made a roaring sound somewhere between a howl and a growl, not quite recognizable as either.  He reared like a panicked horse, and I saw Oni Lee drop from the side of his head, land in a crouch, and lunge for me, a knife in each hand.

I swatted at his hands with my baton, sending one knife flying through the air and breaking his stride.  It didn’t matter.  Less than a second later, he was dust.  He’d teleported.

Hands seized me from behind, in a rough nelson hold, pulling my arms out of the way as another Oni Lee materialized out of the dust in front of me, ready to capitalize on my inability to defend myself.

Knowing he wasn’t about to let go of me, I brought both my legs up in a kick at Oni Lee’s stomach.  They connected and he doubled over.

Brutus lunged forward, biting at him before he could recover.  Both the Oni Lee that was holding me and the one clasped in Brutus’ jaws turned to carbon ash, adding to the volume of the opaque, gritty white cloud that surrounded us.  As Bitch managed to get Brutus under control I saw his face.  One of his eyes was in ruins, and volumes of blood and other liquids were flowing from it.

“Fuck this,” I growled, drawing the bugs out from my costume, and retrieving the ones I’d had in the building.  I spread them around, reaching for him, hoping for some sort of early warning.

No sooner the thought crossed my mind than the silhouette of a figure appeared twenty feet to my right.  He whipped his arm in my direction, and I didn’t have any time to do much more than turn in his direction before something collided with my head.  I stumbled and fell over backwards.

In the instant I toppled over, I had the presence of mind to tuck my chin against my chest so I wouldn’t add to my concussion.  The armor covering my shoulders took the worst of the impact.

As I lay there, trying to parse what had just happened, I realized that a small knife was embedded in the armored section of my mask, cracking the lens.  A throwing knife?  I pulled it free and pulled myself to my feet.  I had enough bugs around me now that I could be sure he wasn’t attacking us.  That just raised the question of where he was.

“Bitch, you okay?” I asked.

“Fucker stabbed me in the arm!”

If that’s the worst injury we get away with today, we can count ourselves lucky.  I headed out of the cloud that surrounded us, hoping to get a better sense of the battlefield.

I got out just in time to see Oni Lee tackling one of Coil’s snipers off the edge of the roof.  Oni Lee disappeared in a cloud of white before he hit the ground.  I was pretty sure the sniper hadn’t.

Sundancer was crumpled over, Labyrinth holding her shoulders.

This was not going well.

Oni Lee appeared thirty feet away from me, standing just to my left and behind me.  My bugs gave me a sense of his position before anything else, and I threw myself to one side.  I thought maybe I saw the shape of one of his throwing knives pass through the air where I’d been standing, but I wasn’t seeing very well with a cracked lens on my mask.

At my command, The bugs that had alerted me to his position gathered on him and began biting and stinging.

Then I noticed something weird.  More bugs popped into existence in the midst of the cloud, near Sundancer and Labyrinth.  I felt the original bugs perish as they exploded into ash.

He was taking them with him.  I don’t think he could help it.

I could track his movements.

“Bitch!  Here!” I shouted.

She lunged out of the cloud, still astride Brutus, pulling up short to avoid trampling me.

“I can see where he’s teleporting,” I told her, “Get Judas and Angelica.”

She whistled, long and piercing.  As if in response, Oni Lee appeared just a few feet away.

“Behind you!” I pointed.

Brutus whipped around, snapping and snarling, and Oni Lee had to backpedal to escape being caught in the mutant’s jaws.  He disappeared just a second later.

“Get one dog near those guys,” I pointed to Sundancer and Labyrinth, “We should join them asap.”

She nodded, whistled, and pointed.  No sooner did Judas and Angelica arrive at our sides than Judas headed off to his next destination.  Bitch offered me a hand.

I gratefully took it, letting her help me up onto Brutus’ back.

As we approached Sundancer and Labyrinth, the sidewalks on either side of us dropped out of existence, leaving only a bottomless pit where they had been.

“The fuck?” I murmured.

Then the buildings began to rise in height, some leaning over the street and joining with the others in grotesque arches and bridges.  Brickwork stretched and extended into the alleyways, closing them off.

Then windows began to shrink and warp, leaving only flat expanses of brick, concrete and stucco for the building faces.  Under our feet, the road began to shift in color, with some patches becoming paler, and others darkening.  They sharpened in definition as they settled into an alabaster white and jet back.  A checkerboard?

Brutus had to leap out of the way as one of the squares of the checkerboard suddenly rose to a height of ten feet.  As if in response, other squares began to rise and fall, each to varying, almost random heights.

I was almost dismounted as another square appeared in a wall and slid out of the side of the building in a thirty foot long horizontal pillar.

We reached safe haven, an expanse of unaffected ground, thirty feet across, with two figures in the center.  Sundancer and… Labyrinth.

“This is you?” I asked Labyrinth, awed, as I climbed down off Brutus.

She didn’t reply.  Instead, she reached out and touched the side of my chin.

The images of arches, pillars and checkerboard patterns fell away like a house of cards.

“Hallucinations,” I spoke, as Labyrinth made a waving gesture towards Bitch’s head.  She looked at me and shook her head slowly.

“They’re not hallucinations?” I asked.

She didn’t reply.

“You can’t explain because you can’t or don’t talk,” I realized, speaking my thoughts aloud.

Oni Lee appeared a few feet away.  I whirled and pointed, “There!”

He was stumbling, moving to avoid something that wasn’t there.  He was still there, trying to get his balance, as I felt more bugs appear at another point on the opposite side of us.  Only he appeared fifteen feet in the air, fell, and landed in an awkward position, falling over.

“Bitch!” I pointed.

She whistled and pointed to send Angelica.  Oni Lee’s response was delayed, as if he couldn’t even see her approaching, at first.  I felt more bugs pop into existence a second before she set her jaws on him.

“There!”

Bitch sent Judas next.  Oni Lee’s reaction was even slower, but he had time to throw himself onto his back, flinging two throwing knives into Judas’ face and shoulder before he disappeared.

“Over there!” I pointed as he reappeared.

Bitch didn’t even have time to give a command before there was a sound like a champagne cork being popped.  Oni Lee screamed as one of his shins exploded in a spray of blood.

I felt him reappear somewhere else, collapsing to the ground, while his predecessor endured having the kneecap on its good leg shot out.

I followed the sound of a chamber being reloaded to spot Coil’s sniper.  He was lying on his side at the foot of the building, one arm outstretched to hold his rifle steady.  His right leg was bent the wrong way.

He’d been knocked off a three story building, had a broken leg at the very least, and had still managed to retrieve, load and fire his rifle?

If he was willing to be that professional, I could damn well play spotter for him.

“There!” I pointed in Oni Lee’s direction.  On the warehouse again.

There were two more muted popping sounds, and I could see Oni Lee spin in a pirouette of sorts as a shot clipped him, before he collapsed to the rooftop.

He exploded in a cloud of ash once again.  Except I hadn’t felt him appear anywhere.

“He’s gone,” I said, “Out of my range.”

Sundancer looked up at me, one gloved hand on her shoulder.  “Good,” she managed to answer.

“You okay?”

“He gouged my shoulder.  I’ll need stitches, but it’s not the worst injury I’ve had.”

“Okay.  Uh, man, Coil’s guy,” I spoke, trying hard to organize my thoughts and priorities with the adrenaline that was pumping through me, “You going to be alright?”

“Yeah,” he rasped, then he coughed.

I’d have to take him at his word.

“Labyrinth, watch him.  Make sure he keeps breathing and that his buddy knows where he is,” I said, “Sundancer, Bitch, we’ve gotta go help Newter.”

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Hive 5.6

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However effective Bitch’s power play might have been, it didn’t do much to help the tension between the factions making up our group.  It hadn’t been just Kaiser that got spooked and sprayed with blood.  Worst case scenario, if a fight broke out in the group, I was worried that hard feelings from that one thing could set others against us.

I decided to try to remedy that.  The Travelers seemed to be the only group present where there wasn’t some drama already mucking the waters.

“Hey,” I slowed my pace so I could talk to the girl from the Travelers, “What’s your name?”

“My codename?”

“Yeah.”

“Sundancer.”

“I’m going by Skitter.  Couldn’t decide on a name so the media sort of picked one for me.”

“You’re one of the Outsiders, right?”

“Undersiders.  I’m new to the team, honestly, but they’re alright.”

“Uh huh.”  She looked in Bitch’s direction.

“Not as bad as you’d think,” I said, smiling.  She couldn’t see me smile, with my mask covering my mouth, but I did hope she could hear the humor in my tone.  “How’s life among the Travelers?”

She seemed caught off guard at the question.  It took her a few seconds to decide how to respond.  “Intense.  Violent.  Lonely.”

The answer surprised me.  She chose the word intense rather than exciting, but that wasn’t the strangest part of her answer.  “Lonely?  I wouldn’t think that was the case, spending time with teammates.”

She shrugged, “There’s stuff going on that makes hanging out less fun than it should be.  I’m not going to explain it, so don’t ask.”

I raised my hands, palms up, stopping her, “Wasn’t going to.  I was just curious what it’s like for other teams, since I’m fairly new to this.”

She relaxed a bit at that.  “It’s not just the… I can’t think of a word better than drama… but drama sounds like such an understatement.  Whatever.  It’s not the other stuff that’s going on, it’s that we’re constantly moving, rarely spending more than a week in one place, you know?”

“I don’t,” I admitted.  I fudged the truth a little, just to be safe, “I moved twice as a kid, but I was too young to remember it.  For the most part, I grew up here.”

“It gets old, having to-” she stopped talking as I was suddenly pushed to one side.  The tip of Newter’s tail pressed against the center of my chest and moved me back, pushed me against the hood of a dilapidated old car.

“Hey,” I grunted, but he shook his head, pressed a finger to his lip.  His blue eyes bored into mine.  They were weird eyes.  No whites, just azure blue irises that extended from corner to corner, with rectangular, horizontal pupils.

I looked at the others, and they were all moving into cover.  Kaiser, Fenja and Menja had all ducked into an alleyway.  Bitch and her dogs were disappearing around the far corner of the same building, making only the scratching noise of claws against concrete.

Ahead of us, a trio of people in ABB colors crossed the street.  A guy and a girl who looked like they might have been gang members before Bakuda’s hardcore recruitment drive were talking.  A teen who was about my age trailed behind them, looking too scared and worn out to be anything but one of the new recruits.  They were all armed.  A machete dangled from the male thug’s hand, while the girl was toying with a handgun.  The scared looking kid had a baseball bat with nails hammered into it.  People really did that?  The nail-studded baseball bat?

Just behind them was the building that had to be our target.  It was a warehouse, dirty gray, with the letters ‘ABB’ spray painted on and around the loading bay door in red and green in an elaborate style.

When the patrol was gone, Newter spoke, “They’ve got patrols, and they’ve tagged the building.  That’ll be our target, today.”  He checked his watch, “Two minutes until it’s time to move.”

“My girls and I will circle around,” Kaiser stated from the cover of the alleyway, “Attack from another direction.”

“Hey, no,” I replied, “That’s not the deal.  We’re in groups like this for a reason, and that reason flies out the window if we split up like that.”

“I didn’t ask your permission,” Kaiser replied, his voice cool.  Without waiting for a response, he turned to leave, Fenja and Menja following him.

“Are we going to stop them?” I asked.

“I could catch up to them,” Bitch told us, as she rode Brutus back towards our group.

Newter shook his head, thin lips pressed into a line that only accented his strange appearance, “Not worth it, and dangerous to fight amongst ourselves in enemy territory.  We don’t have time, anyways.”

“Bitch, can you call Grue and Tattletale, let them know?” I asked.  “They can take measures if they need to.”

She nodded and got her cell phone out.

While Bitch made the call, Newter beckoned the others to gather in a huddle.  “Let’s talk plan of attack.  Skitter, Bitch, you two have the most experience dealing with these guys, so start us off.”

I glanced at Bitch.  She was busy with the call, and she had been out of action during our last encounter with the ABB, which left her kind of in the dark as far as Bakuda went.  It was up to me.

I silently cleared my throat, then I spoke up, “Bakuda likes to set traps, and if this place is important enough to patrol, it’s important enough to have some traps.  Let me send my bugs in first.  I can get the lay of the land, and the bugs will also confuse and distract anyone inside, which should make things easier on you guys.”

Newter nodded once, “Okay.  That’s step one.  Bitch, can you and your dogs hit the ground floor?  I’ll go in the second floor window.”

Bitch gave him a curt nod in response.

“The bugs won’t bite her?” Newter asked.

“No,” I answered, “Won’t bite you either.”

“They couldn’t if they tried,” Newter answered me, smiling.  Funny, if you looked past the odd appearance – the blue hair, the weird eyes, the orange skin and the tail, he was actually a pretty good looking guy.

“Sundancer, what can you do?” Newter asked.

“I guess you could say I’m artillery,” Sundancer replied, “But I’ve got the same problem Ballistic does – er, my other teammate.  I’m not sure I can use my power without hurting a lot of people really badly.”

“Then stay back with Labyrinth.  You two be ready to cover our retreat or move in if we run into trouble,” Newter replied.

“Sounds like you know what you’re doing,” I commented.

“Maybe some of Faultline has rubbed off on me.”  He smiled.  Then he glanced at his watch, “Twenty seconds.”

Newter glanced at the two soldiers Coil had sent, “You two, can you-”

“We’re taking a position on this rooftop, here,” the shorter of the two men replied, pointing up to the two story duplex next to us.  “We’ll support you with cover fire.”

“Uh, good.  Try not to kill anyone,” Newter said, checking his watch again, “Five seconds.  Skitter?  Start us off?”

I reached out to all the bugs I’d gathered, minus the ones I was keeping beneath my costume.  I directed them towards the side of the building we were facing.

The swarm swept in through windows that were open or broken and the one open door on the side of the building, flowing into the hallways.  I made sure to spread them out to cover every surface, feeling for anything that was out-of-place or unusual.  There were a fair number of people inside, which wasn’t a huge surprise, but my bugs were making a lot of contact with bare skin.  I realized the people gathered in the open area of the warehouse’s ground floor were nearly naked.  Stripped down to their underwear.  It was so unexpected that it threw me off my stride.

I shook my head.  I couldn’t afford to get distracted.  Bakuda probably used metals and plastics, and to the superfine senses of the bugs, that was an entirely different texture from the walls.  I tried to filter out the usual stuff and get a feel for just the plastic or metal things.  Just a few feet in from the entrance, I found two dome-shaped bulges on either side of the stairwell that led to the second floor, metal and plastic.

“There’s something there,” I said.  “Give me a second.”

I took a page out of Grue’s playbook and gathered a group of bugs together into a densely packed, vaguely humanoid shape.  I moved that collection of bugs through the doors and to the place where the little domes sat.

The explosion blew a fair sized chunk out of the exterior wall of the building closest to us.  The people inside, already nervous at the influx of bugs, started scattering, screaming, running for the exits.

“Holy shit!” Newter’s eyes went wide.

“Motion detectors, I think,” I said, “Or proximity activated.  My bugs wouldn’t normally set them off, had to fool them.”

The ground was too hard for landmines, so I focused on having the remainder of the bugs sweep through the rest of the building, skimming the surfaces and looking for more trouble.  I found two more, checked nobody was near, and used the same method to detonate them.  The plumes of flame, smoke and debris were visible from where we crouched.

“Twenty or thirty people on the ground floor, unarmed and half naked, ten in upstairs office, armed,” I said, “Route is as clear of traps as I can get it.  Go!”

Bitch lunged into action, Newter only a few steps behind.  He half-ran, half-crawled, his tail whipping around behind him, presumably to help keep his balance.

As Bitch had her dogs crash into and through the closed metal loading bay door, Newter intercepted the first few people to leave through the fire exit door on the side of the building.  He leaped to close fifteen foot gaps as fast as I could have thrown a punch, moving from one person to the next, dropping each of them in an instant.  Lots of women in that group, and I could confirm with my eyes what my bugs had told me – nine out of ten of the people in that group, a mix of Asian men and women, were only wearing their underwear.  Slave trafficking?  Prostitution?  Something darker?  I felt my skin crawl.

As he darted up the side of the building and slipped into an open window like a bolt of greased lightning, I felt Newter brush past several with my bugs.  Each bug that came into contact with him dropped off the wall or out of the sky, falling to the ground, alive but stunned.

I remembered reading about him on the web.  Information had been scarce, since Faultline’s crew weren’t the types of villain to appear in the papers or on TV, and the concrete details that were out there had been hard to pick apart from the speculation.  What I did know was that his bodily fluids were potent hallucinogens.  Even the sweat that accumulated on his skin was apparently enough to send someone off to la-la land, taking only a few seconds for it to be absorbed through the skin.

I focused my attention on tracking what was happening inside the building.  Newter was on the second floor, probably dodging gunfire as he moved closer to the group of people who had been in the upstairs office.  I had my bugs cluster around them, biting their hands and faces.  I sent them crawling into noses, ears and mouths to disrupt the aim of the people who might shoot Newter.

Kaiser, Fenja and Menja were attacking from the side of the building opposite us.  They had drawn the attention of most of the armed agents and patrols, leaving Bitch and her dogs stranded in the midst of one or two dozen unarmed, unclothed, panicked people.  From what my bugs were sensing, she was giving lots of commands to her dogs.

I realized, belatedly, that someone had blocked off the route Bitch might have taken to reach the fighting.  The edges of the offending barrier were thin, sharp.  Blades?  That meant Kaiser would be the one who had blocked her.  Was it intentional, or had he been cutting off the ABB’s escape routes?

I couldn’t sense what Newter was doing since my bugs couldn’t touch him, but I could feel the movement of the air that followed in his wake, I could track the locations of the bugs he came into contact with before they were brought down by the drugs, and I knew the men were collapsing as Newter moved into their midst and knocked each of them out with a touch.  One or two even collapsed without him touching them.  Something else?  Blood?  Spit?

Only one remained standing.  He and Newter circled one another.  My bugs weren’t having much effect on him, since he was wearing a bandanna or something over his face.

No, wait, there was a second person, just behind Newter.  How had I not noticed him?

Then the first disappeared, and I knew.

I grabbed my phone, accessed the contacts, and auto-dialed Bitch.

“Come on, answer, answer,” I whispered at the phone.

Then a handful of my bugs were stunned and a few more squashed as Newter collapsed on top of them.  I directed most of the bugs in the building to distract the attacker, hoping to buy Newter enough time to get away.  It wasn’t working – he wasn’t moving.

“Fuck! Answer, Bitch!”

“What’s wrong?” Sundancer asked.

“Newter’s hurt.”

Labyrinth put her hand on my shoulder, half-spun me to face her.  She didn’t say a word, her expression barely changed behind the cloth of her mask, but it was still the closest I’d seen to an emotional response from her.

I would have said something, but Bitch chose that same second to pick up.

“Bitch!  Second floor, Newter’s wounded, Oni Lee is in the building.”

There was a long pause before she replied, “Lung’s here too.”

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Insinuation 2.2

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The run had helped to wake me up, as did the hot shower and a cup of the coffee my dad had left in the pot.  Even so, the fatigue didn’t help the feeling of disorientation over just how normal the day seemed as I made my way to school.  Just a matter of hours ago, I had been in a life and death fight, I had even met Armsmaster.  Now it was a day like any other.

I felt a bit nervous as I got to homeroom.  Having basically skipped two classes the previous Friday, failing to turn in a major assignment, I figured that Mrs. Knott probably knew already.  I didn’t feel relieved when Mrs. Knott glanced up at me and gave a tight smile before turning her attention back to her computer.  That just meant the humiliation would be redoubled if and when class was interrupted by someone coming down from the office.  A part of me just wanted to miss this class too, just to avoid the potential humiliation and avoid drawing attention.

All in all, I felt anxious as I made my way to my computer, which kind of sucked because Computer class was one of the few parts of the school day I didn’t usually dread.  For one thing, it was the one class in which I was doing well.  More to the point, neither Madison, Sophia nor Emma were in this class, though some of their friends were.  Those girls didn’t usually feel the need to harass me without the trio around, and I was further removed from them because I was in the advanced stream of the class.  A good three quarters of the people in the room were computer illiterate, being from families that didn’t have the money for computers or families that didn’t have much interest in the things, so they practiced typing without looking at the keyboard and had lessons in using search engines.  By contrast, I was in the group that was learning some basic programming and spreadsheets.  It didn’t do a lot for my already geeky reputation, but I could deal.

Mrs. Knott was an alright teacher, if not the most hands on; she was usually content to give us advanced students an in-class assignment and then focus on the more rambunctious majority for the rest of the class.  This suited me just fine – I usually wrapped up the assignment in a half hour, leaving me an hour to use as I saw fit.  I had been recalling and going over the events of the previous night during my morning run, and the first thing that I did when the ancient desktop finished its agonizing load process was to start digging for information.

The go-to place for news and discussion on capes was Parahumans Online.  The front page had constant updates on recent, international news featuring capes.  From there, I could go to the wiki, where there was information on individual capes, groups and events, or to the message boards, which broke down into nearly a hundred sub-boards, for specific cities and capes.  I opened the wiki in one tab, then found and opened the message board for Brockton Bay in another.

I had the sense that either Tattletale or Grue were the leader of the group I had run into.  Turning my attention to Tattletale, I searched the wiki.  The result I got was disappointingly short, starting with a header reading “This article is a stub.  Be a hero and help us expand it.”  There was a one sentence blurb on how she was a alleged villain active in Brockton Bay, with a single blurry picture.  The only new information for me was that her costume was lavender.  A search of the message boards turned up absolutely nothing.  There wasn’t even a hint as to what her power was.

I looked up Grue.  There was actually information about him, but nothing detailed or definitive.  The wiki stated he had been active for nearly three years, dealing in petty crimes such as robbing small stores and doing some work as an enforcer for those who wanted a little superpowered muscle along for a job.  Recently, he had turned to higher scale crime, including corporate theft and robbing a casino, together with his new team.  His power was listed as darkness generation in the sidebar under his picture.  The picture seemed crisp enough, but the focus of it, Grue, was just a blurry black silhouette in the center.

I searched for Bitch, next.  No results.  I did another search for her more official title, Hellhound, and got a wealth of information.  Rachel Lindt had never made any real attempt to hide her identity.  She had apparently been homeless through most of her criminal career, just living on the streets and moving on whenever police or a cape came after her.  The sightings and encounters with the homeless girl ended around a year ago – I figured that was when she joined forces with Grue, Tattletale and Regent.  The picture in the sidebar was taken from surveillance camera footage – an unmasked, dark haired girl who I wouldn’t have called pretty.  She had a squarish, blunt-featured face with thick eyebrows.  She was riding atop one of her monstrous ‘dogs’ like a jockey rides a horse, down the middle lane of a street.

According to the wiki entry, her powers manifested when she was fourteen, followed almost immediately by her demolishing the foster home she had been living in, injuring her foster mother and two other foster children in the process.  This was followed by a two year series of skirmishes and retreats across Maine as various heroes and teams tried to apprehend her, and she either defeated them or successfully evaded capture.  She had no powers that would have made her any stronger or faster than the average Jane, but she was apparently able to turn ordinary dogs into the creatures I had seen on the rooftop.  Monsters the size of a car, all muscle, bone, fang and claw.  A red box near the bottom of the page read, “Rachel Lindt has a public identity, but is known to be particularly hostile, antisocial and violent.  If recognized, do not approach or provoke.  Leave the area and notify authorities as to her last known location.”  At the very bottom of the page was a list of links that were related to her:  two fansites and a news article relating to her early activities.  A search of the message boards turned up too many results, leaving me unable to sift through the crap, the arguments, the speculation and the villain worship to find any genuine morsels of information.  If nothing else, she was notorious.  I sighed and moved on, making a mental note to do more investigation when I had the time.

The last member of the group was Regent.  Given what Armsmaster had said about the guy being low profile, I didn’t expect to find much.  I was surprised to find less than that.  Nothing.  My search on the wiki turned up only a default response, “There are no results matching this query.  32 unique IP addresses have searched the Parahumans.net Wiki  for ‘Regent’ in 2011.  Would you like to create the page?”  The message board didn’t turn up anything else.  I even did a search for alternate spellings of his name, such as Regence and Recant, in case I had heard it wrong.  Nothing turned up.

If my mood had been on the sour side as I got to homeroom, the dead ends only made it worse.  I turned my attention to the in-class assignment, making a working calculator in Visual Basic, but it was too trivial to distract me.  The work from Thursday and Friday had already given us the tools to do the job, so it was really just busywork.  I didn’t mind learning stuff, but work for the sake of doing work was annoying.  I did the bare minimum, checked it for any bugs, moved the file to the ‘completed work’ folder and returned to surfing the web.  All in all, the work barely took fifteen minutes.

I looked up Lung on the wiki, which I had done often enough before, as part of my research and preparation for being a superhero.  I’d wanted to be sure I knew who prominent local villains were and what they could do.  The search for ‘Lung’ redirected to a catch-all page on his gang, the ABB, with quite a bit of detailed information.  The information on Lung’s powers was pretty in line with my own experience, though there was no mention of the super-hearing or him being fireproof.  I debated adding it, but decided against it.  There were security concerns with my submission being tracked back to Winslow High, and then to me.  I figured it would probably be deleted as unsupported speculation, anyways.

The section beneath the description of Lung and his powers covered his subordinates.  He was estimated to have forty or fifty thugs working for him across Brockton Bay, largely drawn from the ranks of Asian youth.  It was pretty unconventional for a gang to include members of the variety of nationalities that the ABB did, but Lung had made it a mission to conquer and absorb every gang with Asian members and many without.  Once he had the manpower he needed, the non-Asian gangs were cannibalized for assets, their members discarded.  Even though there were no more major gangs in the east end of town to absorb, he was still recruiting zealously.  His method, now, was to go after anyone older than twelve and younger than sixty.  It didn’t matter if you were a gang member or not.  If you were Asian and you lived in Brockton Bay, Lung and his people expected you to either join or to pay tribute one way or another.  There had been local news reports on it, newspaper articles, and I could remember seeing signs in the guidance counselor’s office detailing where people who were targeted in this way could go for help.

Lung’s lieutenants were listed as Oni Lee and Bakuda.  I already had some general knowledge about Oni Lee, but I was intrigued to see there were recent updates to his wiki entry.  There were specific details on his powers:  He could teleport, but when he did so, he didn’t disappear.  As he teleported, his original self, for lack of a better term, would stay where it was and remain active for five to ten seconds before disintegrating into a cloud of carbon ash.  Essentially, he could create another version of himself anywhere nearby, while the old version could stick around long enough to distract or attack you.  If that wasn’t scary enough, there was an report of him holding a grenade in his hand as he repeatedly duplicated himself, with his short lived duplicates acting as suicide bombers.  Topping it all off, Oni Lee’s wiki page  had a similar red warning box to the one that Bitch/Hellhound had on hers, minus the bit about his public identity.  From what they knew about him, authorities had seen fit to note him a sociopath.  The warning covered the same essential elements: exceedingly violent, dangerous to approach, should not be provoked, and so on.  I glanced at his picture.  His costume consisted of a black bodysuit with a black bandoleer and belt for his knives, guns and grenades.  The only color on him was an ornate Japanese-style demon mask, crimson with two green stripes down either side.  Except for the mask, his costume gave off the distinct impression of a ninja, which just added weight to the notion that this was a guy who could and would slide a knife between your ribs.

Bakuda was a new entry, added to the ABB wiki page just ten days ago.  The picture only showed her from the shoulders up, a girl with straight black hair, large opaque goggles over her eyes and a metal mask with a gas mask styled filter covering the lower half of her face.  A braided cord of black, yellow and green wires looped over one of her shoulders.  I couldn’t pinpoint her ethnicity with the mask and goggles, and her age wasn’t any easier to figure out.

The wiki had a lot of the same details Armsmaster had mentioned to me.  Bakuda had essentially held a university ransom and she did it with her superhuman ability to design and fabricate high tech bombs.  There was a link to a video titled ‘Bomb Threat @ Cornell’, but I didn’t think it wise to play it in school, especially without headphones.  I made a mental note to check it out when I got home.

The next thing that caught my eye was the section heading titled ‘Defeats and Captures’.  I scrolled down to read it.  According to the wiki, Lung had apparently suffered a number of minor defeats at the hands of various teams, ranging from the Guild to the local teams of New Wave, the Wards and the Protectorate, but consistently managed to evade capture until last night.  A blurb read, ‘ Armsmaster successfully ambushed and defeated the leader of the ABB, who was weakened from a recent encounter with a rival gang.  Lung was taken to the PHQ for holding until the villain’s trial by teleconference.  Given Lung’s extensive and well documented criminal history, it is expected he will face imprisonment in the Birdcage should he be found guilty at trial.’

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  I wasn’t sure what to think.  By all rights, I should have been angry that Armsmaster took the credit for the fight that could have cost me my life.  Instead, I felt a building excitement.  I felt like shaking the shoulder of the guy sitting next to me and point to the screen, saying, “Me, I made that possible!  Me!”

With a renewed enthusiasm, I switched tabs to the message board and began looking to see what people were saying about it.  A post by a fan or minion of Lung threatened violence against Armsmaster.  There was a request by someone asking for more information on the fight.  I was given pause by one post that asked whether Bakuda could or would use a large scale bomb and the threat of potentially thousands or hundreds of thousands dead, to ransom Lung back.

I tried to put that out of my mind.  If it happened, it would be the responsibility of heroes better and more experienced than I.

It struck me that there was one person I hadn’t looked for.  Myself.  I opened up the advanced search page for the Parahumans.net message board and did a search for multiple terms.  I included insect, spider, swarm, bug, plague, and a mess of other terms that had struck me when I had been trying to brainstorm a good hero name.  I narrowed the timeframe of posts to search for posts made within the past 12 hours and hit Search.

My efforts turned up two posts.  One referred to a villain called Pestilence, active in the UK.  Apparently Pestilence was one of the people who could use ‘magic’.  That is, he was if you believed magic was real, and not just some convoluted or deluded interpretation of a given set of powers.

The second post was in the ‘Connections’ section of the message board, where rescued damsels left their contact information for their dashing heroes, where conventions and fan gatherings were organized and where people posted job offers for capes and the cape-obsessed.  Most were cryptic or vague, referring to stuff only the people in question would know.

The message was titled, simply, “Bug”

I clicked it and waited impatiently for the outdated system and overloaded school modem to load up the page.  What I got was brief.

Subject: Bug

Owe you one.  Would like to repay the favor.  Meet?

Send a message,

Tt.

The post was followed by two pages of people commenting.  Three people suggested it was something important, while a half dozen more people decried them as tinfoil hats, Parahumans.net’s term for conspiracy theorists.

It was meaningful, though.  I couldn’t interpret it any other way; Tattletale had found a way to get in contact with me.

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