Venom 29.3

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“We knew it would come to this,” Legend said.

I turned around.  My hands were full as I unbelted a tightly folded blanket and draped it over one of the wounded.

A surprising number of wounded, in the end.  Twenty or so injured from an aircraft that had been partially obliterated, eighteen more people who’d had their legs sliced off.  Nearly forty Dragon’s Teeth with mild injuries, their armor melted to their faces, chests, arms and legs.  Scion had tried his usual assortment of attacks, and they’d evaded them.  Enhanced strength from the costumes, predictive technology from the onboard artificial intelligences.

So he’d used a power they couldn’t dodge, a power they couldn’t block.  A light that radiated outward and melted the materials of their costumes.

Cauldron hadn’t been there to reinforce the group.  If they had been, it might have been a staging ground.  Instead, the group had folded and Scion had come after the portal that was closest.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“When we were predicting what would happen with the Endbringers, we said that we’d be forced to regroup, consolidate our forces.  Every fight would result in losses, so we’d have to abandon positions, move people from an abandoned post to keep numbers up.”

“I can see that,” I said.

An outpost abandoned.  The world Defiant and Dragon had been looking after was being abandoned as a lost cause.  There were countless people still alive, but they were spread out, and there was no way to mount a proper defense with our forces spread too thin.

“If there’s an upside,” Legend said, his tone changing as if he were forcing himself to be less grim.  “Tattletale said we’re making headway.  It doesn’t look like it, but we’re taking chunks out of him.  The strongest of us survive, we regroup, see what works, we’re stronger when it comes to the next fight.”

Except he’s indiscriminate.  He’s killing the ones who can actually affect him, because he’s being reactive.  We’re not stronger by virtue of the strongest surviving and consolidating because the only difference between this fight and the next is that we’ll be less.

I kept my mouth shut.

“Defiant and Dragon will be joining you guys here, to make up for the ones you lost.  You’ll have Leviathan, at the very least.  Chevalier and I will be a matter of minutes away.”

A few minutes is too long, I thought.  But I didn’t want to state the obvious, didn’t want to argue.

I was trying to be good, trying not to raise any problems with a guy who could well be sensitive over the fact that I’d murdered one of his closest companions a few years back.

Besides, I knew that this pep talk was most likely Legend trying to reassure the wounded.  Maybe even him trying to reassure himself.

He took his time, putting fresh bandages on a wound.

“I’ve followed your career,” Legend said.  “I’ve seen you on the battlefields, fighting the Endbringers, old and new.  The bugs are noticeable.”

“I’m nothing special.”

“You rendered Alexandria brain dead,” Legend told me.  “That warrants attention.”

“Fair enough,” I said.  I managed to get another blanket unbelted from the arrangement of straps that kept it in a folded position and then draped it over someone.  Legend moved the end of the blanket, where it rested on the patient’s wounded foot.

“I wanted to know who it was that had killed Rebecca.  I kept an eye on everything you did in the Protectorate, looked for the details about your past.  I understand if that seems creepy…”

“I think I get it.  You were close to her.”

“I felt close to her.  In the end, though, there was a gap between my feelings and the reality.  Still is, I suppose.  Go through enough with people, build something from the ground up, you form ties.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I looked over my shoulder.  Mai, one of the kids Charlotte and Forrest were looking after, was there, alongside one of Rachel’s henchmen and a puppy.   Giving comfort to a child from the other settlement who’d been burned by the same effect that melted the costumes of the Dragon’s Teeth.  The burns weren’t horrible, but it made it hard to tell the child’s ethnicity or gender.

But the child was scratching the puppy behind the ear.  Rachel stood nearby, arms folded, stern and ominous.  I felt a kind of fondness, tempered by a kind of hesitance, like I couldn’t let myself hold on too tight to the friendship and familiarity because she could be dead by the end of the day.  Though it was sharper than it had been in the past, it wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling.

Legend was looking at me when I turned back to him.  “Yeah.”

“It doesn’t always make for the most sound decisions.”

“No, it doesn’t,” I agreed.  I had to scoot out of the way as some doctors hurried by with fresh tools and equipment.  Removing the dissolved materials from burned flesh was something of a task, and there were a lot of people to help.

“I always knew there was something wrong, underneath it all, but there were bigger things to focus on.  You finish dealing with one Endbringer attack or a potential war with parahuman attacks on both sides, it demands all of your focus.  You’re left drained, dealing with the event or the aftermath, and then you need to recuperate, you have an organization to manage.  There’s never a moment where you can stop, take a deep breath, and then say, ‘now is the moment where I address that nagging doubt I had the other day’.  Now is the moment I call so-and-so out on that less-than-complete truth they used while we were elbow-deep in Indonesian cyborg super-soldiers.”

“I think I know exactly what you mean.”

“I think it’s very possible you do,” he said.

“But you can’t dwell on it,” I said.

“If you don’t give it the necessary attention, then how do you prevent it from becoming a cycle?”

“You don’t.  You look back at your reasons for making the choices when you made the choices, you recognize that you didn’t address or act on your suspicions and doubts because you had higher priorities at the time, and you make peace with it.”

“Have you?  Made peace with it?”

“I’m on my way there, Legend.”

“I’m not sure I want to go there,” he said.  “Give me a hand?  Hold his leg up?”

I nodded.

Gore.  A foot reduced to something unrecognizable.  The man would probably lose it.

But Legend still tended to the limb with care.  Almost gentle.  I tried to be as graceful in keeping the leg in the air.

The soldier made a noise of pain as Legend cleaned the foot, using a laser to sever a tag of flesh that was holding a piece of boot on.  I reached out and held the man’s hand.

“You came in here for a reason,” Legend said.

I looked up.

“It’s not about taking care of the wounded,” he said.  “You’re not devoting a great deal of attention to keeping an eye on Hellhound, either.  Yes, you could use your swarm to discreetly observe her, to discreetly observe anyone in your range, but I don’t think that’s why you came here.”

I started to respond, but the soldier’s leg started kicking, an almost involuntary nerve reaction.  I had to pull my hand from his to hold his leg as still as possible.

We eased it down until he was lying flat, his leg on the bed.  I pulled a blanket over him, as carefully as I could.

“You have a question, or questions,” Legend said, “But you’re not asking them because you’re worried about the response.  Either it’s something touchy, or there’s another reason why you’re holding back.”

I sighed.  “If you don’t have an answer for me, then I’m not sure I know what I’m going to do next.”

“So this is about something only I would know?”

“Basically,” I said.  “We don’t have access to that broad a pool of people, right now.”

“Okay,” Legend said.  “What do you need to know?”

“Cauldron’s portals.”

“Closed.  They’re created by a parahuman called Doormaker.  The Doctor told me he was blind and deaf to his surroundings, but I think it’s far more likely that it’s to do with another parahuman she partnered him with.  Someone who grants sensory awareness.  I think the Doctor gave Doormaker too much exposure to this parahuman and destroyed or atrophied his other senses.  One of those nagging doubts I never acted on.”

We passed by Rachel, Rachel’s minion and Mai.  I gave Rachel a little nod of acknowledgement as we stepped outside.

Then we stepped outside.  There was a shattered sign over the boarded-up windows.  Apparently Tattletale had made some business deals and tried to get things in place for this to become a city like any one in Earth Bet.  The pieces were there, but the furniture had yet to be installed, the food yet to be supplied.  An empty fast food place, now a makeshift hospital.

Eat fresh?  I thought.  Not likely.

I took in the scene.  Capes were still reeling from the attack, and again, it was the monsters and the lunatics that seemed to be standing, while others sat, recovering, catching their breath, mustering their courage.

Nilbog, engaged in conversation with Glaistig Uaine.

Four of the Heartbroken, with Imp and Romp.  A maskless Imp gave Bonesaw a glare as the girl hurried, in the company of Marquis and Panacea, to the fast food place Legend and I had just left.

Lung was alone, looking angry, frustrated, almost more agitated than he’d been before or during the fight.  His eyes were on Leviathan, who was down by the water, but I didn’t get the impression Leviathan was the source of the frustration.

Parian and Foil were together, Foil with her mask off.  They’d curled up in a space between two large bins of food, Foil resting her head on Parian’s shoulder, their hands and fingers entwined.

Tattletale was caught up in a conversation with Knave of Clubs, and fell under the Simurgh’s shadow.  The Simurgh, for her part, seemed to be busy building other tinker devices, drawing on the abilities of tinkers in the immediate area.

Vista was sitting on a rooftop, two stories high.  Her eyes were closed, her hands set behind her so she could lean back a bit.  Her face turned towards the sky.

There were other capes in the area, looking a little more serious, focused on business.  Chevalier was with Defiant and Dragon, Black Kaze, Saint, Masamune and Canary.  Some of them drifted off, making their way towards us.

“If it helps,” Legend said, “I don’t think Doormaker is dead.  There have been two interruptions in his power, to date.  One followed an earthquake.  He was unhurt, but his partner… well, it was a clue that a partner existed.  His doors all went down simultaneously the moment the earthquake hit the facility.  I don’t think his power is the type that would outlast him after death, if it was so easily interrupted while he was alive.”

“So he’s alive because the doors are still open in places.”

“Alive and unable or unwilling to use his power,” Legend said.

I nodded.  “So is it Cauldron running or is it another agency?”

I could see Legend’s expression change.  I’d heard him talk before, saying as much, but his face was what told me, above all else, that he was burdened by regrets.  “I wish I could say it was the latter.”

“But you don’t know.”

“I remain in the dark when it comes to Cauldron.”

“What about Satyrical?” I asked.  “He was investigating with his team, wasn’t he?”

“He was, but he tends towards radio silence, Pretender’s people have since well before the Vegas teams cut ties with the Protectorate.  They claimed it was because there would inevitably be a parahuman who could uncover them if they left channels open.  Now… well, isn’t that the way most things were?  Secrets, lies, conspiracies.”

“It is, but-” I tried to find a way to politely say what I was trying to say.

“But?”

“With all due respect, and I really do mean that because I respect you, I respect that you’ve participated in the fights, I get where you’re coming from…”

“You’re spending too much time couching what you’re saying,” Legend said.  “Rest assured, I can handle what you’re about to throw at me.  I think worse things to myself all the time.”

“I’m impatient.  That’s all.  Scion’s going to attack again, and I don’t plan to be here,” I said.

“You want a portal to get out of here,” Legend said.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t want an escape.  I want to act.”

“We’re acting,” Legend said.

“We’re reacting.”

“If you have ideas for something pre-emptive, I think we could all stand to hear it.”

I shook my head.  “Nothing definitive.”

“Even something that isn’t definitive.”

“I want to find Cauldron.  They have contingency plans we know they haven’t put into effect yet, and they have answers they’ve yet to provide.”

“Cauldron is very good at leading people to believe that they have the answers and then disappointing,” Legend said.  “Take it from someone who knows.  Ah.  I’m doing it again, aren’t I?  Like an old man.”

He smiled, and I smiled a little too.

“You’re an old man?”  Chevalier asked.  His group had just joined us.

“Taylor here was just very politely trying to tell me I’m wasting her time on reminiscing and regrets.”

“You have something better to do?” Defiant asked me.

Defiant,” Dragon said, admonishing him.  She was in her armor, but had her helmet off.  The face was real.  Plain, but real.

She’s an A.I.  A false person.  What else had Saint said?  She’s deceiving us?  It’s all an act?

“…came out wrong,” Defiant was saying.  Very deliberately, he said, “I am genuinely curious what you’re doing, Weaver.”

Dragon smiled a little, as if a private thought had crossed her mind.

The doubts Saint had seeded dissipated.

Ninety percent of them.

“I was telling Legend I want to go after Cauldron,” I said.  “A member of the Chicago Wards was saying that sending Satyrical to go investigate is like sending a fox to guard the henhouse.”

“Satyrical has definite ties to Cauldron,” Dragon said.  “If nothing else, Pretender maintains connections to the group.  If Cauldron is running, or if they are pulling something covert, then it’s very possible Satyrical is on board or is going to be brought on board.”

Chevalier shifted the Cannonblade to his other hand, then stabbed the point into the ground.  It looked different.  His armor looked different.  Gold and black, instead of gold and silver.  “It also means he and the Las Vegas capes are well equipped to know how Cauldron operates, and identify clues others would miss.  We sent them with others we could trust.  They’ve been reporting in on schedule.”

I opened my mouth.  Chevalier spoke before I could.  “-With stranger and master precautions in place.”

I frowned.

“You’re strong when it comes to improvising,” Chevalier told me.  “We’ve got a moment to breathe.  We think he’s hitting another world, one we don’t have access to.  We’re regrouping, figuring out who goes where, and we’re trying to set things up so we can mobilize faster.  I can’t tell you what to do.  I wouldn’t if I could.  But we could use you here.”

“We’re losing, here,” I said.  “Legend was being positive, but… I don’t think we can really delude ourselves that far.  He’s tearing us apart while holding back.  If we put up a fight or if we don’t hold back, he hits us harder, like he hit the Guild.  He can always top us, and he can always say he’s had enough and then just nuke the continent.  That’s not a recipe for an eventual win.”

“I don’t even think that’s the worst of it,” Tattletale said, finally having broken away from Knave of Clubs to join this conversation.  “He’s evolving, maturing.  If you can even call it that.  He was a blank slate, then almost like a baby, flinging destruction around like a baby practices moving their arms, as if to remind himself he could… and then he was like a child in this fight… except for the bit about Queen of Swords.  That suggested he’s almost entering an adolescent phase.  Something more complex than just raw fear and awe.  Loss, despair.  He’s going to start looking for ways to really hurt us.”

“Instead of just annihilating us?” Legend asked.  “Torture?”

“Mental, emotional, more involved physical torture.  Up until he hits adulthood.  Then he probably destroys us, completely and utterly.  I’d be surprised if we lasted more than two days, rate he’s developing.”

“You’re talking about him as if he were human,” Saint said.

“He is,” Tattletale said.  “It’s the only reason he’s doing this, and it’s the only way we have to truly make sense of him, and it’s his primary means of making sense of us.  Which is why he did it.  He’s got our general biological makeup.  He thinks, he feels, he dreams, he hurts, but it’s all buried so far under mounds and mounds and mounds of power and security, it doesn’t really supplant him.  It’s never been exposed to the real world, really, so the human side of him hasn’t matured or developed.”

“A weakness?”  Chevalier asked.

“Yes, but not a weakness we’re going to be able to exploit,” Tattletale said.  “He’s too careful, and he would have foreseen it.  Adapted around it, probably.  Be awfully stupid for something like him to adapt traits of their targets and adapt vulnerabilities at the same time.  Knowing this could help, but it’s not going to be the weak point we can target to finish him off.  That makes zero sense.”

“We know a lot of things like that,” I said.  “A lot of tidbits about his behavior or who he is or what he is.  But a lot of it isn’t reliable information.  He cared a lot about my clone decoys multiplying during the fight on the oil rig, but he didn’t give a damn this time.”

“He’s advancing, evolving.  His focus is changing,” Tattletale interjected.

“We know so many critical details,” I said, “And we need more.  We need a way of paring truth away from fiction, or determining what’s no longer true.  I don’t know for sure what we’re going to do to stop him, but I think any plans I have are going to start or end with Cauldron.”

I looked around the group.  Men and women, all in armor that made them stronger, bulkier or taller, it seemed.  Legend was comparatively small, but he had presence to make up for it, even as tired and worn out as he seemed to be.  Flying, casual flying as Legend tended to do, gave one a little more stature.

I wasn’t short, but it felt like Tattletale and I were mortals in the midst of giants.  Defiant, in particular, seemed somehow imposing.  His body language was familiar with the way he’d naturally set his feet apart, his hand on his weapon.

Even the place we were standing, it stirred memories.  We were at the north end of the Bay, even.

“Yes.  The plan makes sense,” Defiant said.  “I’ll trust you on this one.”

Dragon reached out to grab and squeeze his hand.

“What do you need?” Defiant asked me.

“I was thinking I’d bring some of the capes that can’t or won’t participate in the fight against Scion,” I said.  My eyes fell on Canary.

Me?”  Canary squeaked.

“Anyone, but capes like you,” I said.  “Support capes who can’t support in circumstances like this.  Strangers who can’t use their power on Scion.  Capes like that.”

“And if you can’t access Cauldron?” Chevalier asked.  “I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but your actions when you assumed control of the Simurgh were… heavy handed.  You told an ex-teammate in the Wards that you weren’t intending to be a hero anymore.  I don’t want to tell you I won’t cooperate any more than I want to tell anyone I won’t cooperate, but you’d be asking us to put a fair amount of power in your hands by sending capes your way.  I… don’t know that I feel confident sending capes to you, if I don’t know how they’ll be put to use.”

“Would you allow me to talk to other capes?” I asked.  “You don’t have to send them my way, but maybe I could inquire?”

“I’m not going to stand in anyone’s way,” Chevalier said.  “I’m not the bad guy, here.  But I’ve got to lead this battle, and I’ve got to do what I can to make sure things don’t get worse.  If a cape needs to go, if they don’t have the courage to stand and fight, I’m not going to make them.  I’ll try to convince them otherwise, but I won’t make them.  And if they think they’ll be more useful elsewhere, I won’t stop them there, either.”

I nodded.  “I’ll settle for that.”

“What else?”

“Access to computers,” I said.  “Tools.  Resupplies.  The Dragonfly.”

He reached out of his pocket and withdrew a knife.  He reversed it and extended it to me, handle first.

I reached for the weapon, then saw Defiant pull his hand back.  “Be aware of the safety and the activation switch.”

I saw one of the switches, then took hold of the knife.

“Keep it away from heat.  If the growths start knuckling together, then it’s probably clogged at the air intake.  You can unscrew the cap at the butt of the knife and access the air intake there.  Bake it at roughly five hundred degrees to clear it, then thoroughly vacuum.  Pay attention to how long it takes the growths to hit maximum length… you’ll know because the colors at the ends are a lighter gray.  Three point seven seconds is the optimum time.  If it takes shorter then you’ll know something’s wrong with-“

“The knife won’t degrade too much in the next day,” Dragon said.  “And we have spares, thanks to Masamune.”

“You didn’t make this much of a fuss with my flight pack,” I said.

“I included documentation,” Defiant said.

“Thank you,” I said.  I found the holster for my old knife, then put it through the belt at my back, holstering the new knife.

“Where’s the Dragonfly?” he asked.  I pointed.

Dragon said something in Japanese to Masamune and Black Kaze.  There were two nods.

Defiant led the way to the Dragonfly, all business, Dragon, Canary, Tattletale, and me following.  He seemed almost happy to have something to focus on.  A problem that could be solved.

Did he genuinely trust me?  Was there a modicum of hope, here, with me mobilizing to go look into the Cauldron situation?

He continued to hold his weapon, though the fight wasn’t about to start.

I could imagine his outlook, the security the weapon afforded him, a hundred solutions in his hands.  The ability to defend himself, to defend others, to move out of the way of danger.  It made sense.

Dragon, conversely… what was her security blanket?

Different.  I couldn’t put my thumb on it.  But she’d lost to Saint, to the Dragonslayers.  She’d been taken captive, effectively killed.  Killed by a man who saw her as subhuman.

She’d been altered by Teacher.  Not so much she was a slave to him, but something had happened, and that was no doubt a large part of how she was disconnected from reality in the here and now.

I looked back at Saint, Masamune and Black Kaze.  Saint was taking a seat, his back to a chunk of destroyed aircraft, cross-legged.  Calm, relaxed.

“How can you stand to be near them?” I asked.

“Keep your enemies closer,” Dragon said, her voice tight.

“Don’t forget about the friends part,” I said.

She shook her head a little.  “I won’t.”

“When we were waiting for the fight to start, I went around, looking for people I needed to thank.  Important people to me, people who I wasn’t sure I’d get a chance to talk to again.  I missed a few important ones.  My dad… you two.  I know the only reason I got my shot at being a hero, the only reason I didn’t go to jail, was because you vouched for me, because you agreed to cart me back and forth and interrupt your schedule.  I probably didn’t even deserve it, but you backed me up.  I’m just… I’ve never been good at saying thank you and sounding as sincere as I feel.”

“I think we benefited as much as you did,” Dragon said.  “You needed to join the Wards to… make amends, shall we say?  It was the same for us.”

“For me,” Defiant cut in.

“I had my own regrets,” Dragon said.

“You had no choice.”

“Regrets nonetheless,” she said, again.  Her head turned towards Canary, and Canary smiled just a little.  Dragon then looked to me.

Was it possible for an artificial human to look weary?  To look wounded, in the sense that she was bearing some grievous injury from recent events?

We’d stopped outside the Dragonfly.  I bid the ramp to open, controlling the bugs in the operating mechanism.

Then, as it opened, I impulsively gave Dragon a hug.  Returning a favor she’d given me some time ago.

“Let’s get you set up,” Defiant said.

“Hook me in while you’re at it?” Tattletale made it a question.  “Whatever you need to do, so I can communicate with her and her peeps.”

“I’ll see to it.”

Tattletale glanced at me.  “Ops?”

“Please.”

We circled twice before coming in for a landing.  A cave just above water level, inaccessible except from the air.

The receiving party consisted of Exalt and Revel from the Protectorate core group, with half of the Vegas team.  Nix, Leonid, Floret and Spur.  Vantage was waving a rod around, listening to steady beeps.

“Oh god, finallySomething to take my mind off the beeping,” Floret said.  She was petite, her hair in carefully layered waves of pink, with green at the roots.

“Find anything?” I asked.

“No signs of any portals that have been opened in the past.  Harder than cracking Dodger’s gateways, apparently,” Vantage said.  “Or they gave us bad instructions.  How’re you doing, Weaver?”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“Wearing black,” he said.

“Is everyone going to comment on that?” I asked.

“It’s comment worthy.  How’d the fight… nevermind.  I can guess.”

“Probably,” I said.

“Grim group,” Floret commented.  “I know black’s ‘in’ with the end of the world, but damn.  Only one person with style.”

I looked over my shoulder.  Golem, in silver and gunmetal, his mask solemn.  Cuff, again, in a dark metal costume.  Imp, with her dark gray mask and black bodysuit that actually fit her.  Shadow Stalker, in a black, form-fitting bodysuit like the one I’d given Imp, along with a flowing cloak with a heavy hood.  All spidersilk, but the mask was hers, as was the crossbow.  Rachel followed, her jacket, tank top and pants black, only the fur ruff at her shoulders, where it flowed around the edges of her hood, was white.  Huntress and Bastard flanked her.  Lung was still inside the Dragonfly, but I knew he had only his mask and jeans on.  Barefoot, shirtless.

Canary was the only one, apparently, who met Floret’s standards.  Yellow body armor, her helmet in one hand, her hair and feathers free.

“I remember you,” Spur said.  He smiled.  Teeth that had been professionally done, no doubt.  He wasn’t bad looking, but not quite my type.  Spiky hair, and a costume that mingled barbed wire tattoos with real barbed wire, where his skin was exposed.  Mid twenties, with hair bleached to a near-white and acid washed jeans.  His mask was simple, black, covering the upper half of his face, with only a circle of barbed wire at the brow.  A trademark of thinker powers, to do the whole forehead thing.  A precog who was most effective in the midst of chaos and heightened emotions, and fairly competent otherwise.  “Bad Canary?”

Canary’s eyes widened.  “You remember my stage name?”

“You were famous,” he said.  “The whole trial thing.  You-“

Canary’s expression fell.

“-got robbed,” he said.

Dick,” Floret said.  “Like that’s how she wants to be remembered.”

“I remember the music too,” he protested.

“Yeah,” Canary said.  She rubbed the back of her neck, avoiding eye contact.  “It doesn’t matter anyways, does it?  Long time ago, and we’ve got better things to worry about.”

Vulgarishous,” he said.  “Ur-soundLineless?”

“You’re probably cheating,” she said.

“I could sing the lyrics,” he answered.

“It would make me sure you’re cheating.  I barely remember the lyrics.”

“I don’t believe that for a second,” Spur answered her.  “Eh, guys?  Back me up.  My power doesn’t give me a way to cheat, does it?”

“No,” Floret said.  “He’s genuine.  And none of us have ways to clue him in.”

I glanced at Revel, who only rolled her eyes a little.  Exalt looked bored.  He saw me looking and commented, “It’s fine here.  We’re using substandard tools to find a portal that used to exist, and we don’t know exactly where it was.”

Imp pushed her mask up until it sat on top of her head.  “Finding a transparent needle outside of the haystack.”

“Well put,” Leonine said.

“Don’t encourage her,” I told him.

He only smiled, which made Imp smirk at me in turn.

Spur was murmuring the lyrics to the song, and he was actually doing a good job of it.  Canary was trying to look like she wasn’t pleased as punch.  It was cute.  Cute and just a little ominous, considering who these guys were.

Some things had come to light after they’d departed their positions in the Protectorate and Wards.  Nothing definitive, but it raised questions that had yet to be answered.  Questions that would probably never be answered, now that evidence lockers and court records throughout Earth Bet had been obliterated.  Problems that had resolved themselves just a little too neatly.  People, both bad guys and witnesses, who’d disappeared.

“If I’m the lion, and you’re the goat…” Leonine was saying.

“I guarantee I’m more dangerous than you,” Imp retorted.

I could sense others in the group getting restless.

“We’ll let you know if anything turns up,” Revel said, as if she’d sensed it.  She smiled a little, a bit awkward, or apologetic.  “Don’t let us waste your time.  It’s the end of the world, spend it with people you care about.”

Her eyes moved to Cuff and Golem, who were hanging back.  The pair were the heroes of our group, so to speak.  They’d feel the betrayal of the Vegas capes more sharply, even now.  They looked at each other.

I did too.  Not that I counted myself as a hero.  But I’d been there.

“I could come with,” Exalt said.  “If you’re going back.  I’m only here to relieve Revel.  I’ll be able to participate in the coming fight.”

“Sure,” I said.  “But I’d like to hear the password.  From Revel.”

“Good thinking.  Belord, six-two, spauld,” she said.

“On my seventeenth birthday,” I said.  “What color was the cake?”

“Seriously?” she asked.  “Do you even remember?  I should get a brownie point for this one.  Because I care about my Wards.  It was white.”

“The frosting?” I asked.

“Blue,” she said, sounding just a bit put out.  “And you barely ate any.”

I nodded, satisfied.  “And… Leonine.”

Me?”  Leonine laughed a bit.  “What kind of shenanigans do you think we’re pulling?”

“He’s one of the Vegas capes,” Imp said, speaking very slowly, like I was mentally disabled.

“I know he’s one of the Vegas capes.  But I think I have to cover all of the bases.  Who was your kindergarten teacher?”

“You researched that?” Spur asked.  “Dug through our entire histories to find something obscure?”

He sounded offended.  Every head had turned his way.

“Do you have a problem with that?”  I asked.

He frowned, but he shook his head, sticking his hands in his pockets as he leaned against the wall beside Canary.  “No.  No problem.”

“Richie,” Leonine said.  “Mrs. Richie.”

“Great,” I said.  “Great.  Now let’s drop the fucking act.”

“I gave you the answer you wanted,” Leonine said, smirking.  “What the fuck?”

“Spur?” I said, “Raise your right hand?”

He did.  There were bugs on the fingers.

“He was moving his hand.  A one-handed sign language.  I assume everyone on your team knows it.”

“I was thinking of Canary’s music,” Spur told me.  He stepped forward, putting a hand on Canary’s shoulder as he did so.  She turned, so they were both facing me.  “Piano keys.  Mnemonic tool.  That is something our team uses.”

“You’re being a little crazy paranoid,” Imp said.  “Just a little.”

“They’ve been playing us since the start,” I said.  “The men were batting their eyelashes at you and Canary, probably the targets they thought they could work.  Revel… I’d think she’s under some kind of compulsion.”

“A lot crazy,” Imp said.  “Way crazy.”

“Maybe Tattletale can chime in,” I suggested.  “Tattle?”

Mostly right.  Exalt, Revel, Vantage, Leonine, Floret, all fakes.”

“No shit,” Imp said.  Her mouth dropped open.  “No way.”

“Jig’s up,” I said.  “We know.”

One by one, the Vegas capes changed.  Flesh altered, and they assumed identical appearances.

Six copies of Satyrical.  Leaving only Spur and Nix.

One of the Satyricals looked at the two who remained.  “Take care of yourself.  I’ll see you shortly.”

“I know,” Spur said.

Satyr looked at us, as if taking us all in.  “And you, I suppose, we’ll run into.  Sooner or later.”

Then the Satyrs died.  Flesh withered, and the Satyrs crumpled up.  They made bloody messes as they hit the ground, like overripe tomatoes might, but with teeth and the occasional bit of withered organ.

Self duplication, and each duplicate had shapeshifting abilities.

I bent down and picked up the devices from the heads of Revel, Exalt and Vantage’s clones.  Earbuds, phones…

“Revel,” Cuff said, her voice small.

“Where are the real ones?” Golem asked.

“With the real Satyr,” I guessed.

“And how did he know the passwords?” Golem asked.

He guessed the cake thing through cold reading.  White with blue, like Weaver’s costume.  Made sense.  That Taylor didn’t eat much… well, look at herThe rest… torture?  Coercion through other means?”

“Torture?” I asked.

Spur raised his chin a bit, but didn’t do or say anything to suggest otherwise.

“Ew.”  Imp said, under her breath, “Ew, ew, ew.  He’s like, forty?  And he was hitting on me.”

“Where’s the portal?” I asked Spur, ignoring Imp.

“No portal.  Or weren’t you paying attention?”

I looked at Nix.  “You know where this goes, if you don’t cooperate.  Circumstances are a little too dire.  We knock you out, your power fades.  So why don’t you drop the illusion and let us see the portal?”

“My power stays up while I’m out,” she said.

I drew my knife.  The one that wasn’t special.

“Woah,” Golem said.  He put his hand on my wrist.  “Woah, woah, woah.”

“She’s bluffing,” Spur said, unfazed.  “She’s scary, she’s got a reputation, but she’s bluffing here.  There’s no way she follows through.”

“I think you’re badly underestimating how pissed off I am,” I said.  I was surprised at just how right I was.  The mounting anger caught me off guard.  “Doing this, screwing around, stabbing people in the back, screwing with the system when we’re trying to save humanity?”

“We’re saving it too,” Spur said.  “Satyr, the others, they’ve got this situation handled.  Give them… two or three more hours, and the threats are going to be dealt with, Cauldron will be secure, or as secure as they can be, after you account for injuries and deaths at the hands of the invading group.  You go in there, you’re just going to muck up a delicate exfiltration operation.”

“Invading?” Golem asked.

“The deviants.  The case-fifty-threes.  Weld’s group.”

Weld?  No.  He’d been one of the only decent ones out there, during my stay in Brockton Bay.  Respectable, honest, kind.  He’d saluted me the first time we’d crossed paths, because we were both going up against an Endbringer.

Fuck it all.

Either Spur was fucking with me, or things were fucked.  Fuck it all.

“People like you are the reason we deserve to lose,” I said, gripping the knife.  “Every step of the way, it’s been people refusing to cooperate, refusing to talk plain truth.  From day one, even.  You’re the reason humanity deserves to get wiped out.”

“Great,” he said.  “You’re still not going to use that knife on either of us.”

It was said with the smug tone of someone who could see the future.

I glanced at Canary.  I could see the hurt on her face.

“I get it,” Spur said.  “See it coming.  If it helps, I do remember the music.”

Rachel stepped forward, giving me a little push to get me out of the way, and then slugged him.

He dropped, unconscious.

Golem set about binding him to the cave floor with hands of stone.

I looked at Nix.  “Her too.”

Golem reached into his costume, and hands of stone gripped Nix.

“To the ceiling,” I decided, at the last second.

“Sure,” Golem said.  Hands of stone emerged, passing Nix up.  She struggled a bit, but she was at an unsafe height by the time she realized what he was doing.

She was bound to the cave ceiling with armholds, leg holds and an arm set across her collarbone.

“What the hell?” she asked.

“I don’t think any of your friends have powers that can break those hands,” I said.

“The hell?” she asked, again.  She tested her bonds.  “The fuck?”

“You better hope we make it out okay,” I said.  “Tattletale?”

“Pretty sure it’s to your left.  Start by going ten paces that way.”

I nodded.

We followed the directions.

The illusion broke, dissolving into harmless smoke, as we reached it and pressed hard enough against the wall in question.

With the barrier gone, I could feel the warm air from within, see a dark hallway without lights.

I looked at my teammates.

Maybe humanity deserves to lose, but these guys are why we’re going to win, I promised myself.

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Venom 29.1

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

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” I replied.

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

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

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

I nodded.  “Guess so.”

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

“Not so much.”

“Idiot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t get it.”

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

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

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

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

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

“She doesn’t talk,” Tattletale said.

“I know.  But I heard it.”

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

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

“Filed away,” Tattletale promised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No response, of course.

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

“Almost everyone.”

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

I shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head a little.

“Doorway,” Tattletale tried.

There was no response.  No portal, no door.

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

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

“We should go,” I said.

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

There were other threats.

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

That was our go signal.  We broke into stride.

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

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

“Yes ma’am.”

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

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

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

“I’ll make sure everyone’s informed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She changed the guns?” I observed.

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

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

“Why cosmetic?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Basically,” Tattletale said.

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

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

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

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

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

“About Scion,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A moment later, the connection was secured.

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

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

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

“The fuck?” I muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It took me a bit to realize why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something’s really wrong,” Tattletale said.

“With the distortions?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A workaround,” Vista said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, I found myself walking up to them.

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

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

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

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

“I agree,” Tecton said.

“Who’s looking into it?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Tattletale?” Rachel asked.

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

“Okay,” she said.

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

“She’s a member of the team.”

“But you miss her!  That’s awesome!”

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

“I thought you couldn’t stand her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I walked away,” Rachel said.

“Stuff a rat made?” I asked.

“Lab Rat,” Imp said.

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

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

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

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

Would the gains be additive?

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

“Two out of three odds,” Romp said.

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

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

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

“Ignore her,” Parian said.

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

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

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

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

“Biting people is more satisfying,” Rachel responded.

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

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

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

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

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

Romp turned around, eyebrows raised.

“A lap?”

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

“What am I supposed to fucking run around?”

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

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

“Five laps, then,”  Grace said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tecton nodded, “I can do that.”

I winced.  “There’s a flaw in that.”

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

Parian only extended a hand towards Rachel.

“What?” Imp asked.

Parian gestured again, pointing.

“I don’t get it… Rachel… oh.”

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

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

“I don’t care,” Rachel said.

She probably doesn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

A few people in the group exchanged glances.

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

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

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

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

Rachel repeated what he’d said.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…the cross species interactions.”

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

“I liked you guys.”

“But you didn’t love us.”

“No,” I said.

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I said.  “Probably.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now?

But Cuff was smiling, looking so intent.

Weaponized niceness.

“Right,” I said.  I turned to go.

And I could see people moving, running.

I felt a pit swell in my stomach.

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

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

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

There were nods all around.

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

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

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

Three ships, then four.

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

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

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

Had the fight already ended?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shot flew through the air.

Scion wheeled around and caught it.

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

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

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

His eyes were on Foil.

A golden light swelled in his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picking us off, choosing targets.

Maximizing pain and suffering over raw destruction.

Experimenting.

And there was precious little we could do about it.

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

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

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

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

It’s the beginning of the end.

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Cockroaches 28.4

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“We’re here,” I said.

It was enough.  All the different personalities in the Dragonfly, the… how had Tattletale put it, once upon a time?  The people who weren’t inclined to play ‘cops and robbers’, who weren’t the types to follow the rules or codes, and were dangerous without a firm hand.  Rachel, Lung, Sophia… they fell silent.  The fighting stopped.

Because they, even with their unique and personal issues, acknowledged that this wasn’t a situation where you fucked around.

Monitors switched settings without any cue from me.  Showing the Simurgh from a distance away, from a different angle.  Defiant had switched on his long-ranged cameras.

A moment later, he switched on the cameras in the Dragonfly.  The two sets of images alternated across the innumerable displays in the craft.  Only the display directly in front of me in the cockpit remained untouched, showing altitude, heading, speed, distance from target, and alerts regarding Scion’s latest appearances.

The Dragonfly changed course, angling to maintain a set distance from the Endbringer.  Again, not me.

Defiant seemed content to handle the mechanical end of things.  I stood from my seat, stretching a little, before gathering my bugs.  Two relay bugs, for safety’s sake.  They exited the craft.

No scream from the Simurgh.  At least, not one I could detect.  It would fit her to keep it beyond our notice, influencing us, the sort of card she would keep up her sleeve.  To make the psychic scream ‘audible’, for lack of a better word, purely for spreading fear, then use it subtly at a time when she wasn’t attacking.

The others in the ship hadn’t only gone silent.  They’d gone still.  I might have taken it for an almost hypnotic paralysis, a sign that something was deeply wrong, but Rachel turned and found a seat on the bench opposite Shadow Stalker.

No, they were still themselves.

My bugs made their way towards the Simurgh, while I chained the two relay bugs together to extend my range.

Fragile, as it only required the death of one bug to sever my connection with the swarm.  I didn’t mind.  If she acted on my swarm, that was likely to be the least of our worries.

Cameras changed focus, zooming in on the Simurgh’s face, hands and various wingtips, different cameras taking over as the Pendragon and the Dragonfly rotated around her and the cameras lost sight of the features in question.  Mosaic views of her features, broken up like I might see if I were looking through the eyes of my bugs, but without my power to coodinate the picture, draw it into something cohesive.

In the corner of each image, metrics, numbers, measurements, as if Defiant hoped to track the slightest movement.

It was the hair that got me.  Gossamer-fine, silver-white, straight, it blew in the wind as if each strand were a separate entity.  Not in clumps or locks, but a curtain of strands ten times as dramatic as something one might see in a digitally altered hair commercial.

Artificial.

“Seventy,” Tattletale said.

“Hm?” I asked.

“I said I was sixty-five percent sure before.  I’m revising it to seventy.”

I nodded.

Hello, Simurgh, I thought.  We finally meet.

The Protectorate was strict about who could join the fights against the Simurgh.  Capes needed psychological evaluations, they needed to sign documents agreeing to the quarantine procedures, and they needed to be on board with the timetables.

I’d been unable to participate when the Simurgh had attacked flight BA178.  When she’d attacked Manchester, I’d been barred from joining the fight by bureaucratic red tape.  I had a bad history and I was still on probation.  Too likely that I was mentally unstable.

When the Simurgh had hit Paris, I’d gone to Mrs. Yamada, hoping for a therapist’s bill of clean mental health.  Or, if not quite that, then at least a go-ahead.

She’d advised me to see it as a good thing, instead.  That my participation would be another black mark on my record, another reason for people to be suspicious of me or second guess my decisions.

She’d also very elegantly avoided spelling out that she wasn’t willing to give me that clean bill of mental health.  I’d noticed, but hadn’t pressed her on it.  She would have been forced to say it straight, and I would have had to hear her say it.

“Ready?” I asked.

“I do the talking, you pass it on,” Tattletale said.

I nodded.

Tattletale sighed.  “Look at her.  The folly of man, am I right?”

“I don’t know.  You have a better idea about whether you’re right, but it… doesn’t fit to me.”

“I’m sure.”

“You’re seventy percent sure.”

“Seventy percent, yes.  If I’m wrong, then I’ll be approaching this entire conversation from the wrong angle, and we might wind up siccing an otherwise passive Endbringer on humanity.”

“Let’s hope you’re right, then,” I said.

She nodded.

“Everyone ready?” I asked.  I looked around the craft.  No responses.  Only silent nods.

One head that was shaking.  Shadow Stalker.

I touched the screen on the console.  “Defiant?”

Ready when you are,” he said.

“We’re starting right now,” I said.  I nodded at Tattletale.

She rolled her shoulders, took in a deep breath, then sighed.  “Hello, Endbringer, this-”

I echoed her words, speaking through my bugs as an interpreter might speak in another language.

The instant I had the first word out, alarms went off throughout the ship.  The Dragonfly shuddered as meager weapons unfolded from the sides.  My visual of the Pendragon showed it was reacting much the same way.

Simurgh had reacted.

She hadn’t attacked, but she had reacted.

She rotated in the air, holding her position, wings flat at her sides.  The wings were purely ornamental, much as Behemoth’s bulk and musculature had been.  She used telekinesis to move, and she used it now to keep herself oriented in the air, rotating so she matched our orbit around her, her eyes and attention fully fixed on the Dragonfly.

“Oh, shit,” Imp spoke, her voice wavering breathlessly halfway through the ‘shit’.

Long seconds passed, but the Simurgh didn’t take any other action.

“Th- this is Tattletale speaking, one face in that vast, crazy crowd of humans you’ve been murdering,” Tattletale finished.  “Good to see you’re listening.  I thought it was about time we had a chat.”

No response, no movement.  Odd, to see the screens showing her depicting the zoomed-in images of her face, hands, wings and body and not see them rotating in the picture as they had been before.

Her expression was neutral, but then again, the Simurgh’s expression was always neutral.  A face like a doll’s, a cold stare.  Beautiful in every conventional sense, in that every classically attractive feature was there, from the delicate, thin frame to the high cheekbones to the luxurious hair… horrifying in the manner it was all framed.  The height that put her two to three times the height of an ordinary adult, the wings that filled the space around her.  The feathers were surprisingly tough and dense, the edges capable of scoring steel.

Not that she really fought in close quarters, where she could help it.

“Let’s face the facts, Simurgh.  Ziz.  Israfel.  Ulama.  Whatever you want to go by.  You started acting funny pretty much right away, after Eidolon bit it.  Maybe that’s mourning.  Maybe you respected him as an enemy, ’cause he was one of only two individuals who could really give you guys a run for your money.  Or maybe you had a different relationship.”

Tattletale let the words hang in the air.

“Maybe a parent-child relationship?  Maybe he created you.”

The Simurgh didn’t move a muscle.  Her hair blew in the wind, and it caught on the features of her face, not even eliciting a blink of her eyes.

I leaned over my chair to hit the button on my cockpit, giving me a view of the inside of the Pendragon.

Defiant, Narwhal, Miss Militia, Saint, Canary, Parian, Foil, Golem, Vista and Kid Win were all present within.  Defiant had collected the heroes, the capes who might have been less inclined to throw their hat into the ring if I showed up in the company of Tattletale, Imp and Rachel.  He’d been closer to Parian and Foil when I approached him with the plan.

I watched the expressions on their faces, the concern, the alarm and confusion I’d felt only minutes ago.  I knew Tattletale hadn’t shared this particular detail.  They had to be listening in with some microphone, either a directional one aimed at my swarm outside or one in the Dragonfly.

“They say loneliness breeds the best masters, and it’s awfully lonely at the top,” Tattletale said.  “Nobody that can really put up a fight, no excuse to flex his abilities to their fullest, nothing that can really give the man any real stature, next to Legend, who had all the face time with the media.  No real role to play, compared to Alexandria, who was managing the PRT.  Odd man out.”

I thought of Eidolon, the first time I’d seen him in person.  Meeting in preparation for the Leviathan fight in Brockton Bay… Eidolon had been standing off to one side, in a corner, lost in thought.

“Symbiotic, odd as it sounds, what with you trying to kill him and him trying to kill you.”

Still no reaction.  No response.

I noted the surroundings.  The Simurgh had situated herself above the ocean, an eerie parallel to how Scion had first appeared before humanity.  As battlegrounds went, it left her relatively little to manipulate when using her telekinesis, but it also gave us very little ground to stand on if a fight erupted.  She’d torn apart Flight BA178.  She could tear apart the Dragonfly or the Pendragon if she had a mind to.

Hopefully the other ship would be able to flee, if we couldn’t manage an outright fight.

Tattletale held up a hand, then spoke.  “She’s not giving me anything.”

I didn’t repeat it for the Simurgh.  I only stared at the screens.

“Did you expect her to?”  Imp asked.

“Yeah.  Kind of,” Tattletale said.

“She’s not human,” I said.  “And, if you’re right about this, she’s only a projection.  Her brain doesn’t work like ours does, if it’s even active.”

“She responded when we communicated,” Tattletale said.

I nodded.  “Defiant, you listening in?”

On the screen in front of us, Defiant turned to the camera, then nodded once.

“Open to suggestions,” I said.

“We could use powers to try and communicate,” Narwhal said.  “Can we express a signal through some other channel?  Through our powers?”

“It might be taken as an attack,” I said.

“She’s smart enough to figure out convoluted chains of cause and effect, but not to take a gesture of communication for what it is?”  Tattletale asked.  “I say we try it.”

“Oh my god,” Shadow Stalker said, her voice quiet.  “You’re going to get us all killed.”

“Well, it might be a mercy,” Imp said.  “Going out like that, not having to watch the golden man take humanity down piece by piece.”

“Could we try Canary?” I suggested.  “If she has any understanding of powers, or if Canary has any influence with things other than humans…”

I don’t,” Canary said, from within the Pendragon.  “I tried using my power on dogs, cats, birds, monkeys…

Tattletale nodded, like this was something expected.  “Bonesaw said something like that.  When we get our powers, the passenger manages this sort of scan, trying to figure out a way to apply a part of itself.  So Taylor gets a power that’s restricted to bugs, Canary gets a power that’s limited to people.  At the same time, the passenger kind of figures out if there’s any danger of the power harming us, physically or mentally, and it sets down safeguards and limits.  Headaches like Dinah or I get are part of that.  And Eidolon…”

“I don’t… I can’t believe all this,” a woman said.  Miss Militia.

“He’s really their creator?”  Defiant asked.  “Eidolon?”

“…Sixty percent sure.  Eidolon’s some kind of exception, on a lot of levels.  His power works by different vectors, the innate limits aren’t there… something broke, and I’m betting the Endbringers are tied to it.  Like, this entity is fissioning off into countless fragments that impregnate hosts and somehow a little extra gets tacked on.  Or Cauldron’s method of replicating the fragments gets that little extra.”

“Yes,” Defiant said.  “But how does that help us here?”

“Getting to that.  Sort of.  Every power has secondary uses, uses that are locked away.  But maybe there’s something we can express using the powers, like a kind of parahuman charades.  Not, you know, actually miming something, but giving off a vibe.”

“I’ll try whatever,” I said.  “Who?  How?”

Tattletale smiled.  “Oh, this is fun.  It’s like a puzzle, but it’s not one with a clear cut answer.  Rachel, Canary.  Um.  Imp too.  And Taylor’s right.  Any use of power in a way that could be seen as violent might give the wrong cue.  So… none of that.  Let’s move people between ships.  Bitch, to the Pendragon.  Leave Bastard behind.  Canary, can you get out on top of your ship?  And Imp, same for you.  We need to distance you from the rest of us.”

Outside?” Imp asked.

“Outside and away.  Where your power doesn’t necessarily have a target.  You get me?”

“Three people using their powers,” Defiant said, “Without any valid targets?”

Exactly,” Tattletale said.

“I could lose my bugs,” I said.  “But I’m not sure I can express my power in a case like that.”

“Even if you could, but that would be pretty heavy handed.  It’s what we try next if this fails.  For now, let’s work with the existing plan.”

I pulled off my flight pack, then handed it to Imp.

“Oh, fun,” she said.  “God damn it.”

“No quips?  No jokes?”  I asked.  I helped her find the buckles and straps.

“When I’m done, maybe,” Imp said.  She glanced at Tattletale.  “I can’t turn my power on.  It’s always on.  I can turn it off, but that only works so long as I’m paying attention.”

“Don’t pay attention then.  Leave it running.  We’re trying to express an attitude.”

Imp nodded.

“What attitude is Imp?” I asked.

“Nonviolence, passivity,” Tattletale said.  “At least as far as we’re concerned.”

“And Rachel?”

“A call to arms, expression of strength.”

“And Canary is… cooperation?”

“Something along those lines.”

I nodded.

Tattletale shrugged.  “Lung would be too violent, and the focus of Vista’s power is too… location-driven?  I have no idea how she’d take Narwhal’s power, because it’s pretty evenly split between offense and defense.”

“Kind of abstract,” I said.

“I’m… reaching,” Tattletale confessed.  “Definitely reaching.  But reaching and abstract thought bought us the portal to Gimel, and I’ve got to flex my power somehow.”

“Somehow,” I agreed.  “No, it’s worth a try.  Or it will be if it doesn’t provoke her to violently murder us all.  Can I make a suggestion, though?”

“Any suggestions are good,” Tattletale said.

“Send Shadow Stalker instead of Imp.”

“You bitch,” Shadow Stalker said.  “No.”

Awesome idea,” Imp said.

“Shadow Stalker’s power doesn’t express itself over an area or any particular medium,” Tattletale said.  “It’s more personal.”

“Can’t she represent us?”  I asked.  “Or can’t the personal effect represent us?  If we had Imp flying up there way out of range of any of us, we’re still expecting her to represent our group, or humanity as a whole, aren’t we?”

“Sort of,” Tattletale said.

“Then I’m not sure I see the difference,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Shadow Stalker said.  “This is moronic.  Charades and acting like powers are some kind of massive signal flag for the Endbringer?  You’re lunatics.”

“Send them both?” I suggested.

“Oh, that’s less fun,” Imp said.  “You had a working plan, and you’re letting Tattletale convince you otherwise.  Come on.  Send the psycho crossbow girl and I’ll hang back here.  My power would send the total wrong message.  Totally.”

“Shh,” Tattletale said.  She frowned.  “Why Shadow Stalker?”

“Because Imp… is too passive.”

Way too passive,” Imp murmured.

“So’s Shadow Stalker,” Tattletale said.

“But Shadow Stalker’s passenger isn’t.  If there are any undertones, any way that the passengers influence our actions, then Shadow Stalker was definitely influenced.  I dug through her old records, read up on her history.”

“What?” Shadow Stalker asked.

“She got aggressive after she got her powers.  Generally more…” I searched for the way to phrase it.

“You fucking looked at my records?”

“…More violent than most people would be, in her shoes.  Lashing out, aimlessly at first, and then with a target, channeling the aggression.  Except it was the same amount of violence, just concentrated into fewer incidents, alongside a pretty extensive bullying campaign.”

“You’re doing this because of a grudge?”

“Let’s do it,” Tattletale said.  “Go with our guts.  Imp and Shadow Stalker, up on the roof.  Bitch, either you or Bastard need to head over to the Pendragon.  Canary on the roof of the Pendragon, singing with nobody listening.”

“You’re not getting me outside or any of that shit,” Shadow Stalker said.

“You’re scared,” Imp said.  “That’s so cute!  Is it a fear of heights or a fear of the Simurgh?”

“I’m not scared,” Shadow Stalker replied.  “I’m being sensible.  This is lunacy, and for what?  Charades with the Endbringer?”

“That was a metaphor,” Tattletale said.

“It sounds fucking stupid.”

“I’ve changed my mind,” Imp said.  “I’m going.  I’m not going to get lumped in with Sissy McNancypants over here and get called a coward.”

“I’m not scared,” Shadow Stalker said.

“We never really got to meet,” Imp said.  “Fight or any of that.  So I’ve only got the stories I’ve heard about you.  Like when you shot Grue with your crossbow and it went right through his stomach?  Took him a month to recover?  I used to think, you know, you were a badass.  But you’re a pussycat.”

“She’s a bully,” I said.  “At the end of the day, she only wants to fight opponents she knows she can beat.”

“I’ve fought two Endbringers,” Shadow Stalker said, stabbing a finger in my direction.  “I know what you’re trying to do.  Fucking manipulating me, getting me into a dangerous situation where you’ll get me killed.  Fuck you.”

“Fought two Endbringers as part of an army.  But going up alone, putting yourself in the line of fire against something that much bigger and stronger than you?  No.  You’re a bully at heart, and that’s the antithesis of your usual M.O.”

“Fuck you, Hebert.  Fuck you.”

The sentence left her mouth, and then she stalked to my right, making her way to the cockpit.  She passed through the glass, making her way onto the nose of the ship, where she crouched.  Her flapping cloak obstructed the view, even as translucent as it was, but there was no chance we’d hit anything.

It took a minute to arrange.  Narwhal created a force field platform and carefully moved Rachel over to the Pendragon.  I watched their glacially slow movement and the utterly still Simurgh.

More alarms went off as she moved her head a fraction to watch the floating platform.

It took a few long seconds for my heart to stop trying to jump out of my chest.  Not completely oblivious to us petty humans.

“The girl is right.  This seems… ridiculous,” Lung rumbled.

Oh, Lung and Shadow Stalker are of like mind, that’s wonderful.

“It is, just a little,” Tattletale said.  “But I’m hoping that if this doesn’t exactly work, she’ll give us credit for trying.”

“The Endbringers do not give you credit,” Lung said.

“No, guess not,” Tattletale said.  She bent down to scratch Bastard around the ears, then stopped short when he pulled back, clearly uncomfortable with the stranger.

“Ridiculous,” Lung repeated himself.  “And you stopped in the middle of a conversation.  She is waiting for you to continue.”

“She doesn’t care.  Ninety-nine percent sure.  Gotta understand, she’s not even close to human, especially once you scratch the surface.  We think in black and white, she thinks in… void and substance.  In abstracts or in causative contexts, looking into the future and seeing how things unfold.  So we’re going to try this, and maybe something sticks.”

“Mm,” Lung said, clearly unimpressed.

“Start us up again?”  Tattletale asked me.

I nodded.

“So, Simmy, Eidolon made you, or he’s been enough of an opponent that you’ve kind of got that weird frenemy thing going on.  Not in the shitty high school way, but a real love-hate relationship.  You know what I mean.  You fight them so long you get to know them, you almost respect them on a level, and that respect becomes something more.”

“You’re rambling,” I murmured.

Tattletale shook her head a little.  “Whatever the case, you’re reacting to his being gone.  We’re here because we’re asking you…”

Tattletale trailed off.  She’d noticed something.

My head turned.  Canary was singing, and I could hear it through my bugs.

Wordless, insistent, filled with a lot of repressed emotion.

Almost angry.

I shut it out as best as I could, took a second to focus wholly on keeping my power from communicating any sound to me.  I hit a button on the dashboard, then spent a few seconds tracking down one of Dragon’s programs.

Defiant found it first, loading it onto the Dragonfly’s system.  It began filtering out the singing.  Most of it.

But no sooner had Canary’s Song gone away than the Simurgh began screaming.

Not as intense as I’d heard it described.  Barely audible.

More ominous than anything.

Not full strength,” Miss Militia’s voice came over the comms.  “I give us five minutes.  Wrap this up.”

I unclenched my hands, belatedly realizing I’d been squeezing them so hard they almost hurt.  My fingernails throbbed where they’d been almost bent against my palms.  If I’d not been wearing my gloves, I might have pierced the skin.  I flexed my hands to work out the tension that had accumulated and exhaled slowly.

“We’re here,” Tattletale started again, “Because we’re asking you for help.  For vengeance.  For your strength.  We want you and the rest of the Endbringers on board to stop Scion.”

The Simurgh didn’t react.

“I don’t care if you’re doing it to fuck with us, though I’d prefer it if you saved any backstabbing for when Scion’s dead and gone.  Fucking wipe us out.  I don’t care.  Just so long as we go out with a bang, taking him out with us.”

I made a hand gesture, urging Tattletale to move on.

“…Do it for the psychological impact, leave a mark.  Or do it because Scion killed Behemoth, your brother, and some part of you is programmed with a sense of kinship or whatever.  But above all else, I’m hoping you’ll help us murder that golden alien motherfucker because he killed Eidolon, and he stripped you of your purpose.”

Sixty percent sure, I thought.  Tattletale had revised her number.  How confident was she now?

The speech had no meat to it if Eidolon hadn’t made the Endbringers.

Very little if he had.

Tattletale held up her hand to me again, another sign that I shouldn’t repeat what she was saying, because she was talking to us.  “Fuck this.  It’s like talking to a fucking answering machine.  I feel like some dim asshole with no idea what I’m talking about.  There’s no feedback, no responses to read and judge for the next line.”

“Well,” I said.  “She’s not exactly your usual target.”

What do you usually do?”  Narwhal asked.

“Needle someone until they get upset, then find cues in that.  I’d do that here, except irritating the Simurgh seems like an excuse to get a Darwin Award.”

Tattletale’s being cautious.  Must be the end of the world after all,” someone said.  Might have been Foil.

“She’s singing,” Tattletale said.  “So that’s either a good sign or a very bad sign.”

Going by the numbers,” Miss Militia said, “If we assume it’s half strength, I’d say three minutes before we have to abort.

“Maybe tell Canary to stop,” I said.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “We’re getting a response.  Let’s hold out.”

Then keep talking,” Defiant said.

Tattletale sighed.  She perched herself on the bench, hands on her head.  “I don’t know if I should continue buying into this Eidolon thing.  Less convinced the further we go.  Most times, you get that key piece of information, and you can coast from there.”

“It’s very possible we don’t have enough information,” I said.

“I’m trying to communicate with something that doesn’t communicate back,” Tattletale said.

Reduce,” Defiant said.  “We’re trying to convey a message to a being that we don’t wholly understand.  You’re appealing to sympathy, to revenge.  Something simpler?

Like?” Tattletale asked.

They have a sense of self preservation,” Narwhal said.  “They run when we hurt them enough.  Fear?

“Because it allows them to maintain their mission,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t think we can actually scare her, either.  Scion might, but we can’t.”

The screaming was getting worse.  Warbling, with highs and lows.  It snagged on my attention, making it harder to maintain a train of thought.

Maybe she was reaching out to us, communicating.  Maybe she was just doing her thing, trying to worm her way into our heads so she could figure out how we functioned, put her plans into motion.

Anger,” Rachel said.

I turned my head.

There was a long pause.  I glanced at the screen on the cockpit to see what she was doing, but she’d stopped by the time I got there to look.  “When I cut Behemoth’s leg off, after we’d melted most of him away, he was angry.  Stomped around, attacked more.  Kept fighting until he died.  Didn’t he?

“He did,” Tattletale said.  “But now we’re getting back to the whole ‘needling them’ issue of the debate.  I’m pretty sure I don’t want to provoke her.”

“Dunno,” Rachel said.  “Just saying.”

“No,” I said, “It’s good thinking.  It’s a possibility.”

I could think back to the images of the Simurgh going all-out.

I remembered the various incidents that had unfolded in her wake.  Echidna, the sundering of the PRT.  Things with ramifications that were affecting us even now.

“…A very scary possibility,” I amended.

Lung gave me a funny look.

“Yes,” he said, agreeing with me.

Tattletale made a gesture, pointing at herself.

“Go ahead,” I said.

“Okay, Ziz.  I’m going to be honest.  You’re pretty fucked.  You and I both know you were made by somebody or something.  Accidentally, probably.  You were designed to give us as hard a time as possible without exterminating us altogether, probably to feed someone’s ego, unbeknownst to them.  But what happens when we’re all gone?  What’s the fucking point of you?”

Tattletale paused.  Waiting, watching.

No reaction from Tattletale.

“What happens when we’re all gone?  You’re tapped into a power source.  Maybe most power sources.  You’re draining them dry just to keep yourselves going.  There’s nothing for you to do but linger, when there’s no humans left.  To hibernate.  So you’re gathering your forces.  You’re planning one last act, probably for a few days from now, where you wipe out humanity, and I’m betting it’s one last desperate, sad attempt to validate your existence.”

Alarms went off once more.  The Simurgh had moved, her head turning to look over one shoulder, flexing wings to move them out of the way, as if she couldn’t see through them but she could see well past the horizon.

She returned to the same posture as before.

“What was that about?” I asked.

Checking,” Defiant said.  “Keep going.  Any reaction is a good reaction.”

Maybe it was Scion, arriving just in time to pick a fight with the Simurgh.

I could hope.

Tattletale continued, and I repeated what she was saying verbatim, trying to even match her in tone and pitch.  “Here’s what I’m thinking.  Shot in the dark.  You’re wanting to fight humanity because you’re trying to carry out the old programming, and Scion invalidated that by killing Eidolon, by killing someone else or destroying something.  I think that fighting and nearly killing a few billion humans is the equivalent of fighting and nearly killing Eidolon.  Or whoever.”

“One hundred and eighty integers of longitude to the west,” Defiant said.  “Leviathan just arrived.  That’s what got her attention.  We expected one to appear there, so Chevalier ordered us to put crews there with cameras for monitoring.  They’re there right now, reporting to me.”

A monitor shifted, depicting Leviathan, standing on the water’s surface in the midst of a heavy rainstorm.  The water around him was rippling, though he was utterly still.

Tattletale continued without pause, not responding or reacting to this information.  “All I’m saying, all I’m proposing, is that Scion’s a better bet than we are.  You want to give someone a fucking hard time?  Make that someone Scion.  You want to terrorize people?  Terrorize Scion.  Bigger challenge, and you’ll probably have the rest of us fucking scared out of our minds if you pull it off.  You want to fucking end the world?  Get in line, chickadee, because Scion’s going to beat you to the punch if you don’t stop him.”

Tattletale was almost breathless, speaking faster, with more emotion.  It was a challenge to convey that with a voice generated by the swarm.

“Or maybe you don’t care.  Maybe you’re nothing more than what you appear to be on the surface.  Head games and taking credit for shit you didn’t do.  Maybe you’re just a projection, blank between the ears, mindless, heartless, pointless.”

The ship moved a fraction, then adjusted, the autopilot kicking in.

“Did you feel that?”  I asked.  Tattletale had gone silent, and there were no words left for me to translate.

We did.

A reaction?  I adjusted the monitors, turning everything back to the Simurgh, looking for any clue, any hint.

But she didn’t have body language.  Every action was deliberate.  She didn’t have any that weren’t.

Tattletale’s voice was low.  I did what I could to match it, speaking through a swarm of over a million individual insects and arachnids.  “You’re supposedly this magnificent genius, and this is how you go out?  With a whimper?  Petering out like a stream without a source?  You’re honestly telling me there isn’t anything more to you?”

Another rumble, another shift, somewhat more violent.

Enough, Tattletale.”  Defiant’s voice.

“They run on different patterns.  Fair bit of anger, room for some vengeance.  Cleverness, sure.  More in her than in Behemoth.  Some killer instinct, maybe… a blend of fear and caution.  Not so they’re afraid, but so they can temper their actions.  This?  Right here?  It’s the closest we’re about to get to communicating directly with a passenger.”

I understand,” Defiant said.  “But that’s enough.

“They’re passengers?” I asked.

“The shell?  No.  The outer shell, the concept, the execution, they’re tapping into religious metaphors.  The devil, the serpent, the angel, buddha, mother earth, the maiden, each connected in turn to fundamental forces.  Flame, water, fate, time, earth, the self.  Things deep-seated and fundamental to their creator’s belief system, because that’s how the passengers interpret our world.  Through us.  But deep down?  Beyond that surface, beyond the basic programming that drives them to do what they’ve been doing for thirty years?  It’s the passenger’s brush strokes.  And I’m getting to her.”

No you’re not,” Defiant said.  “Because you’re stopping now.

“Fuck that,” Tattletale said.

“You’re stopping now because it worked.”

One by one, the monitors throughout the Dragonfly shifted, until the one at the very front was the only one that still showed the Simurgh.

The Dragonfly changed course as we looked at the scene that was showing on every other monitor.

The Azazel, airborne.  D.T. officers within were standing by the windows, while one with a camera was holding it above their heads, aiming it towards the window, pointed at the water.

A dark mass was beneath.

Leviathan, matching pace with the ship.

The Dragonfly and Pendragon broke from their orbit around the Simurgh.

The Simurgh followed.

The Yàngbǎn tore through the settlement, barely visible, as fast as arrows loosed from a bow.

One set of powers to give them speed, another to give them the ability to create crude images, illusions, blurry and indistinct.

A weak power, but far less so when coupled with the fact that they were making themselves just as blurry and indistinct.  To top it off, they were making themselves invisible for fractions of a second, and they were lashing out with short blades of cutting energy when they reappeared, slicing through the Australian refugees.

Bombs went off, coordinated, ripping through the spaces the Yàngbǎn had already passed through, cleaning up the ones who’d survived, killing the rescue personnel who were trying to save lives.

Earth Tav, barely two million people spread out across the globe, with this being the largest population center, based around the portal that Faultline, Labyrinth and Scrub had erected.

Without this base for supplies and communication, the other settlements would falter.  Disease would be crippling, food would be scarce at best.

And the Yàngbǎn would no doubt reap the rewards, claiming the planet for the C.U.I.

The Pendragon led the way through the portal, and it suffered the brunt of the bombs that the Yàngbǎn had left in their wake, no doubt to stop any reinforcements.

The Pendragon sank, no longer fully airborne, and the Dragonfly’s cameras could see as Golem, Vista and Cuff did what they could to patch it together.

Not enough.  It landed, hard.

Another bomb went off as the Pendragon hit ground.  Had the Yàngbǎn plotted that?  A second line of defense?

“Everyone okay?” I asked.

Give us a minute.  Nobody dead.

At least the Pendragon was a combat ship, meant to take a beating.  If the Dragonfly had been the first one through, we would have been obliterated.  At best, we’d have managed to evacuate with parachutes, flight packs and shadow-form powers.

We passed through the area the Pendragon had cleared.  One small ship against what had to be thirty Yàngbǎn members.  They didn’t move, but flickered, existing as scarce smudges and streaks of black and an odd midnight blue from the regions of their heads.  They cast out more smudges in matching colors with their image generation powers, turned invisible for one or two seconds at a time when they saw opportunities to catch refugees off guard.  Some merely killed.  Others slashed at eyes or ears, removed hands.  Butchered.

What would the C.U.I. want with scores of butchered people?

It wasn’t really the fault of the individual Yàngbǎn members.  They were brainwashed, subsumed into this collective of shared powers, their identities erased.

But that didn’t make their actions forgivable.

The Simurgh followed behind the Dragonfly, moving each wing until it was pointed straight behind her as she sailed through the narrow, oddly-shaped portal.

When she unfolded her wings, extending each until a veritable halo of them surrounded her, a complete circle, I could feel my heart skip a beat.

“We need to give her orders,” Tattletale said.

I nodded, mustering my swarm into a group large enough to communicate.

But there was no need.  She flew past us.

The singing had died down, but it welled up at full strength.  I almost staggered.

Rubble began to peel away from the demolished settlement beneath us.  Metal, bombs, pieces of structures.

As she reached less damaged areas, she picked up construction vehicles.

The fragments of metal around her were like a dense cloud, almost obscuring her, massive wings and all.

The singing increased in pitch.

A bomb detonated in the midst of the storm of debris, breaking up a bulldozer in the process.

Below her, the scene had gone still.  Yàngbǎn raider and civilian alike had gone still.  The smudges consolidated into forms.

Not the same Yàngbǎn I’d encountered before.  These ones wore similar outfits, but there were bodysuits beneath, no bare skin.  The multifaceted gem designs that covered their faces were dark blue, their costumes black.

Infiltrators.  A sub-set.  One of five sub-groups, apparently.

The debris settled into a single shape, drawing together.  Nothing welded, nothing screwed in together.  Merely a crude device, held together by telekinesis.

A fat, snub-nosed cannon, twice as long as she was tall.  She fired it, and the resulting bullet was nearly ten feet across, a sphere of hot metal.

It crashed into a trio of Yàngbǎn.

She used her telekinesis to sweep it off to the right.  The misshapen bullet was compressed into a rough sphere in the time it took to soar down a long road, smashing through two members of the Yàngbǎn.  A bystander was clipped, spinning violently before collapsing in a heap.  Shattered arm and ribs, if not dead.

I bit my lip.

Don’t injure civilians,” I communicated through the swarm.

She gave no sign she’d listened.  Her telekinesis grabbed four members of the Yàngbǎn who’d gotten too close, lifting them by their costumes or by some other debris that had surrounded them.

As if launched by catapults, they flew straight up, where they disappeared into the clouds above.

I winced as the screaming increased in intensity by another notch.

Did she have to do that?

I felt a touch of paranoia, not just at the idea, but at the fact that I’d been concerned.  Paranoia over the fact I was feeling paranoid.

The Simurgh had crafted another gun.  They floated around her like satellites, firing only in those intermittent moments when she’d formed and loaded the necessary ammunition.

Those are my guns,” Kid Win reported over the comms.  “Bigger, but mine.

I didn’t like that she was screaming.  It set an ugly tone to this whole venture.

I really didn’t like that we couldn’t direct her that well.  We were ending this confrontation decisively, we were probably even doing it more cleanly and with less damage to civilians than there would be if we’d handled it ourselves.

But we’d brought the Simurgh here and people were getting hurt as collateral damage.  That was on us, everything else aside.

“I… don’t know what to feel right now,” Imp said.

“It doesn’t feel good,” I said.

“I wish I knew what I’d said that got her on board,” Tattletale said.  “I went with the shotgun approach, trying to see what stuck… and now I don’t know what to leverage if we need to do it again.”

“You’re so whiny,” Rachel said.  “You say we need her help, we got it.  Good.  Maybe now we can fight.”

“Mm,” Lung grunted.  “This is true.  But I’ve seen what happens if you do something like this, something big, and you fall.  You fall hard.”

I nodded at that.  “Wise words, Lung.  Well said.”

“Do not talk to me,” he rumbled.

I only shook my head.

“Fuck me, you guys are serious?”  Shadow Stalker murmured.  “This is good?  This is luck.  There’s a reason I stick to my fists and my crossbow.  They’re reliable.  This Endbringer thing most definitely isn’t.”

“Of course it isn’t,” I said.  “But you know that whole saying, finding a boyfriend?  Young, smart, wealthy, pick two?  We don’t get to pick two, here.  Options at the end of the world: clean, safe, effective, pick one.”

“We got Bohu, but she doesn’t move fast at all,” Tattletale said.  “Leviathan’s on his way to pay the Elite a visit.  Collateral damage could be ugly there.”

“It isn’t sustainable,” I said.  “Somehow, I don’t think they’re going to sit still if we ask them to.  What happens if we run out of enemies to attack?  If we need to put Leviathan to work and there aren’t any targets that don’t involve even more collateral damage than we’ll see when he attacks the Elite?”

“People are going to fall in line damn fast,” Tattletale said.

“Probably,” I said.  “Or they’ll run for the hills.”

“Win-win,” Tattletale said.  “We were saying we needed people to split up more.”

The Simurgh opened fire, striking out with three guns, striking a neighborhood that had already been reduced to dust and flame by a series of bomb blasts.

“Somehow,” Imp commented, “This doesn’t scream win-win to me.”

I nodded.

“Nothing saying this isn’t another clever plan, set up to fuck with us, destroy our last shreds of hope,” I said.

The Yàngbǎn were opening fire.  Projectiles that moved slowly, splitting in the air until there was a virtual storm of them.  Had they been aimed at the Dragonfly, we wouldn’t have been able to dodge.  The Simurgh flew between the bullets like they weren’t even a concern.  Debris blocked the shots.

In the midst of her maneuvering, she drew together a third gun from the storm of debris.

Then she somersaulted, heels over head as she rapidly shifted direction.

In the moment it took her to build acceleration, she looked directly at the camera.

Directly at me.

She’d heard me, she understood, and she had responded.

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Extinction 27.1

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The news came through the earbuds, and it was like a shockwave rippled through our assembled ranks.  Some of the strongest of us dropped to their knees, staggered, or planted their feet further apart as though they were bracing against a physical impact.

The one Azazel that was still in the area landed atop one of Bohu’s buildings, nearly falling as a section slid off to drop to the empty street below.  It found its footing and roosted there.

The pilot couldn’t fly, and the A.I. wasn’t willing or able to take over.

The other capes were talking, shouting, asking questions, sometimes to nobody in particular.  With the blood churning in my ears, I couldn’t make out the words.  I’d used my bugs to find Hookwolf’s core, but they’d been decimated twice over in the process, and I wasn’t interested in trying to use them to figure out what was being said.

I could guess.

I raised my arms, then found myself unsure what to do with them.  Hug them against my body?  Hit something?  Reach out to someone?

I let my hands drop to my sides.

I opened my mouth to speak, to shout, to cry out, swear at the overcast sky above us.

Then I shut it.

There were no words.  Anything I could do or say felt insignificant in the grand scheme of it all.  I could have used every bug in the city to utter something, something meaningful or crude, and it still would have felt petty.

I looked at the others.  Clockblocker was with Kid Win and Vista, Crucible and Toggle were nearby, on the back of a PRT van, bandaged.  They were looking over their shoulders at the screen mounted on the wall of the van.  Footage, covering ruined landscapes, and what had used to be the United Kingdom.

Parian and Foil were hugging.  Odd, to see Foil hunched over, leaning on Parian for support, her forehead resting at the corner of Parian’s neck and shoulder.  The crossbow had fallen to the ground, forgotten.

I wanted something like that.  To have a team close, to hold someone.  I hadn’t had something like that in a good while.

Chevalier was a distance away, his cannonblade plunged into the ground so he didn’t need to hold it, a phone to his ear.  He was talking, giving orders, and demanding information.

Revel was stock still, not far from him.  I watched as she stepped back, leaning against a wall, then let herself slide down until she was sitting on the street.  She placed her head in her hands.

I’d never known her to show any weakness.  She’d always been on the ball, always the leader.  I knew how much concussions sucked, and I’d seen her carry on and contribute to the Behemoth fight when she was reeling from one.

It hit me harder than I might have expected, to see that.

Tecton was standing a distance away, almost frozen, his eyes on the screen of his armband.  Golem did the same, but he wasn’t still.  He paced, looking around for guidance and finding none, then turned back to the screen, watching.

Glancing at the images from a distance, I could see the figure, the speck visible on the long range camera, surrounded by a golden nimbus.

I wasn’t close enough to make out details.  Only staccato flares of golden-white light.  On the third, the screens fizzled, showing only brief gray static, then darkness.

Another target hit.  He’d taken his time on that one, measured the attacks.

I took out my earbud before the report could come in.  Not my focus right now.

Instead, I reached for my phone.  I dialed the Dragonfly.

Would the A.I. be able to cope?  Saint had apparently pulled something.

If there was any hint he fucked us here, he’d pay for it.

The phone responded with a message.  An ETA.

My eyes turned to Rachel.  She was more agitated than Golem, her attention on her dogs.  She used a knife to cut away the excess flesh and retrieve the animals from the placenta-like sacs within their bodies, and the actions were aggressive, vicious, savage.  Her expression was neutral, but I could see the way the muscles shifted in her back, beneath the sleeveless t-shirt she wore, the tension, the way she was hunched over.

The attitude fit the Bitch I’d been introduced to, way back when I’d first joined the Undersiders, not the Rachel I’d come to know, who’d found a kind of peace.

Angry, defensive, bewildered.  Scared of a world she didn’t comprehend.  Aggressiveness was the default, the go-to route when there weren’t any answers.

It dawned on me.  I sympathized.  Given a chance, given something to do in that same vein, hacking through dead meat with a knife for some defined purpose, I might have acted exactly the same way.

She flinched as I approached, as if I were invading her personal space.  When she turned and glanced at me out of the corner of one eye, glowering, the tension faded.

I drew my own knife and started helping.  Bugs flowed into the gap and gave me a sense of where the sac was.  I was able to cut without risking cutting the dog inside.  It helped that my knife was sharp.

We were both sweating by the time we finished.  Rachel had already been sweating from more physical exertion, and her hair was stuck to her shoulders at the ends.  The German Shepherd got free, walked a polite distance away and then shook herself dry.

I looked at my phone, my gray gloves crimson with the dog’s blood.  There were incoming messages.  Updates on the damage, the disaster, and on Scion’s current location.

I ignored them, looking for the Dragonfly’s status.

Minutes away.  It had already been headed into the area by default, tracking me by my GPS, ready to maintain a constant distance until I was prepared to call for it.

That was fine.  I started walking down the length of the street, my back to the others, to the Azazels and the heroes.  Rachel fell into step just a bit behind me, her dogs and Bastard accompanying us.

Parian and Foil were still hugging.  I paused as we passed them, tried to think of how to word the invitation.

Parian’s eyes weren’t visible, hidden behind the lenses on the white porcelain mask she wore.  I hadn’t thought she was looking at me, but she shook her head a little.

Good.  Easier.  I left them behind.

The Dragonfly started to land in an open area, an intersection of two streets.  Moments later, the ground began to crumble.  The craft shifted position, coming perilously close to striking a building as it avoided falling into the hole that had appeared in the street.  A trap.

Rachel boarded the craft.  As I waited for the dogs and Bastard to join us, I looked into the pit.  As deep as a six or seven story building was tall.

I turned away, boarding the Dragonfly.  I plotted a course, then took manual control of the craft.

The A.I. was better at flying than I was, but flying meant I didn’t have to think.  Didn’t have to worry about what I was about to find out.

Rachel didn’t seat herself at the bench along the wall, or even at the chair behind mine.  She sat down beside me, on the floor of the Dragonfly, her back against the side of my seat, the side of my leg, staring out the narrow side window.  It was physical contact, reassurance, seeking that same reassurance from me.  Her dogs settled on either side of her, Bastard resting his head on her lap.

We had the whole country to cross.  Every few minutes brought more visuals, more reminders of what had occurred.  Highways grew choked with cars.  Countless vehicles had stopped at the sides of roads, at the edges of fields and at the fringes of small towns.

Innumerable people running, seeking escape.  Except there wasn’t anyplace good to escape to.

No.  That wasn’t true.  There was.

But the degree of the damage done was becoming clear.  Before we even reached the East coast, I could see the damage done to the landscape.  Smoke was only just settling around the cracks and fissures, fallen bridges and ruined highways.  People were making concerted attempts to move, to leave, but every step of the way brought more difficulties, more forced detours.  Some had abandoned cars altogether, wading or swimming across rivers to make their way.

Every step of the trip revealed more devastation, successively more vehicles choking roads and highways, forging paths around impassable roads.  More and more people were forging ahead on foot, in crowds, because walking was faster than travel by car.

More helicopters, marked with red crosses, had taken to the skies.  Travel by ambulance wasn’t doable.

This was one place.  One moment’s attack.  The display in the cockpit was showing more locations hit.  Libya, Russia, France, Sweden, Iran, Russia again, China…

Time passed.  Forty-five minutes from the point in time I started paying attention to the clock, searching for a yardstick to try to track the scale of what I was seeing on the surface.  How much worse did things get in five more minutes of traveling?  In ten?  It all seemed to get exponentially worse as the Dragonfly took flight.  It wasn’t just that we were getting closer to the point where the attack had hit.  Enough time had passed that people could react, now, realizing just how severe this was.  All of the power of Behemoth, mobility almost on par with Khonsu.

The psychological toll of a Simurgh attack.

These were the people with a strategy.  Doing just what I’d be doing if I were one of the unpowered.  The world was doomed, so they sought to flee to another world.  Problem was, there were tens of millions of them, and the escape routes were scarce at best.

The best known escape route: Brockton Bay.

I felt my heart sink as we approached the coast.  Mountains I’d grown up with weren’t there.  I let the autopilot take over as we got closer, approaching an airspace choked by rescue aircraft.

I didn’t trust my own hands.

It had collapsed.  The blast had only struck the northern edge of Brockton Bay, then changed orientation, striking through the bay itself to slice through the very foundation the city sat on.  Everything had been dropped a solid thirty or forty feet.  Tall buildings had collapsed and only the squatter, sturdier structures and those fortunate enough to come to rest against other buildings were still mostly erect.

Folding and collapsing, the entire city had been shattered, no section of the ground more than twenty-five feet across remained fully intact.  The landscape rose and fell like waves, petrified and left frozen in time.

The portal tower had fallen, but the portal remained there, oddly bright, too high to reach on foot.  Work crews were struggling to erect something beneath, so the civilians could finish their journeys.  The new arrivals were alternately joining in with the construction and making their way inside by way of rope ladders.

Elsewhere, there were capes and rescue crews trying to contain the fallout around the scar.  A structure had been raised to seal it off, but the collapse of the city had released the contents.  A lot of containment foam was being deployed to slow the spread of a pale patch of earth, and there was one spot of fire that didn’t seem to be going out.

But the most eye-catching thing was a thin, scintillating forcefield that was holding off the water.  It was taller than any building that had stood in the city, an artificial dam.  Every few minutes, it flickered for a tenth of a second, and water would flood through to seep into the gaps and fissures.  In time, I suspected, the water would cover everything in the area but the tallest buildings and the hills.  Arcadia High might stick around.  Maybe.

I recognized the rainbow hues.  It was the same force field that had been intended to protect the Protectorate headquarters.  Leviathan had torn the structure apart at the roots, and the tidal wave had knocked it into the city proper.  In the time since I’d left, they’d repurposed the fallen structure and the forcefield setup.

Not, apparently, to try to block Scion’s attack.  No.  This was more to stop the water, to break that initial wave, so it wouldn’t simply sweep the ruins out to sea.

I could only hope they’d done similar things elsewhere, to minimize the damage.

We circled the city twice before I gave the go-ahead for the A.I. to start descending.

My second sense extended through the area as we approached the ground, extending out to the bugs that were scattered throughout the ruined, shattered city.  I immediately set them to work, searching, scanning, investigating.

I changed the course, dictating a final, slow, sweep of the city.

Not everyone had made it.  Stupid to think they might.

My dad’s house was gone, collapsed.  Nobody inside.

Winslow High, gone.

The mall, the library, Fugly Bob’s, the boat graveyard, my old hideout, gone.

My old territory, unrecognizable.  The Boardwalk was underwater now.

It didn’t even take him seconds to do.

Too many dead, not enough who were merely wounded and unable to walk.  Humans were so fragile in the end.  I stopped the Dragonfly and stepped out to seek out the first wounded.  My bugs signaled rescue teams to get their attention.

The wounded here could have been my dad’s coworkers.  People he went out to drinks with.  They could have been Charlotte’s underlings.

So easy, in the midst of it all, to lose track of the fact that these were people.  People with families, friends, with dreams, lives and goals.

Golem had said something like that, hadn’t he?

How many people had simply been erased in the wake of something this random, so instantaneous?  So inexplicable?  I still wasn’t sure what had happened.  Tattletale was supposed to fill people in, but she hadn’t gotten in contact with me.

Or had she?  I’d taken my earbud out.  I looked to my phone, looked for transmissions.

A burst of messages, following just after takeoff.  From the Chicago Protectorate, people who might have been my teammates if I’d ever been inaugurated.  More messages, from Chevalier and the Brockton Bay teams.

I didn’t read them all.  My eyes on the phone, I pointed the search and rescue to the next batch of wounded.  I knew it was cold, but the corpses would have to wait.  There were living people to find.

There were no shortage of corpses.  The number of living people, by contrast, well… we’d see what happened in the next twenty-four hours.

The number of messages declined about thirty minutes after takeoff, then stopped altogether.  Everyone who might have wanted to talk to me had found other things that needed doing.  Other priorities, personal or professional.

Which was exactly why I was here.  I’d just arrived at that conclusion earlier than they had.  I put my phone away.

My mouth was pressed into a firm line as I helped the rescue workers.

We lifted a corner of a second floor’s floor, making room for someone get under and start retrieving a pair of women.  Rachel whistled and pointed, and her German Shepherd seized the floor in its jaws.

The rescue workers seemed to hesitate with the dog’s presence, so I took the lead, crawling inside on my stomach.  I used my hands with the arms on my flight pack to move enough debris that we could slide the second woman out.

There were more.  Almost without thinking about it, I let myself slide back into the mindset I’d held for the past two years.  Sublimating what I wanted to do in favor of doing what needed to be done.

Minutes ran into one another as we worked.  I could see Rachel growing progressively more short-tempered, slower to give the orders, hanging back, rushing with the jobs.

That ended when we rescued a child that had a puppy wrapped in her arms.  She clutched the limp animal like it was a security blanket, not crying, not speaking.  She only stared at the ground, coughing hoarsely whenever she had to move.  Her parents had been on either side of her, and neither had made it.

The paramedics fit her with an oxygen mask, but they failed to pry the animal from her arms.

I looked at Rachel, but she only shook her head.

Rachel’s power healed animals, but this one was gone.

From the moment we left that girl to be loaded onto a stretcher and carried off to firmer ground, Rachel moved a little more quickly, a little more decisively.

We finished with one site where the ground had collapsed and people had fallen into a depression, and then moved on to the next area.  Some heroes were working alongside the authorities to try to rescue people from a building that had partially tipped over.

Clockblocker was there, along with Vista.  I joined my powers to theirs in finding people and opening the way.  Frozen time was used on panels, which were subsequently layered, so that one could offer support if another stopped working prematurely.  Vista reinforced areas, then opened doorways, as I designated rooms where people were trapped within.

A golden light streaked across the sky in the wake of Scion’s flight, just along the horizon.  A thinner beam being directed from Scion to the ground as he passed.

The aftershock of his passing took time to reach us.  Steam started to billow, but the forcefield absorbed it.

The shuddering of the ground was more problematic.  The entire city rumbled in response to the distant attack, a blow that was no doubt slicing deep into the earth’s crust, forcing everything to resettle.

The building we were working on was among those things that resettled.  I watched as the building started to slide where it was resting against the building beside it, slowly descending, building speed.

My flight pack kicked in, and I flew through a window.  I could feel the glass scrape against my scalp and the fabric of my costume.

I found one person, a twenty-something guy, took hold of their wrist, and pulled them behind me, running and using my flight pack at the same time.

Tearing him through the window meant slashing him against the shattered glass, and the weight wasn’t something I could manage with my flight pack.  The building fell down around the people on the ground as I fell too far, too fast.

The wing on my flight pack was still broken.  Couldn’t trust the propulsion.

I let him fall into a tree instead, from a solid two stories above, and then focused the rest of my energy into pulling out of the plunge.

The building was still crumbling as I landed a distance away.  The rumble brought other, smaller structures down.  I stood and watched as it continued its course.

There’d been seven more people to rescue inside.  The other buildings in the area that had been caught up in the domino effect had contained three more.  That was just in my range.  How many more were dying as he continued towards the mainland, cutting deep into the plate of land that the landmass was perched on?

He hadn’t even been near us.  Closer to New York or Philadelphia than anything.  More lives taken, purely collateral.

When the dust settled, I moved in to help the people who had been on the ground.  Vista and Clockblocker had protected most, between a dome and a shelf of land to provide shelter.  Rachel, for her part, had helped others run in time, snatching them up with her dogs, but I counted three more dead, one dying.

Seeing them like that, bleeding, still warm, it caught me off guard.  A kind of anxiety rose in the pit of my stomach, like an impulse to do something coupled with the frustration of knowing that everything I could manage to come up with was futile, hopeless.  I either couldn’t do anything or I couldn’t think of what to do.  It put me in mind of being back at high school, before I had my powers.  Of being a child, powerless and unable to act.

I saw the image of Parian holding Foil in my mind’s eye, and it was joined by an almost sick feeling of mingled relief and fear.  I knew exactly what I wanted and I was terrified to seek it out.

I could feel that same impatience Rachel had expressed earlier, but I couldn’t turn my back on this.  I got the guy out of the tree and found him okay, but for a broken arm.  He didn’t thank me, but I let myself chalk that up to him being in shock.  I almost stumbled over to the latest injured and I attended to the wounded until the medics pulled themselves together, got organized and relieved me.

Then I backed away, flexing my hands, feeling how stiff they were, battered by my attempts at moving things, at pushing things aside.  My gloves, too, were stiff, crusted with dried blood, layered with dirt and fresh blood.

I looked at Rachel, and saw her gazing at the portal.

I didn’t really have a home anymore.  Knowing my old house was leveled, that the cemetery where my mother had been laid to rest was gone, and that I’d never really come back here to hang out with the Undersiders… it hurt in a way that was very different from a knife wound, being shot or being burned.  A crushing feeling, more like.  But it was tough for reasons beyond the fact that I considered it home.  I’d relinquished Brockton Bay, and my concern right now was more to do with the residents than the place itself.

I didn’t have a home in Chicago.  Not in the jails, either.

But Rachel had forged a home for herself, and it had been in arm’s reach since we’d arrived.

Bastard and the dogs seemed to know I’d decided before I said or did anything.  Rachel and I fell in step behind them.

Rachel mounted Bastard before we got to the portal.  The efforts to erect a proper support beneath the portal had been set back by Scion’s strafing run, which left the portal hanging in the sky.  Train tracks extended out from the portal in every direction, twisted and broken where collapsing ground had pulled other sections away.

There had been a tower erected around the portal, but it had collapsed into shambles as the ground dropped.  Now they were using the pieces to form the general structure for a tower of ramps that would lead up to the portal.

Bastard picked up speed as he approached the tower, then set his claws on one of the ramps.  The tower wavered perilously as Bastard leaped up to a higher point, coming to a rest on the very top of the dilapidated structure.  It didn’t look like there were nearly enough reinforcements, and I could see everyone present tense as they saw the mutated wolf’s weight come to rest.

That tension redoubled as the wolf flexed its muscles, hunching down, and then leaped, more up than across, to get to the portal itself.  A few planks of wood broke in that sudden, powerful movement, and one rail of the train track fell free as the wolf scrabbled for a grip on the ground beneath the portal.

When she was gone, the people beneath simply resumed work, heads down, dirty, defeated.

I took flight, entering the portal for the first time.

Earth Gimel.

The tower that contained the portal had a counterpart in Gimel, a matching tower, tall and riddled with train tracks, like a train station designed by Escher, tall rather than squat, with wide doorways for the trains to exit, and complicated reinforcements for the aboveground tracks, positioned so as not to interfere with the tracks below.

I flew out through one of those gates, catching up with Rachel.

Trains extended in every direction from the portal, on tracks that extended out into the middle of nowhere, into pristine forest and mountains.  They were long, almost absurdly long.

Then again, the whole idea had been to have instant evacuation.  Rather than have people make their way to trains, they’d had eight trains that simply spanned the length of Brockton Bay, so any given individual had to find the nearest train car and make their way down the aisle to an empty seat.

Around the tower, a small, odd settlement had sprung up.  All of the sensibility of the city, but contained to a small area.  Tall buildings, wide streets, and a look that matched up with a city proper rather than a smaller town.  It was as though someone had cut and pasted the big city into the middle of this landscape.

On any other day, it would have been energizing, the fresh air, the sunny day, the green and the blue water of the bay, subtly different from the shape of the bay I knew.  But today wasn’t that day.

People at benches were clipping the corners off of refugee’s drivers licenses and trading them for food rations and tents.  Everything was prepped, set up in advance, and people were being orderly, even though the lines were so lengthy it looked like it might be hours before they got what they wanted.

Those that already had their kits were setting up or settling into spaces they’d designated for themselves.  Some clustered close to the settlement, while others spaced out, where they’d have more elbow room.  The tents were identical, dotting the area.  The kits, apparently, included signs, and these same signs listed family names and details.

John and Jane Roe.  1 Diabetic.

Hurles family. 
Two infants.

Jason Ao.  Looking for Sharon Ao my wife.  A crude picture was drawn beside the message.

I scanned the signs, looking for names I might recognize.  I headed in the direction Rachel had gone, but I moved carefully, making a mental note of everything I saw.

It was an extension of what I’d seen back in Los Angeles.  People trying to cope against something where coping was a pipe dream.  There were some breaking down in tears, people getting angry, those who had withdrawn into themselves.

In each expression, there was something that echoed my own feelings.  A part of me wanted to hide from that, but another part of me knew I couldn’t.

It wouldn’t do any good, but I made a mental note of faces, of the pain, the loss.  People who’d been removed from their homes and had all hopes for the future dashed.  If I ever had the opportunity to get revenge, to get back at Scion for doing this, I wanted to remember these faces, find just a little more strength, make it hurt that much more.

But I wasn’t one for simply wanting to help, paying lip service and promising vengeance felt hollow.  Instead, as a token gesture, something that might not even be noticed, I gathered up every mosquito in range and proceeded to murder them with other bugs.  I kept the biting flies.

I wrapped the bugs around me.  Fuck PR.  The faint weight of the insects was reassuring, like a blanket.  A barrier against the world, like Tecton’s armor or Rachel’s intimidating nature.

A sign caught my eye.  I stopped, looking over the people in the small campsite.

Barnes.

No further details, no requests.  I almost hadn’t recognized them.

Alan, Emma’s dad, had lost weight since I’d seen him last.  He’d noticed me, and looked up, staring, his eyes red.  His wife sat in a lawn chair beside him, while Emma’s older sister sat on a blanket at her mother’s feet, her mother resting one hand on her head.

Zoe’s -Emma’s mom’s- eyes were wet.  Emma’s sister looked equally upset.

Emma wasn’t in sight.  I could guess what they were crying about.

Alan was staring at me now, and there was an inexplicable accusation in the look.  His wife took his hand and held it, but he didn’t move his eyes a fraction.

When Anne, Emma’s sister, looked up at me, there was a glimmer of the same.  A hint of blame.

Emma hadn’t made it.  How?  Why?  Why could they all leave while Emma wouldn’t be able to?  I might have thought Emma had been somewhere out of reach, but that didn’t fit.  There would be no certainty she was dead.  They’d be putting her name on a sign and hoping she turned up?

And why would they blame me?  For failing to stop this from happening?

Fuck that.

I turned and walked away.

Once I was out of their immediate vicinity, I took a few running steps and let my flight pack lift me up.  Better than zig-zagging between the campsites.

I floated over a sea of people with their heads down, their expressions alternately emotional and rigidly stoic in defeat.  Hundreds or thousands of tents surrounded the area, and string fences no higher than one’s calf bounded off each of the sites.

Rachel had made her way outside the city limits, past even the tents that were set a five or six minute walk from any of the others.  I followed her over the hill, to another small set of buildings.  Cabins set on what had been Captain’s Hill in Earth Bet.  I knew they were Rachel’s because of the dogs that were scattered around the premises, a small crowd milling around Bastard and the other mutant canines.

The largest cabin had three large bison skulls placed over the cabin door.  Bastard and the other dogs had been tied up outside like horses, left to shrink, with a trough of water to drink from.

I landed, and I was struck by the realization that my flight pack might not be so easy to recharge, now.  I still had the spare, fully charged, but Defiant might have his hands full, and the infrastructure or resources might not be available.

It was a minor thing.  Inconsequential, in terms of everything that was going on.  It wasn’t like the flight pack was going to matter a bit against Scion.  But it was one more reminder of what was truly happening.

I stopped and turned to look over the landscape.  I turned my head right until the small settlement and the sea of tents wasn’t quite visible, then turned it to the left to do the same.  Focusing on the nature, the untouched wilderness.

Is this what Brockton Bay will look like, if we can’t win this fight?  How many years does it take for the last building to collapse, for dirt and grass to drown away any and all signs we were ever there?

It was a daunting thought, a heavy thought that joined countless others.

The dogs barked as I approached on foot.  I kept calm and waited.

I recognized the girl with the funny colored eyes and darker skin from Rachel’s hideout.  I’d met her on my last week in Brockton Bay.  With her presence alone, the animals collectively quieted.  A single dog barked one last time, with two others reflexively following with barks of their own, but that ended it.  The girl held the door open from me, and the dogs didn’t protest as I made my way inside.

Rachel was sitting on a couch with dogs arranged around her.  Angelica was afforded a bit of favoritism, and received a touch of extra attention from her master.  She, in turn, was extending a gentleness to Rachel that went beyond Angelica’s poor health and the glacial movements that accompanied chronic pain.  Rachel looked defensive, her eyes cast down at the ground.  Something more severe than the whole Scion business.

Charlotte, Forrest, and Sierra were present too, keeping their distance, keeping silent as we met again for the first time in over a year and a half, not moving from where they stood.

The kids gathered at the far end of the room, silently occupying themselves with a mass of puppies.  I recognized Mason and Kathy, and didn’t recognize Ephraim at first glance.  Jessie was conspicuously absent, but nobody seemed to be reacting to that gap.  She’d left on her own, maybe.  Found family.

Aidan sat off on his own, a pigeon sitting on his knee.  He opened and closed his hands, and the bird hopped from the one knee to the other, then back again.  Something had happened there, but it wasn’t a focus.  Not right now.

Tattletale sat in her computer chair, but the computer screens were dark, the computers themselves unlit, quiet and still.

I didn’t like the emotion I saw on her face any more than I liked what I saw with the others.

Pity.  Sympathy.

It wouldn’t be Grue.  No.  That didn’t fit.  He’d been flying back, and he hadn’t been so far away that he’d be in the path of danger.

Not Imp either.  Parian and Foil had been fine the last time I’d seen.

No.

Tattletale was best situated to focus on Brockton Bay.  Who had made it.  Who hadn’t.  And there was only one Brockton Bay resident who truly mattered, that hadn’t been accounted for.

I felt a lump in my throat growing with every heartbeat, expanding every time I tried to swallow and failed.

Without waiting for a response, for any words of pity, or even verification, I turned and pushed my way out the door, taking flight.

I flew.  Up over the bay, away from the city, away from this alien Earth.  I blinded myself with my own swarm, drowned everything out with their drone, their buzz, their roar.

All of this time, the sacrifices, the loss of security.

The loss of me.

To do what?  To stop this?

It had happened despite our attempts to the contrary.

To reconnect with my dad?

We had reconnected.  I’d come clean about who and what I was.  We’d built up a relationship that was new, accounting for the fact that we were changed people.  Now, as I continued to fly, to put distance between myself and everything, I wasn’t sure it had been worth it.

The wind blew my hair, and I let my swarm move away, revealing the open ocean all around me.  There was only the wind and the sound of the water to hear.  The smell of salt water I’d come to miss.

My dad was gone, and I couldn’t bring myself to go back and get verification.  I couldn’t handle it if there wasn’t verification.

I was cognizant of the fuel gauge, of the dwindling power of the flight pack.  I knew I’d have to go back.  I knew there was stuff to do.

But I’d spent the last age trying to build towards something, to prepare for the pivotal moment.  I’d played my role, helped stop Hookwolf.  I’d communicated with Foil to urge her to play possum, tracking where the enemy was and what they could see.  It had led to us taking down Gray Boy and Siberian, trapping Jack.

And now the death toll was climbing.  Scion continued his rampage, and I hadn’t even had the guts to own up to the failure.

I couldn’t bring myself to go back and do something minor.  It was arrogant, proud, but I couldn’t bring myself to do search and rescue while the population was steadily scoured from the planet, the major cities wiped out like a human child might kick down anthills.

There was nothing in the worlds that I wanted more than a hug and I couldn’t bring myself to ask for one.  My dad and Rachel were the only ones I could trust to offer one without further questions, without platitude or commentary, and I couldn’t get to Rachel without going through the others.  My dad was even farther from my reach.

The mask I’d erected to see things through to this point was cracking and I couldn’t bear to show anyone my face.

The fuel gauge ticked down.  I noted it reaching a critical point, where reaching land before I ran out might be difficult, if not impossible.

The sky was darkening.  No clouds, no city lights.  A cloud passed over sunset and the moon overhead, and it was startling just how dark things became.

A fluorescent glare cut through the darkness.  My hair and my swarm stirred.  I could feel the breeze from behind me.

I didn’t turn around.

“Your call,” Tattletale said, her voice quiet.  “I’d like you to have my back, but I understand if-”

I shook my head, my hair flying out to either side.  I turned around and floated over to the doorway that hung in the air.

I set foot on solid ground, and felt weirdly heavy when I did.  It took me a moment to find my balance.

Tattletale caught me as the door closed beside us.  Then she wrapped her arms around me in a hug.  Odd, that she was shorter than me.  When did that happen?  I could remember her giving me a one-armed hug once, a long time ago.  She’d been just a little taller than me then.  Just the right height for a hug.  Now we were like Foil and Parian.  I was taller, receiving comfort from someone shorter than me.

I’d underestimated her.  She didn’t ask any questions or offer any sympathy.

“They’re all here,” she said.  “Ready?”

I hesitated, then spoke.  My voice was rough.  “Ready.”

We didn’t budge.  She didn’t break the hug.

Fuck it all,” I muttered.  My voice was still weird with emotion.  Maybe I’d keep my mouth shut at this meeting.

“Fuck it,” she agreed.

That said, we broke apart, took a second to breathe, and then made our way into the meeting room.

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Sting 26.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More out of control,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

“There had to be a way.”

“We’re coping,” I said.

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

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

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

I didn’t have a response to that.

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

“Okay,” I told him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

“Weaver?”

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

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

“If you have an injury-”

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

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

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

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

“Need the Azazels!” someone shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murder Rat, for her part, was agile.

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

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

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

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

Parian’s creations were already deflating.

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

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

“Behind us!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah,” Rachel said.  “This.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hatchet Face incoming!”

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

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

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

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

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

Escalations, I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eight Siberians.

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

I opened a communications channel.

“Weaver here.  Don’t fight.”

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

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

“You need to run.”

Run?  The civilians-

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

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

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

What?  Saving civilians is-

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

What is it?

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

No point,” Grace said.

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

Lucky?

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

It could work,” Wanton said.

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

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

Enforce?  Oh.  N-Force.

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

You want us to let civilians die.

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

A moment later, she leaped off to one side.

Flaunting their invulnerability.  Taunting.

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

Who?”

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

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

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

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

Defiant here.”

“Was just about to contact the Undersiders.”

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

“Helicopter?”

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

Defiant?

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

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

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

Something was seriously wrong.

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

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

It’s in Ellisburg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another pause.  Was he typing something?

“What’s the status?”

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

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

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

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

He’s not one to make mistakes.

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

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

“The fight with Jack.”

Yes.

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

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

“Bring me some bugs when you come.”

“Yes.”

That said, he hung up.  No pleasantries.

It was a relief.  Down to business.

Fifteen minutes to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody responded to that.

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

Nothing.

The man screamed louder.

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

It’s an illusion, I thought.

Kind of.  Sort of.

Not really.

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

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

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

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

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

A cape incinerated him before he could get any further.

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

Nyx!” someone spat the word.

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

Two more people in the group began changing.

A mix of Psychosomas and Nyxes.  Who else?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they were gone.

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

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

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

I changed camera perspectives.

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

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

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

The sound of a gun being cocked turned heads.

The camera turned as well.

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

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

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

It took two minutes for the smoke to clear.

Two Nyx dead.  Three Psychosomas.  Four Night Hags.

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

“Dude, who the hell are they?”

“The bogeymen,” Hoyden said.

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

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

“Apparently.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten minutes to go.

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re absolutely certain?”

Ninety… three percent certain.

“That’s not good enough.”

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

“You’ve been wrong.”

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

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

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

Wait…

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

Wait…

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

Now.

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

Unstoppable force against an immovable object.

Which won?

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

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

Thanda,” Tattletale said.

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

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

He froze the dome.

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

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

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

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

Siberians down, I thought.

One more group to handle.

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

On my way.

I’m coming too,” Parian said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He broke into a run, axe held aloft.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only it was three times the usual size.  Fat.

Cuff flung another discus.

It’ll glance off, I thought.

It penetrated.

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

Ah.

It leaped down, and the ground shook.

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

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

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

The Mannequin charged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That did it.

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

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

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

Winter’s Power, I realized.

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

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

He was being abused, battered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Wanton closed the distance.

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

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

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

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

Miasma.

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

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

The villain rolled, then disappeared again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I almost hated to ask.

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

My team isn’t in good shape.

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

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

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

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

“I do.”

I’ll come as well,” Chevalier said.

“You’re injured.”

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

I’ll come,” he said, again.

“Glad to have you,” I said.

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

I glanced around the back of the craft.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonesaw got something set up already, I thought.

Defiant was clenching his fist.

Who was the man?

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

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

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

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

“Right.”

“Right!”  Hoyden grinned.

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

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

He didn’t react, casting his eyes downward.

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

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

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

The Pendragon took off.

And off we go, into the lion’s den.

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Sting 26.2

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It started at the center of town, a rolling plume of fire, sparks and smoke that seemed to almost lurch skyward, in fits and starts.  Each set of charges that went off pushed the flame up through the smoke of the ones that had come before.

Then the charges around the perimeter of the city went off, each focused inward.  The rolling mass of fire and superheated air at the center of the city shot through the cloud cover, and the entire sky turned colors.  Reds, oranges and yellows, interlaced with the gray and near-black shadows of the smoke.

Killington was officially gone, the buildings leveled, the bodies and bloodstains scoured from the earth.  Families wouldn’t get to put their loved ones to rest the way they wanted, but that was on the Nine, not on us.  There was no safe way to recover the bodies, to ensure that there weren’t any traps or time delayed tricks in each and every one of the corpses.  It also meant Breed’s minions were torched before they reached an adult stage.

The area would be marked off for a duration after this, in case there were any heat-resistant bacteria or the like.  Cheap, prefabricated walls would seal in the area, and roads would be put in to allow people to make detours.

Quarantine, I thought.  Every step of the way, we had to be on guard.

It was time to move on.  I looked to the book in my lap, turned down the corner of the page to mark it, and then stood, stretching.  It was a nice spot, a long porch just outside a cabin, one that was probably rented out at a premium price during the skiing months.  Far enough away to be safe, high enough to serve as a vantage point while letting me reach to the necessary areas with my bugs.

The entire porch was layered with pieces of paper, organized into rows and columns with some overlap.  The edge of each paper was weighed down by a mass of bugs, almost insufficient as the hot air from the quarantine measure blew past us.  Millipedes that had been moving across the various pages remained still, striving only to stay in place.

The moment the wind died down, I bid the bugs to shift position, carrying the pages to me, sorting them into the appropriate order.

I bent down and began collecting the pieces of paper.  I could feel the raised bumps on the pages as I brushed them free of specks of dirt and leaves.  Each set of bumps corresponded with a letter or punctuation mark, which had been printed over the dots in thick, bold, letters.

I gathered the pages into file folders, then clipped them shut, stacking them on the patio chair.  I made my way to the patio table, bending down to collect the pages as they made their way to me.  The writing on these was different; the letters were drawn in thick, bold strokes, fat, almost as if I’d drawn them in marker.  My notes: thoughts, things that needed clarification, ideas.

At the patio table, I took hold of a beetle and used its pincers to pick some petals out of the shallow bowl, grabbed the caterpillar I’d been using as a brush, then tossed the two bugs over the porch’s railing.  I tipped the ink from the bowl back into a small jar, then screwed it tight, sliding it into a pocket at the small of my back.

I was still getting organized when Defiant appeared, ascending the stairs on the far end of the porch.

“Quite a view,” he commented.

I looked at the resort town.  The fire hadn’t yet gone out.  It was flattening out, scouring everything from the area.

Almost everything.  One or two things would remain.  Probably until well after the sun went out.

“Pyrotechnical’s stuff?”  I asked, distracting myself.

“And some of Dragon’s.  Are you ready to go?”

“I’m ready,” I said.  I picked up the files, then passed them around behind me, where the arms of my flight pack pinned them in place.  I was left with only the book to hold.

He walked beside me as we made our way down to where the craft had landed. His suit had been augmented and altered, and he now stood a foot and a half taller than he had when I’d first met him.  Broad ‘toes’ on either side of his boots helped stabilize him, while his gloves ended in clawed gauntlets that extended a little beyond where his hands should be.  His spear was longer, and both ends of the weapon were heavy with the devices he’d loaded into it.

On his forearms, shoulders and knees there were panels that were like narrow shields, each three or four feet long, each marked with designs like a dragon’s wings, or with a dragon’s face engraved on the front, mouth open, with red lights glowing from within.  Wings on his back served less to let him fly and more to accentuate his movements, a more complex, bulkier system than I had with my flight pack.  Then again, I was only a hundred and thirty pounds at five feet, ten inches in height, and Defiant must have weighed six hundred pounds, with all that armor.

I’d seen him fight Endbringers in that suit, seen how he could move as fast as anyone who wasn’t a speedster, turning his spinning weapon and those shield-like extensions on his armor into a whirling flurry of nano-thorns, cutting through seventy to eighty percent of the Endbringer’s flesh before they reached material too dense to penetrate.

Which was when he’d use his other weapons.

I envied him a little, that he could take the fight to the enemy like that.  We were similar, on a lot of levels, but we differed on that front.  On a good day or otherwise, I’d never be able to truly fight an Endbringer.  I had to depend on others.  The best I could do was coordinate.

“The moment you or one of your teams lets something slip, this falls apart.”

“I won’t fuck up.”

“You will.  Or someone working under you will.  You’re good, but we can’t account for every contingency.  Something’s going to go wrong at some point.  The later that occurs, the better.”

“Yeah,” I responded.

“Every minute that passes is a minute where we can gather information, close in on Jack and figure things out.  We’ve got a lot of good minds and good eyes working on this, but there are a lot of bases to cover.  We let Golem get close, mop up everything we can and contain everything else, and then we take Jack down.”

I nodded.  “But we don’t want to stand back and wait when people could be hurt, or when every second that passes is a second that Jack could be making contact with that critical person.  Causing a certain trigger event, saying the wrong thing to the wrong individual…”

“There’s a balance.  I trust you’ll find it.”

“I hope I can,” I said.

We’d interacted less and less in recent months, and those interactions had been short and to the point by necessity.  It didn’t hurt that the two of us weren’t terribly social people.  We didn’t revel in small talk.  We could be adroit when circumstances forced our hands, but we could also stumble, say things in a way that was just a little off, or give the wrong impression.

I liked that we had a professional relationship, that we didn’t have other stuff getting in the way.  No pleases and thank yous.  We both knew what was at stake, we were on the same page, and we were doing what we felt we had to in order to get the necessary shit done.

“I spoke with Alcott,” he said.

I drew in a breath, then sighed.  “What does she say?”

“The numbers haven’t changed dramatically.  The window’s closed, but not considerably, which suggests a lot of things.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Ninety-three point eight percent chance the world ends,” Defiant said.

Up from Eighty three point four percentThat’s not considerable?

“She’s done us the favor of plotting the changes in the numbers over time.  When things stabilized for a considerable length of time, she scaled down from noting the numbers twice a day to noting them once.  Eighty-three point four percent, as of the beginning of the crisis in Brockton Bay, the Nine’s attempt to test and recruit new members.”

“I remember,” I said.

“Eighty-eight point six percent after they escaped the city.  It was quite possibly our best opportunity at killing Jack, and we missed it.”

I frowned.

“With each destination the Nine reached after Brockton Bay, the numbers shifted, and not for the better.  Half a percent here, two percent there.”

“Chances where someone could have theoretically killed him but didn’t.”

Defiant nodded.  “We ran things by the thinkers, and that’s the general consensus.  Low chances, but he had the Siberian with him up until the fight in Boston.

The same fight where Dragon and Defiant had taken on the Nine, and the Siberian had been killed.

“We had one opportunity there.  That failure is on me.”

He turned his head slightly, then amended his statement.  “On us.”

I didn’t disagree.  Denying that would mean denying my own responsibility in failing to kill Jack in Brockton Bay.

“Ninety-three point eight,” Defiant repeated, for emphasis.

“Six point two percent chance we’ll pull this off,” I said.

“It remains tied to him.  If we kill him in the next ninety hours, the chances vastly, vastly improve.  Depending on how we kill him, it could mean reducing things to a mere twenty-two percent chance or a one percent chance.”

I nodded, making a mental note.  “Theoretically, if we nuked the northeast corner of America…”

“Only a sixty percent chance of working, with some decimal points that Dragon’s urging me to include as I speak, and a high chance we set things in motion anyways.  Twenty eight or so.”

He asked Dinah, I thought to myself.  The same question I had in mind, give or take.

There were clues there.  “A nuke won’t kill him for sure.  Bomb shelter?”

“Possible.  Or he’s keeping Siberian close at hand.”

“And whatever role he plays… he greases the wheels, he doesn’t guarantee it.  You’re saying there’s a chance things get set off even if he dies.  If that doesn’t happen, then there’s some point in the future, roughly fourteen years from now, where things get set off anyways.”

Defiant nodded.

“Every time I think about it, I can’t help but think it’s a trigger event,” I said.  “Someone getting a power that finally breaks something essential, or a power without the limits that keep other powers in check.  But I don’t want to think along those lines if it keeps me from seeing the obvious.”

“Sensible.  But let’s not dwell on it.  The thinkers are handling it, as best as they can, and we have to devote attention to this crisis.  We’ve got all of the big guns lined up.  The moment things fall apart and Jack decides the rules of his game, Dragon is going to try and jam communications, and each of us moves in for a quick decisive victory over the members of the Nine on site.”

I nodded.

We were just arriving at the perimeter of Killington.  I could see some of the big guns Defiant had been talking about.

Two Azazels had set up thick hedges of that blurry gray material just behind the barriers the heroes had erected to protect themselves and contain the fire.  I also saw the Dragon’s Teeth.

Soldiers was the wrong word, but it was close.

Each wore armor in gun-metal and black, with parallels to the standard PRT uniforms I was more familiar with.  Their helmets, however, had three eyeholes, with blue lenses glowing faintly from beneath.  Two lenses for their eyes, a third for a camera.  The armor was bulky, offering thick protection around the neck and joints, with a heavy pack on the back for both oxygen and for the computers they wore.

They were, in large part, wearing stripped-down versions of Defiant’s outfit.  Sacrifices had been made to account for the fact that their suits didn’t render them seven and a half feet tall.  Each carried a sword and a laser pistol.

I’d never liked the cameras.  Heads turned as I approached, and I knew they were recording, tracking details about me and feeding them back to a main server, where they compiled information, discarded excess.

The combat engines that the Dragon’s Teeth were wearing were still in early stages, the data patchy, depending on the target.  The people in uniform had spent weeks and months training with the things, learning to shift fluidly between their own tactics and awareness of the situation and the data that was provided.  Protectorate Capes and Wards that were just starting out were being trained with the things, but those of us that had experience fighting tended to find them a distraction.

Useful?  Yes.  A bit of a boost, a bit of an edge.  But not quite at the point where everyone could benefit.

Not yet.

Not that there was much room for developing any of it if the end of the world went ahead on schedule.

I could see Narwhal, standing off to one side, two of the Dragon’s Teeth flanking her.  Masamune wasn’t present, but from what I knew of the guy, he wasn’t even close to being a front-lines combatant.   They’d recruited him from the ruined area of Japan, a somewhat crazed hermit, and gave him work in figuring out how to mass produce their stuff without the maintenance issues snowballing out of control, like tinker tech tended to do in large quantities.

Thanks to him, they had the Dragon’s Teeth, they had the combat engines and they had top of the line gear for various members of the Protectorate and Wards.

Of the other members of the Guild, the only other one who could theoretically be on the front lines of the fight would be Glyph.  I could only assume she was somewhere close.

The Thanda weren’t here.  If Dragon had managed to get in touch with others, they hadn’t yet arrived.  I could only guess as to what Cauldron might be doing.  Faultline’s crew, the Irregulars…

Too many maybes.  With Endbringers attacking every two months, a lot of people were busy reeling from recent attacks or preparing for the next.

I looked at the assembled capes.  The Undersiders, two Wards teams, the Protectorate, the Guild.  Clockblocker, Vista and Kid Win were in the other Wards team.  A little older.  Clockblocker had expanded his costume, adding some light power armor that seemed primarily focused on holding a heavy construction at his back.  Vista, for her part, was a little taller, her hair longer, tied in a french braid that was clipped just in front of one shoulder. She was packing a heavier gun.  Probably something Kid Win had made.

And Kid Win was hardly a kid anymore.  I hesitated to call him a teenager, even.  His rig looked like it packed more artillery than any of Dragon’s craft.  No neck, no arms, he barely looked capable of walking.  Just two stumpy legs, a simple gold helmet with a red pane covering his face and enough gun nozzles that he looked like a hedgehog.

“This is probably the last time we’ll all be standing here together before this ends,” Chevalier said.  “I won’t do a big speech.”

He turned his head to take us all in.  “I’ve done too many of them over the past two years, I’d only repeat myself.  Everyone here knows what we’re here for, why we’re doing this.  We’ve talked this over with each of you in turn and you don’t need convincing, you don’t need a reminder of what’s at stake.  You already know the role you’re going to play in this.  Words aren’t going to change any of that.  Good luck, be proud, and maybe say a little prayer to God, or ask for a little help from whoever or whatever you believe in.”

The instant he finished, the Azazels and other Dragon-craft began opening up, doors sliding apart and ramps lowering.

“The one time I do show up for one of these things, and no speech.  I feel gypped.”

I didn’t see who had muttered the comment, but I could guess it was Imp.

“No dying,” I said, as everyone started moving.

“No dying,” others echoed me.  The voices of the Undersiders and the Chicago Wards were loudest among them.

My teams gathered in the Dragonfly, while the Chicago Protectorate and Brockton Bay Wards made their way to Defiant’s larger ship, along with a contingent of the Dragon’s Teeth.

Golem stood apart, until my ship was nearly at full capacity.

“It all comes down to this,” he said, as I joined him at the base of the ramp,  “All the training, all the planning and preparation, studying about the Nine backwards and forwards…”

“Yeah,” I responded, as I stepped up to stand beside him.  Our teams were getting sorted out, finding benches and seats.  I reached behind my back to get the file folders I’d brought with me.

“I’m sorry if I was harsh yesterday.”

I shook my head and reached out to put my hand on his shoulder.  It was support, and maybe a bit of a push.  He made his way up the ramp.

Stepping inside just behind Golem, I used the same controls that managed my flight pack to indicate that the ship could close the door.

The Chicago Wards had seated themselves on one side of the ship, the Undersiders on the other.  Something of a mistake, that, because it meant they sat facing one another as we made our way to our destination.

A little awkward.  I sat with them behind me as I took the cockpit.  The thing flew itself, but it freed me to focus on other things.

Chevalier had talked about making peace with the powers that be.  I frowned, staring at the control panel as the ship lifted off.

Passenger, I thought.  Been a while, trying to figure out how to make peace with the fact that you’re there, that you’re affecting me somehow, taking control whenever I’m not in my own mind.  I think we’ve made strides.  I’ve sort of accepted that you’re going to do what you’re going to do, whether that helps me or hurts me. 

So maybe, just maybe, you could help me out today.  Whatever it is you do, whatever motivates you, I can continue to play along, but I need a bit of backup here.

My eyes fell on the bugs that crawled on the back of my hand.  Not even a whisper of a movement.

Yeah, didn’t think I’d get a reply.  Guess we’ll see.

The ship’s acceleration kicked in, and the bugs took flight.

My eyes scanned the screens in front of me.  I had camera feeds from Clockblocker and Revel, from Chevalier, Imp, and the airborne Azazel.  They all focused on a single area, each from a different direction.

A thick white mist lingered throughout an area.  It was early in the morning, and that might have played a role, but there were no people.  Even for a smaller city like Schenectady, that wasn’t so usual.  At nearly eight in the morning, there should have been people leaving for work, people running errands.

Desolate.  White fog.

“Winter’s here,” I said, speaking over the comms.  “Others to be confirmed.  We’ve talked about this one, Golem.”

I turned the computer off and strode out of the ship.  Rachel was waiting for me outside, standing guard with her dogs and her wolf.

Winter means Crimson too, doesn’t it?” Golem asked.

“Probably.  Probably means-“

We see you,” The words were like a whisper, barely audible.  See you standing there.  Oh, I do hope you’re not Theodore.  Tell me you aren’t, because it means we get to play all we want.”

“Screamer,” I informed the others.  Early Nine member, psychological warfare, pressure, distraction.  Sound manipulation.  Her power meant her voice didn’t get quieter as it traveled great distances.  That wasn’t the full extent of-

“Nice weapon,”  Her voice sounded in my ear, at a normal speaking volume.  I didn’t flinch.  I could sense my surroundings with my bugs, and I could hear things with them, hear how the sound panned out in a weird way over the entire area.

“You’ve got friends, Theodore.  I sure hope they aren’t planning on helping you.”

It was a sinuous sound, seductive in how convincing it was.  Every time she spoke, she sounded a little more like me.  It would be the same for the others, hearing themselves.

She was somewhere in the area.  The question was how she’d gotten a sense of our voices so quickly.  There was supposed to be a limit to how quickly she could pick up on that stuff just from overhearing us.

Confirm, team leader,” Golem said, over the channel.  “And can we use the password system we talked about?

“Queen.  Password system is a go.  What do you need confirmation on?”

Ring.  Enemy headcount.

“Stag.  No headcount given, I think that’s Screamer fucking with you.  Others include Winter, probably Crimson, and probably Cherish, if she’s finding us like she is.  All allied capes, be advised, we’re putting passwords into effect.  Stay calm, don’t panic.”

I do like it when they make it challenging,” Screamer’s whisper hissed in my ear.  It had changed in tone, pitch, cadence.

The Dragonfly took off as I made my way closer to the site.  Outside of the area, there were people reacting.  Some fled, others were taking cover, followed by disparate voices.

Haymaker.  I’m engaging,” Golem said.  “Recommendation?

Screamer interrupted, “Getting advice is against the spirit of this challenge, isn’t it, Theodore?  You are Theodore, aren’t you?  I think you should confirm for us.”

“Mantis,” I said, voicing the password,  “Don’t respond to her.  It’s what she wants.  Take out Cherish ASAP, if she’s here, Screamer after that.”

I’m hurtI rate second after the new girl who barely lasted a month?

Have to find them first,” Golem said.

I’ll help with that, I thought.  Then I stopped.  “Golem, the password?  Horsefly.”

Steeple.  And gauntlet, to reply to the last one,” his voice came over the comms.

I stopped.  We’d agreed on a simple password set.  There was a pattern, each corresponding to our powers and the various pieces on a chessboard.  Mine were related to bugs, his to hands.  It was abstract, something that tended to only make sense in retrospect.  The chess ones we knew off by heart, because they were the first ones we’d practiced.

And steeple wasn’t one of them.

“Steeple?” I asked.

I’m drawing a mental blank,” Golem responded.  “It works, doesn’t it?  Pinkie.

Screamer wasn’t stupid, but was she that smart?  The ‘stag’ should have thrown her off regarding our pattern.

“It works,” I said.  “Ant.  I’m close.

If that was Golem, he wasn’t as focused as we needed him to be.

I could feel the effect as my bugs entered the radius of Winter’s power.  She wasn’t concentrating it, so it was mild at best.  Slowing the movements of molecules, cutting down the ambient temperature, to the point that the moisture in the air froze.  It also affected my bugs.  Torpor.

For anyone within, it would include a mental torpor.

If the only members of the Nine who were present were Crimson, Winter, Cherish and Screamer, then this was a fight that involved attrition.  Attacking Russia in the wintertime.  Psychological warfare, emotional warfare, the effects of Winter’s power… it meant that Winter’s guns and Crimson’s power were the only physical threats.

They were going easy on him at the outset.

Golem was walking on rooftops at the edge of the effect, and he was surrounded by a nimbus of whirling material.  By Wanton.  We’d already altered all of the data on the group, to imply by news reports and Golem’s powers on the websites that Wanton’s telekinetic storm was Golem’s power.

The vantage point put him high enough that he could stand above the mist without being in it.  From the moment he engaged, he’d have to move fast.  He’d have to be indirect-

Weaver,” Golem said, interrupting my thoughts.  “Iron fist.  She’s offering to tell me where Jack is.

“We expected this,” I answered.  Iron fist was the ‘king’ in our chess sequence of passwords.  Crab.  Get the info and go.”

I’m not that foolish,” Screamer whispered, her voice extending throughout the entire area.  “Underestimating me, for shame.  I give up the information, and you leave me for your clean up squad to executeI want concessions.”

Concessions?”  Golem had left his channel open.

Let’s ensure your friends aren’t in a good state to mop up.  We’ll start with this Weaver.  Why don’t you cut off your toes, Weaver?  Keep you from running after us.

I frowned.

Oh, you’ve got an alternative?  Something you can cut off or throw away?  Yes.  Let’s put off the self-mutilation and have you throw that off the edge of a building.

Chances were good that she was in Cherish’s company, getting information from the source.

What if she tosses it, then walks into the mist?” Golem suggested.

No, not Golem.  Her.  Screamer.  An easier suggestion to acknowledge if I thought it came from a teammate.

Not buying it, huh?” he asked.  She asked.

She’d narrowed down my location, was refining her voices.  That had been convincing.  I had to move, make it harder for her.

I advanced, but I didn’t step into the mist.  The closer I got, the more of the affected area I could sense.  The torpor forced me to be efficient, to manage where bugs went and how, to check areas in a cursory way.  There were a number of people still in Winter’s area of influence.  People were standing utterly still, slowly dying as the cold ate away at them.

I want to kill myself.

My own voice, indistinguishable from the one in my head.  Fuck me.  She had a bead on me, now.

It’ll be painless, a way to avoid all of the horror, so I don’t have to watch my friends die.  So I won’t have to watch Bitch or Tattletale or Imp die the way Regent didSo I don’t have to watch Grue die.

No, a moment’s consideration and the spell was broken.  I’d stopped thinking of Rachel as ‘Bitch’ some time ago.

Aw,” Screamer whispered.  “Golem’s refusing my deal, and Cherish says you’re not playing along with the rest of it, so I’m gonna have words with some of the others.”

I raised a hand to my ear, opening my mouth to warn them, “…”

My lips moved, but my voice didn’t come out.  Bare whispers of sound formed, instead, even as I raised my voice to a near shout.

That would be the next stage in her tactics.  Isolate.  She had a sense of my voice, the way I spoke, and was canceling it out.

I signaled Golem with my bugs.  I drew a smiley face in the air with my bugs, crossing out the mouth with an ‘x’.

He nodded.

So he was on mute as well.

There.

In the midst of a small duplex, there were two young women huddled together on an upper floor.  There were computers arranged around them, and each was playing a different video.  In some cases, it was the same video playing, just from a different point in time.  Me in the lunchroom with Defiant and Dragon.  The New Delhi Endbringer fight.  Golem on the news with Campanile.

She had to be almost as good a multitasker as me to take all of that in.

Tattletale here.  Wormtongue.  Doing damage controlI’ve got your video feed, so you can spell things out for me if you want to give the signal.

I spelled out the word ‘thanks’.

My bugs had died inside the area of cold.  The people inside wouldn’t be doing much better.  I had to send another batch in.  This time, I knew the destination.

Cherish was acting as the eyes, Screamer as communications.  No doubt Screamer -all nine of the Screamers- was providing communications between this group and the nearest group of Nine.  She was talking, in a low and steady voice, but her voice wasn’t more than a murmur.  No doubt someone in a more distant location was receiving the intel at a normal volume.

And all of that raised the question of what Winter and Crimson were doing.  I scanned the building.  Nothing on the top floor, or the next lowest.  Further downstairs, a number of people were in the sway of Winter’s power, their thoughts slowed to a crawl.

The basement of the same building.  Winter, Crimson, and their hostages.  Some would be the ones from Killington.  Others were ones that had fallen into the sway of Winter’s torpor.  Crimson was feeding on them.

His schtick was a little bit of a vampire one, but the end result was more Mr. Hyde.  Big, muscular, fueled by rage and impulse.

The ones lying on the floor, cold, they’d be dead already.

I spelled out basic instructions for Golem, pointing the way to the building, drawing a cloud over the building to mark it.  He gave me a thumbs up.

Another arrow pointed him to the concrete rooftop behind him.  There, I drew out a basic layout.

And in that same moment, Cherish cottoned on to what we were doing.

“They’re attacking,” Cherish said.

Screamer’s voice reached all of us.  “Cocky, cocky.

Screamer turned her head, swatted at the bugs that crawled on her face, and then spoke, silent to the insect’s hearing.

Winter and Crimson reacted.

Sure hope your boy can fight.  Screamer was talking in my head again.  Not telepathy, only hearing a voice that sounded damn close to the one in my head.

“Fuck off, Screamer,” I muttered.

“Grue no!” Imp’s voice.  I flinched despite myself, before I remembered they weren’t anywhere nearby.

Screamer laughed, her voice floating through the area.

Crimson made his way outside.  His flesh would be engorged, purple-red, the veins would be standing out.  He’d be as hard as iron, strong.  His sword was as long as he was tall.  I couldn’t get a good measure of its appearance or quality.

Winter hung back with the hostages.

I wrote out the information with bugs.  Tattletale relayed it.  “Crimson Incoming.  QuislingGot confirmation and you’re good to go.  Six stories, elbow deep.

Golem turned his head, no doubt in response to the warning, then turned back to my diagram.

I’d given it a title, words running along the top.  ‘Slap them down.’

Golem’s uniform was roughly the same as the early incarnations, though solidified into a more solid color scheme, dark iron and silver.  The materials differed, but it matched.

There had been one or two additions, though.  The rigging of different panels included a frame that looped over the shoulders, much like a rollcage.  Golem paused, then drew out a panel, attaching it to the right.  He began to reach inside.

And a hand emerged from the center of the street, large enough that it could hold a car inside it.  Crimson paused as he watched it appear.

Then he moved.  It was the kind of movement that came with super strength, a bounding, powerful stride that could have carried him through a wall.  He had to pause before he reached the base of the building Golem stood atop.

The hand had emerged up to the second knuckle.

Abandon the fight,” Tecton’s voice.  “Run!  Move!  You’ve got six Siberians headed your way.”

No password?

“Tecton, confirm.”

Confirm what?

And a chuckle from Screamer, just in my ear.

Crimson ascended, climbing the outside of the building while holding his six-foot blade in his teeth, blood trickling down from the corners of his mouth where the blade was cutting into flesh.

My bugs died of the cold before I saw what happened next.  I was forced to send in a second wave to see.

The bugs were too slow, but the upper edge of the roof was outside of Winter’s realm of influence.  I could sense Golem reaching out with a hand of brick, a gentle push on Crimson’s collarbone with his left hand, pushing him away from the roof, away from any point where he could get a grip.

Crimson reached out and up for the hand, but the material broke apart as he put too much weight on it.  He dropped.  I’d bemoaned the effectiveness of rooftop combat, but Golem made it his own.

Golem advanced to the edge of the roof and created more hands, trying to bind the villain to the street.  An arm lock, a headlock…

Crimson pulled his way free of the asphalt shackles through sheer brute strength.  More appeared, but he destroyed them faster than they could be created.

Screamer and Cherish had to know what we were doing, yet they weren’t moving.  Cockiness?

No.  They had to have an escape route.

Except they didn’t have a teleporter.  That left only a few options.  Siberian wasn’t one I could do a whole lot about, but she’d be fighting if she were anywhere nearby.  The others…

I drew out silk thread in their direction.  Only so much to spare.  I knotted it between their necks and the computers that surrounded them.

Theo’s massive hand was still growing, the wrist exposed.  Almost halfway there.

Crimson ascended the building once more.  This time, he had support.

Together, we’d gone over the various members of the Nine, past and present, we’d detailed battle plans, the techniques we knew about, even contacted heroes who had encountered them in the past, for stuff that might not have gone on record.

But Screamer was called screamer for a reason, and there wasn’t a lot we could do to stop it, not unless we wanted to deafen ourselves.

Crimson was three stories up the side of the building when Screamer used her namesake power.  She could ensure that everyone within a mile’s radius could hear her voice as if she was right next to them, and she used it now, producing a high-pitched, full volume scream, right in my ears.  In Golem’s ears.  Everyone’s ears.

I joined Golem in doubling over, using my hands to try and ward off the sound.  It didn’t help as much as it should have.  It was loud, deafening, and it was leaving Golem vulnerable as Crimson closed the distance.  He wasn’t recovering fast enough.

Bugs flowed into Screamer’s open mouth, much as they had with Alexandria.

I gave Tattletale the signal.  All out attack.

This was it.  They’d been okay with a little bit of involvement on our part.  Tattletale had speculated they would.  There were only a few who were so regimented they would report it to Jack at the first opportunity.  Winter was among them, but she was largely in the dark, here.  Screamer wouldn’t fill her in if it meant spoiling the fun.

In truth, the only ones who wouldn’t let us get away with this were Mannequin and King.  King was distinct enough for me to notice, and Tattletale was ninety-five percent sure Mannequin would need more time to set up.  This was an approach we could only use with this first skirmish.

But whoever we were up against, the moment they started losing, the moment we actually pulled an offensive, the line was crossed.  This was an all or nothing.

Stinging bugs attacked Cherish, going for the eyes, nose and mouth.  Screamer choked.  Somewhere in the midst of it, they managed to give a signal.  It wouldn’t be Screamer.  Cherish?  Creating an emotional push?

Winter made her way out from downstairs, hefting a grenade launcher.

I spelled out words for the camera: Need Reinforcements.

The other teams are getting harassed, can’t close the distance.

I was going to spell out a response, get further details, but my focus shifted as Winter caught sight of Golem and Crimson and advanced.

Her dynamic with Crimson was one of synergy.  She captured people so he could feed.  He was the front line so she could safely attack from range.  She slowed down opponents so he could advance.  He was immune to her munitions fire, in large part.

My bugs swarmed her, but she was already concentrating her power.  Smaller area, greater effect.  She still held the people in the building in the area, but my bugs were lasting only a fraction of the time.  Seconds.  I activated my flight pack and approached.

Golem finished creating his hand, but there was a limit to what he could do with it.  It stood there, tall and useless.

No, his focus was on escape.  He thrust both hands into two different panels, slightly out of sync.  One hand was created, almost twice the usual size, and another was simultaneously created from the palm of that same hand, a fraction smaller.

Campanile’s idea.

Both hands thrust out at virtually the same speed that Golem might have stuck his own hand out into the air, but that speed was compounded by the fact that both hands thrust out in unison.  Golem set one foot down and vaulted himself up and out to land on the adjacent building, one story up.  He spun around as he landed.

Crimson gave chase, crossing the rooftop with heavy footsteps.

Golem jabbed out with one hand as Crimson bent his knees to leap.  The hand that appeared jabbed at the underside of one foot, lifting it.

It was the sort of trick that would only work once on an enemy.  The next time, the enemy would adjust, or jump off one foot.  Here, it caused Crimson to stumble.  He missed his mark, the jump failing, and he nearly ran straight off the end of the rooftop.  He struck out with his sword, slamming it into the brick of the building face opposite him.

Winter raised her grenade launcher and fired.  Golem managed to vault himself away as he had earlier, a shallow movement that was forceful enough to nearly launch him off the building.  He rolled on landing as the grenade disintegrated a corner of the building.

These two were warriors.  Crimson was a mainstay of King’s era, when he’d ruled the Nine as more of a brute squad, not dissimilar to the Teeth back in Brockton Bay.  I had trouble marking why Winter had been recruited, but it likely had more to do with how she was off the battlefield, her predilections for torturing people she’d caught in her torpor.

I reached the edge of the battlefield.  My bugs streamed forth, a silk cord trailing between and behind them.  The silk streamed out from the spinning spool at my belt.  Hundreds of feet of material, and it extended out towards Winter.

It was only a matter of feet from her when she jumped, startled, leaping to one side.  I missed, and my bugs were dying in a matter of seconds.  The cord went slack.

A moment later, she was looking around, confused.

Cherish, I thought.  She alerted her, a burst of alarm.

It didn’t matter.  My swarm approached from the other direction, finding and picking up the dropped cord.  Moving them within Winter’s effect range was a matter of relay, handing off to fresh bugs as they died.  Slow but steady progress.

The moment the silk thread was around Winter’s neck, I dropped down to the edge of the rooftop, and used the mechanical arms on my flight pack to reel in the cord.

Darwin’s spider silk.  Stronger than kevlar, a narrow cord of it made for a thin, almost unbreakable cord.  The noose cut into her neck, and my arms and legs provided leverage to keep me still as the combined efforts of the mechanical arms provided the strength.

When she reached the base of the building I stood on, she was lifted off the ground.  I shifted my position to improve my leverage and waited, hiding.

I could barely tell in the midst of her power, but I sensed her raising her arm.  Raising the grenade launcher.

Nets of spider silk peeled away from the gray-white portions of my costume as my bugs pulled them free.  I drew it out, connected the narrow sheets with knots of more silk.

It moved into place just in time to catch the projectile out of the air.

Golem managed to find a moment to use his power.  A hand of stone struck the grenade launcher from Winter’s hands.

He was holding his own against Crimson, who was adapting.  Golem thrust one hand into his armor to create a hand beneath Crimson, and the villain leaped closer, forcing Golem to vault himself away and maintain a safe distance.  The sword swipe that followed after Golem’s retreat passed within a foot of the hero.

Wanton, surrounding Golem, advanced on Crimson, and Golem tossed out a bag.

Wanton took hold of the bag and emptied it of its contents.  Razor blades, caltrops, hooks and my threads joined the miniature maelstrom, and Crimson was slowly bound.  He tore some free, but it found its way into his flesh again a moment later.

Then Golem slid his right hand into his armor.  Crimson leaped in anticipation of an imminent attack, landed, and then glanced back at the point where he’d come.

Nothing.

Golem continued sliding his hand into his armor, slow, inexorable.

Crimson charged, and Golem backed away, using his free hand to erect barriers.  Wanton ran defense, and Crimson stumbled.

A rumble marked Golem’s real direction of attack.  A second hand, down on the street below, gripping the large, six-story tower he’d created earlier in the fight, pulling it down.

It toppled on top of the building that Winter and Crimson had emerged from.

Toppled towards Screamer and Cherish.

In that same moment, Chuckles made an appearance.  He moved so fast it was almost as though he teleported, appearing beside the two girls.  My bugs barely had time to make contact and try to get a sense of him before he was moving again, holding the two villains this time.

They jerked to a stop.  I felt a fraction of the same confusion Chuckles no doubt did.  I sensed his arms, extended to ridiculous lengths.  He realized they were caught, bound to the computers.  Too entangled to take along.

And then he was gone, out of the building as the hand struck home.  Two floors crushed, the two villains crushed with them.

Tecton had provided the calculations on what the building could withstand, I’d provided the general data and information on where the hostages were.  The damage was controlled, the hand crashing a specific, certain distance into the building before coming to a halt.

Bitch and Foil tried to intercept Chuckles just now as he left the city.  He escaped, but Foil hit him with one shot,” Tattletale said.

“Right,” I said, even as I swore to myself.  Shit, shit shit shit.

Far too soon for Jack to get a report on the fact that we’d helped.

Chuckles can’t talk,” Tattletale said.  “He laughs, but he can’t talk.

I shook my head.  Couldn’t worry about that right now.

Crimson was only staring at the wreckage.  He mumbled something around a bloated tongue.

Does he think Winter’s still in there?

Then Crimson charged Golem once again.

Golem had both hands free, and he used the same double-hand technique to strike again.  A second hand, sprouting from the first, which emerged from the rooftop in turn.  The hands caught Crimson in the side of the leg, slamming into the knee, using the curve of the thumb to catch the leg and limit the range of movement.

Strong as Crimson was, he was still bound by physics and general physical limitations.  Being struck in the knees hurt, and he still needed to maintain a sense of balance.  He toppled.

Another double-hand strike, and Golem caught Crimson in the groin as he landed on his hands and feet, shoved him off to the right.

Two more strikes, this time not doubled-up, catching Crimson in the left arm and left leg, respectively, keeping him off-balance.

The key was to deny leverage.

An arm looped over one leg and one arm, binding them to the rooftop.  Crimson tore free with little effort, but the act meant he shifted his weight to one side.  Golem capitalized on it with another double-speed strike to his side, pushing in the same direction the blood-gorged killer was already moving.  That was followed in turn by one larger hand, moving slower, to scoop Crimson up and tip him off the edge of the rooftop.

Crimson fell.  Not a fatal fall, but it would hurt some.

A gauntlet of concrete seized the large hand Golem had just created and tore it free of the rooftop, then let it roll free to fall right on top of Crimson.

With the villain in an alley, the ensuing takedown was just as brutal and tenacious as before, with the added advantage that there were walls on either side to strike from.  Hands struck out, and they remained there.  As the villain was denied any footing, any balance, the hands around him increased in number, folding around him, sliding into gaps.

It was a parallel to Kaiser’s pyramid of blades technique, that he’d used to try to entrap Lung.  I’d passed it on to Golem, but I hadn’t told him the source.  I got the sense he wouldn’t appreciate it.

I turned my attention to Winter, who dangled beneath me.  She’d gone silent and still.  I continued to wait, but I raised one hand to my ear.  “Tattletale?  All four are down.”

I could speak.  A benefit to Screamer being dead.

Good.  Too soon to tell if Jack’s got wind of what you’re doingBut if Chuckles passes on word, or if there’s a Nice Guy in the area…

“I wouldn’t think he’d use the same guy twice in a row.”

No,” Tattletale agreed.  “The numbers fit, makes sense he’d start with four with a fifth as backup, considering how he can scale up the numbers in successive attacks.  Still-

“There was no graceful way to do it with Cherish there, and I couldn’t not help.  Golem was incapacitated.”

I’ll let Chevalier know what happened?” she made it a question.

I sighed.  No point in keeping secrets amongst ourselves.

“Do.  And send Foil here,” I said.  “She can punch a few holes in Crimson while he’s trapped.”

Will do.”

I waited another minute as Winter dangled from the thread, then cut her free.  Her body crumpled in a heap at the base of the building.  I made my way over to Golem and Wanton, where Wanton was still in his breaker form.

This was the warm-up, for the Nine, for us.  Four down, two hundred and seventy-some to go.  Jack had a little information on us, no doubt.

I didn’t dare hope it would stay this simple.  We still needed to find a way to narrow down Jack’s location, killing him.  He already had an advantage, wearing us down, costing us time, and he surely had some intel on us.

I could only hope that intel didn’t include the fact that Golem had help.

Chevalier here.  We have reports that they’re showing themselves for the next locations.

I met Golem’s eyes.

“Locations, plural?”  Golem asked.

“They want you to choose,” I answered him, as the realization dawned on me.

He stared at me, lost.  He was heaving for breath, his hands shaking visibly, even with gauntlets on.

“Go with the Chicago teams.  I’ll take the Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards to the other location,” I said.

He nodded, pressing one hand to his ear as he started making his way to the ground.  I watched him for a moment, then took off.

This was a statement, I suspected.  I could guess what that statement was.  Jack fully intended to double down on the challenge each time we came out ahead.

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Crushed 24.5

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The damage Behemoth was wreaking in New Delhi was, I thought, a microcosm of what was happening all over the world.  Three or four attacks a year, since the Simurgh had appeared.

The fight with Leviathan in Brockton Bay had been a good day.  We’d lost people, we’d lost good capes, but we’d more or less bounced back, made it three-quarters of the way back to where we needed to be, in a matter of months.  There had been ugliness, infighting, a hell of a lot of doubt, but we’d started to make our way back to where we should be.  It had been the lowest number of casualties we’d had in an Endbringer attack in years, not counting a few of the Simurgh attacks.  A good day.

This?  This isn’t a good day. 

Behemoth roared.

This is the other end of the scale.

For nearly twenty years, we’d endured intermittent Endbringer attacks, and the end result was, globally, what was happening here in a matter of hours.  We were divided, scared, fighting among one another, and our defenses were being eroded.  We were being forced into pockets of defense, instead of a united one where we all stood together.  Those pockets, in turn, were at risk of being wiped out with a series of decisive blows.

Yes, we had our good moments.  Doing as much damage to him as we just had, that was a good moment.  But we had bad ones too, and the end result was always the same.

The bastard –the bastards, plural– kept coming.

Phir Sē’s light had cleared smoke and dust from the sky, though it had been almost entirely directed upward, with concentric rings still marking the skyline.  Smoke was free to rise, and Behemoth was in plain sight.  He was moving on three limbs, planting hands on the ruined, half-toppled and flame-scorched buildings to stay more upright.

His body, though, was a mix of high contrasts.  His flesh, what little was visible through the black ichor that dripped from his frame, glowed a silver-white.  The remaining material of his claws, teeth and horns remained black.

Tecton had pulled ahead of the group, and turned abruptly, skidding to a stop.  Cuff’s body was folded over the back of the bike, limp.  The Yàngbǎn had two more bodies with them, as well.  I’d taken my flight pack back from Imp, and was airborne as he raised a gauntlet to get my attention.  I descended to meet him, and we were soon joined by Dispatch, and Exalt, who carried an unconscious Revel.

“Where to?” Tecton asked.  His voice was hoarse.  He was recovering, it seemed.

“If we’re sticking with the regular plan,” Dispatch said, “We should gather with other capes, form another defensive line.  I think we should hold to the plan.  Working together with a less than ideal plan is best, until we can come up with something better.”

I glanced over my shoulder at Behemoth’s barely visible profile.  How far away was safe, if he was emitting that kind of radiation?

Far, far away, I answered my own unspoken question.

“Weaver?” Tecton asked me.

I ventured, “There’s a temple, not far from here.  Tattletale’s there, medical facilities.  Direction he’s moving, he’s headed in that general direction.  We protect them, hold position, see if we can’t figure out a way to keep him away from Phir Sē.  It fits with Dispatch’s idea of sticking to the plan.”

“Why don’t we press the offensive?”  Grace asked.  She still sat astride her bike.

“Believe me, I really want to press the offensive,” I said, “But I don’t want to get close to him while he’s glowing like that.  That would be a pretty good reason unto itself.”

“He won’t be using the radiation forever,” Tecton observed.

“There’s another key reason,” I said.  “Our guys are scared, maybe a little desperate.  It’s not a good mindset for fighting.”

The heroes turned to look at the others, who had apparently taken our stopping as an excuse to tend to other business.  Golem had stopped to raise some hands, more lightning rods between us and the Endbringer, and others were flanking him.  The Yàngbǎn were looking after their injured.

“Desperate,” Exalt said, gazing at the rank and file troops.

I wanted to join the others, to get involved and help, offer what little medical care I could, and the mental and emotional support I knew they needed, but we needed a greater direction, a mission.  I turned my attention back to Exalt.  “Regent was desperate, maybe, and he died.  I’m scared that our side would take risks or put themselves in danger if we ordered them back into the fight.  This is getting uglier by the minute, and we’re prone to doing stupid shit if we’re backed into a corner, or if we feel like we need to end this fast so our friends can get the medical help they need.  Let’s get the medical help, catch our breath.”

“There’re more capes joining the fight now,” Grace said.  I wasn’t sure if that was a rejection of my plan or an agreement.  I followed her gaze to see a torrent of flames making its way in Behemoth’s general direction.  A cape was hurling fireballs with some sort of space-warping effect tied to them, so they swelled dramatically in size with each second they were airborne.

I assumed it would be to Behemoth’s advantage, to have access to that kind of flame, but he wasn’t deflecting them.  The fire exploded through the area around him, and I could see him lose his grip on a building as he reeled from the impact, slumped down to a place below the distant skyline of damaged and half-collapsed buildings.  Orange light lit up the area around him, marking the areas that had been set on fire.

The fireball hurler, barely visible as a speck against a backdrop of black-brown smoke, stopped abruptly.

“Why’d he stop?” I wondered aloud.

“The radiation?”  Grace offered.

“The radiation was there before he went on the offensive,” I said.  “I don’t see Behemoth retaliating, but the cape stopped lobbing fireballs.”

My bugs noted Eidolon’s descent.  I turned around to see him depositing Rachel on the ground.  She shrugged out of his grip without so much as a ‘thanks’.

“He went underground,” Eidolon informed us.

“He ran?  It’s over?”

“No,” Eidolon said.  He didn’t elaborate as he watched Rachel back away and whistle to call her dogs.  The opaque pane of his mask was heavily shrouded beneath the heavy hood he wore, a dim blue-green glow emanating from within.  He was burned, his costume scorched and shredded in places, but the body armor beneath had more or less held.  Shaped to give the illusion that he had more muscle than he did, it seemed.  I could see blood running along the cracks at one panel of armor, where he’d apparently sustained a heavy blow.  He was mortal, after all.  Eidolon could bleed.

Fitting, that he layered disguises behind disguises.  Regent had done the same thing, to a lesser degree, had worn armor behind the deceptively light and delicate shirts he’d worn, had padding beneath his masks to cushion any blows, had hid a taser in his scepter.

I felt a pang of guilt, a swelling lump in my throat.  I’d never really gotten to know Regent, not to the extent that I’d gotten to know the others.  He hadn’t really revealed much about himself, either.  I’d reminisced before about the intimacy of friendships, about the sharing of vulnerabilities, allowing others to be close, exposing oneself to possible harm.  I’d done it with Emma, back in the day, and I’d suffered for it.  I’d allowed myself to form a kind of intimacy with the Undersiders, and it might well have been a reason we’d survived this far.  Regent hadn’t established that kind of intimacy with us.

Except maybe for Imp.

He’d hidden so much.  I’d only glimpsed the seriously disordered personality that lurked beneath the outer image of the lazy, disaffected teenager, had only seen traces of that part of him that just didn’t care that he could enslave a person’s body and leave their mind as little more than a helpless observer.  And beneath that aspect of himself, he’d had something else, something that had driven him to distract Behemoth so Imp might live.

My eyes fell on Eidolon.  Was there a similarity to Regent?  Lies, deception, a false face behind a false face behind a false face?

What was at the core?

Eidolon turned away from his observations of Behemoth, and he briefly met my eyes.

I felt intimidated, despite myself, but I didn’t look away.

“Alexandria,” I said, “How is she-”

And he took off, not even waiting for me to finish.

“-still alive?” I finished.

“I don’t like him,” Rachel commented.

“Nobody does,” Dispatch said.  Rachel seemed to accept that with a measure of satisfaction.

“And why won’t this motherfucker die?” Rachel asked, looking towards Behemoth.

“He’s been fighting us for twenty years and he hasn’t died yet,” I said.

“So?”

“So… he’s tough,” I said.  It was hard to answer a question so… what was the word?  Innocent?  Guileless?

“We’re tough.  Let’s fuck him up.”

“I was arguing for that,” Grace said.

Oh great.  They’re of like mind.

“But,” Tecton cut in, turning his head her way, “Skitter had a good reason as to why we shouldn’t.  We need to recover, recuperate.  Other heroes are picking up the slack, applying some pressure.  Or they were until he burrowed,”

Rachel snorted.  “We do the chain thing again, cut him in half at the middle instead.  Or cut off his head.”

“Honestly?” I spoke up, “I’m not sure he’d die if we cut off his head.  And correct me if I’m wrong, but he could go after the people that carry the chain.  Even if it’s someone like Eidolon, he could overheat and melt the part they’re holding on to.”

“You’re really a buzzkill,” Grace said.

I didn’t deny it.  “There’s one more reason we should go, though.  He’s going to-”

Retaliate.

Behemoth rose from beneath the ground a distance away.  In a heartbeat, things shifted from a near-quiet to chaos.  He was still glowing, and his claws crackled with electricity as he struck quickly, violently, and indiscriminately.

Three capes taken down, struck out of the sky by the bolts of electricity.  Even if they’d survived that much, the kill aura and the radiation would end them.

He turned, facing us, but the Wards were already moving, their wheels squealing on the pavement before they peeled away.

It’s the Endbringer’s pattern.  We hurt them or stall them enough, they change tactics, hit us back.

“Go!” I shouted.

Rachel moved, climbing astride her dog in an instant.  She whistled for her other dogs, directing them to Imp, Parian, Foil and Citrine.

Golem’s hands absorbed some of the lightning that crackled around us.  Not one stream, but a storm, with Behemoth at the eye of it.

And he was standing.  He didn’t necessarily have a full leg, but he had the ability to stand upright, now.

And Rachel, as I saw her making her way to the Undersiders, looked determined.

Was it weird that she seemed more comfortable in the here and now than she had before the fight started?  It wasn’t that she didn’t look scared, I could see the way her entire body was rigid, her hands clenched, white knuckled.  But she had a role here, she fit into a dynamic.

We took off, moving behind cover, running, as Behemoth crashed through a line of buildings.  Heroes from even half a mile away were lobbing attacks, and the stray shots that missed the Endbringer crashed down around us, tearing through buildings, turning stone to liquid, igniting nonflammable materials, one doing little damage but detonating so violently with the impact that my mounted teammates were nearly thrown free.

Behemoth roared, and I could see the Wards and Undersiders suffering.  A dog shook its head in an attempt to shake off the noise, and lost its sense of direction.  It crashed into a bike and sprawled.  Parian, Foil and Grace were dismounted.  Grace landed on her feet and physically ran, reaching for Tecton’s outstretched gauntlet.  He extended a piledriver to give her something to hold onto.

Few bugs had managed to keep up, much less the ones with wires, but I brought a curtain between us and Behemoth.  I was past the point where I wanted to conserve them.  If it was lightning, I could only hope that Golem’s makeshift lightning rods and my wires would protect us.

But it was flame.  It sheared through my swarm, and it splashed down around Parian, Foil and the dog.

The Endbringer had more aim than I’d expected.  He wasn’t blind, despite the fact that his eye socket was empty.  But he wasn’t entirely on target otherwise.  Was he relying on another sense?

The Yàngbǎn intercepted the attack, raising forcefields.  Parian did something with her thread, slapping the dog’s hindquarters, and it bolted.  They were carried off, tied to its side, a flame still burning on Parian’s sleeve and the hem of her dress.

Someone, an Indian cape capable of getting inside Behemoth’s kill aura, closed the distance, and Behemoth was momentarily distracted by orange cords that bound his head, lashing him to the cape.  With that, the others had a chance to escape.

“Regroup!” I called out, as I descended to the midst of the Undersiders and Wards.  “I’ll point the way!”

The sound of the fighting stopped with a crash.  Where was the motherfucker?  I rose higher to check, but saw neither Behemoth nor the cape who’d been binding him.  He’d burrowed.

It was quiet, all of a sudden, if not quite silent.  The defending capes were spreading out, and were hovering in place or holding positions, rather than bombarding the landscape.  The lightning and fire had stopped, and no shockwaves ripped through the city.  The rumbling was intermittent, mild when it wasn’t almost imperceptible.  The ringing in my ears was louder than the ambient noise.

This was his new tactic, burrowing, surfacing.  But where was the retaliation?  Their whole damn pattern centered around repaying us twice over for any abuse we inflicted on them.

The armband crackled, and I jumped, despite myself.  The first message didn’t come through the static, but the second was clearer.  “Be advised, seismic activity suggests the Endbringer is still local.  Regroup and form defensive lines.

I did a little mental math, then pressed the button on my armband.  “Armband, note that Behemoth may have a likely target, roughly eight to fifteen miles north-northwest of India Gate.”

At least, that was my best guess, judging by the flight speeds Defiant had noted for my flight pack and the time it had taken me to travel.

Every armband in earshot repeated my message.

“Keep going!” I called out.  “Keep moving!”

Surely he couldn’t keep up with us while moving underground.  I didn’t want to underestimate his intelligence, but was he even capable of holding a grudge?

What was Behemoth really doing?

The travel was uneventful, uninterrupted and eerily quiet, as we made our way to our next destination.  Three times, we stopped to pick up wounded, fashioning another quick sled for the dogs to accommodate all of them.

We reached the temple and delivered the sled to the temple doors.  The Chicago Wards stopped to park their bikes off to one side.  I waited for the Yàngbǎn to gather, extending my range, before I reached out to Phir Sē.

He’s underground.  He may be coming for you,”  I informed him, speaking through my swarm.

“I assumed,” Phir Sē responded.  “Thank you.”

You need to leave, soon.”

“I have a way out.  I’ll leave when trouble begins.  Could you rid me of the bugs?  When you leave them, they fly about me, and I cannot afford distractions.”

I hesitated, then removed the bugs, shifting them to nearby rooms and corridors.  I left only a pocket of them to communicate with.  “Be safe.

“You as well, Weaver.  Thank you, for the cooperation.”

Have you gained a bit of faith?

“Faith gained in this, perhaps, faith lost in another.”

I know what you mean.

“Good bye.  If we both live, perhaps we talk again, in a less dangerous time.”

Good bye,” I responded.

I drove the remainder of my swarm from his chamber.  It once again became a blind spot, an emptiness in my power’s range.

“You okay?” Tecton asked, as he caught up with me.  He held Cuff in his heavy armored hands, as though she were a small child.

“Saying goodbye to a self-professed madman.  Is she okay?”

“She’s breathing, but I can tell she’s hurting.”

I nodded, glancing over my shoulder as the others caught up.  Bitch brought her dogs.

We entered the front door, and I saw the amassed capes within.  Innumerable teams, looking after their wounded, lacking in direction.  The temple interior had no benches, and bedding had been laid out flat on the ground, capes set down in rows.  Medical teams were scrambling to take care of them, and capes with first aid experience were hurrying to help.  Dispatch already had his costume jacket off, his sleeves rolled up, and his hands dirty, taking care of a cape in power armor.  Parian was sitting on a mattress, tearing at her sleeve to show the burn, with Foil and Citrine beside her.

I couldn’t help but notice that more than half of the capes were covered in white sheets.  That wasn’t counting the innumerable capes left lying dead in the streets, like we’d done with Regent.  Behemoth killed more easily than he wounded.

Clockblocker had fallen.  I looked for him in the crowd of injured.  I didn’t see him.  Then again, I had my suspicions already.  This only helped justify them.

Too many others I needed to track, to watch for.  But I couldn’t use my bugs, and the dust and smoke had desaturated the colors.  Blood, in other places, marred the colors further.

“Miss,” a local man in white said, in an accented voice, “You cannot bring these animals.”

He was talking to Rachel, who glowered in response.

“Leave the dogs outside,” I said.

“I’m not leaving my fucking dogs,” she said, her voice hard.

Damn itMy eyes roved over the crowd, but I couldn’t see Grue or Tattletale.  I didn’t want to use my bugs, not in a sterile environment.  It was left to me to rein her in some.

“You can come and look for Grue and Tattletale with me, or you can stay outside with the dogs.”

She scowled, and for a second, I thought she’d stride out of the doors.  Instead, she pointed, barking out orders, “Out!  Go guard!”

The dogs filed out of the double doors of the temple.  I could see the man relax visibly.

Don’t let Grue be dead.  Don’t let Grue be dead, I thought.  Tattletale was okay, she was okay the last time I saw her.

“My friends, they were stable,” I told the man in white.  I saw Tecton crossing the room to lay Cuff out on one of the thin mattresses, turned my attention back to the man.  “They were here since a little while ago.  Where are they?”

“Stable?  They were better?”

“Mostly better.”

“Up,” he said, pointing at the nearest stairwell.

I used my flight pack without thinking, to give myself extra speed as I headed to the stairs.  Rachel was just behind me, her boots thudding on the floor.

There were more wounded above, recuperating in a long, narrow room with beds on one side.  In a grim twist, like a reminder of how close they’d come to dying, the opposite side of the room had more mattresses on the floor, more bodies.

How many dead, all in all?  Fifteen in this room alone, placed side by side, their shoulders touching.

“Skitter,” Grue said, as I approached. Tattletale stood at his bedside, her phone in hand.  There were no curtains here.  No privacy.  This was all improvised, care facilities hashed together with what the locals had on hand.  He still wore his helmet, but he had his jacket off.  He noted the arrival of the others.  “Imp.  Bitch.”

“It’s Weaver now,” I corrected him.

“You’ll-”

“I know,” I said.  I looked at his arm.  The burned flesh had angry blisters.  “You okay?”

A hand pushed at me, moving me out of the way.  Imp.  She approached her brother’s bedside.

“Hey kid,” he said.  Beside him, I could see Tattletale’s reaction.  She was silent, silenced by the damage to her throat, but she communicated well enough, that she’d drawn the full conclusion from our presence.  Her eyes closed, her head lowered.  There was no smile on her face, as she heaved out a whistling sigh through the plastic tube taped to her throat-wound.

“Regent’s dead,” Imp said.

I could see Grue go still.

As if reminding us of the culprit, there was a distant rumble.  It grew steadily in intensity, then stopped abruptly.  As far as I could tell, with bugs spread out over the area within two thousand feet or so, the Endbringer wasn’t moving any closer to us.

“I should have been there,” Grue said.

“Yeah, well, you weren’t,” Imp retorted.

I put a hand on her shoulder.  She tried to knock it away, and I dug my fingers in as I refused to cooperate.  It must have hurt; my old costume’s fingertips had clawed points.  She didn’t say anything on the subject.

“No, Grue,” I told him.  “You want to feel bad?  That’s allowed, but I forbid you from taking the actual blame for this.”

“You can’t do that,” he said.  His voice was hard.  “I’m team leader, not you.  I’m supposed to pick up the slack, remember?  I’m supposed to manage these guys.  So don’t turn around and decide shit like this, when you leftI dropped the ball.  I didn’t move fast enough, I got hurt, and because of that, I wasn’t there to help, to lead.”

“You’re not allowed to take the blame, because if you start, then I’ve got to own up to it too,” I said.  “I-”

My breath hitched.  It caught me off guard.  I had to stop and take a deep breath.

Staying calm, composed, with my words carefully measured out, I said, “-I was there, and there was nothing I could do.  And if you’re saying you could have done better, I’ve got to think I could have too.  So I’ll match you one for one on any guilt trips.”

He sighed, heavy.  “Fuck.”

“Fuck,” Imp echoed him.

“Fuck,” Rachel followed, from the entrance to the room, as if we were toasting Regent in our own messed up way.  Tattletale was nodding.

Fuck,” I agreed.

“Christ,” Grue said.  “What do you even say to that?  How… how do you even pay your respects to a guy like him?”

“He was a jerk, and worse,” I said.  I saw Imp bristle, but held on to her shoulder, “And he died for Imp’s sake.”

Grue looked startled at that, as much as one could look startled with an all-consuming costume like the one he wore.  Tattletale, beside him, was unfazed.  She frowned a little.

“Christ,” he said, again.

“So maybe we respect him by respecting that.”

There was no response to that for a few seconds.

“Yeah,” Imp said, her voice small.  “I’m going to fucking kill his dad for him.”

“That’s not what I meant,” I said.  “I meant we should remember the best part of him.”

“That part of him would’ve killed his dad too,” Imp said.

I sighed.  I wouldn’t win here.

I changed the subject, seeing how quiet Grue was.  “You should know, Grue, we got ours back.  We hurt him.  Behemoth.”

Grue raised his head, meeting my eyes with the empty black eye sockets of his mask.

“The others will explain,” I said.  I let my hand fall from Imp’s shoulder.  “You wouldn’t believe how much I want to be an Undersider again, right this moment… fuck me, I want to remember the guy, to reminisce.  But this isn’t over, and I’ve got another team to help look after.”

“We’ll-”  Grue started.  He stopped as some doctors came barreling in, wheeling in beds with unconscious capes.

“Out!” one of them shouted at us.  “No more visiting, there isn’t room!”

“Asshole!” Imp snarled, jumping out of the way as someone moved the bed beside Grue’s, nearly sandwiching her between the two.

Go,” Grue ordered her.  “Go irritate someone who isn’t loaded with painkillers.”

“A way of remembering Regent?” she asked, as if she were trying to be funny, but there was a break to her voice as she altered the pitch to make it a question.

“Exactly,” he said.

“Fuck it,” she said, under her breath.  “Fuck it, fuck it.”

We left the room, with only Grue and Tattletale staying.  The three of us made our way down the stairs, Rachel just to my right.

I glanced over my shoulder at Imp.  Her head was lowered a fraction, her arms folded.  Her gaze was on the rows and columns of injured and dead capes in the main hall.

We hadn’t brought Regent’s body.  We’d left it lying in the streets, too busy trying to stay alive to collect it.  Was that what she was thinking about?

There was a rumble, with a shaking that affected the whole structure.  Something distant, beyond my power’s range.  A heavy crash.  Somewhere in a northwesterly direction.

Phir Sē, I thought.  Had that been his complex?

At the entrance to the temple, heroes were gathering.  Our last stand.  I could see the Chicago wards at one corner.  Tecton was talking to Wanton, who was on crutches.  Wanton’s right arm ended in a stump at the elbow, bandaged with crimson on the end.

Bad luck, I thought.

I joined Tecton, only to realize that Rachel had accompanied me.  I supposed she didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Imp didn’t either.  Another glance showed her lagging behind the group, clearly lost in thought.

I lowered my voice “Rachel, maybe you can do me a favor?”

“Hm?”

I ordered my thoughts, then voiced them, “Grue and Tattletale are too injured to help out.  I’m focused on other stuff, and Parian and Foil are looking after each other.  Can you keep an eye on Imp?”

Rachel made a face.  “I thought you wanted me to do something.”

“This is key,” I said.  “She needs someone to be there, right now.  That’s all.”

“I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to do.  What if she gets…?”

Rachel trailed off.  Emotional?

“Support her,” Tecton cut in.  I suppressed the urge to wince.  He went on, “She’s your teammate, right?”

“How the fuck do I support someone?” she asked.  “Stupid.  Not my thing.”

“You-” I started, but Tecton was already talking, his voice deeper, his conviction stronger.  Grace was listening in as well, now.

Empathize,” he said.

Rachel glowered at him, unimpressed.

He tried again, earnest, “Okay, here’s a cheat I learned in a leadership seminar.  It’s called active listening.  Someone says something, a complaint, or a criticism, or they’re excited about something that happened to them.  For a lot of us, our instinct is to offer a solution, or expand on an idea, to fix or offer something.  The key is to think about how they’re feeling, be receptive to that, and parrot it back to them.  They just got a new car, and they’re happy about it?  A simple ‘that’s excellent’ or ‘you must be so proud’ works.  It leaves room for them to keep talking, to know you’re listening.  For your teammate who just lost someone she obviously cared about, just recognizing that she’s upset and she’s right to feel upset, that’s enough.”

I opened my mouth to say something, but I couldn’t even begin to sum up how useless this advice was to Rachel in particular.

“That’s retarded,” Rachel told Tecton.

“It works.  And I know Grace is going to say something to me about it, about it being fake or false, but the thing is, you do that, and you start to do it because it’s genuine, because you care about their feelings, or because-”

I cut him off.  “Tecton.”

He fell silent, turning my way.

“We don’t have time to get into anything complicated,” I said.

“It’s retarded anyways,” Rachel added.

I turned to her.  “Rachel, did you ever have a dog with a deep attachment to another person or dog?  Someone they lost, before they found their way to a shelter, or to you?  Where they were still dealing, after the fact?”

She gave me a one-shouldered shrug.

“How would you treat that dog?”  I asked.

“Dunno, depends on the dog.”

“Basically, though?  You’d just be there, right?  Do that for Imp.  Stay close, make sure she doesn’t run off, as much as that’s even possible with her, and give her the benefit of your company without intruding into her space.  Make sure she has all of the basics, both in the near future and in the next few days.”

“Okay,” Rachel said, frowning a little.

“I know it’s not the easiest thing, but she’s a teammate, all right?  It’s what we do for our team.”

“Right.”

“And just like a dog that’s had a recent bad experience might snap, bark or growl, you need to understand that she might do the same.  Only it’ll probably take a different form.  She’ll swear a lot.  She’ll probably try to get a rise out of you, try to provoke you or someone else.  That’s how Imp growls.”

Rachel didn’t even offer me a monosyllabic response at that.  She frowned instead.

“Trust your instincts, Rachel.  You’re smarter than you think, and your gut responses, the decisions you make on the fly, they’re good ones.  Turning around and using the chain for a second cut, back there?  That was good.”

Anyone else might have accepted the praise with a smile, but her frown only deepened.

“How was your advice better than mine?” Tecton asked.  He sounded a touch offended.

“Customized to the individual,” Grace said.  “Don’t be a sore loser.”

“I’m not sore.  I’m just usually pretty good at this, and I got called retarded.”

“The advice was called retarded,” I said.  “Don’t worry about it.  I’ll explain another day, if we make it through this.  How’s Cuff?”

“Skin’s badly burned, but the burn didn’t go much further than that.  She’ll have the most amazing scars, too.  No serious internal or mental damage, as far as we can tell, but her muscles convulsed so badly they broke a bone.”

I winced.

“She’ll make it to tomorrow, provided this doesn’t turn ugly,” Tecton said.

I nodded.  I sensed a rumble.  I couldn’t tell how distant the attack was.

Where the hell was the bastard?  I was a little caught off guard by how quiet things had gone.  He was giving us a chance to regroup?  Or was he letting us gather, so he could take us all out at once?

“Don’t suppose you can sense seismic activity?” I asked.

“Not with my suit.  My computers got toasted.  I’m running purely off the basics, and my intuitive understanding.  Stuff I reinforced, so I wouldn’t get trapped in my suit like I did with Shatterbird.”

I nodded.

“Generally, though?”

“He’s taking his time.”

If he was massing his strength for one good retaliatory hit, how would he do it?

Volcanos?  Earthquake?

“Let’s go,” I said.

“Go?”

“I’ve got a bad feeling,” I said.  I turned to look for Rachel, saw her a distance away, her arms folded as she stood beside Imp.  They were looking at the sea of injured capes.  “Rachel!”

I saw her attention snap to me.

“Go!  Get your dogs!”  I said.  I turned to the Chicago Wards, “Wards!  Bikes!”

“You’re serious,” Tecton said.

“Everything I know about Endbringers, about basic parahuman psychology, it demands retaliation.  What’s he done so far?  Saturated an area in radiation?  Thrown a few lightning bolts around?”

“You’re expecting worse.”

“I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Go.  Spread out.  We might need to respond to an attack on another location, with no time to spare.”

Tecton nodded.  He turned to his Wards, “Go!”

I pushed my way through the gathered crowd.  I could see Defiant, with Dragon beside him.

“Weaver,” he said.  “Dragon says that was you, with the blast.”

I shook my head.  “I helped coordinate, nothing more.”

“You hurt him.”

We hurt him.  And he’s burrowed.  He’s looking for a target, and I can’t think of a better place for him to hit than this.”

“We’d be able to put up a fight.  We have defensive lines.”

“Probably,” I agreed.  “But my guys are moving out anyways.  We’ve never done this much damage to him, and yet he’s sticking around.  What I’m wondering is, why?”

Defiant glanced at Dragon, then spoke.  “He’s-”

The ground shuddered.  Again, as before, the rumbling intensified.

This time, it didn’t stop.  It got worse with every passing second.

“Reinforce!”  A cape hollered.  Someone else took up the call in an Indian language.  Hindi?  Punjabi?

I could see Annex flowing into the entryway, soaring through the wall’s surface to the ceiling.  Golem created his hands, protecting the rows and columns of injured capes.

There was a press as the bodies flowed out the door.  I used my flight pack to fly over their heads, but even then, I bumped shoulders with others who could fly.  I wanted to help, but there was little I could do inside.

Eidolon and Alexandria had arrived at the building.  Eidolon touched the exterior wall, and an emerald green glow started to surround the structure.

The rumbling reached the point where capes were unable to keep their balance.  I raised off the ground, but the movement of the air in response to the shuddering was enough to make me sway.

Tattletale.  Grue.  Parian.

Behemoth emerged with a plume of gray-brown smoke, and the landscape shattered.  It was Tecton’s natural power, taken to an extreme.  Fissures lanced out in every direction and disappeared into each horizon.  Secondary fissures crossed between each of the major ones, like the threads of a spider’s web.

As far as the eye could see in every direction, terrain shifted.  Hillsides abruptly tilted, standing structures fell like collapsing houses of cards.

A full quarter of the temple collapsed.  The bugs I’d kept to the edges of the room could sense it as a small share of the capes who were in the entry hall were caught beneath the falling rubble.  The ones furthest towards the back.  Eidolon’s protective effect kept the remainder intact.

Behemoth emerged from the smoke.  He was more robust than he had been, but that wasn’t saying much.  Seventy percent burned away, perhaps.  The regeneration had slowed, but it was still functioning to a degree.  He’d recuperated, built his strength, and he’d used the time to, what?  Burrow through strategic areas?  Had the distant rumbles been controlled detonations or collapses at key areas?

The temple was the one building that stood.  Everywhere else, there was devastation.

How many refugees had just died, with this?  How many had stayed within their homes, rather than try to evacuate?

I felt hollow inside, just standing there, stunned, trying to take it all in.  The area around us was still settling, sections of land tilting and sliding like sinking battleships sliding into the water.

How many of us were left?  Seventy?  Eighty?  How many of them were hurt, exhausted, their resources spent?  Could we even coordinate, with so many of us speaking different languages?

“Last stand!” a male cape I didn’t know hollered the words, his voice ragged with fear and emotion.

Behemoth, three or four hundred feet away, responded to the shout with a lightning strike.  Our capes were too slow to erect barriers, and the protection insufficient.  Capes died.  For the first time, I averted my eyes.  I didn’t want to know how bad the casualties were.  Our numbers were too thin.

I saw our Protectorate, what remained of it, stepping forward to form our defensive line.  Our last defensive line.  The major ones, the ones I’d been introduced to, too many had died, or were injured.  These were unfamiliar faces.  The ones who were second in command, if that.

Eidolon landed to one side.  The Triumvirate had often posed in that classic ‘v’ formation, with Legend in front, Alexandria to his left, Eidolon to the right, the lesser members in the wings, Eidolon was now apart from the rest of the group.  His cape didn’t billow, his posture was slightly slumped.  He was tired, on his last legs.

There were murmurs as Alexandria advanced from within the temple.  Unlike so many of us, she didn’t flinch as Behemoth struck out with lightning, the barriers holding this time.  Golem had raised lightning rods on either side of the road, fingers splayed as if he could gesture for Behemoth to stop.

Alexandria found her way to the end of the crowd opposite Eidolon, to our far left.  Satyrical and the other Vegas capes followed her.  Only a small fraction of them remained.  Others had apparently been injured or killed in battle.

Alexandria glanced over our ranks, and her eyes moved right past me, not even recognizing me.  For the briefest instant, I met her eyes behind that steel helmet of hers, and I saw that one had a pink iris.

That answered my question, I supposed.  Pretender couldn’t take over a corpse, but there was no reason for him to take over Alexandria if she was alive and well.  Cauldron had collected Pretender, and they had him controlling her because she was no longer of any use to them on her own.

Our side was busy getting sorted into groups, spreading out so he couldn’t hurt too many of us at once.  We were finding our formations, as our toughest capes absorbed and redirected the lightning he was throwing in an almost experimental manner.  He changed tacks, throwing flame, and a team composed entirely of pyrokinetics caught and redirected it with a concerted effort.  I backed away, and found Tecton at my back, with the remaining Chicago Wards.  Bitch stood just off to one side, her dogs ready.

One structure among several hundred thousand still stood, and our adversary was wounded, though undiminished.  Our ranks had been thinned in the most violent ways possible, through fire and lightning and a roar that could render organs to mush.  We weren’t stronger than we’d been at the start of all of this.  I couldn’t even say that the weak had been thinned out, or that we’d been united through hardship or loss.  Behemoth had picked off some of the strongest of us, and the trust between our factions was thin at best, with some eyeing the Yàngbǎn, others watching Satyrical’s contingent.  We were just less.

“Hold the line,” Exalt called out.  Other capes translated for him, echoing his words with only a few seconds of delay, in four or five different languages.  “We defend until the ones inside can be evacuated, and then we leave.  There’s nothing left to protect here.”

A thin heroism, but that was heroic, wasn’t it?  Protecting the wounded, defending the ones who’d put everything on the line to stop this monster.

If this was all a kind of microcosm for the world at large, that small heroism had to count for something.  I wanted it to so badly I ached for it.

Behemoth roared, and the last engagement opened.

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Interlude 23

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Lightning ripped across the landscape, following its own path, independent, breaking every rule that electricity was supposed to follow.  It danced over the outside surfaces of houses, running across concrete and leaving glassy scorch marks in its wake.  It touched objects that should have grounded it, channeling it into the earth, but leaped for another target instead.

The Yàngbǎn raised their hands, already reacting.

Twenty-third path, fifth benefit.  Reflexes.

Thirteenth path, third formForcefield constructions, barrier.

The forcefields absorbed the worst of the energy.

Cody was already moving to use the thirty-sixth path to rescue anyone who’d absorbed the remnants of the shock.  None.  It hadn’t touched them.  He was among the last of them to dismiss his forcefield.  The forcefields drained their reserves of energy, and weren’t to stay up for too long.  They’d been drilled on this.

Qiān chū.”  Three ordered.

They mobilized.

Fourth path.  Shallow flight.

Ninth path.  Short range electromagnetism.  They skated off of the little exposed metal that was available around them, car hoods and pipes, gaining speed to augment their flight.

There were forty-two paths in all.  Forty-two powers.  No, he corrected himself, there were forty-one now that Seventeen was dead.  More would die by the day’s end.

The hope, the plan, was to demonstrate the Yàngbǎn’s strength, to show that they had the answer, a way to defeat the Endbringers.  It wouldn’t happen today, but a solid demonstration would serve to bring others on board.

They hadn’t been asked.  The expectation was that they would give their lives for this.  He would have refused.  He’d dealt with an Endbringer before, and he still hadn’t recovered from that chance meeting.  He’d lost everything, been stripped of friends and family both.

Yàngbǎn qiáng!”  Five called out.

Yàngbǎn qiáng!”  The group responded in chorus.  Cody’s voice joined theirs, quieter.  His pronunciation wasn’t good.  In all this time with the group, he hadn’t even managed to grasp the fundamentals of the language.  Mispronunciation was punished, not by any reprimand, but in a subtle way.  They would speak to him even less than they were now, he would get less food.  Maybe for a few hours, maybe for a few days.  The thought bothered him, and the degree to which it unsettled him was more disturbing still.

Something so minor as that shouldn’t have mattered so much to him, but it was all he had, now.

There was a crash of lightning, and a building collapsed, directly in their path.  Flames and smoke barred their path.

Shèntòu!”  Three ordered, his voice nearly drowned out in the noise of the building settling.  They were still moving forward, not even slowing.

The forward group hit the barrier with localized vacuums.  Individually, they were weak, but with twelve all together, flames were quenched, smaller objects levitated into the air.

Cody joined the middle group in shearing through the remaining wreckage.  Thirty-first path.  The cutting lasers.  The first group was slowing a fraction, and Cody slowed his flight to hold formation.

The twelve members of the Yàngbǎn only accelerated, flying around the group members they had been following.  They turned solid, space distorting around them as they rendered themselves invincible and incapable of any action but their pre-existing momentum, effectively human bullets.  They tore through the wreckage, clearing a path for the rest.

He felt a rush, just being part of the unit.  Being a part of a maneuver that let them cut through a burning ruin of a building with the ease they had.

Some of that rush, he knew, was the second path.  Magnification of powers.  Two wasn’t present, she was too valuable to risk losing, but they still shared her power between them.  Each of them had a sliver of her ability to enhance the powers of those nearby.  It was the reason their powers worked to the degree that they did, a feedback loop in power augmentation across their whole unit.

There were more things feeding into his consciousness, other senses he wasn’t actively tapping into.  The twenty-third path, it enhanced his perception, particularly his awareness of others, the threat an individual person posed, and enhanced his reflexes, particularly when dealing with people who wanted to hurt him.  It was of minimal use against Behemoth, but it made him cognizant of the other members of the Yàngbǎn, aware of their breathing, the noises they made as they ran.

In this way, the group subsumed him, rendered him a part of something overwhelming.  For now, in the midst of this, the deep loneliness and isolation was gone.  Language was almost unnecessary, beyond the one- or two-word commands he needed to know for particular maneuvers and directives.

Zig-zagging down the streets, they naturally settled back into their established rank and file.  With every member of the group having access to the same pool of powers, placement in the formation was a question of experience and how expendable they were.  Cody was an essential defensive asset, no use if he was taken out of action, so he rested in the middle of the group, surrounded by people who could protect him in a pinch.

Rumbles marked the collapses of taller buildings as Behemoth advanced, somewhere a quarter-mile behind them.

The heat was oppressive.  Even as they got further away from the monster, the fire only seemed to get worse.  The smoke was the worst part of it, preventing them from seeing or tracking their enemy.  It meant they couldn’t see more than a hundred or so feet around them, and they didn’t have any idea whether they were going to walk straight into the monster’s path or wind up encircled by burning buildings.  Their flight depended on proximity to a solid surface.  It involved hovering five to ten feet off the ground while moving at fifty or sixty miles an hour.  They had another means of flight, but less controlled, one that risked putting them above the skyline, obvious targets for a lightning strike.

Was the Behemoth smarter than he looked?  Was the destruction seeded in a way that would spread?  Fires started where buildings were closely packed?

Cody could feel his skin prickling.  His mask was filtering out the smoke, but the heat, it was getting unbearable.

Zhàn wěn,” Ten said.

Zhàn wěn,” the group echoed her, their voices strong.  It was an encouragement, an affirmation.  Cody didn’t know what it meant.  He’d been with them for an indeterminate length of time, what felt like years, but he didn’t feel any closer to grasping the language than he had been on the first day.  He’d had help, briefly, but that had been stopped.

Every member of the group was permitted to speak freely, but virtually every utterance was vetted by the group as a whole.  If, like Ten, someone were to speak, and others were in agreement, deeming the phrase acceptable, then the response was clear.  If the statement was poorly timed, or out of tune with the group’s line of thinking, then it was ignored, followed only by a crushing silence.

Cody had never experienced the adrenaline rush that Ten was no doubt experiencing over the simple act of getting a response from the squadron.  The group had never deemed his statements acceptable, because his pronunciation was poor.  He was a member of a tight-knit crowd, yet utterly, completely alone.

Tíng!” one of the members in the rear called out.

They dropped to the ground, their landings practiced, wheeling around a hundred and eighty degrees by planting one foot on the ground and sweeping the other out.

His forcefield was up before he even knew what the threat was.  Individually weak, strong in formation: a makeshift bubble of overlapping forcefields twenty feet over their heads.

The glowing projectile swiftly grew in his perspective, giving him only a second to brace himself before it crashed down on the wall of forcefields.

The wave of heat was intense, even on the other side of the barrier.  It seemed almost liquid as it spilled out over the edges.  In seconds, they were surrounded in flame.  The forcefields sealed it off, prevented superheated air from burning them alive, but the viscosity meant it was resting against the forcefield.

Magma?

They’d drilled on abstracts, on possible situations.  Attacks from any direction.  Attacks in various forms.  He’d never really considered the ideas behind dealing with magma, but he had the tools.  Being a member of the Yàngbǎn meant being constantly drilled.  They took your power, all but a fraction of it, but every member of the group had that same fraction.  Every member was expected to know how to use every power, to know when and to do it in unison with the rest of the squad.

A small handful of individuals in the C.U.I. hadn’t been brought onto the group.  Null, the cape who made the Yàngbǎn possible, was independent.  He couldn’t be a part of the whole.  Others included Tōng Líng Tǎ, who had a power that was too slow to use, not worth the fractional decrease in power that came with including her in the network, Shén yù, the strategist, and Jiǎ, the tinker that supplied the C.U.I. with its devices, including the simulations for the drills.

It was those drills and simulations that allowed him to react a precious fraction of a second faster as he responded.  It kept him in sync with the others in the group as he joined half of them in letting his forcefield dissipate, simultaneously reaching out to apply another power.

Thirty-second path.  Nullification waves.

The effect was short ranged, and he could see the shifting in the air as it extended, passed through the gaps in the forcefield where the magma and heated air were only just beginning to leak through miniscule gaps.

The waves generated by thirty-two served to stabilize.  It stalled things in motion, warmed up cold things, cooled warm things.  It silenced, stilled.

The magma cooled with surprising rapidity, but then, the power was affecting the inside at the same time it affected the outside, rather than trying to cool the outside to a degree that would extend inward.

Path thirty-two.  It made him think of Thirty-two, the member.  The source of that particular power.  He snuck a glance at her.

She was one of four outsiders, four people not native to China.  She’d been his closest ally.  Something more.

Dǎpò,” Seven ordered.

Like the others, the maneuver was a practiced one.  The last forcefields dropped, and the group mobilized.  Odd-numbered members of the squad crouched, legs flexing, while even-numbered members, Cody included, reached out.

Path fourteen.  Vacuum spheres.

The odd-numbered members of the group pierced the barrier of cooled magma, and the vacuum spheres scattered the shards.

Another sphere was already in the air, aimed close to them, if not at the exact same spot.

Without even thinking about it, he trained a laser on it.  Others were doing the same, or following suit.  The glob of magma, still mid-air, was separated into loose pieces, no longer as aerodynamic as it had been.  It expanded, fell short, disappeared into the cityscape between them and Behemoth.

Each action Cody performed as a part of the unit was validating, affirming.  It was a series of small payoffs for the drills he’d gone through for over a year, with smaller groups and the Yàngbǎn as a whole.  The drills had been intense, with one new situation every one or two minutes, like flash cards, only they were holograms, color coded polygons and shapes with just enough mass that they could be felt.  If they failed the scenario, the offending members of the squad would be named out loud, the scenario shuffled back into the list of possibilities, so it might repeat in five minutes, or two hours.

Cody was well aware of what they were really doing, between the six hours of drills and the twelve hours of schooling that combined lectures on the C.U.I. with traditional education.  He knew why they only got forty-five minutes in total to eat for their two daily meals, only five hours of rest a night, why every minute of the day was scheduled.

He’d always told himself that he wouldn’t be a victim, that when the time came and he was indoctrinated into a cult, he’d recognize the targeted isolation, the practice of tiring him out so he’d be more amenable to suggestion, more likely to conform.  He’d told himself that he would rebel and maintain his individuality.

So stupid, to pretend he had that degree of willpower, in the face of crushing social pressure and exhaustion.  It had taken him nearly five days after he left the basic training and joined the official team before he realized what was going on.  The saddest part of it was that he was fully aware they were brainwashing him, indoctrinating him, and there was nothing he could do about it.  Despite himself, despite the pride he’d once had as a person, he wanted acceptance.

They were a poor surrogate, a surrogate he hated, in a way, but he had nothing else.  His family was a universe away, his friends had turned on him, gone mad.

There was a crash, and a shockwave ripped through the area, momentarily clearing the smoke.  Cody instinctively raised his forcefield.

Behemoth was there, standing amid leveled buildings, fighting some flying capes who strafed around him.  He had built up some steam, and lightning coursed over his gray flesh, illuminating him.  Only one or two of the metal ships were still fighting.  Other craft, airborne, seemed focused on evacuating, but it was a gamble at best, as shockwaves and lightning struck them down.

The smoke filled the sky once more, obscuring Cody’s vision too much for him to see any further.

Behemoth clapped again, then again, each collision of claw against claw serving to extend the damage one step further, clearing obstructions out of the way for the next.

The Yàngbǎn backed away, spreading out inadvertently.  Cody could feel the benefit of the second path fading, the enhanced powers the others granted slipping from his grasp.

“Tā shì fúshè kuòsàn,” Three said.  He said something else that Cody couldn’t make out.  Something about leaving.

The group moved out, flying low to the ground, and Cody was a fraction of a second behind, pushed himself to make sure he was in formation.

“Radiation,” Thirty-two said, her English perfect, unaccented.  It was for Cody’s benefit, and the benefit of the other two English-speaking members of the group, who might not understand the more complicated words.  She got glances from the other members of their squad, but continued speaking.  “He’s using the shockwaves to spread irradiated material across the city.  We’re retreating, okay?”

Cody nodded, but couldn’t bring himself to speak as the group took flight.  It was unnecessary, wasn’t worth it when he accounted for how the others would react and respond if he used English.  Thirty-two would be shunned for doing so, there was no need for him to join her.

An explosion of smoke bloomed out in front of them.

Not smoke.  Darkness.

The Yàngbǎn collectively dropped into fighting stances, ready to use any power the instant it was called for.

Villains stepped out of the smoke, and it was only then that the benefits of the twenty-third path belatedly granted the Yàngbǎn their ability to sense these people.  The power had been blocked by someone or something in the group.

They were Westerners, by the looks of them.  Cody’s eyes narrowed as he studied them.  A guy with a demon mask, surrounded by the same eerie darkness that formed a wall between the group and Behemoth, a young girl with a horned mask, a stocky guy or girl with a thick fur ruff on their hood, and a girl in black with an opaque pane over her face and a crossbow in her hands.

The other group was also mounted, but clearly distinct in style, even if they’d shuffled together with the other group.  The boy in medieval clothes with a silver crown, the girl in a frock, two grown women in evening gowns.

They were all mounted on mutants.  He had to reach for the name.  The guy from Boston, Blasty?  Blasto.  He was supposed to make horrific mutants.  Maybe he was here.

The Yàngbǎn edged around the group, wary.

“Jesus,” the man with darkness shrouding him said.  His power was billowing out around him, more darkness.  “What the hell are you doing?”

He’s getting the benefit of the power boost, Cody thought, but he didn’t speak.

The others were shifting uncomfortably, but the one with the white mask and silver crown, and the two in the evening gowns… they seemed to take it more in stride.

Something about them, it tugged at a memory.  Not a strong memory, but a brief encounter at some point… it gave him an ugly, twisting feeling in his gut.

He blinked, and the girl with the gray, horned mask was right in front of him. He resisted the urge to react.  His teammates, he knew, were raising their hands in anticipation of a fight.  They were distrustful.  They’d been taught that foreign heroes were dangerous, unpredictable.

Thing was, they were right.  As a rule, capes were fucked up.  People were fucked up.  The Yàngbǎn, Cody mused, resolved the situation by stripping capes of their humanity.

She turned around, as if she hadn’t just appeared in front of him.  “Shit, you weren’t kidding.  It gets stronger as you get closer to more of them.  I can do practically anything, and they don’t react.”

“No idea,” the man in black said.

“They’re Chinese capes,” a woman in a yellow evening gown said.  “They probably don’t speak enough English to answer.”

Something nagged at him.  Cody searched his memories.  Between the crossbow and the boy in the renaissance era clothes, he couldn’t help but think of the game he’d played with his friends before everything went horribly wrong.  But the evening gowns, those masks…

Accord.  The bastard who had taken him, who had traded him to the Yàngbǎn for money.

The anger was refreshing, startling, and unexpected.  A splash of scalding water to the face, as if waking him from a dream.

“Thirty-six!”  It was Thirty-two calling.

“Thirty-six?” the girl with the horns asked.  “What?”

It was Cody’s name.  His new name, rather, but he’d never quite identified by it.  He turned and realized he’d dropped out of formation.

“Let’s go,” she said.

He glanced back at the woman in yellow.

“I can guess what you’re thinking, but it’s not worth it,” she said.

Every step of the way, I got fucked.  Fucked by Krouse, fucked by the Simurgh, fucked by Noelle, fucked by Accord, fucked by the fucking Yàngbǎn.

The woman in yellow spoke.  “Whether it’s answers, or revenge, or something else entirely, you won’t find any of it here.”

Others in her group were looking at her in surprise, or as much as one could, when wearing masks.

“Do you know how easy it would be to kill you?” Cody asked.

Three gave an order in Chinese.  Incomprehensible, but Cody could guess.

“If you killed me,” the woman in yellow said, “He’d barely care, and you’d spend the rest of your life in a hole that Ziggurat made, if they didn’t just paralyze you from the neck down and leave you alive to borrow your power.”

Ziggurat?  Oh.  Tōng Líng Tǎ, the earth mover.

She’d said she didn’t have answers, but this-

The ground shook violently.  Behemoth was still active.  Lightning was arcing through and around the dark clouds of smoke that were rising at the edges of the city.

“If it’s alright, we should go,” the darkness man said.  “Things get much worse, I’m not sure how much we can help, and I’m losing my mind waiting like this.”

There was a whistle from someone in the group, and they were gone, the mutant quadrupeds breaking into a run.

And Cody was left standing there, staring.

Three snapped something, and Thirty-two translated, “He’s saying we can send you back, if-”

“No.  It’s fine,” Cody said.  He turned and fell into formation.  The disapproval was like a weight on him from all sides.  He withered a little.  How many weeks, months or years would it be before he was allowed to hold a conversation with his comrades?

More heroes were running by, now.  A group of young heroes, a cluster of religious capes with halos and crosses worked into their costumes, and a fresh wave of mechanical ships.  The reinforcements had arrived.

Eight said something, but the accent was too thick for Cody to make it out.

He’d been stirred from a delirium, a state where the days had blended into one another, where the sole defining moment of his week might be if he were acknowledged by the other members or rebuked.  It wasn’t Behemoth who’d shaken him from that point.  It was the woman in yellow.

Anger twisted in his gut, and it wasn’t going away.  He found himself holding onto it, embracing it.

As if it reflected the violence within Cody, the city was burning, shattered and gripped in chaos.  Thousands were in the streets, running between flimsy looking buildings crusted with signage, or lying dead, struck down by shockwaves created by a monster half a mile away.  Women, children.

They passed injured, and didn’t spare a second glance.  A family of five were caught in a ring of burning structures, and the Yàngbǎn didn’t even spare a second glance.

We’re military, not heroes.

The goal was to fight the monster, to support the Yàngbǎn and support the C.U.I. in any way possible.

Three changed course, and the rest flew after him, setting down.  Their destination was a flattened building, with a group of dead, maimed and dying Indian capes lying in the debris.

Cody exercised the twenty-third path to find out what Three surely knew already.  There was nobody nearby.

Three reached down, and others around him joined in, making contact with one of the dying.

It took nearly a minute, to attune everything the right way.  But the effect took hold, and the injured hero disappeared.

Five looked to Cody and pointed at the next one.

Lowest rung on the totem pole.  If I didn’t think Null would rescind my powers, I’d kill you here and now.

Reluctantly, still stewing with anger, he obeyed, kneeling by the body.

The forty-second path.  Teleportation.  He could see the destination in his mind’s eye, like an annoying spot of light in the center of his vision, gradually getting more detailed and focused.  Each person that joined his side to assist sped the process along.

The wounded hero flickered and disappeared.

By the time they were done, all three bodies had been removed.

Qiān chū.”  Three ordered.

They moved out.

As they traveled, he could see the streets choked with evacuees, a virtual tide of people, rickshaws, bicycles and cars.  They’d reached bottlenecks, points where they couldn’t advance, and the evacuation wasn’t proceeding.

Was this an extension of Behemoth’s strategy?  The major streets were unused, either because the Endbringer could see them, unleashing waves of electricity and shockwaves to strike down anyone who tried those routes, or because buildings had been felled and they were impassable.

The heroes who weren’t helping with the evacuation were establishing perimeters, staggered lines of defense.  Here, Indian capes were setting up turrets on high ground, guns the size of cars, drilling them into the roads and rooftops.  Another block over, there were civilians who weren’t running.  They’d gathered, and were talking in low voices.  They radiated a different degree of power, on par with the capes on the rooftops.

The Yàngbǎn squadron slowed down as the cluster of capes grew denser, the buildings more solid and further apart.  There were trees here, but the heroes were cutting them down.  Each squad seemed to be executing a different plan, a different setup.  What appeared to be force-field fences were being erected in between each group and Behemoth’s estimated point of approach.

There was one group with heavy ranged weapons.  An area was being cleared, set up with devices.  Another area had been marked off with chalk, but it wasn’t clear what they intended to do.  Tinkers everywhere were setting up.  A kid with red armor and lenses had two odd-looking cannons set up on one rooftop, each the size of a city bus.

It painted a picture, formed a script of sorts, for the story that had yet to take place.  The idea that Behemoth would change direction from where he’d initially started off wasn’t even a consideration.  They weren’t consolidating forces, gathering together for one good strike, but were arranging it so one would follow after the other.  The capes he’d already seen were the ones that had gone forward to support, to find the injured, trusting to mobility or evasion to slip away.

And here, this far in, a dozen countermeasures were being set up, if not two dozen.  This would be the staging ground, without the crush of flammable buildings all around them.  Each countermeasure would occupy Behemoth for just long enough that the heroes could manage a barrage of attacks.

The Yàngbǎn reached the center of the network, landing on the rooftop with the most capes.  The makeshift command center.

He only had to take one look, and he knew.  Something vital was missing.  They had any number of ways to stall, and each one would cost them a little.  But for all of that, he couldn’t make out anything that looked like it would end the fight.

Cody could see the heroes react as the Yàngbǎn landed, and he could see the way others looked to one small set of people for cues.  The top-level guys, the leadership of the Protectorate.

A a man in gleaming armor extended a hand to Three, who’d stepped away from the group.  “We didn’t expect the Yàngbǎn.”

Three looked over his shoulder, and Thirty-two stepped forward.  Three murmured something, and she translated.  “Your PRT was very persuasive, Chevalier.”

“I suppose we can count that as a good thing.  You read the briefings and plans we sent out?”

Thirty-two continued to translate, “We did.  With your permission, we’ll return to the fight with Behemoth shortly.  But we’d like to make a proposal.”

“I know what you’re going to propose,” Chevalier said.  “I’m sorry, it-”

“It’s somewhat counter to our usual offer,” Thirty-two spoke quickly to match Three’s attempted interruption.

Chevalier fell silent.

“Your heroes here are scared.  They want to help, they are good people.  We’re offering another way.  They can help without risking their lives.”

“I think I understand.  You have to understand why I’m saying no,” Chevalier said.

“Our group shares powers.  Time and time again, the West has refused them.  We would rehabilitate your criminals, and share their powers among us.  They are divided in strength, but we have the ability to magnify powers.  You can feel it now, being close.”

“Yes,” Chevalier said.

In the distance, a column of lightning cut through the wall of smoke above the city, as big around as an apartment building.  Cody could feel the vibrations shudder through the building, as sturdy as it was, though the lightning was miles away.

“We might each have only a share of a power, reduced effect, range or duration, but we regain as much as a third of that power back with this magnification, depending on how many are together.  A full third of forty powers at once.  If any would volunteer, we would teleport them to a safe place, where we would borrow their power for this fight only.  We would send them home when the fight was over.”

Cody could see the reactions of the capes on the rooftop.  People were exchanging glances.  Considering it.

A part of him wanted to scream, to warn them, whatever the cost to him might be.

“I see,” Chevalier said.

“For years, we have boasted of the strength the Yàngbǎn offers the world.  But we are small, and too many citizens with powers flee or fight rather than cooperate.  Today, we hope to show our strength.  We have extended our support, and we ask for trust in exchange.”

“Your support is welcome, and that’s why we couldn’t ever ask you to make this leap of faith,” Chevalier said.  “I understand your motives are pure, but if some accident transpired, and a good cape didn’t make it back, it would mean war.”

Cody hadn’t missed the way the hero had stressed the words.  A warning for his people, more than a statement for Three.

“We would be exceedingly careful,” Thirty-two translated for Three.  “Rest assured.”

Cody was watching the negotiations continue, Chevalier looking more and more uncomfortable, when he saw him.

Accord.  He was accompanied by a girl in a lavender and black costume, and a dark-skinned man in a suit.

Cody had to hold himself back to keep from striking the man.  It would be suicide, and no matter which power he used, Cody couldn’t be sure he could guarantee a kill.

He could see the moment where Accord saw the Yàngbǎn.  Cody could see the reaction, as if the man had been slapped in the face.  Accord’s shifting mask gave away his reaction, and then his expression set, his body language neutral, as if nothing had happened and nothing was wrong.

The girl beside him smiled, and brilliant green eyes settled on Cody, stark contrasts to her pale purple costume.

He hated not knowing anything, being cut off by language barriers and the rules of the Yàngbǎn.  Who was the girl in lavender?  Where were Alexandria, Eidolon and Legend?

Every question left him more uneasy, increasingly angry, and Accord was the person who had put him in this situation.

I’m a slave, and he’s the one who put me in chains.

“May I interrupt?” Accord asked.

“If the Yàngbǎn will excuse me?” Chevalier asked Three.

Three nodded.  “As you will.  We can wait.”

Cody suspected Chevalier had been hoping to end the conversation, rather than postpone it.  He stared at Accord.  Do they know what you do?  What you are? 

There was a crash, a clap of thunder, and a rush of hot wind.  The cloud of smoke around Behemoth’s battlefield was growing, and it wasn’t just a matter of perspective, of Behemoth getting closer.

Capes flew off, joining the fray.  The Yàngbǎn remained.

“What can you tell us?  Do you have a plan?” Chevalier asked Accord.

I’ll kill him.  I’ll kill him.  Somehow.  I just need a chance.

It was too much, like being asleep for months and finally waking up, only to discover that the only thing inside him was rage.

“…optimal timing,” Accord was saying.  “I’m still working out the particulars.”

Krouse thought he was smart too.  When I’m done with you, I’ll find him and kill him. 

“What do you need?”

“Contact information for your various squads.”

Cody virtually twitched with a need to move, a craving to fulfill some deep-seated desire for revenge, but the group around him wouldn’t afford him the chance.  Each member of the Yàngbǎn was simultaneously a prisoner and a guard, some more of one than the other.

Chevalier nodded.  “You’ll have it.  Rime?”

A woman in blue limped forward, “I’ll handle it.”

The girl in lavender glanced at Cody before falling in step with Rime and Accord.

Had she sensed his emotion?  She hadn’t said a thing.

“He just reached the first perimeter,” someone reported.  “Tore through our skirmishers.  Some teenagers were killed.  Eidolon and Legend are fighting, but they’re not in good shape.  We didn’t expect him to move this fast.”

“The Triumvirate’s missing a key member,” Chevalier said.  “Our more mobile capes should move out now.  Meet him at the first perimeter if you’re fast enough, hold at the second if you aren’t.  Maintain cover where possible.”

Qiān chū.”  Three ordered.

The negotiations were over, it seemed.

But he could feel the tickle of new powers taking hold.  The three they’d collected from the shattered building were joining them, like it or not.

The first power was an easy one to grasp.  He could feel his body surging with some added strength, and that strength swelled a step further as the power-enhancing auras took hold.

The second was a tinker power, he was almost positive, or it was a thinker power with a focus on guns.  Nothing useful.

The third… another thinker power.  His vision clarified a step.  The ability to see through smoke?

No.  The ability to see through surfaces.

He was disappointed, and he couldn’t be sure why.  What had he wanted?  What did he want, in general?

Even now, he was alone.  The Yàngbǎn wanted to collect capes, to prove themselves.  The heroes wanted to stop Behemoth.

Cody didn’t care about either.

He entertained the notion that helping Behemoth go loose would almost be better.  It could mean the end of the Yàngbǎn, Accord’s death.  Even Trickster’s death, if they had decided to show up.

Except there was no reasonable way he could do that.  Not for a lack of wanting to, but because he couldn’t hope to oppose the Yàngbǎn and the heroes at the same time.

Needed an opportunity.

The Yàngbǎn passed through the worst of the smoke, into the blasted, shattered ruins of the city.  In the moment they joined the fight, Cody held back.

They sensed he was gone, but they couldn’t disengage, not as Behemoth gathered up a ruined section of building and melted it down, hurled massive globs of melted plastic, metal and stone at them.

The process took a minute at the best of times, with help.  His destination couldn’t be a distant one, and he couldn’t hope to behead the Yàngbǎn on his own, not with the members they’d kept in reserve, the precious ones, with powers they couldn’t afford to lose, like Two’s.

He nearly lost his concentration as a massive crash knocked him off his feet.

The fight’s only beginning, Cody thought.

The teleportation took hold, and he found himself back at the building the Yàngbǎn had just left, three stories down.

The command center.

Accord, the lavender girl, and Chevalier were leaning over a table with computers arranged along it, papers strewn out across the surface.

It brought back memories of the moment everything had turned upside down, the computers, the interrupted tournament.  Finding themselves in another world…

If he needed a push to act, that was it.  The biggest one first.

The laser didn’t cut the armor.  It was capable of cutting granite like a hot knife through butter, but it didn’t cut the armor.  Chevalier turned, drawing his sword, a six-foot long beast of a weapon.  The armor glowed orange as the laser concentrated on his belly.

“You lunatic!” he shouted, charging.

Cody switched tactics.  A forcefield-

The sword shattered it with one swing.

He flew out of the way as another swing came within an inch of decapitating him.

A laser with one hand, a vacuum sphere with another, pulling Chevalier off balance.

Again, it didn’t work.  The man barely reacted as the vacuum sphere caught his legs.  He aimed his weapon, and a combination of danger sense and a nullification wave stopped the shot in the chamber, disabling the gun.

The x-ray vision was barely penetrating the sword or armor.  Cody had to duck, back up and rely on his enhanced reflexes to avoid Chevalier’s attacks.  He had forty-four powers and not one was letting him beat, what, a swordsman in a suit of armor?

It was the lack of the power boost.  The Yàngbǎn were only strong as a group, granting the aura to one another.  Here, now, he was feeble.  Forty powers, and not one of them sufficient.

Always second best.  Always alone, Cody thought.  No.

Keeping the laser trained on Chevalier, he used his own power.  Perdition’s power.  The thirty-sixth path.

Chevalier was moved back to where he was seconds ago.  Cody backed out of the way, kept the laser trained on the hero, and the instant his opponent got too close, he used his power again.  It barely set Chevalier back two seconds, but it was enough.

Slow, steady, inevitable progress.  Time was one of the fundamental forces of the universe, undeniable.

Accord and the girl in lavender made a sudden attempt to run to the door.  Cody created a forcefield to bar their way.

They reached for phones.  He used a vacuum sphere to pull them away.

It took nearly a minute to cut through Chevalier’s armor, using the time reversals to effectively put the man on hold while he put some distance between them, and the laser to cut.  The man folded over the second the laser pierced flesh, cutting straight from the front of his stomach to his back.

Obstacle gone.

“Reckless,” Accord said, sounding more sad than afraid.  “Lunacy.”

“I don’t care what you think.”

“I’d hoped your placement with the Yàngbǎn would temper you.”

Cody lashed out with the laser.  Accord’s right arm was lopped off.

Another cut, for the right leg.  Accord screamed as he fell.

The girl in lavender hadn’t reacted, only stared down at the two dying men.  She clicked her tongue, “Tsk.”

“He’s asymmetrical in death,” Cody mused.  “There’s a justice in that, isn’t there?”

“If there’s irony here, it’s the fact that his desire for order led to this,” the girl commented.  “We just lost our strategist and our field commander, so there’s going to be more chaos than ever.”

The windows briefly rattled with the shockwave of one of Behemoth’s attacks, halfway across the city.

“Tsk.”  the girl said, again.

The anger still burned inside him, not sated in the slightest.  Did I end it too quickly?  Maybe I should have drawn it out more.

He glanced at her.  She was staring at him.  “Can you use that computer to find someone?  If they’re here, or somewhere else?”

“I can,” she said.

“Trickster.”

She raised an eyebrow.  “Oh, I can tell you that without looking.  He bit it.  Some freaky monster calling herself Noelle freaked out, made clones of him.  They ate him alive.  Literally.”

He blinked.  “When?”

“A month ago, Brockton Bay.”

The details fit.  Cody nodded slowly.  He wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

“Sorry, if he was your friend.”

“He wasn’t,” Cody snapped.  He felt off balance.  This was so unexpected.  How was he even supposed to react to that?  How long had it been since he’d really made a call on his own?

Slowly, he spoke, as if sounding out the ideas as they came to him, “No.  I suppose that’s good.  Thank you.  I’d tell you I’ll make it quick, but… you worked for him.  You probably deserve it.”

“Nuh uh,” she said.  She’d backed away, gripped the edge of a table.  Her entire body was rigid.  “I’ll give you my phone, you can call any one of my buddies, tell them it’s Tattletale.  They’ll tell you we were constantly fighting. Only reason we haven’t offed each other is that it’d be mutually assured destruction.”

“Trickery.  No, knowing him, knowing the kind of people he associates with,” like Trickster“there’s probably contingency plans.  I won’t fall for that.”

“Spare me, maybe I can salvage this mess.  I mean, you’ve still got to live on this planet, right?  We can’t let Behemoth win.  Not today.”

“I’m dead anyways.”

“Because of the Yàngbǎn.  I could help.  I’ll figure out a way for you to escape.  Hopeless as this feels, there’s a way out.”

“No,” Cody shook his head.  He felt so lost, so tired, so unsatisfied.  There was one major enemy left to eliminate, one more group who’d wronged him.  The Yàngbǎn.  He already knew he wouldn’t get any more satisfaction from it.  He knew he’d likely die in the attempt.  “No, no point.”

“Fuck,” she said.  “There’s definitely a point.  Just… give me a second, I’ll think of it.  Shit.  Sucks I don’t know much about you.  Don’t suppose you’d give me a hint?”

He raised a hand, pointing at her.  “No.”

“Think about her,” the girl who’d called herself Tattletale blurted out the words.  “What would she think?”

He hesitated.

Her?  The first person that popped into mind was Thirty-two.  The Yàngbǎn member who’d tried to teach him Chinese.  They’d been close, had been friends, before the group segregated them, because they were more malleable as individuals than as a group.  Members of the same team, but never given a chance to talk with one another.  Always in arm’s reach, never together.

The second person he thought of was Noelle.  His first love, the betrayer, the monster.

He shook his head, which only intensified the ringing in his ears.  When had that started?  With the shockwaves?  During the fight with Chevalier?

Or before all that?  Before the Yàngbǎn.  Had it ever stopped?

He thought of the Simurgh, thought of all of this in the context of him being just one of her pawns.

His head hung.

Always a pawn.  Always the expendable one.  Kicked off the team, traded away to Accord for the team’s safety.

“There’s…” he started to speak, then trailed off.  She didn’t interrupt him.  “Who?  Which her are you talking about?  Which her?  Be clear.”

He approached Tattletale, gripping her throat, feeling the added strength of the newest additions to the Yàngbǎn.

Tattletale’s voice was strained, “Honestly?  I figured I’d toss it out there.  There’s bound to be someone important, and saying her gives me a fifty-fifty chance.”

“I hate smartasses,” he said, and he squeezed, feeling her windpipe collapse in his grip.

She fell to the ground, and he watched as she struggled for air that didn’t come.

The faint screaming rang through his head as he watched her struggle to climb a chair, taking ten, fifteen seconds to just get her upper body onto the seat.

She found a plastic pen, collapsed to the ground with it in her hand.  When she flopped over onto her back, it was broken.  She’d caught it between her body and the ground.

This’ll have to do as a surrogate for Trickster, Cody mused, watching.  Had Noelle felt anything like this when she’d killed and devoured innocent people?  A kind of despair, mingled with helplessness?

Anger was all he had left, the drive for revenge the sole thing keeping him moving.  Feeble and misdirected as this was, it wasn’t it.

Tattletale drew a knife from her belt, used the edge to remove the nib and the ink reservoir from the plastic case of the pen.

When that was done, she stabbed herself in the base of the throat.

She’s giving herself a tracheotomy, Cody thought, watching in fascination, even as he reached out and took hold of the plastic pen case.

He watched her expression as he crushed the plastic in one hand.

And he felt nothing.  Even the paradoxical grin that appeared on her face, in contrast to the frustrated slam of one hand against the floor, it reminded him of Trickster in an odd way.  Yet it added nothing to this.

Think about her.  What would she think?  Tattletale’s words struck him.

He thought of Thirty-two, and without even deciding to, he used his own power on the pen case, returning it to the state it had been in seconds ago.

He handed it back to Tattletale, then stood, his back to her, as he concentrated.

As goals went, it wasn’t much of one.  He’d barely talked to her.  As far as kindnesses went, hers had been minor at best.  But he’d save Thirty-two.

It took two minutes to carry out the teleport.  He didn’t have much time before the Yàngbǎn found a free moment to contact Null and rescind his powers.  Maybe they were calling already.  Maybe the electromagnetic radiation in the area would block the call.

He’d find a way, regardless.

He felt his power take hold and teleported.  Back to the battlefield, back to Thirty-two.

Chest heaving as she greedily sucked in air through the plastic tube she’d jammed into the hole in her throat, Tattletale feebly crawled over to Chevalier.  Her strength was depleted before she got halfway.

She stared across the room at Accord and Chevalier’s bodies, straining to see if either were breathing.

She managed the only utterance she could, without the ability to bring air from her lungs to her mouth:  A click of her tongue.  “Tsk.”

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Drone 23.5

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The waiting was the worst part.

My restlessness was cranked up to eleven, cooped up in the craft with Defiant and Dragon, waiting to cross half the world.  Dragon was focused on piloting the craft, unable to speak, in any event.  Defiant was busy communicating, which translated to being inaudible as he kept the vents of his mask closed.  From the images on the monitor, he was clearly tracking who was coming, our forces, the Endbringer and the high-risk areas.

I watched for a time, saw the cape count rise.  A screen filled with lines of text, noting the hero teams who had committed to the fight, numbers beside them to tally the total numbers.

For every group that joined, I felt myself growing a touch more nervous.  More participants in the fight was a good thing, but… so many small teams.  I couldn’t read half of the names of the groups on the list, but there was nothing to suggest it was organized.

I shifted my weight, sat, stood, stretched.

Agony.

Being in a prison, I didn’t have the luxury of a full wardrobe, certainly not the bike shorts and tank top I tended to wear beneath my costume.  I had only underwear, and I needed to change into the new costume.  I could have waited, but I wanted to hit the ground running.

Worse, the boxes with my butterflies within were in one of the crafts that followed just behind us, carrying a full contingent of capes.

But Defiant was engrossed in the monitors, and that left me debating the merits of modesty over being ready.

I stripped down, pulling on my old costume.  They’d said something about painting it, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to wait for that.  I left the major armor components off.

The pack they’d given me, it was the wrong color to match with the armor.  I’d be sacrificing the ability to keep things inside my utility compartment, but I suspected this would make up for that.   There were built-in wings that folded at a juncture, like dragonfly wings with joints, and there were the ‘arms’.  The controls seemed to be worked into gloves I was supposed to wear beneath my costume.

I found that there was a hatch, but it was small, barely larger than my hand, and the space was shallow.  I sent bugs inside to explore, and found a series of fine switches.

“Redundant controls,” Defiant said.

I looked up.  He’d turned away from the monitors.

“If your glove gets damaged, you’ve got the controls built into the pack itself.  If the pack gets damaged, you have the gloves.  If both are damaged, you’re not likely to be in a state to fly.  It might take getting used to, but this will give you the ability to move faster if you need it, and it’s very possible you’ll need it this afternoon.”

“You built it so fast.  I wasn’t with Mrs. Yamada for even two hours, and you put this together?”

“It’s made using components and technology we already have.  Four antigravity panels, like those Kid Win had in his hoverboard,” Defiant said, angling his hand to indicate the general placement.  One at the very bottom, one above that, facing more back than down, and two more at angles on either side.

“Okay,” I said.

“That gives you lift, the ability to offset gravity or momentum in a given direction, but the acceleration is low.  Expect zero to thirty miles an hour over eight seconds.  It won’t carry you out of the way of trouble, understand?  It won’t stop you if you’re moving at terminal velocity, unless you’re falling a long way.”

I nodded.

“The wings are a modification of technology that was confiscated from a cape called Stinger.  Missile themed, not wasps and bees.  They’ve got a venting-exhaust system we repurposed.  It toggles between using either antigravity or propulsion.  They should give you an easier time orienting yourself, or more speed pushing yourself in a particular direction, but not both at the same time.   While the wings are intact, you should be able to manage zero to forty-five in about three and a half seconds.  That ends if the wings break, and they aren’t made to be durable.”

I nodded.  “It won’t let me flit around the battlefield, but it’ll give me some vertical movement?”

“Yes.”

He continued, indicating lines with his finger.  “We built nineteen tracks into the device, that you’ll be able to control with the bugs you direct into the interior.  One for the on-off switch, doubling as an override for the glove handling, four for antigravity panels, eight for the arms, six for the wings.  You’re sure you can handle all that?”

“Multitasking is a strength of mine,” I said.  “If it’s anything like controlling Atlas, it’ll become almost subconscious.”

“I hope so.  You’ll want to learn with both the glove and the insect control.  There’s also limitations on energy and fuel, for the antigravity and propulsion, but not so limited that you’ll run out by the end of the day.  You have time to review the documentation Dragon put together.  Pay attention to the particulars of the flight pack’s vulnerability to electromagnetic radiation.  While the wings are deployed, one good hit will scramble it and render you flightless.  While the wings are withdrawn and the casing closed, it should be shielded against all reasonable EM sources.”

“I’ll have to stay close to the ground then, in case it gets scrambled.”

“For now.”

“Can I practice?” I asked.  “Not flying, but the arms, and moving the individual components…”

“The arms aren’t done.  Keep them out of the way for now.  Until I figure out a way to approach the internal design, they’ll have about as much strength as a newborn baby.”

I nodded.  “I really appreciate this, anyways.  You two went above and beyond the call of duty.”

“It’s not customary for tinkers to design things for teammates.  If they do, it’s on a relatively small scale, simple.  Kid Win making Gallant’s armor, for example.  Any device requires a great deal of upkeep.  Time is spent tuning, calibrating, repairing and identifying problems.  Each device created is something the tinker then has to take time to maintain, and mass production means the tinker becomes tech support more than an innovator.  Dragon and I don’t sleep, or sleep very little, but even for us, it isn’t effective.  Far better to invest our time into the artificial intelligences and the ships.”

“But you’re doing this for me.”

“We, I in particular, wronged you,” Defiant said.  “I know that even now, we’re not fully on the same page, but I now believe you did start out wanting to be a hero, and I may have played a part in your drift from that path.  I’ve put myself on the line to recommend you to the Wards, and I’ll dedicate the time and equipment necessary to get you on track.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Really.  Thank you.”

“If you don’t mind,” he said.  “I-”

He paused, glancing at Dragon.  Then he continued, “I’m working on being more humble, but I think I will always have a certain measure of pride and an excess of focus, to the point that I lose sight of the periphery of things.  I’ll forgive your past transgressions if you look past mine, and if there’s any disparity in the two, I’ll make it up for you with this.”  He lowered his head to indicate the flight pack.  “And I’d ask you to spare my ego the reminder by accepting this without thanks.”

“I’ve worked with Rachel, with Bitch, I think I can do that much,” I said.

“When this is over, today, if we’re all still alive, I will maintain two of these packs for you, and you can switch to the spare if one needs repairing or recharging.  Some of it’s of Dragon’s design, but the maintenance will be left to me.  If you have questions, I’ll answer them,” he said.

And the latter half of the statement was left unsaid.  But let’s not talk of this any further, unless it’s about the technical aspects of the device.

He had already turned back to the monitor.  There were three screens filled with columns noting the various teams who were showing up.

“How long until we arrive?”  I ventured.

“Forty-five minutes.”

I nodded.  “We’re going to show up late, aren’t we?”

“Inevitable.  Dragon already has had every combat-ready craft on standby in eastern Europe for a week now.  They and the local forces will have to hold the fort until then.”

“Okay.”

“The computer opposite mine is available.  Dragon is pulling up the documentation on the flight device now, if you need something to occupy yourself.”

I glanced behind Defiant, noting the terminal and the stool that was built into the craft’s cabin.  I took a seat, resting the pack on my right thigh.

Okay, so they’d found the time to pull together a flight pack with some antigravity and propulsion systems, I could believe that.  But the documentation?  Who had time to draw out 21 pages of notes on capabilities and limitations, on top of building the thing?

Especially when it was all drawings, rather than typed out words.

I wasn’t about to complain, but it did leave me reconsidering what Dragon’s specialty might be.  I’d thought I worked it out, but the speed with which she’d pulled this together…

My bugs found the channels inside the suit, and I set about experimenting with it, working through the various steps for moving the wings and the individual limbs.  Each ‘track’ inside the pack’s interior was a narrow corridor with very sensitive switches along the interior, so that any movement of even something as diminutive as a ladybug was capable of pushing them.

The sensitivity would need to be calibrated at a later point.  As it stood, any jarring impact would briefly lock all of the inputs in place, so they wouldn’t read the impact as contact from a bug and send the wrong signal.

I had to shrug out of the upper half of my costume to get the gloves on beneath my costume, but I managed to get everything set up.  There were too many straps and no room for them to slot beneath my costume, so I connected them over the costume’s exterior, beneath the armor, and cinched every strap tight, doing up the metal clasps once everything was comfortably tight.

There were four ‘arms’, each a little longer than my arms.  The control was a little simplistic, with only two switches for each limb.  I imagined it was similar to an artificial limb.  I folded them close to my body, so they hugged my lower ribs and the space just beneath my ‘breasts’, and then left them be.

The wings were just as simplistic, but had three switches each.  Two to move and reorient the wings, with a third to switch between the antigrav vent and varying amounts of propulsion.  I didn’t dare experiment with that in an enclosed space.

I read and reread the documentation ten times over, because there was precious little else to do.

“We’re landing in a minute,” Defiant announced.  “Estimated eight minute wait before the last craft from North America arrive on site and a cape by the name of Silk Road deploys a corridor.”

I nodded.

“We picked up your old team,” he said.  “Sent a craft.”

I turned around, surprised.

“Stipulations of your membership in the Wards dictate that you aren’t to extend contact to them.”

Oh.  Right.  Shitty.

“Keeping in mind that there are likely going to be cameras and cell phones pointed at you throughout this incident,” Defiant said, glancing at Dragon, “You’re free to do as you wish.  So long as you don’t do anything troublesome on camera, I don’t expect anyone will make an issue of it.  It might even help if you allow others to record you, so it’s clear you aren’t doing anything questionable.”

I glanced at him.

“Dragon’s suggestion, not mine,” he said.  “But I don’t object.”

“Thank you,” I said, meaning it.

“Thank me by staying out of trouble,” he said, brusque.  He glanced at Dragon, then back to me.  “And you’re welcome.”

She can communicate with him, but not with anyone else.  Why?

I nodded.  “Um.  You reminded me, when you said there’d be people getting camera footage of me.  Mrs. Yamada said I should start recording myself while I’m in the field.  I know we still have to talk about my costume, and it’s too late to make any updates, but I wouldn’t mind having it, especially for the next high-intensity situation.”

“We’ll see,” he said.

I nodded.

The craft set down, the doors opening.  My mouth dropped open in surprise as I took in the scene.

The area was a flat, open field with knee-high grass.  Settled on it were twenty of Dragon’s ships, with two to sixteen capes to each.  People were stepping out, stretching, meeting others and talking.  Almost all of them were from the Protectorate and the Wards.  Others included Haven, a villain group I didn’t recognize, and one of the corporate teams I’d seen before the Leviathan fight.

And the Undersiders.  I sensed them with the bugs in the field.

I felt a measure of hesitation.

Time to test out these wings.

It wouldn’t do to faceplant in front of all of these heroes.  I was tentative, as I sent a bug down a tight corridor with innumerable tiny switches.  Only one corridor, one switch.

A panel kicked to life, gentle.  I nearly tripped as I stepped forward and was lifted an inch or two higher off the ground than normal.

I sent the bug further down the corridor, directing more power to the panel, and I was no longer having an issue, because I was being lifted into the air.

I was starting to lose my balance, though, necessitating a drop in lift and some experimental firings of the left and right panels to keep myself upright.

I touched ground and extended the wings, activating the vents for the antigrav at the wing’s tips.  It made for a sudden, lurching adjustment, nearly flipping me over to the ground.

Not wanting to waste too much time, I made a beeline for the Undersiders, experimenting as I went.  Rather than fly, I used short bursts of the antigrav with kicks of my feet to get some air, landing on the noses and limbs of various Dragon-crafts, so I didn’t have to walk around.

“There she is,” Tattletale said, “And she’s flying.”

I settled on top of a head, swaying for a second as I touched ground and found my center of balance.  “Floating, until I get more practice.”

“Close enough,” she said.  She flashed a grin.  “Fancy.”

They were all present, Parian included.  Accord, Citrine and the woman with the water powers were all present.  I couldn’t recall her name.  Ligeia?  She had a costume, now.  Or an evening dress, rather, with a conch brooch and mask.

More than Parian, I was surprised that Accord had come.

Flechette, now Foil, stood off to one side.  She’d donned a black costume, which I was pretty sure was made of one of my failed attempts at a Tattletale costume, using asymmetrical belts, boots, armor and gloves to cover the areas where I’d tried to embellish.  Her mask was an opaque pane, like Clockblocker’s, but black, with silver trim at the edges.

“You’re wearing your old costume,” Grue said, finally.

“Haven’t had a chance to make a new one,” I said.

“No kidding,” Regent said, his tone dry, “Too busy making license plates, dropping the soap…”

“I can’t believe you went and became a hero,” Imp said.  “What the fuck?  How the fuck do you off a major cape and get invited to the Wards?”

“It’s complicated,” I said.

“Are you getting by?” Grue asked.

“Not as well as I’d like,” I said.  “But surviving.  Are you guys okay, leaving your territory like this?”

“Hey now,” Regent cut in.  He stabbed a finger at me.  “Aren’t you supposed to read us our rights before questioning us?”

Imp snorted.  Grue smacked Regent across the back of the head, a little harder than necessary.

“It’s all good,” Tattletale said.  She grinned, “Booby traps, some misdirection, I figure we can afford to be gone for a day.  We can look forward to going back home to see some bruised egos.  Regent’s dad among them.”

“You’re being safe?” I asked.  “I mean, we’ve taken on some monsters, but this is Heartbreaker, and the repercussions of a lost fight are kind of, well, permanent.  There’s no undoing his power.”

“Like I said, it’s all good.”  Tattletale shrugged.

“You with a team?” Grue asked, “Or with us?”

“No idea.  As far as I know, I’m independent,” I said.  “I’m not sure what that means, yet, but way I figure it, I’m going to do whatever works best in the moment.”

“Isn’t that how you wound up with us in the first place?” Tattletale asked.

I didn’t have an answer to that, so I shrugged.  My eyes followed Foil as she walked over to talk to Jouster.  He handed her an arbalest, and a quiver of needle-like bolts.

When she took the quiver, he gripped her wrist, speaking something in a low volume.  She nodded as she replied, saying something I couldn’t make out, and he let her go.

Wordless, they parted, him rejoining his team, Foil moving to Parian’s side.

I wanted to say something about that, but what?  I didn’t get the vibe she was a double agent, but I imagined there was something more to that.

I turned my attention back to the Undersiders, and my eyes moved to Rachel.  She was sitting on the ramp at the back of a craft, her dogs clustered around her.  She was stroking Bastard, using her fingernails to get in deeper than the base layer of fur.

Finally a chance to talk, and nothing to say.  The silence hurt me more than any accusations or insults.

“I don’t know how to say this gracefully,” I said.  I paused, noting the presence of a hero nearby who’d raised a camera towards me.  Whatever, I’d say it anyways.  “But you guys mean a lot to me.  I’m sorry I didn’t say it before, but I couldn’t without letting on that something was going on.  You’re my family, in a way.  As lame as it might be, I love you guys.”

My head turned from Grue to Rachel to Tattletale as I said it.

“Gaaaaaaayyyyyyy,” Imp drew out the word.  Parian and Foil gave her an annoyed look.

I smiled a little, despite myself.  “Fuck off.”

“Are you trying to get someone killed?” Regent asked.  “That’s totally a death sentence, telling someone you love them, tying up loose ends.”

“She’d be getting herself killed, going by the rules,” Tattletale said.

“Don’t say that,” Grue said, his voice quiet.

With a touch more seriousness, Tattletale said, “No dying, okay, Skitter?”

“Weaver,” I corrected.

“Skitter,” she said.  “Here, today, you’re Skitter.  Consider it a good luck charm.  And no dying.  I’ll say it as many times as it takes, until it gets through to you.”

I shook my head a little.  “No dying.  That goes both ways.”

“Way I see it,” Imp said, “She’s gone soft.  Real quick, too, getting affectionate, lovey-dovey.”

“Alternate costume, too,” Regent said, “White, light gray, baby blue…”

“Electric blue,” I said.  I was smiling now.  I used the flight-pack to slow my descent as I hopped down from the head of the craft.  I pitched my voice lower so I wouldn’t be overheard, and poked Regent in the chest.  “Fuck you guys.  I’m as badass as ever.  Recommending drugs to kids, strangling a ten year old, forcing bugs down my allies’ throats…”

“Killing Alexandria,” Regent said.

“Mm,” I said, and I could feel my heart plummet into my stomach.  All at once, I was left wondering just how many capes here were secretly blaming me.

“Asshole,” Tattletale told Regent.

I folded my arms, feeling a chill, the summer warmth notwithstanding.  “We may pay for that today.”

“I think we’re fucked in general,” Tattletale said.  “But no sweat.  We’ll-”

She snapped her head around.  There was an uncharacteristic emotion as she swore under her breath.  “Fuck.  He’s up.”

A second later, the ships each spoke in their identical voices, out of sync not because of any flaw in Dragon’s program, but due to their positions across the field, and the delay of sound traveling, a chorus, “Behemoth has surfaced.  Return to your craft as soon as possible.  Supplies will be provided while we are en route.  Individuals on the ground may or may not be left behind.

“See you on the battlefield,” Grue said.

“See you,” I answered.  I felt a tug of worry.  I had almost hoped he’d sit this one out.  He didn’t tend to do well when it came to facing down the real monsters.

I bit my tongue and started up the flight pack.

“Don’t hold back now,” Regent said.  I could see that he was watching the guy who was still training his camera phone on me.  Regent turned back to me and extended his arms, injecting fake emotion into his voice, “You know we love you too!”

I kicked off, just barely floating out of reach as he tried to fold me into a hug.  “Jackass.”

He was back to his casual, detached attitude in an instant, showing just a touch of swagger as he stepped back to rejoin the others.  He gave me a sloppy mock salute.  I shifted my ascent and set foot on the head of the craft that had been behind me.

“Just remember,” Tattletale called out, “You’re officially Skitter today.  Don’t be a hero.  No point to all this shit if you do something brave and get yourself killed.”

“Not sure about that,” I said.  “About being Skitter, not the getting killed bit.”

Heroes were rapidly retreating to the craft.  I didn’t have long.  There was so much I wanted to say, but… shit.

“Rachel,” I said.

She glanced up at me, her eyes almost hidden behind her hair.  I could see the hurt in her expression, a raw feeling.

“The letter, it helped.  All of the letters meant a lot to me, except Imp’s.  But yours especially.”

She grunted in acknowledgement, setting Bastard on the ground, then stood.

“And I’m probably going to get crucified for saying this, but I still consider you a friend.  Someday, after all of this has settled down, when you don’t need to be a villain anymore to take care of your dogs, and I’m okay where I’m at, I want to hang out again.  Throw the balls for the dogs, clean up dog shit, go for walks.  Whatever works.”

“Saying shit like that, you’re signing death warrants!” Regent said, his hands to the side of his head.  “Stop it, you lunatic!”

I shook my head, then turned and took flight.

All around me, doors were shutting.  If it weren’t for my bug sense, I might have lost track of where Defiant was.  So many Dragon-ships, no two quite the same.

I entered, and I could see Defiant standing in front of the monitors, his arms around Dragon’s shoulders.  One of them must have acknowledged my presence, because the doors of the craft began shutting behind me as I made my way inside.

Odd as it was, I hadn’t fully parsed that they were together before now.

I approached, quiet, and watched as the drama on the monitors unfolded.  The bugs from the field followed me inside, clustering around me.

Behemoth, nearly fifty feet tall, was still standing in the midst of a collapsed building.  The structure had no doubt fallen on top of him as he emerged, and the debris was ablaze, casting his gray skin in hues of red and orange.  He didn’t seem to care about the building.

Dragon’s A.I. were already attacking him, each from the greatest distance possible.  The camera shook, out of sync with the timing of the strikes, as the vibrations took time to travel to the distant cameraman.

Heroes were fighting, contributing pitifully little to the assault.  They were too distant to make out.

“Locals?” I asked.

Defiant turned, reacting as if he were surprised I was present.  “Yes.  Don’t ask me to pronounce their names.”

Sāhasī Pān̄ca,” Dragon said.

I glanced at her in surprise.  “You can talk, all of a sudden?”

There was a pause.  “…Little.”

“She felt she needed to be able to communicate,” Defiant said.  To her, he said, “And this is the last time we make a last-minute fix.”

“I’m sort of in the dark here,” I said.

Defiant declined to fill me in, staring at the screen.  His voice was almost pained as he muttered, “They’re too close.”

One Dragon suit was unleashing what looked like a freeze ray at the Endbringer, while another of the Dragon suits was turning a laser on the ground beneath Behemoth’s broad feet.  It wasn’t enough to take away his footing.  He set one ‘claw’ -a growth of obsidian-like black shards- onto solid earth, then half-loped, half-hopped forward.  With his claws and feet now on firm ground, he leaped.  The shockwave of his departure toppled the slipshod buildings around him in his wake.

The landing as he arrived flattened another set of buildings.  The heroes started to run.  They were too slow, when compared to the length of Behemoth’s legs, the sheer power he was capable of putting into the simple act of walking.  One by one, they fell within his kill range.  Two were scorched from the inside, a brawny-looking cape seized up with smoke billowing from his corpse as he struck ground, his arms and limbs still twitching in death.

One managed to escape, taking flight.  He got a full four city blocks away before Behemoth reached out.  He was struck out of the air by a visible arc of lightning that extended from a claw’s tip.

Four A.I. were continually bombarding him now, three using what looked to be freeze-rays.  The fourth alternated between destroying his footing and blasting burning buildings flat with some sort of concussive laser-drill, stifling the spread of the fires.  Heroes here and there contributed some inaccurate ranged fire, but seemed preoccupied with fleeing.

Behemoth hardly seemed to care about any of it.

Our ship lifted off.  Outside, the surroundings were taking on a rosy tint.  I could hear the cumulative thrum of the twenty-seven Dragon-craft’s propulsion systems operating in unison.  My bugs could track them all, the late arrivals included.

There was a shudder, and the rosy tint of our surroundings intensified, filling the cabin.  We started to move, and it wasn’t the ship moving us.  Dragon stepped out of Defiant’s embrace to approach the ship controls.

An instant later, the propulsion system kicked into motion, and we were moving far faster than before.  The shuddering of the cabin was so intense I had to sit down.

“India’s capes fall into two categories,” Defiant said, not taking his eyes off the screen.  He had to raise his voice to be heard over the movement of the craft.  “They term their capes ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, with very strict rules on who falls into a category.  Walk between the two groups, you get the worst of both.  Hot, it’s about flash, color, appeal, and engaging the public.  Villain or hero, they’re cape celebrities.  Cold, it’s… bloodshed, violence, assassination and secrecy.  Capes of the underworld.  The public doesn’t see or hear about the cold capes.  The media does not speak of them.”

On the screen, Behemoth wasn’t even slowing down.  Another arc of lightning lanced across the cityscape, setting a dozen fires.  The houses looked shoddy, dirty, and were apparently very flammable.  The flames spread quickly, and plumes of smoke were streaming towards the overcast sky.

“The capes that are getting killed, they’re-”

Garama,” Dragon said.  “…Hot.”

“We need the ones with killer instinct,” Defiant said.  “The ones who fight for real, not for play.  The cold capes.”

Thanda,” Dragon supplied the translation.

“Question is whether the Thanda think it’s worth breaking the rules and emerging from the shadows,” Defiant said.

“Did last…  time,” Dragon said, her words bearing an odd cadence.  She approached me, holding an armband and a silver packet.

I accepted them, turning both over in my hands.  “Radiation pills?”

She nodded, holding up one finger.

“Take one?”

“Yes,” she said.  “Still.”

“Still?”  I asked.

But she just touched one side of my face.  One finger was under my chin, and I raised it, looking up at her, confused.

She let me go, leaving me momentarily confused.  I touched my face where she’d laid her hand and felt two bumps.

A camera?

“Dragon,” Defiant said, before I could ask any questions.  “Look.”

She approached his side, her arms wrapping around his armored left arm, metal scraping against metal.

“They’re not supposed to be here,” he commented, his voice low.

I turned my attention to the monitor.  “Who aren’t?”

“The Yàngbǎn.”

The focus was on a formation of capes.  They were lined up like musketeers, rank and file, each a set distance apart from the others.  The ones in front were kneeling, the ones behind standing.  Each wore a mask that covered their faces, flowing costumes with loose sleeves and pants, somewhere between a martial arts uniform and a military uniform, each crimson with a black design of horizontal and vertical lines at edges of the sleeves and pants.  There were nearly thirty of them.

All together, they directed lasers at him, aiming for his one red eye.  He blocked the concentrated laser-fire with one claw, and the flesh at the base of the obsidian claw began peeling away.

“Who are they?”

“The C.U.I.’s military parahumans.”

“Isn’t the C.U.I. xenophobic?”

“Yes,” Dragon said.  Her voice sounded funny.  It wasn’t emotion, but something was somehow off about it.

“Excepting diplomatic functions, this is the first time in over a decade that any of the Yàngbǎn have set foot outside of China,” Defiant said.  “We’ve tried to arrange for their aid in the past, but relations between our side and theirs are sour.  For years, they’ve alleged that the PRT and the Protectorate are fundamentally corrupt, the source of the problems currently plaguing the world.”

“They were right,”  I said.

“Yes,” Defiant said.  He didn’t sound happy about the admission.

Behemoth slammed his claws together.  The Yàngbǎn responded by creating forcefields en-masse, one for every person, overlapping with those to either side of them.  The shockwave of the clap ripped through them, shattering the first two rows of forcefields and virtually liquefying the unfortunate capes who no longer had protection.

The Yàngbǎn in the back rows were already dropping their forcefields, extending their hands forward, open palms aimed at their comrades.

The shockwave’s effects reversed in an instant, and the injured were whole, holding the positions they’d been in an instant before.  Here and there, the reaction had been a fraction too slow, and the Yàngbǎn members were only reversed to the instant the shockwave made contact.  They were thrown back and caught by the ones in the back row, blood streaming from their eyes, noses and ears.  One was saved much too late, and the process of being liquefied was only repeated, splattering the Yàngbǎn soldier who’d failed to react in time to rescue him.

Behemoth unleashed a rolling tide of flame, and the remaining twenty-eight Yàngbǎn fled, using a combination of enhanced speed and flight.  The remains of the dead member were left behind.

“I can’t tell if this is a good thing or a bad thing,” I commented.

“With luck, they’ve changed their minds and we have much-needed allies,” Defiant said.

“And if they haven’t?”

He didn’t reply.

More of Dragon’s craft were arriving, adding their attacks to those of the others.  I could recognize the wheel-dragon, using some sort of tuned electromagnetic pull to draw away the loose rubble from beneath Behemoth.  He sank nearly ten feet as the ground shifted around him.

He struck the wheel-dragon with a bolt of lightning, flaying off a few plates of armor and destroying the wheel.  It opened its mouth and launched cannon-fire at him.  The shells exploded into blobs of containment foam, fireproof, sticky, virtually impossible to remove.

But not capable of holding back something like Behemoth.

More lightning was unleashed, each doing successively more damage to the craft.  By the fourth blast, it wasn’t operational.  The fifth split it down the middle.  Insulation was little use against a dynakinetic that could redirect the natural course of electricity.

Ten craft were around him now, concentrating fire.  Cryogenic beams, containment foam and more served to slow him down.  Not stopping him.  No, that was too much to hope for.  His pace was roughly two-thirds the speed it might otherwise be, at a glance, his attention focused on the A.I.

Behemoth brought both hands together, but it wasn’t to clap.  Instead, he directed a stream of lightning at the nearest craft, easily twenty feet across.  It was splintered in an instant.

A second craft perished a second later.

Before he could turn his attention to a third, the stream of lightning shifted, curving off to one side.  Drones, the annoying little bastard spheres that had electorcuted me on multiple occasions, the same ones that had been built into the ceilings of the cells and prison hallways in the PRT headquarters, were in flight, deployed by a drone-ship like the one I’d fought in Brockton Bay, and they were channeling the lightning along a different path.

Behemoth wasn’t one to roar, but I could see the effort at work as he began to draw the lightning away from the remote drones, forcing it to take another path, beyond the route of ionized air or the electromagnetic charge that they were using to catch it and harmlessly redirect it into an area that was already rubble.  He was taking abuse from the airborne craft, unable to move without giving ground.  More containment foam and more ice built around him, tearing and melting, respectively, in response to his lesser movements.

They moved closer together, strengthening the bond, and the lightning was caught once more.

He gave up on the lightning and blasted the drones out of the air with a wave of heated wind.  An instant later, he resumed destroying the craft.  Three in as many seconds, and then a slam of one claw against a building.  The shockwave that followed leveled a whole row of buildings.

I belatedly swallowed a radiation pill and attached the armband.

The screen displayed text:  ‘Name?’

“Weaver,” I said.

The letters appeared on the screen.  I confirmed with a press of the button.

A map of my surroundings appeared, a landscape rushing by.  In one corner, the distance to Behemoth was noted, rapidly counting down.

I could see the runway an instant before the ship touched down.  The rosy glow was still present as the ship cut back on forward thrust.  The craft touched the runway belly-down, skidding to a near-stop.

The red tint that surrounded everything disappeared, and Defiant caught my arm with one hand, holding on to a beam in the ceiling with the other.

The ship activated one thruster, and the craft swung around.  The other thruster kicked to life, and we took off, still bearing some of the forward momentum from earlier.  We were moving in a near-perpendicular direction to the one we’d been traveling earlier.  Defiant let go of my arm.

When I looked back at the screen, nearly half of the city was on fire.  Black smoke choked the skies, a stark contrast to the cloudy sky of only minutes ago.

“Were they able to evacuate most?” Defiant asked.

“No,” Dragon answered.

Our craft touched ground, and I glanced out the window to see a sliver of what the monitors showed.  A sky choked by darkness, a city aflame.

The glow of his single eye cut through the smoke, and I was reminded of Lung.  Of that first night, on the rooftop, when one of Lung’s eyes had been swollen shut, the other open.  Lung, like Behemoth, had been virtually untouchable.

This was that same scenario, that same fight.  I couldn’t hope to win.  At best, I’d manage a distraction, a momentary handicap, but he’d recuperate, and given the chance, he’d murder me with a casual ease.

This wasn’t a rooftop, but there wouldn’t be an easy means of escape.  And just as I’d acted to stop Lung from hurting what I thought were innocent kids, I was acting here to save lives.

The same thing, but on a far greater scale.  The danger, the stakes, all scaled up by a thousand times, a million times.

The back of the craft opened, and Defiant led the way as we made our exit.  Spotlights cast much-needed light on the immediate surroundings.  The ships had settled in a ring formation, some posed above the others, as if providing a protective enclosure.  Weapons were directed outside, and one craft loomed overhead.  For now, we were as safe as we could hope to be.

Chevalier, Rime and the rest of his new Protectorate were all in one group, backed by their respective teams.

A nearby crash made half of the people present, myself included, nearly jump out of their skin.  It was somehow reassuring that Chevalier managed to retain his composure.

“The ships have all arrived,” Chevalier said, “I’ve received the data on the other participating teams, those not already fighting will reinforce as they’re able.  We should expect record numbers, we shouldn’t expect it’ll help.  Any news on the locals?”

“Gathering and setting up defenses at India Gate,” Rime said.  “It seems to be his destination.”

“The gate?  There’s nothing there,” Chevalier said.  “Only population.”

“If it’s not a soft target,” Revel said, “then we can play the long game, buy time for Scion to arrive.”

“Let’s assume it’s soft.  We made that mistake once, never again,” Chevalier said.  “Okay.  Listen up!”

He raised his voice, commanding the attention of everyone present.

“We’ve already notified you if we believe you have the capacity to engage Behemoth.  Anyone else is operating as search, rescue, and support.  Maintain a distance of at least a hundred feet from Behemoth at the very minimum.  Get any closer, you probably won’t have a chance of escaping if he decides to close the gap.  Be mindful of line of sight, because he can and will tag you with a lightning bolt, and it’s not something you can dodge.  Assume every structure will fall down in a heartbeat, and know that there’s no good place to hide and wait for this to be over.  Keep moving and move smart.”

The crowd of heroes was utterly silent.  I could see the Undersiders on the opposite end of the enclosure.  The spotlights behind them rendered them little more than silhouettes with glowing edges.

“There’s no sugarcoating it,” Chevalier said.  “The fact that you’re here, today, knowing the state things are in, you’re the biggest damn heroes I’ve worked with.  I’m not going to make any big speeches.  Better we get out there and save lives.  Hit him hard if you see the chance, keep an eye out for whatever his goal might be, communicate with other groups as best as you’re able.  Stay spread out so he can’t wipe too many of us out at once.  You work best with the people you know, so form your own teams, stick with the people you’ve operated with before.  Go.”

Heroes, already gathered in their groups, mobilized.

I started to approach the Undersiders.  Defiant’s hand on my shoulder stopped me.

I could see Tattletale and Accord stepping off to one side, talking.  She gave me one glance, offered me an apologetic half-frown, and then continued walking.

“Why?” I asked.

“The Chicago Wards,” he said.

“What about them?  I can function better alongside the Undersiders.”

“Dragon thinks you can contribute just as much or more with the Wards group, and they’re the team that wants you.”

I glanced at the groups that hadn’t departed yet.  Some were getting geared up, another group had a cape touching each member in turn, turning their skin to what looked like stone.  On the far end, past those other groups, I could see Tecton, Grace, and Wanton with three others I didn’t recognize.  They were looking at me.

“It’s the smart choice,” he said, “But it’s your choice.”

And, giving evidence to the statement, he departed, entering the Pendragon and freeing me to decide without his influence.

I sighed, then activated the antigrav panels to give myself some forward thrust, speeding me up as I moved to join Tecton’s group.

“Yep,” he said, to one of the newbies.

“You’re leader, I’m recon?” I asked.  “Like it was in New York?”

“No, you’re leader as long as this fight lasts,” Tecton said.

I must have looked surprised, because he said, “You’ve been in two of these fights, right?  If we count Echidna?”

I nodded.

“I’ve only been in the one, and I was never the shot-caller.  That was a partnership between Raymancer and me, and he’s gone.”

“My condolences,” I said.

He nodded, but my focus was on the other members of the team, trying to account for the resources I had available.  Grace had changed her martial arts outfit for something with more coverage, a chainmail mesh like the PRT uniforms wore.  Wanton still wore free-flowing clothes, but he wouldn’t stay in that form.

The other three… A girl with bands of metal running down each of her arms and legs, with heavy gauntlets, boots and a breastplate, a mask etched to look like a feminine face, with white lenses over the eyes.  Her platinum blond hair had three individual braids, two draped over her shoulders, with the ends bound in more bands of the blue-black metal.

There was a guy in a cowl, with another metal mask, who reminded me a bit of Shadow Stalker, but he wore white, and carried no weapon I could see.

And the last one… heavyset, with armor that seemed too generic.

“You’re a rookie?”

“All three of those guys are rookies,” Tecton said.  “They cannibalized our non-core team members to supplement other groups, and-”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.  “I guess you three are getting thrown in the deep end.  Names?”

“Cuff,” said the girl in blue-black armor.

“Annex,” the cowled one told me.

“Golem,” the last one said, his voice muffled by his helmet.

I frowned behind my mask, perplexed.  “You named yourself after the little bastard from The Lord-”

“No,” he said.  I could hear him sigh from behind his helmet.  “I’m thinking of changing it.”

If not from the trilogy, then…  I fixed the pronunciation, compensating for how his muffled voice had modified it.  Right.  Golem, from the myth.

“I get it, nevermind.  Listen, we’re going to move out, and you’re going to explain your powers en route.  You know who I am?”

There were nods all around.

“You’re still okay with following my orders?”

Again, nods.

I saw the Undersiders moving out, along with the Ambassadors.

“We’re supplementing and supporting the Undersiders for the time being.  You okay with that?”

A touch more hesitant, they nodded.

“Then let’s go,” I said.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 22

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

“…you can call me Weaver.”

The broadcast ended.   A hush took hold of everyone present, a silence that deepened when someone muted the television.

The spell was broken by one of the kids.  Ephraim.  “She’s going to be a hero?”

“She’s going to try,” Forrest answered.

Charlotte looked around at the collected residents of the Boardwalk.  It was customary, now, to have a block party every third night of the week.  A mass-barbecue, a bonfire on the beach, or some other big meal that would bring everyone together.  Community.

Skitter’s community, though Skitter was gone, in more senses than one.

Taylor had turned herself in, early in the day, and word had spread.  They’d hooked up a television, the biggest they could get their hands on, and set it up beneath a waterproof tent for good measure.

For the better part of the day, they’d watched.  People had stopped by, glancing at the latest news.  Any update, however large or small, was met by shouted alerts, by hollers and speculation.

Charlotte had taken the day off school, taking only the time necessary to see the little ones off and to bring them back.  She wouldn’t have been able to focus, anyways, and the schools were still being lenient.

And now, finally, this.

“It’s done,” Charlotte said.  “For better or worse.”

“For better,” Forrest said.

“I’m not so sure,” Charlotte said, lowering her voice so others wouldn’t hear.

“She’s a hero,” Forrest said.  “This is where she’s supposed to be.”

“Maybe,” Charlotte answered.  She couldn’t help but think of how scary Taylor had been when she’d dealt with the ABB thugs.  How easily the girl had slipped into her role as a leader of the territory.  “But even if it’s where she’s meant to go, they won’t necessarily accept her.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Forrest said.  “It’s out of our hands.  We’ll wish her the best, give her some moral support if they let her get fan letters, and handle our own business, so she doesn’t have to worry about us.  And speaking of handling our own business…”

Forrest directed a pointed look at the kids who were sitting around Charlotte.

“Right,” she said.

“I’ll be along to see to the lads,” Forrest said.  “Just have to clean up first.”

Charlotte nodded.  Bed time for the littlest ones.  She rose from the bench.  “Show’s over, come on, it’s time to go to bed.”

There were groans and grumbles here and there.  Charlotte knew who it was without looking.  She identified Mason, set a hand on top of his head, and pulled him closer to her as she walked back to their place.  “Be good.”

Mason mimicked the exact same groan he’d given a moment ago.

“So dumb,” Kathy was saying.  She was one of the older children, looking after Jessie and Aidan.  “I never had to go to bed this early before.”

“It’s easier,” Charlotte said.  “And we can all use an earlier bedtime.  It leaves us in better shape to face tomorrow, don’t you think?”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Kathy said.

Kathy and Mason were the most likely to fight, to challenge her.  When she was hurrying to get them out to the bus stop for school, it was Mason who would decide he’d suddenly forgotten how to tie his shoes, or who would drag his feet to force her to seize his hand and pull him along.  He needed that attention in moments of crisis, however small.  Kathy was the opposite.  Charlotte hadn’t uncovered the details, but the girl had been burned by someone in authority, and rebelled against it as a matter of habit.  Kathy wanted to be independent, but she was too young.

“You were complaining about something I said.”

Kathy glared at her.  “I could stay up, watch TV for another hour or two, and then go to bed.  I’d be quiet.”

“And what if you were too tired to look after Aidan and Jessie?”

Kathy scowled, but she didn’t reply.

Jessie wet the bed most nights.  She never came to Charlotte to let her know.  More than once, Charlotte had found the girl sleeping on the floor when morning came.  Aidan had nightmares that left him screaming and wailing well after he’d woken up, refusing to listen to her.  More than once, he’d actually had the nightmares while sleepwalking.

It was hard to deal with, frankly.  She’d taken to setting her alarm for one, three and five o’clock in the morning, rising from bed and checking in to make sure the kids were alright, that Jessie’s bed was dry.  It was embarrassing to admit, but there had been four occasions when she’d been terrified as she had run into Aidan, standing in the bathroom or sitting at the table in the kitchen.  Each time, he’d been gripped by whatever terrors it was that found him at nighttime.  Half the time he fought her, the other half the time he just screamed, bloodcurdling.

Kathy, a little more than half Charlotte’s age, took it in stride, almost thrived on looking after the younger ones.  She had endless patience with Jessie’s nighttime accidents, and virtually every time Aidan’s screams woke her, Kathy was already at his side, speaking calmly, waiting until he’d relaxed enough that she could hug and cuddle him.

They made their way inside, and Charlotte was sure to close the shutter just beyond the front door.  Aidan watched carefully as she fed the chain through the ring at the base of the door and the small gap in the floor.  She locked it, then tugged it for good measure, demonstrating how secure it was.

“Safe,” she said.

Wordless, his forehead creased with the sort of worry he shouldn’t have for another fifteen years, Aidan turned and walked away.

“Girls in the bath first, snacks after,” Charlotte said.  “Boys, cookies and milk before your bath.”

The O’Daly clan had collected their kids, most of their kids, finally.  It left the number more manageable.  Kathy, Mai and Jessie made their way to the bathroom.  Aidan, Ephraim, Ethan and Mason found stools at the kitchen counter while Ben, the oldest of the boys, got the cookies, glasses and milk out.

Charlotte checked on the girls to make sure that they were getting along okay, then shut the bathroom door and got her laptop out.

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♦  Stickied Topic: Alexandria Discussion (July 14th) Goes Here
♦  TopicAlexandria Dead
♦  Topicchevalier’s ‘new PRT’ vs. endbringer
♦  Topic:  What the fuck happened?
♦  Topic:  Skitter
♦  Topic:  The Endbringers, Thread XXXIV
♦  Topic:  Dragon Suits: Continued Escalation of Cape Militarization?
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♦  Topic:  Alexandria died
♦  Topic:  Issues with recruiting villains
♦  Topic:  Portal confirmed ok by Chev 2011-07-14

“She’s famous,” Charlotte said aloud.

“Because she was on TV?” this from Aidan.

“Because she was a bad guy, and she turned around and decided to be good,” Charlotte said.  “And because she helped beat Alexandria.  It’s controversial stuff, and I think people are going to be arguing about it for a long time.”

“She’s not a bad guy,” Ben said, taking a seat beside the other boys.

“Was too,” Ephraim said.

“She was scary and mean,” Ben said, “But she’s not bad.”

“They’re the same thing.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Charlotte says.

“She got us pizza,” Ben said.  “That’s all that matters to me.”

“That’s sound enough reasoning,” Charlotte said, smiling a little.

She left the laptop to visit the bathroom, calling through the door.  “Five minutes, then out!”

She could hear another grumble from Kathy.

They’d do better if left to their own devices.  Kathy would be happier with something to do, even if it was washing the hair of the younger girls and ensuring they brushed their teeth.

She returned to the kitchen, collecting the plates and glasses and putting them in the dishwasher.

A car horn outside caught her attention.  It wasn’t easy to get cars in and out of the area, with the streets still under repair, and the vehicles that were around were construction vehicles, which didn’t work this late at night.

The horn sounded again, and there were shouts in response.

She was still staring at the door, straining to make out something telling, when Ethan approached her.

“Do you need me to run an errand?”

“No, Ethan.  Now might not be a good time.”  There was more noise outside.  Voices.

“Okay,” he said.  He looked disappointed.

“If you want some fresh air, I can let you upstairs.  You can sit on the balcony.”

Ethan frowned.  “No.  No thanks.”

“Just give me five minutes,” she said.  “Ben?  Lock the shutter after me.  I’ll come through the door downstairs when I return.  Let Kathy and the girls know I’ll be back.”

Ben nodded.

She didn’t raise the shutter all the way, stooping beneath and holding it partially closed.  Ben wasn’t strong enough to lower it on his own, and the outside didn’t have any real handholds.

With Ben’s help, she still managed to press her hands against the broad strip of metal and push it to ground level.  There was a sound of the chain rattling through the gaps.

People were active, gathering in clusters and crowds.  The focus of attention?  A news van.

The news crew was surrounded.

“…word out,” the reporter was saying.  “People are going to make a lot of ugly assumptions.”

“Just go!” someone shouted.

“Turn the camera off and leave!”

The reporter, a tall, blond man with a broad jaw, only smiled.  “I’d almost think you guys had something to hide.”

“We want to be left alone,” Charlotte said.

“Not going to happen,” the reporter said.  “This is blowing up.  People are going to want to investigate every last scrap of dirt.  Even if I left, others would come.”

“We’ll tell them the same thing we told you,” she said.  She saw Forrest approaching, making his way through the crowd.  “That we had school and work all day, that everyone here is working on rebuilding, and we’re tired, we’re not interested in the scandal of the moment.”

“Working hard?” the reporter asked.  “What if I offered, say, two hundred bucks, to whoever gave me the most information?”

“We’d tell you to fuck off,” Forrest cut in, before anyone could take the deal.

“World wants to know.  What is she really like?”  The reporter asked.  “Two hundred dollars, your face on camera.  If you love her, don’t you want people across America to hear something good?  Best support you can give.  If you hated her, well, the opposite’s true, isn’t it?”

“You’d twist our words around,” Forrest said.  “Edit it to take the choicest bits.”

“That’d be dishonest.  It’s not the way we work at channel twelve.”

“No,” Forrest said.  “I think that you’re primarily interested in what gets viewers and ratings.  Maybe you’d stick around for two hours, interview everyone you could, and then take the most controversial and extreme statements.  Only way we don’t play into your hands is if nobody opens their mouth.”

He raised his voice a little at that final statement.

“That so?” the reporter asked.  “Three hundred dollars.  That’s, what, two or three days’ pay, with the kind of wage you earn here?”

Forrest didn’t respond.

“Okay,” the reporter said.  “Well, there’s nothing stopping us from sitting around, is there?  And if someone decides that they’d like to earn a little cash…”

“They’d have to be pretty stupid,” Forrest said.  “Property values are set to soar here, and the way things are organized, just about everyone here is slated to earn a property or a share of a property somewhere down the road.”

“And you’re saying that has nothing to do with the fact that you all worked for a supervillain.”

“I’m not saying anything one way or the other,” Forrest said.  “Except that the numbers don’t add up.  Three hundred dollars now, or get a share of a place that could be worth millions, a few years down the road?”

“People are enterprising,” the reporter said.  He smiled.  “And I can be discreet.  The public needs to know who’s protecting them.”

He turned, returning to the passenger side door of the van, then paused.  “We’ll be parked on the beach.  We can blur out your faces if we need to.”

It took them a minute to get their camera packed away and leave.  Sure enough, they made their way to the beach.  Charlotte could see the headlights illuminating the sand.  Then they went out, and the van was effectively invisible.

“Guards,” Forrest said.  “Take shifts.  We’re not giving them anything.”

“You’re wanting to protect Skitter?” someone asked, from the crowd.

“I worked for her,” Forrest said.  “Most of you know that.  In a way, I still think I work for her, even if she isn’t here anymore.  A lot of us owe her.”

“She brought us as much trouble as she stopped,” the person said.  Charlotte could see it was a tall man who’d hidden a receding hairline and bald spot by shaving his head.  There was only stubble, now.

“She made it possible to rebuild, Scott.”

Everyone’s rebuilding.  We got a head start, that’s all.  You’re saying that’s worth it?  Mannequin came here because of her.  Burnscar came here because of her.  Or didn’t you hear?”

Forrest folded his arms.

Scott said, “My sister-in-law works for the PRT.  Wears a uniform.  She said the Slaughterhouse Nine were here because they were recruiting.  They picked a bunch of people across the city, trying to recruit them, and Skitter was one.  Obviously.  So it’s her fault the people died here.  The help she gave?  She was probably guilty.”

“We don’t know that for sure,” Forrest said.

“Bullshit.  You were there, that first time, when Mannequin was in the warehouse on Shell.  He was wagging his finger at her.  Why?  He was there for her.”

“I was there,” Forrest said.  “Remember?  I stepped up.  I dragged that bastard to where we could tie his head up.  I smashed his head with a concrete block.”

“And I won’t deny that,” Scott answered.  “I would’ve been right there with you if I didn’t have my wife and kid to protect.  We both saw how it played out.  Going by what my sister-in-law said, you wouldn’t have had to do that if Skitter had been somewhere else.”

“I would have,” Forrest said.  “I know Skitter.  Taylor.  Weaver.  Whatever you call her.  We’ve talked, talked a lot.  I’ve heard her side of things, and I know you’re off base.”

“You’re saying my family’s lying?”  Scott asked, raising his voice a touch.  “Or maybe you’re blind.  Can’t see what’s going on because of your own basic, underlying bias.”

Scott approached, moving through the crowd.  He was clearly irritated, a big guy, undoubtedly a dock worker, breathing just a little harder than normal.  Charlotte found herself biting her lip and backing away as he drew closer.  Her stomach twisted as he passed her, as though it were a towel someone was wringing out.  Not an unfamiliar sensation.

For a moment, she could imagine him in her face, hooting, hollering, a vein standing out on his bald head.

The wrenching got worse at the idea, until it felt like everything below her shoulders was being crushed.

The crowd around her was too much, now.  Too evocative.

She fled, pushing her way through the crowd.  For every part of her that wanted to follow the discussion, there was another part that could hear the discordant music blaring, could hear the yelling, smell the sweat, the smoke and incense.

She’d seen what people were like when everything else was stripped away.  Not everyone, not always, but often enough.  It was easy to descend to that level.  Taylor had offered security.  Strength, and the ruthlessness necessary to cut out the cancer.

It wasn’t rational to think this way.  Charlotte knew, generally speaking, that the people here were good.  The bad ones had been scared off, or cut out of the deals that kept everyone else loyal.

On a less rational level?  She hated the idea that this place could devolve into that.  Into what the Merchants had become.

She was upset, she wasn’t thinking straight, and she couldn’t afford to return to the kids like this.  Ben and Kathy would look after the littlest ones for five more minutes.  She could keep walking, burn off this nervous energy and get in a better headsp-

“Miss?”

She jumped, swiftly backing away.

It was a man.  Thin, with glasses, reaching out-

Groping, greedy for a handful of flesh.

No.  To get her attention.  Nothing more.  His hand dropped to his side.

“Are you a reporter?”

“I- do I look like a reporter?” he looked anxious, and the expression was unrelated to his question.

“No,” she said.

“I was asking around, for someone who knew Taylor.  Someone told me to look for a girl about your height, with long, dark hair, like yours, with kids around her.  I was going to ask some more, but then the crowd came, and I decided to hang back.”

So he is here to ask questionsBut he said Taylor instead of Skitter.  “You really aren’t a reporter?”

“If you know who they were talking about, maybe you could point me in the right direction?”

Charlotte frowned.  “They were talking about me.  What do you want?”

“I’m her father.  Danny.”

Oh.  She could see the resemblance, now that she knew to look for it.  Both he and Taylor were above average height, both were narrow.  She must have gotten her hair and mouth from her mom, though.

“Okay,” she said.  She forced herself to relax a touch.  He’s safe.  Mostly.  “O-”  She exhaled as she spoke, and her breath caught.  She was still a little out of sorts.

“Are you okay?”

She shook her head.  “Yes.”

“You’re sure.”

“A lot to deal with, all at once.”

“Yes.”

She glanced up at him, saw how troubled he looked.  “Do you drink tea?”

“Coffee.”

“We can do coffee,” she said.  She reached into her back pocket for her phone.  “Stand still.”

He looked confused as she turned the phone his way.  The flash went off.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“Protocols,” she said.

“Protocols?”

She typed out a text and sent the text, picture included, to Tattletale.

“I worked for her.”

“Oh.  Oh.

“Come on.  We’ll, um, we’ll hear soon, if you’re okay to come inside.  But I have to head back that way anyways.”

He nodded.

“Why aren’t you with her?”  She asked, as they started walking.

“Things turned ugly.”

“Oh.  Alexandria?”

“I only just found out about Alexandria.  Maybe I shouldn’t say, but things don’t seem to add up.  What people were saying before, what happened, and what seems to have happened after.”

“Yeah,” she said, though she didn’t quite understand.

“All the way through this, I told myself I’d trust her.  That she was the same child my wife and I raised for the last sixteen years.  That things were muddled, but she was the same person deep down inside.”

“Isn’t she?”

“I’m not so sure anymore.”

The phone vibrated.  Charlotte checked.

Tt:
A-ok.  Treat him well.

“You’re clear to come inside,” Charlotte said.  She used her hand to indicate a change of direction, leading him towards the beach.

“All this secrecy?  It’s necessary?  I thought she left.”

“We still have enemies.  People who’d hurt her by hurting us.  We have to stay safe.”

He fell silent.

“What?”

“I haven’t really been thinking along those lines.  About the greater scale of things, my life being at risk because I’m connected to her.”

“You learn,” Charlotte said.  “You learn to think that way.”

“Why?  I mean.  I don’t have a choice, but you- you could walk away from this, and you haven’t.”

“I can’t walk away from this,” Charlotte said.  “I’m probably more tied up in this than you are.”

“How’s that?”

She glanced down the beach.  The people who were watching out for those who might talk to the reporter were far enough away.  Still, it would be a bad idea to use her flashlight.  She reached into her pocket and pulled out a glove, pulling it on.  “You’ll see in a minute.  Hold my hand and don’t let go.  Neither of us want you to get turned around in here.  Not much room to get lost, but yeah.”

She could barely see him in the gloom.  There were no lights on the beach.  Still, when she reached out for his hand, he took it, holding tight.

Carefully, Charlotte led Taylor’s father into the storm drain.  Her gloved hand traced the wall.  First right.  Skip the next right, with a few seconds of nerve-wracking isolation in the darkness, then follow the wall… one right, turn left at the t-junction.

They ascended to the cellar, first, and then up to the living room.

“It’s a house?” he asked.  He looked even more bewildered than before as he took in the particulars, the living room, with young girls clustered on one couch, boys on the other couch and the floor, the appliances, the stacks of boxed-up food that had yet to be unpacked.  “Children?”

“Orphans,” Charlotte said, keeping her voice low.  Both Mai and Ephraim could break down in tears at the slightest reminder of their departed parents.  “I’ve been looking after them.”

“You can’t do that.  Not like this, without certification, others checking in.”

“I know,” she said.  “It’s only for a little while longer.”

This is why you can’t leave?”

“Part of it.  There’s more.”

“This is what she was doing, all that time?  Taking care of these children?”

“That was only a small part of it.  She mostly paid me to look after them and make sure people got the food they needed.  She looked after everyone.  When they were all in the worst situations they’d ever faced, struggling for food, worrying every hour if they would be attacked or preyed on, she stepped up.”

“You’re trying to defend her.  To justify what she did.”

“Only a little.”

Ethan approached.  He gave Taylor’s dad a curious look.

“It’s Taylor’s daddy,” Charlotte explained.

“Danny,” Danny said.

“Oh,” Ethan said.  He looked down at the floor.

“Do you want to run an errand for me?”  Charlotte asked.

Ethan nodded, still not making eye contact.  Charlotte could see how he’d set his jaw, so stern for a little man.

“Go tell Forrest that Skitter’s daddy is here.  And if anyone approaches you to ask you questions, you don’t answer, okay?  No matter how nice they seem, don’t say a word, and blow your whistle.  There are reporters out there we don’t want to talk to.”

Ethan nodded.

“Don’t take too long,” she warned.

The little boy, no older than eight, ran off, opening the front door and unchaining the shutter.  A moment later, he was gone into the night.

“Is that okay?” Danny asked.  “A little boy going out alone after dark?”

“The area’s safe, the people know each other.  It’s a community, and the community will look after the kids.  Besides, he’s got a whistle in case he gets in trouble.”

“It almost looked like he was asking for an errand.”

“He was.”

Danny gave her a curious look.

Charlotte walked around the kitchen counter to get into the kitchen, starting the water boiling for the coffee.  She still had a habit of keeping the kettle full for Taylor.  “Ethan’s bottling up a lot of hurt, but he’s convinced himself that big boys shouldn’t cry, and nothing will convince him otherwise.  For now, I’ll let him take five to twenty minutes longer than he should when I tell him to go do something, and I won’t say a word if he comes back with red eyes and a runny nose.  If he needs to find a quiet place to cry on his own, that’s okay.”

“There has to be a better way to handle it,” Danny said.  His eyes were still roving, as if trying to find and identify Taylor’s signature touches on the surroundings.

“There probably is.  But for now, it works for him and it works for me.  The other kids-” she lowered her voice a fraction, “They all have their individual needs.  Some get aggressive.  Some internalize it, have nightmares or wet the bed.  Others withdraw.”

Danny sighed.  “Kids are hard, aren’t they?”

“Yeah,” Charlotte said.  Then she changed her mind.  “No.”

“No?”

People are hard to deal with.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he said.

“You should really be with her.”

“I was there,” Danny said.  “I told myself I’d stand by her, and then… all at once, it wasn’t her.  I’ve seen her in a crisis, after her mom died.  She was one of the people who withdrew.  When she was bullied at school, she withdrew.  But there?  At the PRT headquarters?  That wasn’t her.”

“It was,” Charlotte said.  “Maybe you lost sight of who she was becoming, somewhere down the line.  I don’t think anyone would fault you, with the secrets she was keeping.”

“No,” Danny said.  “I don’t think it was her, not really.  For just a minute, she became a monster.”

“We all have a monster somewhere inside us,” Charlotte said.  “Like I was saying about the kids.  Sometimes it’s aggressive, sometimes it finds other forms of attack, and other times it’s a cowardly one.”

Like mine.

Danny sighed.

“You don’t agree?  I’m still off target?”

“I don’t know.  I think maybe you’re right.  I’ve got my own demons.  But… whatever monster that was, it was a big one.”

Charlotte didn’t have an answer to that.

There was a knock on the shutter.  Then it raised a fraction.  Forrest stepped inside, growled and made threatening gestures as the kids practically leaped off of the couches and swarmed him.

He gave Danny a funny look.

“Taylor’s dad,” Charlotte said.

“Nice to meet you,” Forrest said.  He waded through the cluster of kids and, straight-legged, he leaned over the kitchen counter to shake Danny’s hand.  “Right, rugrats!  If you stand up to pee, get yourselves into the bath, pronto!”

“I can pee standing up!” Mai said.  “A girl at school showed me how.”

“Then… if you think action figures are better than dolls!”

“I think army men are better than dolls!” Mai said.

“Then let’s go with those who’d rather be a baseball player than a princess!”

“I-”  Mai stopped short, shrieking as Forrest swept her up in his arms.

“I get the point,” he said.  “As penance, I’m letting you ride on my shoulders.”

Mai squealed in glee.

“With a blindfold, in case the menfolk are bashful.  Move along, tykes.”

Ben, Ephraim and Aidan made their way into the bathroom, followed by Forrest, with Mai sitting on his shoulders.  Forrest practically had to get on his knees to get through the doorway without hitting Mai’s head on the doorframe.  The door shut behind him.

“Coffee will be done in a few minutes,” Charlotte said, making sure things were set up.  She moved to the living room, and beckoned for Kathy to come closer.  Kathy scowled but obeyed, sitting beside Charlotte as Charlotte set to brushing out her hair.

“I couldn’t recognize my own daughter,” Danny said.  “Every step of the way, I’ve wanted to help her, but I didn’t know how.  Did she say anything?  About me?”

“No,” Charlotte said.  She could see Danny’s face fall.

“But,” she said.  “She acted on it.  When it came down to it, she wanted to spend time with you, even if it meant that all the rest of this was harder.”

“When it came down to it,” he said, “She chose her friends over me.  She chose to fight, to go all out, instead of making a concession and possibly coming home at some point.”

“Bigger things,” Charlotte said.  “I- the rest of us feel a little betrayed too, but we’re little more than specks, with the sheer scale of the stuff she’s focused on.”

Danny sighed.  “I came here to make a decision.  To work up some courage.  But I feel as conflicted as ever.  Worse, if anything.”

“A decision?”

“Taylor has to join the Wards, if she’s going to join an official team.  Her lawyer got in contact with me, to let me know that there’s certain procedures.  She needs a parent, guardian, notary, or a person in authority to vouch for her, and it has to be someone who’s otherwise free of connections to superheroes or supervillains, someone that knows her and can testify about her character.”

“Do it.”

“I’m wondering if I should.”

Charlotte gave him a hard look.  He took it without flinching.

“My number one instinct is to keep my daughter safe.  If she went to juvenile detention, it would… it wouldn’t be good, but it’d keep her out of the line of fire.  It’d stop her from going down this reckless path.”

“She’d hate you,” Charlotte said.  “She’d still love you, but she’d be angry.”

“She would be safe,” he said.

Charlotte didn’t have much to say in response to that.  She turned her attention to the girls, instead.  “Five more minutes of cartoons, then bed.  I’ll fix your hair in just a second, okay, Jessie?”

Jessie nodded.

“I could, if it would make it easier,” Danny offered.

Charlotte felt that twang of alarm at the notion of a relative stranger touching ‘her’ kids.  She could rationalize that this was Taylor’s dad, but…

Jessie made the decision for her.  Standing and approaching Danny, before sitting beside him.  Charlotte tossed the man a hairbrush.

For long minutes, they worked on combing through knots and tangles.  Kathy made sure to grunt with every one.

The boys exited the bathroom, each with a towel wrapped around them, while Forrest carried a squealing, giggling Mai under one arm, a sock tied over her eyes, her hair now dry and combed straight..

“You’re better than Char,” Jessie said, as Danny finished.  She hopped down from the armrest of the chair, before scampering off to the bedroom.

“Traitor,” Charlotte muttered, after Jessie was gone.  Kathy followed the girl, taking Jessie’s hand after catching up.

There was a pause.

“If she needs you, you should help her,” Charlotte said.

“I’m just not sure what helping her entails,” Danny replied.

Charlotte rose to pour the coffee.  Her phone glowed with a fresh text.  She stared down at it.

“Shit,” she said.

“What?” Danny asked.

“Company,” she answered.

“Enemies?  Danger?”

“Worse.  Allies,” Sierra said, from the doorway.

Charlotte turned to see her friend, Sierra.  The girl still had her red hair bound in dreads, but the rest of her was all professional attire.  Nice shoes, slacks, a blue dress shirt, and just a little makeup.

Sierra approached, arms reaching out to hug Charlotte.  Charlotte welcomed the hug, murmuring the words, “I missed you.”

But her eyes were still on the doorway.  Tattletale stepped into the front hallway, followed by Grue and the pairings of Imp and Regent, Parian and Flechette.

A superhero, here?

After a brief pause, Bitch entered as well, glowering, looking fit to murder something or someone.  Her appearance was at stark odds with the puppies that followed her, each at the end of a differently colored leash.

Danny stood, eyes widening as he recognized the people entering the room.

“Long time no see, Danny,” Tattletale said.

“Lisa,” he answered.  There was no warmth in his tone.

“Tattletale while I”m in costume, please,” she said.  She flashed a grin, and he didn’t return it.

Grue extended a hand to Danny.  It took the man a second to accept it.  He watched the group warily.

“What’s going on?” Charlotte asked.

“Need to watch your phone,” Tattletale said.  “I sent you a string of texts.”

“I was busy.  Looking after the kids, and talking with Danny.”

“Right,” Tattletale said.  She made her way to one couch, then lay down.  “Damn.  Hell of a day.  Not enough sleep, already feeling like shit, and then this gets dropped on us.”

“What’s going on?” Charlotte asked, again.

“You mean what’s going on here or what’s going on in general?  Generallyour commander-in-chief just defected to the white hats.”

“Here,” Charlotte said.  “Why are you here?  We’re just getting the kids off to bed.”

“Loose ends,” Tattletale said.  “A few here, a few there.  Skitter’s gone, and she’s liable to spend time in prison before she joins the Wards, and she won’t be able to visit for a while, even after that.  I want to get this as done as we can, so I can sleep for a few days straight and wake up feeling better.”

Charlotte frowned.  Tattletale had taken up one couch, Grue was sitting in another, and she didn’t want to sit next to him.  She was forced to stand, but standing and being a part of the conversation meant standing in a place where her back was to Bitch, to Parian and Flechette, who were sitting on stools by the kitchen counter, and to Regent and Imp, who were rifling through cabinets and drawers, in search of snacks.

“I have to ask.  Why the puppies?” Charlotte asked, glancing at Bitch.

“Tattletale said to.”

“That’s not exactly right,” Tattletale said.

“It’s what you said,” Bitch responded, sounding irritated.

“I recommended puppy therapy,” Tattletale said.  “Everyone loves puppies, so maybe it’s a way to deal when we’re feeling a bit lonely?”

Bitch looked at Charlotte.  “You miss her?”

“Um.  Yes?”

Bitch bent down, grabbing a puppy with one hand, then thrust it into Charlotte’s arms.  She started to withdraw her hand, paused, then said, “It’s a loan.”

“Of course,” Charlotte said.  She held the puppy close, scratched it behind the ear.  She knew better than to argue the point.

“You?” Bitch asked Danny.

“No, thank you.”

“You don’t miss your daughter?” Bitch asked, narrowing her eyes a little.

“I do, I mean, I think I’ll see her soon, probably, but-”

“Then take it.  For now.”

He surrendered in the face of her blunt approach, accepting the puppy.

“The kids,” Charlotte said.  “They’ve already settled in bed, but I think they’d love to have a visit with the puppies.  Tell them it’s just for a little while, they can cuddle, but they have to stay in bed.  Oh, and they don’t know how to play with dogs, so be sure to teach them the ground rules, okay?”

Bitch nodded, then marched off with her new mission, the puppies leaping and falling over each other to keep up.

“Parian?” Tattletale asked.  “Supervise?”

Parian nodded.  She got down from the stool, and was joined by Flechette in heading to the back room.

“Well handled,” Tattletale said.  “She-”

She paused as the children in the other room started squealing and shouting.  Bitch’s barked orders could be heard over the racket.

“-doesn’t know how to handle this.  We’re sort of forging new ground, but I think time’s the only thing that’s going to mend this wound.  I think she’s hurting more than anyone, right now.”

Charlotte nodded.

Danny, though, said, “Isn’t that a little presumptuous?”

“I can do presumptuous,” Tattletale said.  “Just trust me on this count, okay?”

Regent and Imp approached from the kitchen, finding spots on the floor of the living room to sit, just to the left of the television.  They had arms full of snacks, including the little gummy candies Charlotte had been planning to give the kids in their school lunches.

She’d figure something else out.  Best not to get distracted.  The puppies would suffice as a treat for the kids right now.

Damn it, they’re going to ask to keep them, Charlotte thought.  She scratched the puppy that now slept in her arms.

Grue stretched a hand in the direction of the pair, an unspoken request for one bag of snacks.  Imp replied by hurling a small bag of chips at him, with the same sort of movement that might accompany throwing a baseball.  It banked off of his helmet and fell behind the couch.

Grue grumbled, but he turned around to grab it.

Forrest arrived from the bedroom, pausing a second to take in the crowd in the living room.

“Okay, let’s get down to business,” Tattletale said.  “Forrest, Charlotte, we’re backing you up, on Taylor’s behalf.  As of now, the Boardwalk doesn’t fall in just one person’s territory.  Parian, Grue and I will each have a hand in protecting it.  As of tonight, it should be the safest place in the city.  That’s all already handled.  You’ll have our numbers, in case of emergency, but you should only use it if there’s real trouble.  Supervillains attacking or something like that.  This all goes more smoothly if we don’t maintain any obvious connection between our groups that can be exploited.”

Charlotte nodded.

“Sierra is working under me.  She holds the property and presents our legitimate face to the public.”

Charlotte glanced at Sierra, who nodded.

“Property?” Charlotte asked.

“Everything we own in Brockton Bay, through a series of dummy corporations, is officially in her name.  That includes the areas in the Boardwalk that Coil once controlled.  From now on, you can contact us through her for all of the basics.  I know Skitter arranged a way for those who contribute to the restoration of the Boardwalk to earn shares of property.  Sierra will see to that.  In a pinch, you can also talk to her about funding, big projects, and the like.  But I don’t think it’ll come to that.”

Forrest frowned.  “Why not?”

“Skitter arranged for her territory to be taken care of,” Tattletale said.

“She left us some money.  For food, to pay people.  Not a lot, but things should be sustainable by the time we run out.”

“There’s more,” Tattletale said.  “She had a lot of money to spare.  Some from illicit activity, more from the properties we acquired and sold.  That’s going to you.”

“Wait, us?”

“To the Boardwalk.  She mentioned getting the ferry up and running again, a new set of storefronts, and pushing for more residential areas.  Duplexes, apartments, condos…”

“How much?”

“More than enough.  Part of the procedures for joining the Wards includes a full background check.  They’ll find out she had a lot of money, much of it illicit, and they’ll empty her accounts.  It might not be a problem, but I recently changed to a different bank, so to speak, and they’re liable to find Skitter’s end of the paper trail.” Tattletale said.

Charlotte nodded.

“Something to use to take care of yourselves.  And the kids,” Tattletale said.

Charlotte thought to what Scott had said.  Had Taylor blamed herself after all?  Was this a way of making amends?

“Part of the measures we’ll have for defending the Boardwalk will be the mercenaries I have on retainer,” Tattletale said.  “Non-powered individuals, though they have experience fighting capes.  They’re going to train your people.”

“Train?”

“In hand to hand, first aid, firearms and tactics for fighting bigger threats.”

Ethan reappeared in the front hall, hands jammed in his pockets.  His eyes went wide as he took in the supervillains sitting in the area where he’d been watching TV not twenty minutes ago.  Charlotte stood and ushered him towards the bedrooms.

Behind her, Forrest said, “That seems like it’ll cause more problems than it solves.  People are resentful.  There’s already cracks forming.”

“Discipline will help with that,” Grue said.  “Time will help with the rest.”

“It’s not perfect,” Tattletale said, “The rest, we can figure out.  What’s important is getting the foundation laid out, and being ready.  Shit’s going to go down when villains start making plays for the interdimensional door.”

Charlotte studied the people who were sitting around the room.  Concern, worry, anxiousness.  “Are we going to make it?”

“Have to,” Tattletale said.  She turned her head.  Bitch was returning from the back room.  She had only one puppy with her.  The wolf cub.  “Taylor won’t forgive us if we don’t.”

“You should know.  When I was there,” Danny spoke up.  “Alexandria offered her a hell of a deal.  Two years of juvenile detention, and leaving the rest of you alone.  It wasn’t everything she’d asked for.  She said no, said she trusted you to handle things on your end.  I don’t want to be offensive, but I couldn’t understand it.  Still can’t.  But I thought you should know.”

“She was prepared to leave us to our own devices when she surrendered,” Tattletale said.  “But if she believes in us to that degree, that’s another reason we can’t fail.”

There were nods all around.

The discussion continued, but fatigue caught up to Charlotte at the same time that the details seemed to grow even more trivial.  Bitch, for her part, was focused, listening intently, while Danny seemed reserved, not quite a part of this.

Was this influencing his decision?  Which way would it, if it did?

It was midnight by the time they finished.  Exhausted though they hadn’t fought anyone, weary Undersiders rose from their seats on the furniture and floors to make their way to the front door.

Charlotte accompanied Bitch to the bedroom, making her way to each bunk bed to collect a puppy, despite whispered protests and whimpers.  A tiny heartbreak, each step of the way.

I’m going to have to get these kids dogs now, she thought, swearing to herself.

“Puppy therapy,” she murmured, on her way back to the front hall.  Bitch was clipping the leashes onto the puppies.

“Mm,” Bitch grunted.

“Does it work?”

“Yes,” Bitch said.  “But it’s not enough.  I haven’t felt like this since… Brutus and Judas.”

Brutus and Judas?  Charlotte didn’t recognize the names.  “That’s natural, isn’t it?  We’re people, we need other people close to us.  A dog is… fantastic, but it can’t fill that void.”

Charlotte could see a crease in between Bitch’s eyebrows, but the look didn’t reach her eyes or mouth.

“Did I say something wrong?”

Bitch shook her head, but she didn’t reply.

“If you wanted to bring the dogs back, the kids would love it,” Charlotte said.  “And… I’m thinking we’ll have to get at least one to keep.  I think it could do them a lot of good, and they’d give the puppies more than enough love and care.”

Bitch’s silence extended for long seconds.  She looked down at the puppies.  “Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

Bitch shrugged.  She glowered at the ground, “She wanted me to go to the other side.”

“First I’m hearing of this,” Grue said.

“Through the portal,” Bitch said. “Police it.  Keep that side safe.”

“There won’t be anything over there for at least a few weeks or months,” Tattletale said.

The glower deepened.  “That… sounds good.”

“All on your own?” Charlotte asked, “But-”

“Me and my dogs,” Bitch said.  Then she seemed to think of something.  “Maybe.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Tattletale said.

With that done, the Undersiders departed.

Danny met Charlotte’s eyes.

“Decided?”

Danny shook his head.

“Could be that she did it for you,” she said.  “I think even Tattletale was surprised she went over to the other side.”

Danny didn’t reply.

“Good luck, either way.”

“You too,” he answered.

“We survived,” Forrest said.

“We survived,” Charlotte said.  “You’ll be by in the morning?”

Forrest nodded.

She waited until he was gone, then closed the shutter, being careful to lock it.

Then she ascended to the top floor, past Skitter’s room, with the now-empty terrariums and the armor stand with her old suit.  She reached the top floor, where Skitter’s belongings had been collected and boxed.

I’d meant to show this to Danny, to see if there was anything he wanted to keep or to send to her.

She lay in her bed, Skitter’s old room, but sleep didn’t find her.  She was still awake when her alarm buzzed.  She rose and made her way downstairs to the bedroom.  Checking on the kids.

Jessie’s bunk, dry.

No food under Mai’s pillow, or at the end of her bed.  The girl had taken to hoarding food.

Others were asleep, though Ethan’s eyes were open, staring.  She pulled his covers up a bit, and he smiled in the dark.

Aidan was awake too.

“I want a dog,” he whispered.

“I know,” she whispered back.  “No nightmares?”

“Not any really bad ones since… five nights ago.”

“Five nights ago?”

“Had a good dream.  A big dream.”

“About?”

He shook his head.  “Can’t really remember.”

“Okay,” she whispered back.  “Not a big deal.”

“But you told me to draw things or write them down after a bad dream,” he said.  He pulled a pad of paper from the gap between his bunk and the wall.

She looked at it.  It didn’t look like much of anything.  Two scribbles, circles and dots.

“These big things… Fish?”

“I don’t remember.  I think it started as a bad dream, and then became better.”

“And these dots or circles?”  They only covered part of the page.

“Planets and stars.  I only remember because that’s how I usually draw them.”

“What do you mean, you only remember?”

“Forgot.  Even faster than I usually forget the bad dreams.”

She frowned.  The way he described it, it put her in mind of something.  The day Skitter had rescued her.  Someone had had a trigger event, and both Skitter and Tattletale had reacted.

The way the two had forgotten, and the things Tattletale had mumbled about while she was recuperating…

“You don’t have superpowers, do you?” she whispered.

Aidan shook his head.

“You’re sure?”

“Yes,” he said, in a very solemn manner.

If it wasn’t a trigger event, then what?

“Five nights ago?”

“I know because it was the night Skitter stayed out all night.  I woke up a bit after she came in.  I was drawing while she made noise in the kitchen.”

The night Skitter had been outed.  Where had she been, and how did it connect?

If not a trigger event, the potential to trigger?

So many questions, and Skitter was no longer here to answer them.

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