Monarch 16.8

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There was a tap on the microphone.  “If we could have silence from the audience, please?”

The low murmur of conversation throughout the auditorium gradually died down.  The place wasn’t full, but four out of every five seats were filled, and there were more people at the back, primarily reporters, many from out of town.

My eye darted across the room, trying to assess the situation.  The heavy woman in the front row, was that Piggot?  It made sense that every person worth talking about would be present.  The disasters and Tattletale’s attack on the cell towers meant that there wasn’t TV, there weren’t phones, and the only way for interested parties to find out what the candidates had to say was actually attending.

Outside of the auditorium, Coil’s men gathering in the lobby and at the sides of the building.  Some were taking point on the roof, gathering in pairs, working together to assemble sniper rifles.  Preparing for a fight.  For a war.

Coil was in the lobby, now, and he was joined by others.  I could recognize Circus by the sledgehammer she was carrying, the metal head dragging on the floor.  Coil said something and she lifted it up.  Was he talking about the noise?  It shouldn’t matter.  He was accompanied by two others I didn’t recognize.  A teenage guy and a larger, more athletic man in a heavy metal frame.

“Thank you to everyone for coming.  Tonight is a three-way debate.  Let me introduce your candidates, starting with Mr. Roy Christner, our mayor incumbent.  We also have Mrs. Carlene Padillo, city councilor of communications; and Mr. Keith Grove, C.E.O. of Eaststar Financial.  Tonight’s subjects are crime, public safety and the state of the city.  Would you start us off, Mayor Christner?  What sets you apart from the other candidates in your views?”

I glanced over my shoulder to verify what I was seeing with my bugs.  A young man was making his way up the aisle with a toddler, straight for Coil.

“I won’t lie,” Christner said.  I glanced his way, saw how haggard he looked.  In a way it worked for him, made him look determined.  “Things are bad.  The situation’s improved from where it was weeks ago, but we’re still in an ugly situation.  No less than forty percent of the city has evacuated, hospitals are overflowing, and villains claim to own the streets…”

I looked back to the dad and his kid.  They opened the door, stepping through, and two of Coil’s soldiers were on them before they could open their mouths and shout a warning.  Putting hands over mouths, the soldiers retreated from the door, separating dad from child.  Within seconds, both were being gagged and restrained.

The door closed on its own, leaving nobody any wiser to what was going on.

“…involved with the defense every step along the way.  I’ve discussed the subject with Legend, with Dragon and with Chief Director Costa-Brown of the PRT.  Daily, I’ve been talking with and working with Director Piggot to see what actions need to be taken to see this city restored to what it once was.”

“That’s setting the bar pretty damn low,” Grove said, gripping the sides of his podium.

“No interruptions, please,” the moderator spoke.  Christner waved her off.  “You concede the remainder of your turn, Mayor?”

“Let’s hear what Grove has to say.”

“Very well.  Mr. Grove.  Two minutes to speak.”

“He wants to restore the city to what it was?  I think he’s wanting us to forget that half of our city was a cesspool before the Endbringer came.  Many of you in the audience live in the north end.  You know how bad it was.  Or maybe the Mayor is referring to the city’s heyday, when the docks were bustling with activity and the entire city could hear the ships coming in and out of the ports.  If he’s trying to convince you we’ll return to that time, he’s telling you an outright falsehood.  The Lord’s Port, known to many as the ship graveyard, would cost the city twenty-three million dollars just to clear away the damaged ships and dispose of them.    That’s not getting into the cost of actually refurbishing the area and updating it to modern standards.  Or the fact that anyone approaching within a mile and a half of the area is subjected to uncontrollable, suicidal despair.  I visited.  I know.”

I sent a message to Coil, drawing words with my bugs.

‘I’m here.  Stop.’

He broke up the words with a casual wave of his hands, scattering the bugs.  Almost dismissive.  Of course he wouldn’t stop now.  He’d made little secret about how important his plans were to him, and to stop now, at a moment this important?

“The mayor wants to take us back to where we were?  That’s not good enough.  I’m proposing that we make this an opportunity.  The slate, in many ways, has been wiped clean.  Let’s start over again.  There’s national and international funding that’s been put in place to help recover from Endbringer attacks and events of gross parahuman involvement.  My budget, which is detailed in handouts that will be provided in the lobby, details how we’ll use our tax dollars and that recovery funding to rejuvenate the city.  The ferry, which has become a local in-joke, will be started up once more.  Low-cost, high-yield housing plans for the north end, demolition and reconstruction on a large scale for Downtown and other damaged areas, and marketing to the rest of the United States to promote and sell Brockton Bay as a symbol of perseverance and human spirit, drawing in new residents and tourism.”

“Councillor Padillo,” the moderator spoke.  “Any response?”

“Keith Grove is not addressing the question.  He paints a pretty picture, but he doesn’t mention the presence of the local supervillains or the pressures they put on us…”

I fidgeted.  Could I attack?  Should I attack?  If I left now, maybe stepped into the side hallway, I could maybe avoid the soldiers, get to a vantage point where I could mount a counterattack against Coil.

Except I didn’t know what he was planning, and my dad was here.  I could take my dad, but then I risked having to explain what was happening, and it would mean leaving Kurt, Alexander and Lacey behind.  It meant leaving all these other civilians behind.

It wasn’t practical to bring anyone else along, but I couldn’t bring myself to run from my dad, here.  I couldn’t say why, how or any of that, but I felt as though leaving my dad behind here would mean I could never come back.  That it would break our relationship, whether it was me getting outed as a supervillain, a break in whatever tenuous bond of trust we had or because one of us would die.

I tended to be more rational than emotional.  If I was being totally honest with myself, though, my rationalizations were pretty heavily influenced by my feelings.  I could come up with a rational justification for pretty much any course of action.  It had led me this far.  Which wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

Councilor Padillo was still talking, even as my mind raced.  “…Points to a mismanagement of resources.  The Mayor would like us to believe that he was involved in genuine efforts to save this city.  I can’t believe he would want to be associated with the PRT’s operations as of late.  Loss after loss on the part of our heroes.  The losses aren’t the fault of the heroes, it’s even understandable, given the sheer power wielded by the likes of the Endbringer, of the Slaughterhouse Nine and the various other threats within the city…”

Coil was moving, now, his people getting in rank and file around him, his pet parahumans standing by.

I had to make my call.  Stand up to him and jeopardize everything I’d been working towards?  Here, now, with Coil drawing on his power, with three parahumans and no less than twenty elite soldiers who I knew were entirely capable of hitting what they were aiming at, backing him up?  Even if I stayed hidden in the crowd, I couldn’t say for sure that he wouldn’t spot me or my dad and order one of his people to move.

The alternative was that I could do as I’d been ordered, avoiding any costumed activity; trust Coil and his power to handle the situation.  I hated him, on a level, but I knew he was smart.  And I knew he knew I was here; I’d asked Lisa and she’d asked him if it was okay.  He had to have a plan for dealing with me if I took any action.

“…Open fighting in the streets.  No, the blame lies with the PRT and the mayor’s administration, which he admits was heavily involved in the decisions made.  Highly questionable decisions:  Holding back when they could have intervened.  Forcing confrontations when our heroes were gravely outmatched.”

I saw Piggot shifting uncomfortably in her seat at that.  Had this been arranged?  A staged scene?

Coil started striding for the closed double doors that led to the back of the auditorium, flanked by Circus and the other parahuman, rank after rank of his soldiers following.

I gripped my dad’s hand, held it tight, and stayed where I was.

The doors banged open.  Coil, Circus and… Über was with him, in a heavy metal suit, Leet stood off to one side, holding what looked like a ray gun.  People screamed, and it set off a chain reaction of responses throughout the auditorium.  People started running for the other exits, only to have their paths barred as more soldiers emerged.

My dad and I stayed in our seats, and I crouched low in front of my seat, pulling my dad down so he would be under cover.

“What the hell?” the Mayor growled into his microphone.  “Coil?”

“Mister Mayor,” Coil spoke.

“This is insanity,” Grove spoke.

“Genius sometimes looks that way to those who don’t see the whole picture.”  Coil had advanced far enough down the aisle that I could see him clearly.  He turned to take in the crowd, and for one heart-stopping moment I thought he’d stop when his eyes fell on me.  His head kept moving, and he walked further down the aisle, closer to the stage.

Grove said, “The local heroes-”

“Are occupied.  Fires started at select locations, areas where the damage won’t be immediate, but where they cannot be allowed to spread.  One such fire is at your headquarters.  My apologies.  I wanted to target high-priority areas.  The other fires will occupy the members of the Undersiders and Travelers and slow them down as they recover from the loss of their individual headquarters.”

I tensed at that.  How much of it was a bluff?

“You bastard,” the Mayor growled.  “First my niece, now this?”

Niece?

Of course.  I’d heard Dinah was niece to one of the mayoral candidates.  I hadn’t realized she was the niece to the mayor.

“She’s safe and sound,” Coil said.  “As are any people here without a title.  If you’re the mayor, or a candidate for mayor, if you call yourself chief of police, lieutenant, director or major, I’m afraid I can’t promise your safety.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Let me demonstrate.  Circus?”

Circus was walking through the assembled crowd as though she were on solid ground, but each footstep was onto the back of one of the auditorium seats.  She extended her arms out to either side, fingers splayed, then closed her hands into fists.  Knives stuck out from the spaces between each finger.

Mr. Grove and Mrs. Padillo ran first, and Mayor Christner was only steps behind.  It didn’t matter.  Circus flung her arms forward and each of the eight knives hit the mark.

People stood from their seats and for long moments I couldn’t see what happened on the stage after that.  I only felt the bodies hit the floor with the bugs.  I didn’t dare move the bugs to try to see exactly where the knives had landed.

Coil’s soldiers were holding the reporters and cameramen at gunpoint.  I raised myself up high enough to see him turning around to face the largest group of cameras.  “The other villains want to seize the city from below.  To start at the streets, out of sight, to remove any who would threaten their rule, and claim the various districts one by one.  They ignore the fact that there are others in power who aren’t superhuman.  Ordinary mortals with the power to make decisions that affect its citizens.

“I would take the more direct route.  Brockton Bay is mine.  I will make the decisions, claim and distribute the taxes and decide who sits in seats of power.  Anyone who would disagree will face the same fate as the mayor, Mr. Grove and Mrs. Padillo.”

I rose up enough to get a glimpse of the stage.  The mayor was lying on his back, chest rising and falling with too much force, as if he was sucking in lungfuls of air and then forcing them out with just as much strength.  He had a knife sticking out of the middle of his torso, another in his shoulder, and yet another in his leg.  My father pulled me down before I could see the others.

The mayor wasn’t dead, but he looked like the man might be dying.  Was I condoning this by staying silent?  I’d told myself I would let Coil’s plan play out until he did something unconscionable and this threatened to cross the line.  It was only the fact that the mayor was still alive and the fact that I couldn’t think of what I might do to intervene that kept me on the sidelines, hiding from the soldiers and the assault rifles they were wielding.

“You cannot expect this to succeed,” the voice blared over the speakers.

“Director Piggot,” Coil spoke.  “I must admire your courage, putting yourself in the line of fire so soon after your last escapade.  Kidnapped by the Undersiders, weren’t you?”

Through my bugs, I could sense how Piggot was leaning heavily on a desk just in front of the stage, using the debate moderator’s microphone.  “This plan of yours was doomed from the outset.  Just for what you’ve done, threatening these people and ordering the execution of those three on the stage, they’ll send the entire Protectorate after you.  America will demand it.  Or are you so mad you think we’ll let you crown yourself king?”

“Mad?  No.  A monster?  Maybe.  Better to say I’m a freak of nature.  My power is to control my own destiny, to reshape and cultivate it.  What you see here is only the tip of the iceberg.”

“There’s a greater plan, then.”

“Quite.  A shame you won’t discover it.  Circus?”

Piggot backed away from the table and ducked low.  It didn’t help.  Circus lobbed a throwing knife into the air, so that it arced.  She didn’t have eyes on the director, but the knife nonetheless went high, catching the light as it reached the peak of its flight near the high ceiling of the auditorium.   It plunged down to strike its target and screams sounded from the front of the auditorium.

“Someone contacted the heroes,” Leet spoke.  “My U.I. says they’re on the way.”

“Good,” Coil responded.  “Circus, come.  Squad captains, maintain order here.  We’ll be back the moment this is done.”

“The bitch is too fat.  Thinking I didn’t hit anything vital,” Circus said.

“See it through,” Coil ordered, turning to leave with Über and Leet accompanying him.  Circus turned to follow, flicking her wrist hard over her shoulder.  Three knives traveled through the air, their paths eerily in sync as they nearly touched the ceiling, converging together as they dropped towards Piggot.

I barely had time to think about it, rising to my feet and calling on my bugs.  I knew it was too few, too late, but standing by while someone got murdered?  Four or five cockroaches, some houseflies, it wasn’t enough.  I’d held the bugs back, keeping them in out of the way areas, and now I didn’t have enough to block the knives or divert them from their path.

There was a flash of light around Piggot, and for just an instant, I thought maybe she had powers.  Maybe she’d had a trigger event, or she always had them but kept them in reserve?

But it wasn’t her.  Weld caught the knives, letting them sink into his palm, down to the hilts.

It was the Wards.  Weld and Vista were at the foot of the room.  Vista was raising her hands, folding the walls into barriers to block those of Coil’s soldiers who weren’t holding the reporters hostage.  Kid Win was at one corner of the room, firing what looked like concussion blasts into soldier and civilian alike, a gun in each hand, and the hovering turrets at his shoulder adding still more firepower to the fray.  He’d taken the fight out of them with the first barrage, and the follow-up fire was apparently to take down the soldiers who managed to climb to their feet or raise a weapon.  The concussion-cannons were obvious nonlethal weapons from the casual way he was firing into the massed people, intended to stun and disable rather than harm.

Chariot had a gun that was firing off charges of electricity, similar to the one I’d borrowed from Kid Win, and was flying over the assembled soldiers, unloading shots on them.  His costume was different from the last time I’d seen him, with single-wheeled roller blades at his toes and a flight system that didn’t seem to be attached to him.  A disc the size of a car tire floated behind his head and shoulders, almost luminescent with energy, and the wings of his flight suit, tipped with jets of gold light, floated out to either side of it.

Clockblocker formed the final part of the strike party.  He wasn’t fighting- not directly.  He stood by a white cloth that had been frozen in time, covering the soldiers.

They were turning the situation around.  The suddenness with which they’d appeared, their positioning, they had planned this, assessing the situation, deciding where they needed to be to make a decisive strike and protect the crowd, and they must have teleported in.  I knew they had the technology to teleport objects.  I hadn’t guessed they had it for people, too.

“This way!”  Weld bellowed.  “Evacuate through the area at the back of the stage!  Stick to the sides!  And I need medical help for the wounded!”

Their group was a little battered, beaten and bruised, and they wore replacement costume parts.  Where I could see skin, I noted the welts of bug bites and stings that hadn’t yet faded.  Vista had covered hers with makeup, but they were there.

I was frozen by indecision.  I felt almost hopeful, strange as that sounded.  If the good guys got the upper hand, if they actually beat Coil, then I could rescue Dinah by simply visiting Coil’s base and opening the door to her room.  Coil was being ruthless here.  At his orders, four people had been wounded to the point that they might die.  If I stepped in to help…

No, my help wouldn’t be welcome.  It could even be dangerous, a distraction at a crucial time.  I would also have to escape.  A resounding victory might see them locking down the area to take down witness statements or make sure no soldiers removed their uniform and slipped out with the crowd.  Nobody had seen me gathering the bugs in my futile attempt to try to help Piggot.  But if they found out Skitter was in the building and won, then it would be a question of narrowing down which teenage girl in the building fit the profile.

And if I tried to help and Coil won, well, my dad and I would be fucked.  No sense in putting it politely.  He would be in a prime position to not only retaliate, but maybe even retaliate without losing the support of my teammates.

If anything anchored me in place, it was the way one of Dad’s hands clutched my own, the other hand holding my wrist, and the way he seemed to be trying to shield me with his body.  His face was taut with fear, his body rigid.

“Wards!”  Weld shouted.  “All clear!?”

“Clear!”  the cry came back three times, from Clockblocker, Kid Win and Chariot.  The soldiers had been taken down.

My dad tugged on my hand.  Enough people had made their way down the aisles that we had room to maneuver.  I followed his lead, letting him pull me towards the aisle.

“Regroup!  Optimal range, facing the doors!”  Weld ordered.  Vista, Clockblocker, Kid Win and Chariot hurried to the center of the room.  He stayed where he was, watching as civilians from the crowd tended to the wounded.  All but the mayor were apparently alive.  The only one I could wonder about was the mayor.  He was lying prone, receiving CPR at the hands of two people.

“Now!”  Weld shouted.

Clockblocker moved, lunging three feet to his left to tag Chariot.  Chariot froze in the air.

I stopped in my tracks, momentarily confused.  Had some of the Wards turned traitor?  No.  Kid Win and Vista seemed to be taking this in stride.  Both were working together to bind Chariot.

There were cries of protest from the crowd.  “What are you doing?”  “He didn’t do anything!”

“He’s a double agent,” Weld spoke, his voice carrying.  “Working for Coil.  Go.  Evacuate, get out of here.  We have this in hand.”

He radiated confidence.  Damn it, for all the times we’d fought the Wards, for every time I’d cursed the heroes for not doing what I needed them to do, I began to feel hopeful.

My dad and I were making our way down the aisle, past the soldiers that Chariot had laid low.  We were at the steps leading up to the stage when the doors slammed open.

Über led the way, followed by Coil, Leet, Circus and a squadron of soldiers.  His metal frame took the brunt of the incoming fire, and he used his arms to shield his exposed upper body from the blasts of electricity and the concussion shots from Kid Win’s guns and turrets.

Vista began shrinking the arms, but the progress seemed slower.  She had trouble using her power when there was living material in the way, but it was still working.

Being so close to the fighting, to the gunfire and flashes of electricity, people were reacting badly.  Screaming, shouting at others to move faster, pushing and shoving.  Worst of all, they were making so much noise I couldn’t follow everything that was going on.  Coil was saying something, his words carrying to the heroes, but I missed it in the chaos.

I didn’t want to out myself as being present, so I was limited in how many bugs I could deploy.  A small handful on Coil served to let me follow his movements.  He’d dropped to one knee behind Über, and Leet handed him a small remote control.  He wasted no time in pressing the button.

The noise of gunfire changed.  My head wasn’t the only one that turned to see what had happened.

Kid Win had stopped shooting, and a shrill whine was filling the air.  He turned to Weld, who began tearing at his armor.

Leet stepped out from behind Über and shot Vista.  She was thrown down the length of the aisle, slamming against the base of the stage.  He took another shot at Clockblocker, who froze himself.  Kid Win drew another gun from a side holster and shot Leet.

Weld had finished dismantling Kid Win’s armor, freeing what looked to be a power cell.

I could barely make out the words, but someone in the crowd did.  A woman screamed the words, “He said it’s a bomb!  Sabotage!  Run!”

In that instant, the crowd became a crush of bodies, each trying so hard to get up and through the stairwell that we barely made any progress.  Über, Leet, Circus and Coil began running towards the lobby, Über kicking down the door, leaving the heroes to deal with the bomb they were holding, which was squealing at a higher pitch and volume with every passing second.  It was glowing, brilliant in its golden radiance.

Kid Win pointed at Chariot.  The boy was frozen, still, but the wings and pack on his back were still active, not attached to Chariot’s suit and therefore unaffected by Clockblocker’s power.

Weld caught the setup out of the air, tearing away the outer casing the second it was in his hands.  Kid Win changed the wiring.  They were shouting something to one another, but I couldn’t make out the words.  Weld pointed up.

The bomb or sabotaged power supply disappeared, teleporting away in the same grid of lines that I’d seen Kid Win use to summon his massive cannon.  It dawned on me what they’d done.  Teleporting the bomb straight up into the sky, where there was nobody and nothing to be affected.

Or that had been their plan.  It didn’t work out that way.  I saw a flicker of light from the lobby, the glow of the device, and Coil wheeling around to face us, his screaming lost in the midst of the shrill whine and the shouts of the others.

My eye to brain response was too slow to process everything that happened next.  I saw it in snapshots: the swelling energy of the sabotaged power supply, Coil’s body coming apart in pieces, the chairs of the auditorium and fragments of floorboards being thrown into the air as the explosion seemed to move in slow motion.

Then it hit us, and I saw only white, felt only pain.

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Monarch 16.4

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I was turning to leave when I was struck with a thought.  “Did Bitch move to her new territory yet?  I know we planned for her to relocate to the city outskirts.”

“Not yet,” Tattletale answered.  She was tying the gag back in place.  Piggot was screwing her eyes closed in disgust.

“So she’s somewhere near the Trainyard.”

“Yeah,” Tattletale replied.

“We’re going to need transportation if we’re going to get there without losing too much time.”

“Brooks can hotwire a car for you, show you how to start it up again when you’re ready to head back,” Tattletale suggested.

“No.  I’m not sure it’ll be able to navigate all the fenced off areas and debris that’ll be in the Trainyard.  Bitch hasn’t been clearing the mess, as far as I know, and it wasn’t easy to navigate to begin with.”

“If we use the car to get there…” Grue started.

I finished his sentence for him, “We run the risk that it’ll break down, run out of gas or get wrecked somewhere, stranding us and forcing us to hike across half the city to get to Ballistic’s territory.  Let’s minimize the opportunities for stuff to go wrong.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Tattletale said.

I glanced at Piggot.  “We’re capes, not beggars.  I was thinking about Sundancer and something like a hot air balloon, but I’m not sure how much forward acceleration you could pick up that way.  But something like that.  A lot of our powers operate off virtually limitless power sources.  I’ve used my power all day, every day and I haven’t been any worse for wear.  Can we use that for some extra mobility while we don’t have Bitch on the team?”

“You could try a James and the Giant Peach thing with us,” Imp said, “Only it’d be backwards: bugs on strings and the ‘bird along for the ride.”

I shook my head.  “My bugs would get tired.  That leaves Shatterbird.”

“I can only fly with one person, maybe two,” Regent and Shatterbird spoke in unison.

“What if you aren’t flying?”  I asked.

Maybe not my best idea in retrospect.

We were putting our lives in Shatterbird’s hands.  Or in Regent’s hands, depending on how I interpreted it.  Which wasn’t to say we weren’t getting where we needed to be in record time.

Shatterbird had pressed and embedded glass into the wood of a door we’d taken off the hinges, and Regent, Imp and I were standing on the surface while Shatterbird flew above us, using her power to pull on the glass.  With our weight resting more towards the back than the front, the door was angled upward, skimming on the surface of the road or through the shallow water of streets that were still flooded.

We had to be pushing forty or fifty miles an hour, and any time we were forced to make a turn, we inevitably went wide, sometimes bouncing off of a wall.  That was without getting into the cars and debris that still covered the roads or our total lack of solid hand-holds, seats, seatbelts or brakes.  I’d parceled out silk cord to grip, but they also served to emphasize how momentum swung us out to one side or another when we turned.  It was easy to underestimate how fast even a lower cruising speed was when safe inside the interior of a vehicle, removed from the road by two to four feet of solid material..

Either way, we headed into the thick of the Docks.  Our makeshift vehicle sped towards a chain link fence.

“Regent, fence,” I warned, leaning forward to speak into his ear and make sure he could hear me.

We continued forward without slowing.  Half a block away, seventy feet away…

“Fence!” I raised my voice.

Thirty feet away…

Shatterbird hit the fence with a wave of glass, knocking it down to a forty-five degree angle.  Our makeshift craft lifted up fractionally and we hit the makeshift ramp, remaining airborne for only a second or two before hitting the ground and continuing forward.

“You dick,” I swore.

Regent and Imp laughed and cackled.

What had I been thinking, inflicting this pair on myself?

We made our way into the Trainyard, and the ride became much bumpier as we navigated areas with overgrown grass, train tracks and piles of trash.  A crash and howl informed us of our destination before my bugs did.  I signaled Regent when we were close enough so he could bring the craft to a stop.

Bitch and the dogs were fighting, and there were signs the fighting had been going on for a while.

There were six dogs in the area, including Bastard, Bentley and Sirius, but only Bastard and Bentley were still fighting.  Bitch, Barker and Biter had stepped up to fight, as well, with Bitch’s civilian henchpersons were hiding nearby.  The vet-girl was taking care of a smaller dog.

Looking at the situation, I couldn’t figure out why they’d be having trouble with their opponent.  Dragon’s suit wasn’t that large, didn’t seem to have that much in the way of weapons or gear.  She stood maybe eight feet tall, eight feet wide, with each arm forming roughly a third of its mass, ending in disproportionately large, squat claws.

Barker screamed, then slammed his teeth together with a clack my bugs could hear.  His power turned the noise into a concussive force, erupting around the armored suit.  The suit reeled, staggering back from where it stood on top of a derelict train, nearly falling.  One of the dogs charged and tackled it, tearing into it with claws and teeth.

The suit hauled the dog off it, climbing to its feet in an instant.  It leaped forward to close the distance to its human opponents, and Biter stepped forward to meet it, his fist swelling to five times the normal size, along with the spikes and blades he’d worked into the fabric of his glove.  The suit went flying, gathering itself into a rough ball shape as it careened backwards into the side of a train.

Had we stepped in just as the fight was wrapping up?

The suit stood.  That didn’t surprise me.  It brought its claws to either side and clawed at the side of the train, crumpling metal in its massive claws.  My bugs gave me a sense of what was going on as the suit drew the metal into itself with crushing mechanisms and gears.  Its torso expanded slightly as it made room for the new material, armor plates reshaped by internal mechanisms and shifted into place to patch up the worst of the damage.

I arrived on the scene, Imp and Regent only a short distance behind me.  A glance showed me that Bitch, her underlings and her dogs were injured, beaten to the point that they were dirty, bruised and scraped.  Her eyes widened as I approached.

“It won’t,” she growled the words between pants for breath, “Fucking die!”

I wouldn’t have picked a brute-type machine to go up against Bitch, if I’d been in Dragon’s shoes, but she’d apparently decided this would be a good matchup.  Or was this Armsmaster’s idea?  I was put in mind of the fight at the fundraiser, him trying to not just defeat Bitch, but to beat her into submission.

Not that he was really fighting for a crowd, here.

Or was it something else?  The suit could absorb metal, what would give Bitch that much trouble?

“It’s drawing scrap metal into itself,” I said.  “Self repairing.”

“I know.”

“So stop it from getting the scrap metal.”

“You want to fucking try?”

This wasn’t good.  From the moment we arrived on the scene, this suit would probably be signalling others.  We couldn’t be sure that Piggot’s order to stand down would still be in effect for the other suits, so we had to anticipate reinforcements.  Except this suit seemed to be made to be durable, to stall and wear us down.  It wouldn’t be easy to take this down in the limited time we had.

Which was it?  The Melusine?  The whatchamacallit-Nidhug hybrid?  Or was it the Azazel, presumably designed to take on the Nine, with defeating the Undersiders as a secondary design goal?

“We’ll try together,” I said.  “Regent, we need Shatterbird in here.  Imp, you’re backing us up.  Drag the injured to safety.  Did you ever take that first aid class?”

“Grue told me to, but I haven’t gotten around to it.”

I swore under my breath.

“Not totally my fault.  Things have been kind of a mess since I joined the team.  Not like there’re classes or anything.”

“There probably are.”  I watched the suit step away from the train, adjusting its shape to sort out the additional material it had absorbed into its body.

“Not like it’s easy to find classes,” she clarified.

“Just take care of anyone that gets hurt.  I don’t know how much you can do here.  I think one of Bitch’s henchmen is over there,” I said, pointing.

“Okay,” Imp retreated.

“I’m telling you,” Bitch growled the words, “Can’t fight it.  It doesn’t die.”

“We’ll try.  There’s got to be a way.  Barker, Biter, you two okay?”

“Hurt,” Biter said.

Barker nodded, “Throat’s sore.  Keep knocking it down, it keeps getting back up.”

“One or two more tries,” I said.  “We hit it with everything we’ve got.  Bitch, which dogs are least hurt?”

“Bentley and Bastard.  Had a few more I was sending in, but they’re hard enough to order around when something isn’t hurting them.”

“We’ll need their help, then.”

“Bastard’s not trained enough.”

I glanced at the wolf cub.  He was five or six times his usual size.  He’d grown rapidly in the past few weeks, but it still meant he was small.  His mutation seemed different from the other dogs.  Was there a whole other department of changes with various subcategories of the wolf breed?

The suit raised one hand, and a chain fired out, a grappling hook on the end.  We threw ourselves out of the way before it could catch any of us.

“Keeps doing that,” Barker muttered.  His voice was gravelly.  “Trying to tire us out.  Wear us down.”

“Let’s avoid giving it another chance.  Longer range powers first, everyone else close in.”

I hadn’t even finished talking before Shatterbird was hurling the glass-coated door into the suit.  She followed up with a veritable tide of glass shards, pulling them from debris and the edges of the street.  The suit staggered back, putting it closer to the train she had just harvested scrap metal from.

“Keep it away from anything metal!”  I reminded them.

Easier said than done.  The area was a fenced in yard with railroad tracks, rusted train cars and trash that ranged from sign posts to disused trash cans.  There was metal to spare.

I was limited in my options.  Bugs wouldn’t hurt this thing’s metal body.  That left me the less stellar option of fighting it like I had Mannequin.

Barker shouted three times in short succession before bidding the resulting clouds of smoke to detonate violently.  The suit shielded itself with its arms, leaving it defenseless as Bentley flanked and charged it from one side.  It sprawled, landing face down, and reached over to grab two rails from the train track.  In one motion it rose to its feet and hauled two lengths track out of the ground.  Each of the rails bent and folded as they were absorbed into the suit, churned up by grinders and more complex devices.

Bentley charged again, but the suit swung both rails simultaneously to catch the dog in mid-air and hurl him to one side.  Bentley was on his feet in a second, getting his paws under him and lunging for the suit before it could turn to face him, savaging the suit’s metal exterior with claws and teeth.

My bugs began to encircle the suit.  The silk had enough areas to catch on, and my bugs were finding openings to crawl within, but I couldn’t find much in the way of stuff to interfere with or attack.  The suit’s interior was hot, more so as my bugs drew closer to the very center, to the point that my bugs died if they got too far inside.  Everything was solidly made; wires had chain mesh protecting the insulation, pistons and valves were sealed and reinforced, with more delicate technology presumably contained within cases and covers. There was nothing for my bugs to get into.

Using silk to bind the main body wouldn’t do anything.  Spider silk had strength on par with steel, but this was an armored suit capable of tearing railroad tracks from the ground and crushing them in one hand.  A material as strong as steel wouldn’t accomplish anything against a machine that could rend metal.

I’d have to play this smarter.  I used cords of silk to seal valves shut or bind them in an open position where I could, and focused the rest of my efforts on more strategic deployments, forming cords as big around as my arm.  The suit’s arms and legs would be free to move, but my goal was more along the lines of restricting its movements.

Biter used the metal ‘bear trap’ jaw-guard in combination with his ability to distort parts of his body to large sizes, clamping down on the suit’s hand.  He had to hurl himself back and out of the way to avoid the suit’s retaliatory attack.  As he climbed to his feet, he spat out two fingers and a section of the suit’s hand.  I hurried to send my swarm after the discarded parts, using silk and the cumulative strength of the swarm to haul the bits away.

Biter hit the suit twice with enlarged hands and then backed off as Bentley hurled himself into the fray, catching hold of the suit’s other arm and hauling on it with all the strength afforded by his muscular forelimbs, neck, jaw and shoulders.  He struggled, strained, to tear the arm from its housing.

The suit fought to keep its feet beneath it, leaning hard to one side to compensate for the two-ton bulldog’s weight hanging off its arm.  It used its free, damaged hand to grab the dog by the scruff of the neck and flung it hard to one side.

Shatterbird hurled a wave of glass-encrusted debris at the suit.  Not one second after the suit was bludgeoned by the trash cans, wooden planks and pallets, a second wave caught it from behind, striking its legs out from beneath it.

Lying on its back it reached for us and fired another grappling hook.  With the speed it was moving, it looked like it could have caved in someone’s ribs, but we each managed to get out of the way.  Some of the people in Bitch’s group were moving slower, their reflexes and mobility suffering due to their fatigue.

Okay, this wasn’t easy, but it didn’t seem as impossibly hard a fight as some of the other suits, either.  It was just a question of keeping up the onslaught, keeping the suit from gathering too much metal for self-repair and hoping that the suit didn’t get any reinforcements.  With luck, the other suits would be either on standby due to Piggot’s orders or they would be occupied with Trickster, Sundancer and Grue.  Not that it would be a good thing if they were fighting, but it would at least mean we got out of here okay.

The suit struggled to its feet, using its arms to shield itself from two more shouts from Barker and a barrage from Shatterbird, then stopped short as the cord of silk I’d bound around its neck pulled taut.  The other end was wound around one of the coupling rods that stretched between the wheels of one rusted train.  I’d worried the coupling rod would come loose, but the elasticity of the silk combined with the durability and sheer thickness of it meant it didn’t snap.  The suit was pulled off-balance, giving Biter and Bentley a chance to close in, hammer it into the ground and thrash it.

I glanced at Bitch, saw her mouth set in a grim line.

The suit fought its way free, and Bitch whistled for Bentley to back up.  I could see how it was mangled, metal torn and rent.  Yes, it had displayed some self-repair technology, but every part of it was a ruined mess.  I didn’t want to underestimate Dragon’s work, but-

Hot steam hissed out from the gaps in the suit, seconds before it turned itself inside out.  The parts on the exterior folded out and were absorbed into the suit’s interior, new components emerged from within and locked into place.  They still smoked from the heat of being forged and reforged in the heart of the machine.

The suit’s joints shifted position as it settled into a quadruped stance.

I recognized it, now.  It didn’t have missile launchers, and it was a fraction smaller than it had been, but it was the same suit Dragon had used when I’d first seen her.  The suit she’d used against Leviathan.  That suit had also peeled apart to reveal a lesser suit beneath.  Presumably it had possessed the same self repair capability and the ability to do what this suit had done, but hadn’t had the chance.  Except I wasn’t even sure how to define or process what I’d just seen.  It was such an overhaul that I was left grasping for a word to explain it.  Reincarnation?

It was easy enough to picture.  Any time the suit took enough damage, it reforged itself into a different shape with the reserve components deep inside its body, or it shed its outer layer, ensuring that it was always in pristine fighting condition.  Give it an opportunity and it harvested metal for raw materials, and it would keep going until its battery ran out.

With the kind of stuff a tinker like Dragon could make, cold fusion reactors and self-sustaining energy sources, that battery could have one hell of a long life.

Either way, it wasn’t a new model.  That meant it wasn’t the Azazel suit Piggot had told us about.

“You could have explained,” I said.

“I did,” Bitch answered, glowering at the smoking suit.  “I said it won’t fucking go down.”

“You could have explained why.”

“I don’t understand why!”

The reforging process had killed every bug I had on the thing, and it had burned through the silk cord I’d leashed it with.  I was left wondering what the black market price would be for something like Armsmaster’s EMP device.  Something that would serve as a get-out-of-a-fight-with-a-tinker-card.

Tinkers had so many options that they brought to the table, a crazy synergy with any teammates, and an ability to customize their approach to counter specific threats or individuals.  I, on the other hand, was pretty screwed if I went up against anyone with flame powers, cold powers, electricity powers, enough durability to shrug off my bugs or a way to clear out large numbers of bugs at once.  I’d managed thus far by thinking on my feet, but it sort of pissed me off that tinkers existed as the antithesis of that.

Yes, I was aware that tinkers had to put in hours upon hours of work, and that I only ever really experienced the end results of that investment.  I didn’t care.  Whether they had vat grown monsters, clockwork lairs, impenetrable suits of armor, jetpacks and exploding guitars or programs to tell them how to win a fight, tinkers were a fucking pain in the ass.

“New plan,” I announced.  “We hit it hard enough to slow it down and then we scram.”

“You want to run?” Bitch asked.

“We don’t have a choice.”

“We do,” she said, still glowering at the suit.  “We gotta kill this thing sometime anyways, so you come up with a plan like you usually do, we’ll make it happen, and I won’t have to give up territory to this armor asshole.”

I stared at her, trying and failing to process how she was looking at the situation.  Then it dawned on me.  This was why Dragon and Armsmaster had pit this suit against her.  It wasn’t that it countered her power, exactly.  It was that it was set up to work against her stubborn nature.  With the way her mind worked, she couldn’t back down from a fight she subconsciously felt like she was winning.  It didn’t matter that we were losing in the long run, she was focused on the fact that we could do damage, and walking away would be a forfeit.

Barker was screaming a long series of invectives at the suit, detonating them.  With four legs solidly on the ground, it wasn’t budging, and Barker’s shouts weren’t doing much to the armor.

“Look at it this way,” I said, trying to stay calm,  “We just defeated it.  Heck, every time you’ve forced it to change like that, that’s been a win for you.  How many times was that?”

“Four.”

“Four times, you’ve kicked its ass.  If you walk away, that’s five wins total and one loss, if you can even call that a loss.  But we can’t afford to stay much longer, or one of your dogs is bound to get hurt.”

As if to give evidence to my statement, Bentley howled as he grappled with the suit, trying to tear into its neck while the suit attempted to wrestle him down to the ground.  Biter leaped onto the machine’s back, his hands with the spiked knuckles worked into the gloves growing larger so he could tear the armor plates away.  Bentley joined in, setting his teeth at the lower part of the armored suit’s ‘spine’, for lack of a better word.

Her eyes narrowed.  “We run?”

“We have to stop it from following first.  One more time, guys!  Regent, stand ready!  We need as much glass as you can spare!”

The suit turned our way.  Three masters, standing in the back lines while we sent our bugs, dogs and lunatic supervillain thrall into the fray.

It began to glow, steaming, and Biter virtually yelped as he threw himself off of its back.  Bentley was slower to react, but he fell back, shaking his head violently as flesh sizzled around his muzzle.

We backed up a few paces as it advanced one step.  It whipped its head up until it almost pointed to the sky, then opened its mouth.  Blue flame streamed over our heads to pool behind us, cutting off our retreat.  We had to scramble for cover before any droplets or sparks landed on us.  I wasn’t sure if it was flame at a temperature I wasn’t used to seeing, if it was a liquid accellerant that just happened to be on fire or if it was plasma, but I didn’t want to touch it and find out the particulars.

All of us, dogs, Barker and Biter included, headed inside a building to seek further cover.  The structure rumbled as the suit climbed the side and settled on the roof.  The A.I.s liked high places, it seemed.

“Need to hit it hard,” I said, my voice pitched low so the suit wouldn’t overhear.  “One good hit.”

“We don’t have one good hitter,” Imp said.  I turned my head to see her crouching by the vet and one wounded dog.  “Maybe Shatterbird, but everyone else is about a lot of littler hits.”

“We need one good hit from someone who isn’t Shatterbird,” I clarified.

“Can’t,” Biter said.  “Limit to how big I can grow myself before I do permanent damage.”

“Define permanent damage.”

“Stretch marks, scarring, permanent aches and pains.  I have some in my midsection, all day, every day, it hurts.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Barker?”

“I can’t hurt the fucker.”

“You screamed something like three times, then detonated that smoke you make whenever you make noise.  Can you do it more?  More shouts, louder?”

“At my limit.  Probably not.”

“Bentley’s hurt,” I said, “What about Bastard?”

“He’ll probably listen to me, but he might attack anyone else.  He’s too dangerous when big.”

“And that suit’s dangerous too.  In case you haven’t noticed, it’s either trying to beat us to a pulp so it can drag us into custody or it’s going to burn us alive.  We have to use one of your dogs, and Bastard’s in the best shape.  We have to use him.”

Bitch frowned, “How?”

I told her.  “You’ve taught him to fetch?”

She nodded.

“Fetch something big, then,” I said.  “Wait until my signal, hit him as hard as you can. Everyone else, let’s run for it.”

I could see Bitch tense.  Her henchwoman, the vet, stood and nervously circled around the edge of the room to join us, giving Bitch a bit of space.

“You’re leaving me behind.”

“We’re counting on you,” I said.  “Wait for my signal, then come with Bastard.  More damage you can do, the better.”

All together, we bolted, Bentley following immediately behind us.  I could feel the Dragon suit reorienting to face us, felt it angle its head before it spewed another stream of liquid fire.

In a residential area?  This wasn’t an occupied area, but… well, the suit might know that.  It might be another reason it was deployed here.

“Hard right!”  I shouted.  We turned to head for a nearby alleyway before the liquid fire even touched ground.

The suit leaped, and I grabbed Imp’s wrist, hauling her out of the way.  It landed a short distance from us, then barreled through our group, sending Biter, Barker and the vet-in-training sprawling.

Controlled movements.  Everything it’s doing, it’s all calculated.  Even the more dangerous attacks were geared to hold back just enough to hurt, not to kill.  Even the hurt was fairly minimal.  If Biter had still been on the suit’s back when it turned red-hot, I was willing to bet it would have shaken him off to avoid giving him terminal burns.  There had to be something about that I could use.  Trouble was, I wasn’t sure when or where the suits drew the line.  I couldn’t trust that they’d follow the rules enough that I could offer my own life in the bargain, much less anyone else’s.

I signaled Bitch, and she was out of the building in a second.  Bastard was as large as I’d ever seen him, and there was something about his appearance… he looked less wrong than the others.  The spikes and ridges of bone that lined his body weren’t asymmetrical, and there seemed to be more art to the design.  Drool flew out of the corners of his mouth as he bounded forward, fangs clamped around a wooden post.

The suit was halfway through turning around to face them when Bastard drove the end of the post into its stomach.  It skidded, sparks flying as its claws dug into the pavement for traction.

“Pull it free!”  I shouted.  I didn’t wait for her to follow through before calling out the next order, “Regent, fill the hole!”

Bitch hauled on Bastard’s chain and he followed the direction, pulling back, the post still clamped in his mouth.  When it came loose, it revealed a rent in the armor’s side, far less empty space than I’d hoped, and a dislodged joint where the leg met the pelvis.

Shatterbird called forth a stream of glass, shoving it into the hole.  I didn’t need to give the next order.  I realized she was using her power more through my bugs than any other sign, the telltale high-pitched noise that was above my human limits.  A second later, the suit’s rear legs lost their traction on the ground.  Its lower body collapsed.

The suit began struggling for footing.  It was still operational.  I swore under my breath, still backing away.

Shatterbird moved one arm, and the suit slid a few feet in that direction.  She had a hold on the glass.  More forcefully, she pushed it into the nearest building, then dragged it across the alleyway to slam it into the opposite wall.

She repeated the process two more times before the suit tried a counterplan.  It began to reshape itself, glass shards pouring out of the openings as pieces slid in and out.  A third form, something airborne.

Shatterbird slammed it into a wall before it was done reshaping.  The fallen glass shards levitated into the air to find new nooks and crannies to slide into.

The suit was hot, naturally heating up as part of the reincarnation or reformation process.  I watched as glass melted, running into holes and slats in the armor.

Shatterbird pushed again.  The suit barely moved.  She wasn’t so adept at moving molten silicon.

We continued backing down the alley.  The suit raised its head, preparing to cut off our retreat with another pool of flame.

In her second jousting run, Bitch lanced the thing through the base of the neck.  Fire spilled down around it, setting the post aflame, and the attack was stalled.

She wheeled Bastard around and shouted, “That’s six fucking wins to one!  Go!”

We ran.  I maneuvered my swarm behind me to watch for its approach, felt it step forward and then collapse, its legs giving way.

Even the forelegs?  Okay, that was interesting.

The glass.  It had melted, and it was cooling in the lower recesses, farthest from the body’s core.

I could have told Bitch she’d beat the suit, that we might have defeated it a hundred percent, but I kept my mouth shut.  Didn’t need her acting on what might be a false assumption.  If it freed itself, found a way of reconfiguring where all of the glass-affected areas were contained, or if it simply abandoned its legs in favor of a smaller form… too many possibilities.  Better to leave it and cross our fingers.

Damn tinkers.  What the hell was Dragon’s specialty?  The ability to make stuff without half the time other tinkers would need?  So many different suits, so many different projects and tasks, and it rarely interconnected, if ever.

We ran two or three blocks before we had to stop.  Shatterbird sent glass shards into a nearby door, then tugged it free.  A sled for Regent and Imp.

With some coaxing, I got the vet-trainee to climb onto Bentley’s back.  The other henchman, the guy, climbed up behind me.  Barker approached Bastard, and received a mean growl in response.  We searched for an option for Barker and Biter before Regent and Shatterbird offered another door.

We made good time on our way to Ballistic’s lair.  We’d planned to arrive by dusk, but the sun wasn’t even setting.

The others weren’t there.  We double checked, then mobilized to find them, spreading out.  With reluctance, I drew my relay bugs from the interior of my shoulderpad.  I felt a twinge of disappointment as I handled them, gently passing them on to dragonflies that could carry them.  They were dying.

Panacea hadn’t given the relay bugs a digestive system, and in my haste to save Atlas from a slow death by starvation, I’d neglected to pay attention to them.  It wouldn’t have mattered anyways, probably, because Grue had only had so much time to work with.

The dragonflies sent my relay bugs out so I could keep in touch with the others as we searched for Grue, Trickster, Sundancer and Ballistic.  Bugs were tough, natural survivors.  I knew that cockroaches could survive lengthy periods of time without heads, that other bugs could be frozen solid and thawed and be little worse for wear.  They subsisted on relatively little food considering their body size, and the relay bugs had held on this long with an inability to eat at all.  Their physiology wasn’t quite the mess that Atlas’s was, and they retained some basic hibernation instincts, defaulting to a near-immobile state.  It was a struggle to even get them to extend my power’s range for me.

I found the next dragon suit before I found the others, and I immediately knew it for what it was.  It had to be Azazel.

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Monarch 16.3

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Well, we’d gone up against Dragon, the Wards and the Protectorate at the same time, and our pains had earned us our hostage.  I was worried the next part would be harder.

Trickster started fishing through the pockets of the Director’s suit-jacket.

“Looking for this?” Imp held up the Director’s phone.

“Yeah,” Trickster replied.  He took the phone.  “There’s a chance it’s not scrambled.”

“Bad idea,” I said.  “If-”

I stopped when Grue reached over and blanketed the Director’s head in darkness.

“Don’t need her listening in if we’re talking strategy,” Grue explained.  “Go on.”

“If Dragon’s listening in on the call, and it sounded like she was, we might accidentally divulge some crucial info.  Or we could be alerting those suits to our location.  Or the location of whoever you’re calling.”  I finished.

“Might be.” Trickster replied, “But it’s handy to be able to contact others, and that might be worth the chance that we’d have to run again.”

“Maybe.”

Trickster went on, “We could call Tattletale right now, hop in the truck Imp brought and have her meet us somewhere secluded, or we could split up, with one or more people going ahead to pass word on to her, then wait for her to meet us, wasting a hell of a lot of time in the process.  Keep in mind the suits are still disabled.”

“There’s still the Protectorate and the Wards,” Grue said.

“The only ones capable of moving that fast are Assault and maybe Chariot,” I said.

“We’re short enough on time, and we need to know what happened to our other teammates,” Trickster said.

“It’s not a good idea.”  Grue folded his arms.

“I’m making the call anyways.  We can’t afford to wait.”

Grue stood there, literally fuming as the darkness roiled around him.  After a few long seconds, his pose relaxed and he held his hand out, “Then let me talk to her.  We have a password system.  The rest of you, keep an eye on her, and don’t forget to watch out for incoming threats.”

“Good man.  The two of us will be over there,” Trickster said, pointing to one area where sand and debris had been bulldozed into a small hill.  “Need to talk with ‘Dancer for a second.  Shout if you need a hand.”

I nodded.  Grue, Trickster and Sundancer all stepped away, leaving Regent, Shatterbird, Imp and I to watch over our hostage.

A minute passed, and she shifted position, her head leaving Grue’s darkness.

“Back up,” Regent warned.

“I have bad knees,” the Director said.  “I will if you make me, but it’s painful.  I suppose that could be a way of easing into torture, if that’s your style.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Regent said, uncharacteristically cheery.

“No,” I told him.  To her, I said, “Sit however you want.  We’ll cover you again if we start talking work.”

She gave me a curt nod.

“Maybe we should get her to command the suits?”  Regent asked.

“Won’t work,” the Director replied.

“Why’s that?”  Regent asked.

“I can send them in, I can tell them where to go or when to stand by, but they do what they’re programmed to, and they’re programmed to avoid attacking civilians and local heroes.”

“That didn’t stop the foam-spraying-”  Regent started.

“The Cawthorne model,” the Director interrupted.

“Sure.  That didn’t stop the Cawthorne thing from shooting Trickster when he had Kid Win hostage.”

“I expect Dragon accounted for the fact that you might take hostages and use the nonlethality restrictions of the A.I. against it.  She would have given the machines tools or strategies to work around it.”

“And you’re just volunteering this information?” I asked.

“I said it earlier, I think, but you’re not a stupid girl, Skitter.  Reckless, shortsighted, capricious, violent, even vicious… but not stupid.  I’m hoping you have the sense to realize how dangerous your current position is.  There will be more mechanical suits coming.  There will be heroes coming to Brockton Bay to assist us.  You can’t afford to hold this city, and we can’t afford to let you.  Not in the grand scheme of things.”

“She likes to jabber,” Imp said.  “Should we gag her?  Or make her stick her head back in the dark?”

“Might be better,” Regent answered, looking down at the Director.

“Need a cloth.  I could pull off a sock, jam in her mouth, maybe we tie it in there with Skitter’s silk.  My feet are sweating like crazy in these boots, so it’d be really gross.”

“No,” I said.  “We’re not going to humiliate her.  We get the information we need from her, see if we can’t use her as a hostage to leverage for peace.  That’s all.”

The Director shook her head.

“What?”

“Extorting for peace when you started the war.”

“When are you saying we started the war?  When the ABB came after us and we fought back?  When we ambushed the fundraiser to embarrass you?  When we fought Leviathan and the Slaughterhouse Nine and then picked up the pieces ourselves, clearing our territories of the low-level threats while leaving the civilians more or less alone?”

“Except for Bitch.”

“We adjusted Bitch’s territory so she wouldn’t have as much cause to harass the locals, not so long ago.”

“I suppose that’s a consolation to the people she injured.”

“I’m not saying we’re perfect.  We aren’t.  But we’re doing something.

“So are we.”

“You’re not doing enough.”

“And when you subtract the blood you’ve spilled and the pain you’ve caused, have you really done that much more, Skitter?  That’s oversimplifying, obviously.  Right and wrong aren’t a matter of adding the good deeds and subtracting the bad.”

“I’m bad at math anyways,” Regent said.

The Director ignored him, her eyes on me.  “I presume you’ve been paying for the supplies and materials you’ve been importing to your territory with your own money?  You’ve been paying your people, I know.”

“Yeah.”

“How much damage was done in the course of earning that money?  I see the repercussions you don’t.  Things pass my desk: hospital bills, property damage, psychiatrist’s notes.  People lose their jobs, lose precious belongings.  Parents are woken in the middle of the night because their children are seriously injured.   I see the details from detectives in narcotics who track the drug trade-”

“I-”

She interrupted me before I could protest.  “I know you don’t sell drugs, Skitter.  But you’re interacting with people who do.  If you buy a favor from someone who does, the Merchants, Coil, the Chosen, then you’re indirectly supporting that trade.  Just like you’re supporting any number of evils every time you help a fellow villain.  I’ve talked to homicide detectives who have dealt with the bodies in the wake of your shenanigans.”

“We don’t kill.”

“People die when you start feuds.  Bakuda was injured by you in one altercation, and she attacked the city over the course of several days.  Do you know how many people were harmed, then?  Because you set her off?  I could show you photos.  People with flesh melted off, frozen, burned, turned to glass.  When I don’t see these things in person, I see them on my desk, in high-definition glossy photos.  I could arrange for you to see the photos if you don’t believe me, or if you want to see the damage you’ve done for yourself.”

“No.  I don’t need to see them.”

She looked up at me, one eye half closed, both eyes bloodshot.  “Why is that, Skitter?  Are you afraid facing that reality would shatter this nice little delusion you’re living under?”

“I’m not to blame for whatever crimes Bakuda committed.”

“You played a role.”

“Anything she did is on her head, just like anything the Nine did is on them.”

“Where do you draw the line?  When do you start taking responsibility?  Or will you explain away every evil you’ve done and count only the actions you want?”

I could have protested, argued that I did take the blame for some things, I did blame myself for Dinah, for not seeing the bigger picture, for acting when I’d known Coil needed a distraction for something bigger.

“Hey,” Regent said.

I turned to face him.

“This is going nowhere.  Let’s wait until Tattletale can talk to her.”

“Right,” I said.  Not only had it been going nowhere, but she’d had had the upper hand, so to speak.  Not necessarily in the strength or validity of her arguments, but in the psychological and emotional sense.  I’d failed to budge her and she’d provoked a response from me.

The Director didn’t open her mouth again, apparently satisfied.

Grue returned with Trickster and Sundancer following behind him.  “Imp, where’s the truck you used to get here?”

“You passed it as you came here.”

“We’ll have to be careful,” Grue said,  “Anything from the Protectorate, her included, may be bugged.  No talking about anything sensitive on our way back, and we’ll ditch it asap.”

We nodded.  I had only the one good arm, my other shoulder still tender, so I walked around to the Director’s left side to grab her under the shoulder and help haul her to her feet.

I was surprised that she cooperated.  If she’d delayed us by forcing us to carry her, she might have bought time for reinforcements to arrive.  If we’d forced the issue with violence, it would have reinforced her argument.

In her shoes, I might have done it, just to apply that stress to my enemy.  It said something that she didn’t.  I just wasn’t sure what.

We emerged from the truck at the rear of a liquor store.  Tattletale stood in the open doorway of the loading area with Brooks and Minor beside her.

We hauled the Director out of the back of the truck.  Grue had covered her in darkness to keep her unawares, and she looked more than a little disoriented.  Her hair was in disarray and she couldn’t fix it with the cuffs on, and the effects of the capsaicin hadn’t entirely worn off; her eyes were puffy, her face red.

But when she looked at Tattletale, the smallest smile touched her lips.

“What’s this, Piggot?” Tattletale asked, hopping down from the ledge to the parking lot.  “Looking forward to a duel of wits?”

Director Piggot shook her head, still smiling.

“Staying mum?  Lips sealed, so you can’t betray vital information?”

“I trust you’ll get it anyways,” the Director replied.

“First things first,” Grue said, “Are we bugged?”

“The truck is.  But we’ll have my guy drive it a ways and then leave it somewhere.”  Tattletale jerked a thumb towards Minor, and he marched over to the truck, catching the keys as Grue tossed them.

“They’ll know the truck stopped here,” the Director said.

“I know.  We’re going to go for a walk,” Tattletale said.  “Up for that?”

“I don’t think I have a choice, do I?”

“Nope.”

We headed down a back alley.  I saw the Director struggling to keep her feet under her, her pumps sloshing in shallow water.  She stumbled once, and I put a hand out to steady her.  I was more likely to be crushed beneath her than to catch her if she fell, but at the same time, I wasn’t sure we could get her off the ground without uncuffing her if she did slip.

I didn’t like her.  Maybe that was an obvious conclusion for me to come to, but she reminded me of my high school principal in some ways: she was the authority figure, the person who embodied an institution I had no respect for.  On a more concrete level, she was indirectly or directly responsible for Armsmaster, for Sophia and the other bullies getting away with what they did.

Even on a basic, abstract level, she reminded me of Emma in how quickly and easily she’d gone for the throat in trying to cut me down and provoke a reaction from me.  Again, much like Emma, it was all the more nettling because she wasn’t entirely wrong.

“You have our teammates in custody?” Tattletale asked.

The Director didn’t respond.

“That’s a no.  Which means they’re either injured or dead and you aren’t aware, or they’re holed up and can’t leave their territory because of the suits that are sitting there.”

“Perhaps.”  Even with the unsteady footing, the Director was focusing more on Tattletale than where she was going, studying her.  But I knew that if I could see that much, Tattletale would as well.

“Is Dragon in town?”

“Last I saw,” the Director replied, hedging.

“She’s gone,” Tattletale said, for the benefit of the rest of us.  “Another task.  Wouldn’t be an Endbringer.  Not yet.  The Nine.”

“Yes.”

“Want to give up the information now, spare me the hassle of twenty questions?”

“My delaying you means the other models have a chance to find and arrest your teammates.  You’ll have to ask.”

“We have other tools at our disposal,” Tattletale glanced at Regent.

“And I know Regent takes anywhere from fifteen minutes to two and a half hours to take control.”

“After which point you wouldn’t ever be able to work in this town again.”

“Taking the same approach you did with Shadow Stalker?”  The Director asked.

I raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah, like Shadow Stalker,” Tattletale replied.

“We have records from when Regent worked for Heartbreaker, under his previous name, Hijack.  Interviews with people Regent controlled.”

“Good for you,” Regent replied.

“I know his power gets weaker as you spread it thin, control slips.  You can’t afford to loosen your hold on Shatterbird, so no, I don’t think you’ll try to take control of me.”

“And you believe that,” Tattletale said.  “Enough that you’re confident.  You aren’t worried here, even when you’ve been taken hostage.”

“Which leaves you the options of playing twenty questions to get all the information you need, or you can try something more dire.  Torture?”

“That’s the second time she’s brought that up,” I said.

“Because she’s trying to get a sense of us,” Tattletale said.  “She wants to see our reactions and body language as the subject comes up.”

“Yes,” the Director said.  “Based on that much, I’m almost certain you wouldn’t torture me and you aren’t the type to kill unless absolutely backed against the wall.  Which means I can be home before midnight.”

“A little optimistic,” Trickster growled the words.

“I don’t think so,” Director Piggot replied, turning to level a glare at him.  She looked almost feral, even as her voice was controlled.  “See, I know you might try to kill me if these others weren’t around.  But the others won’t let you.  There’s Regent too: little to no compunctions, as we saw with Shadow Stalker.”

Her eye darted to Tattletale, then to Grue, and finally to me.

“Do they know the full story?” the Director asked.

“No,” Tattletale replied.  She sighed a little.

“Tell us what?” I asked.

“I’m interested, too,” Grue added.

The Director only smiled.

“Do you trust me?”  Lisa asked.

“Pretty much,” I replied.  “A little bit less right now than I did a minute ago.”

“Fair.  She’s trying to derail our interrogation.  She knows we won’t get violent with her to get the details we need, but I’ll be able to get the answers out of her with a bit of time to ask and apply my power.  Knowing this, she’s trying to fuck with us, set us against each other, and delay us.”

I nodded slowly, glancing between Tattletale and Director Piggot.

Tattletale shrugged, “If you trust me, can you agree to drop the subject?  I’ll explain before too long.”

“Knowing is half the battle,” the Director said.  “Only half.  Being aware of what I’m doing doesn’t stop me.  I’ve learned a lot since you took me hostage, and I already knew some things from research, observation, paperwork and background checks.  I have a read on your personalities and how you operate, and I know some background details.  How is your brother, Tattletale? Sarah?”

Sarah?

I glanced at Tattletale, saw a flicker of emotion cross her face before she smirked, wagged a finger at the Director and spoke with a touch too much cheer, “Low blow.”

“I’ve been looking forward to having a conversation with you for some time, playing it out in my head.  I paid out of my own pocket for information so I can beat you at your own game.  You would have done well to erase the trail leading back home, Sarah.  But then, that would have required thinking about it, maybe even going back.”

“You’re glad we took you hostage.”

Piggot smiled.  It wasn’t pretty.

“Ball’s still in our court,” Tattletale said.

“But you have a time limit.  Like I said, I expect to be home and in my bed before the night’s out.”

“You have a card up your sleeve, leverage.”

“In a way.  I’m dying.”

Our group had been walking across a street, and we all stopped to look at her.

“You need constant medical care?” Tattletale said.

“I have a setup at home.  Hemodialysis.  I hook myself up to it every night, flush my blood of excess water and pollutants over the course of eight hours while I’m sleeping.  If I don’t get the dialysis, I expect I’ll go downhill very quickly.  My body’s already in rough shape, and I’ve overworked myself these past few weeks.  I wouldn’t die that quickly, but you wouldn’t get any use out of me, either.  So we get to enjoy each other’s company for about five or six hours.  Then you decide whether you let me go home or whether you let me die.”

“And in the meantime, you intend to stall.”

“To the best of my ability,” the Director said.

“What suit did they send against Bitch?  Hellhound?”

“Did you know your parents are still looking for you?  They never stopped.”

Tattletale pursed her lips.  “A model Dragon’s used before?”

“You should have seen the looks on their faces when I told them you were alive and well,” Piggot said.  She measured the look on Tattletale’s face, smiled.  “Yes, I visited them in person.”

Tattletale’s eyes narrowed.  “I could turn the tables on you, pick you apart.”

“Please do.  Waste time.  You won’t accomplish much.  Look at me.  You know as well as I do that I wear my shame and disappointment on the outside, for the world to see.  I had the muscles of my legs torn apart years ago on the job, lost the ability to keep up exercise, coupled with hours behind a desk, hours of the dialysis and recovery from surgeries, no time to take care of myself with work.  I know I’m ugly, I know I’m fat.  There’s nothing you could say to me that I haven’t said to myself a hundred times over.”

“You sound almost proud,” Trickster said, a hint of disgust in his voice.

“I have no powers, Trickster.  I’m lowly, a mere mortal compared to you.  I admit it, I admit I’m weaker, slower, my options are pretty limited in a fight.  But I’m tenacious.  I’m shameless, if I have to be, because I refuse to lose to you.”  Her voice bordered on a growl as she uttered the word ‘refuse’.

This was the director of the PRT?  Hearing her speak, I’d almost thought she was like Coil, at first.  Cultured, proud, arrogant.  Now that she was showing her true colors, it was almost the opposite.  And strangely, it was equally problematic.

A fleck of spit flew from her lips as she continued her rant, “And I find it pretty fucking poetic that I have the upper hand because of the very things that you capes look down on us for.  I’m fat, frail, scarred, and I have old wounds that I’ll never recover from.  But because of that, because I could die in a matter of hours if you don’t let me seek treatment, you’re either going to have to compromise with your personal code or you’re going to have to let me walk away and find another way to beat Dragon.”

This isn’t working.

“Trickster, watch her,” I said.  “Sundancer, you and the medic watch Trickster and the Director.  Rest of you with me.  We’ll talk over there.”

We retreated from the woman.

Regent ran his fingers through his hair.  Tattletale had her arms folded as she leaned against a wall, staring at the ground.  She wasn’t smiling, and she wasn’t venturing to comment.

“What’re you thinking?” I asked.

“This isn’t working, obviously.”

“We could take her to her house, give her the treatment she needs,” Grue said.

“That’s what she wants.  There’s a trap there.  Either she’s got some measures in place at home, guns hidden where she can get at them or some kind of safe room, or the PRT is already there, waiting to ambush us.”

“I could control her,” Regent said.  “Send Shatterbird back, lock her up, get control.”

“Which would take time, again,” Tattletale said.  “The benefits would be negligible, and it would take longer than you think, because she’s trained in resisting mental and emotional attacks.”

“I wouldn’t have thought,” I commented.

Tattletale shook her head, “Let’s figure it’s half an hour for Shatterbird to get snug in her cage.  Two or three hours to get control of her… and for what?  They have an idea we captured her.  If they haven’t revoked her access and powers by now, they will have by the time Regent’s finished with her.  So how do we use her?”

“We’re running out of time,” Grue said.  “It’s maybe two or three in the afternoon.  That gives us maybe twenty hours to get this done by Coil’s schedule.  Brainstorm.  More ideas, come on.”

“We could abandon the job.  Say fuck you to Coil, let his grand plan fall apart,” Regent said.  “Get Bitch and leave town.”

“I don’t like that,” Grue said.  “On a lot of levels.”

“Sure, sure.  But it’s the most obvious choice.”

“Not an option as far as I’m concerned,” I replied.  “I won’t blame you guys if you want to do that, but I gotta do this, finish the job or fail trying.”

“Okay, I sort of expected you to say that.  Um, hear me out on this before jumping down my throat, but why don’t we torture her?  She’s been begging for it, practically.”

I stared at him.

“Torture doesn’t work,” Grue said.

“Without getting into too much detail, I’d say it does.  Sometimes,” Regent replied.

“Not with someone like her,” Tattletale said, sighing.  “Even if she didn’t have a background in that sort of thing, her personality… if anything I think she’d be glad we did it.  Not while we were doing it, but it’d validate her view of the world.”

“Which is?” Grue asked.

“That we’re monsters.  In her eyes, our trigger events highlight a moment at the worst point of our lives and our powers make it so we can never put that behind us.  Good guy or bad, she sees us as walking personifications of whatever issues drove us to get our powers in the first place, inflicting some shadow or abstract representation of those traumas on others with our powers.”

“How can someone educated and professional like her think that way?”  Grue asked.

“For one thing, she’s not all that wrong,” Tattletale replied, shrugging.

“Hm?”

“We are.  But even people without powers are walking issues.  That’s no big surprise.  Having powers just… makes it all more noticeable.  Piggot’s suffering from some tunnel vision, is all.  Happens with any bigot.  Anyways, my point was, if we torture her, we’re only reinforcing her worldview.  It would almost negate any psychological stress we put her under.  No, torture is out for a few reasons.”

“What if we give her treatment?”  I asked.  “Not at her house.  Off-site.”

“We’d be showing our hand, maybe cluing her in to our connection with Coil, and it would still take time we don’t have,” Grue answered.  “Nothing saying we’d get enough in the way of answers to be worth the time spent.”

“I don’t see what was wrong with my suggestion,” Imp said.

“Which was?”

Imp pulled off her boot and then peeled off a knee-high sock, wiggled her toes before jamming her bare foot back in the boot.  She stretched out the sock, “Gag the fatty.”

“I need her to answer if I’m going to get the detail we need in any reasonable length of time,” Tattletale said.

“She’s not answering anyways, right?  Get what you need from her body language.”

Tattletale frowned.  “Yeah.  You’re right.  But it’s going to take time.”

“And we’re operating in the dark until then,” Grue said.

“We did okay with the last fight,” Imp said.

“Barely,” I cut in, at the same moment Grue said, “We didn’t-“

“We walked away,” Imp clarified.

“Where are you on the other thing, what you were talking to Coil about?”  I asked Tattletale.

“Trying to get info.  It’s hard with the way communications are down.  We sent some soldiers out in trucks, each going down a different major road in the hopes of getting far enough away to get cell service.  Then they gotta get back here to bring me what they got.”

“Time’s our most valuable resource here,” Grue said.

I spoke up, “I don’t think we can afford to wait until we hear from your soldiers or the Director.”

“Heading out?”

I nodded, pointing towards the others.  We rejoined Trickster, Sundancer and Brooks.  Imp shoved her sock in the Director’s mouth and took the silk cord I offered, tying it in place.

“Careful,” I said.  “Trouble with this sort of gag is that if she pukes, she could choke on her own vomit.”

“How do you know these things?” Regent asked.

“I’ll be careful,” Tattletale assured me.

“Let’s plan, then.  Tattletale, any idea if the other suits would be active yet?  The ones we had Piggot shut down?”

“Not yet, but soon.”

“Then I’m thinking we should split up into two teams” I said.  “Strike while the other three suits are shut down and waiting for Dragon’s attention.  If we can rescue our teammates, we’ll be half-again as strong.”

“We don’t have the firepower to fight those things,” Trickster said.

“We have lots of firepower,” I replied.  “Problem is they have a lot more.  So pick your fights, strike at the right time and hit hard.  Play dirty, don’t give them a chance if you can help it.  Grue, you should go with Sundancer and Trickster, so we’ve got even numbers on both sides.”

“You sure?”

“Your power works well with Sundancer, keeps the enemy unaware until she can get that miniature sun close, and you can keep them off the machine’s radar, thermals or whatever.  Hopefully.”

“And you?”

“My bugs will give us early warning if a suit’s nearby, and they might alert me if there’s radar or anything subsonic.  If Regent and Imp come with me, we’ll have some firepower from Shatterbird.”

“Okay.”

“My team will go see if we can find Bitch, rescue her from whatever they sent after her.  You guys do what you can to rescue Ballistic, then hunker down.  If you succeed, stay put, wait for us.  If we don’t arrive before dark, assume we lost, mount a rescue.  If you aren’t there, we’ll assume the same.”

“Sounds good,” Grue said.

“Either way, we’ll figure out where we’re going from there.”

The Director raised her head, staring up at the sky.

“You have something you want to say?”  Tattletale asked.

The Director shrugged.

Tattletale removed the gag.  “What?”

“I’m looking forward to this.”

“Which part?”  Tattletale asked.  “The interrogation?  The rescue mission?”

“The fight.  Seven suits in this city right now.  The Melusine-six, Cawthorne M.K. Three, the Glaurung Zero, the Ladon-two, the Astaroth-Nidhug, the Pythios-two.  That’s six ships right there, that Dragon explained were old models.  Previous versions of her suits that were cannibalized for parts, abandoned after taking severe damage and recently repaired or simply outdated.”

“And the seventh?”

“The Azazel.  Note that there’s no version number.  It’s a fresh design, crafted to go up against the Nine and put up a serious fight.  The first truly original suit she’s made in four years, and I assure you that Dragon has advanced her skills in that timeframe.  If that isn’t enough of a pedigree, the Azazel was created by Dragon working in tandem with her new partner, a fellow tinker.”

Armsmaster.

She saw the reaction from us, smiled a little.

“Yes.  A new partner.  It was his suggestion that we park the suits here when they aren’t needed.  And even though I know he’s a new cape, nobody you’d know, certainly nobody who’d have a grudge,” she smirked a little, “I think it’s a safe bet to say he had you in mind when he was building it.”

Tattletale jammed the sock into Piggot’s mouth and turned to us.  “Which ones did you fight?”

“Foam sprayer, drone deployer, forcefield generator and a wheel-dragon with electricity and some electromagnet,” I said.

“Cawthorne, Glaurung, Ladon, Pythios, I’d guess, with only the names and what little I’ve seen of Dragon to go by.  That leaves the Astaroth-Nidhug, Melusine and the Azazel.  One went after Ballistic, another after Genesis, and a third went after Bitch.”

“Meaning that with the way we’re splitting up and taking on whatever machines attacked our missing teammates, each of our groups has a one-in-three chance of going up against this Azazel,” I concluded.

“Better cross your fingers,” Tattletale suggested.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 16 (Donation Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

February 2nd, 2001

The helicopter’s rotors stirred up billowing clouds of dust and debris as it landed.

Evan leaned forward from the chopper’s passenger seat, hitting the button for the intercom.  The interior of the helicopter buzzed with his voice, “Check!”

“Clear!”  Lady shouted.  Pyne echoed her.

“Gun up!”  He told them.  He followed his own instructions, unstrapping himself from his seat and collecting his machine gun.

Bird one landed, over,” the radio buzzed.

He pressed the button, “Squad two here.  We just touched ground, over.”

Waiting on a response from three, over.

“Give me a few minutes and I’ll be in the air with Pyne for supporting fire,” the pilot said.

Evan nodded.  “Wish us luck.”

“Luck.”

He opened the door separating the cockpit from the chopper’s midsection.  Four uniforms had been seated in the corners, and were now unbuckled and double-checking their guns and ammo, outfitting themselves with the additional gear that had been tied together and strapped down in the center of the chopper.  Tieu and Coldiron carried the grenade launchers and ammunition: grenades, flashbangs, incendiary and smoke.  Holler and Shane were the guys big enough to haul the extra guns and the packs with ammo clips and supplies.

Pyne and Lady were still kneeling behind the turrets that looked out over either side of the vehicle.  The pilot would be manning the guns for the front.  The pilot, Pyne and Lady were the only ones certified to use the containment foam, the latest addition to the arsenal of the Parahuman Response Teams.

Their entry hadn’t been quiet, and he’d expected at least one of the vehicles would see some sign of trouble quickly after they landed.  Maybe it would be the terrified populace of Ellisburg, maybe their target would show up right away.  He hadn’t quite expected this.  It was empty, a ghost town.  Rain, rain and more rain, not a light on in the small town, not a single soul to be seen.

“Here’s the lowdown,” he spoke to his squad.  Hearing his own voice was reassuring – the only other noise was the drum of rain on the roof of the helicopter and the sound of ammunition clips snapping into place. “We have him pegged as a high level Changer.  Who can tell me the standard protocol for dealing with a Changer classification?”

“Formation is top priority, trust nothing and nobody, passwords, hit hard and obliterate,” Holler said, his voice characteristically quiet.

“And for a Changer that’s off the charts?”  Evan asked.

There was a pause as his squad tried to recall if this had come up in training.

“Formation is number one priority, trust nothing and nobody, passwords, hit hard, obliterate… and pray?” Lady asked.

The others all chuckled, some more nervously than others.

“Lady’s not wrong,” he admitted, “We’ve been able to piece together who he is.  We got security camera footage from the early stages of the incident, just last week, and we found his face.  One of the top geeks from the Protectorate then found other cases of his face around the city and found a name.  Jamie Rinke.”

His briefing was interrupted as the pilot buzzed them over the intercom, “Chopper three just landed, cap.  You’re clear to move out.

“Can we get a picture of the guy?”  Tieu asked.

“No point.  After his first appearance, he started changing his costume for each job, as well as adjusting his body size, body shape and apparent powers.”

“His powers change?”

The captain nodded.  “Off the charts, I told you.  We’ve got him down as a tentative changer-seven, trump-four.  The geek was able to dig up some background.  Thanks to his accounting info, credit card statements, phone bills and emails, we know he worked as a banker, made more money than any two of us sorry losers put together.  But he was a loner, no family, no friends, never went out unless it was for the Christmas party at work, and he tended to leave early.”

“So what happened?”

“Got downsized.  Stayed at home for something like three weeks, then the bills started rolling in and he realized he wouldn’t be able to pay them all.  He sent out job applications, dozens by email, but he didn’t have the references.  Faced homelessness, a disruption of his boring, lonely life.  We think that was his point-zero.”

“His trigger event,” Lady answered.

He nodded confirmation.  “Followed by a crime spree.  Span of a few days, quaint little Ellisburg disappears from the grid, communications and power cut, no cars or people getting out.  Guys upstairs sent some heroes in, we got a brief report before they defaulted to radio silence.  Report doesn’t tell us anything except they think the whole crime spree was all the one guy.”

“And we don’t know how he operates?” Tieu asked.

The captain shook his head.  “They sent in cameras, cameras got taken out before they got an image.  So they’re doing the sensible thing.  They’re sending us.”

“Great,” Coldiron said, his voice thick with sarcasm.

“We’re not alone out there, so be careful about where you’re shooting.  This place’s got a population of about five thousand.  Sort of town that has only the one movie theater.  But whatever this bastard Rinke is doing, we think he’s operating from somewhere near the middle of the area.  Three helicopters in the air, three squads of six, and a team from Toronto’s Protectorate division backing us up.  We move in a spiral pattern to close in on the center of this podunk town, see if we can’t squeeze him out of hiding, and we maintain radio contact with the other squads at all times so everyone knows what’s going on.”

Lady had started pulling on her pack, with others watching out the tinted window around the turret.  She buckled it on and then gripped the hose-sprayer.  The display on the nozzle would be showing her the amount of foam remaining, as well as the settings for spray volume and distribution.  She gave him a thumbs-up.

He gave her the smallest of nods.  “Let’s move out.”  He raised his radio to his mouth, “Squad two moving out.  Where’s our capes?  Over.”

Capes are with squad three, over.”

“Pass on word if they break rank.  I really don’t want to shoot a friendly, over.”

Will do, over.

He hit the button, and the side of the helicopter folded up.  Moisture from the rain dotted the flat expanse of his helmet.

He was point, Holler and Tieu covered the right and left flanks, Shane and Coldiron covering their rear.  Lady stood in the middle of the group, ready to lay supporting fire where it was needed.  Their gun-mounted flashlights were the only light outside of the scant amount that filtered through the clouds.

The streets were empty.  Cars had been abandoned where they were, doors left open, windows broken.  There was no blood, no bodies, no clothing strewn about.  Here and there, things had been knocked over, but that was all.

Nobody evacuated?” Tieu asked.

“No,” the captain replied.  He wiped the water from his helmet with the crook of his elbow.

“Then where’d they all go?”

“I suspect we’ll find out.”

They passed a store with a grinning deer on the logo: a ‘Mister Buck’ store.  Signs proudly proclaimed that everything inside was a dollar.  It was the kind of cheap carry-everything store that appealed to the lowest common denominator, but in a town this small it was the centerpiece of the ‘downtown’ area.  The front window had been shattered, and various gardening implements were scattered around the interior, out of place; hoes, shovels, pitchforks.  Improvised weapons?

“Holler, anything thermal?”

“It’s cold.  Rain isn’t helping, but I’m not seeing anything except you guys.  Not even a smudge in the darkness”

They moved on, guns trained in every direction, eyes scanning the area for their target.  They passed a clothing store, where the window had been broken, the contents of one rack strewn out in the street, plastered to the road with the rain.

Evan picked up the radio, “Squad two here.  Anything out there, boys?  Anything at all? Over.”

“Nothing at one, over.”

“Ditto from three, one of my squad just said they’re not seeing any critters.  No birds, rodents or strays.  Over.”

No animals, no people.

“We’re taking a short detour,” Evan informed his squad.  He pointed with his gun, “This way.”

His squad took cover beneath a bus shelter that was attached to a nearby storefront.  The panes of plexiglass had been broken, but the overhang offered respite from the rain.  He adjusted his flashlight to increase the light output and pointed it straight down at the ground.

“Sir?”

“One minute.  Keep your eyes peeled.”

Long seconds passed.  He changed the settings on his flashlight back to normal.

“What was that about?”

“No bugs.  Dark night like this, you’d think there’d be a moth or some mosquitoes gathering around the light.”

“Captain,” Holler spoke up.  “Something on the thermals.  Dim.”

They turned to face the same direction as Holler.

“Coming around the corner,” Holler spoke.

“Lights off,” Evan hissed the order, clicking off his flashlight.

In a second, the gun-mounted flashlights of his squad members flicked off.  The shape that moved down the street was reduced to a dark blur, a shifting bulk of gray-black against a background of pitch black.

Rinke?  As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could make out a figure dressed in a jester’s motley, two contrasting colors predominating, blue-orange or purple-yellow.  The mask a patchwork cloth that covered his face, with only two dark holes for his eyes.  But most daunting of all was the man’s size.  He was obese, bloated, ten feet tall and nearly as wide, advancing at a glacial pace as he lurched down the middle of the street.  His arms were drawn behind his back by the weight of the sack and the cloth he carried.

He raised his radio, clicked it on.  In a low voice, he spoke, “Got eyes on Rinke.  He doesn’t see us.  Move in to our location to support and keep the radio quiet.  Over.”

There was a confirming buzz as the man on the other end turned the radio on but didn’t speak.  That would be squad one.  Three buzzes marked squad three’s response.

“Strategy?”  Tieu whispered the question.

“Wait for the other squads.  Foam him, burn him to ash with an incendiary.”

“We’re not going to interrogate him?  Find out what happened to the people here?”  Tieu asked.

“No,” Holler was barely audible.  “He’s got no heat.  The reading came from the bag.  Not warm enough to be alive, but whatever’s in there’s just warm that it was probably living up until a few minutes ago.”

Every eye in the squad turned to the large patchwork sack that the bloated thing hauled behind it.

“Not worth the risk to interrogate,” Evan murmured to his squad.  “We foam him, which shouldn’t be hard with how slow he’s moving, then we burn him because that’s protocol for dealing with Changers.  We’ll do it quickly and without hesitation because he’s got a Trump rating as well.  Don’t know what cards he has up his sleeves.  Might want to disappear us like he did with the rest of the locals.”

“And the wildlife.”

“And the local wildlife, yeah.  Safeties off.”

Rinke slowly turned to face them.  The second the dark holes of the mask centered on them, they opened fire.

Evan’s entire body shook with the recoil of his assault rifle.  The brute didn’t seem to mind as his blood and flesh sprayed from the holes the bullets opened up, advancing steadily.

Tieu and Coldiron fired the incendiary grenades.  The shells exploded on impact with Rinke and the ground, lighting him up.  He continued to waddle towards them, slower than they were able to walk backwards.

Rinke dropped the sack, gripped the sheet with both hands and hurled it towards them.  It spread out, scant amounts of light filtering through the holes in the weave.

A net.

Lady shot the net out of the air with a blast of foam, causing it to land at the halfway point between them and the brute.  She sprayed his feet, locking him down to the ground.

Rinke thrashed as the flames spread.  The cloth burned away to show pallid, gnarled flesh, a face without ears, nose or brow – only recessed, piglike eyes and a mouth that was little more than a ragged gash across the lower half of his face.

“Another incendiary, everyone else hold fire!”

One more incendiary shell struck home, ensuring the monster was covered in flame from head to toe.  The smell of burned meat and sulphur filled the air.

“Hold position!  Wait for the fire to do its work!”  He raised his radio.  “We engaged and foamed the bastard.  He’s lit up.  Over.”

Squad one hears you, over.

Squad three here.  Good work, over.

The bloated stomach split with the weight of the upper body, tearing across one of the recesses of a roll of fat.  A slurry of half-dissolved bodies spilled out around him.

“Tieu!  One more!”  Evan called out.

Tieu fired an incendiary round into the opening, lighting the brute up from within.

It took several minutes for the entire thing to burn.  They didn’t relax a second.  It was the number one lesson drilled into them in training: as regular humans, it was a given that they were the underdogs.  That meant that no matter how well equipped they might be, no matter how weak the enemy, they were not allowed under any circumstances to give the enemy an advantage by underestimating them.

“Hold position,” he warned.  They’d wait until the others arrived.  Rain pattered on the roof of the shelter, and fire crackled and hissed as it turned the mass of flesh into crumpled black tissue.

The sound of distant gunfire cut through the quiet.

“What?” Holler asked.

Evan spoke into the radio, “Hear gunfire.  Report, over.”

The response came back, “Hostiles!

There was no ‘over’ to mark the end of the transmission, only more gunfire.

“Move out!”  Evan ordered his squad.  Into the radio, he shouted, “Squad two coming in to reinforce!  Over!”

Squad one had surrounded themselves with a ring of containment foam, and were alternately scanning the surroundings with their flashlights and firing bursts into the shadows.

Two members of squad one dropped as spears of bone sank into the armor at their chest and neck.  Evan caught a glimpse of the attackers, waist-high figures with oversized heads.  Two had mouths like the bloated thing had, with the narrow teeth of a fish, while a third had a beak.

That wasn’t Rinke we shot.  There’s others.

The other realization hit him just as hard.

“He’s not a Changer!”  Evan bellowed, clicking the button of his radio to inform the capes and squad three.  “Master-class cape!”

“Sir!”  Shane shouted.

Evan turned.  There were more crawling out of the windows and storefronts behind them.  They ranged across the spectrum of body sizes and shapes, from small men little more than knee-high to figures not unlike the bloated thing they’d attacked earlier.  Males and females, fat, thin and muscular, tall and short, nearly human and almost alien.  Two or three dozen of the assorted creatures.

No.  He caught sight of light reflecting from watching eyes in the shadows, eyes that reflected light like a dog or a cat, in the darkness of building interiors and the shadows of alleyways.  There were quite a few more than two or three dozen.

“Fighting retreat!  Fire at will!”

They backed towards the other squad.  Their gunfire mowed through the enemy, the grenades killing ten or more in a single detonation, but the enemy ranks were seemingly endless, the targets too unpredictable. Some were slow, others fast.  Some made large targets, absorbing gunfire meant for their fellows even as they died, while others were damnably small.  The mass of them made noise, too, squealing, gibbering, giggling and grunting.

How did he do this?

Squad one had no doubt laid down the containment foam to stop the ones that were small and quick enough to avoid most gunfire, but they’d trapped themselves in the area, and were now falling prey to the hail of spines.

Coldiron took one spine to the face.  He dropped like a puppet who’d had its strings cut.

The standard PRT-issue suits are supposed to sustain gunfire.  Those spines are hitting harder than bullets.

Rinke was a master who can make these things: real living creatures.

He cast a glance at squad one, down to one member, kneeling with one arm around a teammate he was using as a body shield and the other hand firing his rifle one-handed.

“Retreat!  Through the store!”

His team ducked back into a storefront through the shattered display window.  Bursts of fire took down the creatures that had been hidden within, a skinny faceless woman with blades for fingertips, a trio of what looked like babies with spider legs, a half-dozen waist-high people with deformed features and mismatched clothing that they’d clearly scavenged from nearby.

While Shane and Tieu reloaded, he offered supporting fire.  He gunned down one of the smaller creatures, caught a glimpse of one of the other thing’s expression.  It was female, small, and its face twisted further in rage than it had already been.

They feel.  They have feelings?

The horrible thought that they might be people crossed his mind.  The notion that this was a psychological trick, that he was under the influence of a power, gunning down civilians…

No.  He’d been trained to deal with mental and emotional attacks.  They all had.  Had to think abstractly, consider the edges of the problem.  Even if their perceptions were under attack, there were always hints, always clues.  Things matched too neatly.

If this was a trick, it was complete and effective enough that they were already doomed, no matter what they did.

His squad headed out the back door of the store, gunned down a tall creature in the alley as they made their way to the next street.  Their gunfire brought more of the things crawling from the woodwork, throwing themselves down from windows and crawling out of the spaces in dumpsters and beneath cars.

“Flare!”  He shouted.

There was a brief whistle as the flare speared up towards the sky.  As if in response, one of the beasts perched in a windowframe spat a glob of caustic goo at them.

Shane went down screaming, smoke pouring off him as his suit was consumed and the acid reached his flesh.

They couldn’t afford to stop.  Evan fired a single bullet through Shane’s skull without slowing his run.  Holler got the thing in the window.  It exploded violently, globs of acid spraying through the area to steadily eat away at the surrounding architecture.

Evan reloaded, all too aware of how quickly he was going through clips.  Lady was covering their retreat with foam, but the foam would run out.

One of the helicopters had approached, laying down additional foam to help.  There were no safe places here, no places to find cover.  The best they could hope for was to get to a spot they could evacuate from.  There wasn’t a living soul left in the city, nobody to save.

The sound of the explosions had drawn the attention of others.  They were pouring from nearby buildings.  Concentrated rifle fire tore through their ranks, but did little to stem the overall tide.

“Captain!”  Lady shouted.

He turned to see that she was all right, then saw what she was pointing at.  One of the things, a pear-shaped woman with thick legs and no arms, was standing with her legs shaking from strain as she virtually spewed a mess of creatures out onto the ground.  They clawed and bit their way free of the sacs that held them and wasted no time in starting to crawl, lurch and run towards his squad.

Holler gunned the mother-thing down before she could finish or spew more abominations from between her loins.

Things were clicking into place.  It made sense, now, how the situation had gotten out of control so quickly.  How Rinke had seized the city so totally and absolutely.  It wasn’t just that he was a master-class cape who could make monsters with abilities of their own.  He could make monsters that bred, monsters that gave birth to more monsters.

“Flare!”

Holler fired another flare into the sky.

Evan reached for his radio, shouting at the top of his lungs to be heard over the gunfire, even his own gunfire.  “Squad two needs an evac, stat!  We just sent a flare up!  Where are those capes!?”

Choppers one and two down, squad two.  Your capes vacated the scene.

“Damn them!”  He pointed his gun to the sky to gun down an emaciated winged beast that was trying to swoop down on them from overhead.  “Get us chopper three, then!”

Chopper three is giving squad three supporting fire while they all retreat to a viable landing point.  You’ll have to get to them.  They’re north of your position.

“You heard the man.  Move!”

They didn’t get two paces before the ground rumbled.  A clawed hand speared up through the pavement to catch Tieu by the leg, crushing it as though it was paper.  The pavement strained and cracked as whatever was beneath tried to break the surface.

Tieu looked up at his team, his expression hidden by the pane of his helmet, then stuck the end of his grenade launcher into a crack in the concrete.

They were already running, their backs to him, when the explosion marked the loss of another member of their team.

A grenade round cleared away one more crowd, and they hurried through the gap.

Three of us left.

Without Tieu or Coldiron, they didn’t have a grenade launcher, no way to deal with the massed crowds.

“Holler, need ammo!”

Lady directed a stream at the nearest crowd, aiming the spray at their heads, so any spray that missed would catch the ones who stood behind them.  When one tipped forward, the expanding foam served to create a barrier that caught others.

Holler pulled off his bag, handing out clips.  Evan tucked away the ammunition as fast as it entered his hand, pausing only to reload and shoot down the creatures closest to them.

He turned his head as he heard a voice.

“-Eat!  Eat!”

“Go!”

They’d defaulted to a three-man squad, Lady covering the left and some of the rear, Holler watching the right and the rest of the rear, with Evan leading the way.  The voice…

A laugh.  Not the gibbering noise of the creatures, but all too human.

He spotted the culprit.  A man, potbellied and hunchbacked.  The style of dress was similar to the patchwork brute they’d fought first, with bright, contrasting colors that he couldn’t quite make out in the gloom.  There were jarring patterns with stripes here and checkers there.  He wore a cloth crown, and his cloth mask featured beads for eyes and a perpetual leer of a smile.

Rinke.

“Rinke!” he screamed the word.  He took aim and fired.

He hit his mark.  The man went down, and the creatures wheeled on him, screaming, squealing.  If he’d had any doubt about his target, the reaction dispelled it.

Then he saw Rinke stand.

“You would shoot me!?”  Rinke roared.  If anything, his voice was all the more terrifying because it sounded so small, so human.  “I create life!  I am a god, and this is my garden!”

Evan could see flesh billow into existence in the man’s hands, embryonic sacs with the shadows of something forming within them.  They burst, and two struggling, childlike figures dropped to the ground to disappear in the midst of the stirring crowd.

Lady did what she could to suppress the enemy’s approach, laying down the foam, but there were too many, and their irregular sizes and shapes made it impossible to cover all of them with the foam.  If she aimed high, she missed the little ones.  If she aimed low the bigger ones leaped over and others walked on top of the ones who’d become stuck.

A spine caught him in the midsection.  Before he could react, another struck home.  They penetrated his armor to stab into his stomach like hot knives.  He caught a glimpse at one of the bastards that was spitting the things at him, gunned it down before it could shoot again.

He could hear the helicopter’s approach, knew it was too late.

“Ring!” he gasped out the word.  He could barely breathe, felt like a weight was sitting on his chest, every word he uttered came out thinner than the last.  “Circle us, make high.”

Lady did, laying down foam in a circle around the remnants of his squad.  He couldn’t breathe at all, now.  Had one of the spines caught him in the diaphragm?

He was blacking out, faster than he’d expected, saw the bastards making their way over the top of the wall of foam, getting stuck, others using their bodies as handholds to crawl forward, reaching, drooling, screaming, squealing.

Didn’t matter.  He was dead anyways, knew it beyond a doubt.

One of his squad members collapsed on top of him, blood spraying out onto the front of his helmet.

The darkness took him.

‘Lady’ stirred, felt the weight of machinery and tubing that kept her from moving.

“You’re awake,” an unfamiliar voice called out.

She tried to speak, couldn’t.  Her throat was raw, her tongue leaden.

“I don’t want to offend you, but I’m frankly surprised you made it,” the man spoke.  She turned her head to one side to see a bed in the other corner of the room.  A tall man lay there, hooked up only to a saline drip.

“I’m Thomas Calvert,” he introduced himself.  “Squad three.  We’re the only ground forces that got out alive.”

The only ones…  She shut her eyes.

“Your sister was here.  She was talking to the doctor about your prognosis.”

“Pro-” she started, wincing at the pain speaking caused her, “Prognosis?”

“You might not want me to tell you.  The doctors will be gentler than I will.”

“Tell me.”

“Deep tissue damage.  Your kidneys are gone, which means you may be on dialysis for the rest of your life.  You suffered some muscle damage when they gnawed on your legs.  There’s no future for you on the PRT teams.”

She shut her eyes.  She’d lost her squad, her career, her health, all in a matter of an hour, if that.  Half an hour?  How long had the mission taken?  Twenty minutes?

“You’re not alone.  I won’t be joining any future missions either,” Thomas remarked.

“Rinke?”

“You mean Nilbog.”

“Huh?”

“That’s what he called himself.  He’s alive and presumably well.  I saw out the window as the chopper pulled us out, Nilbog retreating to hide in some building, his creatures were returning to their hiding places.  I expect the man will be alive for some time.”

“Why?” She wheezed the question.

“Far as I could tell, he’s wearing one of his creations.  Made him bulletproof, maybe fireproof.  We won’t be able to bomb the area.  He’s created beasts that multiply if you set them on fire.  Did you see those?”

She shook her head.

“He may have other countermeasures for other courses of action.  You’ll get your chance to talk to the Chief Director, but last I heard, they’re planning to wall the city off.  They’ll let the motherfucker be the god of his own little town, so long as he doesn’t try to expand any further, which they’re saying he won’t.  I almost envy him.”

“He… gets to live?”

“Yeah,” Thomas spoke, letting his head rest on the pillow.  “It is a perk of having power, that you get to decide which rules apply to you.”

She shook her head.

He sighed.  “I thought I might trigger, perhaps.  Hoped.  I suppose I don’t have the potential.”

She glanced at him in surprise.

“What?”

“I… I’m glad I don’t have powers.  That I can’t have powers.”

Why?”

“They’re monsters.  Freaks.  Lunatics.  They fight only because they have the impression that they’re stronger than their opponents, and when they aren’t they run.”  She thought of the squad of capes that had accompanied them. “They abandon the rest of us.”

Thomas chuckled, and it sounded mean.  Mocking.

“What?”

“I suggest you change your attitude,” he said.

“Why?”

“It’s ironic.  When the doctor and the Chief Director were talking to your sister, the Chief Director assured her that you still had a position in the PRT.  Some of it is probably to keep you quiet, a cushy desk job and fat paycheck to make up for the fact that they sent you into a deathtrap and killed your teammates.”

“A desk job?”

“Director.  You’ll manage the local teams, handle the PR, convince everyone else that they aren’t freaks, monsters, lunatics and bullies.  I suggest you fake it, pretend you really do believe it.  You might start to believe your lies.”

“And you?”

“Oh, I did mention I wouldn’t be on the team in the future.  Not because of any injuries, mind you.  I’m facing a stay in prison.  My captain and I were the only ones left,” Thomas knit his fingers together and rested them on his stomach, looking very calm.  “He grabbed the rope ladder first, but he didn’t climb fast enough.  I shot him.”

Her face twisted in disgust.

“You would have done the same in my shoes.”

“Never.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter.  A few years of my life.  I don’t expect I’ll be there for too long.  There were extenuating circumstances, and the PRT doesn’t want me talking to anyone about what happened.”

She shut her eyes, tried to shut her ears to his smooth voice prattling on with things she didn’t want to hear.

Monsters, freaks, lunatics and bullies… the labels didn’t belong to just the capes.

It’s like the world’s gone mad, and I’m the only sane person left.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Sentinel 9.1

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

It was seven-thirty in the evening in a medium sized airport.  Weren’t there supposed to be people?

There had been staff, for sure.  The odd staff member to greet him as he got off the plane, another to see him past the gates.  Still, the terminals were empty, there were no crowds, the shops and restaurants were all closed.  Only half the lights were on.  For the first time, he was wondering if he was getting in over his head.

At least there were no people making the same old jokes about the metal detectors.

Baggage claim had three carousels, which should have been in operation, delivering a regular supply of people’s luggage onto the conveyor belts, crowds gathered around them in anticipation.  Instead, there was a single man in uniform with three large bags already piled onto a cart.

“I can take my bags, I’m stronger than I look.”

“It’s alright, son,” the man replied, “It’s good to have something to do that isn’t cleaning up.”

Son.  That bothered him more than he cared to admit.  Not that he had any ideas about his own ethnicity, but it was vaguely condescending.  A reminder that people didn’t know how to act around him.

“Alright,” he conceded, “Where are we headed?”

The man gestured toward a set of double doors, then gripped the handle of the cart to push it in that same direction.

Stainless steel handles on the doors.  He put his hands on the painted surface instead, pushed them open, and then held one of the doors open for the cart.  He was distracted enough that he almost didn’t notice the group waiting for him.

The group consisted of a squad of PRT officers with their regular assortment of nonlethal weaponry and a large woman with a bleached blonde bob.

“Weld, I’m glad you made it,” she managed to say the words without a trace of humor or smile on her face.  She extended a hand.

He glanced quickly at her hand, checking there were no rings, then shook it.  “Thank you, ma’am.  Director Piggot, I’m assuming?”

“You assume correctly.  Shall we?”

He nodded.

As they fell into step, he asked, “Where is everyone?”

“This airport was attacked by one of the local villain groups just three days ago.  The front lobby and ticket claim were ransacked, and the airport has shut down for the time being, with only special cases such as yourself coming or going.”

“I take it things are bad?”

“Yes.  We have seen this type of situation before, if not to this extreme.  Too many citizens here had been living paycheck to paycheck or were unemployed.  There was a great deal of latent frustration and unhappiness with the status quo.  A powder keg needing only a spark to set it off.”

Weld nodded, “And the arrival of an Endbringer is a bit more than a spark.  I see.  I know the Endbringers tend to target areas where they know they can do the most damage.  You think Leviathan did it on purpose?  Attacked this city because he knew this would happen?”

“If someone raised the idea, I wouldn’t dismiss it.  But our focus should be on what we do in the here and now.  Are you ready to take command of the local Wards?”

“I’m ready to try.”

“Good.  The team here is smaller than your old team in Boston.  It currently consists of Clockblocker, Vista, Kid Win and Shadow Stalker.  We had three members die in the attack.”

PRT uniforms opened the doors, and he followed the Director onto a helipad, followed shortly after by the other PRT uniforms and man with his luggage.  A black helicopter with the PRT logo on the sides sat there, propeller already whirring in preparation for takeoff.

The Director took the hand of a uniform inside the helicopter, stepping inside, and Weld followed her up, refusing a helping hand.  The helicopter shifted slightly with the addition of his six hundred pounds of weight.

When the door shut, cutting off the worst of the noise, he took the offered headphones and put them on.  When he spoke, his voice came through the headphones crystal clear, without a trace of the ambient noise of the helicopter, “So there’s only five of us?”

“There will be more.  We’ve got a lead on a young man who could be joining as a new member, assuming we can get close enough to him to make the offer.  I trust you know your classifications?”

“I do,” Weld nodded.  He’d memorized it as a rhyme, as suggested by his old boss.  Maybe that had been the intention from the start:

Mover, Shaker,
Brute and Breaker.

Master, Tinker,
Blaster and Thinker,

Striker, Changer,
Trump and Stranger.

He was classified as a brute and changer, classifications meant for the unnaturally tough and strong and for those who could change their shape to some extent, respectively.  He never liked the word brute being applied to him, even though he was aware that the labels had originally been intended for the PRT teams to identify and label villains, specifically.  It was only later that they had been extended to identifying the heroes as well.

“Right.  This potential recruit is tentatively marked down as a Tinker/Mover.  It isn’t unusual for powers to emerge in the wake of an event as serious as this.  For this reason, we keep careful track of things to see if we cannot detect any new parahumans.  This young man has been observed in the south end, moving at over a hundred miles an hour with the assistance of a mechanical suit.  His inclusion on a local team would help fill gaps left by the death of Velocity, a local Protectorate member, and Armsmaster’s retirement.”

Weld nodded.

“Others may make themselves known, and we will approach each of them in turn.  To help fill the gap in the meantime, Flechette is arriving from New York.”

Weld chuckled, just under his breath.

“Something amusing?”

He was surprised that she had heard or noticed the laugh.  “No, it’s just that we know each other.  Our teams are -were- friendly rivals, kind of.  We’d meet two or three times a year and compete, just to spar and practice our skills against less familiar opponents.  We’d joke around about which team was better, give each other a hard time.”

“I certainly hope this ‘rivalry’ isn’t going to hamper your ability to lead this team and work with her.”  There was no humor in her tone.  Just the opposite.

“Um, no, ma’am,” he replied, chastened.  The helicopter lifted into the air.  A glance out the window showed the sprawl of the city.  It was dark out, but much of the city was unlit, nothing shining through the windows, no street lights illuminating the roads, nor the headlights and taillights of traffic.

Noting where he was looking, Director Piggot spoke, “Because the current situation is serious, and it isn’t improving as fast as we’d like.  You’re going to have to be on the top of your game.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Clockblocker and Vista are your best assets.  Clockblocker is a Striker 7 with touch-based time-stopping.  Vista is a Shaker 9.  Large scale spatial distortion.”

“Geez louise.  The others?”

“Kid Win is a Tinker 4.  Guns and antigravity devices, primarily.  Shadow Stalker is more ambiguous.  Breaker 3, sublabels are Stranger 2, Mover 1.  Her particular nature as a ‘breaker’ makes her superlight, semi-gaseous, transparent and capable of passing through solid surfaces.”

“Okay.  The team sounds well rounded, I can work with that.”

She handed him a stack of files, “Here’s the files on local factions, including your new team, and a file on the solo heroes and villains.  You’ll have limited access to the databases as well, which you should be familiar with, but this should get you the essential details to get underway.  I’ve ordered those files loosely by priority, so you’ll find the most need-to-know information at the top of the pile.”

Weld took the folders and opened the one for the Wards, glanced through it to memorize the faces of his new team.  Then he went to the next file, “Then the top priority as far as opposition goes is… the Archer’s Bridge Merchants?  Superpowered drug dealers.  A Shaker 2, Tinker 2/Mover 3 and a Shifter 4.  These aren’t big numbers.  Am I missing something?”

“Context.  They’ve become a rallying point, representatives and leaders for those on the lowest rungs of society.  Too many civilians who were the have-nots think allying with the Merchants is a way to become the haves.  People that were angry, disenfranchised or both have gravitated towards the group, are seeking to overturn the social order.”

“So they’ve got, what, a following of homeless?”

“Brockton Bay doesn’t, or didn’t,  have many that you could strictly call homeless, as there were so many abandoned buildings to squat in.  When the Endbringer attacked, he chose the area with many of these buildings.”

“I think I remember, yeah.  The area where the fight started didn’t exactly look upscale.”

“The sad irony of this is that the defending parahumans protected that area, while other locations were leveled by the tidal waves.  That area, known to locals as the Docks, was not under the control of any organized crime or villain organization even before the attack.  After the battle’s conclusion, it was swiftly occupied by the Merchants and growing numbers of their followers, and is now one of the areas with reliable shelter.  Not entirely, but more than many.  By the time our local heroes were finished with search, rescue and minimizing damage, their number of followers had reached a critical mass.  In the past several days, they’ve begun attacking the city infrastructure, the airport, grocery stores, malls and they’ve repeatedly seized medical supplies and food as they come in.”

“So a big priority will be safeguarding incoming supplies from relief efforts, protecting key areas of the city so it can recuperate from the disaster.”

“Yes, for the time being.”

“Let’s see, the next group is… Fenrir’s Chosen?”

“One of two major offshoots of the Aryan villain group, Empire Eighty-Eight, which fell apart after the death of their leader, Kaiser.  Fenrir’s Chosen are led by Hookwolf.  Violent, utterly merciless, and reveling in the current chaos.”

“And it looks like he’s a Shaper 4, Brute 7, with the longest list of homicides or suspected homicides I’ve seen on someone who wasn’t already in prison.  Thick file, I take it he has lots of followers?”

“The largest group in terms of parahuman numbers, at present.”

“And this second group, The Pure, is the second offshoot of that Aryan group, I take it?”

“Small but powerful.  Their leader, Purity, is a Blaster 8 and Mover 4.”

“Yeah, there’s a Breaker 9, a Shifter 8 with Stranger 3 and a Master 6 in that group?  I buy that they’re powerful.”

“Their leader has made overtures to us, offering cooperation in helping us regain control of the city.  We have refused her for the time being.  If she approaches you, you are in no way, shape or form permitted to agree to any deals.”

“Noted.  Let’s see…  Coil, powers unknown.  The Travelers have high ratings on their powers, but their crimes are low end, pretty much.  There’s the Undersiders… three Master classifications in one team.”

“Only one of whom is of any particular concern.  Investigations into two members have suggested sociopathic tendencies, and if they’re channeling their efforts into low threat activities such as robberies, we can afford to ignore them for the time being.”

“Faultline’s Crew.  Mercenaries, low rating, mediocre rating, low rating…  A Shaker 12?  Seriously?”

“The girl has cognitive deficiencies that reduce the effective threat she poses, but yes.  Again, that group is not an imminent threat.  In the current situation, I might suggest you leave them be if you cross paths, conserve your group’s strength for the priority opponents.  The Merchants and Hookwolf’s group.”

“Okay.  I’ll have this memorized by the end of the week.”

“I expect you will.  That brings us to more mundane matters.  You’ll be enrolled full-time at Arcadia High School.  It’s close to the Wards headquarters, and your teachers have been informed about your special nature.  I’m afraid there’s no easy answers as far as your appearance and how the rest of the student body will react to you.”

Weld looked down at his hands.  His body, from skin to hair to bone, was all metal and alloys of varying types.  “I’ve dealt with it before, I’ll manage.”

“We can’t enroll you in the co-op program, as your absence would be noted, and would draw attention to others who are using the co-op program to mask their attendance in the Wards.  It won’t be easy, attending high school full-time, keeping up with your coursework and leading the team in your off hours.”

“It’s fine.  I don’t have to sleep much, anyways, so it’s good to keep busy.”

“Good to hear that.  All that said, I have asked your teachers to make special arrangements, reducing expectations toward your homework, provided you are not struggling in any subjects.  The Wards program will also provide tutors should you need them.”

“Okay, cool.”

“You’ll have time to get into the swing of things without worrying about school, as the high schools are all currently shut down for repairs and to allow time for thorough investigation of the premises.  When the schools are open, we’ll have you take three courses and attend first year classes on parahumans at the University, if that suits you?”

“Perfect.”

“You’ll be living in a private room in the Wards headquarters, and you’ll have a monthly allowance of four hundred dollars in addition to the money put into your trust account by the program.  We expect you’ll spend this allowance on necessities, such as food and clothing.  You do still eat, yes?”

“Yes,” he answered her, bending the truth.  While he did eat, it was a negligible amount.  As he saw it, there was no real harm done if he pocketed some of that extra money and said he spent it on food.  Given that his tongue was made of an alloy and the pleasures of food were a shadow of what they should be, it was only fair that he enjoy himself in some other way.  He knew that some staff back in Boston had caught on, but they hadn’t said anything.  Director Piggot here gave him the vibe that maybe she wouldn’t be so cool with it.  He’d be more careful until he knew for sure.

“Your quarters have been checked and double checked, so there is no exposed metal, no screws, nails, frames or pegs.”

“I appreciate the thought,” he told her.  His physiology had the unfortunate drawback that he couldn’t help but attach to and absorb metal he touched.  While it had been crippling when he’d first been found, dumped in a junkyard, he had learned ways around it.  He could rearrange the metals that formed his body, separate them into their composite elements, and he extended this particular trick to push all the impurities in the metals out to his ‘skin’.  The impurities, unlike the metal that composed the rest of him, didn’t bond, giving him the ability to handle things with his hands and teeth if he needed to.  It didn’t always work – at least once a week there was one embarrassing moments where he bonded with someone’s wedding ring during a handshake or bumped into a shelf display – but it helped.  Clothes helped as well.

In a more serious situation, such as when he was out on patrol, he could force parts of himself to melt and drop off, leaving a piece of himself behind, but it made him distinctly uncomfortable – pain wasn’t the right word – until he replaced the tissue he’d lost.  More often, he preferred to just tear the offending piece of metal from whatever surface it rested on, whether it was a segment of chain link fence or a hubcap.  Whenever he did it, he’d have to spend as much as an hour dissolving the metal and absorbing it into his body.  Either way, they were only emergency measures.

Which wasn’t to say he was weak.  Being made of materials and alloys as strong or stronger than steel from head to toe made him practically untouchable in a fight.  In addition, his biology fell into some optimal middle ground between organic and inorganic.  For those whose powers affected only living things, he counted as inorganic.  The opposite was also true.

“Do you understand why we have gone to this trouble for your sake, Weld?  Why we are testing your ability as a team leader in a crisis such as this?”

“You’re grooming me,” he replied.

“Yes, but do you understand what we’re grooming you for?” she pressed.

He knew, but he assumed she would prefer to explain.  Besides, how she explained would inform him a great deal about his new boss’s personality.  “Not really.”

“You likely know Director Armstrong in Boston, how he tends to prioritize research and understanding parahumans.  I concern myself with more concrete affairs.  Public relations, parahumans as a part of America.”

Weld nodded.

“What Armstrong continually fails to grasp is that if we do not integrate parahumans into society, help society bend to accommodate your kind, there is no point in lab experiments or classifications.  As bad as things might be with the periodic arrival of Endbringers and parahuman criminals, matters could be ten times worse if panic or prejudice takes hold from the public.  You understand?”

“One thing, ma’am,” Weld spoke.

“Yes?”

He took a deep breath.  Not that he really needed it, but he did anyways.  “Forgive me for saying so, but I get the impression you don’t like or respect Director Armstrong?”

“Your point?”

“I just thought you should know he’s something like a father figure to me.  He’s the one who recruited me to the Wards, got me up to speed.  I’ve already made plans to go to his house for a bit this summer.  Maybe I’m putting myself on your sh… in your bad books by saying so, but I just thought I should let you know I’ll step up to defend him if you start putting him down.”

“I see,” tiny frown lines appeared between her eyebrows.

“Sorry.”

A fire on a street below caught his attention.  A car had been set on fire, and people were crowding around it.

Not noticing, Piggot pursed her lips, “Fine.  My apologies for putting you in that situation.  I won’t say anything further about Director Armstrong for the time being.  I was speaking of the need for public relations?”

“Yes ma’am,” he spoke, feeling somewhat relieved at her composure.  He wouldn’t feel a hundred percent okay about it until he verified her as someone who wouldn’t find some other way to get back at him.

“As the number of parahumans first became clear, a long-term plan was established.  In the early phases of the plan, much effort was dedicated to setting up the Protectorate and Wards, ensuring the public had heroes they could look up to, likable faces, likable personalities.  Merchandising, interviews, tv shows, music, movies and more were all encouraged and supported with the idea of building up this image.  Law, policy and rules for the official groups were all shaped with the idea of gradually building confidence in heroes.”

Weld nodded.

“As we enter the next phase, our objective is to push the public a margin beyond their comfort zone.  We are encouraging and promoting the existence of rogues, which is an unfortunate term that heralds back to the early days.”

“Right,” Weld responded.  The term ‘rogue’ applied to anyone with powers who wasn’t hero or villain, the negative connotations of the term tying back to an era when expectations had been rather different, much the same way the brute classification had been coined.

“This is a sensitive subject, slow to advance, as major corporations are particularly litigious when parahumans get involved.  In simple terms, the big businesses do not want people with powers affecting the status quo, and it is very easy for them to derail years of work with one bad media campaign targeting parahumans.”

“I see,” Weld commented.  He didn’t like that in simple terms bit of what she’d said.  Too many people implied he was stupid because he was strong.  But could he really speak up about it, when he couldn’t be sure if her choice of words came from an offensive or judgemental perspective?  Or was he being overly sensitive?

“The second half of this phase is getting the public more comfortable with the outliers.  The people with stranger powers, and stranger appearances.  You’re likable, Weld.  You have a clearly unnatural appearance, if you’ll forgive me saying so-”

Weld shrugged.  He stood out.  There were a hundred things that bothered him more than stares and comments on the subject.

“-but you have fans, and people are interested in you.  You get higher ratings for your interviews than even the average handsome hero gets.  You’re second most popular for team leaders for number of youtube videos, possibly helped by a briefly lived internet meme featuring your face, and you have a blemish-free record, both academically and in your two years serving as a part of the Wards.”

“Thank you.”

“Provided all goes according to plan, we intend for you to become a member of the core Protectorate team within the span of three to five years.  Making your face national, even international, if you are willing.”

“Wow.  Yeah, I’m definitely okay with that, ma’am,” he tried to feign surprise.  Armstrong had already covered much of this.

“Of course, this hinges on your ability to lead your team, in the here and now.”

“Of course.”

“It seems we will land shortly.  Any questions before we do?”

“One.  I was hoping to arrange interstate training sessions with the New York and Boston Wards groups.  As far as I’m aware, the local team doesn’t do this.  They barely have regular situation training.”

“I recall Triumph made a request for something like this, a few years ago.  I believe we refused him on the grounds that it was frivolous.”

Weld squared his shoulders.  He had to be assertive, here. “I’m firmly of the opinion that it would improve the local team’s ability to cooperate and respond to a greater variety of situations.  I’m totally prepared to eat any and all paperwork on our end.”

Eat the paperwork?”

“I mean I’ll do it all, for the members of my team.  Give you updates after any and all training sessions.  Notes on improvements, lessons learned, weak areas, strengths, resources that could fill any perceived gaps.”

“So long as you’re prepared for me to put a stop to things at any time.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And,” the Director paused a moment as the Helicopter touched down on solid ground, “It cannot cut into the regular patrol schedule.  You and your team members would do this outside of the hours you’re on clock for the Wards.”

“I’ll see if I can sell it to them.  Thank you, Director,” Weld stood.

Secretly, he was elated.  The training games he’d led his team through back in Boston had been some of the more fun moments of his career.  It had also allowed for a harmless but fun interaction with the New York group, giving them a chance to mingle, talk and share war stories.  There was something about being able to mess with others on a level that you couldn’t with teammates you had to fight alongside.  If his new team liked the games half as much as he did, it would be a win in his book.

“Do you wish me to come down and introduce you?”

That earned a moment’s consideration.  Was this woman likable?  No.  Would the others like her?  Probably not.  Which meant that having her introduce him might be detrimental, associate him with someone they might view negatively.

“No, I don’t think it’s necessary, ma’am.”

“Your old keycards will let you in.  I’ll have replacement identification sent to you shortly.  In the meantime, I wish you luck.”

“Thank you, Director,” he handed her his headset and stepped through the door as PRT uniforms opened it.  As if welcoming him into the city proper, there was the sound of a woman screaming down on the street below, the noise turning into a manic laugh in the same breath.  Half the block was without power, and searchlights on the corners of the rooftop scanned nearby streets.  PRT guards stood at the edge of the roof, armaments in hand.  He relaxed at the sight of the guards – if they weren’t acting on whatever was going on below, he didn’t need to worry about it.

He took a deep breath, deep enough that he could feel the groan of the metal stretching to its limits inside his chest.  Then he stepped off the rooftop and through the elevator doors.  When the complex chrome doors shut, they cut off the noise of the helicopter entirely.

It was utterly quiet, inside the box.  There was barely any sense of motion or movement from the elevator.  Tinker designed.  It had to be.  He avoided touching the chrome walls or railing.  It was probably coated with something, but emerging with a piece of railing stuck to him would make for a terrible first impression.

Stepping out into a hallway, he walked up to a security terminal.  He swiped his identification card, spoke his name for the voice authentication, “Weld.”  There was a pause, and then the doors glided open.

His team was there, each with their masks off.

Clockblocker sat in a chair at the huge computer to the right of the room, swiveled to check out their new arrival, then stood, folding his arms.  Red haired, freckled, thin lipped, he wore a costume that was all white, with animated images of clock faces on it.  A white helmet sat on the counter of the computer terminal.

Shadow Stalker was leaning against a wall, thumbing through a smartphone.  She had one foot against the wall, one arm folded just under her chest, her free hand resting in the crook of her other elbow.  She looked up at him, stuck the phone in a pouch on her belt.  She was dark-skinned, pretty, and from  what he could see beneath her costume and her voluminous cloak, she had a nice body.  Athletic figure.  A part of Weld’s adolescent psyche was relieved that there was some eye candy here.

Kid Win and Vista arrived from what the ‘cubicles’ at the far end of the spacious room.  They weren’t really cubicles, but sectioned off areas with beds and room for personal effects.  The base in Boston had been similar.  Kid Win was in civilian clothes, brown-haired, ruddy cheeked in a way that suggested he had been exercising until just recently.  Very normal looking.

Vista was in pyjamas, her hair tied back into a ponytail.  He’d had someone as young as her on his team in Boston, but the boy had been a Thinker, a limited precog content to work and communicate with them from their command station.  This girl had been out in the field – three fingers on her left hand were bandaged, with crimson seeping in through the white.  Her eyes were puffy, as though she’d been crying until very recently.

Should he comment on that?  Offer support?  He wasn’t sure what to say, if it would even be welcome.

“Hello,” he spoke.  He received a chorus of muttered and murmured greetings in return.

“Look,” he said, “I won’t make a big deal of this.  The guys upstairs want me in charge.  It’s going to take me a short while to get up to speed, but I hope to prove to you guys that I can and will work as hard as anyone.”

It was hard to say what he’d expected, but surely he should have gotten more of a response than some blank stares and glazed looks.  Was it the wrong time for this?  Every single one of them looked dog tired.  Clockblocker looked like he was barely managing to stand.

“From everything I’ve heard, you guys are an excellent team, and I hope I can do you justice as a leader.  It’s my hope that we can improve on a winning formula.  I’ve talked to the director about some special training-”

“Training?” Clockblocker interrupted, “You just lost me.”

“If you’ll hear me out, I think you’ll like the idea.”

“Have you seen the situation out there?” Clockblocker challenged him, “Less than an hour ago, I saved a guy I know from my high school physics class from being dragged into an alley by a half-dozen grown men.  One of them stuck him with a needle before I got him away from them.  The Hospitals are shut down or over capacity, so I brought him here.  He’s upstairs right now, getting drugs to ensure he doesn’t get HIV.”

Weld struggled to find something to say, failed.

Clockblocker went on, “Kid Win and I stopped some lunatics in gas masks from mixing ammonia and bleach into a poison gas.  You know why?  They wanted to off the people in an apartment block so they could loot the place and stay there.  There’s people going fucking crazy out there, and you’re talking training.”

“I didn’t mean now,” Weld protested, backpedaling, “I was thinking in terms of the future.  The training would be something to look forward to, after this crisis has passed.”

“You’re assuming it’s going to pass,” Shadow Stalker replied, her voice tired.  “Some are saying this is the way things are going to stay.  I almost agree with them.  This isn’t the kind of city that bounces back from things.”

I’m losing them.  “I can’t believe that.  We’ve got to have hope.”

“Pull a fifteen hour patrol out there, then come back and talk to me about hope,” Clockblocker spoke.  “You know, I could almost play along.  Go with the blind optimism, say yippee to training.  But you don’t even mention the guy you’re replacing?  A few words for the dead?  It’s a matter of respect, bro.”

“I didn’t mean to dismiss them or their sacrifice.  I just didn’t know them, and-”

Clockblocker turned, swiping his arm angrily at his helmet to snatch it off the counter.  Tucking it under one arm, he spoke to the others, his back to Weld, “I’m going to check on my family.  I’ll head there in costume, in case I run into trouble, be back in the morning.  Mind manning the console, Kid?”

Kid Win shook his head, “I need to take a break anyways.”

Vista glanced at Weld, then asked, “Where do you guys need me?”

“Go sleep,” Shadow Stalker spoke, placing a hand on Vista’s head as she walked past the girl, “I’ll start my patrol, go with Clock to make sure he gets home and that he has some backup.  You can relieve me when I’m back, maybe get Clockblocker to go with you.”

“Thank you,” Vista’s voice piped up, with a definite note of relief.

Helplessly, Weld watched as the team split up to go their separate ways, Kid Win sitting down at the far end of the computer station, Shadow Stalker and Clockblocker heading for the elevator.

“I fucked up.  I already lost them,” Weld spoke, mostly to himself.

“No.  They’re just tired,” Vista spoke from beside him.  “And not just lack of sleep.  You’ll see what I mean.  You could’ve mentioned Aegis, Browbeat, and Gallant, but you can’t be blamed if Clockblocker didn’t give you time to get around to it.  Nobody’s really in the mood for speeches.”

“Right,” Weld replied, feeling lost, “They’re the ones who died?”

Vista gave him a look that could only be described as pity.  “You didn’t even learn their names?  Nevermind what I just said.  Yeah, you fucked up.”

Then she turned away and walked back to the cubicles.  She was halfway there when he saw her rub at one cheek with the back of her hand.

“I… I just got here,” Weld said, helplessly.

I just got told by a pre-teen, he thought.

“Shit,” he swore under his breath.  He found a chair in front of the computer and dropped the stack of file folders on the nearest flat surface.  He plucked the file folder off the top of the stack, opened it and began studying.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 3

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

The building housing the local Parahuman Response Team division didn’t really stand out. The exterior was all windows, reflective enough to mirror the mottled dark gray of the sky overhead.  Only a shield logo bearing the letters ‘P.R.T.’ marked it apart from the other buildings of downtown Brockton Bay.

Those entering the lobby would find a strange juxtaposition at work.  On the one hand, you could see the various employees in suits, hurrying in and out of the building, talking in groups.  A team of four PRT officers was on standby, each stationed at a different area of the lobby, outfitted in the best equipment money could buy.  All had chain mesh and kevlar vests, helmets that covered their faces, and firearms.  The equipment differed, however, as two of them had grenade launchers hanging from straps on their shoulders with bandoliers of various specialty ammunition across their chests, including a fire extinguishing grenade, an EMP round and various stun grenades.  The other two had what appeared at first glance to be flame throwers; were they to pull the triggers, they would eject a thick, frothing spray of foam, enough to contain all but the strongest and fastest villains.

In stark contrast to this, there was the gift shop that would be thick with youths when school ended, sporting a selection of action figures, posters, video games and clothing.  Four-foot tall pictures of the various Protectorate and Wards team members were placed at regular intervals around the lobby, each backed by bright colors.

There was a cheery tour guide waiting patiently by the front desk, smiling handsomely at anybody who happened to glance his way.  On schedule, he would introduce tourists and children to the PRT offices, the armory, the training area and the parking lot with the parahuman containment vans, showing them what it took to manage the local heroes.  For those willing to pay for the premium tour, wait up to two hours and suffer a PRT squad escort, there would be an additional stop on the tour – a glimpse of the Wards’ Headquarters.

As a beleaguered team of young heroes staggered into the lobby, however, there was no tour, only a heavyset woman with a bob.  She wore a navy blue suit jacket and skirt, and waited with a pair of stern looking men in suits just behind her.  Wordlessly, she led them through a door behind the front desk and into a meeting room.

“Director Piggot.  Ma’am,” Aegis greeted her, his voice strained.  His costume was in shreds, and was more crimson with his own blood than it was its original white.  It was bad enough his civilian identity might have been revealed, if it weren’t for the matted blood and the chunks of meat that had been taken out of him, some of the wounds nearly a foot across.

“Good god, Aegis,” her eyebrows raised a fraction, “You look like hell.  What’s wrong with your voice?”

“Punctured lung, ma’am,” Aegis rasped, “I think there’s a hole in my front and back.”  As if to demonstrate, he stuck his fingers into his chest cavity.

Director Piggot didn’t look away, but one of the men standing behind her looked a touch green around the gills, “I can take you at your word.  You don’t need to stick your arm all the way through your chest to demonstrate.”

Aegis grinned and removed his hand from his chest.

Her expression hardened, “I wouldn’t be smiling right now.”

Aegis’ grin fell.  He glanced over his shoulder at his teammates.  Gallant, Kid Win, Vista, Browbeat and Clockblocker were all wearing suitably somber expressions.

“This was a fiasco,” she told them.

“Yes ma’am.  We lost,” Gallant admitted.

“You lost, yes.  That’s the least of it.  You also caused horrific amounts of property damage.  I’m afraid any and all destruction caused by New Wave’s golden child is also your responsibility, since you invited her along.  Without my say-so.

“I invited her,” Gallant spoke up, “I’ll take the blame, and you can take the costs for the property damage out of my trust.”

Director Piggot offered him a thin and utterly humorless smile, “Living up to your name, I see?  Yes, I’m sure that’s the best way to get the message across.  Your teammates and I know who you are under the mask.  Of everyone here, myself included, you’re the one most able to handle a fine of tens of thousands of dollars.”

“I won’t deny it, ma’am,” Gallant choked out the words.

“I’m afraid I’m a believer in punishment, when punishment is due.  Taking money from someone with money to spare is not going to mean anything.  All of you will share the fees between you.  Since I can’t touch the trust funds the PRT established for you, I’ll have to settle for docking your pay.  Maybe next time, the rest of you can talk Gallant out of inviting his girlfriend along.”

The protests overlapped. “It was her sister in the bank!  She would have gone in anyways!”  “I start college next fall!”

Director Piggot simply weathered the arguments and complaints.  A more cynical person might even suggest she enjoyed hearing them.  When a minute or two passed and it was clear she wasn’t going to reply or get dragged into the arguments, the young heroes fell into a sullen silence.  She cleared her throat and spoke again.

“Kid Win.  I’m very interested to hear about this weapon you deployed on the battlefield.”

“My Alternator Cannon?”  Kid Win asked, cringing just a bit.

“You’ll have to forgive me,” Piggot smiled, “The paperwork gets to be a bit much sometimes.  Maybe you know where to find the documentation from our military and science teams, for this Alternator Cannon?”

“Christ, Kid,” Aegis groaned under his breath, with his ruined voice.

Kid Win looked more upset about Aegis’ reaction than anything else, “I, uh.  I didn’t get it officially cleared, yet.  I just thought it would be better to use the cannon and do what I could to stop the robbery.”

“That’s where you’d be wrong,” Piggot told him, “Fact of the matter is, the money that was taken from the bank falls very low on my priority list.  You might even go so far as to suggest I don’t care about it.”

“Director-” Aegis started.  He didn’t get to finish.

“What I care about is the public perception of capes.  I care about ensuring that we get enough funding to keep you Wards, the Protectorate and the PRT squads paid and equipped.  Without that, everything I’ve worked to build falls apart.”

“What are you going to do?” Kid Win asked her.

“The cannon gets dismantled, first off.”

“No!” Aegis and Kid Win spoke at the same time.  Director Piggot looked briefly surprised at the defiance.

“I started on the Alternator Cannon so I’d have something to bring out in case of a Class A threat,” Kid Win said, “Getting rid of it would be such a waste.  I don’t care if I never get to use it again.  Give it to your PRT squad.  I’ll teach someone how it works.  You can mount it on one of your trucks or something.”

Director Piggot frowned, “The amount of time and money that would require, for an event that might never occur… no.  I suppose you can keep the cannon.”

Kid Win practically sagged with relief.

“But whatever the power source is, you’re removing it, and I’m keeping it under lock and key.  If a Class A threat does come into play, I’ll hand it over to you.  And the cannon still goes through the standard review process for all Tinker created material.  If it doesn’t pass the review, if you were putting people and property at undue risk with what you pulled today, I’m afraid you could face a substantial fine or jail time.”

Kid Win paled.

“Director!” Aegis grunted out the word, taking a step forward.

“Be quiet, Aegis,” Piggot snapped, “Your trying to speak with a punctured lung physically pains me, and as much as I admire standing up for your team, your one lungful of breath is wasted here.”

Kid Win turned to Aegis and offered a small apologetic smile.

“Kid Win, you’re coming with us for a disciplinary review.  Everyone else is dismissed.  The tour group is going to be coming by your quarters in an hour, and there’s likely to be more than a few reporters peering in the window.  Try to clean yourselves up for the pictures that are undoubtedly going to appear in tomorrow’s papers.  Please.”

The two men in suits marched a miserable Kid Win out the door after Director Piggot.  Kid Win shot a worried look at his team before he was taken out of sight.

“We debrief,” Aegis grunted, “Gallant or Clockblocker handles it.  You two decide.”

The team trudged out of the meeting room and made their way to their reserved elevator.  It was Tinker-designed to impress the tourists as well as be far more secure.  Interlocking sections of metal unfolded and slid apart as they approached, then closed behind them.  The ride down was so smooth that it was nearly impossible to tell the elevator was moving.

They exited into a long corridor of chrome steel.

“I’m going to have nightmares,” Clockblocker groaned, as he tenderly touched the welts around his nose and mouth, “Nightmares with lots and lots of spiders.”

At the far end of the corridor, they came to a security terminal.  Aegis pointed at Clockblocker.

“Don’t you usually do it?”

“Retina maybe detached,” Aegis admitted in his halting voice, “Don’t want to fail scan.”

Clockblocker nodded hesitantly, then leaned forward to let the terminal scan his eyes.  Steel doors clicked, then whisked open with a barely audible whirr, letting the young heroes and heroine make their way into the main area of their headquarters.

The room was roughly dome-shaped, but there were sections of wall that were able to be dismantled and rearranged on the fly.  Some had been set up to give the various team members their individual quarters, while others framed the doorways that led into the showers, the filing room and their press/meeting room.  A series of computers and large monitors were networked at one side of the room, surrounded by a half-dozen chairs.  One of the monitors was displaying a countdown to the next tourist group, while others were showing camera images of key locations in the city.  The Central Bank was one of them, a dark image punctuated by the red and blue of police sirens.

“Shadow Stalker is AWOL?” Gallant asked.

“Couldn’t make it in time,” Aegis grunted, “Told her to stay put.”

“She’s going to hate that.  Doesn’t she have this huge hate-on for Grue?” Clockblocker asked.

“Part of the reason,” Aegis grunted out the words, “I told her to stay.  Don’t need that.  I’m going to shower.  Patch myself up.  You guys debrief.”

“Sure thing, Chief,” Clockblocker saluted.  “Take care of yourself.”

“Fucking mutant dogs,” Aegis muttered, as he made his way to the bathroom.  He was stripped out of the top half of his tattered costume before he was through the door.

“Vista?  Can you go grab the whiteboard?  Grab two?” Gallant turned to their junior member.  Vista almost skipped in her rush to follow the order.

“What’s going to happen to Kid?” Browbeat spoke up for the first time, “I don’t know how all this goes.  Is it serious?”

Gallant considered for a moment, “Could be, but my gut tells me Piggy just wants to scare him.  He needs to stop testing the limits with the people in charge, or he’s going to get in real trouble at some point.”

“So, not exactly the best start to your new career, huh?” Clockblocker turned to Browbeat.

“Fuck, I wouldn’t mind so much if I knew what happened,” Browbeat stretched, and his muscles began to dwindle in size, “At least then I could figure out what to do better next time.  All I know is that I was suddenly blind and deaf, and when I tried to move, everything bent the wrong way.  Then I think I got tasered.”

Vista returned, dragging a pair of whiteboards on wheeled frames behind her.

“Hold that thought,” Gallant told their newest member, “Hey Clock, you don’t mind if I take point?”

Clockblocker was still using his fingertips to explore the raised bumps on his face, “Go for it.  I’m going to procrastinate as long as I can on the leadership thing.”

“You’re next oldest, after Carlos.  It’s only going to be what, three or four months, before you’re the senior member?”

“And I’ll hold that position for not even the rest of the summer before I graduate and pass the mantle to you,” Clockblocker smiled self deprecatingly, “No worries.  Take charge.”

Gallant took off his helmet and held it in one hand, running his fingers through his sweat-damp blond hair.  He smiled winningly at Vista as she positioned the whiteboards so everyone could see them, “Thank you.”

Gallant didn’t need to use his power to get an emotional response from the thirteen year old heroine.  She turned a bright pink.  There could be no doubt for anyone present that she had a major crush on her senior teammate.

“Okay guys,” Gallant said, “Before we get started, I think it’s important to make some things clear.  First off, most importantly, today was not a failure.  I’d even say that today was a win for the good guys, and we start establishing that here and now.”

He took a second to gauge his audience’s disbelieving reactions, then smiled.

“The Undersiders.  They’ve flown under the radar so far, but more recently, they’ve started pulling higher profile jobs.  They hit the Ruby Dreams casino five weeks ago, and now they just robbed the biggest bank in Brockton Bay.  This time we were lucky enough to get in their way.  That means we finally have intel on their group.”

He turned to the whiteboard and wrote the names of their opponents.  Grue, Tattletale and Hellhound went on the first board, with lines separating the board into three columns.  He wrote Regent on the second board, drew a line and then hesitated at the fifth and last column.  “Did he name himself?  The guy with the bugs?”

“Girl,” Clockblocker corrected him, “I was talking to the hostages after the Undersiders made their getaway.  He said he was afraid to move because she was going to make it bite him.  It took me a bit to realize exactly what he meant.  Poor fella was in shock.”

“But we don’t know what she called herself?”

Nobody had any answer to that.

“Then we need to agree on a name for her, or the paperwork’s going to be inconsistent.  Suggestions for a name for the bug girl?”

“Maggot?  Worm?” Browbeat offered, “Stick her with a crappy name?”

“We don’t want to do that,” Clockblocker sighed, “Maybe if we’d won, we could get away with it, but it doesn’t look so good if the press reports that we got our asses kicked by someone called maggot.”

“Stinger, Pestilence?” Vista suggested.

Clockblocker spun himself around in the chair and punched the names into the computer, “Taken.  Stinger is some villain in California with power armor, a jetpack and homing missiles, and Pestilence is a creepy psycho in London.”

“Skitter?” Gallant put the name out there.

There was a clatter of keys as Clockblocker checked, “It’s not taken.”

“Then it’s good enough,” Gallant wrote the name up on the whiteboard, “Now we brainstorm.  This is where we recoup our losses from the day, figure out an angle so we can win next time.  So don’t hold back.  Share any detail, no matter how insignificant.”

“Grue’s power isn’t just darkness.  You can’t hear in there either.  And it feels strange too,” Browbeat spoke, “There’s resistance, like you’re underwater, but not floating.”

“Good,” Gallant wrote that in Grue’s column, “Next?”

“The mutants that Hellhound makes.  The dogs?  She doesn’t control them with her mind.  They’re trained,” Vista offered, “She tells them what to do with whistles, gestures.”

“Yes, good, I noticed that,” Gallant replied, excitedly adding another note to the whiteboard.

“The girl with the bugs… Skitter.  It’s just the opposite.  She has a lot of fine control over them,” Clockblocker added.

“Yes!”

“Also, according to the hostage I talked to, she said she can sense things through her bugs, which is how she kept an eye on the hostages.”

It wasn’t long before most columns were full enough that Gallant had to turn the whiteboards around to use the backs.

Carlos returned from the shower, wearing sweatpants and a towel around his shoulders.  He was Puerto Rican, his hair long.  His body was clean of blood, barring a few residual trickles from the mess of ragged wounds on his arms, stomach and chest.  He had clumsily stitched the cuts and gouges together, which did surprisingly little to make them easier to look at.  He sat down on a chair and added his input for the lists, which didn’t amount to too much.  He had been incapacitated for too much of the fight to have much to say.

There was an abrasive noise from the computer as every monitor suddenly flashed yellow.  The Wards hurried to pull on their masks.  Aegis grabbed a spare from a drawer by the computers.

The entrance whirred open, and Armsmaster strode in, accompanied by the winsome Miss Militia.  She wore a modified military uniform, tight enough in the essential areas to accentuate her curves, sporting a scarf around her lower face with an American  flag embroidered on it, and a similar sash around her waist.  Most arresting, however, was the large rocket launcher she held across her shoulders in the same way a weightlifter might hold a barbell.

“Armsmaster,” Gallant stood up, “Good to see you, Sir.  Miss Militia, always a pleasure.”

“Ever the gentleman,” Miss Militia’s eyes hinted at the smile behind her scarf, “We brought a guest.”

Following behind Armsmaster and Miss Militia was a teenage girl in an enveloping white robe.  Panacea.  She had an ID card on a cord around her neck, featuring her photo and the word ‘GUEST’ in bright blue letters.

“She was kind enough to volunteer to come here and patch you guys up,” Miss Militia told the young heroes, “Can’t send you home with horrible injuries and hundreds of bug bites, can we?  That would give away the show.”

She shifted the position of the rocket launcher on her shoulders, and it dissolved into a blur of green-black energy.  The energy lunged and arced around her for a few brief moments, then materialized into a machine gun.  It only held that form for a few seconds before it flickered and solidified into a sniper rifle, then a harpoon gun, and  finally settled in the form of a pair of uzis, one in each of her hands.  She barely seemed to notice, beyond the automatic action of holstering the guns.

“I wanted to thank you guys for coming to my rescue,” Panacea spoke, shyly, “And for letting Glory Girl come with you.”

Gallant smiled, then in a more concerned tone, he asked, “You two are okay?”

Panacea shook her head, “Tattletale found a way around my sister’s invincibility.  Glory Girl was bitten pretty badly, which is why I didn’t come sooner.  I think it hits you harder, psychologically, when you’re pretty much invincible but you get hurt anyways.  But we’re okay now.  She’s healed but sulking.  I- I’m alright.  Bump on my head, but I’m okay.”

“Good.”

Armsmaster was at the whiteboard, going over the points.  “I like this.  But this one…”  He tapped the column titled Tattletale, “Nearly empty.”

“None of us ran into her, and the hostages didn’t have anything to say about her,” Gallant replied.

“Panacea may be able to help there,” Miss Militia offered.

All eyes turned to the girl.

“I- A lot happened,” Panacea hedged.

“Any detail helps.”

“Um.  I’m sorry,” she said, looking down at the ground, “I got smacked across the head, but my power doesn’t work on myself, and I’m not really the type to go out in costume and get into fights, so having my life threatened, I dunno.  All that… I can’t put my thoughts in order just yet.”

“The sooner-” Armsmaster started.

“It’s fine,” Miss Militia interrupted him, “Amy, why don’t you start taking care of the Wards?  If something comes to mind, anything the Undersiders said or did, or any clues you think might help, share it afterwards, alright?”

Panacea smiled gratefully at the heroine, then turned to the group, “Who needs the most help?  Aegis?”

“I’ll live,” Aegis said, “I can be last.”

Gallant hesitantly raised his hand, “One of Hellhound’s dogs slammed into me.  I think I might have a broken rib.  Paramedics cleared me, but I want to be extra sure I’m not risking a punctured lung or something.”

Panacea frowned, then gestured to the far end of the room, “I’ll take a look at you over there?”

“Go figure, Glory Girl’s boyfriend gets special treatment,” Clockblocker grinned to make it clear he was just poking fun.  Gallant just smirked in response.

The pair went to Gallant’s alcove, and she sat him down on the bed before laying a hand on his shoulder.  She pulled her hood back and furrowed her brow.

“You don’t have a punctured lung.  You’ve got one fractured rib, but you’re not even in that much pain.  Why-”

“I lied.  I wanted to talk to you, alone,” he took her hand.

She scowled and pulled her hand back like he’d bitten her.  As if to make doubly sure he wouldn’t grab her hand again, she folded her arms.

“You know I can sense emotions,” he said, “Everyone’s emotions, like a cloud of colors around them.  Can’t turn it off.  It’s just how I see the world.”

“Victoria mentioned that.”

“So you’re an open book to me.  I know you’re scared.  No… you’re terrified, and that’s why you’re not talking.”

She sighed and sat on the bed, as far from Gallant as she could.

“I never wanted these powers.  I never wanted powers, period.”

He nodded.

“But I got them anyways, and I got international attention over it.  The healer.  The girl who could cure cancer with a touch, make someone ten years younger, regrow lost limbs.  I’m forced to be a hero.  Burdened with this obligation.  I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t use this power.  It’s such an opportunity, to save lives.”

“But?”

“But at the same time… I can’t cure everyone.  Even if I go to the hospital every night for two or three hours at a time, there are thousands of other hospitals I can’t visit, tens of millions of people who are terminally ill or living in a personal hell where they’re paralyzed or in constant pain.  These people don’t deserve to face that, but I can’t help them all.  I can’t help one percent of them if I put in twenty hours a day.”

“You have to focus on what you can do,” Gallant told her.

“Sounds easier than it is,” Panacea answered, with a touch of bitterness, “Do you understand what it means, to cure some of these people?  I feel like every second I take to myself is a second I’ve failed somehow.  For two years, it’s been this… pressure.  I lie in bed, awake at night, and I can’t sleep.  So I get up and I go to the hospital in the middle of the night.  Go to pediatrics, cure some kids.  Go to the ICU, spare some lives… and it’s all just blending together.  I can’t even remember the last few people I saved.”

She sighed again, “The last person I really remember?  It was maybe a week ago, I was working on a kid.  He was just a toddler, an immigrant from Cairo, I think.  Ectopia Cordis.  That’s where you’re born with your heart outside your body.  I was putting everything in the right place, giving him a chance at a normal life.”

“What made him so memorable?”

“I resented him.  He was lying there, fast asleep, like an angel, and for just a second, I considered just leaving him.  The doctors could have finished the job, but it would have been dangerous.  He might have died if I’d left him on the table, the job half done.  I hated him.”

Gallant didn’t say anything.  Scowling, Panacea stared down at the ground.

“No, I hated that he would have a normal life, because I’d given up mine.  I was scared that I might intentionally make a mistake.  That I might let myself fuck up the procedure with this kid.  I could have killed him or ruined his life, but it would have eased the pressure.  Lowered expectations, you know?  Maybe it would have even lowered my own expectations for myself.  I… I was just so tired.  So exhausted.  I actually considered, for the briefest moment, abandoning a child to suffer or die.”

“That sounds like more than just exhaustion,” Gallant replied, quietly.

“Is this how it starts?  Is this the point I start becoming like my father, whoever he was?”

Gallant let out a slow breath, “I could say no, that you’re never going to be like your father.  But I’d be lying.  Any of us, all of us, we run the risk of finding our own way down that path.  I can see the strain you’re experiencing, the stress.  I’ve seen people snap because of less.  So yeah.  It’s possible.”

“Okay,” she said, just under her breath.  He waited for her to elaborate, but she didn’t.

“Take a break.  Tell yourself it’s something you have to do, to recharge your batteries and help more people in the long run.”

“I don’t think I can.”

They sat in silence for a few moments.

He turned towards her, “So what does this have to do with what happened at the bank?”

“She knew everything.  That Tattletale girl.  She said she’s psychic, and from what she said, what she knew, I believe it.”

Gallant nodded.

“You know what it’s like, to talk to people like her?  Like you, no offense?  You build up this mask, you delude yourself into thinking everything is normal, and you force yourself to look past the worst aspects of yourself… and then these Gallants and Tattletales just strip you naked.  Force you to confront it all.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You said yourself, you can’t turn it off, right?  Can’t really blame you.  It’s just… it’s hard to be around.  Especially after dealing with Tattletale.”

“What did she say?”

“She threatened to talk about stuff.  Stuff worse than what I just told you, I guess.  Threatened to tell me things I just don’t want to know.  Said she’d use what she knew to ruin my relationship with Victoria and the rest of my family,” Amy hugged herself.

“My sister’s all I’ve got.  The only person with no expectations, who knows me as a person.  Carol never really wanted me.  Mark is clinically depressed, so as nice as he is, he’s too focused on himself to really be a dad.  My aunt and uncle are sweet, but they’ve got their own problems.  So it’s just me and Victoria.  Has been almost from the beginning.  That smug little monster threatened to tear my sister and I apart using yet another thing I didn’t want, another thing I had no control over.”

Gallant started to speak, then stopped.

“What?”

“Does… does this have anything to do with the, erm, rather strong feelings you have towards me?”

Panacea went still.

“I’m sorry,” he hurried to say, “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“You shouldn’t have,” she stood up and started towards the door.

“Look, if you ever need to talk…” he offered.

“I-”

“You probably won’t want it to be me, okay.  But my door’s always open, and you can call me at any hour.  Just letting you know.”

“Okay,” she replied.  Then she reached over to him and touched his shoulder, “There.  Bruises gone, ribs touched up.”

“Thank you,” he replied, opening the door for her.

“Take care of my sister, okay?  Make her happy?” she murmured, as she hesitated in the doorway.

“Goes without saying.” They rejoined the main group.

Every head in the room turned as Panacea picked up the marker by the computers.  With a grim expression on her face, she began filling in Tattletale’s section of the whiteboard.

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