Queen 18.6

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Help is on the way,” Miss Militia’s voice came over the armband.

“Three Vistas,” I said.  “And Noelle is probably north of our location, going after-”

“Skitter!”  Tattletale shouted, interrupting me, “lose it!”

“What?”

“The armband!  Toss it!”

I pulled at the straps.  As I gathered bugs onto the armband to get a better sense of what I needed to do with the straps, I could tell that the entire thing was swelling, distorting.  I could hear the screen crack.

I pulled it free and threw it, simultaneously climbing to my feet and scrambling away.

“Grue!  Cover it!”  Tattletale shouted.  “Use your power on anything that one breaks down!”

Grue threw out a stream of darkness, then dissolved the darkness that wasn’t covering the area where the armband had been.  Without the ability to see, I had only my bugs’ senses to go by, but I could track where he’d laid down the darkness by the way the air seemed thicker.

From Tattletale’s words, I’d expected an explosion, but it simply twisted away into wisps of thick smoke.

“It’s radioactive,” Tattletale intoned.  “Everything she’s dissolving like that.”

“Unless I cover it?” Grue asked.

“Unless you cover it.  Should cancel out the effects.  But you did want me to let you know when I’m making an educated guess.  This is one of them.” Tattletale said.  “I hope I’m right.  We could win this fight and still wind up dying in a hospital bed a few years from now, because we got too close as that stuff dissolved.”

Oh shit.

“Doesn’t matter, does it?” Regent said.  “World’s ending in a few years anyways.”

“Let’s avoid the extreme radiation poisoning,” I said.  “Regardless of whether the world’s ending or not.”

The other Undersiders and the Chicago Wards were out of the van, and we were collectively backing away from the nega-Vistas.  More specifically, we were retreating from the one who was creating the radioactive dust.

The first one I’d noticed was still on the rooftop, spreading out her efforts, thinning walls and twisting supports.  Her progress was slow, but I was willing to bet that half of the city block would be collapsing onto us in a matter of minutes.  If not sooner.  If I had to guess, her power operated in a different manner than the original Vista’s.  It affected a wider area, it was slower, and she didn’t seem to be suffering for our presence.

The bugs that I was sending her way were having a hard time approaching.  They kept veering around so they flew clockwise around her instead of straight.  I had only a few bugs attacking her, but the same effect that I’d seen with her face had hardened her skin and there weren’t many places left to attack.  Her mouth was little more than a lipless slit across the lower half of her face, firmly closed, and only the smallest bugs could get at her eyes.  She barely flinched at the bites and stings my swarm was delivering.

Meagre as my efforts were, they still should have left her blind, filling her eye sockets with ants and no-see-ums, but her power was still steadily working on the buildings around us.  Another peculiarity of her abilities?  The ability to sense the layout of whatever structures she was affecting?  Did that extend to sensing us?

The second one had arrived, creating footholds and handholds to ascend the section of road she’d raised into a vertical wall, twelve feet high.  She was now perched on top, crouching.  In the time that it had taken me to lose the armband, she had started to work on cutting off our best avenue of retreat.  The road we’d traveled on to get here was raising behind us, bulging upward into a similar barrier.  As far as I could tell, her powers were most in line with the regular Vista, and she seemed to be reacting most to the bites and stings.  I wished that would make me feel more confident about these circumstances.

That left the freakishly tall one.  The Vista with limbs that zig-zagged, who was apparently turning matter into radioactive dust.  She’d climbed past the wreckage of the fallen building and now stood on solid ground again, facing us.

“We off the radioactive one first?” Tecton suggested.

“No,” I said.  I used my bugs to draw an arrow in the air.  “Priority’s the one on the roof, over there.”

“There’s a third one?” he asked.

Apparently he hadn’t caught my message to Miss Militia.

“She’s going to bring down more buildings if we don’t take her fast,” I said.

“Raymancer,” Tecton ordered, “handle it.”

Raymancer stood like he had before, feet together, one arm extended.  I didn’t sense any energy blast or ray from his hand.  The Vista didn’t act as though she’d been shot either.

“She bends light!?”  Wanton asked.

“She’s bending space,” Tattletale said.  “You won’t get a straight shot.”

“Don’t need one,” Raymancer said.  His second shot left a shallow crater in the Vista’s chest.  She sprawled onto the roof, hands pressed to the injury.

The thinning of the walls didn’t stop.

“How the fuck does that work?” Regent asked.  “The laser didn’t even-”

“She’s still alive!” I called out, interrupting him.  There was a small explosion as  Raymancer directed a shot at the Radioactive Vista and missed.  I could sense how the barrier behind us abruptly stopped growing and how the space to one side of her warped to let her evade more easily.

“Vista to our three o’clock is assisting her!” I said.

“Grace!” Tecton shouted.  “Leaving rooftop to you!  Launch!”

Grace leaped toward him, onto the back of one outstretched hand.  She had no trouble maintaining her balance as she placed the other foot on the back of his other gauntlet.

She bent her knees, and extended them to jump in the same instant the piledriver attachments on the gauntlets extended with explosive force.

Most of the bugs I’d placed on her were torn free by the force of the wind ripping past her, as she turned into a human projectile.  She had to have used her selective invincibility to augment her feet and legs so they weren’t annihilated by the piledrivers, and she would be using her enhanced agility to ensure she stuck the landing.

Except the landing wasn’t going to happen as planned.  If I’d understood what they’d planned, I would have warned her.  Her trajectory shifted as she ran into the rooftop-Vista’s power.  Grace fell short of reaching the rooftop.  Very short.  She hit the ground with both feet together, arms spread, and left a shallow crater around her impact site, a half-block away from the building.  Grace was running toward her target a heartbeat later, unhurt.

Some of the flying capes that had been assigned to watch over us were targeting the Vista on the rooftop, and I saw that as excuse enough to focus on other, more immediate problems.

Rachel and her dogs went for the Vista to our right, with Regent doing what he could to hamper their target’s movement, forcing her to use her power to maintain the distance from the beasts.

Which left the rest of us to face off against the radioactive one.

“One on the rooftop’s occupied,” I said.  “Now we can fight her.”

She extended her hand toward us, and the ground between us and her bulged, as though a cartoon mole had crawled beneath the pavement.  Raymancer fired at her, clearly hoping to distract her, but each shot missed by a fair margin.

My bugs were covering every inch of her skin, and I had them biting and tearing at her flesh.  Her skin was hard, gnarled, and calloused, but I did the damage where I could at the elbows, knees and neck, drawing blood.  I tried to tell myself that she was a monster, a mockery of a real person, and she was too dangerous to be allowed to live.  With that kind of unhinged mental state, and her ability to irradiate people…  I grit my teeth.  No choice.

Grue finished covering the bulging ground with darkness.  Tall-Vista didn’t react.  Her hand was still pointed at us.

“It’s a feint!”  Tattletale shouted.  She spun around.  “There!”

My swarm moved in the direction Tattletale was looking.  I found the bulge, a basketball-sized blister on the side of the containment van, felt it erupting a mere foot from Raymancer’s head a half-second before Grue’s darkness covered it.

Too late.  Raymancer stumbled, coughing.

Grue turned and extended a hand toward the tall Vista.  With my swarm spread out around her, I could sense miniscule explosions appearing all around her, see the flashes of light with the bugs’ distorted vision.  The individual detonations weren’t much larger than golf balls, and even the direct impacts weren’t enough to kill my larger bugs.

“How the fuck do you use Raymancer’s power?”  Grue asked.

“You copy powers?”  Wanton asked.

“Thought you guys read up on us,” Tattletale quipped.  “Grue, focus the beams with the lenses.  The beam appears from the center, so line them up to refine the beam into something more effective.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve only got the one lens there.”

Lenses?  My bugs weren’t sensing anything.

Wanton was closing the distance, now that the other Vista was distracted trying to avoid Bentley and Bastard, still hobbled by Regent’s power.  As he got halfway to her, the ground around her began to distort and twist into curls.  Wanton disintegrated as he entered the area.

For a heartbeat, I thought she’d used her power on him.  When the debris, dust and chunks of building began stirring and orbiting a central point that continued his general trajectory, I realized it was his power.

Wanton didn’t hesitate as radioactive dust exploded around and inside his new body.  If anything, it proved an advantage, as the dust provided more material to work with and the damage to the street let him pull up chunks of pavement.  He closed the distance to our opponent and began thrashing her.  One of her arms snapped and dangled as one large chunk struck her.

Grue’s attacks weren’t terribly effective.  There were only half the number of explosions, but they were sufficient to kill bugs if they happened to hit one.  He abandoned Raymancer’s power and cast out his darkness toward the Vista.  A moment later, the ground under her feet was contorting, and dust was rising around her.

To our right, Rachel and Bastard were closing in on the Vista.  Her foot was contorted by Regent’s power, and her neck was craning at awkward angles, making it harder for her to focus on them and use her own abilities.

She backed away, raised her one good hand in their direction, and promptly bumped into Imp.  Before the pseudo-Vista could react, she had a taser pressed to her neck.

Rachel closed the distance, Bentley loping forward.  My bugs caught her voice.  An order, not too hard to make out.  Not with the context.

“Kill,” Rachel said, her voice quiet.  The bulldog picked up the Vista in his jaws and bit down until an audible series of cracks marked the breaking of a dozen major bones.  He shook her like a rag doll, no doubt snapping her neck and aggravating every injury he’d just inflicted.  The girl was dead in an instant.

Rachel’s ordered him to drop the body, ordered Bastard to back away from the carcass, and then took hold of Bastard’s chain.  She started to wheel Bentley around to rejoin us, but I was already drawing arrows in the air.  Wanton wasn’t at risk from the radiation in his new form, apparently, but Rachel and her dogs were.  There was nothing saying that any radiation wouldn’t be able to penetrate the monstrous flesh and hit the dog nestled in the core.

Kicking Bentley into an all-out run, she led Bastard in an all-out toward the one on the rooftop.  No hesitation.  No apparent remorse.

Rachel and I had grown closer, to the point of maybe being friends on top of being teammates.  Whatever rifts had formed between us were largely mended, and she trusted me as a leader.  With all that in mind, it was sometimes hard to remember that she was still Rachel at the core of it.  If her psychological wiring didn’t give her any real empathy for her fellow human beings, it wasn’t about to give her any for human-esque beings.

Tecton slammed one gauntlet into the ground, creating a crack that rushed toward the taller Vista.  It exploded in a geyser of debris and dust as it reached her.  She staggered, then staggered again as Grue landed a shot with Raymancer’s power.  She tried to raise one hand to defend herself, but the thin, curved bone of her upper arm had been shattered.  Her broken arm dangled in front of her.

With the topographical map my swarm provided, I noted the presence of thick veins standing out on her arm, where the weight of the dangling limb pulled the skin tight against the shattered bone.  I barely thought about it, sending my bugs to the area, biting deep into the largest one, working together so that one hornet might pull one way, a beetle pulling another, to better rend the flesh or positioning it for a stronger bug to bite into.

She jerked in reaction, and blood began flowing.  Beads of it at first, but the skin was pulled tight and the bugs were relentless.  It virtually tore between the combination of damage and strain.  A small river of blood flowed, intermittently spurting.

That would be an artery, not a vein.  Fuck me.  I tried to suppress the quiet horror that took hold of me as my bugs tracked the blood pouring down her arm, trickling off her fingertips in individual streams.

Still fighting to avoid being brained by Wanton’s telekinetic storm, the tall Vista let out a drawn out half-moan, half-scream, equal parts despair and anger.  It didn’t sound exactly normal, but that didn’t surprise me.  What made my blood run cold was that she almost sounded like a young girl might.  A little too close to reality for comfort.

She went all-out with her power, aimless, directionless.  Street signs, mailboxes, piles of debris, walls and sections of road began twisting and bulging.  Grue laid down a blanket of darkness all around us, aiming to dampen the spread of the radioactive particles.  I wasn’t sure how that worked, but Tattletale thought it did, and I wasn’t about to complain.  I’d settle for a white lie if it meant we were able to stay focused on fighting, rather than the cancer we’d have five years from now.

It took ten seconds before the Vista collapsed.  Only ten seconds to bleed out to the point of unconsciousness.  The blood continued pumping free, and nobody leaped forward to staunch the flow.

I sensed some of the faster capes from Miss Militia’s group making their arrival on the scene.

The wound the rooftop-Vista had sustained from Raymancer was shallow, the majority of it consisting of surface damage to her artificially smooth, thick skin and to her ribs.  I’d only peripherally been aware I was doing it, but my bugs had seized on the opportunity to dig in and attack the more vulnerable flesh of the open wound. She barely seemed to care, focusing her efforts on diverting incoming fire and trying to distort the rooftop to force Grace to fall off.  That changed when several bugs found a hole leading into the empty space surrounding her lungs.

In that same moment, the Vista started trying to claw the bugs out of the shallow cavity.  The distraction afforded one of the heroes a chance to catch her in the head with a gobbet of foam.  A smaller containment foam blaster?

Flying capes closed the distance and settled around her.  There was a brief dialogue that I couldn’t make out with the unfamiliar voices.  Someone said something about foam, there were a few words of argument from a pair, and one pressed a finger to their armband, saying something about a captive.

It was Miss Militia who responded through the armband.  She gave a curt order, and several capes turned away.  One of the capes who hadn’t took aim and shot the fallen girl between the eyes.

The fight was over.  The heroes were already moving north in pursuit of Noelle.  I signaled for Rachel to return.

That moan-scream the tall Vista had made was still ringing in my ears.  It had been way too human for my tastes.

There was no doubt she’d been going all out.  Raymancer was on his knees, supported by Tecton.  He’d taken a hit of the dust straight to the face.  If Tattletale was right… he’d just taken a lethal dose of radiation.  The clone hadn’t even flinched in delivering the attack.

I’d had fights like this.  Dealing with the Nine had been much the same, had demanded we hold nothing back, had involved enemies who didn’t hesitate.  The difference was that the Nine had demanded it because anything less wouldn’t cut it.  Fighting these clones, they were vulnerable.  They only defended themselves so they could keep causing damage.  When I tried to hurt them, they got hurt.  It sounded so lame when I framed it like that, but… it shook me.

Even knowing they were deranged, that Tattletale had confirmed they weren’t really people, I couldn’t ignore how brutal we’d been.  My actions.  The clones weren’t innocent, but they were innocents.  If that made any sense.

And I knew I’d have to do it all over again, the next time we ran into a clone.

Tattletale touched Grue’s arm, and he banished the darkness around us.

“I’m going to die,” Raymancer said, his voice barely above a whisper.

“There’s a good chance, yeah,” Tattletale said.

“Hey,” Tecton said, “Don’t be a bitch.”

She didn’t respond.  Instead, she touched her armband, “Raymancer down.  He needs immediate medical attention for acute radiation poisoning.  Quarantine this location, you’ll want stuff for radioactive decontamination, mobile showers if you’ve got them.  Oh, and Skitter’s armband is out of commisison, we need a replacement before someone mistakes her for a clone.”

Keep close to her, Tattletale,”  Miss Militia said.  “And we’ll deliver one shortly.  Quarantine, civilian evacuation and decontamination are en route.

“We’re moving on to check on Ballistic.  Your man can meet us there.”

“If they can track us with the armband, they can follow us to his headquarters,” Grue commented.

“He can move bases,” I said, “Finding him fast is a bigger priority.”

“He won’t like that,” Grue said.  “Going from a well set-up base of operations to some place improvised?”

“He didn’t want to come today, he deals with the fallout,” I said.  I waved as Rachel approached.  She was still holding Bastard’s chain.  “Let’s go.”

“Tecton?” Tattletale asked.

“I… I can’t leave Raymancer here,” Tecton said.

“Wanton can watch him,” she said.

I looked at Wanton.  He was still in his telekinetic form.  To my swarm sense, he gave me the impression of a miniature galaxy, with dust and various objects orbiting a central point.  When he moved, the outer edges took longer to catch up than the bits closer to the center, almost like a jellyfish in water.

“Hey, W,” Tecton said.  “Fight’s over.”

“He can’t change back,” Tattletale said.  “If he does, that dust he drew into his t.k. body is going to settle, and then he’ll be in the same shape Raymancer is.  Maybe everyone in his vicinity will.”

“But-”

“But they can stick him in a decontamination shower,” Tattletale said.  “Just needs to hold himself together long enough for that to happen.  Not to worry.  Fifteen minute decontamination and he’s clean.”

“Longest he’s ever held that form was twelve minutes.”

“Then he’ll need to hold together for longer.  But we’ve got to get ahead of Noelle before the next trap is set up.  We need you to come with us.”

“You want me to leave my team,” Tecton said.

“We could run into more Vistas.  She warps space, distorts architecture.  If the next batch is organized enough to cut off all avenues of retreat while keeping their distance, or drop more buildings on us, we’d need you to help.  Rachel’s dogs aren’t going to be able to get us free if Vista buries us, or if she traps us under some bubble of stretched building.”

“Go, T,” Raymancer said.

“But you-”

“I’ll get looked after, and I’ll give Wanton he encouragement he needs to break his old record.  Get Grace and go.”

“You heard the man,” Tattletale said.  “You want to drive?”

“You go ahead,” Tecton said.  “Driving with the suit is a hassle.”

“All the better,” Tattletale said, cheery.

Tecton didn’t reply as he got into the van.  I climbed onto Bentley’s back.

The van had to take a detour, given the three sections of road that had been raised as barriers and the one fallen building.  Bentley wasn’t so disadvantaged.  We crossed the ruins of the toppled building.

I could smell the thick, metallic scent of blood in the same moments that his hot breath wafted past me.

I wondered if I should be in the van.  I could communicate with Tattletale and Grue if I was, and it would mean I wasn’t experiencing an agonizing pain in my side every time he set his feet down with too much force or leaped an obstacle.

That said, I wasn’t sure I wanted to turn Rachel away if she was being friendly.

The van stopped to pick up Grace.  They traveled down a different street, moving parallel to Rachel and I.

“…so fast?” Tecton asked.  I couldn’t make it all out.

I caught the tail end of Tattletale’s reply: “… a trap.”

I drew out letters on the dashboard with my bugs: ‘Trouble?’

She shook her head.  I didn’t catch what she said.  She repeated herself.  “…ventative measure.”

Preventative measure.  She was picking up the speed so any other enemies that were lying in wait would have less time to spring any surprises on us.  I scattered the bugs, left a brief ‘ok’ and then removed those.  I caught Tecton saying something, but couldn’t make it out.  His mask didn’t help.

I redoubled my efforts to check our surroundings and find any possible clones of Vista, Uber, Leet or Circus.

We caught up to a group of the faster-moving heroes who’d flown ahead.  They were dispatching another Vista.  She was shorter, thicker in the arms and legs, with a neck as thick around as her head was.  The space around her was twisted into jagged shapes, with some raised into points.  Two of the capes had been injured but were still fighting.

We rode past, and the van with the others gave chase.

The flying capes weren’t moving with purpose.  They were roving the area, going west-to-east and back again as they moved in a general northerly direction.

We were nearly at Ballistic’s base when a digitized voice sounded over the armband.  Not Miss Militia.  Dragon’s A.I.   “We have a sighting.  All cooperating capes are ordered to stand down.  Remain at your present coordinates until further notice.

Stand down?  I tapped Rachel on the shoulder, and she pulled Bentley to a stop.

The armband buzzed again, but it was Miss Militia’s voice this time.  “Eidolon has found our primary target.  He has requested that all capes in the area remain in position.”

I caught Tattletale pressing the button on her armband.  She asked, “Why?”

Whatever program was managing communications, it didn’t see fit to convey Tattletale’s message.

The van caught up to us.  Tattletale rolled her window down, and opened the back.  The others climbed out to join the conversation.  Grace folded her arms and hung back.

“What’s going on?”  I asked.

“Don’t know,” Tattletale said.  “But if Eidolon is fighting Noelle…”

Regent finished her sentence for her, “We might not have to worry about the end of the world happening in two years.”

“Why is Miss Militia letting this slide?” I asked.  “She has to know the risk.  Everyone has to know the risk.”

“She’s letting this slide because Eidolon outranks her and she has no choice,” Tattletale said.  “And he’s doing this because he’s got an agenda.”

“An agenda?” Grace asked.

“Yeah.”

“He’s the top hero in the Protectorate.  His agenda is doing the right thing.  Is this what you guys do?  You analyze the situation until you’ve twisted it into a scenario where you just have to do something?”

“Yeah,” Regent said.  “We’re really good at it, too.”

“Ha ha,” Grace said, without any humor.

“Look,” I said.  “Fine.  You guys are helping us, so you get a say.  If you guys are willing to hear me out and you decide that there’s no merit to what I’m saying, we can go along with what you want to do.”

“Hear you out?”

“Yeah.  Look, you can’t deny that putting one of the most powerful people in the world in close quarters with someone who could turn Vista into those things is a fucking bad idea.”

“Sure I can.”

“Play nice, Grace,” Tecton said.

“No, I’m going to make my arguments.  He’s not stupid.  He knows what he can do, and he’s heard what she can do.  You don’t get to be a member of the Triumvirate if you’re an idiot.”

“He’s desperate,” Tattletale said,  “He’s losing his powers.  He knows putting himself in dangerous situations makes his power stronger, like how one of my teammates gets a little stronger when outraged, and another gets a little stronger when feeling protective.  Fighting Noelle is nearly as dangerous as fighting Endbringers.”

Endbringers.  When Leviathan had attacked, it had been destruction layered on top of more destruction.  Noelle was being pretty damn subtle for someone who could tear vault doors apart and generate an army of superpowered soldiers.

Even in terms of the overall impact of her assault, as far as I knew, it had been limited to one fallen building, two injured capes and one in critical condition.  It felt like too little.

Then again, the sun wasn’t up.  Dinah had said Noelle wouldn’t do any real damage until dawn.  Would things get worse?

“How long until sunrise?” I asked, cutting Grace off just as she started to voice a response.

“Nine minutes,” Tattletale answered.

“Dinah said the situation doesn’t start getting really bad until dawn…” I trailed off.

“You think this is why the situation goes south,” Grue said.

“It’s a possibility.”

Tattletale pressed the button on her armband.  “This is really bad timing on Eidolon’s part, M.M..  Shit’s due to go down at sunrise.  Can you call him off?  Remind him?”

There was no indication the message went through.

“Fucking computer,” she said.  “Let’s go.”

“No,” Grace said.  “You said it was our call.  I don’t buy the argument.  We stay put.”

“Tecton?” I asked.

He was still in the passenger seat.  “I don’t know.  Are you willing to disobey the order and have Miss Militia okay a kill order on you?”

Try to okay a kill order on us,” Imp said.

“Oh, well then,” Tecton said.  “That’s not a problem.”

I thought about the possible scenarios that could unfold.  Deranged Vistas had been brutal enough.  Deranged mutant Eidolons?

“Yeah,” I said.  “If it comes down to it, I’m willing.”

“Be it on your heads,” Tecton said.

“Get in if you’re coming,” Tattletale said.  “Get out if you’re not.”

Tecton hesitated, but he stayed in his seat.

“Tecton?” Grace asked.

“They believe it enough to go this far.  They’ve either got an unhealthy amount of conviction or they’re insane-”

“Or both,” Imp said.

“Or both.  If it’s conviction, I can accept that they might know what they’re doing.  The same argument you made about Eidolon being an upper echelon member of the Protectorate applies to them.  They didn’t get here by being terrible at what they do.”

“They did get to the point where they’re about to get kill orders put out on them, and you stand to get in trouble with the Wards.”

“What’s the worst they could do?  As a tinker, I’m a protected species.  Not like they’re going to fire me.  If these guys are right, they might need our help.  If they’re wrong, maybe I get in a bit of trouble.  I’m willing to take that bet.”

“And if they’re trying something?  Or if they are insane?”

“Then it’s better I’m along for the ride, isn’t it?”

Grace didn’t respond.  Instead, she turned around and walked away.

When she reached the back of the truck, she hopped in.  “You fucking owe me, Tec.”

She slammed the one door closed, as if to punctuate her irritation with the situation, leaving the other open for my teammates.

Tattletale dropped her armband out the driver’s side window.  The rest of the Undersiders discarded theirs.  There was a pause before Tecton and Grace followed suit, throwing theirs free of the van.

That done, Tattletale put the van in gear.   It was already starting to move by the time Imp and Regent had climbed in and slammed the doors behind them.

With Tattletale’s ability to identify Eidolon’s general location and my ability to narrow the result down with my bugs, it only took a few minutes to find them.  The issue was that we only had a few minutes to begin with.

Eidolon was in the air, flying a safe distance above Noelle.  And Noelle…

I couldn’t get a read on Noelle.  My bugs disappeared into her as they made contact, their signal distorting and cutting off.  It left me with a hazy picture.  She was big.  African elephant big.  I didn’t get much more than that.

They were talking.

Eidolon had his hands folded into his sleeves, like an ancient sensei, legs dangling, his costume billowing around him.  His voice was calm, quiet, in stark contrast to the hot breath that billowed around Noelle as she panted with no less than five mouths.  Four of the mouths were considerably larger than the one owned by the rough human shape on top.

I only caught two words as he spoke to her.  Coil was one.  Cauldron was another.

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Queen 18.5

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The television screen went dark.

Transmission over.  Damage done.

“Well,” Tattletale said, “Funny thing is, that was only the second worst thing she could have done to screw us over.”

“That so?” asked one male cape I couldn’t identify.

“Oh yeah.  I was worried she’d disappear for a few days or weeks, leave us to go looking for help.  Then we’d look crazy when she didn’t show, and whatever concessions we’d made to get you on board would cost us… like how you have us in custody right now.  Either she’s not as smart as Ballistic implied, or she’s feeling some kind of pressure.  I’d lay odds she’s losing the inner struggle for self-control.”

Someone slammed his hands down on the end of the table, interrupting her.  I sent bugs in that direction to identify the speaker.  “Does it fucking matter?”

My bugs traced his armor.  Assault.

“It matters,” Miss Militia said.

“This monster killed one of the good guys.  One of our best.  We let it slide when the Undersiders took Shadow Stalker.  We accepted it when the Nine got to Glory Girl and Panacea.  When they killed Battery.  We let the Undersiders take the Director, and they may have taken the man who’s replacing her.  Are we really going to ignore the most obvious option here?”

“You’re saying you want to turn the Undersiders in.”

“They broke the code.  They’ll break it again.”

“And now we’re effectively on trial,” Tattletale said, “When we should be hunting her down.”

“Which may be exactly what she wanted,” Grue added.

“You may be giving her too much credit,” someone said.  I was having trouble keeping track of who was talking.  There were too many people in the room, and gathering more bugs would potentially give someone cause to think I was massing a swarm in anticipation of a fight.

Not to say I wasn’t.  I’d been collecting a swarm, hiding them in shadows and beneath cars.  I drew them closer to the building, as surreptitiously as possible.

It was strange, to have more awareness of the world beyond the local PRT headquarters than I had of the room I was currently in.

“Did you miss the part where there were six Vistas?”  Tattletale asked.  “She’s a pain to deal with, trust me.  If anything, you’re underestimating Noelle.”

“I’m forced to agree.  Let’s not underestimate any opponent,” Miss Militia said.  “I’m going to put in my recommendation right here, with full knowledge that there are several people present who outrank me, and I will extend my full cooperation if they should decide on a different route.  I think we should put old issues aside and accept any assistance the Undersiders are willing to offer.  With what happened with Vista, it’s all too apparent how this situation could get out of control, with each of us fighting friends.”

She paused, and nobody cut in.

Miss Militia continued, “We treat this situation as we would an Endbringer attack.  Our side is smaller than we might hope for, but our enemy is more vulnerable.”

She looked to one man, and I realized she was checking with the Deputy Director.  Her superior, so to speak.

He offered a single nod.

“I agree,” Triumph said.  My bugs were still on him, from earlier.  “But we’d need you on board, Assault.”

Assault was standing, hands still on the table.  He didn’t respond.

“We can’t get the Undersiders on board if they’re wondering if we’ll backstab them,” Triumph said, calm.  He wasn’t someone I’d anticipated as an ally, here.

“You mean like they backstabbed us during the Leviathan attack?” Assault asked, his voice a growl.  “Broke the truce?”

“What?” I couldn’t stop myself.  My voice sounded so small and feeble, between the recent spell of coughing and the lack of bugs to augment it.  I wished I could have conveyed more of a presence.  How to word it so it didn’t sound like feeble protests?  “I think you’ve been grossly misinformed.”

Fuck me, I sounded like Coil.

“Would Battery want you to put your feelings and prejudices before duty and the safety of this city?”

Assault slowly turned to Miss Militia.  “You want to play that card?”

“I’ll play it.  And if the Undersiders decide to play it fast and loose with the rules again, I’ll be right there beside you, ready to see them answer for it.”

“We’ve talked about that before.  Nothing came of it,” Assault said.

“This time,” Miss Militia said, “Given precedent, the stakes and the dangers posed by villains unwilling to follow the written and unwritten rules of the cape community, I’d be willing to argue and testify for a kill order.”

I felt a chill.

A kill order.  It was what they had in place for the Slaughterhouse Nine.  No holds barred, official heroes would be allowed to shoot us on sight.  Any villain or vigilante that came after us would be allowed to go free with only a brief questioning for the paperwork after killing one of us.  To top it off, anyone would be able to donate or post amounts for our heads; amounts would be added to running totals.  We’d be waiting jackpots for any bounty hunter or assassin looking for a big score.

I wondered if any of Coil’s wealthier investors or contacts would hold a grudge.

There were any number of arguments against her statement.  We’d done good.  Even Clockblocker had been willing to argue that the calls I’d made weren’t entirely without merit.  I could have pointed out that any number of people in my territory would argue I was a force for good, and that it was ludicrous that we were the ones being held to this standard when they’d been at fault for Armsmaster’s breaking of the truce.  Armsmaster, who had gone free because of hero’s prerogative.  But that same bias meant things had been twisted around, and apparently popular sentiment held us at fault for the breaking of the truce.  It was an unpleasant surprise.

Hell, to give us the ‘one last chance’ line with a situation where there was every possibility of friendly fire?  It was tying our hands, putting us at mortal risk one way or another.

“I’m… willing to accept that,” I said, suppressing every argument and every bit of indignation I was feeling.  I looked in the general direction of my teammates.  “If my team is.”

“You’re the boss,” Tattletale said.  She was quick enough on the draw that I suspected there was a reason she’d said it.

“Yeah,” Grue said.  My bugs caught Imp and Regent nodding.

Rachel’s response was last.  “Whatever.”

“Well then,” Tattletale said.  “Now that that’s settled, in the spirit of being allies, I have some news.”

“News?”  One of the unfamiliar capes asked.  A woman with a deeper voice.  “Good news?”

“Oh, it’s terrible news,” Tattletale said.  “Noelle’s lying.”

“About what?” Miss Militia asked.

“About Vista being dead.”

“That’s terrible news?  Is she in danger?”  Triumph asked.  I sensed him leaning forward to get a better view of Tattletale, past the crush of bodies at the end of the room.

“No.  I can’t say how Vista’s doing, because I don’t know the specifics on Noelle’s power, but she was trying to mislead us, talking about how she’d use us up.  Too much stress on it.  If she’d only said it the first time, I’d be more inclined to think it was part of her stream of consciousness, but then she hammered it in, used it to threaten us.  It felt forced.  Didn’t ring true.”

“Can we believe her?”  This from another unfamiliar cape, a man.  It was apparently directed at Miss Militia.

“She’s… frequently correct,” Miss Militia said.

“Vista’s alive and Noelle’s trying to keep that secret?  What’s so terrible about it?”  Triumph asked.

“Because it means she’s capable of producing more clones.  She’s capable of keeping Vista captive somewhere, continually producing agents to sow destruction and apply the kind of pressure she was talking about, and she’s lucid enough to recognize that fact.”

“How the hell do you keep Vista captive?”

“People,” Tattletale said.

“Then let’s wrap this up fast.  Essential details only,” Miss Militia said.  “Any objection to me taking point?  Eidolon’s not usually comfortable with it, and I’m the ranking parahuman in Brockton Bay.”

There was no dissent.

“Then we’re splitting up into teams.  Stick with the teams you arrived with.  Best to fight alongside people you know.  Standard stranger countermeasures are in effect with the clones.  I’ll assume they retain the memories of the original, based on what she said about the clone going after Vista’s family?”

“They do,” Tattletale said.

“Then we’re restricted to visual ID checks only.  No passwords.  I already got in contact with Dragon.  She’s on a mission and will only deploy here if it’s absolutely essential-”

I caught a sigh from Tattletale.

“-But she’s set the armbands up for the coming conflict.  They’ll display a green screen up until you remove them, and the screens will flash and identify other armband wearers at a range of fifty meters.  Be vigilant.  Keep track of every one of your teammates, maintain a visual, no splitting up.

“Chevalier, take your team, follow after my Wards.  If she can detect capes, we’ll need to assign her a thinker classification, and we’ll need to assume that any isolated groups are at risk.  Undersiders?  Take Myrddin’s Wards and pursue Flechette and Parian.  Ensure they aren’t intercepted.  The rest of us will track down Noelle.  Any indications about her location from the video?”

“Yes, but there’s no point,” Tattletale said.

“You know her location?”

“I know her location as of the time of the call, but she’ll be moving already.”

“Where?”

“The west end.  By the mountains.”

“She went from just east of Downtown to the west end?” Miss Militia asked.

“I’d stake money on it.  But again, it’s no use.”

“It doesn’t make sense in terms of timeline,” someone said.  He sounded slightly nasal.  “The distance covered-”

“Think about it,” Tattletale said.

“Vista,” Miss Militia supplied.  “She had Vista’s power.  And she will have that power at her disposal for the duration of this conflict.”

“And Noelle’s fast,” Tattletale said.  “Put those points together and she’s highly mobile.  Ergo, she isn’t going to be anywhere near where she was.”

“Good intel.  In the interest of finding her, I’d like you to accompany my group, Tattletale.”

“No can do.”

No?”

“I was just about to say I was wanting to stop by my headquarters.  I have a few theories on how we could handle this situation, and one off-the-wall idea that needs some verification before I do anything about it.”

“Nothing that puts any of us at risk?”

“No.  It mostly involves the other Travelers.  But I think it’s worth pursuing.”

“If she comes after you-”

Tattletale cut her off.  “She will.  I’ll join the Undersiders and the Chicago Wards as far as going to Ballistic’s territory to fill him in, ensure he knows that she may come after him.  I’ll see if I can’t bribe him into coming with me.  It’ll be a narrow window of time where it’s just me, him and hopefully his flunkies.”

“You make a high value target,” I said, “Especially with Ballistic in tow.  She wants you dead, and she wants his power.”

“I have ideas.  Don’t worry about me.” Tattletale turned.  “Miss Militia, I’ll be in touch by phone, so you know where you’re going.”

“Fine.  I’m ordering more capes to patrol the area around you, then, if you’re sure you’ll be a target.  Are there any other isolated parahumans in the city that we aren’t aware of?”

“Scrub,” I said.

“He’s working under Ballistic,” Tattletale said.  “I’ll get him on board by any means.  He’s one of the few people, short of Flechette, who can deal guaranteed damage to an Endbringer or Endbringer-Lite, and I have ideas about him and how I could use him.”

“Scrub?” one of the visiting capes asked.  The deeper-voiced woman.

“Uncontrolled matter-annihilation bursts in his immediate vicinity,” I said.  “Ex-member of the Merchants, a local gang of dealers and users.”

“Blaster-eight, easy, if not a straight ten, despite his relatively short range,” Tattletale supplied, “But I’m not sure he does what Skitter thinks he does, and that’s why I want to talk to him.”

“See to it,” Miss Militia said.  “Anyone else?”

“Circus, Leet, Uber,” Grue said.  “They were leaving, but-”

“They’re dead,” Assault said.

“They’re very much alive,” Tattletale retorted.  “And they would have gone west to leave the city.  The same direction Noelle went after targeting Vista.  I think that speaks for itself.”

Miss Militia nodded.  “It does.  If anyone has any questions, communicate them while on the move.  Go!”

The capes began flowing out of the room.  We had seated ourselves at the furthest point from the door, so we were stuck inside until the way was clear.

A small group of younger capes hung back.  Miss Militia had left us a contingent of out-of-town Wards.  I couldn’t get much of a sense of them just with what my bugs could give me on their costumes.  They probably weren’t a full team from a city as big as Chicago; they’d be limited to the ones who’d agreed to fight an unknown, A-class threat.  Three boys and a girl.  They were watching us, and I couldn’t even guess at their expressions without the ability to see or feel things out with my bugs.

I was getting tired of this, and my fatigue was wearing on my already thin patience.

“Bitch,” I said.  “Do me a favor and clear that window?”

She didn’t respond, but she didn’t hesitate either.  She was on her feet as soon as she’d lifted Bastard off of her lap, and kicked the plywood free of the frame before anyone could protest.

I brought every bug I’d had outside the building into the room.  They swirled around me, the Undersiders, and the handful of capes on the far end of the room.  I could sense three of the four Wards getting into fighting stances, noted how two of the boys and the girl shielded the one other boy, forming a loose triangle formation between him and us.

The movements of the bugs gave me the ability to feel them out, drawing a complete map of what they were wearing and carrying.

The boy in the very front, the tallest and largest of them, would be a tinker.  The rods that supported his heavy gauntlets were oiled, suggesting they were pistons, and I noted the presence of blunt-tipped spikes inside his gauntlets.  The setup wasn’t unlike the blades in Mannequin’s arms, but these weren’t extending into his body, and I somehow got the impression they were intended for something very different.  His armor was heavy, supported more by engineering than by his own strength, and his helmet covered his face, but not the back of his head, with a single lens on a telescoping nozzle, dead center.

The other boy in front was narrower, with flowing clothes.  He sported a surprising lack of equipment and weaponry.  It gave me the sense of someone who thought of their body as a weapon.

The girl was similar, but I did note that her gloves were reinforced for striking, a framework of some sort of metal, with rivet-like bumps over each knuckle, each etched with a fine design I couldn’t make out and metal filigree feathers at the edges.  She had padding with a similar design and near-identical feathers.

The one in the back wasn’t in a fighting stance.  He stood with his legs together, heels touching, back straight, one palm extended toward us.  He wore a mask that covered one eye and put an oversized lens in front of the other, with spikes radiating from it like the rays of a sun.  His costume was a very lightweight covering of layered and interlocking metal plates, more stylized than functional, but there was a coat-tail length of cloth extending behind the back, hanging to his knees.

I was careful in how I condensed the bugs around me.  I kept my team obscured as I pulled the bugs away from the four wards, leaving enough bugs on them that I could covertly follow their movements.  They hadn’t been stung or bitten, and they didn’t have a clear shot as the bugs moved away from them.  It meant, at least, that they’d get a chance to realize they weren’t under attack.

The bugs filled the necessary pockets of my costume, then carpeted the exterior, including my mask.  They connected to the ends of my hair, and moved beneath it, giving it more volume and helping it come little alive, the ‘ends’ moving in the absence of wind.  Where I had excess, they trailed several feet behind me like the hem of a royal gown.

“That’s better,” I said, augmenting my voice a touch.  It was.  I felt more centered, more secure and confident with the bugs close.  I’d just alarmed the people we’d be working with, but a small show of power would help ensure we got respect and cooperation.

“Your names and powers?” Tattletale asked the Chicago Wards.  She gestured toward the door and we started walking briskly toward the exit.

“Tecton,” said the power-armor wearer.  He had to raise his voice to be heard over his heavy footfalls and the rattle of furniture around him.  He indicated the boy to his right, then the girl, “This is Wanton and Grace.  Our ranged attacker here is Raymancer.”

“Isn’t Wonton a kind of noodle?” Regent asked.

“And Raymancer?” Imp asked.  “They’re really running out of stuff to call superheroes.”

“Play nice,” Grue warned.

“Yeah,” Tattletale said, “A wonton is a kind of dumpling, not a noodle.  Get it right.”

Wanton,” Tecton said, stressing the pronounciation, “Is a breaker-stranger class cape.  He can turn into a localized telekinetic storm.  Raymancer is our long-range fighter.  The three of us are more close-combat types, but Raymancer manages to make it work.

“Grace is a martial artist.  She’s got a power spread.  Faster perception of time, enhanced agility, and a striker-class enhancement for select body parts at a time; invulnerability to both powers and general harm, as well as increased effect on contact.

“And you?  Tinker?” Grue asked.

“Tinker and thinker both.  Architecture and geology sense.  Armor lets me ‘ground’ kinetic energy like you might do with electricity.  These are piledriver gauntlets,” he patted one gauntlet, “For creating fissures, generating localized earthquakes and other controlled demolition.”

“Having tinkers against Noelle is probably our safest bet,” Tattletale said.

“Because she won’t copy their gear,” I said.

Tattletale nodded.

“Good.  Thank you, by the way, for sharing,” Grue spoke to the Wards.  Tecton nodded. Our groups had reached the door that led into the stairwell.  There were officers handing out armbands, and the elevator was in use, forcing us to wait as people got their armbands and hurried downstairs.

“You need our info?”

“No,” Grace said.  Her voice was hard.  “We know who you are.”

Imp cackled, “We’re famous!”

I hung back a second as one officer held an armband and my armor compartment out to me.  I gripped it, but he didn’t let go.

He wanted to play it that way?

I let my bugs drift away from my armor to surround it.  He acted as if I’d set it on fire, letting go and backing away.  I handed it to Tattletale as we passed through the door to the stairs, then strapped on my armband.  I spoke into it, “Skitter.”

How had things gone with Leviathan?  My username would appear.  I held my armband to Tattletale, and she pressed a button.

“No trackers hidden in your stuff,” she said.  “Want help putting this on?”

“Please.  When we’re at the bottom.”

We were at the tail end of the group, and consequently we were the last ones out the door.  The dogs were already mostly grown, and we paused as Bitch increased Bentley’s size to the point that we could ride him.

“We have too many people and not enough dogs,” Grue commented.

“We’ll drive,” Tecton said.  “Just need to requisition a van.”

“I’ll ride,” I said.  “Rachel?”

She nodded.  She was up first, and she gave me a hand in getting up.  I had to fight coughing for a minute.

“Assault’s going to try to screw us over, if we cross paths,” Tattletale said.

“I suspected,” I answered.

“And if this goes south, they will come after us.  The bit Miss Militia said about Battery?  That loses its cachet when people start to feel like the people of this city would be better protected if they turned us in than if we were helping.  We’re going to have to stay on top of this.  Turn around, I’ll help strap on your armor.”

I nodded and turned around.  I moved my bugs out of the way as she fiddled with the straps, threading them through the appropriate areas.  I blinked a few times, looking towards the nearest light source to try to gauge if my vision was any better.  No improvement.  Short of a thorough check by an ophthalmologist, I wouldn’t find out if I’d regain my sight, or how much I’d recover if I did.

Everything I’d been through, and I got the long-term injury as a civilian.

Within two minutes, the Wards had pulled a containment van up beside us, with Tecton behind the wheel and Raymancer sitting in the passenger-side window, holding the headrest of the chair inside to help maintain his position.  The back popped open, and Imp, Regent, Tattletale and Grue climbed in.

Ballistic as our first stop.  Then Parian.

I winced at the pain in my side as Bentley started running.  And maybe collect Atlas while we’re in this area of town.

Tattletale was right.  This situation being classified as a level-A situation instead of a class-S situation wasn’t doing us any favors.  I just had to note how things were different from Leviathan’s attack.  There were no air raid sirens.  People weren’t being evacuated.

Helicopters flew overhead.  I could hear them, even if my bugs didn’t reach that high.  I knew Miss Militia had assigned us capes, for the inevitable event of Noelle sniffing us out and coming after us.  I didn’t sense them on the ground, so I could only assume they were in the air.

Was it better that people weren’t being evacuated?  They weren’t on the streets, in the line of fire if the psycho-Vistas or Noelle came after them.  It meant we didn’t need to deal with unpowered clones.

But it also meant that there were that many more people here if things went south.

There was a potential kill order on our heads, and there were innumerable heroes in the city who had reason to throw us to the wolves, or to Noelle if they thought the situation called for it.  The stakes were higher, and there was a lot more room to fail.  Noelle just needed one lucky maneuver to go from class-A to class-S threat in moments, and we weren’t getting half the backup this situation deserved.

Not to mention that I was worn out.  Physically, emotionally, I felt like I’d been pushed to the limit, wrung out and then pushed to the limit all over again, and that was just dealing with Coil and rescuing Dinah in the past twenty-four hours.  If I got into the past few months, or how the very way I thought had changed-

I felt a touch dizzy just thinking about it.

No.  It wasn’t dizziness.  My surroundings really were off kilter.  The buildings around us and ahead of us were stretching and shifting en-masse.

“Trouble!” I informed Bitch.  I used my bugs to notify the others in the containment van: Vistas.

I had to sweep my bugs over the area before I could find any of them.  One was perched on a rooftop, one block ahead.  She wasn’t in costume.

It had been dumb of me to expect them to be in costume.  I hadn’t even considered it, but Noelle wouldn’t spit out anything but the people themselves.  The bugs noted the hardness of her face, more like a mask than flesh, her angular, almost artificial chin, and the thin hair on top of her head.

The others… too many places to check… I found another, three blocks over, making a beeline towards us.  Noelle had ordered them to space out, to catch us if we crossed her perimeter.

Bastard yelped to my left, skidded to a stop.  Rachel seemed to read something in his response, because she pulled Bentley to a hard left, veering straight into the van’s path.

She was going to hit it?  I had to adjust my grip, lifting my leg out of the way before she could follow through and have Bentley bodycheck the vehicle.  I sensed Raymancer dropping from the window to his seat as the dog hit, only an inch away from serious injury.  The van turned and skidded to a stop, and I fell, rolling.

A block ahead of us, a building toppled.  I ducked my head low and covered it as dust and debris rolled past us as a thick cloud.  The building wouldn’t have hit us, but the debris and dust might have left us incapacitated long enough for the Vistas to act.

We’d ground to a halt, and sure enough, the pseudo-Vista on the rooftop was slowly starting to work on the buildings around us, thinning walls and twisting supports.  She was spreading out the work and laying the groundwork for future collapses, I realized.  The second psycho-Vista, busy trying to close the distance by folding the space between us and her and stepping across the shortened distances, was raising the street between two buildings, creating a steep incline that even Bitch’s dogs would struggle to climb, cutting off one avenue of retreat.

And I was aware of a third one.  The tall Vista Grue had described.  She’d stretched like taffy, her bones curving to the point that each was more a crescent than straight.  Narrow, so thin it felt like she’d break, with a face twisted into a perpetual, distorted scream, she was picking her way through the rubble of the fallen building.  Her power was twisting the largest pieces of rubble around her until they were wisps, chunks of concrete slowly corkscrewing in space until they were nothing more than dust.

Three of them.

And Noelle nowhere to be seen.  Not in my power’s range of four-ish city blocks.  She’d be going for the others.  For Ballistic, or Parian.  These troops were only to slow us down, buy her time to make another move, find another set of powers.

Fuck me.  Noelle was employing the same basic tactics I did: sensing the opposition, strategically deploying the offensive troops, acting as the heavy hitter and problem solver in the center of the chaos her minions generated, working towards complementary or wholly different goals than the ‘swarm’.

Worse, she was better at it than I was.  She was faster, her senses reached further, and the individual at the center of her army was a nightmarish force unto herself.

We couldn’t afford to get caught fighting.  Not while Noelle hit our other allies.

Still flat on the ground, I choked back the next spell of coughs and touched the button on my armband, “We need reinforcements, fast.

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