Queen 18.7

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“He’s talking to her about Cauldron,” I said.  “And Coil.”  I’d signalled the others to exit the van, and we were gathered around Bentley and Bastard.

“Cauldron?”  Tecton asked.

“Cauldron worked out a formula that could give people powers, and the capes with monstrous features are the failed results,” I said.

“The Case 53s,” Grace said.

Tattletale nodded.

I raised my finger to my lips.  To where my lips were behind my mask, really.  I wound up sliding my hands beneath the sides of my mask to plug my ears.  I’d hoped to shut out other sounds and allow myself to focus.  It wasn’t too helpful.

Tattletale murmured something to Grue, and he surrounded us with darkness, leaving a clearing so we could communicate.  It took me a second to realize why.  Were he and Tattletale hoping to mask us from Noelle’s other senses?

Rachel’s dogs could smell through the darkness, couldn’t they?  It wouldn’t stop Noelle if she really was smelling us.

“…saying he knew them…” Noelle said.  Is that a question?  I was having trouble discerning tone.

“…m saying exactly that, Noelle,” Eidolon replied.  “… … very beginning.  Coil involved … … people who made you like this.”

“I don’t believe… No.”

“Eidolon just said Coil was involved with Cauldron.  And that Cauldron is responsible for Noelle,” I informed the others.

“Another of Coil’s schemes?” Grue asked.  “But why would he make Noelle?  What does that serve, really?”

“He didn’t make her,” Tattletale said.  “But the rest is very possible.”

I’d spoken because I was worried I wouldn’t get a chance later, between fatigue affecting my memory and the possibility of an imminent fight.  I’d missed some of what Eidolon said in the process.  “…help you.”

“I’ve had too many…” she said one word that was too complicated for me to make out.  “…of help.  Can’t get my hopes … …”

I was disappointed in how limited these senses of mine were.  They were useful, but the tactile nature of my swarm-sense left me blind as to people’s changes in expression, and listening in like this, I could only catch the individual speech sounds, working out how they fit together into words while trying not to fall too far behind.  I wished I’d devoted more time to trying to figure out my swarm-sight and swarm-hearing.

Eidolon said something, and I couldn’t decipher the word.  He paused, so I grasped that there was some meaning there.  Ended with -tive or -shiv… prerogative?

Alternative.  It connected just as he started speaking again.  “Do you want to die…”

“Yes,” Noelle’s answer was clear.

“I’m …red to die too,” Eidolon said.  There’d been another longer word in the middle there that I couldn’t afford to stop and work out.  “My danger sense tells me you … alone.”

“No,” Noelle said.  She bumped into more of my bugs as she shifted position, moving one large leg that was likely so thick around that three people together couldn’t have reached around it with their hands meeting.  The bugs disappeared from my power’s senses.

“Why don’t you … us…” Eidolon said.  Introduce.  It only made sense as a question:  Why don’t you introduce us?

“Show my hand…”

“Why not…” Eidolon said, and I missed the tail end of it.  Another question?  I was starting to get a headache, trying to process all this.

Something peeled away from Noelle’s side, and when it bumped into my bugs, they weren’t absorbed.  The stature, the length of the hair… another Vista.

I thought maybe Noelle had produced another clone, but others started to emerge from the surrounding architecture, peeling away from nearby walls as if they’d been inside the surfaces.

And they weren’t all Vistas.  I noted the presence of what had to be a Circus, disproportionate and thin, with a hunched back, using her knuckles to walk.  There was another Vista, two large figures who might have been Übers, and on the second floor of the building behind Eidolon there was a narrow young man, shirtless, with a gun bigger than he was.  Leet.

“…not expect you to … a trap,” Eidolon said.  He hadn’t budged, and as far as I could tell, his tone of voice hadn’t changed.

Noelle didn’t reply.  From her vantage point, she had to be able to see through the open, glass-less window behind Eidolon, see the Leet silently setting up the gun.

“Trouble,” I said.

Grue banished the darkness.  “Trouble?”

“She’s ambushing him.  There’s a Leet with a gun inside the building behind him.  Tinker made, has to be.”

“Eidolon knows what he’s doing,” Grace said.

“And if he doesn’t?” Tattletale asked.  “If that gun just happens to be able to punch through any invincibility or whatever it is he’s given himself?”

“He’s better than that,” she said.  “He’s Eidolon.”

“He’s human,” I said.  “Humans make mistakes.”

“He’s Eidolon,” she repeated.

“I’m with Grace on this one,” Tecton said.  “Too dangerous to go.  She has a vendetta against you guys.  It’s not worth the risk that you’d throw his plan into disarray.”

“Then why are we here?” I asked.

“If things fall apart,” he said, “We can act then.  Eidolon’s powers are weakest just after he changes them.  If she creates a clone of him, the clone will be picking the powers for the first time.  There’ll be a window of opportunity where we can take them out.”

“Assuming we can get close enough,” Grue said.

“And there’s a good half-dozen capes around her,” I said.  “One Circus, one Vista that can apparently hide people in two-dimensional space, two Übers and the Leet with the gun.”

“We compromise,” Tattletale said.  “Skitter, draw arrows on the ground, discreet but easily readable.  Point the way to the Leet, okay?  The rest of us hang back, and we wait to make sure we can get Eidolon out of a bad situation if one crops up.”

I started to draw the arrows.  I was going to ask why, but I realized I was missing what Eidolon and Noelle were saying.

“…think you can win…” Eidolon said.

“I hope I don’t,” Noelle replied.

“… … want to die, why fight…”

“Can’t think straight.  My … wiring is all screwed up.  Won’t let me give up.  Too angry, too …less.”  Ruthless? Restless?

Leet was still setting up.  He’d had to find a point where there was an open door, just so he had enough space behind him that the weapon could be positioned horizontally.  The design was crude, hodgepodge.  It resembled Squealer’s work, just going by what I was interpreting with my swarm-sense.  That meant there was an excess of openings and gaps.  The part that burned hottest had to be the power source.  It was at the very back of the gun, at the point furthest from the mutant Leet.

I sneaked cockroaches in through the gaps in the weapon’s exterior and started them chewing through the wiring.

“… … you so sure that you’ll be any calmer when they’re dead?” Eidolon asked.

“I’m not.  … I’m angry, and it’s like the … have been taken off my emotions.  My anger, my …tion, the pain, the hate, … so much deeper.  … it’s not mine.  Not my emotion, so I can still think … .”

“They’re both stalling,” I said.

“Eidolon’s picked the powers he thinks will win the fight,” Tattletale said, “And is waiting for them to get up to full strength.  Noelle’s waiting for her evil-Leet to shoot.”

“I’m trying to sabotage the gun,” I said.  “But it looks like he’ll be ready to shoot any second now.”

Tecton and Grace simultaneously looked at one another, but they didn’t speak.  What was that about?  Was their faith in Eidolon faltering as I described the situation, or was it more about me?

“Less than a minute,” Tattletale said.

“I’m pretty sure we don’t have that long,” I retorted.

The words had only just left my mouth when Leet dropped to a position at the side of the gun, putting one eye to the scope.  The entire weapon shifted on the tripod mount as he aimed.

Eidolon’s head turned slightly, as if he were looking at Leet out of the corner of one eye.

Leet pulled the trigger.

“There we go,” Eidolon said.  The gun wasn’t firing.  He pulled the trigger again, and an arc of electricity ripped out from a space by the power supply, toasting half of the bugs I’d positioned on Leet and sending him sprawling to the ground.  He was back on his feet seconds later, tearing one panel away to get at the sparking power supply.  Tougher than a normal person.

“Attack!” Noelle screamed.

Her minions started to move on Eidolon, but it was Eidolon who acted on the command.  He swept one arm out in front of him, as though he were brushing a curtain aside or waving away some bugs.  There was a crash we could feel where we were huddled together, making the ground shake.

In that very instant, Eidolon had killed the vast majority of the bugs I’d placed in the area.  It took me a second to process what he’d done.

The bugs that were still alive were unable to move, pressed hard against the ground to the point that they were sinking into the soft earth.  Even the more durable cockroaches had died where the ground wasn’t soft enough for them to be pushed down into it.

Through the few surviving bugs, I could get a sense of what was happening.  Tufts of weeds that had stuck up between slats in the pavement now laid flat against the ground, as though they’d been starched and ironed in place.

The effect only lasted a few seconds.  I tentatively moved more bugs into the area to do an inspection, found the air both dense and strangely warm.  The ground had shifted, and both the pavement and the concrete panels of the sidewalk had cracked.  Chunks of rubble had been pulverized, piles of debris pancaked against the ground.  Plywood, siding and wood paneling had been torn from the faces of nearby buildings, rendered into unrecognizable fragments of wood and plastic.  Each fragment had been mashed flat or shoved into cracks and crevices.

The Übers and the Circus were dead, pulverized against the ground with their limbs broken in multiple places, their chest cavities and skulls cracked like eggs.  The Vista was nowhere to be seen.

Eidolon hadn’t moved, and a tentative search told me that Noelle was still standing.  My swarm noted the presence of blood dripping to the ground beneath her massive body.

Eidolon said something, but I didn’t have enough bugs in the area to hear him.

“He just crushed everything around her,” I said.  “Almost as if he dropped a house-sized, invisible anvil around her.”

“Around Imp?”  Tattletale asked, gripping my arm.

“Around Noelle,” I said.  “What do you mean, Imp?”

“The building where Leet was-” Tattletale started, grabbing my arm, “Did he hit it?”

“No.”

“Turn the arrows around!  Give every warning you can!  We just sent Imp in there to deal with Leet!”

I did as she asked, using every bug I could to draw warnings, turning the arrows to point to a retreat.

Damn it!” Grue said, “Why did we send her in there!?  We need to get in there, in case anyone-”

Stay,” Tecton warned, “Evacuate your teammate, but don’t get in Eidolon’s way.”

There was another crash.  Once again, the vast majority of my bugs in Noelle’s vicinity disappeared.  Only a small few who were lucky enough to be in the right place and tough enough to endure the pressure survived.  The bugs who had been flying above Noelle sank into her flesh.

Through them, I could sense her advancing, moving one massive leg forward, relaxing and letting the pressure Eidolon was generating slam the limb into pavement with enough force to crack it.  Then she moved another leg forward.

Eidolon floated higher, maintaining the same relative distance between himself and her.

She dropped lower to the ground, as though she were succumbing to the pressure, then leaped in the same instant the last of the bugs who’d sunken into her flesh were absorbed.  I couldn’t follow what happened next.

There was another crash, another earth-shaking rumble, and even the bugs who’d survived before were obliterated, leaving me utterly blind.  I moved a few bugs closer, to gauge if the effect was still active, and they died as though they’d moved beneath a falling hammer, going splat against the ground at the effect’s edge.

Behind Eidolon, Leet had finished fixing the gun, helped by the fact that the electricity had killed my saboteur-cockroaches.  In the same instant he moved to take position by the trigger, Eidolon turned around, raising one hand in his direction.

And Imp was there.  She drew her knife across the psycho-Leet’s throat.  Eidolon froze as Leet staggered and slumped against the windowsill, blood pouring from the open wound.

I felt a momentary confusion.  Leet was dead?  Eidolon seemed to be reeling as well, but he recovered faster.  He wheeled around to strike out with the effect again.

“Leet’s dead,” I said.

“How?” Tattletale asked.

“Throat slit.”

“Imp.  She’s not listening to instructions.  Did Eidolon attack Leet?”

I shook my head.

She released my upper arm from the death grip she’d been maintaining since Eidolon had attacked.

It wasn’t like her to get that upset.  She usually had more information to work with, so she had a better idea of what was going on, but that couldn’t account for her full reaction.  I wished I could read her expression.

Leet slumped almost entirely out the window.  In a dying gesture, he feebly reached out for the end of the gun, gripping the barrel.  When he fell from the window, he kept hold of the gun.

The tripod skidded, and momentum coupled with Leet’s weight pulled the gun after him.

Eidolon glanced over one shoulder at the body falling from the second floor window, then soared straight for the sky.

I was already sliding from Bentley’s back, heading toward the ongoing battle.  The movements, Eidolon’s reaction, everything spoke to something deliberate, something devastating on Leet’s part.

The weapon’s power supply detonated on contact with the ground.  I didn’t have many bugs in the area to track it, only experienced a momentary sensation from the bugs in the area, much like I sensed when they were burned or electrocuted.  When the sensation disappeared, they were gone, dead.

I could see the actual explosion, a flare of white that I could most definitely make out with bug eyesight and with my own damaged eyes, a glow that rose above the buildings around us.

No,” Grue said, just behind me.  The both of us had stopped in our tracks in the wake of the explosion.

My bugs flooded into the area, to give me a better sense of what was happening.  I caught Noelle stampeding toward a tall building. She had been in the blast radius, and she hadn’t slowed down.  I hoped she hadn’t slowed down, because she was damn fast.

She wasn’t in Leviathan’s speed class, but she was moving at the sort of speed I might expect from a car on the highway.  Maybe the comparison wasn’t so apt, because she was a living thing.  Like a predator, she shifted from a standstill to eighty miles an hour in a heartbeat.  She was more like a rhino than a jungle cat, though, and she was ungainly.  My bugs could track the vibrations of her footfalls better than they could trace her outline, and I could sense how her movements weren’t synchronized.  There was no pattern to how her legs moved; rather, it was as if each leg had a mind of its own.

Still, the sheer power of her movement carried her forward, while having six or more legs meant she always had several feet on the ground for balance.

She reached the base of the tallest skyscraper in the area and scaled it just as fast as she’d moved over ground.  Chunks of concrete were pulled and clawed away as each of her feet found or made footholds.  The debris fell in her wake, but her movement was steady and unfaltering.

Eidolon turned her way, laid down that same pressure he’d applied earlier, tearing a full  third of the building to the ground.  A large part of the upper floors cast straight down, torn free of the building’s housing.  The debris moved straight down with such force that it punched through as many as five or six of the floors below.  Noelle was already moving out of the way as the attack landed, circling around to the other side of the building, still climbing.

She reached the top before the dust from Eidolon’s destruction rolled past us.  I held my breath.  I couldn’t afford another coughing fit.

We made our way to the spot where their fight had started.  Where Eidolon’s power had struck, the pavement had depressed until it was a good two feet lower than where we were standing.

“Imp,” Grue breathed the word, stepping down to the depressed pavement and breaking into a run as he headed for the explosion site.  Tattletale gave me a hand in stepping down as we followed.  It wasn’t necessary, but I didn’t turn her down.

The explosion had shattered one exterior wall of the building, and scorched the inside.  My swarm fanned out to search the building’s interior.  It didn’t take long to find her on the second floor; she was so caked in dust and debris that I’d almost mistaken her for a piece of wreckage.

“Second floor, near the back.  Stairwell is this way.”

Noelle, I realized, was vomiting from one of the three mouths on her lower body.  The slurry contained a human being, naked, with ulcerous growths all over her body.  Circus.

And Noelle wasn’t in contact with Circus.

“Fuck me,” I said.

“Is she hurt?” Grue asked.  It took me a second to realize he meant Imp.

I shook my head.  “I don’t know.  I was swearing because… It’s Noelle.  She’s creating clones, and she apparently doesn’t need to be in constant contact to do it.”

“She does,” Tattletale said.  “Everything the Travelers said indicated it, and my power corroborated.  She’s touched people before and hasn’t produced any of them in the time she was with Coil.”

“Maybe it’s a short duration thing,” I said.  We’d reached the staircase.  I was a little slower than my teammates in ascending the stairs.  My stamina was nowhere near where it needed to be, and my chest was aching as I breathed harder.  It made talking harder.  “She absorbs someone and she can create clones for a little while after.”

“Maybe,” Tattletale said.

We reached the top of the staircase.  The floor wasn’t entirely intact at the landing, so Bitch and her dogs hung back.  With the damage the explosion had done to the exterior wall, I could feel the saltwater scented air stirring my hair.

We reached Imp’s side.  She’d slumped against an intact wall.  I worked with Grue to clear away the pieces of wood and concrete that had joined Imp in being thrown against the wall.

“Turn around,” Tattletale ordered Tecton and Grace.

Tecton listened.  When Grace didn’t immediately obey, he grabbed her by the shoulder and forced her around.

Grue took off Imp’s mask.  My bugs traced her, and I could sense the trail of blood running from one of her ears.

“Hey,” Aisha murmured.  “Owie.”

“Are you hurt?” I asked.

“Ear hurts.  Hurt all over where I hit the wall.”

“That ear’s a ruptured eardrum,” Tattletale said.

“Shitty,” Aisha said, “Least I save money, not having a reason to buy surround sound when I get my own entertainment system.”

“You’re not so lucky.  It’ll heal,” Tattletale said.

“Did you hit your head?” Grue asked.

“No,” Tattletale and Imp answered in the same moment.

Grue smacked his sister lightly across the head.  “Idiot!  You’re supposed to listen when we give you orders.”

“I know why you were giving that order,” Imp said.  “You wanted me to clear out in case he smooshed this building.  Except I knew I couldn’t get out fast enough.  I figured I’d take out that gun guy.”

“Leet,” I supplied.

“Leet, yeah.”

Grue cuffed her across the head again.

“Hey!” Aisha said.  Then she cringed, or winced, as if she was in pain.  “Ow.”

“What?”

In a quieter voice, she said, “Ear hurts when I speak too loud.  Stop hitting me.  It was the right call.”

“You still didn’t listen,” Grue said.  He took the mask from Tattletale and helped Aisha put it on.  “Get up.”

Imp stood, then wobbled.  “Dizzy.”

“Ruptured eardrum will do that,” Tattletale said.  “Let’s go.  We should see what we can do to help against Noelle.”

Grue and Tattletale supported Imp between them as we made our way to the stairwell.  I turned my attention to the fight.  “Eidolon’s holding his own.”

“Told you,” Grace said.

“He’s using that pressure-”

“Gravity,” Tattletale said.

“Right.  He’s using supercharged gravity to try to pin her down and simultaneously take out any of the clones she spits out.  He’s staying out of reach with flight, and he said something before about a danger sense.  Precognition, I guess?”

“Didn’t help him stop the explosion,” Regent commented.

“It let him move well out of the way before it went off,” I said.  “And it’s helping him when Noelle tries to trick him.  She’s… I don’t even know how to put it.  She’s wearing a Vista that can turn two-dimensional, and the Vista is helping keep her other clones alive.  Whenever Eidolon moves like he’s about to drop that gravity magnification on them, she folds Noelle’s clones against whatever surface they’re touching and then pastes herself into Noelle.”

“Can we help Eidolon by taking the Vista out?” Grue asked.

“I don’t know how we’d get the Vista without attacking Noelle,” I said.

“Eidolon can hold onto about three serious powers at a time,” Tecton said.  “If he’s packing flying, danger sense and gravity manipulation, that’s it.  Sometimes he does four, but two or three of them are usually pretty minor.  Enhanced accuracy, whatever.”

“Unless the flying’s an extension of the gravity manipulation,” Tattletale pointed out.  “I’d guess he’s maintaining a kind of power immunity, in case Noelle manages to close the distance or one of her underlings tries to hit him from range.”

I could follow the fight as Noelle leaped to another rooftop.  Being airborne, she might have been vulnerable if Eidolon had been able to devote his full attention to her, given how it wasn’t possible to dodge while midair, but she’d timed the jump to coincide with a killer-Circus’s pyrokinetic attack on Eidolon.

The hero destroyed the Circus with a use of his gravity power, and I could guess that the same power had destroyed any incoming fireballs she’d thrown his way, because he wasn’t even touched by any hot air.  The top floor of the building the Circus had been standing on was still collapsing as he directed another gravity-slam in the direction of Noelle’s landing point.  She was already moving on, leaping to a building face that Eidolon wouldn’t have a line of sight to.

The degree of mobility the pair had meant it was hard to get bugs in a position where I could follow what was going on.  I moved the bugs up through the various buildings, spreading them out as best as I could.

In tracking the movements of the bugs through the buildings, I got a sense of where Eidolon had done damage and where the civilians were.

“He’s doing a fantastic job of avoiding hitting any civilians when he uses his powers.”

“Told you,” Imp said, mimicking Grace’s tone, in the same moment Grace said, “Of course.”

Imp laughed, then winced at the pain it caused her.

“Could be an extension of his danger sense,” Tattletale suggested.

We’d reached the stairwell, and the others declined to go back for the van.  Imp and I got on Bentley’s back.  I sat behind Imp so I could help keep her from falling.  We weren’t broadcasting it to Tecton and Grace, but I wasn’t in great shape, myself.  Even if Bentley wasn’t the most comfortable way to travel with a cracked rib, it still beat running.

I pointed the way, and we headed for the site of the battle.  I wasn’t exactly sure what we could do.  This was a fight between titans.  Eidolon had hit Noelle a thousand times as hard as any of us were capable of, and she hadn’t even slowed down.

I was getting increasingly worried that there was some factor here that would decide the battle, something I should grasp but wasn’t.  It didn’t help that both Noelle and Eidolon had powersets that I didn’t fully understand.  Noelle was apparently pulling clones out of nowhere, despite not having contact with Vista or the other villains.  Getting a sense of any given power and accounting for all the possibilities was hard enough, but Eidolon had a bunch of them at any given time, and they could change.

Eidolon struck at one cluster of clones that were lurking in a half-destroyed building, then hit himself with a gravity attack.  He and his costume were left untouched, but the bugs I had on him were annihilated.  I was left blind.

Why?  The attack was pointless.  There hadn’t been any of Noelle’s servants in the area.

Was he sending me a message?  Did he want us to back off?

Noelle was consistently managing to avoid being struck by any of the gravity attacks, or scrambling out of the way of trouble after sustaining a glancing blow.  She was keeping tall buildings between herself and Eidolon.  He used the gravity manipulation where he could.  He had changed up his tactics, sending chunks of building flying, then spiking them down to the ground with the gravity-slams.  He wasn’t changing powers, though, even though Noelle had adjusted to them.  It was very possible he couldn’t: that if he gave up one power for another one more suited for the situation, he’d be too vulnerable while it grew to full power, or it would be too hard to catch up after the fact.

One of the heads of Noelle’s lower body vomited up a slurry of flesh, with two naked bodies in the midst of it.  A Vista covered in fingernail-like plates of hard flesh and a Leet with one forearm and hand as big as his torso.  The two clones were on their feet in seconds.  The Vista ran in Eidolon’s direction, while the Leet made a beeline for a nearby mall entrance.

I sent a swarm of bugs after them, focusing predominantly on going after Leet.  They weren’t fast, but they would hopefully interfere with his efforts to build anything.

We arrived at the edge of Eidolon and Noelle’s battlefield.  As I drew a swarm together with the bugs in this new area, I found Eidolon and tagged him with some houseflies and wasps.  Best if I knew if he was moving in our direction, so we could clear out of the way.

“Circle around,” I said.  “We keep eyes on one another, but our goal is to clean up clones wherever we can, so we need a broad perimeter.”

“Got it,” Grue said.  Tecton nodded as well.

Rachel signaled, and Bentley ran.  Tecton and Grace moved as one pair, while Regent, Grue and Tattletale formed another group.

The Leet had entered a mall.  The place had been looted, but he stopped somewhere long enough to grab some basic clothes.  He wrenched a piece off a clothing rack and used the ragged end to cut a sleeve off and open up the shoulder enough that he could fit his oversized left hand through it.

The activity bought my bugs enough time to catch up to him.  As they attacked, he started thrashing.  I was in the middle of changing my focus to other things when I noticed something curious.

A rat.

The rat itself wasn’t so unusual.  Large for its size, maybe.  But it had moved in the same general direction as my swarm, and it was wet with fluids.

The vomit?

I’d been flying bugs over surfaces at a height sufficient to catch humans.  It was a waste of energy and bugs to fly them over the ground level, when I generally knew that a road was flat, and any obstacle that was shorter than one or two feet wasn’t worth dwelling on.

Moving my bugs closer to the ground, I found more.  Rats, wet with the fluids of Noelle’s vomit.

She’d absorbed rats?  She wasn’t limited to cloning people.

I made a point of searching the vermin out and killing them with my bugs.  I’d played exterminator once before.  Not over so large an area, but I’d done it.

I pointed the way to Noelle, and Rachel changed direction.  Eidolon was dealing with the last Vista-clone that Noelle had spawned.  The girl wasn’t going on the offensive, but she was using her power to move quickly, using every spare moment to raise lumps of pavement and concrete from the ground, sculpting them into rough images of Noelle.  It would be sunrise, now, but in the dim light, they would be something that distracted Eidolon and potentially drew his fire.

He paused in his attempted murder of the mutant girl and eradication of the statues, striking himself with another gravity-slam.  Again, he killed every insect I had on him.

Was he aware of something we weren’t?

Noelle turned toward a group of people who were evacuating one of the buildings that had taken damage.  Before I could open my mouth to shout a warning or take an action, she lunged into the lobby of the building.

The people she touched were absorbed as quickly and easily as if she were quicksand.  Some were almost drawn in.

It took a minute and a half for her to form the clones within her.  We closed the distance as her body swelled.  When she’d reached critical mass, each of the three mouths on her lower body opened to heave out a tide of blood and gore, along with eighteen or twenty people.  Half of the people she’d heaved out had clothes.  The other half had mutations.  The mutants were on their feet as soon as they could find traction in the sludge, the innocents seemed as though they could barely move.

One of the people was Vista, I realized.  Not a clone – she was costumed.  An extremity, a tentacle or tongue, extended from one of Noelle’s lower mouths to wrap around Vista’s midsection.  The girl was hauled into the mouth and swallowed in a flash.

“She’s keeping them,” I said.

“What?” Tattletale asked.

“The capes she keeps spitting out.  Circus, Über, Leet and Vista.  She’s holding the four of them inside her, so she can keep creating more clones.”

“She doesn’t have to let people go,” Tattletale said.  “Fuck me.  We won’t be able to kill her without killing whoever she’s holding inside her.”

As the mutant clones around Noelle began to thrash and strangle the near-helpless victims, their maker shifted position, stepping on arms and legs.  Her body was oriented more towards Eidolon.  I wasn’t willing to sacrifice bugs to know her exact position, but I got the sense she was looking up at him, despite the fact that there were several buildings between her and him.

She made contact with the bugs I had in her immediate vicinity as she twisted her body to look towards us.

Then she ran in the other direction.

“We rescue the people she just vomited out, clear away the clones,” I said.  I used the bugs I’d gathered near the other two groups to speak to them.  “Then we signal Eidolon and chase Noelle.  We need to get in contact with the heroes.  Whatever Eidolon’s plan is, it’s not working.”

I could track the rats that were crawling out of the vomit.  A dozen of them, and they were homing in on people, savagely biting and clawing into any flesh they found.  I made sure to cluster my bugs in as dense a swarm as I could afford, to keep them contained.  The bugs I didn’t devote to the task worked to disable and distract the more mundane clones.

I might have missed it if I hadn’t had the bugs pressed together to contain the rats.  I had missed it already, countless times.  Wasps, hornets and cockroaches were crawling free of the slurry of flesh that Noelle had vomited into the building’s lobby.  They were attacking my bugs and any people they found.

I couldn’t sense them, and I couldn’t control them.

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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.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Queen 18.4

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We had to take the elevator in two trips, due to the size of our group, and that meant splitting us up.  The heroes were too wary to leave any number of us unsupervised, whether it was on the ground floor or upstairs.

I entered the elevator in the company of Parian, Regent, Bitch, Bastard and Bentley, Miss Militia, Weld, Clockblocker, and Triumph.  It seemed to be an advanced design, the elevator offering so smooth a ride that I might not have been able to tell it was in motion if it weren’t for the bugs elsewhere in the building.

We exited at the third floor.  I could use the bugs that had gathered near the waste bins or in the walls to try to get a sense of who and what was around me.  I recognized the area as the site where I’d entered via Trickster’s teleportation: desks, cubicles, computers and paperwork.  I could sense some people heading into back rooms to rouse people who were sleeping in the office, on benches and in chairs.  All of the officers and out-of-uniform PRT operatives were gathering to look.

One of them stepped forward from the rest of the crowd.

“Deputy director,” Miss Militia said, standing straighter.

“I’m too cynical to think this is an arrest, or to hope that it’s anything more than another ruse,” the Deputy Director said.  “And I can’t help but note these villains aren’t in restraints.”

“It’s not an arrest, and I hope it’s a trick,” Miss Militia replied.

“You hope it’s a trick?” the Deputy Director asked.

“Because I like the truth even less.  A new class S-threat.”

Every officer in the room reacted, a general murmur punctuated with swearing and exclamations.

“Who?”

“An unknown.  Possibly a fourth Endbringer, not yet fully grown.  I’d like to get in contact with PRT thinkers to verify.”

“Waites,” the Deputy Director called out, over the noise from the gathered police,  “Doyon.  Get on the phone.  Patch them through to me as soon as you get hold of someone.”

“We should wake people up,” Miss Militia said.  She glanced at the nearest clock, “It’s four twenty-four in the morning.  If this is real, we’ll want the heaviest hitters ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.  There’s a chance this may be our one chance to kill her.”

“You’re killing her?” I asked, quiet.

“No,” Miss Militia said.  “Nothing’s set in stone.  But there’s a chance it may be our only opportunity and our only option.  If we’re going to do it, I want to do it successfully.”

“No word from Director Calvert?” the Deputy Director asked.

One of the guys in plainclothes spoke up, “He’s gone silent, sir.”

I didn’t miss the fact that nearly a third of the local officers glanced my way.  We were apparently the prime suspects.  Which wasn’t wrong, per se.

The Deputy Director ordered, “Militia, join me in the Director’s office.  Triumph, see to it that the villains are detained and separated.  Interview rooms one and two for Regent and Skitter.  Conference room for Hellhound.”

I could sense Rachel shifting position.

“If I may make a suggestion, sir,” Miss Militia cut in, “I think we should put Skitter in the conference room?  She and Tattletale are our main sources of information.”

“Not complaining,” I said, “But Bitch, or Hellhound if you want to call her that, may be more comfortable in my company.  Her dogs are their normal size.  If she uses her power, you’ll be able to see.  Miss Militia already saw to it I was disarmed.”

“This sounds like you’re positioning people for a maneuver,” the Deputy Director said.

“No.  Just trying to keep things as copacetic as possible,” I said.

“I’d okay it,” Miss Militia said.

“Fine.  Hellhound and Skitter in the conference room-” the Deputy Director paused as the elevator opened with nearly all of Brockton Bay’s remaining parahumans.  “Tattletale to the conference room.  Parian in the legal room.  Grue and Imp in interview room two.  Put police tape and a sign on the door with a notice of Imp’s stranger classification to remind people why it’s shut and staying shut.”

“Hey!”

“Relax, Imp,” Grue said.  “You want to confirm this is alright, Skitter?”

“So long as my teammates go free when trouble starts,” I said.  “But yeah.  I understand the paranoia.”

And I think we could break out if we had to, I thought.  I didn’t say that part.

“This sucks,” Imp commented.

“Suck it up,” Grue responded.  “Come on.”

We split up, with Rachel, Tattletale and I settling in the conference room, at the end furthest from the door.  Triumph stood watch, and the blinds were left open, leaving us visible to the countless officers who were now on their computers and phones.  There wasn’t one of them who wasn’t casting us suspicious glances every minute or so, or peering through the windows of the interview rooms at Regent, Grue and Imp.

I also noted the fact that there were nearly a dozen PRT officers fully suited up in their combat gear, complete with the full-face helmets, the chainmail-mesh covered body armor and containment foam sprayers.  They kept out of the way.  If I was using my eyes and I didn’t have my swarm sense, I wouldn’t have known they were there.

“Sorry, by the way,” I told Triumph.

“The fuck you apologizing for?” Rachel grumbled.  She’d settled into a chair, feet on the table, Bastard curled up in her lap.  One hand dangled, resting on Bentley’s head.

“I attacked his home, remember?  Didn’t know it was him, but Trickster threatened his family.  A fight broke out and I nearly killed Triumph.”

“They know?”  Triumph asked.  “You shared the details already?”

“More or less,” I said.  “Bitch doesn’t care and isn’t the type to use it against you, and Tattletale would have figured it out anyways.”

Tattletale nodded.

“Fuck,” Triumph swore.  “Weld was right.”

“Anyways,” I said, “It… there were better ways to do it.  So I am sorry.”

“Didn’t need doing in the first place,” Triumph said, sighing.  “I was prepared to risk my life the day I graduated from the Wards.  Knew what I’d be getting into.  Week I had clearance, I watched all the video we have of the class S threats.  Leviathan, Simurgh, Behemoth, Slaughterhouse Nine, Nilbog, Sleeper.  I knew what I was getting into.  So I’m not shocked or horrified at the attempt on my life.  What gets me is what you did to my dad.  Set his career back years, if it’s even recoverable, by forcing him to take that stance.  The whole thing, start to finish, was unnecessary.”

“He’ll recover,” Tattletale said, “I’d argue his career was already pretty fucked after the way things went down, here.  Not saying he was to blame, or that he wasn’t, but it’s hard to graduate from mayor to governor when your legacy is a flooded ruin of a city.”

“It’s not that bad,” I said.

Tattletale shrugged, “Not if you’re here, but the photographers and reporters who are getting pictures and video footage of Brockton Bay aren’t going to take pictures of the barely affected areas.  They’re going to get the beaches, the south end and the crater.  Because that’s what sells.  The people outside the city only see the worst bits.  When we’re talking public perception, it’s not what is, it’s the picture that’s painted.”

“And the picture is of a handful of scary and powerful supervillains running a fucked up city,” Triumph said.  “Which is about to get more fucked up if you aren’t pulling our legs.  So yeah, not a good legacy for my dad.”

“We have no reason to pull your leg,” I said.

“Getting access to something else that’s confidential?  Covering your kidnapping of Vista so you’re clear to use Regent’s power on her later?”

“Why would we want her?”  Rachel asked.

“She’s strong.”

“Bitch’s question is a good one,” Tattletale said.  “Yes, Vista’s strong, but why would we want her?  It’d be putting ourselves at risk, for no particular gain.  If we wanted raw power, we’d have kept your cousin.  There’s nothing left in the city that we want or need, so it’s not like we really need her assistance to get a job done.  We have money, we have resources, and anything that’s worth anything is destroyed or taken by now.”

“Then what do you want?” Triumph asked.

“Security.  We have all of the basics.  Shelter, food, warmth, companionship, money.  Anything we do from here on out’s going to involve better securing ourselves where we’re at.  We want to stop visiting villains from getting a footing anywhere in the city unless they’re joining us.  Keep the peace so we keep you guys off our backs.  I wouldn’t mind a system like the Yakuza of Japan’s yesteryear, where we support and involve ourselves in local business, legally, to the point that nobody will be able to shake us.”

“That’s terrifying,” Triumph said.

“Why?  Because we’re bad?  Ooh, spooky,” Tattletale waggled her fingers at him.  “If we do it right, we won’t have to extort anything from the locals.  We can do more to stop the drug trade than any of your guys.  Then we disappear into the background, make enough money off the side benefits of our powers and investments to live a life of comfort.  Mobilize only if and when there’s a new threat.  Build trust with you guys, ensure that any new parahumans go to either your group, go to ours, or they get dealt with some other way.  Ensure that anyone like Hellhound who needs more elbow room or freedom is somewhere they’re comfortable, where they won’t do any real harm.”

“And she’s okay with that?” Triumph asked,  “Being benched?”

“Give me my dogs, don’t bother me, don’t get in my face, I’m okay with whatever,” Rachel said.  Her arm was moving.  It took me a second to realize she was scratching Bastard.

“Calmer than you were a week and a half ago, if that’s the case,” Triumph said.

“Dunno,” Rachel replied.  “That was then.  This is now.”

Triumph sighed.

Weld and Clockblocker joined us.  Clockblocker handed Triumph a can of coke or something like it.

“They behaving?” Clockblocker asked.

“Pretty much.  Tattletale mentioned Dinah, but it wasn’t to fuck with me.  We were talking about their master plan, if you can call it that.  Not much else.”

Clockblocker looked at me.  “Skitter and I had a discussion on the way over.”

“And you won’t have another,” Miss Militia cut in.  She’d stepped out of the Director’s office next door and into the doorway.  “We’re not here to socialize.  We got in touch with some thinkers.  Eleventh Hour says he gets an ‘eight’.  Appraiser’s read says we’re ‘purple’.  Rule for any pre-situ call is we get three points of reference,  going by thinkers alone, that means a third thinker.  The first they were able to get in touch with was Hunch.  Your old teammate, Weld.”

“Didn’t think he rated, yet,” Weld said.

“Chief Director Costa-Brown gave the a-ok, and Hunch says it’s bad.  All together, we’re calling this a threat level A.”

“No shit.  The Undersiders are for real?”  Triumph asked.

Tattletale didn’t wait for him to get an answer, “That’s threat level S.  S-class.”

“The Chief Director of the PRT determined it was an A-class threat.”

“Bullshit,” Tattletale said.  “S-class.  I know Appraiser offered a purple-velvet diagnosis for his previous ratings on Endbringer attacks, so that’s not the reason it’s so low.  Eleven’s score of eight has to be above the seventy-five percent mark, and an answer as vague as Hunch’s is going to be a seventy-five percent exact, as per section nine-seven-six, article seventy-one.  That’s three values that have to be above the threshold for declaring a threat level S situation.”

“How the hell do you know all that?” Weld asked.

Tattletale waved him off.

“The Chief Director made the call.  We’re standing by it,” Miss Militia said.

“We’re talking class-S, even if you ignore pre-situation verification.  Section nine-seven-five, article fifty-seven.  Classifying high level duplicators and villains who operate to any exponential degree.  Nilbog and Simurgh both count, and Noelle does too.  If the powers generate more instances of power generation or recurring effect in an epidemic pattern…”

“She’s not a self duplicator,” Miss Militia said, “And yes, she’s creating powers, but they’re copies of other people’s powers.  They’re not exponential or self-recursive in effect.”

“You’re splitting hairs.”

“And,” Miss Militia said, “She doesn’t create more powers on her own.  She has an intrinsic requirement of needing contact and time to absorb.  She doesn’t meet the criteria as they stand.”

“Still splitting those hairs,” Tattletale said.  “Her threat level zooms up to S as soon as she gets her hands on anyone who can enable something like that.  Like, say, any tinker.”

“I don’t know why we’re even discussing this, when you seem to have our operations manual memorized and you’re capable of realizing it for yourself,” Miss Militia said, “but it doesn’t bear dwelling on.  The difference in our response to a class A crisis and a class S one is minor at best.  Some tertiary protocols change, we won’t necessarily have Alexandria, Legend or Eidolon assisting, and there’s no penalties for anyone who subscribed to the critical situation roster if they sit this one out.”

“Which they will,” Tattletale said.  “You’re ignoring the fact that people are inherently selfish.  It takes something to shake them from that reality, and that’s not common.”

“I think you’re underestimating the inherent goodness of people who dedicate their lives to heroism.  I know for a fact we have ample volunteers already informed on the situation.  They’re en route.”

“If the heroes aren’t showing in full force, others won’t either.” Tattletale said, “And there’s no epidemic protocols with a class-A.”

“We have one tinker,” Miss Militia said.  “Kid Win.  Armsmaster is no longer on the premises.  We have no duplicators.  The risk is one we can control, either through the organization of our forces or turning any combatants with problematic interactions away.  Epidemic protocols are unnecessary.”

“Armsmaster escaped, you mean,” Tattletale said.  “And it won’t be that easy.”

“Maybe not, but that’s the word from above.  I’m not interested in debating this further, Tattletale.” Miss Militia said.  She turned her head slightly toward me, clearly expecting me to comment along the lines of what I’d said in the containment van, about authority tying one’s hands.  When I didn’t rise to the challenge, she said, “We’re having a strategy meeting in a matter of minutes.  The first phase of the response will be teleporting in momentarily, but our best mass-teleporter died in the Leviathan attack, and the process is slow.  I’ll be releasing the rest of the Undersiders to join you soon.”

“As soon as you have enough extra bodies to watch us,” Tattletale commented.

“Yes,” Miss Militia said, terse.  She looked at the three young heroes who had gathered at the wall by the door.  “Be good.  Excuses or no excuses, it looked bad when we had the last incident with a break in the truce.  Don’t let Tattletale provoke you, don’t provoke them.”

“You can’t blame them if they get emotional,” Tattletale sighed.  “It’s only natural, three young men, three young women, a possibility of Capulet-Montague forbidden love between hero and villain…”

“My warning goes for you too, Tattletale.  I already instructed Triumph to shout at the first sign of trouble.”

“I’ll be angelic,” Tattletale said.

“Good.  You should also know that Parian is leaving.  She asked me to tell you, and to let you know she’ll be at her territory.”

Parian was gone?  Shit.

“I wouldn’t have let her go,” I said.  “For a lot of reasons.”

“It’s unfortunate, I agree,” Miss Militia said, “But we’re not in a position to stop her, short of fighting her.  She was adamant about not wanting to participate in this fight.  Flechette is escorting her back.”

“And however Noelle found Vista, she might find Parian and Flechette and target them the same way,” Tattletale said.

“Maybe.  They both have devices to alert us.  In the worst-case scenario, they can inform us if something’s happened.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to prepare.”

Miss Militia didn’t wait for a response.  She was already striding down the hall, gesturing to get someone’s attention.  Someone too small and too young to be a cop.

The three boys at the other end of the long table started talking among themselves.

“This is falling apart before it begins,” Tattletale commented.

“I get the impression Miss Militia’s spooked,” I said.  “She’s tense.”

“Anyone would be,” Tattletale replied.  “Doesn’t help that the last Endbringer fight ended her predecessor’s career.”

I nodded.

“Our muscle’s going to suffer in this fight,” Tattletale said.  “Your bugs, Bitch’s dogs, they can’t hurt her, if she absorbs things on contact.  Not unless we want clones of Bitch’s dogs running rampant.”

“The heroes have long ranged fire,” I replied.  “Kid Win, Miss Militia, Triumph.  So Bitch and I adopt a support role.  The dogs get our key players around the battlefield, if Bitch is willing.”

Rachel grunted something that could have been agreement.

“And I might be able to tie Noelle up without the bugs touching her.  Grue can slow her down, Regent could do the same.” I finished.

“Regent couldn’t use his power against Leviathan.  Can you imagine him getting Leviathan under control?”

“I’d rather not,” I admitted.  “There’s a sweet spot as far as rep goes.  Having a pet Endbringer puts us in the ‘too scary to be allowed to live’ category.”

“We’d have to do what the Slaughterhouse Nine do, win frequently enough against high odds that people can’t afford the losses.”

“Would mean we have to go mobile,” I said.  “So we have time to recuperate while the enemy tries to track us down.  Anyways, enough ‘what if’.  Let’s get back on topic.”

Tattletale nodded.  “Imp?”

“For this coming fight?  Rescue,” I said.  “The enemy won’t target her, they might not target anyone she can get in contact with.  Fallen allies, captives, Imp gets them to safety.”

Tattletale nodded.  The tone of her voice shifted fractionally as she said, “You guys can chime in at any point here.”

The young heroes had stopped talking and were listening in.

“I don’t know what you want us to add,” Clockblocker said.

“Interactions,” I said.  “Maybe we put you on Bentley’s back.  We won’t have to kill Noelle if you can tag her.  We’ll be able to keep her frozen long enough for us to erect some form of containment.”

“Me?  On the dog?”

“You scared?” Rachel asked.

“I think anyone would be a little scared.  You can’t tell me they aren’t a little intimidating.”

“Your power nullifies any threat they could pose,” I said.

“If it closes its teeth around my arm, the fraction of a second it takes my power to kick in is going to buy it time to dig in just a little.  Jaws clamped on my arm, I freeze it, sure, but then every time it unfreezes, it closes a little more before I can freeze it again.  No thank you.”

“He’s scared,” Rachel said.  She scratched the top of Bastard’s head, and I realized she was talking to the wolf cub that was sleeping in her lap.  “You’re the stuff of nightmares.”

Clockblocker snorted, then got caught up in a murmured conversation with Weld and Triumph.  They were facing our way as they talked.

I tried to ignore them, focused on taking deep breaths, controlling the intake so I wouldn’t start coughing and humiliate myself in front of the local heroes.

“You okay?” Tattletale asked.

“Coughing less.  I feel like I’ve maybe got the worst of it out of my lungs and throat.”

“I meant you.  You’ve been quiet.  You weren’t saying as much as you normally might when I was talking to Miss Militia.”

“Thinking.”

“Important you keep doing that,” she said.  “But not if it’s getting you like this.  Unless you’re putting together a master plan.”

I shook my head.  “No plan.  Just fatigue and-”

I stopped.  Each and every officer in the next room was turning their heads.  I used my bugs to feel out the subject.  A hood, with the warmth of a faint natural glow from beneath, with the same effect around his hands, with his loose sleeves.  I noted that a glass helm like the one Clockblocker wore fit over his face beneath the hood.  People went out of their way to clear out of his path, to such an extent that I might have thought they were in front of an elephant and not a man.

Eidolon entered the conference room and grabbed the seat just to the right of the one at the far end of the table.  He swept his cape to one side before he sat down.

“Didn’t think you were coming,” Tattletale said.  “With it being just a Class-A threat.”

“The infamous Undersiders,” Eidolon spoke.  His voice reverberated slightly, an effect similar to Grue’s.

“And the famous Eidolon,” Tattletale retorted, “while we’re doing the reverse-introductions.      I thought I told Miss Militia that we shouldn’t bring in anyone we can’t beat in a fight.”

“Don’t concern yourself over it,” Eidolon said.  “I can render myself immune.”

“We won’t know until it happens,” she replied.

There was a pause.

“Tattletale.  Are you looking for a chink in the armor?”

“You can’t blame me, can you?  If we wind up having to fight you, then it might be all over.  So I’m gathering intel.”

Eidolon didn’t reply.

“Okay, sure.  Fine,” Tattletale raised her hands in surrender.  “It’s cool.”

Eidolon turned away to follow the murmured conversation between Weld, Triumph and Clockblocker.  Tattletale rested her elbows on the table, rubbed at her eyes.

“Tired?” I asked.

“Exhausted.  Been using my power all night, my head’s throbbing, and this whole business with Noelle hasn’t even started.”

“Take a nap,” I suggested.

“No time.  And I do want to make sure I have some ideas in advance, for anyone we might have to face.  Noelle is going to target Eidolon.  If we fight him, we’ll have to use his weaknesses against him.”

“Tattletale,” Eidolon cut Clockblocker off mid-sentence, his voice carrying across the room.  “Could you elaborate?”

“Don’t worry,” she said, “No weaknesses you don’t already know about.”

“Is that so?”

“You’re losing your powers,” she said.  “Not fast enough that it matters today, but enough that the difference is appreciable.”

It was hard to read Eidolon’s body language with the few bugs I’d permitted myself.  He was leaning forward slightly, and his upper arms pressed against the fabric of his costume as he flexed or clenched a fist.

“And how would you know this, if it were true?”

“Because any other day, with you heroes being as short on teleporters as you are, you’d be helping bring people in.  You’re conserving your strength.  It might even be a long term fear, like you’ve only got so much power to use over your lifetime before it’s all spent.  Candle that burns twice as hot, or something.”

“Simple deduction?  Did you consider that I am not teleporting people because there’s a shortage of volunteers?”

“That would contradict what Miss Militia said, and she wasn’t lying.  And it doesn’t fit the overall picture.  Alexandria-”

Eidolon slapped his hand down against the table.  A forcefield expanded from the impact site, forcing Rachel and I out of our chairs and against the wall.  I slumped down to the ground, grabbing my rib, and coughed painfully.

The forcefield had kept Rachel and I out, but Tattletale was inside with Eidolon.  The sounds from within were muffled.

But I had bugs on both Eidolon and Tattletale, and I could almost make out their words.

Tattletale was speaking.  “…reason you … this situation a class-A threat isn’t because it doesn’t fit.  …did it is because Alexandria wanted an excuse not… …  You came because you needed to prove something to yourself.  Test … measure of your power in a …nse situation… work best when… danger.  This is best challenge you’ll have…”

“…treading dangerous waters,” Eidolon spoke.  There was no growl in his voice, no anger, irritation or emotion at all.  Only calm.  It made him easier to understand.

“…can live with danger, … it’s interesting.  Awfully interesting… why Alexandria’s not coming… … me?  …secret.”

Eidolon said something, but his tone had changed and I wasn’t able to switch mental gears fast enough.

“…you?”  Tattletale asked. “Years…-”

“The fuck!?” Rachel snarled.  Bentley growled as if to accompany her words.  He was already growing.

“Relax,” I said, before I started coughing again.  “They aren’t fighting.”

“He knocked me over!”

I could see Miss Militia and Assault at the other end of the room, but the forcefield bubble was blocking us.

“What happened!?” Miss Militia shouted.

I tried to respond, coughed instead.  My voice was weak with the fresh rawness of my throat as I did manage to utter a reply, “Eidolon flipped…”

“Eidolon attacked!” Rachel yelled.

“Did she provoke him?”  Miss Militia asked.  Her gun was raised.

“No,” I managed only a whisper.

The forcefield winked out.  Eidolon was still sitting, he hadn’t moved except to slap the table with his hand, but Tattletale was standing.

“Just wanted to have a private conversation,” Eidolon said.  “I’m sorry.  I’ll be getting some fresh air.”

With that, he stood and strode out of the room.  He made his way to the stairwell and I could track him moving to the roof.

I picked up my chair and sat, still coughing intermittently.  Rachel was still standing, and her dogs were still growing.  I gestured for her to sit.

She just glared across the room.

I gestured again, but the force of the motion made my chest hurt and I started coughing.  Before I recovered, Rachel sat with an audible thud.  She kicked her boot against the edge of the table, hard, and left it there.

“What did you do?” Miss Militia asked.  She was facing Tattletale.  I could see the other Undersiders behind her.

“Was just commenting that it seemed odd he wasn’t helping you guys out with teleporting people in,” Tattletale said.

“You said more than that,” Weld noted.

“I’m tired, he’s tired, we talked it out.  All copacetic,” Tattletale said.  She leaned back and stretched.

“I’m not so sure,” Miss Militia said.  “Skitter, are you alright?”

“Recent injury,” I managed.  “Will be fine in a minute.”

Miss Militia nodded.  Not much sympathy, but I couldn’t blame her.  “Then let’s get things underway.  Everyone, please get seated, or find space to stand.”

Grue, Regent and Imp joined us, and Grue set his hands on my shoulders as he stood behind me.  He rubbed my exposed back where the armor panel was missing as I coughed hoarsely once or twice.

I counted the people in costume with my swarm.  It wasn’t nearly as many reinforcements as we’d had against Leviathan.  I saw Chevalier and Myrddin, but didn’t recognize anyone else.  There were the Wards and Protectorate members from Brockton Bay, with perhaps twenty more.

“Tentative ratings, based on what we know, we have her down as a brute eight, a changer two and a combination of striker and master with a rating of ten.”

“Too low,” I heard Tattletale murmur.

I suppressed a cough, managed only a choke.  It drew more attention to me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone was already paying way too much attention.  I was wearing my older costume, and somehow felt more juvenile, more exposed.  I didn’t have the covering of bugs over the exterior of my costume like I was used to, either.

“Her ability allows her to create clones of anyone she touches.  The PRT office believes she’s a class-A threat, but Tattletale’s expectation is that this individual has the potential to become an Endbringer.  We’re moving forward with extreme caution.

“Our primary issue at the moment is that we can’t yet locate her.  She has one hostage, a young member of the Wards.  The girl was attacked en route to her home.  Locating our target quickly is paramount, but we should also be careful to avoid giving her a chance to use her power on us.  For the time being, we will be operating with the same protocols and plans that we employ against Hadhayosh.  Hit and run, maintain a safe distance as priority number one, and employ continuous attacks.  We’ll be dividing you into teams-”

Miss Militia stopped short as an officer pushed his way through the people near the door, Chevalier included.  He handed Miss Militia a phone.

She turned around and pressed a button on the wall.  The faux-wooden panels separated to reveal a widescreen television.

It flickered on.

Her?” Kid Win asked.  “That’s the class-S threat?”

“She’s bigger than she looks,” Tattletale commented.

I was disappointed I couldn’t see.  I tried looking at the screen with my bugs, but they saw only a rectangular glow.

“Quiet,” Miss Militia said, “It’s a webcam feed.  I’m setting it so we’ll be transmitting audio only… Hello, Noelle.”

“Who is this?”  Noelle asked.

“She talks,” I heard someone whisper.

“Miss Militia,” Miss Militia said, louder.

“The gun woman.  Who else is there?”

“Other local heroes,” Miss Militia replied.

“Oh.  There aren’t more?  The Undersiders didn’t get in touch with you?”  Noelle sounded funny.  Her voice was hollow, almost disappointed.

“It’s just us right now.”

“Because I smell more,” Noelle said.  “Which makes it hard to believe you.  But you can lie if you have to.”

“You can smell us.”

“Not you.  But it doesn’t matter,” Noelle’s voice broke.  She stopped.

“Are you there?” Miss Militia asked.

“I’m here.  I was telling you it doesn’t matter.  I only called because… I killed her.  The space-warper.  I’m so bad with the names.  So many names for you capes.  I only ever paid attention to the powers.”

“You killed Vista,” Miss Militia said.  “Why?”

“Because I could.  Because I was hungry, and I’d already used her up.  See?”

There was a brief pause, then a number of gasps and breathless words all at once.  One of my bugs caught a noise from Clockblocker, deep in his throat.

Grue leaned close, whispered in my ear, “Five Vistas.  All but one of them have faces more like masks than skin and muscle.  Hard, rigid.  Wearing borrowed clothes, not costumes.  The fifth one might be taller than I am, and her bones look curved.”

I nodded.

There was a thump from the microphone on Noelle’s end, presumably as she turned the camera back to herself.

“Just wanted to let you know that.  I’m sorry.  This isn’t like me.  It’s the stuff that’s growing on me.  I have my memories, and when I think, it’s always my thoughts, but it feels like it’s taking over my subconscious, and when it wants something the hormones and adrenaline flood into my body and my brain, so I feel what it feels.  Twists the way I think.”

“Why Vista?”

“She was alone.  And could smell how strong she was.  Read about her online, too.  Internet was all I had for a long time.  Now I’ve got them.  They’re pretty obedient, and it’s nice to have company.  I haven’t had any physical contact with anyone for a while, and they like giving me hugs.  Except the sixth.”

“Sixth,” Miss Militia said.

“Not as obedient.  She ran off.  Gibbering something about killing her family.”

Miss Militia thrust her index finger toward the door, and the Wards were gone in a flash, running for the stairwell.

“Can we negotiate?”  Miss Militia asked, her voice oddly calm given the ferocity of the gesture and the threat against one of her colleagues’ family.

“Not really a negotiation… but I can offer you a deal.”

“What’s the deal?”

“Kill the Undersiders.  Or hand them to me so I can torment them before I kill them.  You can do it any time you want to.  Just… knock them out, or hurt them, or find a way to tell me where they are.  If it’s a choice between hurting one of you or hurting one of them, I’ll hurt them.  I promise.  If I’ve taken someone hostage, you probably have a little while before the hostage is dead.  Just know that I’ll trade you any of my hostages for any Undersider, any time, any situation.  When the Undersiders are all dealt with, I’ll sniff out and kill all of the clones I’ve made, then I’ll let you try to kill me.  Or imprison me.  Do whatever.  I don’t care anymore, because I don’t think I’ll be me much longer.  I don’t think I’m even me right now.  Not the me I was… I’m rambling.

“They took away my only chance.  My only chance to get well.  Until they’ve paid for that, I’m going to make this hard on you, heroes.  I don’t think I can die, and I don’t think I’m that easy to stop in other ways.  I’ll hunt you down, I’ll copy you until you’re all used up, let your copies ruin your reputations and your lives, and then I’ll eat you.  I’ll do it to each of you, one by one, until you realize it’s easier to go after the Undersiders than to come after me.  Give me my revenge, and this ends.”

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Queen 18.3

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Miss Militia didn’t respond.  She stared down the length of her gun at Tattletale.  I could believe that if we gave her cause, any of the rest of us were an instant away from getting shot.  We had bulletproof armor, but there wasn’t anything saying she wasn’t using the fanciest armor-piercing rounds.  Her power supplied whatever hardware she wanted.

“We didn’t take Vista,” I told her.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Tattletale said, “We’d take her, do that sort of damage, and then come back?  Approach you guys peacefully?”

“I’m beginning to see why Armsmaster was so frustrated with you, Undersiders.  Every time we run into you, we’re left in the dark, vast amounts of information missing from the overall picture.  There’s always surprises.  So I’m paying very close attention to what you are saying.  Case in point, you say Vista was taken, and not murdered.”

“I don’t think she was killed,” I said.  Tattletale nodded.

“That’s good to know,” Miss Militia said.  She sighed, “When you’re going on the offensive, there’s nothing held back, you don’t pull any punches, short of murder… and you apparently came damn close with Triumph, Skitter.”

Triumph folded his arms.

She continued, “If you’re not trying to kill us, you’re approaching us with open arms, asking for help, putting us in a situation where we can’t accept without breaking our rules, but refusal comes at a cost.”

“It’s that second bit,” Imp said.  Some of the heroes wheeled around to find her standing on the opposite side of her group.  I managed to hide my own surprise.  Imp added, “We’re here because we need help.  This is a nasty one, too.”

Miss Militia turned back to me, and her voice was a little harder.  “I thought so.  It’s your pattern.  Except there’s always information missing.  Information withheld.  You said you were indirectly responsible for this?”

“You caught that,” Tattletale said.  She looked at me.  “Should we dish out the dirt?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Have to anyways.”

“Full disclosure,” Tattletale said.  “We were working for Coil.  The Travelers were too.”

Miss Militia didn’t move a centimeter.  Some of the other heroes did.

“He’s dead, in case you weren’t aware,” Tattletale said.  “And the Travelers are a little upset, because they were counting on him to help them out.”

I could imagine Tattletale smiling.  She’s misdirecting them.  They think he died at the debate, but she’s talking about the real death.  The death at my hands.

Miss Militia shook her head.  “I doubt this was the Travelers.  We heard howling, and this wasn’t Genesis.  Analysis of her file by some of our top guys suggests she has limits to the strength of whatever forms she’s chosen.  Strong, yes, but not enough to tear half the wall off the front of a building in the time the witnesses described.  I would, however, believe Hellhound’s dogs could do it.  Besides, Genesis has never been on record shapeshifting to resemble someone or something.”

Never? I thought.  She crafted her bodies in a dream state.  I knew she’d made a body that resembled her real self, but the rest…  Did it take too much effort to get the aesthetic details exactly right, to the point that it cost her in other departments?

“When the Slaughterhouse Nine attacked,” I said, “Do you remember who they targeted?”

“Armsmaster, Regent, Hookwolf, Panacea.  Two more.  With the appearances Mannequin and Burnscar made in the Boardwalk, we belatedly discovered Hellhound was another, and we were theorizing you were the last of them, Skitter.”

“I got in their way too many times,” I said.  “But they didn’t want me.  But the last one was Noelle.”

Her gun shifted a fraction towards me.  I wasn’t sure she was aware she was doing it. “Noelle?”

Tattletale spoke up, “The Travelers have two other members who don’t see much action.  Oliver handles their day-to-day stuff.  Finds and prepares places for them to settle down, gets food, looks after Noelle.  Noelle…”

“New York,” Miss Militia interrupted.  “She’s the one that’s responsible for the disappearance of those forty people?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Tattletale said.

“The reason the Travelers have been operating like they are,” I told Miss Militia, “Going for the quick and easy cash grabs and constantly moving, it’s been for her sake.  Trying to find someone who can help.  They found Coil, or Coil found them, and they thought they had the answer they needed.  Except now Coil’s dead.  Noelle’s snapped, and it’s very possible Vista was her first captive.”

“What does she-” Triumph started.  He stopped as Miss Militia raised one hand.

“You’re good at this, Undersiders,” she said.  “But I do learn my lesson.  I won’t get caught up in your story, I know you’ll have to give me the details, if this situation is as serious as you say.  But let’s postpone that for a minute.  Why don’t you start off by explaining how you’re indirectly responsible for this.”

I turned to Tattletale.  She gave her head a small shake.

“What aren’t you telling us?”  Miss Militia asked.

“Stuff,” Tattletale said.  “Surrounding the circumstances of Coil’s death.  But getting into the particulars would create more problems than it solves, for you guys and for us.”

“I dunno,” Assault said, from behind Miss Militia, “I doubt staying quiet is going to help you much.”

“Did you have something to do with the explosion at the town hall?”  Miss Militia asked, and there was a note of anger in her voice, “The way things went wrong?  The deaths of those reporters, the injuries sustained by the retired Director and the candidates?”

“No,” I said.  “I swear on everything I stand for that I, we, didn’t play any part in planning or setting that in motion.”

“You can understand if we don’t take you at face value on that, nice as it sounds,” Assault said.

“If it helps,” Tattletale said, “Get your hands on the evidence from the scene, some of the blood and bits from the bodies.  Send them out of town.  Discreetly.  Get another lab to run DNA tests.”

“Why?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “It’s pig meat.  Almost all of it.  Glued together with transglutaminase.  Human bone, and human blood, probably, but if you look for it, you’ll find antifreeze.”

“Antifreeze?”

“Glycerol.  It’s how they store it at blood banks.”

“You’re saying it was staged,” Miss Militia said.  “Despite the fact that we had Wards on scene, innumerable witnesses.”

“Despite that.”

Miss Militia straightened a fraction, “And of course, we can’t check it now.  So you’re expecting us to work with you in the meantime, help you with whatever problem you’re suggesting you’re partially to blame for setting in motion, and when the lab tests come in, long after the situation’s resolved, we’ll find you were lying.”

Assault added, “And somehow, conveniently, you come out ahead when all’s said and done.  A handful more of your enemies injured or dead.”  There was a hint of emotion punctuating the end of the statement.  Battery.

“Telling the truth,” Tattletale said.

“This situation’s serious,” I told Miss Militia, “And if you do what we’re suggesting, I can assure you, we don’t wind up in a better position at the end of this.”

“Why’s that?” Miss Militia asked.

It was Grue who answered her, breaking his silence with his deep, eerie voice, “Because we’re recommending you call in the big guns.  Call in everyone.”

“Class S threat,” Tattletale said.  “Or damn near.”

The tip of Miss Militia’s gun wavered as she started to react and then stopped herself.  Neither she nor any of the heroes moved or spoke for long seconds.

When she did speak, she said, “There’s six class S threats active in the world at large.  The Endbringers make up three of them.  The Slaughterhouse Nine as a group are a fourth.  You’re saying this Noelle is on par with one of them?”

“She’s a nascent Endbringer,” I said.

“Bullshit!”  Triumph shouted, not a half second after I’d said it.

“Fuck me,” one of the Wards said.  It was only after he opened his mouth again that I saw it was Weld.  “Please tell me this is another one of Tattletale’s mind-games.”

“Explain.” Miss Militia demanded.

“She’s maybe a nascent Endbringer,” Tattletale said.  “It’s one theory.  Her powers are transforming her, and she’s getting less human, getting tougher and more desperate every day.  Coil was keeping her contained, with heavy vault doors and promises of a fix.  Now she’s free and she’s pissed.”

“And this hypothetical individual has Vista?” Clockblocker asked.

“It’s very likely she has Vista,” Tattletale confirmed.  “Coil’s precog said she wouldn’t cause any real damage until dawn.  That’s… one hour and twenty-nine minutes from now.  I guess this kind of incident doesn’t count as anything serious.”

“You have Coil’s precog in your custody?”  Miss Militia asked.  “Dinah Alcott?”

“I took her home,” I said.  “Her powers are currently disabled, so resist the urge to go to her and ask her for help with this situation.  Everything she’s been through, she deserves some peace.”

“Assault,” Miss Militia said, “Let’s get some confirmation that at least some of what they said is the truth.  Get in touch with the Alcotts.”

“On it,” he said.  He drew a rugged smart phone from his belt and put it to his ear.

“I think it’s time you guys offer the particulars on this ‘Endbringer’,” Miss Militia said.

“She’s as strong as Leviathan, physically,” Tattletale said, “She’s not as tough, based on what I’ve seen.  Have you read the notes on what I told Alexandria after Leviathan’s attack?  About the density of Leviathan’s body?”

Miss Militia nodded.  “Higher density as you penetrate deeper to the core, to the point that it bends the rules of how molecules and atoms should work.  It makes sense.  Armsmaster had a molecule-severing weapon that couldn’t cut through all of Leviathan’s hand, and it explains why nearly all the damage we do is so superficial.”

“Noelle doesn’t have that yet.  I’m not sure if she ever will.  We don’t know if she’s really becoming an Endbringer or not.  What I’ve seen of her was only partial, a camera feed with dim lighting on the other end,” Tattletale said.  “But everything she eats gets added to her biomass, and I think she’ll probably reach a critical point and stop growing, start fortifying what’s already there instead.”

“She’s big?”  Weld asked.

“She’s big,” Tattletale said.  “And if she gets her hands on you, she’ll eat you whole.  Spit you out along with a copy.  Copies with powers like yours.  Stronger, tougher, meaner.  Understand?  When this fight starts, it starts for real.”

“She duplicates people,” Miss Militia stated.

“And the duplicates aren’t on our side,” Tattletale replied.  “You’re going to have to call for backup at some point, it’s just a question of whether you do it before shit goes down or after.  When you do get in touch with the PRT heads and get the a-ok to call a red alert or whatever it is you do, you’re going to want to be very careful about the kind of cape you request, because we might wind up fighting them.”

Assault had finished his phone call and was waiting for Tattletale to finish talking.  Miss Militia turned her attention to him, and he said, “Story checks out.  Kid’s at the hospital, recovering from a long stint of drug abuse.”

“The situation they’re describing is too dangerous to be ignored.  We’ll move forward with this.  Tentative cooperation,” Miss Militia announced.  “In exchange for our trust and our assistance, the Undersiders will give us one hostage.”

“How about me?” Imp offered.  Her tone was light, joking.

“Someone who we can keep track of,” Miss Militia said.  “Rachel Lindt.  Hellhound.  If you’d please step into the van?”

“Fuck that,” Rachel replied.

“That’s a disaster waiting to happen,” Grue said.  I couldn’t help but nod in agreement.

“You, along with Skitter, are problematic due to the sheer amount of damage you could do in the enclosed space of a van.  Tattletale’s more damaging in other ways.  It would help if we knew exactly what her powers were…”  Miss Militia trailed off, inviting a response.

“Not sharing,” Tattletale said.  “And I just had my turn at being a hostage.  Not sharing the details on that either, for the record.”

“Regent’s too dangerous.  We don’t know exactly how long it takes for him to achieve full control, and our records suggest he can regain control instantly.  Even if we assume it takes an hour or more, we can’t trust that we won’t end up in a crisis situation where Regent’s being kept in custody for an extended period and gets the opportunity to use his power on someone.  Not to mention the possibility that he could call Shatterbird to his location.  Separated from her dogs, Rachel Lindt is the least threatening and most vulnerable member of your team.  The optimal hostage, if you will.”

“And she won’t accept being separated from her dogs or being kept in custody,” I said.  “I will.  I can hand you my weapons and send my bugs away.”

“Skitter,” Grue said, “No.”

Miss Militia folded her arms, unconvinced.

I reached over my shoulder, slowly, and unbuckled my utility compartment.  Tattletale grabbed it for me as it came free, and the straps fed out through the rings beneath the shoulder panels.  She handed it to me, and I drove away the bugs I’d gathered inside.  When they were gone, I sent away the bugs that were nestled in the midst of my hair, beneath each of my other armor panels and the ‘skirt’ of my armor, where it covered the scorched leggings of my costume.

“So many fucking bugs,” Clockblocker said.  “They have to weigh as much as she does.”

“No, not as much as you’d think,” I said.  I turned to Miss Militia.  “Satisfied?”

She extended a hand for the concave, spade-shaped piece of armor, her gun turning into a handgun in the meantime.  “Triumph, pat her down.  Everyone else, get ready to mobilize. Assault, you’ll be riding my bike.  I’ll sit in the van.  Weld, Clockblocker, Flechette, and Kid Win, with me.”

I waited while Triumph roughly pat me down, running his fingers into the folds and crevices of my armor and beneath my belt.  He found the two pieces of paper I’d folded and tucked inside, shook them out as if there might be powder inside, unfolded them, read them, then put them back the way I’d had them.

I felt like saying something to him, but wasn’t sure what.  Sorry for attacking your family and nearly murdering you?  It sounded almost taunting.

Miss Militia led the way to a containment van, and I followed, feeling oddly lightweight.  She opened the back, indicating we should gather inside.

They arranged themselves with Clockblocker and Weld sat to either side of me, Miss Militia, Flechette and Kid Win opposite me.  The door slammed shut as Kid Win got himself seated.

I had only a few bugs in place to get a sense of their positions.  Few enough that I might have lost track of who was who if I wasn’t careful.  Using one of these bugs, I did a minor, peripheral sweep.  They didn’t have weapons pointed my way, but Flechette and Kid Win did have weapons on their laps, a crossbow and laser blaster.

“You’re shorter, looking at you like this,” Clockblocker said.  “Tall for a girl, but… not tall.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“You didn’t get rid of all your bugs,” Clockblocker commented, as the truck started moving.  He was looking in the direction of the patrolling mosquitoes and no-see-ums.

He noticed.

“Not all,” I agreed.

“Why not?”

Because I’m blind, and I’m utterly helpless if you take all the bugs away, I thought.

“Too much of it’s automatic,” I said.  “I got in the habit of using my power to survey the situation, and now it happens even without my thinking about it.”

“Thinker one,” Weld said.  “Because your bugs let you sense things to the point that you might be a short-range clairvoyant.”

“That’s about what the Director said,” I replied.

I heard a click, and bugs moved to the source of the noise to investigate.  Miss Militia had my utility compartment in her lap, and she was holding a handgun.  Mine.

“Only one shot remaining.  Two reasons that might be the case,” she said.  “Saving it for yourself, or it was used and you haven’t reloaded.”

“The latter,” I replied.

“Who have you been shooting?”

Your Director.  “Mannequin.  And shot through some boards so I could break them.”

“Oh?”

“Long story.  I haven’t really thought to reload it.  I don’t use the gun much.”

“Obviously,” she said, but she didn’t elaborate.  “String?”

“Can you leave stuff where it is?”  I asked.

“I’m curious why you have coiled string in your backpack here,” she said.

“It’s a utility compartment, not a backpack.  It’s so I don’t have to have the spiders make it in the middle of a fight.”

“Spider silk,” Kid Win spoke his realization aloud.

Miss Militia continued, “Pepper spray.  Changepurse with… cotton swabs?  I see, it’s to mask the rattle of spare change.  And smelling salts, needles.”

“Please leave everything where it was,” I said, a little firmer.

I’d collected a few bugs on the various objects she’d withdrawn from the interior of the compartment.  I sensed her putting things back, watched to make sure she was putting everything back properly and in the right place.

Clockblocker, though, leaned across the back of the van and picked up the baton.

“You’ve got stuff like this that’s high quality, but then the other stuff’s so mundane,” Clockblocker commented.  “Odd for someone half the nation’s paying attention to.”

“I wouldn’t know,” I said.  “Not really watching TV these days.”

“You guys took over the city, which is something that’s usually limited to psychos like Nilbog or the third world nations.  I guess with Coil gone, you’re queen of the local underworld.  Or is it Tattletale who’s taken that position?”

“We’re partners.”

“You sound so matter of fact about it,” Clockblocker said.  “You’re not ashamed?  Guilty?  Or proud?”

“Stand down, Clockblocker.  She was gracious enough to be our guest.  Don’t provoke her,” Miss Militia ordered.

“I’m not bothered,” I said.  I’m more annoyed at you picking through my equipment.  “And I don’t feel anything about being in charge.  It is what it is.”

“And you’re not afraid at all, being a hostage?” he asked.

“Should I be?”

“You violated the code by association when you took someone, took control of someone.  The same someone who you saw unmasked.  You violated the code again when you attacked Triumph’s family.  So what’s stopping us from tearing off your mask right now?  The same code you’ve disrespected and broken?”

“Look me in the eye,” I told Clockblocker, turning my head to face him, “And tell me you don’t think Shadow Stalker was a deeply damaged, broken person before we ever got our hands on her.”

He faced me square on, “She was also a hero.”

“She was a hero because the other choice was juvie,” I said.  “In the months leading up to our kidnapping her, she was using real crossbow bolts.  Shooting them at people, Grue included.  If I remember right, she wasn’t supposed to have or be using any lethal ammo, on penalty of jail time.”

“Do you have evidence?” Miss Militia asked.

“Would it matter?  Does it matter?  Judging by what I saw, in my limited interaction with her, she was pretty psychotic.  There’s no way you guys spent all that time with her without something crossing your radar.  The night we took her, I baited her out and she tried to cut my throat.”

“I understand where you’re coming from,” Miss Militia said, “But again, I have to ask for evidence.  I can’t take you at your word, there’s procedures to be followed.”

“Procedures that tie your hands,” I said.

“And they protect us at the same time.”

“If you’re looking for a reason why we’re in charge,” I said, turning towards Clockblocker, “That’d be a good place to start.  You guys knew you had someone bloodthirsty and fucked up working beside you.  You accepted it, probably accommodated her.  Probably cut her slack in other areas, because I doubt she was an angel outside of costume, either.”

I let that sit with them for a moment.

“Yeah,” I said.  I shifted positions on the bench.  “We aren’t limited by oversight and bureaucracy, and we don’t pretend our lunatics are kid-friendly.”

“And without that oversight, you’re free to kidnap people like her and subject her to torture,”  Clockblocker said.

“That’s enough,” Miss Militia said.  She wasn’t quite as sharp as before, but her words were somehow more effective.

We rode on in silence for a few long moments.

“You smell like smoke,” Clockblocker said.

“Clockblocker,” Miss Militia said, “I reserve every right to adjust your patrol schedule if you won’t stop engaging Skitter.”

“I’m really okay,” I told her, keeping calm.  If I’m ever going to shake the idea of Skitter being this unpredictable, dangerous felon, it’s now.  “I’m not going to flip out and hurt someone because I don’t like what they’re saying.  When I said I shot some boards, it was to escape a burning building.”

“Coil wasn’t lying when he said he set your headquarters on fire,” Weld commented.

“He was,” I replied.  “This was something different.”

“Fuck it, give me shit patrols,” Clockblocker said.  “I’m not going to just sit by and obey orders, when I have a chance to get answers.”

“Clockblocker,” Miss Militia said the name in a warning tone.

“That’s the kind of attitude I’m talking about,” I muttered.  “Recognizing when the bureaucracy is hindering more than helping, pushing against it.  I can respect that.”

“Don’t compare me to you,” Clockblocker said.

“Okay,” I said, smiling a little behind my mask, “I won’t.”

“I’m wondering how the fuck you can justify doing any of the shit you’ve pulled and act high and mighty.”

“I won’t deny I’ve done stuff,” I said, “But I somehow doubt it’s the same stuff you’re thinking about.  But I had reasons for everything I did.  If you want to tell me what you think I’ve done, I can try my hand at explaining myself.  Provided you’re willing to hear me out.”

“Clockblocker,” Kid Win said, “Listen to Miss Militia.  This is the kind of stuff that goes on your record.”

Clockblocker shook his head.  “Fuck my record.  Let’s start with the takeover.  Justify that.”

“It put me in a position to help people.  Visit my territory.  People there are healthier, happier, safer, because of what I’ve done.”

“Except the ones Mannequin and Burnscar killed.”

I didn’t have a ready reply to that.

“No comment?”

“I tried,” I said.  “I did what I could to help the people in my territory.  Maybe my being there did more harm than good.  I don’t know.  But I tried to help.”

“Let’s call that one a draw, then.  What about how things turned out with Panacea and Glory Girl?”

“I already quizzed her on this,” Flechette said.

“I want to hear it from her myself.”

“That was Jack, not me,” I said.  Flechette nodded, snorted just loud enough that she knew I’d hear it.  It was very ‘I thought she’d say that’.

“But you were one of the last people seen with Glory Girl.  You were sighted in Panacea’s company,” Clockblocker said.

“I tried to help her.  Talk to her.  We invited her to join the Undersiders, because she was in a bad headspace, she needed other perspectives beyond her own.  But she finished giving Glory Girl medical care after Crawler’s spittle had burned through half her body, she refused our offers to help and refused Tattletale’s suggestion that she fix what she’d already done to Glory Girl’s head… Tattletale knows the full story there, though I have suspicions.  The next time I saw her, she was talking to Jack, and he was getting to her, fucking with her head.  Stuff happened, I went after him, and it was the last time I saw her.”

“She had a freak-out, you know,” Clockblocker said.  “She was in a bad headspace, sure, but she was a good person.  Healed people I really care about when she didn’t have to.  That’s why I’m pressing you on this stuff, no matter what Miss Militia might put on my record or do to my patrol schedule.  Because Amy deserves to have someone stand up for her, in her absence.”

“I’m sorry she freaked, but it wasn’t my fault.”

“It was bad.  She took Glory Girl with her, you know.  When Gallant died, Vista saw the body.  When Aegis was mashed to a literal pulp by Leviathan, to the point that he couldn’t function anymore, when he died, despite his power?  I got to see the remains to verify for myself.  But Victoria Dallon was still alive and they didn’t let us see.  A select few adults and family members got to see her, they carted her off to a parahuman asylum and none of the rest of us got to say goodbye, because the end result was that fucked up.”

“I didn’t know, I’m sorry,” I said.  “But that wasn’t my fault.”

“Fine.  I’ll concede a point for you, then.  You tried, maybe.  One-naught.  What about Battery?”

“I was with Jack and Bonesaw, affected by the miasma, thought they were my friends.  Battery was giving chase.  Around the time I figured out what was happening, she got attacked by the mechanical spiders.  She was fine when I left her.”

“Assault blames you.  Probably why Miss Militia didn’t have him riding in the van with us.”

“Okay.  If I’d been in a better headspace, I would have backed her up.  But there was the possibility Jack would get away, and the miasma-”

“It fucked with all of us.  Fine.  Let’s call that another draw.  Can’t judge you either way with that stuff in play.  Triumph?  His family?”

“Didn’t know he was Triumph until we were in the thick of it,” I said,  “But I did it for Dinah.  It doesn’t excuse it, but I did it for her.”

“How’s that work?”

“To get into a position where I could free her, I had to get close to Coil.  He’d already clued into the fact that I was planning on betraying him if he didn’t let her go, put the screws to me, basically.  Forced me to do what I normally wouldn’t.”

“It had nothing to do with keeping control of the city?”

I hesitated.  “I didn’t say that.  I could try to justify it, explain how I really felt like I was doing more good than harm and what all that meant, but it would take too long, cover too many details I’m not willing to share, and I’m not a hundred percent convinced I’d buy it myself.  I’ll concede that one to you.  Not in a position to defend or explain it.”

“One-all, then.  Let’s talk Shadow Stalker.”

“We’re back to that?”  I asked.

“She was an asshole, dangerous, didn’t even like her, but she was still a teammate of mine.  Some of your teammates might fall into that camp, so maybe you know how I feel.”

“Maybe.  But like I said, we weren’t holding ourselves up as paragons of virtue.  You guys were.”

“Our focus right now is you.  You, who drove Shadow Stalker into a corner, to the point where she flipped out on her mom and tried to hang herself with an electrical cord.”

What?

“…I’m not sure how to respond to that,” I said.

“Do you feel bad about it?  I’m genuinely curious.”

“I feel… less bad than I should,” I said.  “But yeah.  It isn’t nice to hear.”

“Because of what happened, because she was still reeling from the time she spent as your meat puppet, she attacked her mom, who called the authorities.  They caught up just in time to catch her in her room, electrical cord around her neck.  Cost Shadow Stalker her probation, meaning she got stuck in some parahuman detention center until she’s eighteen.  And word is her mom doesn’t want her back when she’s finished the three-year sentence.  Last straw and everything.  Her life, put on hold, her family shattered.  Maybe she was damaged like you said, but you took her captive and tormented her until she went off the deep end.”

“I’m not happy she was pushed that far,” I said, “That’s ugly.  You’re right.  But getting her off the streets?  Yeah.  That’s worth it, at least.”

“What I don’t get is… why?  Was the data from that computer really so important?”

“Coil needed it, and I needed Coil happy.  Either he’d like my work enough to free her on my request or he’d trust me enough that I could catch him off guard and help her escape some other way.”

“I’m sure Dinah would be thrilled to hear that,” Clockblocker said.  “Some other girl’s life ruined for her sake.  How does a supervillain warlord react to that sort of news, by the way?  Finding out a heroine tried to hang herself?  Do you sit in your swivel chair, stroking your tarantula and pull off your best maniacal laugh?  One more enemy out of the way?”

“I didn’t know,” I said.  “Not until you told me what happened to her.”

“That seems to be a recurring theme,” he commented.  “You do stuff, you have reasons, like your apparent feeling that, oh, it’s okay because she was a violent personality, but you don’t pay attention to the ending, to everything that comes after.  A whole lot of people have been screwed up and hurt in your wake, Skitter.”

“I react like you see me reacting.  I don’t enjoy it.  No maniacal laughing here.”

“But you plan to continue doing what you’re doing.”

“I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing in the future,” I said.  “Aside from stopping Noelle.”

“That’s a good point to end this particular discussion,” Miss Militia cut in.  “I will be adjusting your patrol route and noting this minor infraction on your record, Clockblocker.  I hope you’re more or less satisfied with this discussion.”

“More or less,” Clockblocker said, handing the combat baton to Miss Militia.  “Unless our local Supervillainess-in-chief wants to pursue further debate.  I think I was ahead by one.  Two-one.”

“No, that’s fine,” I said.  I left it at that.  No, I’m not entirely sure I want to hear the full details on any of the other stuff.  Quit while I’m only a little behind.

If he knew me a little better, I wondered just how targeted those questions could get.

I’d killed a man, and I still didn’t feel bad about it.  I didn’t feel anything in particular when I thought about it.

In a way, I’d taken the perspective that I didn’t feel bad about it because it wasn’t wrong.  He was a bad person, irredeemable, and it had been the only option.

Except now Clockblocker’s words and his tone were resonating within me, and I was left just a little less confident about the conclusions I’d come to, in terms of the stuff we’d discussed and all the little events that had added up over time.  I’d made peace with who I was and who I was becoming in part because my peers were limited to other villains and civilians who I could dismiss because they didn’t have the full perspective of life on the battlefield.  My dad was among those civilians, it almost pained me to admit.

I wasn’t entirely certain I felt so peaceful now.  Most things, I couldn’t imagine I’d really do them differently, given the circumstances and the knowledge I’d had at the time, but the decisions weren’t sitting quite so easily as they had been.

It was several minutes before the van stopped.  Assault was the one who opened the door, and Clockblocker held the front door of the PRT offices open for me, in a very ironic manner.  My team was already waiting in the lobby.

I’d entered once as a prisoner and thief, once as an invader and kidnapper.  It was an eerie thing to be entering as ally to the good guys, when I’d never felt further from being one.

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Queen 18.2

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

“They won’t take me back.”

“They will.”

“I saw it,” Dinah whispered.  “Before I ever met Coil.  The fear in their eyes.  When I said the numbers and I was right.  They’re scared of me.  They were relieved when I got taken.  They won’t want me now that I’m free.”

“They will want you.  Just wait,” I said.  “They’ll welcome you with open arms, and there won’t even be a hint of fear.”

“I look weird.  My hair’s all dry and dull, and I haven’t been eating that much.  I always felt sleepy, or edgy, and was never hungry, even when my stomach was growling.  And maybe I didn’t eat some because it was my only way of fighting back, the only time I could choose something, even if it was bad for me.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It does!”  There was a note of desperation in her voice.  “They’ll see me and I’ll look different and they’ll think about all those moments when I left them feeling nervous and how there’s a bunch of stuff I haven’t even mentioned because it’s that bad.  I’m not even human anymore.”

“You’re definitely human, Dinah.”

“Then why do they call us parahumans?  Doesn’t the ‘para’ part mean half?  Paraplegic, only half your body works.  Parahuman, half human.”

“Not exactly.  It means beside, which is how it’s used with paraplegic, or paragraph.  It can also mean extra or beyond, like paranormal.  We’re next to human, or more than human, depending on how you look at it.  I think it’s pretty apt.  Powers, in a lot of ways, make the best and worst parts of our humanity stand out.  And that depends on the choices we make.  Your parents can’t judge you for stuff you didn’t choose.”

“How… how do you even know that?”

“Which?”

“The meaning of the words.”

“My mom taught English,” I said.  “So I was always sort of introduced to that stuff.  And after she passed away, I maybe started paying more attention to it because it’s the sort of thing she would have done.  A way of remembering her.”

“Are you an orphan?”

“My dad’s alive.  I don’t have as much contact with him as I should.”

“Why not?”

“It seems like every time I get closer to him, he gets hurt or put in danger.  Or I only get close because of the hurt.  I don’t know.”

“You should get back in touch with him.  Parents are important.”

“I know.”

My parents won’t take me,” she said.  She made a croaking noise, and I touched the bucket she was holding to ensure it was in position, held her braid so it wouldn’t get in the way as she tried to empty her stomach of contents that were no longer there.

I sighed, waiting until the worst of it had abated.  When it looked like she might tip forward and fall with the puke bucket into the space between the back seat and the front seats, I caught her shoulders and leaned her back, carefully.

“How’s the pain?” I asked.

“It ends later.”

“I know it ends.  But how is it now?”

“Hurts all over.  Painkillers didn’t do anything.”

“Yeah,” I said.  They couldn’t give her anything narcotic, not with the way the doctor was suspecting that Coil had dosed Dinah with a mixture of opiates and tranquilizers to keep her artificially content and mellow.

“They’re not going to take me.”

It was becoming a refrain.

“They will,” I said.  “I know you can’t use your power right now, but they will.”

“And even if they do take me, it’ll be weird, because they can’t ignore my power now.  They pretended I didn’t have one.  Pretended I was an ordinary kid.  Pretended the headaches didn’t mean anything, like they pretended the heart disease wasn’t a thing.”

“Heart disease?  You?”

Dinah shook her head.  “Not me.”

She didn’t elaborate.  Related to her trigger event?

“Don’t worry,” I said.  I might have gone on to try to reassure her, but I wasn’t sure what to add.  I didn’t know her parents.

“They’ll turn me away.  I’ll have to come to stay with you.  Or Tattletale.  And then it’s like it was with Coil.  Not as bad.  No drugs, no being locked up.  But I’ll know I can never go home.”

She was shaking, I realized.  Trembling.

“Dinah, listen.  That’s the drugs talking, okay?  That’s all it is.  As relaxed as they made you before, they’re making you rattled now while you’re in withdrawal.”

She made an incoherent noise in response.

I leaned towards the front seat.  “Do you have a brush?”

The driver, supplied by the doctor’s office, responded with only one word, “Comb.”

“Comb will do.”

He opened the glove compartment and reached back to hand me a small comb, not even as long as my hand.

“Here,” I said, “Let’s get you more presentable, so there’s one less thing to worry about.”

I pulled off the elastic that held her messy braid together and began combing it straight.

There wasn’t much time left, and still so much I should be saying, doing or asking.

Do we come out of this okay?

We’ll come out of this okay.

Can we stay in touch?

I’m sorry I played any part in this happening to you.

Either I didn’t have the courage or I couldn’t find the right words.  Dinah wasn’t in much of a state to converse, either.

I settled for tidying her hair, braiding it from scratch, and putting the elastic band in place.  Maybe it wasn’t as nice as it would be without the braid, but this would be easier to manage while she was recovering.

Not even a minute later, I was holding that braid back while she hung her head over the bucket, the both of us waiting to see if she would start heaving up mere teaspoons of bile or if this latest spell of nausea would subside.  I was avoiding putting bugs on her skin, but I was aware of how she was drenched in sweat to the point that it was soaking through her clothes.  She was feverish, too.  My swarm could tell the difference in her temperature, even through her clothes and scalp.

The car pulled to a stop.

Dinah startled, as if shaken by the realization of what it meant.

“Can you go on your own?” I asked.  “Or maybe we could sit you down on the edge of the front lawn and beep to signal your parents?”

“Go,” she said.

“What?”

“Go.  I’ll stay in the car.  You see if…”

She paused.  I wasn’t sure if it was because of nausea or something else.

“If?”

“If they want me?”

I thought about arguing.  About assuring her that they would.  Then I reconsidered.  I got out of the car and crossed the front lawn to the front door of her house.

I hit the doorbell, but neither I nor my bugs could hear a sound.  No power, or it wasn’t hooked up.

I gripped the heavy iron knocker and rapped on the door.

Two stray fruit flies found the parents in a bedroom on the ground floor.  They stirred, one sitting up, but they didn’t approach.

I knocked again.

The dad got a cast iron pan for an improvised weapon.  It was almost comical, cartoonish.  Through my swarm, I could almost make out his words as he assured his wife,  “…don’t know…”

Whatever started or ended the sentence, I didn’t catch it.

I stepped back before he cracked the door open, pan held like a weapon out of sight.

He saw me and slammed the door shut in the next instant.

I pushed the door open before he could lock it, winced at the pain that caused with my fractured rib.

He moved as if to swing at me, then dropped his arm as he reconsidered in the face of the thick cloud of bugs that stirred around me.  I wasn’t sure how much he could see.  There weren’t any streetlights, or lights on inside, but I would be backlit by moonlight.

“I’m not here to cause trouble, Mr. Alcott,” I said.  “And I don’t mean to scare you.”

“What do you want?”

“I brought Dinah.”

He froze.

“If that’s alright,” I said.

Not turning away from me, he shouted, “Anna!”

His wife exited the bedroom to stand in the doorway, peering out into the hallway.  She reacted as she saw me.

“Extortion?” he asked.  “We don’t have anything.  You can take anything we have here, but it’s not much.”

“Not extortion.  The man who took her died.  I’m bringing her back.”

“Please,” the mom said.  “Where is she?”

“Before I go get her,” I said, “You should know.  There’s no sign he touched her.  He didn’t hurt her, not physically.  He did everything he could to take care of her, in a utilitarian sense, but she was still a prisoner.”

Without working eyes, I couldn’t see their expressions.  Horror?  Grim acceptance?

“She was drugged, often and heavily.  She’s in the middle of recovery, and it isn’t pretty.  No narcotics, no painkillers, and no tranquilizers, maybe for the rest of her life.”

The mom made a subvocal noise.

“She’s an addict?” the dad asked.

“Yes.  And she’s a touch malnourished, and above all she’s scared.  I wouldn’t have brought her yet, but I thought it was more important that I get her away from anyone who would do what Coil did, using her for her power.  I wanted to get her home.”

“She has abilities, then?” the dad asked.

Why else would Coil take her and keep her?

An ability, to be specific,” I said.  “Does it really matter?”

The dad shook his head.

“I’ll go get her, then.”

I walked out to the car and opened the door next to Dinah.

“They don’t want me.  They won’t.”

“Come on,” I said.  I extended my hand.

“Maybe we should wait until I’m not sick anymore.  If they see me like this, they might have second thoughts.”

“They won’t.  And we agreed you should go home sooner than later.  Come on.”

She put her hand in mine, and I could feel it shaking in the half second before I got a firm grip.  I supported her as she got out of the car, then walked her back toward the house.

Mrs. Alcott made a noise somewhere between a moan and a cry as we approached the front door.  I moved my bugs out of the way and let go of Dinah the second her mother embraced her, right in the middle of the front lawn.  The father was only a step behind, dropping to his knees to wrap his arms around them.  A family reunited.

It was a rare thing, I was finding, that a family was both intact and functioning.  Too many of the people I’d interacted with so far were separated from the families they should have by death, by pain, misunderstandings or abuse.

I turned to leave.

“Thank you,” the dad called out.

I almost stopped.  Then I kept walking towards the car.

“Don’t thank me,” I said, without looking back.  I wasn’t sure if I was loud enough for him to catch it.

It didn’t feel good, but it didn’t feel bad, either.  I’d played a part in her being taken from her family.  Maybe a small part, but a part.  I’d done something to make up for that.  The real sacrifice, the real atonement, would be dealing with what came next.  Dealing with Noelle and the end of the world without using or abusing Dinah’s powers.

I wasn’t sure I felt good about that.  I’d gotten this far by making the most out of every resource I had available, and by being smart about things.  This was throwing away a resource, tying my own hands.  The decision felt dumb, even as I knew it was the right thing to do.

I climbed into the car.  Settling into the middle of the back seat, I swept my bugs over the area as a matter of habit.

Two folded pieces of paper were stuck in the flap behind the driver’s seat, where they hadn’t been before.  I picked them up, tried to view them with both my regular eyes and my bugs, then settled for tucking them into my belt.

Had to get someone to read them for me later.

“Where to?” the driver asked.

“Downtown.  I’ll tell you where to stop.”

The others were gathered outside Tattletale’s new headquarters.  The Undersiders were all there, Bastard and Bentley included.  Ballistic was present as well, though I hesitated to call him a member of the group.

There was also someone who I hadn’t expected.  Parian.  My recruit, after a fashion, the doll girl was dressed in a crisp new frock, accompanied by a giant stuffed penguin fashioned from cloth.

“You’re late,” Ballistic said.

“Had an errand to run.”

“Sent the girl home?” Tattletale asked.

“Yeah.”

“Good,” she said.  “Feel better?”

“Some,” I replied.  I turned to Parian.  “Didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Tattletale got in touch.  I… I apparently missed a lot.”

“You’re up for this?”

“No.  But I want to know what’s going on, in case it affects my territory.”

“She’s taking over my shelter and the surrounding area,” Tattletale said.

“Makes sense,” I said.

“Glad everything’s getting sorted out,” Grue said, “But we’ve got an hour and forty minutes until dawn, and we really need to deal with the present situation.”

Tattletale said, “Let’s talk as we walk, then.  We have one sighting of Noelle.  She left ten minutes ago, and I doubt we’ll run into her, but we could get info, something that’ll let us track her, or we’ll at least be in the right general area.  Sorry, Skitter.  We found Atlas, but he’s stashed halfway across the city.  So transportation might be a little awkward.”

I only nodded.

Parian took the penguin apart and created a longer, broader form: a dachshund, in black and white.

“This is so lame,” Imp said.  “How are you supposed to build a decent rep if you’re caught riding a wiener dog?”

“It’s the only thing long enough,” Parian said.

“Snake?”

“Too much wear.”

“If you don’t like it,” Grue said. “You can walk.  It’s functional.”

“You’ve fallen so far, man,” Regent murmured, wry,  “You used to care about these things.”

“Because they kept us alive, kept our enemies off our backs.  I don’t care too much about anyone dumb enough to ignore the fact that we own this city but care about how we travel.”

“I could ride Bentley,” Imp suggested.

Regent commented, “You’re calling him by his real name, now?  Didn’t you call him slobberjaws, just a little while ago?”

Rachel was looking at Imp.  Glaring?  “You’re not riding him.”

“You really care?” Imp asked.

“Not about the name,” Rachel said.  “About respect.”

Imp groaned audibly, and Regent laughed.

My bugs helped me catch the muttered exchange between the pair.

“Why?”  Imp asked, in her most wounded voice.

“Payback.” Regent replied.

Rachel was looking at me, the offer unspoken.

I accepted it, reaching up to take Rachel’s hand and using her help to climb onto Bentley’s back, settling in behind her.

We walked briskly alongside the cloth dachshund that bore the burden of the rest of the group; Grue, Tattletale, Regent, Parian and Ballistic.

“Everyone’s kosher with me taking the seat of power?”  Tattletale asked. “This isn’t me being manipulative like Coil, but I do consider us partners, I want us working side by side, even if our roles are different.”

“Partner?  You’re in charge, aren’t you?” Ballistic asked.

“I’m… headquarters.  Ops.  Management.  Skitter’s our real leader, our field commander.  If it comes down to it, she can call the shots.  I’ll back her up.”

“If she’s up for it,” Grue said.  “She’s blind, and neglected to mention it before the events earlier tonight.”

“It doesn’t matter that much.  I don’t need my eyes when I can use my power,” I said.

“I’ll have to take your word for it.”

“What are we up against?” I asked, aiming to change the subject.  “Ballistic, can you fill us in?”

“It’s why I’m here.  Consider Noelle a triple threat,” he said.  “She’s strong, she’s got nothing to hold her back, now, and she’s smart.”

“She was your team leader, right?” I asked.

“She was the leader before all of this started, yeah.  You have to understand, she’s a natural tactician, and tacticians come in two varieties.  There’s the strategists that think things through, innovate, and analyze.  Then there’s ones that go by instinct.  Noelle’s the latter.  Not to say she isn’t good if given a chance to plan, but she can get a sense of the current dynamic on an intuitive level, play things by ear while making spur of the moment calls.  Those calls turn out to be the right ones, not because she’s lucky, but because she grasps the situation so quickly that it looks like she didn’t give it any thought at all.”

“She’s quick witted, then,” I said.

“Not exactly what I meant.  Might be that I’m extrapolating too much from too small a sample of info.  Far as I know, she’s never been in a serious fight, but when you add that to the whole strong and desperate bits I just mentioned, it makes for a scary combo.”

“How’s that?” Grue asked.

“Right now, she’s scared, angry, desperate and frustrated, except all the dials are turned up to eleven,” Ballistic said.  “She can’t hold back her emotions like she used to.  She goes berserk at the drop of a hat, and this?  Losing what she sees as her last shot?  That’s more than a dropped hat.  If she were a person who relied on her brain in a crisis, she’d be at a disadvantage, because she’s not in any position to think straight.  The way she really operates, though?  She won’t be any less effective because of that fear and panic.  I don’t plan on getting in her way.  I’m sitting out on this fight, for the record.”

“You’re out?  You’re not working with us?” Grue asked.

“I’m holding territory, but I’m not a member of the team.”

“Same,” Parian said, “Sorry.”

“You don’t have to be sorry,” I said.  “But I think you’re underestimating how bad this situation could be.  I don’t think we can afford to have anyone sit out.”

“She’s scary,” Ballistic said.  “Let’s settle for that.  You don’t get within Behemoth’s range, you don’t aim for the long fight against Leviathan, and you don’t send everyone against the Simurgh at once, or you’re screwing yourself over.  Trust me when I say this is better all around if I skip this fight.  She knows me, and she’ll use me against you.”

“You talk about her being clever, but she didn’t seem that on the ball when we talked to her over the phone, back in your base,”  I said.  “You guys were lying to her about Tattletale, about Dinah, and other stuff.  If she’s that clever, why didn’t she pick up on it?”

Ballistic sighed.  “Honestly?  She put her trust in Krouse, in Trickster.  He betrayed that trust, and he did it pretty damn well.  I don’t fault him for it, exactly.  She couldn’t know the whole truth, or we’d be in exactly this situation, just at a worse time.”

“But you do fault him for something,” Tattletale said.

“He became team leader more because he’s fast at thinking on his feet than because he’s good at making the right call.  He took it on himself to make a whole lot of wrong calls.  I let a lot of that slide because he used to be a friend.  And maybe because they weren’t blatantly wrong.  Just a little wrong, a little disagreeable.  But at some point every call was a disagreeable call and every word out of his mouth became a white lie.  He started lying to us for what he saw as our own good.  Not Noelle with her delicate state, but us.”

“And you realized he was never going to change,” Tattletale said.  “His focus would always be on Noelle and himself, no matter what happened.”

“Yeah.  We shouldn’t discount Trickster, by the way.  Either as a threat or as a possible solution.”

“I hadn’t forgotten the possibility that he’d stick around and make life harder on us,” Grue said, “But solution?”

“Yeah.  Whatever else, I’d say Noelle still believes in him.  We can use that.  If we’re willing.”

“And that’s only if we can get him on board,” I said.

Ballistic nodded.

“What does she do?” Grue asked.

Ballistic sighed.  “Besides the ridiculous super strength, durability and the regeneration?”

“Besides that,” Grue said.

“To put it briefly, if it’s dead, she absorbs it and it becomes a part of her-“

“Powers included?” I asked.

“Don’t know.  Haven’t had cause to believe it.  In terms of raw material, raw mass?  Yeah.  She eats, she grows.  But here’s the thing.  If she absorbs something alive, she clones it.  More clones if she’s angrier, we think.  We don’t have a large sample size of incidents.”

“Clones?” I asked.  “Isn’t that an advantage for us?”

“No.  Because whatever they are, the extras come out wrong.  They come out ugly, their powers don’t always work exactly the same way, they’re screwed up in the head, but all that aside, they’re stronger, tougher, they have the memories of the parent.  Sometimes that means they’re just homicidal.  Other times, it means they’re just as sane as you are, but their priorities are reversed.  They want to end your existence, kill everything you want to protect, hurt everyone you care about, and dismantle your life.”

“Evil twins,” Regent said.  “She makes evil twins.”

Ballistic nodded.  “And that’s why I’m sitting this one out.  She’ll come after me if she sees me, especially if she heard the bit about my defection.  If she gets me, that’s even worse, because the clones she’ll get are capable of killing anyone and everyone here, easy.”

Bitch spoke for the first time.  “Animals too?”

“Animals too.  And microbes too, based on stuff she’s said before, though she might just treat them like she does dead material.  I don’t know.  For all we know, it ties into some other power.”

“Do the clones have an expiry date?”  I asked.

“Not as far as I know.  Any time we’ve had to deal with them, we were pretty ruthless in putting them down.  They sort of made a point of being too problematic to be left alone.”

“They’re still people,” Parian said.

“No,” Ballistic replied.  “They really aren’t. Trust me on that count.”

“I’ve got soldiers at key locations, keeping an eye out,” Tattletale said.  “Just a few guys, and I’m paying them an astronomical amount.  I won’t be able to keep it up for more than a few days.”

“Which is how you got this lead?” I asked.

She nodded.

“Okay,” I said, “Good.  But we’ll need a way to deal with her.  Ballistic, you said she regenerates?”

“Not that fast, but fast enough.  Her lower body is tougher, but her upper body isn’t exactly vulnerable.  I’ve seen her take bullets and barely even flinch, and that included one to the head.  They do damage, maybe, but it heals too quickly for it to matter.  And I think she’s gotten bigger and tougher since I saw her last.”

“When was that?”

“Maybe a week after we got to this city.  A while before Coil put in the first vault door, there was just a garage door.  I didn’t want to risk getting too close, not with the lethality of my power and the damage she could do.  Her appetite’s increased, so it might be a pretty dramatic difference in strength from the last time I saw her out and about.  You guys are going to have your hands full trying to kill her.”

“I don’t want to kill her,” I said.  “Not unless we absolutely have no other choice.”

Ballistic turned my way, and he had a funny tone in his voice as he asked, “How do you think you’re going to handle this?”

“Containment,” I said.  “If I get enough spiders together, I could try to surround her in web.”

“Not going to work,” Ballistic said.

“It almost worked against Crawler.”

“She’s stronger than Crawler.”

“Then we go to the heroes.  We get their assistance,” I said.  “Containment foam on top of my web.  Vista to slow Noelle down, Clockblocker to put her on pause.”

“Tattletale told you, didn’t she?  That we think she’s turning into an Endbringer.  Why is lethal force okay against Leviathan but not against Noelle?”

“She’s still a person, under it all,” I said.  “She deserves a chance.”

“You don’t seem to care at all about the subject of killing a friend, Ballistic,” Tattletale added.

“She’s not my friend.  She’s not the person I knew.  Maybe she has the same memories, fragments of the same personality, but that’s only surface stuff.  Because even the bits that look like Noelle aren’t really anything resembling the original.  She wouldn’t be able to heal bullet wounds like she did if they were.  Stands to reason the bits that think like her aren’t either.”

“Pretty cold,” Tattletale said.

“Fuck you,” Ballistic replied.  He slid off the stuffed animal’s back.  “I hope what I said was useful, and I wish you luck, but fuck you.  You don’t get it.”

Parian’s animal had stopped, but Ballistic was already striding away, in the general direction of his lair.

“Go on,” Tattletale urged Parian.  The stuffed dog started walking again.

“You told me I could protect people,” Parian said.  It took me a second to realize she was addressing me.  “How do I do that?”

“We could use your stuffed animals.  If she can’t absorb them, then they’re frontline combatants we can use.”

“I don’t want to fight.”

“I really don’t think we have a choice.  You fought Leviathan,” I said.

Parian shook her head, “I almost wish I didn’t.  I only did it because I promised myself when I was a kid, when I first learned about the Endbringers, that I would fight them if I ever got powers.  That’s why I did it, because I didn’t want to betray the kid version of myself.”

“Wouldn’t your child-self want you to do this?”  I asked.

“I don’t know.  But I didn’t make any promises to myself about this.”

Tattletale cut in.  “Heads up.  I don’t think we’re the only ones checking out the scene.”

“Who?” Parian asked.

“The Protectorate.  The Wards.  If you’re not up for a potential fight, this is the time to back off.”

“The Wards?” Parian asked.

Tattletale nodded.

“I’ll stay.  I won’t fight, but I’ll stay.  I made my decision and I’ll own up to it.”

It’s at least one more body on our side, giving them less reason to pick a fight.

“We do this peacefully,” I said.  “We need their help, so we avoid confrontation.”

“This isn’t going to work,” Regent said.  “Just saying.”

“We’ll try it anyways,” I replied.

I could sense the heroes well before we reached them, gathered by a ruined building.  I used my bugs to get their attention before we appeared around the corner.

“Undersiders,” Miss Militia spoke, rifle raised and pointed in our direction.  The other members of the local hero teams were at the ready just behind her.  I noted Flechette gesturing, Parian shaking her head.

“Miss Militia,” I responded, when I realized none of the others were responding.  Should have hashed this out with Tattletale.  She can do the negotiating with hostile parties better than I can.

“You do this?”  She jerked her head in the direction of the wreckage, not moving the rifle.  Her voice was hard.

“Indirectly,” I replied.  “But not really, no.  I don’t know what that is, exactly.”

“I find that hard to believe,” she responded.  “A hell of a lot of damage, reports of howling eerily similar to the reports we’ve had for Hellhound’s animals, and let’s not forget your penchant for kidnapping the good guys.  Shadow Stalker, Piggot, Calvert…”

Kidnapping heroes?

With my bugs, I did a head count.  Someone was missing.

How?  Dinah said Noelle wouldn’t do any major damage before dawn.

“Vista,” I finished Miss Militia’s thought.  “You’re talking about Vista.”

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Queen 18.1

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The empty vault loomed before us, dark and fetid.

“It’s that bad?” I asked.  “Do we need to contact the PRT and Protectorate?  Get the heroes on board?”

“No,” Dinah said, quiet.  “Not immediately.”

The others looked at her.  I couldn’t see her, but I had a pretty distinct mental picture.  A pre-adolescent girl, thin, with straight brown hair.  Cursory inspection with my swarm suggested her hair was tied into a braid, but many strands were coming loose.  Unless a lot had changed since I’d last seen her, Dinah would be pale.  My mental picture of her was of a girl that was almost ghostly.  It said something that she was still able to command our attention with a few quiet words.

“One point seven percent chance she does any serious damage before dawn.  We have time.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Useful to know,” Tattletale said, “But this is bad enough that we may have to go running to the heroes, eat crow and ask for their assistance, get it sooner than later.”

Regent had followed Grue, Dinah and I down the stairs.  He peered into the darkness, then said, “I don’t think we’ll have much pull with the white hats.  Among other things, we’ve conquered the city, gave their heroes a series of spankings, gave the world-reknowned tinker a very expensive spanking, kidnapped one of their Directors and if I just heard you right, you just offed the replacement director.”

He stepped back, moved his mask and whistled.  I had to step back to see Rachel on her way from the entrance, her dogs following behind.

I couldn’t help but cough at the rancid smell from the vault, which made me cough more.

“Hospital,” Grue said, for the umpteenth time.

“Soon,” I said.

“The heroes don’t know we offed Calvert,” Tattletale said.

“Yet,” Regent added.

“My question stands.  Do we need to contact them?” I said.

“Maybe.  I don’t know,” Tattletale shook her head a little.

“What do you know?” I asked.  “Because as far as the rest of us are aware, there’s a teenage girl that’s capable of tearing through two vault doors like they’re nothing, and she’s free, and she’s pissed at us.  Quite possibly at me, depending on how much she heard.”

“Coil sent the Travelers to me for help.  She’s had some physical changes,” Tattletale said.  She traced one of the creases in the crumpled vault door with her gloved fingers.  “They wanted to get a better idea of what was going on, so they could maybe change her back.”

“And when I asked about her before, you brushed me off.”

“Don’t like admitting I don’t know something,” she said.  “And I don’t know the full story.  They were working on the assumption that she’s turning into an Endbringer.”

That gave us all a moment’s pause.  Rachel had just descended from the walkway in time to catch the last part.  She grabbed Bastard’s chain to keep him from venturing into the vault, but her attention was on Tattletale.

Seriously?” Regent asked.

“No.  Well, it’s what they were thinking.  It’s not what I think.”

“Elaborate,” Grue said.

“When I saw Leviathan, I got the distinct impression that the Endbringers aren’t human and never were.  Noelle?  She’s human.  So I’ve got two running theories.  Theory one is that she is turning into an Endbringer, with her body serving as the host to a growth that’s eventually going to shed off the Noelle bits and go full-monster.”

“And theory two?”  Grue asked.

“Someone’s doing their level best to make their own Endbringer.”

“Who?” I asked.

Tattletale shrugged, “No clue.  Could be any of the major players.  To figure out which one, I’m going to need time with the database on capes we downloaded from the PRT.  Even then, I’m not sure it covers the high-clearance stuff we need.”

“Off the top of your head?”  I asked.

“Who could it be?  The Protectorate might have been aiming to make an Endbringer with the idea that it could fight the other Endbringers, only for things to go sour.  There’s the group that made people like Gregor the Snail and Newter,” Tattletale looked at me, “You remember that paperwork we found when we infiltrated the Merchant’s party.”

“Cauldron.”

“Yes.  There’s also any number of megalomaniac tinkers out there who might have tried something. Bonesaw, Rattenfänger, Jamestowner, Blasto, Mosaic, Monstrum, some non-tinkers like Chrysalis and Nilbog, bunch of others.”

“Too many,” Grue said.

“But their powers don’t fit this scenario that well, so it would have to be some alliance between two of them, or one would need to get ahold of the tools and blueprints from one of the others and reverse engineer it, or one had a second trigger event and their powers expanded.”

“A lot of ‘ors’,” Grue said.

“Too many possibilities,” Tattletale said.  “We could be on the complete wrong tack, where I’m overthinking it, or I’m overlooking the most obvious possiblity, that she’s just unlucky.”

“What if we ask the kid?” Regent asked.  He turned his attention to Dinah.

“Only if she’s up to it,” I said.

“Head hurts, still fixing things, putting all the worlds in the right places,” Dinah said.  She was clutching my wrist as though I were a life preserver and she was going to drown if she let go, but she stared at the ground as she spoke.  “But I’ll help now.  I fear I won’t be useful for much longer.”

I fear?  Who talked like that?

“Why not?” Regent asked.

“I’ll get sick without the candy.  Soon.”

“Withdrawal,” Grue said.

Dinah nodded.

“Fuck,” I said.  “We need to get her to a hospital so they can see her through it.”

“I can see it,” she said, and her voice was smaller.  There wasn’t any inflection when she spoke; the only indication that she had any emotion at all was the changing volume of her voice, more volume as she got more confident, less as she drew into herself.  “I see myself getting sick, and it’s so clear a picture, so many pictures it’s almost as bad as being sick right here and right now.”

“There’s ways they can help you through it,” I said.  “I looked it up.  The hospital can put you under, so you’re not awake for the worst of it.”

She squeezed my wrist a little tighter.  “It’s okay.  I can see the chances and I know I’ll be okay.  So long as it’s just once.  Ask me questions.”

Tattletale glanced at me.

“Go ahead,” I told her.

“Chance she’s turning into an Endbringer?” Tattletale asked.

“Those aren’t the kind of odds I can give,” Dinah said  “It has to be something I can picture.  Scenes.”

“I thought so.  And that’d mean I can’t really use it to pin down who’s behind Noelle’s situation.”

Dinah shook her head.

“Chance of trouble in the next twenty four hours?” I asked.  “Violence, she attacks us, she attacks other people…”

“Ninety-nine point three four six three zero one percent,” Dinah said.

“What happens in that not-even-one-percent chance?” Regent asked.

“I can’t go looking.  I have to ask, and figure it out from there, which hurts if I do it too much, or someone else asks, which makes it hurt less, because I can focus on the numbers and just the numbers.”

“Okay,” Tattletale said, “Chance she runs? ”

“Twenty-three point three one one percent.”

“That doesn’t add up,” Regent said.  “Unless I’m way worse at math than I thought.”

“She does some damage and then flees,” Grue suggested.  Tattletale nodded confirmation.

“Chance someone stops her?” Tattletale asked.  “Defeats her, kills her?”

Dinah shook her head.

“You don’t know?”

“I can’t see it.”

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  “That means we probably can’t stop her with sheer firepower.”

“Didn’t see it.”

“Okay.  Thank you, by the way,” Tattletale said.  “Appreciate it.”

“You’re quite welcome,” Dinah said, dropping her eyes to the ground.

Quite welcome.  Dinah kept phrasing things in a funny manner.  An old fashioned or proper way.  It wasn’t quite like how Coil spoke, but there were similarities.  Was it a side effect of spending way too much time around Coil?

I didn’t like the idea of that.  That either Coil had molded her, or that she’d spent enough time in a pliable mental state that she’d adopted his speaking patterns.

“This situation is bad,” Tattletale said.  “We can’t take her on, but we don’t know enough about her to plan against her.  I was going to reposition everyone so our territories covered the entire city, under the assumption that the Travelers were leaving.  Now I’m suspicious they’ll be staying, which complicates matters, and I don’t want us spread too thin, either.”

“We could get hold of Ballistic,” Grue said.  “Get his version of events.”

“He went back to his territory.  I’ll make calls and see if we can bring him on board,” Tattletale said.  “I have two squads of soldiers that I’m keeping on retainer.  They’ll serve as my hands for right now, while I try and get myself sorted out here, establish this as my new headquarters.  If you guys want to go to the hospital, maybe see about getting Skitter and Dinah looked after, I’ll handle things on this end.  We regroup at least an hour before dawn and we plan with whatever new information we have.”

“No sleep tonight?” Regent asked.

“No sleep,” Grue confirmed.

I turned to Tattletale, “We don’t have access to all of Coil’s resources, now.  Or Calvert’s, for that matter.  Can you find us a doctor who we can trust?”

“Someone you can trust?  No.  But I can find someone not altogether untrustworthy.

We were just finishing sorting out who was going where when Tattletale called us with a name and an address.

The group heading to the hospital consisted of Me, Grue, Rachel and Dinah.  I had the smoke inhalation and breathing problems, as well as the pain in my chest and my eyes to look after.  Grue and Rachel had been shot.  As for Dinah, we needed to make sure there weren’t any severe problems before we sent her home.  Regent headed back to his place with Imp for backup.

Dinah, Rachel and I settled in the back of one of Coil’s trucks with Bastard and Bentley.  Grue took the wheel.

I focused on canvassing the area with my swarm as Grue drove.  Dinah had assured us that things were safe for the rest of night, but I couldn’t ignore the existence of a dangerous pseudo-Endbringer with a very good reason to want to hurt me.

You’re quiet,” Rachel said.

I turned my attention to her, then realized she was talking to Dinah.

“I considered saying something, but you would get upset,” Dinah said.  Again, the low volume.

“Huh,” Rachel said.  “Why?”

Dinah paused for long seconds.  I wondered if she was trying to work something out with her power.  “I was going to ask if I could pet your puppy, but it’s… not my place.  He’s not mine.”

“He’s not a dog.  He’s a wolf.  He doesn’t react like a dog will.  And I’m trying to train him before he’s old enough that he won’t listen, and I don’t need people mucking that up.”

“Okay,” Dinah said.  There was no fight there, no resistance, total compliance.

Rachel put one boot against the edge of the bench across from her, a foot to the right of Dinah.  As far as I knew, Rachel didn’t take her eyes off the girl.

“Rachel,” I said.  “Just curious, but you’re hoping to eventually adopt your dogs out, right?”

“To good owners.  So?”

“Just saying, but as much as the owners need to adapt to the dog and understand the dog, the opposite is true.”

I couldn’t read Rachel’s expression.

“The dog has to adapt to the owner?” She asked.

“Right.  And that means the dogs need a chance to get used to people.  Dogs and humans have a partnership, right?  So they need to meet halfway in that understanding.  Mutual understanding.”

“Okay.”

Enough time passed that I wasn’t sure if she’d picked up on my meaning.

“You want to pet Bentley?” Rachel offered.

“Very much,” Dinah replied.

“Bentley, go.  Up.”

Bentley hopped up between Dinah and I on the bench.

“Relax.”

The bulldog turned around once, then flopped down on the bench so his head was pressed against my hip.

“Give him a sniff of your hand before you touch him,” Rachel said.  “Bentley’s a good boy, but it’s a good habit to get into with dogs.  You don’t want to surprise him and get bitten.”

I kept still while Dinah took Rachel’s suggestion and extended a hand.  Without standing, he twisted himself around until his oversized head was in Dinah’s lap.

Months since she’s seen a dog, let alone touched one.  How would that affect her in the long run?  I hoped she wouldn’t be in therapy for the rest of her life.  I turned my attention to scanning the area, while Bentley reveled in the attention and affection.

It was another five minutes before Grue stopped the van and we had a chance to get out.

“Chance of trouble?” I asked.

“Fifteen point three three percent,” Dinah answered.

“Can you tell me who causes the trouble?”

“I only know we’ll be in there, so I have to look at each of us, one by one, and then I see the number.”

“Okay.”

“When there’s trouble,” she said, “It’s you.  Eighty percent of the time.”

“Me?” I asked.

She nodded.

“Okay,” I said.  “I’ll try to be good.”

With ‘Doctor Q’, the man Coil had always referred us to, it had been one man operating solo.  He’d known his stuff.  But he’d been Coil’s man, and we couldn’t trust him until things had time to settle down.

This doctor’s office had a staff, and they didn’t even react as we entered.

“What do you need?” a woman asked.  She had a musical voice that was almost irritatingly sweet.  Condescending, like a kindergarten teacher or a character in a show for very young kids.  Not to the point that I saw myself causing any trouble, but… yeah.

“Three of us took gunshots, but they didn’t penetrate.  Costumes stopped the hits, but I want to be sure there isn’t lasting damage,” Grue said.  “The little girl needs a full checkup and maybe a brief stay, while she suffers withdrawal from some unspecified drugs or drug cocktails.  And we’ve got one case of smoke inhalation coupled with severe chest pain.”

“Understood.  Your bill has been paid in advance.  My mother and I will be looking after you,” the young woman chirped.  “Please come this way.”

We followed.  The place was like any old doctor’s office, but I noted statues and innumerable picture frames, and the floor was tiled.  Going by my swarm sense alone, I got the impression the place was upscale.  And it was empty.

“You don’t seem bothered to have supervillains coming through.”

“We’ve dealt with supervillains before,” she said, and the way she said it suggested she didn’t plan on elaborating.  “You’ll need to remove your costumes and masks.  You can each have a separate room to disrobe, and we’ll be seeing each of you in turn.  Rest assured, your privacy and safety is our top concern.”

I could feel Dinah’s deathgrip on my arm.

I bent down and murmured, “Do you want a separate room?”   She shook her head.

I straightened and told the woman, “We’ll share a room.”

“Neither of you are bashful?”

“I’m blind,” I said, “And no, I guess I’m not bashful.”

“Blind?” Grue said, his head snapping around as he looked at me.  Rachel did as well.

“Tattletale didn’t mention it?”

“No.  And you didn’t either.”

“I’m functioning.  I probably won’t when I can’t use my power, but yeah.”

“Is everything all right?” the young woman asked.

“It’s fine,” Grue said, heading into one of the rooms.  He stopped in the doorway, turned to me, “We’ll talk after.”

I bobbed my head in a nod, then led Dinah into an empty room.  As far as I could tell, everything was as one might expect for a doctor’s office, down to the jar of tongue depressors and a bowl of lollipops.

“How’s your head?” I asked.  “Headaches?”

“Getting worse.  But I’ll get sick tonight, before the headache gets too bad, then it won’t really matter.”

“Oh.”

“Do you have more questions?”

“Some, but I don’t want to burden you, or make you feel like I’m using you.”

“Go ahead.”

“The end of the world.  Did Coil ask about it?  Did he get more details on what happens?”

“He would ask how the number changed, some mornings when he asked the usual questions, before Crawler came and I couldn’t use my power for a while.  He wanted to figure out what happened, but the only way to do that was to make guesses and see the numbers with my power.  Every day, he’d always asked the same sorts of questions about whether one thing was safe or whether another was safe and chance of success for this plan or that.  There weren’t many questions left for the day after he was done asking all those, so it was slow.”

I worked to take off my armor, unstrapping the armor to uncover the zipper.  It wasn’t easy, with the pain in my chest, and when it hit me, I’d have to suppress coughs to continue listening to Dinah.  “I guess he figured he’d be around long enough to figure it out.”

Dinah didn’t respond.

“What’s the chance the world ends, Dinah?  That these billions die because of something Jack Slash does?  Has the number changed?”

“It’s changed.  Ninety-seven point seven nine zero seven three percent.”

Ninety-seven point eight.  It’s higher.

“What did you and Coil figure out?  In terms of twenty questions?”

“People are spread out.  I know you’re there.  You’re different but you’re there.”

“And the others?”

“Sometimes there.”

“Can you give me more details?  How am I different?  Which of the others are there?”

“I don’t know.  There’s too many capes and too many capes with powers that make it fuzzy, because some powers make it harder and a bunch of those powers together make it impossible.   I don’t know what happens to start all of it and I don’t know much of what happens during, but billions are dead afterward.”

Damn.  “Okay.  You said we’re spread out?”

“Yes.  Five big groups, lots and lots of capes from all around the world, and armies.  Coil asked a lot about that.  He wanted to know about his chances for survival or the total number of casualties if he focused on one area over another.”

“He wasn’t interested in stopping it?”

“He asked about that at first.  But nothing changed the numbers enough.  He said it was better to accept that it’s going to happen and do what he could to minimize the damage.”

“Five major groups,” I said.  “You don’t know why?”

She shook her head.

“Do you know if it’s like, a natural disaster sort of mass-death, or death by violence, or…”

I trailed off.  Dinah was already shaking her head.

“Alright,” I said.  I finished pulling my costume off, grunting at the pain in my chest, then sat on the bed in my bike shorts and tank top.  Dinah sat beside me.

She looked up at me, and there was a hint of surprise in her voice.  “You’re burned.”

“Yeah.  Just a bit.  Is it bad?”

“Not bad.  But it looks painful.”

“My chest hurts more,” I said.  Then, as if I were reminded of it, I coughed, hoarse.

We sat.  I could sense the Doctor talking to Rachel, and ‘heard’ Rachel’s raised voice with the bugs I’d placed on her.  I didn’t envy the doctor for having to deal with her as a patient.

“Theoretically speaking,” I said, “Just in the interest of problem solving, or figuring out what’s going to work or not, would the chance of this happening change if I just drove around America and killed everyone in my power’s reach?”

“Not really,” Dinah said.

“Damn,” I replied.  If she’d said yes, I could have narrowed it down to maybe the eastern United States or the west, then cut it in half again with north versus south, or narrowed it down to certain states.  Home in on the person or people that the problem centered around, dealt with them one way or another

Except that wouldn’t work.

“Would you?”

“What?”

“Kill all those people, if you had to?”

“No,” I assured her.  “I’m not that kind of villain.”

“You killed Coil, didn’t you?  I saw.  Thirty-two percent chance it was you who did it.  Five percent chance you couldn’t and asked someone else to.  Sixty percent chance you were dead.”

“I killed him,” I admitted.  “But that was a special case.”

“Okay,” she said.

What I wouldn’t have given to be able to read her expression.

“Does that bother you?” I asked.

She shook her head, but she said, “It did at first, when I first saw that possibility.  But I had a lot of time to wait, and eventually the idea of being rescued mattered more than his life did.”

“That’s… pretty grim,” I said.  I didn’t get a chance to say more.  The female doctor was leaving Rachel’s room, and Rachel was storming out.

Both Dinah and I turned toward the door before the doctor had even touched the handle.

The woman entered and hesitated a fraction when she saw us staring.  Her voice was just as cheery as her daughter’s.  “Hello!  I’m Dr. Brimher.”

“Hello,” I said.  “Have trouble with my teammate?”

“She was uncooperative.  I suppose we’ll have to refund the amount that was already paid for her care.  I hope that’s alright.  Everything indicated she was fine, healthwise.”

“So long as she was fine.”

She perked up a little at that, “Well then!  Who’s first?”

“Her,” Dinah said, before I had a chance to speak.

The overall checkup went much as I’d expected.  I was diagnosed with a fractured rib, the smoke inhalation was apparently something that should have been treated earlier, but I wasn’t showing any lingering signs of mental or personality changes, and I wasn’t dizzy, so she let me off with instructions to breathe deep.  I got a cream for my burn and three bottles of eye drops for my eyes.

“Once every two hours,” she said.  “And as for you, little miss, you seem undernourished.”

“I haven’t had much of an appetite for a while.”

“Infection?”

“Involuntary incarceration,” I said.

“Ah.  Well,” the woman’s voice jumped up a notch on the cheeriness scale, “None of my business.”

“It wasn’t me,” I said.  “We weren’t keeping her prisoner.”

“Of course.  I wouldn’t act any differently if you had been.”

“Really?” I asked.

Dinah grabbed my hand.  I forced myself to shut up.

“Well.  What drugs were you taking, sweetie?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you describe what you felt when you took them?”

“Felt good.  Calm.  Relaxed.  Very sleepy, thinking through a thick soup.”

The woman was scribbling with a pen.  She shook it to banish the fly that I’d landed on the end.

“And now?  You’re a little flushed.”

Was Dinah showing symptoms that I couldn’t see?

“I’m hot, and my legs ache.  I’m sweating, but that might be because I’m hot.  That’s all for now.  Later, I’ll be throwing up, and crying.  I’ll be very tired but I won’t be able to sleep.”

“You’ve been through this before?”

“No.  Not much past this.  This will be the first time.  Hopefully the last.”

“I… see.  The time of your last dose?”

“I don’t know.  I couldn’t see a clock.  But things start getting bad in one and a half hours,” Dinah said.  “They get to the very worst in one day.”

“Can you put her in a coma?” I asked.  “I read about it.”

“No.  I wouldn’t feel confident in doing that without knowing the substances in her system.”

“Then do a blood screen first,” I said.  “If it’s a question of money-“

“No,” Dinah was the one who spoke.  “Has to be the hard way.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because there’s a seventy point one five nine percent chance that I relapse if I don’t.  The cravings get too bad and I can see more cravings in the future and it gets to be too much and I go looking for some eventually,” there was a hint of hysteria in her voice.

I sighed.  “Okay.  No induced coma.”

“One bad week,” Dinah said.  “Six days.”

“Okay then,” the doctor said.  Still chipper, strangely sounding pleased at this situation.  “I’ll go prepare a room so you have a place to rest.  I’ll grab some things to help quiet your tummy, too.”

A moment later, she was gone.

“I can stay with you,” I said.  “At least tonight.”

“You need to go and help the others with Noelle.”

“I will.  But first I’ll see you through tonight, okay?”

She nodded.

We sat in silence for a few long moments.  The doctor stopped in to say something to Grue, and there was something about her voice, the higher pitch…

“Hey, Dinah, since I can’t see, can you do me a favor and tell me if you see anything around here that says ‘Medhall’?”

“Medhall?  No.  I don’t think so.  Why?”

“These guys are too comfortable around supervillains, and this place is too expensive.  Medhall was the company that Kaiser ran, and he also ran the biggest gang of villains in town, before Leviathan came.  I’m just wondering if this was the place the white supremacists went to when they needed medical care.”

“Oh.  I don’t know.”

“If it is, I’ll have to have words with Tattletale.  And I guess I can see why you saw me possibly causing trouble.  If they said something to Grue, that’d probably do it.”

Dinah nodded.

I sighed.  “A week to recuperate?”

“Six days.  Eight percent chance I need another day to rest,” her voice seemed a touch tight, maybe a little anxious.  I wasn’t sure I could blame her.

“I’m not leaving you in their care, okay?  We’ll spend enough time here for me to get the details on what to do and what to look out for, and then we’ll find another place to rest up.”

“Okay,” she said, and her voice was far quieter than it had been since we’d rescued her.

It caught me off guard.  The quiet.  I’d pegged the changes in volume as being tied to her confidence, but the way she’d dropped her voice, it suggested she was anxious about something.  Something she apparently wasn’t sharing with me.

“Mind if I run a few more questions by you?”

“I should save my strength, so only a couple more?”  She was still quiet as she replied.

I wasn’t sure if Dinah was aware, but the bugs I’d placed on her shoulders sensed the movement, the way she drew her shoulders in.

She was afraid?  Was it the impending withdrawal?

“Okay,” I said.  “Chance we come out of this okay?”

“Sixty four point two percent chance.”

“And chance the rest of the city does?”

“…Not as high.  It depends how I ask the question, but if I do-“

“No.  I get it.  If you could ballpark it?”

“Eighteen point two two five eight percent.”

“Okay.  There’s going to be some catastrophic damage, then?”

“It’s very likely.”

I sighed.  I still had to figure out what we were doing about Noelle.  There were roughly eight hours before we had to address that issue.  Five or six hours before we really needed to act on the knowledge, calling in help, hiring assistance or notifying the heroes.  This was a threat just one step below an Endbringer.  Hopefully Ballistic would brief us on her powers, and Tattletale could get us on target as far as her location or weak points.

Tattletale might have been the ruler of Brockton Bay in a general sense, but I was still team leader of the Undersiders.  I was blind, we had a pseudo-Endbringer to tackle, and the lives of everyone in the city potentially hinged on it.

Just had to consider my options.

“Fifty eight point five,” Dinah said, and there was a hint of emotion in her voice.

“What?  What’s that number?”

“It’s my chance of getting home.”

“Why is it so low?”

She shrugged.

Did that mean she didn’t know, or she wasn’t willing to use her power to find out?

Then I sensed her lean slightly away from me, and I got an inkling why.

Me.

It was so seductive, when I thought about possible risk to my dad, to the people in my territory, to my teammates and friends, and even to me, to think about drawing on Dinah’s assistance.  With Dinah’s help, we could avoid the worst case scenarios.  And maybe in some not-quite conscious way, I was thinking about how to retain her help, one way or another.

If she was sick, after all, I could look after her while dealing with the situation.  Just a week of keeping Dinah close, drawing on her abilities to help everyone, and to ensure her safety.  With that in mind, and the way she’d clutched at me for security, I’d been assuming she’d stay with me for just a little while.

She knew that.  She saw the numbers changing.

And just with that, there was a breach in trust.  The savior wasn’t quite what she’d expected?  Dangerous, even?  It explained why she was anxious.

“Dinah, listen,” I said.  “I can guess what you’re thinking.  I don’t want to be that person.  I don’t want to trick myself into believing it’s right or better to keep you, that it serves the greater good or whatever.  Because that’s a slippery, fast road to doing what Coil was doing.”

She turned her head to look at me.

“We’ll get you home as soon as possible, okay?  Within twenty-four hours.  And if there’s more risk, if there’s more danger to me, or to you, or everyone?  I’ll shoulder that, okay?  I’ll make sure we come out of this okay.  You can go home.  You deserve to go home.”

A full minute passed before she responded with a murmured, “Thank you.”

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Monarch 16.13

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With Grue’s help, I seated myself on the intact edge of the destroyed swarmbox, scattering my insects to the walls and ceiling of the room.  Grue paced a little, while I eyed Imp and Bitch.  My female teammates didn’t look entirely convinced, and I couldn’t blame them.  They’d just seen someone who matched my description attacking them.  The nighttime darkness and the lack of city lights hadn’t helped, and the obscuring swarm of bugs had helped hide the details from the moment the impostor gave them reason to suspect her.

“What happened?” Grue asked me.

“We arrived at the place he was keeping Dinah, she grabbed my hand, we turned around, and the headlights flashed.  Then I was somewhere else.”

“He switched to his highbeams, momentarily.  Don’t know about the others, but my eyes had adjusted to the dark.  I couldn’t see anything, used my darkness to try to cover us in case he was pulling something, but nothing happened.  Turned around and you were fine.”

“Except it wasn’t me.”

Grue nodded slowly.  “Looked like you, sounded like you.”

“I don’t know how.  Genesis?”

“Didn’t strike me as much of an actor.”

“Then I don’t know,” I said, feeling lame.  I knew I didn’t sound convincing.

“What happened?  Was he only trying to separate you from us?”

“I’m ninety-five percent sure he tried to kill me.”

“What’s the other five percent?”  Grue asked.

“I’m not a hundred percent sure of anything.  But he didn’t have a bomb waiting to go off when I arrived, so that leaves me with some doubt.  He did shoot me, and set the building on fire around me.  And he had soldiers waiting to gun me down if I stepped outside.”

“Did he want you to come here, to frame you?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head.  “Doesn’t make sense.  Just as easy for ‘Skitter’ to disappear with Dinah, leaving you guys angry but still loyal.  I think the way he wanted it, I’d die of the gunshot or burn up in a housefire, and he could use the lack of living reporters in Brockton Bay alongside some bribe money for the Travelers to ensure you guys didn’t know what he’d pulled.  Maybe something comes out later about me betraying you, to put it in perspective and put any lingering doubts to rest.”

“He teleported you into a burning house, shot you, surrounded you with soldiers.  And you escaped,” Imp said.

“Barely.”  I touched the knot of metal where the bullet had settled in my armor.  “I guess it’s bulletproof after all.  I got away because of stuff he wasn’t aware of, mainly.  My costume, tactics I’ve been using in the field, the fact I had a gun.  Don’t know if Calvert knew about that.  Are you okay, Rachel?”

Rachel didn’t respond.  Her head was turned my way, and I could imagine her staring, trying to read me.  Her hand gripped the chain at Bastard’s neck.

“It wasn’t me,” I told her.

“It wasn’t her,” Grue confirmed.  “I saw with her power.  That box was controlling the bugs.”

Bitch nodded slowly.  I couldn’t see her expression to know whether she was glaring at me or narrowing her eyes behind her mask.

“If you have any doubts,” I said, “You can stay in a position to attack me if something happens.  One whistle or one hand signal away from commanding Bastard or Bentley to tear me apart.  I hope you won’t leap to any conclusions, but-”

“It’s fine.”

“Are you sure?  Because I don’t want there to be any hard feelings or… I don’t want there to be hard feelings.”  I’d almost said retaliation, but I’d decided I didn’t want to bring that up.

“It’s fine,” she said, and there was a touch of anger to the words.  “This shadow and dagger shit pisses me off.”

“Cloak and dagger,” Imp offered.

Bitch made a low, grunting noise in her throat that fell somewhere between a huff of anger, a belch and a grunt.  “The way you acted before, the way that person acted when she shot me and the way you’re acting now, none of it makes sense, and maybe that’s ’cause I’m stupid.  But I’m going to handle this my way.  Next time someone shoots at me, I kill them.  Or I have Bastard eat their hands and feet.”

“You shouldn’t maim people,” I said.

“Says the person who just emptied a gun clip at us,” Imp said.  When Grue and I turned her way, she raised her hands, “Kidding.  I’m just kidding.”

“…Want me to kill them instead?”  Bitch asked.

“No!  No.  Just… nevermind.  But hold back a bit for now.  And don’t call yourself stupid.  You think in a different way, that’s all.”

She offered a noncommittal grunt in response.

“We should talk rescue plans,” I said.  “Calvert invited Tattletale to join him, probably so she wouldn’t tip us off about the body double.  That means she’s probably caught.  Regent too, since we sent him to look after her.  This is the kind of situation we were hoping to avoid by playing along with his grand plan.”

“Having to tackle his full forces to save Tattletale, Regent and Dinah.”

“Right.  If we go charging into this, we or one of his hostages will get killed.”

“I could go in,” Imp said.  “Get them, walk them out.”

“No.  He knows us.  He’s anticipated something like this.  Probably has for the Travelers, too.  He’ll have planned around our powers, with counters in mind for each of us.  That means video cameras to keep an eye out for you.”

“Pain in the ass.”

“Indirect attack?”  Grue suggested.

“It won’t work if he’s holed up somewhere safe.  Not with the countermeasures he’ll have put in place.  If he’s in his underground base until this all blows over, then he’ll be impossible to access,” I said.  I had to stop to cough.

Nobody chimed in with an answer or idea while I recovered.

I went on.  “If he’s in the PRT offices, then we’ll probably have to get past the Travelers, his soldiers, his PRT officers, any countermeasures he’s put in place and any countermeasures the PRT put in place.  It’d be a question of staggering out his various lines of defense so the more questionable ones are out of sight of the good guys.”

“And he still has his hostages,” Grue said.

Fuck it,” I groaned, then I coughed more.

“You need a hospital,” Grue told me.

I shook my head, then regretted it.  I felt dizzy.  Vaguely nauseous.  It was as though simply stopping and letting the adrenaline kick down a notch was letting symptoms emerge.  “Can’t.  Not now.”

“You’re nearly dead on your feet.”

“I’ll manage,” I said.  I turned my eyes to the place I’d been lying while Imp stood over me.  “What if I was dead?”

“Hm?”

“Calvert doesn’t have a way to know how this turned out.  Do you have phone service?”

Grue reached for his phone, but Imp had hers out first.  “Sure.”

“He cut my phone off.  I threw it away in case it could be used to track me, or in case it was how he was getting a hold on me with that teleportation device.  If he suspected you, wouldn’t he do the same, limit your options?”

“So you think he thinks maybe something happened.  Or he’s waiting to see if we bought his ruse.”

“He knows I was in the area.  I attacked his men trying to save you guys.  He had gunmen and explosives teams ready to wipe you off the map if you caught on to what that impostor was doing.  So what happens if you call him and tell him you killed me?”

“He asks us to meet him at one of those secure locations you mentioned, and we can’t refuse without revealing that we know what he tried to pull.  And destroying that box might have clued him in anyways.”

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“When the other Skitter disappeared with the girl, how did she do it?  Exactly.”

“Teleporting,” I said.  “Threw the first flashbang, teleported out, leaving rubble and another flashbang behind.”

“Mm,” he said, “Okay.”

“Why are you so curious about that?”

“Just thinking something through.  Give me a second to think.”  He pointed at me, “Make sure you’re taking deep breaths in the meantime.  Even if it hurts.”

I nodded and did as he asked.  For a little while, I ignored my bugs and focused on tallying the damage I’d sustained.  My breath wheezed and rattled, my chest hurt every time it or something attached to it moved, and my eyes stung when I opened them.  Not that there was any point.

Grue was pacing, breathing hard, while Imp and Bitch stood by.  It was a bit of a reversal of the norm.  I could sense Bitch scratching around Bastard’s ears, her fingernails digging in deep to get past the areas with armor and bony spikes.  Imp was on the other side of the room, leaning against one of the wooden pillars and watching her brother.

“I’m calling him,” Grue announced, still panting a bit.  Before any of us could protest, he said, “Quiet.”

I closed my mouth.

He put the phone on speaker.  I could hear it ring.

Funny how something so mundane as the ring of a phone could sound so ominous and eerie, given the context of a situation.

“Grue,” It was Calvert’s voice.  “What-”

When Grue spoke, his words were growls, barks.  “You better not have had anything to do with this, or I swear, this is over.  We’re done, gone.”

I could virtually hear Calvert switching mental gears to try to adapt to this.  “Slow down and then explain.  I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Skitter attacked us and then she used your technology to leave the scene.  I know you wanted to keep that girl, but going so far as to fucking turn on us-”

“Grue,” Calvert’s voice was hard, firm, “Slow down.  It doesn’t make sense that I’d arrange things that way.  Why go through the motions of giving my pet to Skitter, only to… you haven’t fully explained what happened.  You said she attacked you?  Are you sure?”

“Pretty fucking sure, Coil.  She shot Rachel and then turned on me.  Imp disarmed her.  Then she teleported away using the same device you described to us an hour ago.”

“I… I see.  Is Rachel all right?  And who else was with you, my driver?  You’re all unharmed?”

“Your driver went ahead.  No, we’re all fine, except for Skitter.”

“You said she teleported away.”

“She didn’t get more than two blocks away.  We chased her down and stopped her.”

My eyes widened a bit.  I could imagine Calvert’s next words before he spoke them, was already moving.

“Show me.  Send a picture through the phone.”

I shifted position so I lay in the depression that Bastard’s front paws had made in the swarm box.  It was a scene I had to stage in seconds, using dragonflies and wasps to carry hairs across my mask, moving my hand so my wrist bent at an awkward angle where the metal folded.  The final touch was bringing all the bugs from around the swarm box to carpet me and the floor.

Not a half second after I finished, I heard the digitized camera sound.

“I see.  That’s quite unfortunate.  Where’s Dinah?”

You know where Dinah is.

“I don’t know,” Grue said.  “I’m far more interested in hearing how Skitter managed to use your technology to do this.”

“You’re sure?”

“I saw it with my own two eyes,” Grue said.  “She threw a flashbang, but light and darkness don’t affect me the way they do others.  You know that much.”

Grue was lying, adding an element Calvert wasn’t aware of, to throw him off track.  Good.

“I didn’t, believe it or not,” Calvert said.  “And I don’t know how she would have gotten access to the controls.  One moment.  I’ll have to call you right back.”

My swarm felt Grue stiffen.  He raised his voice, “Don’t hang up on me!”

The speaker phone buzzed with the dial tone.

We stared at each other.  Or the others stared and I used my swarm sense to observe.  As a group, we were still and quiet for long seconds, the dial tone still blaring.

Grue hit the button.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Being aggressive, keeping him on his heels.  If he’s constantly defending himself, he won’t be able to turn things back on us.”

“Except he hung up.  He’s going to think through his options and give you an excuse when he’s ready.”

“I didn’t think he’d hang up.”

I frowned.  I was thinking back to the meeting I’d had with the school, when my dad had been with me and we’d accused the trio of bullying.  Both Emma’s dad and the school had played their little power games.

“It’s a tactic,” I said.  “He regains control of the situation by being the one who can call back, and it helps establish the idea of him being an authority figure.”

“Damn,” he said.  “Sorry.  It made sense in my head, but I didn’t think it through, I’m tired.  Didn’t sleep last night.  I figured it was better to call sooner than later.”

“It’s okay.  Maybe call him back?”

He didn’t get a chance.  The phone rang.

“This wasn’t the kind of response I wanted, Coil,” Grue growled into the phone, the second he’d answered.

I heard the beep as he switched it to speaker phone.  Calvert was already talking.  “- have sequestered Regent in my custody, out of concern that he controlled Victor to have the young man hack into my systems.”

“You and I both know that Victor didn’t have that kind of access, and we didn’t know about your teleportation technology until an hour ago.”

“I fear Skitter may have known, and I’m simply covering my bases.  Once we’ve verified what happened and that Regent wasn’t complicit, I’ll release him.  You can understand where I’m wanting to be careful, given this turn of events.”

“I don’t understand anything, Coil,” I heard a tremor of emotion in Grue’s voice.  “I liked Skitter, and she’s dead.  The use of the teleporter says you’re complicit.  I want to look you in the eye and believe you weren’t a part of this.”

“We’ll sort this matter out.  If you’ll come to my headquarters, we can discuss this.”

“No.  Not your headquarters.  Not with the possibility you pulled this shit on us.  We’ll meet somewhere else.  Somewhere open.”

There was a pause.  “As you wish.  Name a location.”

Grue, this time, was the one caught off guard.  Calvert’s response was fast, and Grue clearly didn’t have an area in mind.

A place where we’d be able to set up faster than Calvert, ideally open, not riddled with attack routes and vantage points for his soldiers

I thought of a spot, and the air caught in my throat as I suppressed a small noise.  I almost coughed.  I drew the word in the air with my bugs.

“The market, north end,” Grue said, reading it.  “You know it?”

“I do.  It’s shut down at present.”

“Right.  You come with only one small squad of soldiers, bring Tattletale and Regent.”

“If-”  Calvert started.

Grue hung up on him.  He looked at me, “Authority, right?”

“Right,” I said.  But all I could hear was the emotion in his voice when he’d been talking about the idea that I’d been dead.  Pretending.  Grue wasn’t a guy who showed his emotions, he didn’t strike me as an actor.  Hearing that had affected me more than I thought it would.  I didn’t want to ask if it was because he really cared or if it was because he’d tapped into something else, some vulnerability that his recent trauma had left open to him.

I coughed lightly.  “The market’s a good spot.  His people were at the south end of town.  It’ll take him a bit to get there, so he won’t be able to stage any kind of ambush.”

“It works.  But if we’re meeting him, what are you doing?”

“Staying nearby,” I said.  “I’ll wait in the wings.  In the meantime, we should see if we can get our hands on something that we could have Bastard maul to the point that it looks like my mutilated remains.”

“There a butcher still in service anywhere?” Grue asked.

“We’ll figure something out,” I replied.

The market was almost empty, an expanse of asphalt devoid of cars, surrounded by tall grass.  There were still faint marks where the treads and scoops of bulldozers had pushed the dirt and debris to the far side of the lot.  Only a few stalls were standing, but the displays were empty.

I felt exposed, naked.  I was wearing only my old costume and the built-in makeshift skirt to cover me where the fire had eaten away at the leggings.  My utility compartment was the one that had been damaged during our altercation with the Nine, holding the bare essentials, while my new mask and the upper half of my remade costume were presently being worn by the fake we’d made.  The sacrifice of the costume hurt, and the process of putting the fake together hadn’t been pretty.

The head, upper body and arms were simply taken from a child’s mannequin we’d salvaged from the inside of a store display and stuffed into the top of my costume.  To get the meat for the torn midsection, I’d had to use my bugs to root out and kill a raccoon from the bins of a dumpster.  I’d cut it open and tied the entrails to the base of the mannequin’s torso with my spiders.  A wig that vaguely matched my own hair was simply bound to the head.  We soaked the body, the wig in particular, with the blood of the dead raccoon.

Bentley’s tail wagged as he carried the thing delicately in his heavy jaws, one arm and a bloody mess of hair dangling from the left side of his mouth, raccoon intestines hanging out the other.

I headed into the tall grass and hunkered down.  Volumes of insects and arachnids that I’d picked up during our trek to the market settled around me, hidden at the base of the grass.

Adrenaline kept me awake, despite the fatigue that I was experiencing.  It had been an intense few days, an intense few weeks, with minimal chance to rest.  My body was probably struggling to heal, and draining what little reserves I had remaining.  Still, I wasn’t about to doze off.

Calvert arrived after ten or fifteen minutes, pulling up with one armored van.  All in all, he had only four soldiers with him.  He walked within twenty feet of me as he crossed the tall grass.  I was aware of his footsteps crushing my bugs as he passed over the swarm.

Oblivious, he approached Grue, Imp, Bitch and the dogs.

“Ah.  You brought Skitter.  It seems there’s little doubt she’s dead.  A terrible shame.”

“No kidding,” Imp said.

“I’d suggest my man look over the body, verify that it was her, but I suppose there’s no point trying.”

“Bentley wouldn’t let you get that close to his treat,” Bitch said.

Bentley growled, as if he understood the words and wanted to make it absolutely clear.

“Don’t talk about her like that,” Grue said.  “Calling her a treat?”

“She betrayed us,” Imp said.  “Why do you care?”

“Enough,” Calvert said, his voice hard.  “Enough bickering.  My time is valuable, and I’m not willing to waste it on entertaining this ruse.”

I didn’t have many bugs deployed on my allies or on Calvert, but I could still feel the others tense in surprise.

“Yes, I know.  I commend you for trying, I might have believed you, but I do have other resources on hand.”

“Then-” Grue started.

“Ah, bup bup,” Calvert raised a hand, “I was talking.  As I was saying, I have other resources available.  I have a small cadre of supervillains, a small group of heroes, all the resources of the PRT and PRT computer systems, and all of their tools.”

He snapped his fingers, and soldiers began to teleport down to the edges of the market.  Most were positioned so that the Undersiders would have to run off the edge of the pavement, over the grass and into the water if they wanted to get away.  Surrounding a target while holding guns only promised to get people shot.  The effect, as it was, was good enough.

The Travelers teleported in behind Calvert, followed by Chariot, Circus, Über and Leet, and a few of his lieutenants.  People in suits.  One held a laptop while the other typed on it.

Every gun, tinker made or otherwise, was pointed at my teammates.

Another gun pressed against the back of my head.  Soldiers had teleported in behind me.

I felt despair sweep through me.  No.  Too many.  Didn’t think he could teleport this many in.

The gun barrel prodded me, and I stood.  I walked with the gun pressed between my shoulderblades, just above the spot where my utility compartment hung.

“Skitter.  How nice of you to join us.”

“Cut the fake civility,” I said.  “Where are our teammates?”

“Regent and Tattletale are safe and locked up, rest assured.  I must say, I’m quite disappointed.  I really had hoped this would work out, and the loss of the Undersiders sets me back by weeks or months in the grand scheme of my plan.  Imp, you can cease trying to run.  My men have cameras on you,” Calvert gestured toward the laptop.

Imp moved her mask to spit on the ground, just to my right.  It was a bit of a shock to find her standing there.

“Farewell, Under-“

“Wait.” I said.  Raising my voice made me cough.

“I don’t see any point to waiting.”

I hurried to recover and speak before he could give the order.  “Dead man’s switch.”

Calvert sighed.  “Ah.  You are irritating, you know?  On more than one occasion, I know, you’ve argued for the sake of the greater good.  I’ve viewed the recordings the PRT has of your appearances at major events and I’ve come to know you fairly well.  It’s rather hypocritical that you’re now working so hard to fight against the greater good.”

“Against your rule.”

“Essentially so.  If you simply would have died quietly, the Undersiders wouldn’t have been stirred to rebellion, I could have established a peace we haven’t seen since the day Scion arrived and everyone involved here could have walked away happier and healthier.  Your friends included.”

“Tattletale excepted,” I responded.

“Tattletale excepted, I admit.  Too dangerous to be left unchecked.  A shame.  Now, you were saying?”

“I arranged a dead man’s switch.  Kind of.  Unless one of my subordinates receives a message from me every twenty minutes, she’ll mass-send emails to everyone important and even a few unimportant people.”

“Detailing the true nature of Thomas Calvert, I suspect?”

“Yeah.”

“I hate to break it to you, dear Skitter, but this isn’t enough leverage for me to let you walk away.”

I turned my head in the direction of my teammates.  With my power, I noted their presence.  Grue, Imp, Bitch, her dog.

“None of us?” I asked.

“No.  I’m more confident in my ability to handle the chaos that any email creates than I am in my ability to get you and your teammates under my thumb again.”

“Okay,” I said.  I could feel sweat running cold down the back of my neck.  “Then I have a few questions, and a couple of requests.  Satisfy that, and I can disable the dead man’s switch.”

“The requests first, if you please.”

“Dinah goes free when you’re done.  You don’t keep her forever.”

“Agreed.”

“My dad, you don’t touch him.”

“I haven’t and I won’t have reason to.”

“And you take care of Rachel’s dogs.”

Calvert nodded, but I could sense his patience was running out.

“You do what you can to stop Jack from doing what he can to end the world.  If you have capes at your disposal, you give them some job related to that.  To stopping it.”

“Fine.  Is that it?”

“If none of us here get to live, at least promise Tattletale gets to.”

“Fine.  That can be arranged.”

“I’ll need to see her, to verify she’s okay.  I get that you can’t prove you haven’t gone after my dad in retaliation for earlier, but you can bring her here.”

Calvert nodded at Chariot, who pressed a button on his wrist.

Tattletale appeared in a flash of light, arms bound behind her, legs shackled.  She wore headgear that had her blindfolded and gagged.  I couldn’t quite tell, but it looked like the ears were plugged too.

“Satisfied?” Calvert asked.

“No.  It could be a body double, like you arranged for me.  I’d like to confirm with her.”

“No.  The restraints are in place for a reason.”

“Then it’s a body double,” I said.  “And I’ll let the timer run down on this damaging piece of email.”

“I’m willing to run that risk.”

“Use your power,” I told him.  “I’m going to say the words rose-L.  She’ll reply with something green, followed by the letter A.”

“I’m familiar with your codes.”

“Great.  And if she doesn’t, shoot us.  If there’s a problem, go with your other world.”

“You know how my power works?” Calvert sighed.  “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised in the end, with the name she chose.  No.”

“It’s all I’m asking for.  You can send your computer experts to the destination I name, they’ll check the computer memory to verify no messages were sent, check the phones of everyone on my call history that you don’t already know, and then you’ll know you’re in the clear.  That’s what I’m offering you in exchange for the assurance that at least Tattletale will get to live.  Peace of mind.”

“I could kill your liaison, you realize.  She’s a loose end.”

I thought of Charlotte, hoped I wouldn’t regret getting her involved.  “I hope you won’t.  All I’ve told her is that she should await my message and send the file I composed if she doesn’t hear from me regularly.  I hope you’ll let Tattletale and my civilian live, but if you won’t, if you break your word, I guess I’ll have to live with you looking a little worse in the eyes of the people who work for you.  Like the Travelers.”

“Don’t bring us into this, Skitter,” Trickster said.  “This is your mess.  Your consequences.”

“I didn’t do anything.  He was the one who turned on us first,” I protested.

I sensed Trickster turn Calvert’s way.

Calvert sighed audibly.  “As Skitter knows about my power and ever so kindly revealed the broad strokes of it to everyone in earshot, I suppose there’s no loss in explaining.  I tortured one member of the Undersiders for information, in another world, days ago.  They revealed that you were plotting to turn on me if I refused to release Dinah.  I cannot afford to release her, so my hand was forced.”

“So it’s our fault?” Imp asked.

“Ultimately, yes.”

“How did you make those body doubles?  Genesis?”

“The old-fashioned way.  The one that replaced you was a Sudanese child soldier.  I was preparing for the eventuality of your betrayal since the day after Leviathan attacked and your… wobbly allegiances became perfectly clear.  It’s amusing, but the files you stole from the PRT offices after rejoining the Undersiders supplied much of the video footage my hired experts used to coach her in the particulars of how you move and speak.  When you went to convince the Mayor of our way of thinking, Trickster carried the devices Leet designed to record the particular signals you use to command your bugs.”

“Which is how you built the swarm box.”

“The Famine Engine,” Leet said.

“Whatever.”

“Any further questions?”

“Why didn’t you drop me on top of a bomb?”

“An unfortunate side effect of Leet’s power.  Leet believes it was the proximity to the bomb or the particular signature of the vat of acid that made it so likely to occur, but with my power I observed that it wasn’t merely a chance that the teleportation would fail and your well-trained body double would be caught instead, but a surety.  No less than twelve tries with the variables changed slightly.  Leet’s power sabotages him, it seems.”

“Is that Leet’s passenger at work?”

“Passenger?  Ah, that’s what Bonesaw calls the agents.  Yes, I suppose that might be the case.  In any event, we nearly ran out of time before verifying that guns, fire and alcohol wouldn’t skew his power.  Whatever the cause of the errors was.”

“Okay.  So I don’t suppose you want to let me confirm it’s Tattletale and tell you who to contact to cancel the dead man’s switch?”

“No.”

“You’ve been careful every step of the way.  Thinking five steps ahead, amassing resources, amassing top-notch underlings, getting us working for you, getting the Travelers.  I’m surprised you’re willing to let things go ass-backwards when you’re so close to tying up the last loose end.”

“It’s precisely because I’m careful that I’m not willing to let Tattletale open her mouth and speak.”

“You’re still pretending it’s Tattletale,” I said.

“It is.  I had no reason to arrange a body double for her as I did for you.”

“You had every reason.  Like you said, you didn’t trust her, you couldn’t let her work unchecked, and it would have been too unusual if the two members of the Undersiders that posed the biggest threat to your goals happened to disappear at once.”

Calvert shook his head and touched fingers to his forehead, as if exasperated.  “Your underling and Tattletale can live.  That’s all I’m willing to offer.  You’ll have to take my word on both points”

“Your word is worth nothing,” Bitch spat the words.

Calvert reacted as if he’d been slapped.

“You promised me safety, security, so long as I joined this team.  I’ve never been less safe, less secure.  Everybody lies through their teeth.  Maybe there’s a couple of them I can stand anyways, but they’re still liars, they’ve made me a liar, and you’re the worst liar of them all.  It’s fitting you wear a snake on your costume.”

Enough,” Calvert said, “Anything more and I’ll order my men to shoot you.”

“Shoot her and you’ll never get the info you need from me,” I said.

“You’re a cheat, Coil!” Bitch barked.

“I’ll have your dogs shot if you say another word,” Calvert said.

Bitch fell silent.

Silence reigned for long seconds.  I was aware of my bugs, knew that I couldn’t have them attack without us getting shot.  I knew my armor was bulletproof, Bitch’s armored jacket was the same way, but the thinner fabric, or a bullet through the lens or eyehole of a mask?  There were a lot of soldiers here.  Even if the suits could stop the bullets from penetrating, we could be pulverized anyways.

I heard a wave crash against the shore, not far away.  Long seconds passed.

“If it settles the matter, then fine,” Calvert said.  He signaled Chariot.

Another Tattletale appeared.  She dropped to her knees the second she materialized.  She wore a similar headset and bindings.

“Free her mouth and one ear.  Be ready to gag her again the second she speaks.”

One of his soldiers approached the kneeling Tattletale.  He undid the gag and freed her ear of the plug that was held in place with wire.

“Rose-L,” I called out.

“Stringbean-A,” she replied.  She grunted as the soldier forced the gag back into her mouth.

“She gets to live,” I told Calvert.  “If nothing else, you guys are going to need her help to figure out how Jack Slash ends the world in twenty-three months.”

“It’s amusing,” Calvert said, “That you keep asking me for things I was already prepared to do.  You wanted me to improve the city, to restore it to a working state.  Already planned.  And this?  Killing Tattletale was never in the cards.  I intend to keep her like I do my pet.  Her power will be invaluable.  Rest assured, I will offer every bit of assistance I can when the end of the world approaches.”

“I suppose it was too much to expect that you’d let her go,” I said.  My heart pounded in my chest.  I wasn’t exactly feeling top-notch, so simply standing was feeling like a bit of a challenge.  Fighting back, acting?  No.  No use.  “Her name is Charlotte.  She’s staying in the red brick house a block to the east of my dad’s place.  She has a laptop, but she doesn’t know what I put on it.”

“Very well.  Men?  Ready-“

“-You’re not going to check?”

“Aim…”

“Calvert!” I said, “Coil!”

“Fire.”

The sound of the gunshots was deafening, debilitating when I was already missing my sense of sight, my bugs not present enough to give me a sense of the surroundings.  I sensed Grue get hit, then Bentley… I took one in the stomach and folded over.

When the smoke cleared, for lack of a better term, we were still standing.  There was the sound of a few isolated scuffles in the ranks of the soldiers.  My bugs moved to the ends of gun barrels and to the soldiers themselves, noting their postures and positions.

Roughly half of the soldiers that surrounded us were holding the other half hostage.  A few had managed to get shots off, but a quick feel-around with my bugs verified that nobody had been hurt enough to be knocked to the ground.  Most of the bullets had gone over our heads.

“What is this?” Calvert asked.  “Travelers-“

“Don’t do a thing, Travelers,” Grue boomed out, in his eerie, hollow voice.  “Someone remove Tattletale’s bindings.”

One of the soldiers approached Tattletale and began undoing the restrictive binding.  She wobbled slightly as she stood, working her jaw in the absence of the gag.

“Glad to see the stringbean plan worked out in the end,” she said.  “Those of you I haven’t been in contact with, please hear me out.  I’m paying twice what Calvert is for a year’s salary, and I’m paying it all upfront.  Look to the other team captains if you don’t believe me.  Fish, Minor, Richards, Meck, I’ve talked to them, and they’ve agreed.”

There was a slight shift in the tension among the soldiers.  The ones at gunpoint began slowly lowering their weapons, and the ones holding them there similarly let it calm a notch.

“Lies,” Calvert said.  There was an uncharacteristic degree of emotion in his voice.  “I’ve tracked your funding.  I know exactly how much money you have.”

“Not exactly.  See, I revealed this to my team, just a little while ago, but I’ve sort of been skimming.”

“From me?”

“A bit.  Not as much as you’d think.  You keep good accounts.  But our targets?  For sure.  Like, we go rob the Brockton Bay central bank, and maybe I skip off for five minutes to go visit the CEO’s room, use his computer to get access to more funds, and shift them into a personal account.  Or I keep a few of the more valuable pieces of paperwork, or I pocket something expensive during a job.  Funny thing about a power like mine, it helps me figure out what I can get away with.”

“You haven’t taken enough to pay twice what I can.”

“You’d be surprised.  And some of your assets are in a position to be picked up by yours truly.  Safe deposit boxes and safes don’t mean much against me.  So that’s a bit more funding of yours that I can borrow to pay these guys.  A year up front, and I’m not asking them to do a single thing.  Most of them, anyways.  I’m just asking that they ship out of Brockton Bay or they stay on the down-low.”
“I’ll pay triple,” Calvert said.

“You can’t pay triple,” Tattletale said, stretching as the chains around her wrists and ankles were undone.  “You’ve dented your coffers too much with the city revitalization.  Didn’t help that you paid such an exorbitant sum to the Dragonslayers for the information they were offering.”

“That was your idea.”

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “You were desperate enough to deal with the Dragon threat before your big show at the debate that you didn’t make too big an issue of it.  Either way, you forgot the cardinal rule of employing mercenaries.  They follow the person with the money.”

“I didn’t forget,” Calvert said, “I had that in mind every step of the way.  I was exceedingly careful of how much funding I provided.”

“Okay,” Tattletale sounded almost chirpy.  “But you didn’t account for the possibility that I was picking up as much on my own as I was.”

Calvert made a noise that was a borderline snarl.

“Undersiders,” Trickster said.  “This goes no further.  Call it a stalemate, but we need his assistance.”

“Calvert’s lying, you know,” Tattletale said.  “He can maybe help you, but he can’t help Noelle.  None of the plans he’s been talking about will work, and he knows they won’t work.  He wants Noelle for entirely different reasons.  He thinks he can get her on a leash, so he’s got firepower even if he gets rid of the supervillains working under him.  A threat that only the great PRT leader Thomas Calvert can address.”

“I’d rather see the truth of that for myself.  You touch him and we kill you.”

“You guys aren’t wearing the same kind of durable costume we are,” Tattletale said.  “If you want to make a point of it, my soldiers can gun you down.”

“I can swap your group with mine the second the gunshots happen,” Trickster replied, unfazed.  “You don’t want to do that.”

I tried to speak, coughed once instead.  When I finally had my voice, I said, “Ballistic.  Sundancer.  Any other Traveler with doubts, I know you guys aren’t happy with the status quo.  If you want to stop running, stop moving constantly and move to Brockton Bay permanently, we’ll have you.  We need you, even.”

A long pause stretched out, then Ballistic stepped forward.

“Hey, man,” Trickster said.  “No.”

“I’m done.  This was a doomed quest from the start,” Ballistic said.  He stopped at Grue’s side, turned around to face his teammates.

“Sundancer?” I asked.  “You said before that you were lonely, that all of this was too intense for you.  Even the stuff I’ve done, it didn’t sit right with you.  I get that.  Don’t you want to stop?  To say goodbye to this life?”

Trickster looked at Sundancer, “Mars.”

She shook her head.  “No.  No, Skitter.  I’m staying.  Don’t have another choice.”

“Genesis?”

She was in the form of a girl, but wore a simple mask.  “Someone’s got to stay and be a real leader to this team.  No.  I’m standing by Trickster.”

“Teleport me to safety,” Calvert said.  “Escort me away, and everything I have is yours.”

“Everything you have is mine already,” Tattletale cut in.  “You’ve been dethroned, C-man.  I’m going to rule as the mastermind behind the scene in Brockton Bay, organize the territories, pay the bills.  My partners will see to the territories themselves.  I suppose I won’t be head of the PRT, but I’m suspicious we’ll be able to work out a truce of sorts with the good guys.  Hopefully we’ll get someone more sensible than Piggot and less shady than you.”

“Trickster,” Calvert said.  “I can put you in touch with the woman who can cure her.  Someone who knows as much or more about Parahumans than anyone on the planet.  It won’t be free, but I can subsidize the costs.  But I have to be alive to-“

Trickster collapsed to the ground.  Sundancer and Genesis turned, confused, and Ballistic caught Genesis with a spray of pellets.  She dissipated into gory wisps of whatever substance formed her body.

Sundancer was only just creating her sun when she collapsed as well.  I could see Imp bending over, prodding the bodies.  Über, Leet and Chariot backed away as guns turned to point at them.

“Anyone who shoots one of the Undersiders will receive one million dollars!”  Calvert shouted.

I waited for the inevitable bullet.  It didn’t come.

“Skitter and I had a little talk,” Tattletale said.  “Way back when the city had been freshly sieged by the Endbringer and rejoining the team wasn’t even a consideration.  I raised the idea of going after you, of taking you down.  We knew that if you were going to let down your guard, if you were going to slip up at all, it would be when you were closest to achieving your goals.”

Calvert only glared.

“If you made any one mistake, it was keeping me at your base towards the end of the fiasco with the Nine.  The problem with keeping your friends close and your enemies closer?  It puts your enemies in the midst of your friends, so they can discuss better means of payment with the right team captains.  Or they can maybe arrange to put something in Noelle’s vault during one of the feeding times, a few fire alarms with a low battery, tucked in where the door meets the wall.  Irritate her, so she’s awake that much more, and she then costs you sleep.”

“That metaphor fell apart,” Imp commented.

Tattletale shrugged.  “Not so much a metaphor, but I got off track.”

“Pettiness,” Calvert said.

“Strategic.  Lots of little things add up.  Seeding doubts.  Making you second guess plans.  Keep you up at night wondering, planning just a bit more, in both your realities.  You were too focused on the big picture, on the thing I could find out, keeping me off-balance, that you missed out on my ability to see the little things, to exploit them.  And it wore on you.  You didn’t realize how much, but it did, and maybe that’s why you were that much more susceptible to making the critical mistake here.”

“Damn you,” Calvert said.

“But you made the mistake we needed you to make, using your power here, while you were talking to us.  There’s no escape routes, now.  The only loyalty you have is bought with coin, and I have more cash than you do.”

“Then send me to the Birdcage and be done with it,” Calvert said.

“To jail?” Tattletale asked.  “No, no no no.  I know you have contingency plans.  Arrangements.  We send you to prison and someone breaks you out before you get there.”

I took a step forward, then made myself take another.

“It doesn’t have to be you,” Tattletale told me.

“No,” I told her.  “I think it does.”

Calvert turned my way, let his head sink back so it rested against the ground.  “So it comes down to this.”

I thought of the countless lives I’d put at risk, if not directly, then indirectly: the ABB blowing up parts of the city, the ensuing gang war, Purity leveling buildings because she blamed us for the loss of her daughter.

There was the fat superhero I’d left to die when the tidal wave was incoming.  I recalled leaving the dying Merchant to bleed out when I’d rescued Bryce from the merchant’s festival of blood.  There were the people in my territory, the old doctor who’d had her throat cut because I hadn’t realized Mannequin was close until it was too late.  The gas attack that killed nearly twenty people and the fires Burnscar had set in my territory, both because I’d provoked them and failed to consider how readily they’d go after the vulnerable point that was all the people I’d been trying to protect.

I remembered trying to kill Mannequin with grenades, going all-out in attempting to end a man’s life.  A madman, a monster, but it was what it was.

And, much more recently, there was the case of me bringing Triumph so close to death that he’d needed life support.

I’d come to terms with so much of that by telling myself it was leading to this.  I’d known deep down it would happen.  That my fight against Calvert would have to end here.

I walked forward until Calvert was beneath me.  I drew my gun, checked there was ammo in the clip.

“You’re not a killer,” Calvert said.

“No…” I replied.  I couldn’t see, so I screwed my eyes closed, felt the moisture of tears threatening to spill forth.  I took in a deep breath.

“…But I suppose, in a roundabout way, you made me into one,” I finished.  I aimed the gun and fired.

The gun dropped from my hand as the recoil jarred it.  It clattered to the pavement.  It was quiet enough that I could only hear the ocean water crashing against the shore, just off the beach.

As an afterthought, I kicked the gun a distance away from where Calvert lay.  Not that there was much point.  I tried to learn from my mistakes.

I felt Tattletale’s arm settle around my shoulders.  “We’re done.  This is over.”

“The Travelers will be pissed.  I can’t- we can’t kill them,” I said.

“We won’t.  They’ll move on.  They have no more reason to stay.”

Grue stepped around my left side, bent down, took Calvert’s cell phone from the man’s belt and then tossed it to Tattletale.  As Tattletale withdrew her arm from my shoulders, he stepped forward to give me a hug.  “Let’s go.”

I nodded into his shoulder.

We turned away.  With my swarm sense I was able to recognize Minor, Tattletale’s man, helmetless, opening the doors of one van for us.  I took a seat.

It wasn’t Tattletale or Grue that sat down beside me, but Rachel.  She took my hand in hers, held it fiercely.  I wasn’t sure what to make of it, so I simply accepted it.

We stopped at Coil’s underground base.  Tattletale’s underground base.  It was a relief to escape the silence of the van, surreal to be in the dim noise of downtown again.  Much of the area still lacked power, but there were the noises of the occasional car, of people clamoring on the bottom floor of an apartment building.  City noises.

“You okay?” Grue asked.

“More bothered by the fact that I’m not bothered,” I said.  I knew how little sense I was making, but I didn’t feel like elaborating.

“But you’re okay?”

I nodded, coughed fiercely for a few seconds.

“Our next stop after this is the hospital.”

“Okay,” I agreed.

As it had been at sunset, the base was empty.  The metal walkway sang with my footsteps as I walked to the far end of the complex.  I stopped at a door without a handle.

“Here,” Tattletale said.  She held Calvert’s cell phone.  Held it up and pressed a sequence of buttons.

The door clicked open.  I forced my fingers into the gap and hauled it open.  Heavy and metal.

There was one more door, one with a key lock.  Tattletale stepped over to the desk and got the key, opened it.

Dinah was inside with an unassuming man in a turtleneck sweater and corduroy pants.

“Go,” Tattletale told the man.  “Your boss is dead.  Just go.”

He fled.

“I’m going to get Regent,” she said.  “Think we’ll leave Shatterbird in her soundproof cage for now, just to be safe.”

I nodded absently.  I was holding on to Grue for support, watched as Dinah stood from the bed and slowly approached.

Her voice was barely above a whisper as she stared down at the ground between us, “I’ve been waiting for this for so very long.”

It didn’t sound like an accusation.  More the words of someone who had been forced to watch the clock for days, weeks, months.  Anticipating a possible moment that might never come.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I’m sorry it took so long.”

She shook her head, “I’m the one who’s sorry, you were trying hard and I set you up, so you’d go the way where your friends tried to kill you.  I shouldn’t have-“

“Hey, it’s okay.  It offered us the best chances in the end, right?”

She bobbed her head in a nod.

A second later, she was running to me, wrapping her arms around my midsection.  I winced in pain as her forehead banged against my chest.

“Medical care,” Grue said.

“For both of us,” I replied.  “Dinah and me.”

“Yeah.”

As a trio, we stepped out onto the walkway, where Tattletale and Regent should have been waiting.

But I could see Regent at the end of the walkway, and Tattletale wasn’t with him.  She was hurrying down the spiral stairs just to Regent’s left.

I leaned over the walkway, as much as I was able with the pain in my chest and Dinah clinging to my midsection.  My eyes went wide.  A moment later, I was hurrying after Tattletale, holding Dinah’s hand in one of my own and Grue’s elbow in the other.

We stopped when we reached Tattletale.  She stood facing the vault door.  The one that was used to seal Noelle within.

There were two vault doors, one set behind the other, and both were ruined, the one closest to us nearly folded in half, hanging by one hinge.

“A final act of spite,” Tattletale said.  She looked at the phone in her hand.  “He made sure she heard our conversation.”

“You didn’t notice?”

“He was using his ability to create alternate worlds to throw my power for a bit of a loop.  I was more focused on the possibility that he had a loyal soldier in the ranks or a sniper waiting in the distance, ready to take a shot at one of us.”

The odor that wafted from the open vault was like sweat and rotten meat.  It was dark.  Nothing about it gave the sense of a teenage girl’s living space.

“On a scale of one to ten,” I asked, “Just how bad is this?”

“Let me answer your question with another question,” Tattletale said.  “You think we could convince the PRT to turn on the air raid sirens?”

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Monarch 16.10

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I pushed open the rusted metal door that marked the first real barrier to entry for Coil’s underground base.  It was unassuming, if secure, easy to ignore for anyone who happened to find their way underground.  It swung open without resistance; unlocked.

Every door was unlocked as I made my way through the series of checkpoints and gates.  There were no guards, and the cameras in the final room before I entered the base proper didn’t move to track my movements.

I pushed on the final door and let it swing open.  The base was empty.  Except empty wasn’t exactly the right word.  It had been cleared out.

The on-duty squads of soldiers were gone, as were the trucks, weapons, supplies and furniture.  The entire ground floor was desolate, with clean patches in the dust where furniture and crates had been.

In groups big enough for me to get full coverage of the area, my swarms took turns roving over my surroundings.  They couldn’t pass through closed doors, but they gave me a sense of my surroundings that my eyes couldn’t.  The results were almost the inverse of what I might expect from my eyesight.  There was no grasp of color, beyond what I could guess from the various clues I got from my other senses, but I had a keen sense of textures.  Where my eyes would have been capable of focusing on one thing at a time, my swarm-sense gave me the ability to pull together complete mental pictures from a thousand different points of focus.  I could ignore line of sight, sensing around objects, and even though my bugs’ senses translated poorly, the sum total of their awareness gave me a sense of the little things, in addition to the big picture.  I could sense where the air currents were traveling and the force with which they moved, the thickness of the dust in one area versus another, and where temperatures where higher, if even by a fraction.

None of this was new, exactly.  I’d always been aware of it to some small degree, but my core senses had always been there as regular, reliable fallback.  I’d never researched the subject, but reports seemed conflicting when it came to the topic of blindness making other senses sharper.  With only half of a day’s experience, I was beginning to think that maybe it didn’t improve my other senses, but seemed to free up the semi-conscious, semi-unconscious intake that my eyes typically used as my dominant sense.  The brainpower that was usually allocated to idle glances, comparing and contrasting, or just taking in ambient sights while my thoughts were preoccupied with other things?  It was freed up to be used for listening and my swarm-sense.

The Travelers were here, I noted.  I wasn’t startled to note their presence, but I was somewhat surprised.  They’d gathered in one room above the vault that Noelle was presumably being kept in.  They’d noticed the bugs and were venturing outside onto the walkway.  I met them halfway between their apartment and the entrance.

They were in civilian wear.  Trickster and Ballistic were in regular shirts, jeans and shoes, but Sundancer was wearing what I took to be pyjamas, her hair tied back in a bun.  Genesis was in her chair, a blanket on her lap, with Oliver standing just behind her.

“Skitter,” Trickster said, “You’re here alone?”

“My teammates are upstairs.  We wanted to have words with Coil, but he wasn’t free to talk until sundown, so we’ve been killing time and waiting around.  There’s still a bit of time, I sensed some movement down here, I needed to stretch my legs to keep my injuries from earlier today from stiffening up, so I decided to take a bit of a walk.”

“And they’re staying put?”  Ballistic asked.

“I can signal them in a heartbeat if I have to,” I responded.

“Just saying, but you know Coil’s dead, right?” Trickster asked.

“I saw it happen,” I answered him.  I chose my words carefully, “So I have a very good idea of how dead the man is.”

“Fair enough.”

“And you guys?” I asked.  “You’re keeping eyes on your teammate?  Noelle?”

“Noelle’s fine,” Trickster said, “You don’t need to concern yourself over her.”

There was just a touch of hostility here.  I turned my head to face the two girls, using my bugs to figure out the orientation so I could appear to be looking at Sundancer and Genesis.  The two of them were, I figured, the closest thing to allies that I had among the Travelers.  That wasn’t to say I was on good terms with them; Sundancer was especially wary of me and had been since I’d carved out Lung’s eyes, and Genesis had been a little weird in how she related to me when I’d delivered Trickster to her at the mayor’s house.  Part of that might have been a reflection or a response to my own paranoia, where I’d thought they were planning to kill me.  Either way, they hadn’t given me the impression of dislike or hostility to quite the same degree that I was seeing with Trickster and Ballistic right now.

This was where my current inability to see was hurting me.  I couldn’t read their expressions or body language, and even though my bugs were giving me a sense of how they were standing and where their head, arm and legs were positioned, I didn’t have that innate human ability to instantaneously assess and process those details.  Time and effort spent trying to figure it out was taken away from my ability to plan and follow the conversation.  It was sort of like talking to an answering machine; I was left trying to hold up my end of a conversation without the ability to assess what the person on the other end was making of it.  End result?  I was left there, silent, while none of the Travelers were volunteering anything.

“If you’re done checking up on us, or visiting, whatever you want to call it,” Trickster said, “You could go.  Your duty’s done, you’ve paid your respects to the other team while you’re in their territory.”

That’s something we’re supposed to do?

“I don’t want us to be enemies,” I said.

“We’re not,” Trickster replied, but his tone was far from friendly.  “We’re on the same side.”

“But?” I asked.  “It sounds like there’s more to that.”

“We’re not friends, Skitter.  Let’s not pretend like we are.  You’ve got your goals, we have ours.  You want to work together to tackle a situation like the Dragon thing?  Fine.  Great.  You want to backdoor Ballistic, going to the boss to recruit that cape he was trying to take down?  Hey, that’s fine too.”

Ballistic folded his arms.

Trickster went on, “Really.  We’re doing what we have to do in order to make this thing work.  I don’t love what you pulled, I’m not jumping for glee, but I get it.”

“So we’re business associates, but not friends.”

“Succinctly put.”

“There has to be more common ground there.  We can’t meet, share a box of donuts and talk about ways to mutually benefit our territories?”

“The fact that you have to ask that is a pretty good indication of how clueless you are about this. Let’s count the ways.  One, I don’t give a ratfuck about my territory or the people in it.  None of us do.”

I could feel Sundancer turning slightly away from him.  Was there disagreement there?

Two,” he continued, “We don’t plan to be here much longer anyways.  Either Coil fulfills his end of the bargain and we’re out of this hellhole, or he doesn’t and we take a hike anyways.  Take our chances elsewhere.”

I could remember how Ballistic had talked about his frustration with the group, the idea that he might stick with this gig regardless of what Trickster and the others did.  If I brought it up, would it refocus the discussion to the point that Trickster wasn’t opposing me, in an abstract sense, or would it derail it with the ensuing drama?

I kept my mouth shut, and I was sort of glad that I couldn’t see, or I might have given in to my impulse to glance at Ballistic and give something away.

Maybe it wasn’t worth worrying about.  I was wearing my full costume, including the additional pieces I’d accumulated over time; I wore the tattered cape, the ragged semi-dress over my leggings, and a heavy carpet of bugs clung to the black fabric and armor panels.  My goggles would hide my eyes.  Nobody would see any tell, if I could see, and I doubted they’d notice I was essentially blind.

Trickster took my silence for an excuse to go on, “Three, again, there’s no common ground to be found, and I’m not interested in hunting for it.  There’s two things I want in this world, and being part of Coil’s thing was my way to get those things.  You were useful only as far as you helped make Coil’s thing work, and that’s over now.  To put it bluntly, you don’t have anything to offer me.”

“I get the picture,” I told him, cutting him off before he could continue.  “Okay.  Friendship’s off the table.  Even a friendly business relationship would be pushing it.”

He nodded once.

I sighed a little.  “Okay.  That said, as one local warlord to another, I’d like to extend an invitation.  We’re going to talk to Coil, and I’m saying you’re free to come.”

“Coil’s dead,” Ballistic made the words a drawl.

That was getting old fast.  “Do we really have to maintain this charade?”

“Coil went to a lot of effort in putting together his grand plan.  He died in a blaze of glory and violence, just like he wanted.  Do you really want to spoil that by going on about how he’s still alive?”

“Like you said,” I retorted, “We’re on the same side.  If you didn’t know, you’d be more upset than you are now.  Why pretend he’s dead when he’s alive?  Especially when it’s getting in the way of the larger conversation about the man and my invitation to come hear what he has to say?”

Trickster leaned against a wall and fumbled in one pocket for a cigarette.  “You mean outside of the possibility that you’re wired and my saying the wrong thing could out him?  Whatever.  I don’t have anything to say to him that I haven’t already said.  Maybe you aren’t getting the point.  We went out of our way to help you once, rescuing Grue, and it nearly got us carved up by Bonesaw.”

Your plan, I thought.

He went on, “I don’t care about the Undersiders.  I don’t care if you get a hundred trillion dollars and wind up kings of the planet, and I don’t care if Coil kills you.  We’ve wrapped up our business with Coil, and that’s as far as my interest goes.”

“Alright,” I said, raising my hands, “Point taken.  Listen, I get that maybe we haven’t gotten along so fantastically, but I really do wish you guys luck with your circumstances, whatever they are.  I hope you get what you’ve been looking for.”

“Sure,” Trickster said.  He turned to leave, making his way to the doorway that led to the pseudo-apartment they stayed in when they weren’t in their individual headquarters.  He beckoned for his teammates to follow, and they did.

Only Genesis lagged behind, her hands on the wheels of her chair.  After Trickster had rounded the corner, she said, “He’s tense.  Too much comes down to what happens in the next forty-eight hours.”

“Believe me,” I replied, “I get that.”

“Then good luck with your thing,” she said.  “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope I never see you again.”

How the hell am I supposed to take that?

I didn’t respond as she wheeled herself to the corridor.

Okay, I thought, learned what I needed to.

Whatever the terms between Coil and the Travelers were, he hadn’t seen fit to invite them to the meeting place.  I’d had to think for some time before making the offer to join us for the meeting.  I knew that whatever Coil had planned, inviting the Travelers wouldn’t hurt.

If Coil fully expected to cooperate, to give us the answers we needed and hand Dinah over, then it didn’t matter if the Travelers were there.  If he was expecting conflict and he had planned to invite them, then we only gained the benefit of knowing in advance that they’d be there.  Finally, if he’d expected trouble but he hadn’t invited them, there was probably a reason, and that reason would be something we could exploit in a pinch.

They hadn’t accepted my invitation anyways, and I hadn’t sensed anything sinister when Trickster had rejected the offer.  He’d been too self-centered.

Funny, as I thought on it, how easily he seemed to slip between talking about ‘I’ as in himself to talking about ‘we’, the group.  It was as if he assumed everyone in the Travelers was on the same page as him, and my discussions with Sundancer and Ballistic had suggested anything but.  Even Cherish’s taunts had pointed to some strife within the ranks.

The second major piece of data that I’d gleaned from my detour was that Dinah wasn’t here.  There were a handful of locked doors my bugs hadn’t been able to slip past, but the room Dinah had been in when we’d first visited was empty.  I wasn’t a hundred percent sure that Dinah wasn’t still in Coil’s underground base, but I had a hard time believing that Coil would leave her there with no armed guards.  She was too valuable to risk losing her to one of his enemies or losing his bargaining chip he had in his dealings with me.

We’d agreed that if I could prove myself as a valuable asset, he’d accept my fealty in exchange for Dinah’s freedom.  I hadn’t earned him any money, not directly, but that had never really been his goal.  He had money, and he could get more by exercising his power in some high-risk, high-reward ventures.  I had gathered more followers under my wing than all of the others put together, with the possible exception of Tattletale.  I’d put life and limb at risk, partially for his benefit.  I’d proved myself as a leader, a soldier and a problem solver.  I’d put up with every challenge he’d set in my way: the false death threat he’d put on my head, convincing the mayor, dealing with Dragon and going up against the Nine.  Hell, I’d tended to my territory while my dad lay bleeding in the hospital.

I couldn’t say for sure whether Coil would actually follow through with his end of the deal.  In his shoes, ignoring what the right thing to do would be, if only because it was pretty fucking obvious he didn’t put much stock in right and wrong, I wasn’t sure I’d give Dinah up.  For a guy like Coil, who did things from behind the scenes, playing the long game and orchestrating events to get the best possible results, Dinah’s power was invaluable.

Trickster had used a chess metaphor, back when the thing with the Nine was just beginning.  Would I be considered a bishop?  Hell, even if I thought of myself as a queen, I wasn’t sure Coil would value having me on his side of the board over having Dinah.

Dinah let him rig the game.

I ventured outside and made my way to the flights of stairs for the building that was still in progress.  It had proceeded nicely in recent days, and the outside was partially complete.  The sun was setting, and my bugs could see and feel the warm light that streamed in through the openings in the outside, where tarps had come free.  The thick dust of concrete and shorn wood layered the area and formed clouds wherever the wind made its way inside.

I’d climbed the stairs to the meeting place only an hour ago, and I’d ventured all the way to the bottom to investigate Coil’s base.  That made this my third trip over the twenty flights of stairs, accessing the roof.  On my third trip, my aches and pains from being tossed around by Coil’s explosion were most definitely making themselves felt.

In a way, I didn’t mind.  I felt restless, and moving made me feel better.  Nervous wasn’t the right word.  Nervousness implied there was uncertainty, and I was pretty sure this wouldn’t go the way I hoped.  Trepidation wasn’t right either.  I might have settled on ‘a sense of encroaching doom’ but that felt over the top.

Then again, this was someone’s life on the line.  Maybe our lives too.  Was it possible to be over the top when the stakes were this high?

The others had arranged themselves around the roof.  Bitch was in a half-sitting, half-lying down position, leaning back against Bentley’s side, Bastard sleeping on her lap.  Tattletale and Regent were having a discussion at the top of the stairwell, while Grue and Imp were at the edge of the building.  Imp sat with her legs dangling off the side of the building, while Grue showed more caution, standing a distance behind her.

“You should be careful,” I spoke up.  “If you’re standing too close to the building’s edge, you’re making yourself a prime target for a sniper.”

“You said these suits were bulletproof,” Imp said.  I noticed how she didn’t move.

“I said they might be.  But judging by the fact that mine let some non-metal shotgun pellets through, I don’t think they’ll stop a bullet.  Either way, I’d really rather not start experimenting tonight.”

Imp pulled herself to her feet and retreated from the edge of the building.  I could feel Grue’s shoulders drop slightly as he relaxed.

Grue and Tattletale drifted my way, while Regent, Imp and Bitch each sort of moved to the periphery of our huddle.  It was Grue who asked, “You think he’s going to take shots at us?”

“I feel exposed,” I said.  “If he opens fire on us, are we really in a position to take cover?  Or if he bombs out the first floor of the building?  Or calls in the teams of heroes he’s in charge of?  Could we really get down?”

“I’m not getting that vibe,” Tattletale said.

“But he’s figured out how to trick your power,” I pointed out.

“Any solutions?” Grue asked.

“Yeah.  I’ve been working on one, but I’m not sure it’ll work.”

“Share?”

I extended one hand, and a wasp took flight, bearing a trio of spiders.  It was forced to turn and fly in circles to slow its forward movement to account for the speed at which the spiders were spooling out thread.  The ends of the thread were already wrapped around one of my fingers.

It took a minute before they reached the other formation that was doing the same thing.  I began reeling in the thread, until I’d raised a length of cord to the edge of the roof.

Bitch ventured over to see what was going on, and then spun around, “No.”

“My first night out in costume, I got stuck on top of a building.  I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.  We called Thomas Calvert, he agreed to meet us, but just in case he decides to level the building rather than have a conversation, I want us to have a way down.”

“A way down?” Grue asked.

“I’m pretty sure I got the lengths right.  I hope I got the lengths right, because I used up a lot of silk here.  Eight cords, we each hold one, or tie one around our waists, and then jump off the side of the building.  Swing out over the intersection.”

Awesome,” Imp said.

Pretty sure?” Grue asked.

“Pretty sure,” I admitted.  “I’ve tried to stagger it, so the silk stretches out over horizontal lines I set out between buildings, so we aren’t just dropping straight down to the street.  But it’s elastic, and I can’t account for how much stretch there’ll be in the material.  Or how much stretch won’t be there.”

“And if he’s got gunmen, too?  We’re left there dangling out over the middle of a street?”

“It’s one option,” I said.  “One.  We’ll have your darkness so they won’t necessarily have clear shots.”

“And you have your bugs,” Regent said.

“Our opponent here knows exactly what we can do.  He’s worked with us and observed us for weeks.  Excepting Imp and I, he’s worked with you guys for months.  Over a year.  So no, he’s not going to do something like underestimate the range of my bugs.  He’s going to have snipers that are just beyond my usual range and I won’t be able to fight back.”

“Your relay bugs?”  Regent suggested.

“Dying.  But yeah, I’ll bring them out.  I suppose a night like tonight warrants using up the last of their reserves.”

“And you can fly,” he said, pointing straight up, where Atlas was in the skyline, circling around a stationary Shatterbird.

“I can, but I’d almost rather use the cords and swing down to the street level.  If I’m flying and they get a lucky shot off, I’m pretty fucking screwed.  They hit me, Atlas won’t ease me to the ground.  They hit Atlas, nothing I can do to stop falling.  Besides, being on the ground means I have the utility Atlas brings to the table.  Being mounted on him means he and I are essentially one unit.”

“I think you’re overthinking this, dork,” Regent said.

“No,” Grue and I said together.  Grue didn’t say anything more, but I added, “We plan for every possibility and we’re wrong?  We don’t lose anything.  If we plan for a situation that does come up?  We’ll be glad we did it.”

“You’re going to drive yourself insane worrying about it,” he retorted.

“If she hasn’t already, I don’t think she will in the next ten minutes,” Tattletale said.  “You sense them on the ground, Skitter?”

I shook my head.  “My power’s radius is like a bubble, and the bottom end isn’t covering that much ground.  I should have been waiting at a spot lower in the building.”

“They’re on their way up.”

I could sense them as they reached the base of the building.  Thomas Calvert would be the man who led the way, and the men who followed him were outfitted in PRT gear.

It took time for them to ascend.  The building was only partially complete, with floors, some walls and the steel skeleton of beams with tarps stretching between them for the remainder, but no elevators.

Without discussing it, we arranged ourselves on the rooftop, preparing to meet them.  I was a little surprised that Grue and Tattletale positioned themselves so they were each just a little behind me, with Imp, Bitch and Regent behind them.  Bentley prowled at the perimeter of our group, three-quarters of the way to his typical ‘monstrous’ size and slowly growing.

Thomas Calvert was the first to cross the threshold.  Annoying that the first time I would ‘see’ Coil unmasked, I would be blind.  He waved one hand to brush away my bugs as they passed over him, but I managed to pick up the essential details.  Close cropped, coarse hair, trimmed eyebrows, thin lips and a cleft chin.  He wore the body portion of a PRT uniform with an insignia stitched onto his sleeve that I couldn’t make out with my swarmsense.

Most of the squads remained below, but he was joined by a handful of soldiers and three young men in plainclothes, one of whom looked like a bodybuilder.

“Yo, Frenchy,” Tattletale said.  “Sup?”

One of the uniforms nodded a slight response.  Was he backed up by a ‘PRT’ squad or two consisting of his hired mercenaries?

“Undersiders.  After your last interaction with Director Piggot, I assumed you would want to speak to me and try establishing ground rules?”

“We know it’s you, boss,” Regent said.

My bugs caught the slightest exhalation from Director Calvert’s nostrils, a minor expression of annoyance.  “The Travelers were a little more circumspect.”

“Circum-what?” Imp asked.  I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely wondering or if she was being intentionally obtuse.

“Tone it down, guys,” I said.  They’re the types to go after any weakness in authority figures.  They’ll nettle him until someone gets in trouble. “Director Calvert.  Would it be too much to ask for you to ask your squad to wait downstairs?”

There was an extended pause before he offered a slight nod to one side.  His squad turned to return downstairs, and I followed them as they took position by the base of the stairwell.

“I asked you to stay out of costume until further notice,” he spoke.

“With all due respect, Director,” I said.  Tattletale had coached me; I would stroke his ego by reinforcing his new position.  “I was injured as a bystander in Coil’s attack.  I wouldn’t have been hurt if I’d been costumed.  Until everything cools down, I think my team and I will play it safe.”

“I see.  I can respect that.  Nothing serious?”

“Serious?  Yes.  But it’s nothing life threatening and nothing that can’t be fixed.”

Thomas Calvert reached beneath the armored panel of his vest and withdrew a small remote.  He stared at it for several long seconds before putting it away.  That done, he clasped his hands behind his back.  It was a position that was very ‘Coil’.  It was obvious and direct enough that I suspected he was dropping his Director persona and admitting his true nature.  “My apologies.  I am not infallible.”

You let a dozen or more people die and left twice that many people injured in some way.  No, you’re not infallible.

I kept my mouth shut.

“I just checked for listening devices.  You aren’t recording this, which means I can answer any questions you have.”

“How much of that was planned?”  I asked.

“More than you might suspect.  Every person in that room who was not in the audience was accounted for.  Mr. Grove and Mrs. Padillo were selected and recruited well in advance.  Circus and Chariot were hired nearly a year and a half ago, their actions and development in the public eye carefully orchestrated.  Über and Leet were recent acquisitions.  I needed a heavy metal suit that could carry a package, and Trainwreck died at an inconvenient time.  Most reporters were selected and stationed well in advance, claiming the rear of the room where they would bear the brunt of the attack, so to speak.”

“They didn’t die?” I asked.

“As with Circus, Über and Leet,” Director Calvert nodded in the direction of the three individuals in civilian clothes.

“Wait, Circus is a guy?” Regent asked.

“Depends on your definition of guy,” Tattletale said.  “If you’re talking biological or what Circus identifies as.  Not that I have it pinned down; I can’t tell if you’re a guy posing as a girl when in costume or a girl who poses as a guy when in plainclothes.”

Circus spat, directing a loogie to shoot a horsefly out of the air.  “I’ll take that as a compliment, I guess.”

“The three of them and most of the reporters were removed from the premises in time,” Coil said.  “The reporters, as I said, were plants.  I needed news reporters in place who would be sure to catch the details I wanted them to catch.  Some editing of the footage just prior to it being sent to the news stations served to smooth rough edges and highlight key points.”

“Making Piggot look worse, for example,” Tattletale said.

“Among other things.  Appearances are one of the most important things, here.  With Chariot’s help, we created a rough emulation of Trickster’s power.  The reporters were swapped out, a sufficient amount of raw biological matter was swapped in.”

Human matter?” I asked.

“That is what the paperwork will say, which is the most important aspect,” Director Calvert answered me.  “Rest assured, no serious harm was done.  Circus’ abilities allowed us to place the knives in nonlethal areas.  Better that Director Piggot looks as ineffectual as possible than simply perish.  The same applies to the mayor.  Thomas Grove and Mrs. Padillo will recover, but Thomas Grove will concede the election, supporting Mrs. Padillo, despite his strong showing.  It will help shake the notion that things were staged.”

“But they were.  Every part of it,” Tattletale said.

“Every part of it.”

“The bomb?” I asked.

“The sabotaged power supply was real, but Über’s metal suit housed a teleportation apparatus to detect when it was removed from the premises, so a replica could be brought into the lobby.  The initial detonation was little more than light and a shockwave primed to make the most of the Manton effect, leaving my agents with little more than bruises and scratches.  They were teleported out, as I already said, just before the final, true detonation.  We estimated how fast the evacuation would proceed and calculated a blast radius that would leave the building standing and the crowd largely untouched.”

I could remember Tattletale mentioning how there were less killed or injured than I might have thought.  Had she guessed this much?

“Every action I’ve carried out has been carefully weighed, with attention given to the aftermath.  Circus, Über and Leet will be leaving Brockton Bay with a sizable reward for their efforts.  I don’t expect they will need to return to a life of crime, but I believe they will use a different identity and modus operandi if they do?”

He’d made it a question, and Über answered, “Yes, sir.”  I could feel Leet and Circus nodding.

“Good,” Director Calvert spoke.  To us, he said, “It just isn’t worth killing good help.  Should my ultimate plans here fall through, it’s better to have individuals like them on reserve.”

“And us?” Grue asked.

“Your part in Brockton Bay isn’t entirely over, yet.  I established you here for a reason.  As Director, I will lead a slow but successful campaign against Brockton Bay’s villains.  The Travelers will be the first.  I expect a strike squad of my PRT agents will catch them off guard, but they will ultimately escape capture.”

“How unfortunate,” Tattletale said.

“Indeed,” Director Calvert replied.  “Doubly unfortunate if other villains should establish a presence in Brockton Bay’s south end, forming a loose alliance with the Undersiders, who maintain a firm hold on the flourishing North end.  Oh, rest assured, you Undersiders will lose your hold on this city over the course of months, but it won’t be quite as bad as it sounds.”

“We’ll avoid being captured, probably,” Tattletale said, “Or we’ll get captured and break out before there’s an issue.  And then we don’t come back to Brockton Bay.  We wind up establishing presences in nearby cities.  One or two Undersiders with a firm grip on a given city with other villains under us, establishing a new kind of villainy, and you, Director, as the valiant hero on the opposing side.  Your power grows in a way the public is very much aware of, and, well, we’re not losing quite so much as it seems, so your power grows in other ways too.”

Thomas Calvert spread his hands, “It seems you have a firm grasp on what’s going on.  I won’t waste our time reiterating.  Any questions?”

“Why become PRT director?” Grue asked.  “Why not mayor?”

“All eyes will be on the mayor after the recent fiasco.  Mr. Grove will serve as a red herring, drawing all suspicious eyes to him before he defers the election to Mrs. Padillo.  Besides, who would you rather rule?  A dozen capes or fifty thousand unpowered civilians?”

“I see,” Grue said.

“The fear this event creates among the public will make requisitioning additional capes and resources that much easier.  The remnants of Coil’s personal army will remain in the city, a sub-gang of highly trained individuals who will serve as an excuse for why the forces of the Undersiders do not grow beyond a certain point.”

“You said the Travelers will be the first to be ousted,” I said.  “Does that mean you’ve found a solution to their problem?”

“No.  But we have several last resort answers, and those will be exhausted soon.”

With my bugs, I noted Tattletale making a hand gesture.  Left index finger and middle finger pressed together, she tapped her thumb against the tips of the other two fingers.

“Any other questions?” he asked.

“Dinah,” I said.

“Mr. Grove’s concession to Mrs. Padillo will involve an offer.  He will push for his constituents to support Mrs. Padillo if she accepts his terms.  Among these will be a restoration project for the North end, employment stimulation for the laborers and a restoration of the ferry service.  In exchange for your continued cooperation, I can give you executive powers in naming the measures you’d like to see pass.  I am well aware of what I agreed to, but I would offer this as a compromise in exchange for a one year delay on that term of our contract.”

“No,” I told him.  “I’m sorry, but you’ve got to let her go.”

“Then I will.  I’m disappointed, but I won’t have it said that I’m not a man of my word.”

My heart was pounding.  Just like that?

Director Calvert clasped his hands in front of him, “How would you have us resolve this?  I can return her to her family, or pass her on to your custody.”

I didn’t think this far ahead.  “Her family, then.”

“Very well.  With your permission, we’ll release her to her parents, with some covert surveillance to ensure she does not reveal any details of my greater mission.”

“Okay.”

“My officer will take you to her.”

I hesitated.

“Your teammates can join you, if you don’t feel secure.”

Grue placed a hand on my shoulder.

“Thank you, Director,” I said.  “I don’t mean to impugn your sense of honor, but I didn’t expect this.”

“I have a healthy respect for paranoia, Skitter.  Go.  Tattletale, could I borrow a few minutes of your time?  The Travelers grow anxious, and you can offer some more answers about Noelle’s situation.”

Tattletale turned our way, “Your call, guys.”

“Take Regent and Shatterbird with you,” Grue said.

“You sure?”

“If he respects paranoia, he’ll respect the fact that I’m as worried for your well-being as I am for Skitter’s.”

“Aw,” Tattletale gave Grue a pat on the cheek, “You’re not a very good liar.  I appreciate the sentiment, though.”

I felt entirely out of my element.  For weeks, months, I’d been bracing myself to hear Coil say no.  To hear him say ‘I promised I’d consider it’ or ‘I promised to release her when my plan reached its conclusion, and that won’t happen for another year.’  I didn’t know what to do with my hands.  If I’d had pockets, I’d have jammed them in there, but I didn’t.  My belt didn’t really suit itself for me hooking my thumbs in there.  I didn’t even trust myself to speak, with the possibility that I could say something to ruin this.

No, it was better to be on my guard.  I swept the area for threats, with bugs on every set of gloved hands and every weapon.

But the PRT uniforms climbed into their vans and the doors slammed shut.

Director Calvert stayed at the gates that marked the construction site from the roads beyond, Tattletale and Regent beside him.

“In the truck,” the remaining PRT officer told us.

“If it’s alright,” I said, “We’ll ride.”

He looked to Coil, who nodded.

I climbed onto Atlas, and Grue settled behind Bitch on Bentley.

It was a fifteen minute flight, following the truck, and I was on edge for every second.

We stopped outside of a brick building, and the driver of the truck stepped out.  I swept the area with my bugs, then swept it again.  The interior featured modest living accommodations, a squad of armed soldiers, a man who wasn’t armed and a little girl.

I set Atlas down and waited outside, bugs poised to attack.  The door opened, and the soldiers stepped out, parting to let Dinah go free.

The little girl stepped out, hesitant, then stopped.  Nothing gave me any indication that she was unhealthy or hurt, but she wasn’t lively either.  She was dressed in a skirt, sweater and uggs, her hair thick with chemical smells that told me it had been recently washed.

“Want to go home?” I asked.  I reached out.

Her hand found mine, and I clutched it tight.

Couldn’t leave on Atlas.  I turned, and she stepped to follow.

Through my bugs, I could feel the thrum of the truck as it started up, I could feel the mild heat and see the flare of light as the highbeams shifted on.  If I could see, they would have been blinding.

I tried to squeeze Dinah’s hand, to reassure her, and found myself clenching an empty fist.

My bugs weren’t where they were supposed to be.  I was momentarily disoriented as I tried to map my surroundings.  When I felt hardwood beneath my feet, I scattered the bugs from beneath my costume.  Containment foam, all around me.  I’d been teleported.

And Calvert.  Calvert and a squad of his people.

“You bastard,” I said.

There was no response.  I could feel how his arm was outstretched, sense the general shape of the weapon in his hand.  The others had weapons too.  I could attack, but it would only make them open fire.

“No monologue?” I asked, “You’re not going to explain how you did it?  How you’re going to deal with my teammates or explain what happened to me?”

He answered with a pull of the trigger.

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Monarch 16.6

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“We should throw a party,” Imp said.  “Celebrate.  Rub it in a little.”

“Rub it in?” Grue asked.

“Yeah.  Party in the streets, maybe some fireworks.  Show the heroes that we know we won and we’re doing fine.”

There were a few chuckles from the others.  Regent and the Travelers, primarily.

“In what way is that even close to being a sensible idea?”  Grue asked.

“I didn’t say it was sensible.  But it’s fun, and that’s why we got into this, right?”

“No.  No it isn’t.  It was maybe a side-bonus when I joined the group, if anything, but things have changed since then.  I warned you this would be hard work, that it wouldn’t be fun and games.  And throwing a party to celebrate a win is a monumentally bad idea when we don’t even want the heroes to know we consider this victory anything out of the ordinary.”

“It is out of the ordinary.  We’re not giving anything away if we’re celebrating scaring off Dragon.”

“I kind of have to agree,” Regent chimed in.  Grue turned his way, and I could imagine the death glare that was behind his mask.  Probably scarier than the mask itself.

“Maybe you’re right,” Grue said, “Maybe, I won’t say you’re absolutely right there-”

“Of course not,” Imp said, sighing.

“-But we definitely don’t need to rub it in the heroes’ noses.  Not if it means they have both an excuse and motivation to try this again, sooner.”

“If you’re afraid of that, we’ll never be able to celebrate a win.”

“I’m okay with that,” Grue said.

“Do we get to chime in?” Trickster asked.  “Because I’m siding with the Imp, here.  Morale could become pretty important if we’re going to be building up individual gangs and collections of henchmen.”

Grue sighed.  “Feeling outnumbered here.  Skitter?”

“What?”  I blinked.  “Sorry, not keeping track of the conversation.”

“She’s out of it.  Tattletale broke Skitter when she said we won,” Regent said.

“I’m… I’m alright.  Lost in thought”

Grue settled a hand on my shoulder.  I couldn’t read his expression with his mask in the way.

I sighed and confessed, “I’m… I guess I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Isn’t that what happens?  The second things start to go right, the next disaster strikes?  Empire Eighty-Eight, Leviathan, The Nine, Dragon…”

“That’s a pretty defeatist way of thinking,” Trickster commented.  “Didn’t Tattletale basically say that there’s nobody left to cause us any problems?”

“There’s always something,” I said.  “I’d rather anticipate it and be ready.”

“Look at it this way,” Genesis spoke.  She was in a human-ish form, not unlike her real self, though she was wheelchair-free.  “If it’s more dangerous than Leviathan, the Nine or the Dragon suits, there’s no way we can make some plan to deal with them until they make the first move.  If they’re less dangerous, we can deal.  Relax.  We’re in good shape.”

I shrugged.

“Sooo,” Imp drew out the word, “Party?”

“No,” Grue and I spoke at the same time.  Imp groaned.

“Coil told us to check on our territories.  We should do that,” I said.  “Take your costumes off, take it easy.  I’m going to see if the food and drink I’d arranged to go to people in my territory is still okay, and make sure that they get fed and don’t have cause to lynch me.  Then I’m probably going to sleep for twelve straight hours.”

“Wait, didn’t you just say no party?” Imp asked.

“It’s not a party.  It’s something I was doing before the Dragon suits came.”

“Do the heroes know that?”

“Dragon could confirm it,” I said.  “She disrupted the preparations.”

“Dunno, that sounds pretty flimsy,” Imp said, sounding way too pleased with herself, “Maybe you better cancel, just to be safe.”

“Imp,” Grue growled the word.

Imp laughed, “I’ll go patrol our territory.  I’ll be using my power, so no worries about being seen in costume.”

“Coil said we shouldn’t go out in costume at all,” I said.  “I thought that part of the message was pretty clear.”

“Fine,” Imp said.  “Whatever.  If I’m not supposed to do anything, I’m going back to our place, gonna to kick back and catch up on some shitty reality shows.”

“No TV,” Grue said.

“Nuh uh.  No way.  If you two want to play hardass mom and dad and be controlling assholes, okay.  But you can’t tell me I can’t watch T.V.”

“I mean you won’t get any channels.  There’s no cable, no digital connection and no satellite.  Only static.”

Imp groaned, an agonized sound one might expect from someone who had just been speared through the gut.

What did it say about me that my metaphors were tending towards that kind of violent imagery?

“Why don’t you come by?” Regent asked her, “Play video games?  I’ve got shows on DVD.  No shitty reality shows, but stuff.”

I looked Grue’s way to gauge his reaction to Imp and Regent hanging out, only for our eyes to meet, so to speak.  We were thinking the same thing.

“I don’t think-” Grue started to speak.

Imp wheeled on him, jabbing a finger in his direction, “Enough!  You don’t dictate how I live my life!”

“No fighting, please,” Sundancer said, from the sidelines, “We’ve been through too much already.”

Grue stepped forward, raising one hand, but Imp didn’t give him a chance to touch her, backing away, swinging one hand through the air, as if to swat his hand away if he tried.  “You’ve said enough!  You don’t want me to celebrate my first legit win where I was actually fucking useful?  Fine!  Don’t want me to go on patrol?  Fine!  I’ll accept that shit because I’ll take orders from the guy who actually pays me.  But if you’re going to whine because I want to play video games with a teammate, I’m not going to stand here and listen to it!  Deal!”

“If you’d just-” Grue started.  He stopped and sighed.

“What?” I asked.

“I was going to say something,” he said, turning around.  “But I can’t remember what.”

We experienced a moment where the conversation died, where nobody was sure what to say next, and nobody was able to tie things back to the prior conversation to resume an earlier topic.

“We did what we were supposed to do,” Trickster said, finally.  “Good work.  Skitter’s right.  Let’s go retreat, tend to any wounds, and we’ll take a breather.”

There were nods and murmurs of assent from everyone present, myself included.

More to his team than the rest of us, Trickster said, “I’m located closest to Coil, so I’m stopping by, going to check on Noelle, see if Tattletale needs help setting our captive Director free, and then I’ll talk to Coil about his progress with our issues.”

“Don’t get on his case,” Genesis said.  “Whatever his plan is, he’s under a lot of pressure right now.  I’d rather wait another few days and then talk about it with him than push it now and risk upsetting him.”

“The difference between us,” Trickster said, terse, “is I’m not willing to wait.”

With that said, he tipped his hat at me and walked away.  He wasn’t three paces out the door before he found something to swap with, leaving a mailbox at the mall’s edge.  The rest of the Travelers began to file off.

“I’ll be off too,” Regent said.  He offered me a sloppy mock-salute, “Good work, chief.”

I winced at that.  I hadn’t wanted to raise the subject of me taking over as leader for the previous confrontation.  I glanced at Grue and found him looking at me.

“Can we talk?” he asked.  Thanks, Regent.

“Yeah,” I said.

“We did make plans.”

“You’re dating?”  Bitch asked.

“I didn’t say that,” Grue said.

“But you’re dating.”

“Yeah,” he admitted.  Bitch looked at me to double check and I nodded.

“Hm.”  She somehow conveyed smugness with the monosyllablic response.

“You want to come?” I asked her.  “Hang out?”

“Nah.”

“You sure?” I asked.  “You’re welcome to spend some time with us, kick back, watch something, eat some good food?”

“Being around people’s too tiring.  Warm night like this, nice weather, figure I’ll go play with my dogs.  Make sure they aren’t too hurt, throw a few balls for ’em in the moonlight, eat when I want to eat, sleep when I feel like sleeping, not having to worry about getting in anyone’s way.”

“You wouldn’t be getting in the way,” I assured her.

“It’s all good.  I’m happiest doing this.”

“Well, stay in touch.  If you feel like some company, come by again?”

She shrugged and turned to leave, Bentley to her right and Bastard to her left.  With every step Bentley was taking, he was getting larger.  When she was nearly out of sight, Bentley was big enough for her to climb on top of.

Leaving Grue and me standing in the mall.

“I’d almost think you didn’t want to spend time alone with me,” he commented.

He was looking at me.  I felt scrutinized, like every movement and every part of me was suddenly under the spotlight, anything I did potentially being read as meaning something.

“No,” I said, very carefully.  Not exactly.  I just didn’t want to hurt him by taking away his role on the team, and I knew it would come up.  I tucked my hair behind the spot where the armor of my mask covered my ear.  “No.  Being alone together is good.”

“Your place?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

My people were active in my territory, but they were busier cleaning up the mess than they were actually getting stuff done.  It was irritating on a lot of levels.  We’d been accomplishing something, and Dragon had interrupted.  We’re in the world on the other side of the looking glass, I thought, where it’s the heroes who get in the way of progress and recovery.

I could understand why Dragon did it.  I wasn’t saying it was her fault, exactly.  Especially if it wasn’t actually her directing the suits.  But it was still irritating.

The silence between us was a tense one.  I wished Bitch had decided to come along.  Not because it would have generated conversation, but because it would have put off the subject of discussing team leadership, and the third wheel would have made for a reason for the quiet.  Was it bad of me to think about using her like that?  Or was it just accepting that she made an uncomfortable silence comfortable by her very nature?

I used my power to scout for any groups of people as we made our way to the beach.  We weren’t supposed to be out in costume, but we didn’t have any great options at this point.  I figured Coil would forgive us this much.  We entered the storm drain and made our way up to my lair.

Charlotte and Sierra looked surprised to see us as I opened the door.  Charlotte had three kids sitting on the couch with her, while Sierra reclined.  She rose to a sitting position.

“What happened?” Sierra asked.  She glanced nervously at Grue.

I saw Charlotte and the kids had plates on their laps.  The pork we’d been cooking earlier in the day.  I headed for the fridge and found a hunk of it wrapped in cling film.  “The PRT didn’t like the fact that we’d claimed control over Brockton Bay, so they sent in seven Dragon suits to root us out.”

“What do you want us to do?” She asked.

“Nothing.  It’s fine.  Stick to business as usual.  I’m glad you managed to get back to the food in time to make sure it finished cooking alright.  Any other problems?”

“We didn’t get a lot of work done,” Charlotte said.

“We weren’t going to anyways,” I said, “That’s fine.  I’m going to grab some food.  Grue, you want any?”

“Yeah.  Please.”

“Seven Dragon suits?” Sierra said.  “If they come back-“

“They’re dealt with,” Grue said.  Was the surprise on Sierra and Charlotte’s faces because of what Grue had said, or was it the way he’d said it with such confidence in his strange, echoey voice?

I set two servings worth of the pork onto one plate and put it in the microwave.  “They may come back, but that’ll be a little while coming.  What I’m worried about is my territory.  Were people upset?”

“Yeah,” Sierra said.  “A few people got shocked by those floating flying saucer things.”

“The drones,” I said.  My heart sank a little.  My promise to protect my people had been broken yet again.

“Yeah.  Drones.  People were pissed.  They were trying to get the drones, catch them in trash cans, but the wings got in the way, so they started using tarps.  They even got hold of a few before the drones started fighting back.”

Grue gave me a look that I couldn’t read.  Stupid masks.

“Anyone seriously hurt?”

Sierra shook her head.

“Ok, good.  Listen, I’m going to be working from the background these next few days.  I won’t be appearing anywhere in costume or overtly using my powers.  Are you okay with keeping things running smoothly?  I’ll be available by phone if you run into any problems.”

“I, um, I don’t know.”

I opened the microwave and withdrew the plate of smoking, herb-rubbed pork.  “What’s the problem?”

“I’m worried people are going to recognize me, and it’ll get around to the people I know.”

“I’m not asking you to do anything criminal.  I’m just looking for someone I can trust enough to put in a management role.  Make sure things are cleaned up and that nobody’s slacking off.  It’s nothing you wouldn’t be doing working for a cleanup crew somewhere else in the city.”

“Except I’m doing it for you.  I’m working for a criminal.  Even doing what I’m doing right now, it doesn’t sit right.  No offense.”

“Okay,” I said, pausing.  I was apparently taking too long to prepare the food, because Grue was edging in to take over the preparation, cutting the meat into two portions and arranging the plates.  How was I supposed to manage this?  “Listen, I’ll take five thousand dollars out of the safe upstairs, sometime late tonight or early tomorrow.”

“It’s not about the money, or the lack of money, or any of that-” she protested.

“I know.  I’m not trying to bribe you.  Not exactly.  I guess, um…” I trailed off.  I was tired, thinking at high intensity for too much of the day.  “Um, I’m trying to say I trust you, and I value the work you put in.  So take that money, then if you know of someone who could do what I’m asking, someone like Charlotte or someone else you think we could trust, give them as much as you think is appropriate.  If there’s any left over, maybe you and Charlotte split it.  Or split an amount between the people who fought the drones, and be sure to tell them that as much as I appreciate them standing up to Dragon, I don’t want them to do anything like that again.”

“You don’t?”

“The last thing I want is people who live in my territory to get hurt for my sake.  And I don’t want you to be inconvenienced either.  Think about what you’ll do with the money tonight.  But don’t overthink it.  It’s a gift, a thank you.”

“I can’t take your money,” Sierra said.

“Then don’t,” I told her, trying to look like I was more focused on the food than anything else.  It wouldn’t do for her to see how much this was gutting me, and I didn’t want her to get guilted into anything.  I grabbed a coke from the fridge.  I gestured with it to Grue, and he nodded.  I grabbed another for him.  I had to swallow and clear my throat before I said, “I hope you’ll stay.  I really do.  But if you’re not comfortable doing what you’re doing, that’s okay too.  You can take a secondary role, or you can leave.  I’ll be disappointed, but I won’t be angry.”

“Okay.”

I looked at Charlotte and the kids, the steaming plate in my hand, a coke in the other, my right foot resting on the bottom stair of the staircase.  I asked Charlotte, “Are you okay with the status quo?”

“Yeah.  But I’m just looking after the little ones, and making sure people get fed.  I’m out of sight, I don’t come off like a second in command or anything.  I- Sierra and I have talked about this, before, her being uncomfortable.  I’m okay because this works for right now, but I understand what she’s saying?”  Her voice quirked with uncertainty as she finished speaking, as if she were asking a question, or asking permission to have that opinion.

“I understand too,” I said, sighing.  “I’m sorry I haven’t been around enough for you to talk to me about this, Sierra.”

“You’ve had bigger things to worry about.”

“And I shouldn’t have forgotten about this stuff while I was doing it.  I’m sorry.  You do what you need to do, decide if there’s any compromises or options you want to ask for.  I think I’ll understand, whatever you do.”

She nodded.

Grue had walked ahead of me and stopped halfway up the stairs.  I followed him, leaving my nanny-cook and reluctant lieutenant behind.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“You going to work that out?” Grue asked.  He paused on the second floor.  After a moment’s thought, I tilted my head up toward the next set of stairs.

“Don’t know.  Hope I can keep her.  Wouldn’t have made it this far without her to hold things together when I was away.  If there was something I could do for her, maybe I would.  I dunno.”

We stepped into my bedroom.  I was glad I’d left it more or less tidy, but I had to take a second to hastily make my bed and throw some stray clothes in the hamper.  I moved some folded clothes from a wooden chair and let Grue take the seat.  I grabbed a remote and turned on the TV, only to remember that there wouldn’t be anything to watch.  I left it on the display screen for the DVD player.

Edgy with nervous energy, I took a moment to remove my mask and find a pair of glasses from the bedside table before seating myself on the edge of my mattress, my soda at my feet.

Grue had pulled off his helmet in the meantime to start eating, and I saw his face for the first time since we’d left his apartment for Coil’s.  I could see the dark circles under his eyes, which suggested he probably hadn’t slept well last night.  He wasn’t better, but it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect him to be.

Brian swallowed, “I wish I could offer you advice, but Imp and I are at a point where it’d be nice if we had to worry about retaining… what did you call them, way back when?”

“Employees.”

“Right.  If we had to worry about keeping our employees, it’d be good, because it’d mean we actually had some.  I’m not sure how to get underway on that front.  We’re intimidating.”

“I’m intimidating,” I said, admittedly defensive.

“You are.  But I’d say you’re more intimidating as an idea than you are in person.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“No.  That’s not bad.  You’re more intimidating overall than I am, and yet you’re more approachable than I am.  I’m tall, I’ve got broad shoulders, I’ve got the mask, I’ve got the mass of darkness rolling off me.  People run when they see me coming for them.”

“My costume isn’t exactly lovey-dovey, either.  I’ve got the bugs crawling on me.  Sure, I’m smaller, narrower, but-“

“The idea of being attacked by you might be spooky, but even if you can hold your own most of the time, people don’t imagine getting in a hand to hand fight with you and feel scared.  It’s your power that’s scary.  Me?  I think people look at me and they can imagine me pounding them into a bloody pulp, or worse.  My power’s inconvenient, it’s spooky, but it’s not the scary thing.”

“You can’t really see your darkness, though.”

He shook his head, “I know where it is, but I don’t really see it.”

“I think you underestimate what it’s like.”

“Maybe.  But my point is that people are more likely to run than stick around and talk when I’m approaching.  You can take your bugs off the table, make it clear they aren’t a threat, and people feel less threatened, they’re willing to hear you out.”

“Maybe.  But if that’s the case, don’t give them a chance to run.”

“What?  Pop out from around a corner, scare the living daylights out of them, then offer them a job?”

“Sure.  Why the hell not?  Or have Imp break into apartments and leave a card.”

“I don’t think that would send the right message.  It’s vaguely threatening.”

You’re vaguely threatening.  If your prospective hires can’t deal with that much, then they probably won’t handle the job all that well, either.  If you can’t find anyone, then maybe I send some of my people your way to help get you started, or you could shell out for some decent mercenaries.”

“Maybe.”

“There’s options.  Don’t stress about it.  Whatever else happens, we have a few days before we decide on the next leg of our plan.  Let’s relax.  Movie?”

“Sure.”

I stood from my bed and began going through the box of DVDs that Coil had supplied with the TV.  Most were still in the tight plastic wrap that they’d been bought in.  I looked through, then handed some to Brian before turning back to the bag to keep browsing.

What the hell were we supposed to watch?  I didn’t want anything that would ruin Brian’s mood or remind him what had happened, so horror was probably out, I was sick of the high intensity stuff, but I couldn’t stand romance or bad comedies.

“Going back to the earlier topic,” Brian said, “The subject of leadership, being in charge…”

I winced.

“You took over today.  Are you wanting that to be a permanent thing?”

I turned around.  “No.  Not permanent.  Just until-” I stopped short.  How to put it?

“Until?”

“When I was getting really obsessive about what I was doing, when I was losing sleep and making mistakes, I deferred control.”

“To Trickster,” Brian said.  I could see a shadow pass over his expression.

“Yeah.  And that’s a bad example because it didn’t work.  It’s just that we both know you’re not getting enough rest.  So maybe I can pick up the slack in the meantime.”

Brian sighed.  He didn’t look any happier.

“I don’t want to make you unhappy,” I said.  “I’m not wanting to oust you, or co-opt your role permanently or completely.  You were the leader, even if we didn’t really establish an official title over it.  But we can divide the duties for the time being.  Tattletale handles the information angle of things, I maybe keep Bitch reined in and handle the spur of the moment calls, while you handle Regent and Imp and all the rest.”

“Which is less than it sounds like, especially when you and Tattletale contribute on ‘the rest’ in little ways.”

“No-” I started, then I sighed.  “Maybe, yeah.  I don’t want to come off as manipulative or anything.  Like I said, I don’t want you to be unhappy, but at the same time I do want the whole team to get by in the meantime.”

“You don’t sound manipulative,” he said.  His fork hit the plate with a clatter.  “Jesus, this sucks.  I know you’re right.  I know this is for the good of the team, and if I could just get over this shit-“

“It’s not that easy.  Don’t do yourself a disservice and expect too much.”

“My whole life, I’ve been bigger than my peers, I’ve been stronger than most.  Spent my time around pretty powerful guys.  Boxers, martial artists, other criminals.  I didn’t have many friends, but they were the people who were around me, you know?  And they were the types to go after you if you show any weakness.”

“You get shot, nobody’s going to call you a wimp.  I don’t see why it’s different if the damage is mental or emotional instead of physical.”

“I know, but you’re not getting it.  I was the type to go after someone if they showed a vulnerability.  Wasn’t until I’d had my powers about a year, Aisha tells me I was being an asshole, just like one of her stepdads used to be.  So I tried to be better, but I always wanted to protect her, always wanted to help others.  Teach you and Alec to fight, step up and take charge when a situation demanded it.  Sometimes when a situation didn’t.”

“Yeah.”

“So it isn’t just about me trying to adjust.  Christ, it’s me having my world turned upside down.  It’s others protecting me, others helping me, others covering me in a fight, others taking charge.  Aisha’s the one fixing things for me.  And you-“

“Me?”

“This thing with Coil.  Don’t think I’m so obsessed with what’s going on with me that I don’t see it.  It’s like a burden’s fallen from your shoulders.  You’ve got concerns, but you’re more relaxed.  You’ve got hope that you didn’t have twelve hours ago, and it’s dramatic enough that your posture’s changing.  Even since we left the mall, it’s like you’re slowly convincing yourself that this is over, Coil’s going to follow through, we’ll move on to taking care of our territories and everything works out in the end.”

I folded my arms.  “I don’t think that.  Like I said, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“You say that, you tell yourself that, but I don’t know that you’re feeling it.  I’m worried you’re setting yourself up for a massive disappointment, and that you’ll be affected enough that you won’t be able to deal when it happens.  But I’m mostly worried that all that will happen and I won’t be in a position to help because I’m distracted by my own shit.”

“You don’t have to take up all the slack.  We have other teammates.”

“Lisa isn’t exactly a heavy hitter, and let’s not fool ourselves into believing that Alec, Rachel or Aisha are going to offer any meaningful emotional support.”

“We’ll manage,” I said.  “We’ve managed this far.”

“More or less.  Problem is, ‘managing’ is fine, up until we don’t manage, if that makes any sense.  Then it’s over.”

I sighed.  “How did Genesis put it?  There’s no use in getting worked up over it if we can’t plan around it or do anything to change it.  So we’ll each do our own imperfect jobs of taking care of each other and taking care of ourselves, and be as ready as we can for whatever comes up.”

He sighed.

“We’re not perfect.  We’re flawed people, and as much as I want to help you in every way I can, I know I can’t.  I don’t- I’m not good at this.  I don’t know how to act, or what to say.  But I like you.  I care about you.  I’m going to do my best, even if I know it’s not good enough.  And I won’t expect any more of you.”

He nodded, but he looked glum.

“No hard feelings?”

He shook his head.  He didn’t look happy.

“I won’t be leader forever.”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “Might be better that you keep the job, even if I do bounce back eventually.”

“Except I don’t want the job.”

“That might be why you should take it.  I don’t know.  Can we drop the subject?”

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay.  Just… heavy topics, with lots of ramifications.  And it’s hard to shake the negative thoughts.  I’d rather talk along the lines of what you said before, about taking care of each other.”

“And taking care of ourselves,” I said.  “Getting enough sleep, eating right.”

“Okay,” he said.  There was a pause.  “I slept well the other night.”

“Then stay over.  There’s nothing pressing coming up, so we’ll watch movies until we fall asleep.”

He smiled a little, and for the first time in a long time there was a glimmer of that expression that had gotten my attention in the first place.

I put three DVDs into the drive so I could use the remote to play the next movie without having to get up, then pulled off the armor panels of my costume before settling into bed.  My back pressed against his chest, and I could feel his breath against my hair.

I felt so self conscious that I could barely keep track of what was going on.  I was thinking every unromantic thought there was: worrying if I had body odor from being in costume and running all day, wondering if I should get up to go to the bathroom now so I wouldn’t have to go as desperately as I had the other morning.

I felt his hand on the zipper at the back of my costume, lowering it an inch, then stopping.  A fingertip traced from the ‘v’ where the top of my costume parted, all the way up to the the nape of my neck, then back down.  I could feel his fingers on the zipper, felt every tiny hair on my body standing on end.

A million thoughts raced through my head at once.  All put together, they amounted to a mumbled, “Um.”

There was no response from behind me.  I could hear him breathing, I could feel the warmth of his breath, the slow rise and fall of his chest against my back.  He was waiting for me to make my decision, and the thing that loomed largest in my mind was the sensation of his fingers on the tiny tag of the zipper, strong, insistent, there.

Any confidence I’d picked up in the past weeks or months fled.  I felt as vulnerable as I had in early April, brought to tears in front of my worst enemies.  Except this… wasn’t wholly negative.  Not entirely: I still felt acutely aware of every vulnerability, I thought of every part of myself that I tried to ignore when I looked in the mirror in the same way I might see my life flash before my eyes before I died.

Again, thinking that way.  Why couldn’t I think in a more romantic way at a moment like this?  Was I broken in my own way?

“Let me get up and turn off the lights?” I asked.

His power blanketed the room.  I could feel the phantom touches of it on against the thin fabric of my costume and my bare face, leaving me blind and deaf as we were plunged into darkness.

As was plunged into darkness; he could see just as well.  This totally wasn’t what I’d wanted.

“That’s not fair,” I murmured.

He placed one hand on the side of my head to get me to turn his way, then pressed his lips against mine.

I didn’t protest any further.

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