Queen 18.8

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I signalled Bitch to stop so I could communicate with the others.

“I fucked up,” I said.

“What?”  Grue asked.  “How?”

“She’s been absorbing my bugs.  She’s spitting out some, and I can’t control them.  They’re methodically destroying my swarm, and they’re hunting down people and attacking them.”

“She probably absorbed some before she even ran into us,” Tattletale said.  “And she just needs one of a given type to make copies.  I wouldn’t blame yourself.”

“Did she absorb hornets, black widows, brown recluses?”

“Maybe not,” Tattletale admitted.

“Okay,” I said.  “Because there’s homicidal hornets and spiders out there now.  Because of my fuck-up.”

“Don’t focus on the mistake,” Grue said, “Let’s focus on making up for it.”

I took a deep breath.  “Okay.  Bitch and I will be going ahead to deal with some unpowered clones.  I’ll be in touch through the swarm.  You guys keep moving forward, and I’ll signal you about any clones that Eidolon or my bugs aren’t able to take down.”

“Eidolon’s gone quiet,” Tattletale said.  “He might be changing powers, chasing at a distance to safely keep track of her while he adjusts.”

“I’ll try to signal him,” I said.  “Let him know we’re here, and that we’re engaging Noelle if and when we’ve managed the clones and we see an opportunity.”

“Hopefully he doesn’t accidentally wipe us off the face of the planet,” Regent joked.

“Hopefully,” I echoed him, except I wasn’t joking.

“Then I’ll suggest that this can be where we part ways,” Tattletale said.  “I’ll take Imp, I can do more good with a phone and computer, and she’s no good to anyone right now.”

I nodded.  I helped Imp climb down to the others.

“Good luck.”

Bitch whistled, and Bentley sprang into motion once more.

The people inside the building lobby were only now starting to recover from whatever Noelle’s power had done to them.  Their clones hadn’t suffered any such drawbacks, though, and the abuse that had been heaped on the victims was more than making up for their recovery speed.  They were helpless.

None of the victims were standing.  I reached forward, putting one hand on the chain that Rachel was using to keep Bastard close.

She looked back at me.

“Clothesline!” I raised my voice to be heard over the rushing wind.

Rachel let some chain out and caught it under her left foot, forcing it lower.  She managed to hook it on one of the growths of bone of Bentley’s ribcage.

We stampeded into the building lobby, through the hole Noelle had made, and Bitch whistled, flicking the chain as Bentley and Bastard passed through the space.

“Left!” she shouted, while steering Bentley right.

The chain was just low enough to catch the standing and crouching clones.  The clones were caught by either the chain or by the bodies of their fellow clones, pulled back en-masse, drawn together into a tangle of bodies and distorted body parts.  I moved my bugs through their midst to ensure they were all mutants.  There was only one innocent who’d been dragged long with them.  His clone had a grip on his clothing, and hadn’t let go when the chain had caught it.

“Getting down,” I said, sliding off the dog’s back.  I hurried to the mass of clones before they could get themselves in order, drew my knife and slashed the hand that gripped the one innocent.  I managed to pull him free without any of the clones hitting or grabbing me.

I was left coughing by the exertion and the pain in my side.  Bitch steered Bentley to put his bulk between me and the clones.

“I got ’em,” she said.

“I’ll handle the others,” I told her.

“Right,” she grunted the word. “Bastard, hurt ’em!  Bentley, kill!  Kill!”

The canines threw themselves into the mass of clones the chain had caught.

There were three clones in the remaining group.  One continued thrashing her alter-ego, while the other two stood to face me.  I held my knife in one hand, drew my baton with the other and flicked it out to its full length.  Not nearly as threatening as either of the canines, but I’d make do.

It was odd that Rachel was having Bastard hold back, being limited only to a ‘hurt’ command.  Come to think of it, she’d had Bentley do the killing when fighting the Vista-clone, too.

My rib throbbed even now, just from riding Bentley and hauling the one victim out of the mass.  I was left breathing hard, though the exertion had been mild.  My stamina wasn’t a tenth of what it might otherwise be, to the point that I was worried I might get dizzy, start coughing or wind up too tired to fight if it came down to a straight hand-to-hand brawl.

I couldn’t afford to take it easy, though.  Where I might otherwise have tried to distract them or buy enough time for Bentley to finish off the others and deal with these guys, the person that the female clone at the back was thrashing wasn’t going to last long.  The two who were facing me were both men, both bigger and tougher than they might have been as humans, one fat, the other tall and broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted to the point of being a caricature.

My swarm was my best offense and my best defense, here.  My bugs went for eyes and ears, and that was excuse enough for the two mutants to charge me.

They were half blind, and the mass of bugs that clung to me billowed out to mask my location.  I started to move to my left, but I felt the fat one veer slightly in that direction and chose to head between them, instead.

The pair stumbled forward into my swarm, arms swinging wildly in a blind attempt to hit me.  I ducked low, then moved forward to the mass of fallen and wounded.  The female clone had her more normal self by the neck, and was repeatedly raising her and slamming her down.  If someone else’s leg wasn’t in the way, she might have had her head dashed against the ground.  As it was, a beating was still a beating, and something vital was bound to give sooner or later.

The clone looked up at me as I approached, still cloaked in a thick cloud of bugs. I realized why she hadn’t stood to face me.  Her left leg was gone, barely a flipper.  She raised her arms in self defense, and I batted one aside with my baton before stabbing her just above the collarbone.

They’re not people.  They’re mockeries.

The small, helpless sounds she made as blood bubbled around the throat-wound weren’t helping my attempts to assuage conscience.

Damn Noelle, damn her for making me do this.

“You leave Steph alone!” the fat clone bellowed.

The words caught me off guard as much as the fact that he’d seen the attack.  He charged, and I swiftly backed up, bringing my weapons to the ready.

He didn’t come after me.  He stopped by ‘Steph’, the one-legged clone with the fatal throat wound.

“You care about her?” I asked.

“She’s Steph,” he said.

“I… what?”  My train of thought was interrupted further by the snarling and gnashing of Bentley fighting the clones.  One tried to break away from the group to come after me, but Bentley caught him, striking him flat against the ground with both front paws, like how a cat might pounce on a mouse.

“She’s Steph.  She’s Steph.  Of course I care.  Fucking bugs!”  He lashed out with one arm, as if he could hurt the swarm, drive them away.  His arms folded around the clone-Steph.

I pulled the attacking bugs away, leaving only enough to track his movements.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to open up a line of dialogue, but my conscience couldn’t afford to let me not.  “But… what about the person she was beating up?  You don’t care about the real Steph?”

“Ignored me.  Looked down on me because I was fat.  Fuck her,” he spoke with such force that my bugs could feel the spit flying from his mouth.

“She’s still Steph, isn’t she?”

“Bitch.  Brushing me off.  Made it so we were friends, not boyfriend and girlfriend.  Bitch,” he said.

He let the mutant-clone Steph drop limp to the ground, clenched and unclenched a fist.  “Fuck her.  Fuck you for killing Steph.”

“Why do this?  Why hurt people?”

“I’m a soldier,” he said, his words dull.  “It’s what I am.”

I sensed his girth, used my swarm to sense his equally heavy alter-ego.  “You… don’t strike me as a soldier.”

“It’s what I am.”

“Is… is he a soldier?” I gestured in the direction of his other self.

“No.  Fat fuck could never be a soldier.  Kill him.  Dig my fingers into that gut and rip and tear until he dies.  Strangle him.  No willpower, hide from the world behind that disgusting fat.  Choke the life out of him.  He’s useless anyways.  Waste of air, waste of a life.”

Projecting much?

“And when he’s dead?  What will you do?”

He moved toward me, and I backed away a step, bringing my bugs closer to him.  He went still again, glanced around.  “Kill others.  Kill Dad and Mom and Sammy and the cats.  Kill teachers and classmates and burn my house and burn the school.  Fuckers.  All of them.  Looking down on me.”

His words struck a chord, and it was the closest experience I’d ever had to the sort of flashback that happened in the movies.  I could remember being in the school bathroom, dripping with juice.  Being so frustrated, so angry, so hurt that I just wanted to lash out.

Was that all he had left?  Was that all he was?

“And if they all die?”

“Kill others.  Burn this fucking disgusting city.  Burn this fucking country.  Keep burning, keep killing.”

“Do you really think that’ll make anything better?”

“No.”

“Then why?  Is there any way I can get you to stop?”

“No.  Won’t stop.  I’m a soldier.”

“Whose soldier?  Hers? Noelle’s?  The monster who spat you out?”

“No.”

“And you?” I asked, turning so my back wasn’t to the broad shouldered one in the midst of my swarm.

He didn’t answer.  He charged for me instead.  The obese one took the opportunity to come after me from a different angle.

Again, I drew my swarm around me, put each of my bugs on the offensive to distract, and used my swarm-sense to figure out where they were moving, getting out of the way.

Ducking low, I felt a sharp pain in my side.  I grunted in pain and barked out a cough.  The cough made me need to cough more, which only helped inform them of my position.

The coughing fit took the strength out of me at a time when I needed to move most.  Swimging blindly, the fat one struck me across the face.  My mask absorbed the worst of the impact, and I stuck my knife out in his general direction, sticking it into the general area of his chest, hitting bone rather than anything substantial.

“Bugs fucking hurt,” he growled, apparently oblivious to the pain of the knife wound.  “Stop it!”

He swung again, but I managed to get out of the way.  With the stinging, biting insects in his eyes, crawling into his mouth and nose as he talked to gag him, I managed to distract him enough that I could safely retreat.  My entire body shook as I suppressed coughs, and I dropped to one knee to try and catch my breath.  I hoped that being closer to the ground would mean I didn’t get hit; I was too breathless to move out of the way if he swung a punch at me.

The broad-shouldered one stepped close, his cheeks wet with the vitreous fluids of torn eyeballs and blood where my swarm had dug in deep.  I suppressed another cough and slid my knife’s blade against the back of his knees.  It might not have cut deep enough if he’d been wearing clothes, but he was naked, and there was nothing to stop the knife.

He collapsed just in front of me.  I hesitated a moment, then stabbed my knife into the side of his throat.

They’re not realNot real people.

Bentley had finished tearing apart the other eight or so clones, and at Rachel’s instruction was closing in on the fat clone.  I moved my bugs to give her a clearer view.

I was ready for him to make a break for it.  He didn’t.  He turned toward us, clenching and unclenching his fist.

There’s no saving them.  Whatever had happened to their heads while they were grown inside Noelle, they’re twisted.  Their perspectives are warped.

“Stop him,” I said.  “Finish them, Rachel.”

Rachel whistled, and Bentley leaped.  The clone tried to come after me, but didn’t make it two steps before the dog got to him.

“Feels wrong,” I said.  Rachel gave me a hand in climbing back up.

She didn’t offer a reply.  It wouldn’t feel wrong to her.

I started searching with my bugs, looking in the direction Noelle had last gone.

Without even the ability to tentatively feel Noelle out with my bugs, I was having trouble keeping track of her.  Every passing minute meant that there was more sunlight, but even with that I couldn’t see Noelle.  It was as though a painter was working with white and black paint, throwing handfuls of it onto a canvas from three feet away.  It didn’t convey a picture so much as a blurry, indistinct abstract.

I should have been able to follow movement, to track Noelle by the way the patches of light and dark changed.  The issue was that there were countless things moving across my radius.  Water was running where some streets were still draining, plastic bags blew in the wind and shadows shifted as the sun and clouds moved.  Each changed the canvas, altered the blurry, muddy blotches of light and dark.

I could hear Grue give an order, and his group started moving with purpose.

“Grue just saw her, I think,” I said.  I pointed the way.

I’d started another coughing fit by the time we caught up with the others, and I could feel my skull pounding as if it had a three pound heart inside of it instead of a brain.

“She found some of the other capes who were holding position,” Grue said, when I’d managed to get my breath.  “Lights in the distance.”

“Fuck,” I said.  I was about to comment on how we were too close to Ballistic’s headquarters for comfort, but remembered that Grace and Tecton were listening.  I stopped myself before the words left my mouth and coughed instead.

“You okay?” Tecton asked.

“Little worse for wear.”

“Sounds like more than a little.”

I shook my head.

As we got closer, I tentatively moved the bugs closer, until I had them on the flying heroes.  I made an effort to discover and eliminate the hostile bugs that Noelle had created, and tried to find identifying details on the capes we were approaching.

“One of the heroes is a guy with an emblem, I think it’s a book with chains around it,” I said.

“Maybe Chronicler,” Tecton said.

“Three more flying ones,” I said.  “One with antlers on his chest emblem.”

“All guys?” Tecton asked.  When I nodded, he said, “That’d be Strapping Lad, Intrepid, and Young Buck.  And the one you mentioned before would definitely be Chronicler.”

“Seriously?” Regent asked.  “Strapping Lad?”

“They’re from the Texas Wards team,” Tecton said, as if that was explanation enough.  “Lad, Intrepid and Buck are all about the harassment.  Flying, teamwork, hitting hard and adjusting their battle plans to match the enemy threat level, staying out of danger.”

“Up until they get too close and she grabs one,” I said.

“Could happen,” Tecton replied.  “Eidolon’s probably up there too, too quiet.  Might be waiting for new powers to finish manifesting before he makes any moves.”

“What can we do?” Grace asked.

“I remember those Wards from the Leviathan fight.  Some of them,” I said.  “They fly?  All of them?”

“Yeah,” Tecton said.

“Then we support on the ground,” I said.  “You, Grue and maybe Regent can slow her down.  Bitch keeps us mobile.  We stay ready to move at a moment’s notice if it comes down to it.  Staying safe is a bigger priority than anything else.”

Noelle was limited to moving on the ground.  It gave the young heroes a natural advantage: each of them flew, and two of the three were armed with long ranged tinker-made weapons.  The guns weren’t anything flashy or spectacular, more the kind of laser weapon that a fan of science fiction might create, but the young heroes apparently thought it was worth keeping up the onslaught, and the guns didn’t appear to rely on any ammunition or reloading.

The one without the gun was apparently Young Buck, going by the raised image of antlers on his chest emblem.  He would fly around Noelle, close to the ground, then turn himself, his gear and the bugs I’d placed on him into a living projectile.  Or, maybe, he was using some kind of uncontrolled breaker power to go faster than the speed of sound, unable to change course or take any action while he traveled.  Whatever he was doing, he flashed across the battlefield as a straight, living projectile before materializing again.  The ground shook with his impacts he delivered to Noelle.

The one I took to be Chronicler was casting out a hazy field around himself and the other two with the guns.  The field shifted, drifting closer to the ground, and then solidified in a semisolid image of the heroes, complete with the laser fire.  A quick check with my bugs verified that the shots were just as real as what the real selves were creating.  The aim wasn’t so hot.  It was more of a replay of the actions they’d just taken than proper clones.

Young Buck moved beneath Chronicler, and passed through the field as he turned into a beam.  When the images appeared, they mimicked the same beam attack, their paths a perfect parallel to the real Young Buck.

We stopped as she came into view.  For the others, anyways.

“Fuck me,” Regent said.  “Anyone else noticing what I notice?”

“Bitch’s dogs,” Grue said.

“Not that similar,” Rachel grumbled, but she didn’t sound confident.

“Pretty fucking similar,” Regent said.

I leaned forward, hand on Rachel’s shoulder, whispered, “What is it?”

“Her entire lower half, it looks like my dogs.  Bit on the back doesn’t look like it, though.  More like a hand, but same look.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

“We good to go?” Grue asked.

“Go,” I gave the order.

Tecton slammed his piledriver-gauntlets into the ground, and a fissure opened beneath Noelle.  The ground shattered around her, denying her the footing to move out of the way as Chronicler and Young Buck worked together to multiply Young Buck’s offensive power.  Tecton repeated the process, disintegrating the ground beneath her.

“I can’t do a lot to her,” Regent said.  “Only some of her is normal, and it doesn’t really connect together.”

“Try, or focus on the clones,” Grue ordered.  He sent a blast of darkness my way, enveloping me.  I could feel the quality of my bug-senses decline, my degree of control degrading.

A moment later, he withdrew the darkness.  Did he just want the view?  The sense of what was where?

Raising his hands above his head, Grue fired a thick stream of darkness at Eidolon.

The hero moved out of the way before the beam made contact.

“Work with me!” Grue growled.  “Damn.  I can’t throw darkness over Noelle without hurting our side as much as we hurt her.  I need powers.  Grace?”

“You want to copy my power?”

There was a rumble as Tecton shattered more road beneath Noelle.  With the way he’d directed the attack to place it off to one side, I suspected she was trying to climb out of the funnel-shaped depression the explosions had made.  Given her speed from before, it was surprising how slowly she was climbing.

Then it struck me.  An antlion pit.  The sides of the pit weren’t giving her any traction.  Any time she set her weight down, she only pushed the sand to the bottom.

“Let me test it, see what I can get,” Grue told Grace.

“Fine.”

I scouted the area with my bugs, and accidentally ran into Noelle with a handful of houseflies as she slid backwards into the pit.  I wasn’t going to agonize over the fact, but I didn’t want to give her any more ammunition.  My bugs did find a mess of vomit at the very bottom of the shallow crater.

“There’s vomit, but no clones,” I said.  “She’s trying something.”

“The two-dimensional Vista.  She’s ambushing,” Grue said.

“Ambushing who?”  Tecton asked.

“I don’t know.  Can you see them?” I asked.  “When they’re moving on a surface, are they visible?”

“Why are you asking us?” Grace asked.

“Tecton,” I said, “As much ground as you can affect, now!”

He didn’t hesitate, punching the ground and driving both piledrivers into it.  There were no fissures, this time.  The entire area rumbled, and the ground spiderwebbed with cracks in every direction, not leaving two square feet of ground untouched.  Bentley nearly lost his footing, and Bastard growled, until Rachel pulled on his chain.

The first clone stepped out of a piece of plywood that had been placed across a shattered balcony door.  An Über.  He pulled the plywood free and disappeared into the apartment, swatting at the bugs that I’d set on him.

A Circus emerged beneath the flying heroes, cradling a shattered arm.  Bugs began drifting toward her, as if a strong wind were pulling them in.  The normal Circus packed a pocket dimension she could put things into.  This one was only storing air, forming a strong vacuum around herself.  Chronicler’s cloud dissipated as it was sucked in, and the heroes with weaker flying abilities were swiftly being dragged her way.  Regent hit her with his power, and the effect slowed, but she recovered faster than the fliers did.

My swarm could see a large blob of shadow, Noelle, taking advantage of the distraction to climb free of Tecton’s antlion pit.

“Now!” Grue said.

Grace ran forward, having little trouble moving on the shattered road.  She leaped and kicked Noelle, no doubt putting her invincibility in one foot.  As the kick was delivered, Grace used Noelle as a foothold and thrust herself away.  Grue chased her attack with a stream of darkness, enveloping Grace as she stuck her landing, leaped, and did very much the same thing Grace had, slamming one fist into Noelle.

Noelle toppled with a rumble my bugs could feel, then slowly slid back into the crater Tecton had made before she could get her feet under her again.

The Über stepped out onto the balcony with a block of kitchen knives in hand.  Though they weren’t weighted for throwing, he had no problem throwing a knife to hit Young Buck as the hero flew by.  Young Buck spiralled out of the air, stopping himself only a moment before he hit the ground.  When he righted himself, his hands were pressed around the knife that had embedded in his stomach.

I sent more bugs after the Über, my bugs tearing at his eyes and hands in earnest.  He threw another knife blind, hitting Chronicler in the arm before he collapsed and started thrashing to get the bugs off himself.

The Circus, for her part, had used her pocket-dimension vacuum to draw one of the fliers close enough to get her hands on him.  The hero, Intrepid or Strapping Lad, was set aflame from head to toe, his costume ignited in entirety.  He kicked out, blind in the midst of the flames that were immolating him, and she ducked out of the way.

Grace saw the flames of the burning hero as Grue banished his darkness.  She made a break for the Circus.  Regent knocked the Circus off balance, momentarily interrupting the suction yet again, and Grace punched with enough force to cave in the clone’s chest.  The Circus dropped to the ground, dead.

Grace couldn’t see in Grue’s darkness, so they were limited as far as their partnership went.  He backed away slowly, searching for another opportunity or another power he could borrow.  Without Grace’s natural agility, the individual pieces of road made for unsteady footing, each tilting and sliding as weight was placed on them.

Noelle screamed with frustration and rage.  As far as I could tell, she was still at the bottom of the pit.

I couldn’t follow what was happening, not without giving her more bugs to work with, but then again, I wasn’t sure that anyone else was having more luck on that front.  Not with the pit around her.

“She’s pulling something!” Tecton shouted.  He raised his voice to be heard by the other capes, “Get back!”

Everyone moved away, excepting Young Buck, who was frozen, hands to his wound.  Grace retreated, holding onto the incinerated young hero.

When Noelle vomited, the slurry came out as one stream, a geyser that extended six or seven hundred feet.  Rachel steered Bentley out of the way before it hit, and the others danced off to either side to avoid getting splashed.  Grace got clipped, and went sprawling, almost glued to the ground under the weight of the fluid, the cape in her arms falling.

A dozen bodies began climbing free of the vomit.  Ten or so clones had been deposited on the street, along with a real Leet in civilian clothes.  One of the clones was a Circus, folding herself into her pocket dimension.

“She’s walking on the bodies,” Tecton said.  “Incoming!”

The bodies.  She vomited bodies into the pit to keep stuff from sliding underfoot.

Young Buck charged through Noelle, but he wasn’t flying when he finished his maneuver.  He tumbled to the ground, rolling after he landed.

I could hear armbands informing others of the fallen.

My arm jerked in pain, and I slapped at a hornet.  One of Noelle’s.

Noelle advanced on the burned cape and Grace.  Tecton slammed the ground, but the effect was muffled.  He’d shattered the ground for blocks around, had maybe killed or eliminated several of the two dimensional clones, but his piledriver gauntlets wouldn’t be as effective on this soft surface.

Two of the Southern Wards opened fire from above, pelting Noelle with laser fire.  I could sense her growing tall, or rearing up on her hind legs, and she vomited a stream into the air.  Chronicler and the other cape were splashed, caught by the clotted liquid and a flying body.  Chronicler’s power remained, the hologram images sustaining the same fire at the same angle, not adjusting as Noelle moved to one side.

Eidolon made his move.  My bugs could sense the air growing heavy and humid.  Vomit dried, and clones staggered and fell.

The humidity increased to the point that I could feel the moisture flowing through the air in thick clouds, rising from every surface, heavy off the bodies of the clone, off Noelle and the streams of vomit.

My bugs were dying.  The flying insects were first to die, their wings crinkling.  The ones closest to me were alive, but they were suffering too.

Dessication.

“You’re killing Grace!” Tecton bellowed at the sky.  I doubted Eidolon would hear from his vantage point.  I had only his word to go by.  Grace was in an area my bugs couldn’t reach.

“Acceptable losses,” Grue said.  Tecton whirled around to face him.  Grue’s voice was calm, “His plan isn’t working.  Tattletale said he wanted to experience enough danger to get a power boost, and I’m not getting the feeling he’s had that.  He’s too experienced to panic, but with everything he’s seen, everything he’s done over the past decades of work, maybe he’s thinking he has to do something here, and he’s decided he can’t let there be another Endbringer.  Can’t let there be another monster in this world.”

“She’s on our side!  She’s one of the good ones!”

“If it makes you feel any better,” I said, “Eidolon might be assuming she’s already dead.”

I’d positioned some bugs so that they could distinguish Noelle’s vague lumbering frame against the background of the dimly lit sky.  Her flesh was drying and flaking off in chunks as the moisture was pulled out with force.

But the ground still rumbled with the vibrations of her steady advance, and for all the dried flesh that was falling free, she wasn’t getting noticeably smaller to my bugs’ senses.

Eidolon hit her with a gravity slam.  More flesh came free.  I saw a change, with that, but the edges of the silhouette filled in.

“She isn’t dying?” I asked, my voice a murmur.

“She’s regenerating,” Grue said.

The effects of Eidolon’s dessication were starting to get to me.  The air was too dry.  I coughed once and briefly held my breath to keep from succumbing to another fit.

There was a sound like a firecracker taking flight, and Noelle lurched.  Even with my bug’s less than stellar sight, I could see the aftermath.  A hundred slightly different angles.  Noelle’s true body, the human half perched on top of the monster, arched her back, her chest out, head turning toward the sky.  A spray of blood and gore marked a small explosion ripping out the front of her chest.

And another, a shot from behind, tearing through her cranium.

My bugs ventured into the dessicated area.  They would only last for a minute at best, but they’d serve to scout, to give me eyes.  They found Ballistic.

He hadn’t come alone.  Scrub was with him, and Trickster swapped rubble out of the area to move his teammates in.  He swapped himself in for Grace, appearing in the middle of the vomit-slurry.

I opened my mouth to speak, coughed at the dry air instead.

“You decided to help?” Grue called out.

“She’s our responsibility,” Genesis said, “We made a promise to each other.  To get home, no matter what it took.  But there were other parts to it.  Things we added on when the whole situation became clear.  Fixing Noelle was one of those additions.”

Getting home?

“We knew it was fucked up,” Sundancer said.  “But we promised ourselves that if it came down to it, we’d step in before it got bad.  And this is bad.  So we’re acting on it.”

Her orb burned above her head.  Its crackle sounded slightly different in the dry air.

Noelle’s growl was accented by a noise from one of the larger canine mouths.  “Traitors.”

She’s alive.  Shot through the heart and brain, and she’s talking.

“If you were thinking straight, you’d agree with us,” Genesis said.  “You’d agree this is right.  That we can’t let people get hurt, just for your revenge.”

“I didn’t ask for this,” Noelle said.

“I know,” Trickster spoke.  He looked up toward the sky, tilted his head, and then Eidolon disappeared.  I could sense Eidolon’s new location, a few blocks away.  He tried to fly closer, and Trickster teleported him again, keeping him a distance away.  Eidolon had given up his power invulnerability.

“I… I’ll use my sun, Noelle,” Sundancer said.  “We’ll burn you.  It’ll be complete, thorough.  And this ends.  There’ll be no more hurting people.  And we put all this behind us, remember you the way you were.  It’s better if it’s us.”

“I don’t want to be a memory,” Noelle said.

“You already are,” Ballistic said, from behind her.

She turned, and a low growl sounded from one of her lower mouths, deep enough I could feel the rumble of it.

Ballistic shook his head.  “The old Noelle’s long gone.  Do you think she would have survived getting shot like that?”

Noelle didn’t answer.

“You have her memories, nothing more,” Trickster said.

“Krouse,” Noelle said.  “You turn on me like this?”

“I don’t know what else to do.”  He teleported Eidolon away again.  This time Eidolon stayed put.  Choosing a new power?

“You did this to me.  This?  The old Noelle disappearing?  It’s your fault.  You know it.  You created me.”

He’d created her?

He’d dosed her.

“Yeah,” Trickster said.  He lit a cigarette, put it in the mouth-hole of his mask.

“And I listened to you.  I bought your promises.  Your hollow assurances.  I listened and cooperated when you said I should be locked up.  I listened when they shut me in that vault, in the dark, alone, with that fucking beeping that wouldn’t let me sleep.  I waited all this time because you said I could get better.”

“I know.  It eats away at me.  But I don’t know what else to do.”

“I spent the past two years listening to you.  Doing what you wanted.  Just do what I want here, and I’ll let it all end.  I’ll let her burn me, and then you guys can find your own way home.”

“I know what you want,” he said, “But the consequences-”

“-Don’t matter,” she said.  “It’s not our world.  It’s… it’s as screwed up as the things I make.  They’re just dark twisted copies of people in this dark, twisted, fucked up world.”

“No’-” He started.

“You owe me this.”

Trickster sighed, spat out the barely-touched cigarette.  Even though I couldn’t identify tone, I felt a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Shit,” I said.  “Grue-”

Trickster was already turning.  Grue was only beginning to raise a cloud of darkness around us when he disappeared, Trickster standing in his place.

“Grue!” I screamed.  He was where Trickster had been, half a city block away from Noelle.

Noelle lunged.  Trickster could have moved out of the way fast enough.  Grue wasn’t so lucky.  The shattered ground under her feet shifted, and she slammed into him, her lower body catching Grue, adhering to him.

He was giving her us.

Trickster was already gone from the midst of our group. There was gunfire and incoherent shouting as people tried to identify his location.  Ballistic was gone, replaced by a piece of rubble.  He was taking the most immediate threats out of the picture.  Eidolon, Ballistic, Grue…

Who came next on that hierarchy?

Me.

I found myself only five paces away from Noelle, plucked from the midst of my cloud of bugs.  There were too few to hide me from Trickster’s sight, with the way the dessication had thinned their ranks.

She caught me with the back of one claw.  There was a sound like a gunshot going off, my ribs feeling like my bones had turned to white-hot brands, and I stuck.  She set her claw down on the ground, and my back exploded with pain as I struggled to contort my body, get in a position where I wasn’t being folded in half under the weight of an eight ton monstrosity.

I was spared being snapped in two not by my own struggles, but by the pull of her flesh as it folded around me.  It simultaneously consumed me and pulled on me, as if by a hundred hands.  The process was smooth and inevitable, flesh flowing around me like hot candlewax, even as I was drawn upward and inward.

I could sense Regent appearing nearby.  Noelle turned to face him.  He didn’t fight, didn’t try to run.  He said something, but I couldn’t make out the words, couldn’t hear them with the dark, hot, rancid-smelling flesh that had enveloped me.

The last of the flesh closed behind me, my power stopped working, and I was left with only absolute darkness and the pounding flow of Noelle’s blood in my ears.

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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.

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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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