Scourge 19.3

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I could see the dirty looks from the heroes around us.  Tattletale’s outburst would cost us something in the here and now, and I wasn’t sure there was anything to be gained long-term.  Meanwhile, we were the only real villains that I was aware of, surrounded by people who didn’t trust us.  People who expected us to try something.

I was acutely aware that the Chicago Wards and Scapegoat would be listening in if I said anything to Tattletale, and the thing I most wanted to say to Tattletale would be the worst thing to say on a lot of levels.  Calling her an idiot made us look less cohesive as a team, and she never reacted well to it.

I didn’t want Tecton, Grace and Wanton to hear, so I put one hand on Tattletale’s shoulder to stop her, and spoke just above a whisper.  “That was ill-timed.”

“Only opportunity I was about to get, with all of them together,” she said.  She didn’t bother to lower her voice.  “Big piece of the puzzle, knowing this much lets me start working out how everything fits together.”

“I know,” I murmured, “But it wasn’t a good moment.  We don’t need to make enemies of the Triumvirate, and we don’t need a kill order put on our heads.”

“Miss Militia wouldn’t really,” Tattletale said.

“That so?” I asked.  “Or is that another one of your educated guesses?”

“Educated guess,” Tattletale said.

“Let’s not forget that there’s other capes with a reason to hate us, and provoking their bosses might motivate them to get on Miss Militia’s case about that kill order and cleaning up Brockton Bay.  If an order comes down from above, it doesn’t matter if she’s willing to kill us or not.  Let’s do our best to avoid seeming dangerous.”

“Sure,” she said.  “Got what I wanted anyways.”

I wasn’t sure I was happy with that outcome.  She wasn’t saying she wouldn’t do it again.  “Keep in mind that we’re tired.  It’s easier to make mistakes.”

“I get it.  It’s cool,” Tattletale said.  “But just like you need time to get your bugs together, I need background info to work with before I get into a fight.”

“That’s not a fight we want to start right now,” I said.  “Maybe ever.”

“I have ideas.  Trust me a little,” she said, smiling a touch.

I frowned behind my mask, then led the way to the Wards.  I couldn’t be lecturing her about picking her battles if I didn’t do the same, and arguing this point with Tattletale wasn’t going to help us right now.  Something to address another time, another day.

“What’s going on?” Tecton asked.

“Discussing strategy,” I said.  “How are you guys?  Wanton?”

“Myrddin caught up with me, collected all the radioactive stuff,” Wanton said.  “My other form feels a little weak.  Might be that my real self is feeling drained, might be that whatever powers my other self is.”

“And Raymancer?” I asked.

Wanton glanced at Tecton, but he didn’t respond.  I could tell from their body language.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Nausea, vomiting, headaches, weakness… and even if he makes it through today, it’s probably going to kill him in the next while,” Tecton said.

“There’s healers,” I said.  “Tinkers who understand radiation.  I’m sure they’ve got good doctors looking after him now.  If you’ll accept my saying so, I’d say your priority is here, now, this situation.”

Tecton shifted position, straightening his back so he stood a little taller.  With his power armor, it put him head, shoulders and chest above me.

I had to admire the power armor.  Even the idea of power armor, it was kind of scary to me.  Putting together a piece of machinery that could bend steel bars and punch through concrete was impressive enough on its own, but doing that and then climbing into said machinery, walking around in it, knowing that a single malfunction could cause a potential catastrophic failure?  Being trapped in that armor, or worse, having it accidentally leverage that terrible strength against the wearer inside?

I was still operating like I had when I was blind.  A centipede crawled over the lens of my mask, obstructing my vision.  I willed it to move away.

Tecton wore his suit well.  He was a walking tank, wide as he was tall, a glossy rust-brown with brass highlights.  His eyes were barely visible, but I could see his eyes behind the mask, studying me.  He wasn’t venturing a reply.

Had I been too forward?  Too presumptuous?

“Worrying about him is fine,” I said, and the image of Grue sitting at the base of the wall flickered through my mind’s eye, “But the best thing you can do for Raymancer is get through this thing alive, and when you’re done, you can do your job as team leader and find someone who can help him.”

“Myrddin will do that.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “But are you really willing to trust the well-being of your teammate to a supervisor?  Wouldn’t it feel better to handle it yourself?”

“Unless I have reason not to, I’ll rely on Myrddin and I’ll feel better doing that,” Tecton replied.  “All of this, this whole scenario, the organization of it all, it doesn’t work unless there’s a measure of trust.”

“Okay,” I said.  His reply had caught me off guard.  I hadn’t expected Tecton to have that kind of faith in his superiors, and I couldn’t be sure if it was my own bias or naiveté on his part that were at fault for this gap in understanding.  Even if I were right, though, it wasn’t my place to ‘fix’ him.  “You lead the way you have to.  Sorry to make assumptions.”

“S’okay,” Tecton said.  “Doesn’t matter if you do or not.  I’ll just keep making sure you and your team don’t create trouble.”

“Which we didn’t do, when we lost the armbands and let them move on Eidolon,” Grace pointed out.

“I’ll take the flak for that,” Tecton said.

“I mentioned it in passing to Miss Militia,” I said, “Better that you tell the truth and say we pushed hard for it.  Blame me.”

“No,” Regent said, “Blame me.”

I shot him a look, and he shrugged.  “Just wanted to get in on the fun,” he said.

“You want me to put the blame on you, even if it means you get the kill order?” Tecton asked.

“I’d rather not get the kill order,” I said.

“And I’d rather not be indirectly responsible for your death,” Tecton said.  “I think that settles that.”

Maybe that’s for the best, I thought.  “Then let’s talk strategy and priorities.  Tecton, do you need anything?  Gear?  Time to prep?”

He shook his head.  “No.  Need time to clean my armor and make sure it’s all in working order, that’s all.”

“Bitch,” I said.  “The dogs are okay?”

“They weren’t, but they’re getting better as they grow.”

I looked at the dogs.  They were each about twice their usual size, rippling with interior and exterior muscles, layered in calcified skin and sporting bone hooks.  They were walking, which was good.  I looked over the rest of the group, trying to take in all the variables.  “Regent, you have a bead on Shatterbird?”

“Sorta did, felt too shitty to do anything with her after metal boy yanked me out.  Around the time I started feeling better, she disappeared.”

“What does that mean?”

“She’s out of range, she’s dead, or she’s inside Noelle.”

“Inside Echidna.  That would be bad,” I said.

“And plausible,” Tattletale said.  “She would, just to fuck us over.”

“Any idea what variants we could expect on her power?”  I asked.

Tattletale was combing her hair free of gunk with her fingers and fingernails.  “No.  Seems like there’s always a consistent factor, and the variations work off of that.  For Vista, it was space warping.  For Grue, darkness.  With Shatterbird, there’s three strong possibilities: glass, sound or macrokinesis of some type.”

“Fuck me,” Tecton said.  “City-wide attacks with something other than glass?”

“Wood?  Metal?  Pavement?” Tattletale suggested.  “The way her original power works, her kinetic ability attunes other objects so they extend her range.  She reaches as far as she can, then sets up a wide-area explosion.  Instant chaos.”

“We deal with that if it happens,” I said.  “I can use my bugs, maybe sense if she’s affecting anything besides glass, buy us time to react or take cover somehow.  But we have limited time, and we should use it.  I’d like to stop by my territory, get resupplied, and maybe swing north to wherever Coil put Atlas.”

“Atlas?” Tecton asked.

“Skitter’s giant pet beetle,” Regent supplied an answer.

“It’ll let me fly,” I said, “And I want to stay out of trouble until Scapegoat’s power stabilizes.  Easiest to do that if I’m a hundred feet above the ground.  That’s not important right now.  What I’m wanting to know is whether anyone else has an errand they need to run.”

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “I’d like to meet up with the remaining Travelers, talk to Scrub.”

“Scrub?” Tecton asked.

“Scrub.  And then I need to get back here to meet some guests as they arrive.  I invited Faultline’s Crew.”

That gave me pause, but I couldn’t say why while the heroes were here.  “Let’s find a ride.”

Half of the PRT’s containment vans had turrets on the top for spraying foam, and each of those vans were circling the area where the building and construction site had been demolished and brought down on Noelle’s head, laying foam down on the rubble.

The other half were little more than mobile roadblocks, and they had been positioned to block off minor roads and alleys, leaving only a few major roads that could be protected by capes.

The benefit of having the Chicago Wards with us was that we could ask for that stuff.  Tecton went to Myrddin, Myrddin spoke a word into his armband, and a PRT agent brought our truck to us.

Tecton had been talking about organization and relying on others.  I didn’t think it counted for nearly as much as he was saying.  Not the PRT, with what I’d seen and the hints at the Triumvirate’s involvement.  Still, it was a ride, and I wasn’t about to complain.

The Travelers were in custody, with Trickster absent.  Genesis was in her monstrous form, fixed to the ground with containment foam.  I didn’t see any sign of her real body, which meant she was either playing along or cooperating.  She wore a vaguely female shape with a serpent’s tail from the waist down and a bony forehead that flared and swooped back behind her head like a triceratops’ frill.  She had no eyes, and her mouth was wide and lipless, with tiny sharp teeth, her arms long with clawed fingertips.

Sundancer and Ballistic were glued down to either side of her, buried up to their shoulders.  Scrub was a distance away, buried up to his waist in the road.  His hair glowed with a faint red color, and a glow emanated from his eyes and the inside of his mouth.

Ballistic and Sundancer stared as we approached.  The heroes were giving them a wide berth, probably as a safety precaution.  I didn’t recognize any of the three who were standing watch; a boy and girl each with shortbows and headbands with a bull’s and ram’s horns, and an eight-foot tall hulk of a girl with a muscular physique that had to be power-induced and a shovel broader than I was.  She was stooped over, nearly to the point of having a hunchback, and she had a severe overbite that left her top row of teeth sort of hanging off the front of her face.  Her hair was tied into thick, dark braids that hung nearly to her toes, partially obscuring her face.  Like Weld, she wasn’t wearing a mask.

“Wards West!  Yo!” Tecton called out.

The large girl turned around.  Her voice was deeper than Grue’s when she spoke, “Chicago Wards.  Not that I’m one to talk, but you’re missing a few members.  They didn’t-“

“Nobody’s died yet,” Tecton said, extending a hand.  She shook it.  He said, “Got a couple sitting this one out.  Bearach put in for vacation, I think he’s feeling the pressure after the Leviathan hit, and he’s hoping to have a good excuse to miss the next Endbringer hit.  I told him he’s not forced to come on these missions, but…”

“He’s compelled to defend others,” she said.

“Yeah.  Garnett gave this one a pass.  Raymancer came, but he took a bad hit.”

“Injured?”

“Radiation poisoning.”

“How bad?” she asked.

“Bad as it can get without killing you right away,” Tecton replied.  “Like I said, nobody’s died yet.”

She bobbed her head in a nod, and her hair swung in front of her.  She reached out and put a large hand on his armored shoulder.  Her voice was surprisingly gentle when she said, “I’m sorry.”

Tecton didn’t reply right away.  Sympathy could be a horrible thing to give someone, depending on who they were and how far along they were in their acceptance of the event.  I felt moisture in my eyes, but it was Grue I was thinking of.

With something to distract myself, I could deal.  I’d compartmentalize, refocus, focus on getting the job done.  But if someone gave me a few simple words and a touching gesture like this girl was offering Tecton, right here and right now, I suspected I wouldn’t be able to resist losing my composure.

It was a good thing, perhaps, that nobody on my team was that type.

“I’d like to talk to the Travelers,” Tattletale said.

The large girl looked at Tecton, and she talked to him instead of Tattletale, “Hell of a babysitting job, Tec.  These are the guys from the news.”

“Speak for yourself,” Tecton said, gesturing toward her captives.  “Where’s Fisherboy?”

“The captain’s sitting this one out.  I’m in charge for this mission.”

There was genuine cheer in Tecton’s voice as he said, “You’ve been wanting that for a while.”

She smiled, which amounted to revealing more of her top row of teeth than anything else.  “I won’t get a promotion for real.  They never give them to people like me.”

“I wouldn’t worry.  You’re winning them over,” Tecton said.

That camaraderie.  If I’d joined the Wards, would I have had that?  How would things have unfolded?

“Tattletale, Undersiders, this is Gully.  I’m only as strong as I am because of the data I got from studying her power.  There was a time that she looked after two members of my team, when they were based in San Diego.  Wanton was one of ’em.  If you treat her with anything less than the utmost respect, you won’t get any more cooperation from me.  Got it?”

“Not a problem,” Tattletale said.  I nodded an agreement.

As a group, we approached the Travelers, and Gully accompanied us.

“Figures,” Ballistic said, when we were in earshot.  “I run to the rescue, all for nothing, and I get arrested.  No help from you guys, and Trickster fucks us all over.  And when all’s said and done, you guys are free and I’m fucking sitting here in a puddle of goo.  Tell me Trickster got his, at least?”

“Not that I’m aware,” Tattletale said.

Ballistic sighed.

Sundancer wasn’t moving.  She sat in a hunched-over position.

“Is she okay?” I asked.

“Of course not.  Motherfucking Trickster teleported the two of us into the sky, let us drop.  When I stood up again, he did it a second time.  My wrist and legs are probably fractured, her legs aren’t any better.  She’s out cold.  We need fucking medical attention, and they stuck us in this foam instead.”

I turned around.  “Tecton, Gully, is there a way we could arrange some care for these two?”

“I’ll pass on a message with my armband,” Gully said.  “See what the higher-ups say.”

“Might help to mention that these guys are heavy hitters at the upper end of the scale.  Sundancer can probably finish Noelle, given an opportunity, and Ballistic can definitely slow her down.”

“Will do.”

She stepped away, retrieving a smart phone from her pocket and putting it to one ear.

“You’d think she’d wear a mask,” Regent muttered.  I sent a collection of bugs flying at his face and shot him a dirty look at the same time.  He was left sputtering.

Ballistic stared up at me.  I couldn’t see his eyes through the lenses of his mask, but I was acutely aware of his silence, here.  He wasn’t offering thanks.

“Well,” Tattletale said, “Let’s see if my guess is right.  If not, I wasted a lot of money and a lot of thinking time on this problem.”

“Guess?” Tecton asked.

“Guess.”  Tattletale briskly walked in Scrub’s direction.  The ex-Merchant was buried in a standing position, three-quarters of his body sunken into a hole in the ground roughly two and a half feet in diameter.  He couldn’t raise his arms up out of the hole to pull or push himself up, and the narrow confines of the hole didn’t let him bend his legs.

A flash marked an explosion nearby, hitting only air.

“Scrub,” Tattletale said.

Scrub didn’t respond.

“So you don’t talk,” she said, “That makes this harder.”

She sat down cross-legged, to put herself on more of a level with him.   A flash erupted two feet away from her, a few feet off the ground, and was followed by a slight movement of the air, stirring Tattletale’s blond hair.  She brushed it back into place with her hand.

“What’s the guess?” I asked.

“His power.  What do you think it is?”

There was another flash.  Again, it hit only air.

“I was thinking uncontrolled annihilation blasts, but you’re going to tell me it’s something else,” I said.

“I am.”

Another flash.  Tattletale drummed her fingertips on her knee, watching, waiting.

“We’re kind of on a schedule,” I said.  “So maybe hurry up with the explanation?”

“I’m just waiting.  It’s a matter of time before I can check my theory.  If it’s checkable.”

If it’s checkable?”

“Can’t you just play along?  I love those ‘murder she wrote’ moments, where I can pull everyone together, then dish the info.  Everything makes sense, the puzzle pieces fall together, and things start falling into place.  We lose all the effect if I reveal some of it early.”

“And we lose that opportunity if you sit too close to the guy with the uncontrolled power that isn’t energy blasts, get half your face scooped off and die,” I said.  “I know you know you’re safe, but let’s be extra careful.”

I extended a hand, but Tattletale didn’t take it.  Right, Scapegoat’s effect.  She stood without my help, then stepped back.

“I’ll explain this part of it once I verify,” Tattletale said.  “The rest has to wait until Faultline’s people fly in.”

“How long will that be?” I asked.

“Hour and a half from the time I made the call, about.  That was about thirty-five minutes ago-“

Tattletale stopped as another flash hit.  It intersected the ground, but the ground was left intact.

“There!”  She said.  Her hand went to her belt, and she had a laser pointer out in a second.  She circled the area where the blast hit.  “Can you remove that section of ground without breaking the middle?”

Tecton took a half-step forward, but Gully stopped him.  She tapped her shovel against the ground, and the area in question rose from the ground, perfectly cylindrical, three feet high.

Another of Scrub’s explosions struck, and a spherical gouge was cut out at the bottom of the pillar.  Tattletale ducked close, grabbing it as it toppled, then hurried back out of Scrub’s range, dragging the column after her.

“Careful!” I told her.  “If you’d been hit-“

“Doesn’t matter,” she said.  She rested the cylinder with the vaguely pointed bottom down on the ground, tapped her finger on the top – what had been the road’s surface.  “Look.”

I peered closer.

It was so subtle I almost missed it.  The texture of the road’s surface was interrupted, shifting minutely to a different texture and fractionally different shade.  The area formed a neat circle.

I stood back while the others looked.  Only Rachel didn’t investigate.  She was more focused on her dogs, using a metal-tined comb to brush their fur clear of gunk.  Bentley nudged my hand, and I gave him a scratch on the crown of his head.

“I don’t get it,” Tecton said.  “The blast changed it?”

“The blast transplanted it,” Tattletale said, grinning. 

“How the hell do you even notice something like that?” Wanton asked, touching the surface.

“That doesn’t matter.  Now, if everyone will allow me, I’d like to have my moment now.  We all know that there’s built-in limitations to our power.  These limitations are apparently for our benefit, even if we might not always love them.  The Manton effect is a big one.  We get powers, and in the moment those powers take hold, we get some hardwired restrictions that keep those powers from hurting us.  A running theory says that it goes too far, and overgeneralizes to humans or living things who aren’t us.  Another says that it’s just our empathy at work, that we have built-in limitations because we care about our fellow human beings, and our powers acknowledge that.  With me so far?”

“I’m listening,” I said.

“There’s other limitations or advantages that come with the powers.  Sundancer over there can’t be burned.  Temperature completely and one hundred percent normalizes within a certain range of her body.  Our old buddy Shadow Stalker could pass through surfaces but never sank into the ground and fell to the center of the Earth.  And Scrub here, with his uncontrolled power, never blasts the ground out from under his feet, and he’s far less likely to collapse a building onto his own head by accidentally destroying a critical support.  Why?”

Nobody volunteered an answer.  Tattletale smiled.

She explained, “Looking at this, I’m thinking it’s because the same passengers that give us our powers are connecting us to some other parallel Earth.  Maybe even individual collections of Earths for each of us, so that there’s no ugly interactions when two powers meet.  Scrub here shunts matter into an Earth where there’s architecture roughly corresponding to our own, but he won’t tear up his own footing because he’s shunting in the more permanent elements as his power shunts stuff out.  When Shadow Stalker displaces her mass, she displaces it into another Earth, distributing her mass and her footing across the two worlds.  She’s still all there, she’s just not all here.  And when Sundancer superheats her immediate area, she’s doing what Scrub does, and shunting a roughly human-shaped patch of superheated air and fire into a parallel Earth, shunting room temperature air into her immediate surroundings.”

“Doesn’t that mean that they’d be causing destruction in some hapless world?” Wanton asked.

“Good question.” Tattletale grinned.  “Yes.  Probably.  Could be that every time Sundancer’s power protects herself, she’s setting the approximate location of her other Earth on fire.  Nothing’s saying that other Earth is populated, but it could be.”

I shivered.  It was too much to think about.  “Does that apply to other powers?  Mine doesn’t really protect me.”

“Ah,” Tattletale grinned.  She raised a finger, “But here’s my question to you.  What’s your power source?  Where are you getting the energy you use to relay and receive information from your bugs in real-time?  Keep in mind that so far, the only person who’s been able to intercept, understand and replicate your signals has been Leet.

“You’re saying that when I got my powers, my passenger picked a suitable Earth, and I’ve been… what?  Leeching power from it?”

“Possible.  Or drawing power from two hundred or two hundred million Earths.  Maybe it’s ambient light and radiation, and you’re condensing that energy into something you can use.”

“Am I hurting or killing people?” I asked.

“Who knows?” Tattletale shrugged.  She flashed me a smile.  “Maybe your passenger picked a few barren Earths with no people at all.  Earths where life never evolved, or where humankind went extinct.  Or maybe you’re drawing a teeny, tiny bit of energy from millions of worlds, to the point that nobody would ever notice.”

“Or maybe you’re turning another Earth’s Brockton Bay into a cold, barren wasteland,” Regent commented.

Don’t want to think about it, I thought.  It wasn’t like I could even turn my power off, short of killing myself or removing every bug from my vicinity.

“It’s… a bit of a leap,” Tecton said, “To go from looking a piece of pavement to thinking on that scale.”

“It’s only a theory, but I’ve been giving a lot of thought to powers in general, and my teammates know I’m pretty good with this stuff.  Now, I want you to imagine this.  Think about all the complex processing and work that goes into managing powers.  Hell, Skitter can individually control every insect in her swarm and simultaneously give each a completely different instruction. My own power, it’s similar.  Tecton’s brainpower, his processing as he thinks about engineering, architecture… where’s that work taking place? Our brains certainly aren’t capable of it.”

“The other world?” I asked.

“But how?  Who?” she asked.

“Tell me,” I said.

“Insofar as we’ve even thought about passengers, we’ve been sort of inclined to think about them as being pretty small.  After all, the way Bonesaw talked about them, they’re these things that work their way into our heads, bond with our brains and then burn themselves off in the process of reconfiguring how our heads work.  Right?  But anything as small as what she’s describing wouldn’t possibly be able to do what we need to manage our powers.  So what I’m asking is… what if they’re big?  Massive.  What if each and every passenger is picking us, for whatever reason, they find us and then they bind to us.  They connect to us by rewiring a tiny part of our tiny brains, and through that extra lobe, they connect us to all the other parallel Earths, including the one where they reside?  Maybe they’re physical, maybe they’re more ethereal, I dunno, they could be plant or animal, but they’re there.  Lifeforms that could be titanic, the size of cities, continents or moons, lurking in some other parallel Earth and attaching themselves to us with a thread, a fine hair that stretches across dimensions to a lobe in our brain, sending and receiving all necessary data.  And things like that are connected to each and every one of us who have powers and those of us who don’t, existing only to process our abilities, to absorb and channel the necessary energies, signals and information, and make each and every one of us into…”

She paused to chuckle a little.

“…Into superheroes and supervillains and everyday nobodies who use their powers for business or entertainment.”

I shivered.

“It’s nonsense,” Tecton said.

“Maybe.  It is just a theory,” Tattletale said.  “But it feels mostly right, and I’d love to hear a better explanation.”

Why?” Gully asked.  “Why would they do that?  If they’re that powerful, if they’re that big, why care about us?”

“Excellent question,” Tattletale replied.  She grinned. “No clue.”

“I’m not saying it’s not an interesting theory,” I hedged, “But how does this tie into the Echidna situation?  Is she an Endbringer, and do the Endbringers relate to the passengers?”

“Oh.  I’m pretty damn sure there’s no real connection between her and Endbringers.  I saw her at work.  Nothing really fit, as far as the various things I saw about Endbringers.  No, she’s something else.”

“Then what does this have to do with her?  Because this definitely could have waited.”

“Well, there’s two major factors at play here,” Tattletale said.  “Two plans.  Numero uno is that it’s really quite possible that Echidna’s got a broken passenger.  Something went wrong, it’s damaged, it’s demented, or some of the usual limits are gone.  Hell, maybe it’s gaining more of a grip over her as she brings more of the passenger into this world to operate her body, and the usual processes that keep a passenger passive and sleeping are missing in hers.  Or it could be that her passenger is trying to make its way into our world.”

“And it’s city sized?” Wanton asked.  “Or moon sized?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “It’s not like she couldn’t get that big.  I was thinking about throwing Rachel’s dogs at her until she couldn’t support her own weight, but she’d still be able to use her power and puke, and while her clones seem to be getting more fragile, weaker and more plentiful as she grows, I’m not positive that’s a good game plan.”

“Not fucking risking my dogs like that again,” Rachel said.

“Of course,” Tattletale added.  “There’s that too.  I can’t really say more about Echidna without finding more about Cauldron’s process for granting powers, and I’d really like to grill the Travelers on that front.  But understanding all this is our best bet for understanding Echidna, and potentially stopping her.  Or even fixing her.”

I glanced at the others.  “But… there’s some powerful people who wouldn’t want us to dig for more information about Cauldron.”

“There are,” Tattletale said.  She glanced at the heroes who were with us: Tecton, Wanton, Grace, Gully, Scapegoat and the twins.  “Which means we may be doing this without the support of the other heroes who are here to stop Echidna.  Which is probably sensible, because they probably won’t be on board with the next idea I’m going to propose for a democratic vote.  The second reason why I wanted to carry out this particular research project.”

“I get the feeling I’m not going to like this,” Grace said.

Tattletale smiled, “I think we can tear a hole between dimensions.”

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Queen 18.2

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“They won’t take me back.”

“They will.”

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

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

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

“It doesn’t matter.”

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

“You’re definitely human, Dinah.”

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

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

“How… how do you even know that?”

“Which?”

“The meaning of the words.”

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

“Are you an orphan?”

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

“Why not?”

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

“How’s the pain?” I asked.

“It ends later.”

“I know it ends.  But how is it now?”

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

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

“They’re not going to take me.”

It was becoming a refrain.

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

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

“Heart disease?  You?”

Dinah shook her head.  “Not me.”

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

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

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

She was shaking, I realized.  Trembling.

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

She made an incoherent noise in response.

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

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

“Comb will do.”

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

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

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

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

Do we come out of this okay?

We’ll come out of this okay.

Can we stay in touch?

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

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

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

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

The car pulled to a stop.

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

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

“Go,” she said.

“What?”

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

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

“If?”

“If they want me?”

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

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

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

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

I knocked again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you want?”

“I brought Dinah.”

He froze.

“If that’s alright,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mom made a subvocal noise.

“She’s an addict?” the dad asked.

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

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

Why else would Coil take her and keep her?

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

The dad shook his head.

“I’ll go get her, then.”

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

“They don’t want me.  They won’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned to leave.

“Thank you,” the dad called out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had to get someone to read them for me later.

“Where to?” the driver asked.

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

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

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

“You’re late,” Ballistic said.

“Had an errand to run.”

“Sent the girl home?” Tattletale asked.

“Yeah.”

“Good,” she said.  “Feel better?”

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

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

“You’re up for this?”

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

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

“Makes sense,” I said.

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

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

I only nodded.

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

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

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

“Snake?”

“Too much wear.”

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

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

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

“I could ride Bentley,” Imp suggested.

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

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

“You really care?” Imp asked.

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

Imp groaned audibly, and Regent laughed.

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

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

“Payback.” Regent replied.

Rachel was looking at me, the offer unspoken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll have to take your word for it.”

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

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

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

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

“She’s quick witted, then,” I said.

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

“How’s that?” Grue asked.

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

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

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

“Same,” Parian said, “Sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ballistic nodded.

“What does she do?” Grue asked.

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

“Besides that,” Grue said.

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

“Powers included?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’re still people,” Parian said.

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

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

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

She nodded.

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

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

“When was that?”

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

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

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

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

“Not going to work,” Ballistic said.

“It almost worked against Crawler.”

“She’s stronger than Crawler.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Pretty cold,” Tattletale said.

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t want to fight.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?” Parian asked.

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

“The Wards?” Parian asked.

Tattletale nodded.

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

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

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

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

“We’ll try it anyways,” I replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kidnapping heroes?

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 12

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Which one of you dripping rectal cysts is brave enough for this one!?”

The cheer bubbled up from the crowd, until it reached a crescendo that he could hear from his aircraft/podium.  The wind ripped around him as he stood at the nose of the aircraft, his cape fluttering.  Squealer’s vehicle was like a helicopter made by someone who had never seen a helicopter before, who’d decided to add their own improvements to the design when they were finished – more whirling blades spaced equidistant around the thing.  Topping it off, it was roughly three times the typical size.

“Green armband means poison, and this is a poison half of you wastes of air have already tasted!  We’re gonna make it as bad as it gets!  The worst of bad trips!”

He held a bowl of pills that were dusted with assorted powders and raised it over his head, “One handful, then you take a nap in one of the coffins we have up here.  Moment the lid shuts, you’ll find out what’s in store for you.  Some have rats, some have spiders, some have nothing at all and some…”

A beam of light speared down from the base of the fat bodied helicopter, sending chunks of earth where it hit ground.  The moment it faded, a coffin fell into the hole that had formed, followed by a downpour of gravel.

“Get buried alive!”

The noise of the crowd was more bloodthirsty this time, unmasked and unashamed in their savagery.

“Hope you rancid pukes have friends to dig you up!  Put up with that shit while you’re on the trip of your life, and you get yourselves a green fucking armband!  For the rest of the night, everything is as free as your mother’s pussy!  For as long as you hold on to that baby, anything you buy direct from one of us head honchos is ten percent off!  So which-”

He stopped.  There was a thump as the microphone hit the surface near Skidmark’s feet and then a violent but all too brief noise as it struck one of the propellers at the side of the aircraft and was promptly annihilated.

Skidmark’s hands went to his stomach, where blood and organs were spilling out.  He turned to run, but more slices appeared in his arm, his buttock, his back and the back of his neck.  No longer in sight of the majority of the crowd, he continued to try to crawl away, only for his reaching fingers to be separated from his hand, flying away from him in a spray of crimson.

The aircraft lurched and began to turn, but this maneuver ended up spelling out Skidmark’s doom.  The surface beneath him was already slick with blood, and with only one hand’s worth of fingers to grip with, he slid.  He used his power to change the surface and force himself upward, but it was too little, too late.

He dropped into the blades of the spinning propeller and was puréed in a heartbeat.

Standing on a rooftop across from the aircraft, Jack flicked his wrist and snapped the blade of his straight-razor back into the handle.

Smiling thinly, he looked over his shoulder at his teammates.  Bonesaw sat astride Siberian’s shoulders, in the midst of braiding a lock of the feral killer’s hair.  Shatterbird and Burnscar stood on opposite sides of the group, the former holding a book in one hand, the latter with images in flame dancing a quarter-inch off her skin, showing people and familiar objects, many of the images replaying the scene of Skidmark’s demise in miniature.  Bonesaw’s automatons were spread out over the remainder of the roof, and one of her Frankenstein creations waited patiently at the far end of the roof.  Hack Job, she’d called it?  It had started to rot alive, and Bonesaw kept it out of the way so as not to offend the sensibilities of her teammates.  Cherish stood in Crawler’s shadow, pale, her hands clasped together.  Her shoulders were drawn in, as if she was afraid she would be struck any second.

Crawler, the most monstrous member of the group, loomed over the rest.  His chest was ten feet deep from front to back, his head the size of a small car.  He combined the most effective features of a bear and a panther.  Sinuous, flexible, bristling with quiet menace, but also brawny with muscle.  He had armor plates covering him, with scales where armor wouldn’t allow him optimum flexibility, and spines and coarse hair where the scales wouldn’t do.  Head to toe, he had the coloring of an oil slick, black by default, but scintillating with rainbow hues in just the right light.  A hundred black orbs studded the length of his body, set into the plates of armor.  Caustic venom virtually poured from a mouth that bristled with mismatched fangs, spattering precipitously close to Cherish and eating at the concrete rooftop.  Perhaps most unnerving of all were his six legs, each forking at the knee or elbow joint, with one larger limb ending in scimitar-like claws and a smaller set of limbs for each; tentacles for the rear four legs and a long fingered human’s hands for the forelimbs.

Jack spoke, with no small amount of irony.  “Looks like Skidmark’s hosting a party.  I think we deserve a night on the town, after waiting as long as we did to reveal ourselves.  Be sure to thank our hosts.  I’m sure our invitation was lost in the mail.”

Smiles spread across more than one face.

Crawler was the first one off of the roof, throwing himself into the night air to land in the dead center of the crowd.  The others followed quickly after, Shatterbird and Burnscar launching themselves to the far corners of the massed crowd, conjuring up storms of glass shards and flame to block their victim’s retreat.  Bonesaw’s creations poured over the edges of the rooftop to herd the remainder of the crowd and keep them contained to one area.

It was just four of them left on the rooftop.  Siberian, Bonesaw, Jack and Cherish.

Siberian reached out and gripped Cherish by the shirt collar.  More graciously, she extended a hand toward Jack.  He gripped it tight.

“Thank you,” he said.

Catching a ride with Siberian was something of an art form.  Cherish had yet to master it, not even biting her tongue or keeping the short shriek from escaping her lips as Siberian stepped off the edge of the roof.  Jack, for his part, allowed himself to go limp the second Siberian pulled at him.  The four of them collectively dropped, Bonesaw riding atop Siberian’s shoulders, gripping her hair to maintain her position.

They were spared the messy fate of being pancaked on the pavement by a quirk of Siberian’s nature, transferring to each of them.  Jack staggered, more because he’d let his whole body relax so he wouldn’t jar something when Siberian tugged at him, but he let go of his teammate’s hand and straightened.  Cherish dropped to her knees.

“Much obliged, Siberian.” Jack said.  “Go.  Have fun.”

Siberian reached up and set Bonesaw down, and then was gone, one footstep carrying her into the midst of the crowd.  She didn’t care if she hit anyone.  Anyone unfortunate enough to be in her way was pulverized, their limbs broken, chests shattered and necks snapped by the impact.  Even those in the general area were caught by the flying bodies and hurt just as grievously.

Bonesaw laughed, and it was a sound without reservations, not shaped by social constraint or culture or self-censorship.  It was the laugh of a child, free and without a care.  One of her mechanical spiders leaped onto her back, and wound several of its limbs around her chest.  Two limbs extended to connect to her wrists, so the mechanical arms mirrored the dimensions and length of her own.  The ends fanned out into an array of scalpels, needles, saws, and other instruments so one tool sat between each of her splayed fingers.  The smallest gestures of her hands forced instantaneous rearrangements of the tools, so another was ready for her to grasp and use.  Two more spiders lunged forward and pulled one of Siberian’s screaming wounded away from the rest of the crowd, dragging it inch by inch toward the advancing Bonesaw.

The crowd might have turned to fight her, but they lacked the courage.  They scattered.

Jack twirled his closed straight-razor around his fingers.  “Cherish, stand up.  You’re missing the show.”

Obediently, Cherish raised herself up.  She lifted her head just in time to see a blur of white and black against the night sky, followed by a large explosion from the side of Squealer’s flying aircraft.  It tilted and bounced against the side of a nearby building, scraps of metal shearing off to land in the midst of the crowd.  A series of small detonations that ripped forth from the interior of the aircraft cast just enough light for Jack and Cherish to see Siberian striding across the deck, one of the Merchants in her grip.  In a heartbeat, she’d torn the woman’s limbs from their sockets and buried her teeth in the woman’s neck.

Bereft of a pilot and working internal mechanisms, the aircraft crashed heavily in the midst of the crowd.  The Merchants who had gathered in the street for Skidmark’s festival of poison scattered, abandoning their fallen friends, trying to find an escape route or hiding place.  The screams of panic were twice the volume of any cheering they’d done earlier.

Siberian hopped up to the highest point of the wrecked aircraft, the twisted remains of a propeller that should not have borne her weight.  Her hair blew in the hot air that rose from the heap of burning metal.  She glanced around to see where she might do the most damage, spat out a gobbet of meat and then leaped off to one side, out of sight.  The propeller didn’t even move.

“Are you going to partake?” Jack asked Cherish.

“Why are you still talking like I’m a member of this team?  I tried to manipulate all of you, and I failed.”

“We’ll deal with your punishment at a later date.  Bonesaw is working on something.”

Cherish’s eyes widened.  “I knew she was… I read her emotions towards me… I knew she was thinking about something.  But hearing you say it out loud.  Oh god.”

“Rest assured, Cherie Vasil, you dropped out of reach of God a long, long time ago.” Jack smiled at her.

She turned away, looking over the scene, as if it could distract her from her thoughts and fears.

Crawler threw himself into the point where the crowd was thickest.  Bodies flew as he moved on his two rearmost legs and swept the other four claws and two tentacles through the ranks of the Merchants.  When everyone within his broad reach was dead or suffocating from the paralytic venom, he turned toward the wrecked aircraft and began advancing with a more measured pace.  Each of the hundred eyes along the length of his body blinked to clear away the blood and dust that had spattered him in his all-too-brief spree.

Jack watched as someone drew a gun and pointed it at Crawler, then reconsidered.  He turned it toward Bonesaw, and found himself face to face with Hack Job.  He was cut down a moment later.  Hack Job exploded in a puff of white dust, already having left to dispatch more gunmen that might harm Jack or his maker.

Another figure appeared next to Jack and Cherish.  Jack assumed it was Hack Job until he turned his head.

“Oh hoh,” Jack assessed the man.  “What happened here?”

Mannequin stood, headless, streaked in paint and dust that marred his white body with dark colors.  His right arm ended at the elbow, the remainder missing.

One by one, the other members of the Nine seemed to notice Mannequin’s appearance.  Shatterbird stepped back from the ruined husk of a massive suit of steaming armor and started flying their way, accompanied by a cloud of bloody glass shards.

Bonesaw turned away from her patient.  She spoke to the man, pushing him away.  She might have said something like ‘run’.

The man stumbled five or six steps before his body began to swell.  His right arm bloated up to three or four times the usual size, turning crimson, before it exploded violently, sending shards of bone and a spray of blood into the people nearest him.  He screamed, only for his cries to grow shorter and more frantic, as the rest of him reached that critical mass.  In another ten seconds, the remainder of his body detonated.

Bonesaw was already skipping over to the rest of their group, grinning wide, “Mannequin!  Aww!  Did the villain break you?  Poor baby.  Like a little girl with a ken doll.”

A blade sprung from Mannequin’s remaining hand.  Bonesaw tittered.

Behind the child tinker, those in the crowd who had been struck by the blood and flying bone of her first victim were starting to scream as their bodies swelled as well.

Jack frowned.  “Bonesaw.  You know my rule about epidemics.  You have to play fair with the rest of the group.”

“No epidemic!  I promise!”  She said, drawing a little ‘x’ over her heart, “Four or five cycles.  No more.  Each transition is going to have only about half the catalyst of the last, and eventually they’ll be able to fight it off.”

Shatterbird landed in their midst.  Behind her, a swell of orange light from Burnscar’s flames coincided with a peak in the crowd’s screams.  Mush’s titanic form of sand and debris had ignited, and he flailed madly.  Shatterbird ignored the chaos that her teammate was causing, studied Mannequin and then spoke in a voice that was dripping with judgement, “Mannequin failed.”

“It’s a shame you can’t see the disapproving look on Shatterbird’s face, Alan,” Jack commented, smiling.

Mannequin pointed the blade in his hand at Shatterbird, a threat and a warning.  Jack tensed, studying Shatterbird’s expression, waiting to see if this would start something.

“A loss is allowable,” Jack said, when the fight didn’t erupt.  “Most of us are more forgiving than Siberian, and allow a failure or two from our candidates during the rounds of testing, no?  It’s okay to let them win from time to time.  It gives them that spark of hope, so we can snatch it away and leave them all the more devastated.”

He looked at Shatterbird and she inclined her head in a barely perceptible nod.

“Which raises an interesting topic,” Jack said.  He spotted Siberian and indicated for her to approach.  Two corpses were stacked on her arm like meat on a kebab, and she cast them aside with a motion of her arm before approaching their circle.

Crawler was one of the two group members who had yet to rejoin the group.  He was engaged with a young man with a glow that suffused his hair and emanated from his eyes and mouth.  White flashes appeared with little accuracy and devastating effect, carving spherical chunks out of the brute.  This only encouraged the monster, and Crawler eagerly paced closer, his wounds closing together with a startling rapidity.  So few things could hurt Crawler these days that Jack rarely got to see the regeneration in full effect.  Crawler’s healing powers appeared to play out in fast-forward when compared to even the regenerators who could heal wounds in seconds.  Hundreds of pounds of flesh were replaced in one or two heartbeats.

One eruption of light hit Crawler in the dead center of his chest.  It made him pause, no doubt removing one of his hearts and some of his spinal cord.  The boy with the glowing hair pushed his power into overdrive, calling forth a series of flashes that exploded in close succession.  One caught Crawler in the face, revealing only a cross-section of his head, complete with a bisected brain, a skull six inches thick and the interior of Crawler’s mouth.  Crawler collapsed.

Siberian watched as the boy ran, then turned as if she intended to give chase.

“No,” Jack instructed.  “Let him go.  We need to leave some alive.”

He had other motivations, but he would remain quiet on that particular subject.

Crawler’s brain grew back to its full beach-ball size in one or two seconds, followed closely after by the healing of the skull, the reappearance of his facial muscles, then his skin, hair, spines, scale and armor plating, roughly in that order.  He shook his head like a dog with water in its ears and looked around, searching for his quarry.

“After, Crawler!”  Jack shouted, “You can fight him another time!  Group meeting!”

Crawler hesitated, then loped over to their gathered circle.  Burnscar lobbed a fireball high over their heads, and then dropped down from the airborne projectile to land in a crouch.

Somewhere in the background, there were the screams and explosions of the fourth or fifth cycle of Bonesaw’s work.  Of the crowd that had been gathered in the street, only stragglers remained.

“I wanted to give you all a chance to cut loose before we got down to business,” Jack said.  “It seems a teammate of two of our prospective members wants or wanted to strike a deal.  Cherish, do you happen to know if she is still alive?”

“Tattletale lives.  She’s very close to the buried girl right now.”

“Oh, you hear that, Crawler?  Your candidate and this Tattletale might be friends.”

“No,” Cherish said, avoiding eye contact with anyone in the group, “They barely know each other.”

“Too bad.” Jack shrugged, then he went on, “This Tattletale wants to play a game, leveling the playing field between us and the others.  If we cannot reduce our selection to a single candidate, we take the first to volunteer and we leave.  Our loss, and a hit to our collective reputation as a penalty.”

Why?  It’s a bad idea,” Cherish said, “She knew you’d want to do this, knew you’d set yourself up with a situation where you could fail.  Where we could fail.  There’s no reason to do it.”

Jack shook his head.  “Oh, but there is.  Limitations foster creativity.  Tell an artist to paint anything, and he may struggle, but tell him to create something specific, in a set amount of time, for a certain audience, and these constraints might well push him to produce something he might never have come up with on his own.  We grow and evolve by testing ourselves.  That’s my personal philosophy.”

“That’s not really a test,” Shatterbird spoke, “There hasn’t been a round of testing since I joined the group where we didn’t whittle it down to one candidate.”

“We could forego the final test, pitting them against one another.”

Shatterbird turned to him, “Ah.  But, again, the last test where we had to go that far was… mine?”

“True.  Would there be any complaints if we added another restriction?  Perhaps a time limit?  We take turns.  Three days each to carry out our tests.  A failure, such as the one that Mannequin evidently suffered tonight, and you’re penalized one day.  A successful test might add some hours to your deadline, while the removal of one candidate buys you an extra day.”

“That’s not very fair to the first few of us to go,” Bonesaw said.  “They’ll have to test more people in less time.”

“They also have an easier time removing candidates from the list.  More chances at a longer run.  In fact, just to be fair, we may have to adjust the time awarded for a successful test, so there’s less for the first few of us to have a turn.  Do you all trust me to decide on something fair?”

There were nods or noises of agreement from Bonesaw, Burnscar, Siberian and Shatterbird.

“Mannequin?”

Mannequin tapped one finger on the blade that still extended from the base of his hand, drawing forth a single ‘clink’.

“That’s five of you in agreement.  Crawler?”

The monster stretched, his musculature rippling.  When he spoke, his voice was a rumble of broken sounds that only barely resembled words, “No point.”

“Ah, you feel your only road to self-improvement is your power.  While I would love to return to this particular debate, I can agree to disagree so you all can get back to your fun.  Look at it this way.  Our usual method has our quarry running scared.  To even get them to fight, you have to corner them, which you are admittedly very good at doing.  Like this, however, they have reason to band together, to fend us off, and protect the candidates who decide to eschew our tests and face our reprisals instead.  More would fight you, and you’d have a higher chance of finding another individual who could harm you.”

Crawler tilted his head one way, then the other.  He rumbled, “Fine.”

“Which only leaves you, Cherish, our errant rookie.  You’re dejected because you know Bonesaw has a punishment in the works.  But you mustn’t lose heart.  You’ll still have a chance to redeem yourself, and maybe even escape reprisal for your juvenile stunt.  I think Mannequin should start us off, and he’ll be penalized one day from his time limit for his loss tonight.  And you’ll have to deal with the bug girl, to make up for this embarrassment.   Make her suffer.”

Mannequin tapped once on the blade.

“Cherish, you’ll go second.  Your last chance to impress us.”

Cherish nodded, as mute as her headless teammate.

“Good.  Two days, Mannequin, then three for our Cherish.  To be fair, we should have a rule that says you cannot take out a candidate until they fail your test.  So each prospective member must be informed about the test and what it requires, they must fail, and they must be eliminated or punished, until one remains.  For those of you who want to show how superior they are over their teammates…” he cast a sidelong glance at Shatterbird, “There are several paths to success.  Remove several candidates, conduct a full round of testing, see that your candidate succeeds above any of the others, or all of the above.”

“I like it,” Bonesaw said, “It sounds fun!  But what about Siberian?  How is she supposed to tell them the rules?”

“We’ll help her out on that front.  Same test as usual, Siberian?”

Siberian nodded.  She reached out to Bonesaw’s face and used her thumb to wipe away a  spatter of blood before licking the digit clean.

“In any case, we’ve hashed this out enough.  I’ll think it over tonight and have something proper to present to you and the capes of this city who will be our… opposition.  I can add some rules, to cover loopholes and keep this little event manageable.  Panacea, Armsmaster, Bitch, Regent, the buried girl and Hookwolf.  Burnscar didn’t nominate one, and I’ve already dispatched mine.  That’s six candidates, we need to remove five.  And when we’re done and we’ve established our superiority, we can kill this Tattletale, her friends, and everyone else, just to make our point.  Good?”

There were signs, nods and murmurs of agreement all around.

“Good.  Go.  Have fun.  Mop up the stragglers.  Don’t worry about leaving any alive.  They already know we’re here.  No more than five minutes before we leave.  We can’t have our grand battle with the locals so soon.”

His monsters returned to their carnage.  He watched them at their work and their play, noting all of the little things.  He knew all too well that Shatterbird pretended civility, but she got as restless as Siberian when things got quiet, and she would look up from whatever book she read every thirty, fifteen or ten seconds, as if waiting for something to happen, craving it.  Siberian would begin to look at her group members in a hungry way.  She didn’t need to eat, but she enjoyed the experience, wanted it the same way someone else might crave their morning coffee.  Stimulation.

Crawler, he knew, wouldn’t show any signs of boredom or restlessness.  When he lost patience with things, it was an explosive affair, almost unmanageable.

Keeping this group in line was a matter of balancing carrots against sticks.  A constant, delicate process.  Every member sought something from the others, however solitary they might strive to appear, carrots that Jack could use to keep them as part of the group and entice them to stay, to cooperate.  It was not easy: what served as a stick to one might easily be a carrot to another.

Shatterbird, who had deigned to observe for the moment, hovering over the scene, was an individual who craved validation.  She would be insulted to hear it spoken aloud, but she needed to be powerful in the eyes of others, civilian or teammate.  She could tolerate much, but an insult or a joke at her expense could push her over the edge.  As carrots went, a simple word of praise could satisfy her for a week, and an opportunity to shine could sate her for a month.  It was why he allowed her to ‘sing’ each time they arrived somewhere new, even as he found it repetitive and boring, brooking the same scenarios time after time.  Her stick was easy enough: the threat of physical harm, or the embarrassment of being made to lose control.  Were she to attack a member of the group, Siberian or Crawler would retaliate, and they would hurt or kill her.  It would be inevitable, unequivocal.  The idea of the shame she’d feel in that ignoble defeat held her back as much as anything.

Siberian watched as Bonesaw began excising and stitching together groups of muscle and collections of organs she and her mechanical spiders were harvesting from the fallen.  It was taking on a vaguely human shape.

Siberian was tricky.  He doubted anyone else in the group was even aware, but their most feral member harbored a fondness for Bonesaw.  Siberian had little imagination, and was perfectly comfortable rehashing the same violent and visceral scenarios time and again, but she nonetheless enjoyed Bonesaw’s work.  She saw a kind of beauty in it.  Even more than that, he sometimes wondered if Siberian didn’t reciprocate Bonesaw’s desire for family.  Bonesaw alternately referred to Siberian as an older sister or the family pet, but Siberian’s fondness for Bonesaw bordered on the maternal, like a mother bear for her cub.  Did anyone else in the group note how Siberian seemed to keep Bonesaw’s company, to assume she would accompany the young girl when she went out, and carefully kept Bonesaw in sight at all times?

Siberian’s stick was Bonesaw, the possibility of losing the girl’s company in one way, shape, or form.  Threats against the girl would be met with a fury like no other.  Boredom, similarly, would see Siberian stalking off on her own to amuse herself, a scenario that grounded the group until Siberian’s return hours or days later.  Such usually meant a hasty retreat as the heroes who had realized that they could not defeat Siberian came after the rest of the group.

Bonesaw wanted a family.  Her stick was disapproval, a revoking of any ‘love’ from those closest to her.  She was far younger, emotionally, than her outward appearance suggested.  She had bad dreams at night if she didn’t sleep in the embrace of one of her older teammates, usually Siberian.  When she didn’t sleep, or when her mood otherwise soured, she was as intolerable as any of the others, and among the most dangerous.

Crawler wanted to be stronger, and remained with the group because it put him in constant danger.  His other motivation was more subtle.  He was patiently awaiting the day Siberian might honestly and brutally attempt to take him apart.  The only stick Jack could wield was the possibility that the group might dissolve before that happened.  On the other side of the coin, the day Crawler decided there was no longer any threat that could evolve him further would be… troubling.  It was why Jack had ordered Siberian to let the boy with the glowing hair go.  Finding the lad again would give Crawler something to do, and it would give Crawler a taste for what Siberian had to offer.

Burnscar was more sensitive, in many respects.  She had to be managed, provoked or set up to use her power so she remained in a more dangerous mindset.  Too much one way, and she became depressed and scared, vulnerable.  Too much the other way, and she became reckless, potentially attacking him or one of the others and sparking disaster.

Mannequin had his mission.  Few things bothered him as much as seeing someone try to help others and succeed where he had catastrophically failed.  To keep Mannequin in line, Jack could remind Mannequin of who he had once been.  A simple casual utterance of the name ‘Alan’ served as effectively as a slap in the face to someone else.  He rarely needed such considerations; Mannequin was predictable, manageable.

And Cherish, who would not survive their stay in Brockton Bay… after a fashion.  Hope was her carrot, but she had only sticks waiting for her.  He met her eyes and knew she knew what he was thinking.  She was all too aware an ugly fate awaited her, but didn’t know what it was.  The fear helped curb her.  Still, he would have to watch his back.

Carrots and sticks.  A game of constant balance.  A thousand factors.  Even now, he was taking notes on their candidates, deciding what would work and what wouldn’t.

Armsmaster and Regent were abrasive enough that they would likely prick Shatterbird’s pride.  Bitch would be a risk at first, but he trusted his ability to manage her and stop any fights from erupting.

Siberian would become jealous of any growing relationship between Panacea and Bonesaw.

The buried girl was only a candidate because Crawler hoped she was strong enough to fight him.  Either she would fail to hurt him and he would grow tired of her, or she would succeed and he would have no reason to stay in the group.

That left him two candidates who might work.  He doubted either Hookwolf or Bitch had what it took to stay in the group long-term.  They would soon be replaced, killed by an enemy or a member of the group, but they would not upset his carefully staged balance while they remained members.

He could manipulate the outcome of this little contest, see that one of the two lasted to the end.  It would be hard, requiring the best he could employ in subtlety and head games.

The wind blew flame-heated air at his back, thick with the smell of smoke and the sweet tang of blood.

He smiled.  These challenges, after all, served as his own carrot.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.2

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I’d spent nearly sixteen years in Brockton Bay, living a half-hour’s walk away from the ocean and I couldn’t remember ever being on a boat.  How sad was that?

I mean, I was sure I’d been on a boat before.  My parents had to have taken me on the ferry when I was a baby or toddler.  I just didn’t remember any of it.  My parents were introverts, by and large, and their idea of an outing had been more along the lines of a trip down the Boardwalk, a visit to the Market or going to an art gallery or museum.  Maybe once in a while we’d go to something more thrilling like a fair or baseball game, but no… this was the first time I could remember being out on the water.

It was exhilarating, the boat ride.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  I loved the feeling of the wind in my hair, the slight turbulence as the boat bounced on the short waves.  It wasn’t that different from how I had enjoyed riding Bitch’s dogs, and there was none of that primal, deep-seated worry that the hulking monster I was riding would turn around and snap my face off.  I’d almost think I had been destined to fly, based on how thoroughly I enjoyed myself, and that it was only bad luck that I’d gotten other powers instead… except I remembered flying with Laserdream as the Endbringer attacked, and  that hadn’t been the most enjoyable experience.  That might have been a special circumstance; I’d been dealing with the fact that I’d had a broken arm, I’d recently puked my guts out, I’d been soaking wet, and an Endbringer had been working on wiping my hometown and everyone I cared about from the face of the planet.

That day would almost feel like something that had happened in a dream, if I hadn’t spent every hour of every day since living in the aftermath.

Coil’s people had dropped us off along with two sleek motorboats, depositing them at the water’s edge.  Grue was in one boat with Bitch, her three dogs and a puppy she had on a long chain.

I wasn’t sure if the puppy conveyed the image we wanted, but with her attitude towards me lately, I wasn’t willing to comment and risk her going off on me.  She’d remained angry after I’d called her out on her screwing me over and setting me up for Dragon to arrest, but she’d left me more or less alone.

The puppy was cute.  It was skittish, especially around people, which seemed a little odd.  It wasn’t the kind of dog I’d expect Bitch to favor.  Too young, not vicious or intimidating in appearance.  On the other hand, skittish as it was, it had an aggressive streak.  It constantly hounded Bentley, nipping at his flanks, then spooking and running away the second the bulldog looked at him.  It had made for a fair amount of noise when we’d been getting the boats into the water.  One for Bitch, her dogs and Grue, one for the rest of our group.

Our boats weren’t out on the ocean.  We traveled through the area downtown where Leviathan had collapsed a section of the city.  It was now more or less an artificial lake.  The water was fairly still, lapping gently against the ruined roads and collapsed buildings that surrounded the crater, but with the speed these boats were capable of going, even waves a half-foot high made us ramp slightly off one and then crash down onto the next with a sudden spray.

Tattletale was at the back, steering the thing.  It seemed counter-intuitive, with the boat going the opposite direction she pushed or pulled the stick.  Still, she seemed competent at it.  Better than Grue, which I found slightly amusing.

From time to time, I was finding myself in a strange emotional state.  As I stayed alert for it, I was able to catch those moments, try to pick them apart for what they were.  The high-end motor whirred and the boat bounced over the waves, the wind and water getting in my hair, all while we headed into the most ridiculously dangerous and unpredictable situation we’d been in for weeks. It was one of those moments; I felt almost calm.

For a year and a half, I’d spent almost all of my time in a state of constant anxiety.  Anxiety about schoolwork, my teachers, my peers, my dad, my mom’s death, my body, my clothes, trying to hold conversations without embarrassing myself, and about the bullies and what they would do next.  Everything had been tainted by the constant worries and the fact that I’d constantly been preparing for the worst case scenarios and maybe even setting up self-fulfilling prophecies in the process.  I’d spent every waking moment immersed in it.  Either I was stressing over something I’d done or something that had happened, I was concerned with the now, or I was anxious over what came in the future: distant or near.  There was always something.

And that was before I’d ever put on a costume and found myself caught up in my double-crossing plan against the Undersiders and everything that had stemmed from that.  Before Dinah and running away from home, before I’d decided to go villain.  Stuff that made some of what I’d been worried over before seem trivial.

So why could I feel calm now?

I think it was that realization that there were moments where I was helpless to act, oddly enough.  This boat?  Speeding across the Endbringer-made lake?  I had to be here.  There was no other option, really.  As I clutched the metal rim of the boat with one hand while we soared forward, the wind in my hair, I could accept the fact that I couldn’t do anything in this time and place to get Dinah out of captivity sooner.

With that in mind, I surrendered myself of that responsibility for the present.  Much in that same way, I cast off all the other worries, great and small.

A light flashed ahead of us.  Three blinks, then two.

“Regent!” Tattletale called out.

Regent raised a flashlight and flashed it twice, paused, then flashed it twice again.

There was one flash in response.

Grue slowed his boat as we reached our destination.  Our meeting place was in the center of the lake, one of the buildings that still partially stood above water, leaning to one side so a corner of the roof was submerged, the opposite corner peaking high.  Tattletale didn’t slow our boat like Grue had his, and instead steered the boat in a wide ‘u’ to ride it up onto the corner of the roof.  Regent and I hopped out to grab the front of the boat and help pull it up.  When Grue rode his boat aground as well, a little more carefully, we helped him too.  Bitch hopped out and spent a moment using gestures and tugs on the puppy’s leash to get her dogs arranged and settled.

Hookwolf and his Chosen had situated themselves at the corner of the roof that stood highest from the surrounding water.  Hookwolf stood with his arms folded, densely covered in bristling spikes, barbs, blades and hooks, only his face untouched by the treatment, covered by his metal wolf mask instead.  Othala, Victor and Cricket were sitting on the raised edge of the roof behind him.  Stormtiger floated in the air just beside Cricket, and Rune had levitated three chunks of pavement into the air behind the group, each the size of a fire truck, like weapons poised at the ready.  She sat on the edge of one of the chunks, her feet dangling over Victor’s head.  Menja stood just behind Rune on the floating piece of shattered road, twelve feet tall, fully garbed in her valkyrie armor, a shield in one hand and a long spear in the other.

I almost missed it in the gloom, but when I did spot it, it was almost impossible to ignore.  On every patch of skin I could see in the Chosen’s group, scars and scratches had just barely healed over.  There were still faint indents and lines of pale skin that marked where the deep lacerations had been.  The little scars made patterns across their skin, some spraying out from a single point, others running parallel to one another, going in the same direction like a snapshot of rainfall imprinted on their skin.  With that many scratches and scars, they must have been hit hard.

Faultline’s group was gathered to one side.  Faultline, Newter, and the new member Shamrock wore more concealing costumes than their usual.  Faultline’s face was covered in a tinted visor, and her arms and legs were covered in opaque gloves and leggings.  Labyrinth and Spitfire were fully decked out in their usual concealing robe and fire-retardant suits, respectively.  Only Gregor showed skin.  The barnacle-like growths of spiral shells that covered his skin had multiplied on one side of his body, until there was more shell than skin.  The skin around it was crimson enough that it stood out in the gloom.  It looked tender.

I saw a flash of light above us, and spotted Purity in the air high above the rooftop, using her power to create a flare of light, extinguish it, then create it again.  There was an answering series of flashes from across the water.  It was a different set of signals than the ones she’d set up with us.  It made sense for the light signals to be different from group to group, so Purity could keep track of who was coming and where from.  The main reason we’d agreed on this meeting place were the seclusion it offered, and the fact that it was just hard enough to access that the Nine wouldn’t be able to approach without us knowing.  Hopefully.

All at once, an incoming boat made its presence known.  As though a switch was flipped, there was the sound of something that sounded like the combined noise of radio static coming from a bank of speakers, an eighteen wheeler with the muffler off and an onrushing train.  It wasn’t just noise – the vehicle flickered with flashes of electricity and lights that people could probably see from anywhere downtown.

Seeing it approach, I had no doubt it was a tinker contraption.  It was the size of a small yacht, but it looked outfitted for war, with what looked like tesla coils crossed with old school tv antennae fueling its forward momentum and sending arcs of electricity dancing over the waves in its wake, as though it was riding on a current of lightning.  Various guns had been placed haphazardly around the upper deck, each manned by a Merchant.  Skidmark stood at the highest deck with Squealer, the driver.

Squealer had apparently never grasped the concept of elegance in design.  From what I’d read and heard, she went for size, augmentations and additions when she built her vehicles.  She was kind of the polar opposite of Armsmaster in that regard.

The hull of their boat scraped against the edge of the building, nearly running over the boat that Grue and Bitch had come in on.  All of the lights shut off, and the Merchants descended onto the roof.  Skidmark, Squealer, Mush, Scrub, Trainwreck, the telekinetic whirlwind lady with the long hair and one other.

Another reason for this meeting place had been subtlety, keeping out of sight and off the radar.  The Merchants apparently hadn’t gotten the message.

“Hey!” Hookwolf growled, “What part of keep a low profile don’t you fucking understand?”

Skidmark smirked, raising his chin to give it an arrogant tilt, “We did.  My Squealer built a box that cancels out light and noise at a certain distance.  Nice and in your face up close, almost invisible and silent when far away.  Isn’t that right, baby?”

Squealer just smiled.  It probably wasn’t as sexy or cute as she thought it was.  Aisha, when left to her own devices, was a pretty girl who dressed trashy.  Squealer, I felt, was more of a trashy woman who dressed trashy.

“Hey, Faultline,” Skidmark’s smirk dropped off his face as he realized who else was present.  “What the motherfuck were you doing, fucking with my party!?”

“You had something we needed.”  Faultline’s response was as measured and calm as Skidmark’s question wasn’t.

“Who hired you, bitch?  Tell me and my Merchants won’t come after you in revenge.  All you’ll have to do is return that shit you stole or pay me back for it.  Maybe you can spit-polish my knob for a little goodwill.”

“Not going to happen.”

“Then forget sucking my cock.  Pay me back and tell me who hired you and we’ll call it even.”

She shook her head.  It was more the kind of head shake that accompanied an eye roll.

Skidmark went on, “You’re mercenaries.  Don’t tell me you don’t have the cash.  I’ll only ask for five mil.  One for each vial you took.”

Fautline didn’t answer him.  Instead she looked at Hookwolf and asked him, “Did we really need to invite him?  Does he contribute anything to this discussion?”

“He has nine powers on his team,” Hookwolf responded.  “Ideology isn’t important.”

“He doesn’t have an ideology.  He’s just an idiot.”

“Enough of that,” Hookwolf snarled, his voice hard with a sudden anger.  “We don’t fight amongst ourselves.  Not on neutral ground.  Both of you shut the fuck up.”

Faultline shook her head and leaned over to whisper something to Shamrock.  The Merchants settled themselves on the side of the roof opposite our group.  Skidmark gave Grue the evil eye.  Was he still resentful over what had happened at the last meeting?  Being denied a seat at the table?

Another series of flashes served to alert us, indirectly, of incoming arrivals.  The Travelers appeared soon after.  Trickster, Sundancer, Ballistic each stood on the back of some kind of turtle serpent.  I couldn’t make out Genesis’s form in the gloom.  What little light was available came from the moon and Purity’s radiance from where she floated above us.  I could have used my bugs to get a feel for the shape Genesis had taken, but my habit was generally to place my bugs on clothing where they wouldn’t be noticed, and Genesis was effectively naked.  I didn’t know anything about them, but they were our allies.  I didn’t want to irritate her and upset anything between our two groups.

Coil was the last of us to arrive, maybe because he’d wanted to be fashionably late.  The two soldiers who’d driven his boat stayed behind.  Purity set down by where the boats had landed, followed by Fog and Crusader, who I hadn’t seen in the dark.  Night stepped out of the lake, between our parked boats and onto the roof, water streaming from her cloak.  Had she been the just-in-case measure if an incoming boat hadn’t known the signal?  She would be invisible in the pitch black gloom beneath the water’s surface, which would mean she wasn’t in her human form.

The way the Travelers and Coil had positioned themselves, we’d formed a haphazard ring.  From the top of the roof, going clockwise, the arranged groups were Hookwolf’s Chosen, Faultline’s crew, us, the Pure, Coil, the Travelers and the Merchants.

“It seems everyone is here,” Coil spoke, taking in the collected villains.  Forty-ish of us in all.

“Not quite everyone,” Hookwolf replied.  “Victor, Othala.”

Othala touched Victor, and Victor raised one hand.  A fireball appeared in it, then disappeared as he clenched his hand.  He repeated the process two more times.

“Who are you signalling?” Purity’s asked.  Her hand flared with light, ready to fire.

“It would be a grave and stupid mistake if you invited the Nine,” Coil told Hookwolf.

“We’re not stupid,” Hookwolf said.  Three answering flashes appeared over the water.  I heard the faint noise of a boat motor.  Everyone present on the roof readied for a fight, turning towards either Hookwolf or the incoming boat.  I used my power to call on local crabs, and to draw out the bugs I’d stored in the boat, keeping them close to me.

There were three more flashes, close, and Victor responded again.  In moments, the boat arrived.  It wasn’t the Nine.  It was the good guys.

Miss Militia was first out of the boat, and Battery activated her power to haul the boat up onto ‘land’ in a flash before stepping up to Miss Militia’s side.  Triumph, Weld and Clockblocker rounded out their group.  Our circle made room, though half the people present seemed to be tensed and ready to use their powers with the slightest excuse.

“It seems we have a problem,” Miss Militia spoke, as her group took her place between the Pure and us Undersiders.

“We do,” Hookwolf said.  “Two problems, actually.”

“Two?” Purity asked.

Hookwolf pointed at the Travelers, then pointed at Grue and the rest of our group.  “They’re being cocky, think they’re being clever.  Figure we should get all this out in the open, at least so you’re aware.  You too, Coil, Miss Militia.”

“Perhaps you’d better explain,” Coil responded.

Hookwolf pointed at each of us in turn, “Grue has been making attacks against my people in the upper downtown area.  Howling has been heard in the Trainyard.  Bitch.  Regent was sighted in the college neighborhoods.  Skitter made a move to take over the Boardwalk and claim it for herself.  Tattletale is either abstaining, or more likely, putting herself in the middle of the Docks and keeping her head down.”

“So?” Tattletale asked.

Hookwolf ignored her.  “Downtown we’ve got Ballistic attacking my people in the upper downtown neighborhoods, north of this lake here.  Sundancer was spotted in the shopping district, Genesis at the downtown coast, near the south ferry station. Trickster has been driving looters out of the heart of downtown, the towers.  You seeing the pattern?  All of them alone.  Most of them making moves to take a piece of the city for themselves.”

“We already knew they were talking territory,” Miss Militia responded, “This isn’t a priority.  The Nine-”

“They haven’t taken territory,” Hookwolf snapped back, “They’re taking the city.  Split it up all nice and proper between them, and now they’re taking advantage of the distraction the Nine are giving them to secure their positions before we fucking catch on.”

Grue looked at Trickster, and there was some kind of unspoken agreement between them.  Knowing Grue, I was certain he was deliberately ignoring Coil.  No use volunteering more information than necessary.

Trickster spoke, “We didn’t know the Nine were around before we put this into motion.”

There was a flicker of surprise on Purity’s face.  “So Hookwolf is right.  You are taking over.”

“Something like that,” Grue responded.

What was Hookwolf’s game?  Had he brought everyone here under a different pretext so he could ambush us on this front?

“This isn’t of any concern to us,” Miss Militia spoke, stern.  “The only reason we’re here is to get information on the Slaughterhouse Nine, their motives, and strategies for responding.”

“That might help you in the next week or two, but a month from now you’ll be regretting it,” Hookwolf told her.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think we have any other choice,” Miss Militia replied.

“We do,” Hookwolf said.  “They want us to lose our territories to them while we busy ourselves dealing with the Nine-”

“That’s not our intent,” Trickster cut him off.

“Pigshit,” Skidmark muttered.  He looked angry.  Even Purity had a hard cast to her face, or what I could see of it through the glare of her eyes and hair.  These were people who thought highly of themselves.  Whether that self-esteem was deserved or not, they didn’t like being played for fools.

All at once, this meeting had become about us versus them.  The Travelers and the Undersiders against everyone else.

Hookwolf said, “Then agree to a truce.  So long as the Nine are here, you’re hands off your territories, no fighting, no business.  We can arrange something, maybe you all stay at a nice hotel on the Protectorate’s tab until this is dealt with.  That’ll mean we can all focus on the real threat.”

Stay in a hotel until the Nine were dead, arrested or driven out of town.  He couldn’t seriously expect us to do that.

“I’m inclined to agree,” Coil answered, after a moment’s consideration.  “Perhaps now is an opportune time to share this information:  I have sources that inform me that should Jack Slash survive his visit to Brockton Bay, it bodes ill for everyone.”

“That’s vague,” Faultline spoke.

“I’ll be more specific.  Should Jack Slash not die before he leaves Brockton Bay, it is very likely the world will end in a matter of years,” Coil spoke.

“Bullshit,” Skidmark answered.  The others were showing varying reactions.  I doubt many bought it.

“You contacted us to say something very similar a couple of days ago.” Miss Militia said, “But I have the same questions now that I did then.  Do you have sources?  Can you verify this?  Or provide more information?”

Behind her, Weld reached into his pocket and withdrew his smartphone.

“More information?  Yes.  I have sought further details and pieced together a general picture of things.  Jack Slash is the catalyst for this event, not the cause.  At some point in the coming years, Jack Slash kills, talks to, meets or influences someone.  This causes a chain of events to occur, leading to the deaths of anywhere from thirty-three to ninety-six percent of the world’s population.”

That gave everyone pause.

Coil went on, “If Jack Slash is killed, the event is likely to occur at some point in the more distant future instead.”

“Dinah Alcott,” Weld spoke.  All eyes turned to the metal-skinned boy.

“Beg pardon?” Coil asked.

“Thursday, April fourteenth of this year, Dinah Alcott was kidnapped from her home and has not been seen since.  Dinah had missed several weeks of classes with crippling headaches in the months before her disappearance.  Investigation found no clear medical causes.  Police interviewed her friends.  She had confided to them that she thought she could see the future, but doing so hurt her.”

“You think Dinah is Coil’s source.  That makes a lot of sense.”  Miss Militia turned from Weld to Coil, and her voice was heavy with accusation, “Coil?”

“I did not kidnap her.  I offered Dinah training and relief from the drawbacks of her abilities on the contingency that she immediately cut off all contact with her family and friends and provide me a year of service.”

He lied so smoothly, flawlessly.  What really rattled me was hearing him refer to her as Dinah for the first time.  Coil added, “She took a week to decide, then contacted me during one of her attacks.”

Of course, the heroes weren’t about to take his word for gospel.  Miss Militia’s lips pursed into a thin line.  “Could I contact her to verify this?”

“No.  For one thing, I have no reason to let you.  Also, the process of gaining control of her power requires that she be kept strictly isolated from outside elements.  A simple phone call would set her back weeks.”

“So Coil has a precog,” Hookwolf growled, “That explains how he always seemed to fucking get the upper hand when he pit his mercenaries against the Empire.”

Coil clasped his hands in front of him, “I knew you might come to these conclusions if I volunteered this information.  You all should already know I am not a stupid man.  Would I weaken my position if I did not wholeheartedly believe that what I was saying was correct?  Jack Slash must die, or we all die.

“And to maximize our chances for this to happen,” Hookwolf added, “The alliance of the Travelers and the Undersiders must concede to our terms.  They hold no territory until the Nine are dead.”

Coil deliberated for a few seconds.  “I think this makes the most sense.”

Skidmark and Purity nodded as well.

Coil’s response caught me off guard.  He was throwing us to the wolves to maintain his anonymity in things.  I felt my heart sink.

It made sense, on a basic level, and I could see why the other groups were agreeing.  I mean, our territory wasn’t worth risking that the world ending.  Coil was apparently willing to delay his plans, or pretend to delay his plans while he carried them out in secret.  But I would be giving up my territory, condemning Dinah to more days, more weeks of captivity.

really didn’t like that idea.

“Easy decision for you guys to make,” Trickster said, chuckling wryly, “You’re not giving anything up.  In fact, if we went with your plan, there’d be nothing stopping you from sneaking a little territory, passing on word to your underlings to prey on our people, consolidating your forces and preparing them for war, all while we’re cooped up in that hotel or wherever.”

He was right.  I could imagine it.  Not just weeks, but months lost.  We’d just lost the element of surprise thanks to Hookwolf outing us here, and the local villains and heroes were now all too aware of the scale of what we were doing.  Add the fact that they would get a breather?  A chance to regroup and prepare?  To retaliate?  Regaining any of the ground we lost while we helped hunt down the Slaughterhouse Nine would be excruciating.

In those weeks or months it took to retake territory and slog ahead with constant opposition, there could be further delays.  It would mean that my plan to efficiently seize the Boardwalk and surrounding Docks would fall apart.  I’d have to pull away from my people and my neighborhoods to help the others fight off attacks.  I wouldn’t be able to offer exemplary service to earn Coil’s trust and respect in the mess that ensued.  The opportunity to free Dinah would slip from my grasp.

Worst of all, there was no reason for it.  We’d claimed more of the city as our territory than they had assumed, and now Hookwolf was building on that, giving them reason to worry we had other sinister motives.

“No,” I murmured, barely audible to myself.  I could see some of the other Undersiders -Grue, Tattletale and Bitch- turn their heads a fraction in my direction.

“No,” Grue echoed me, his voice carrying across the rooftop.

No?” Coil asked, his voice sharp with surprise.  Was there condemnation in there?  It was  very possible we weren’t going the route he wanted.

Grue shook his head, “We’ll help against the Nine.  That’s fine, sensible.  But Trickster is right.  If we abandoned our territories in the meantime, we’d be putting ourselves in an ugly situation.  That’s ridiculous and unnecessary.”

Trickster nodded at his words.

“If you keep them you’ll be putting yourself in an advantageous position,” Purity intoned.

“Don’t be stupid, Undersiders, Travelers.” Faultline cut in, “You can’t put money, power and control at a higher priority than our collective survival.  If Coil’s precog is right, we have to band together against the Nine the same way we would against an Endbringer.  For the same reasons.”

“And we will,” Trickster said.  “We just won’t give up our territory to do it.”

“Because you’re hoping to expand further and faster while the Nine occupy the rest of us,” Hookwolf growled. “We agree to this like you want, and you attack us from behind.”

“We haven’t given you any reason to think we’ll betray a truce,” Grue told him, his voice echoing more than usual, edged with anger.  The darkness around him was roiling.

“You have.  You’re refusing the terms,” Purity said.

Hookwolf was manipulating this.  He wasn’t as subtle about it as Kaiser had been, it was even transparent, what he was doing.  Dead obvious.  At the same time, the scenario he was suggesting was just dangerous and believable enough to the Merchants, to his Chosen, and to the Pure that they couldn’t afford to ignore it.  Coil couldn’t talk sense into them without potentially revealing his role as our backer.  Even the heroes couldn’t counter his argument, because there was that dim possibility that he was right, that they would lose control of the city to villains if we continued to grab power.

Which was admittedly the case.  Dealing with the local heroes was one of our long-term goals, for Coil’s plan.

We were fighting for Coil’s plan and Coil wasn’t helping.  He remained silent, inscrutable, sticking to the situation that worked best for him and him alone.  Damn him.

“You’ll be earning the enmity of everyone here if you refuse,” Hookwolf said.  Was there a hint of gloating in his tone?

“We’ll be ruining ourselves if we agree, too,” Grue retorted.

“I strongly recommend you agree to this deal,” Purity said.

“No, I don’t think we will,” Trickster said.

“No,” Grue echoed Trickster, folding his arms.

That only provoked more argument, along many of the same lines.  It was clear this was getting nowhere.

I turned to Miss Militia, who stood only a few feet from me.  When I spoke to her, she seemed to only partially pay attention to me, as she kept an eye on the ongoing debate.  “This isn’t what we need right now.  Hookwolf’s made this about territory, not the Nine, and we can’t back down without-”  I stopped as she turned her head, stepped a little closer and tried again, “We, or at least I have people depending on me.  I can’t let Hookwolf prey on them.  We all need to work together to fight the Nine.  Can’t you do something?”

Miss Militia frowned.

“Please.”

She turned away from me and called out, “I would suggest a compromise.”

The arguing stopped, and all eyes turned to her.

“The Undersiders and Travelers would move into neutral territory until the Nine were dealt with.  But so would the powered individuals of the Merchants, the Chosen, the Pure, Coil and Faultine’s Crew.”

“Where would this be?  In the PRT headquarters?” Hookwolf asked.

“Perhaps.”

“You were attacked as well, weren’t you?  Who did they go after?”

“Mannequin went after Armsmaster.  Armsmaster was hospitalized.”

That was some small shock to everyone present, though I might have been less surprised than some.  Armsmaster as a prospective member for the Nine.

“What you suggest is too dangerous,” Faultline said.  “We’d all be gathered in one or two locations for them to attack, and if Armsmaster was attacked, we could be too.”

“And their whole reason for being here is recruitment,” Coil spoke, “Perhaps the plan would work if we could trust one another, but we cannot, when many here were scouted for their group, and may turn on their potential rivals to prove their worth.  We would be vulnerable to an attack from within, and we would be easy targets.”

“We could make the same arguments about ourselves,” Grue pointed out, “If we agreed, we’d be sitting ducks for whoever came after us.”

“I think the Protectorate can help watch and guard nine people,” Coil replied, “I’m less confident of their ability to protect everyone present.”

So Coil wasn’t willing to play along if it meant losing his ability to stay where he was, but he was willing to make life harder on us, his territory holders.  Did he have some plan in mind?  Or was he just that callous?  Either way, he was an asshole.

“No.  I’m afraid that compromise won’t work,” Hookwolf said, squaring his shoulders.

Miss Militia glanced my way.  She didn’t say or do anything, but I could almost read her mind: I tried.

Hookwolf wasn’t about to give up anything here.  He had us right where he wanted us, and he was poised to kill two birds with one stone: The Nine and his rivals for territory.

“It seems,” Hookwolf said, “The Travelers and the Undersiders won’t agree to our terms for the truce.  Merchants, Pure, Faultline, Coil?  Are you willing to band together with my group?”

Purity, Coil and Skidmark nodded.  Faultline shook her head.

“You’re saying no, Faultline?”

“We’re mercenaries.  We can’t take a job without pay.  Even a job as important as this.”

“I will handle your payment here as I did for the ABB, Faultline,” Coil said, sounding just a touch exasperated.

“And Miss Militia?” Hookwolf asked, “A truce?”

“Keep the business to a minimum, no assaulting or attacking civilians,” Miss Militia said, “We still have to protect this city, there’s no give there.  Don’t give us a reason to bother with you, and we’ll be focused wholly on the Slaughterhouse Nine in the meantime.”

“Good.  That’s all we ask.”

The leaders of the new group crossed the roof to shake hands.  In the process, things shuffled so that our group, the Travelers and the heroes were near the bottom of the roof.  The heroes moved off to one side, as if to guard us from any retaliation, making the separation in forces all the more obvious.

“You guys are making a mistake,” Grue said.

“I think you have things the wrong way around,” Hookwolf said.  “Nobody wants to break the peace at neutral ground, so perhaps you should go before things get violent?”

Tattletale asked, “You won’t let us stick around and discuss the Nine, who they attacked, what our overall strategies should be?  Even if we aren’t working together as a single group?”  She paused, looking deliberately at Faultline, “You know, the smart thing to do?”

She was met only with cold stares and crossed arms.

There was little else to be said or done.  We’d lost here.  I turned and helped push our boat into the water, then held it steady as everyone piled in.  Tattletale had started the motor, and we were gone the second I’d hopped inside.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Infestation 11.7

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Newter dropped from the ceiling.  The main part of the mall had only the one level to it, but the roof was arched slightly, and he was dropping from one of the higher points.  I was bad at estimating distances, but what was that?  Fifty feet? Sixty?

He landed in a crouch, a hair behind the girl who was carrying the vial down the pile of rubble to the base of the platform.  As she turned, dust, papers, cigarette butts and fragments of rock stirred around her.  They moved in a counterclockwise orbit, rising, increasing in intensity over a span of one and a half seconds.  Whatever her power did, Newter stopped it, smacking her in the forehead with his palm, almost gently.  She stepped back, as if she’d lost her balance.  The building whirlwind around her dissipated into a billowing cloud of dust and her legs turned to rubber beneath her as she tried to step back once more. She fell.

Newter’s tail encircled the vial before she could drop it, and he flicked it into his left hand.  An instant later, he was racing for the stage, almost casually finding stepping stones as he made a beeline for Skidmark and the rest of the group.  He was going for the case and the vials.

Much of the crowd was running after Newter, rushing for the base of the stage and climbing the heaps of rubble to follow.  In doing so, they were vacating the center of the mall where the casualties lay.  I hated to get closer to the chaos, but I suspected it would be a long time before I had a better chance to find and retrieve Bryce.

“I’m going after the kid,” I said.

“Minor, Brooks, escort her,” Lisa ordered.

On the other side of the mall, Newter had reached Skidmark and pounced for him.  In reaction, Skidmark used his power to coat his cape in a layer of his power.  He raised it between himself and Newter.  Newter was already airborne, unable to change course, but he had the presence of mind to hock a loogie into Squealer’s face.  He bounced off of the cape, knocking Skidmark back, and fell to the ground.

Skidmark used his power to saturate Newter and the ground around him.  As his power took hold, Newter was launched through the rungs of the metal railing and down into the midst of the crowd at the base of the stage.  Skidmark shouted something, but I couldn’t make it out over the noise of the other Merchants.

I tore my eyes from the scene and we hurried toward the heaps of unconscious, bloodied and wounded that lay where the arena had been.  We were halfway there when the entire mall began to brighten.  The barred windows were expanding, and massive torches were lighting on the far sides.  Shafts of orange light extended into the mall’s interior, patterned into diamonds by the meshes of bars Labyrinth had erected.

The wall behind Skidmark and the other ‘upper circle’ members of the Merchants began to bulge inward.  Features took form: a face, ten feet tall.  Protrusions below it, near the floor of the platform, marked emerging fingertips.

Labyrinth wasn’t stopping there.  Minor had to catch my arm and pull me back to keep me from being caught in the path of another effect in the mall’s floor.  The ground cracked and bulged upward as though a mole was tunneling at high speeds just beneath the tile.

“Get back!” someone shouted behind me.  I recognized Lisa’s voice and took her advice, backing away from the hump.  Minor stopped me from backing up into another hump that had appeared behind me.

Stone walls heaved upward from the mounds of broken tile, blocking my path and stopping at a height of twelve or more feet.  As more walls rose around me, I saw a door form to my right, and the corridor to my left had a bend in it.

A maze.  She was living up to her name.

The walls at the outside edges of the mall were altering, now, more faces and body parts making themselves apparent.  Like statuary or reliefs.  Limbs intertwined and nude figures decorated the interior walls of the mall, each tall enough to extend from floor to ceiling, animated so that they moved with a glacial slowness.  With a surprising speed, the interior of the mall was coming to resemble some kind of temple.

I had to admit, I was spooked.  That girl’s power was intimidating when she wasn’t on my side.  She wasn’t all there, mentally, so the only thing holding her back was the person telling her what to do.  If she could make those giant torches, she could set the floor on fire.  Or she could have created spikes instead of walls, without leaving the rest of us any place to run.  That nobody had been hurt was purely by her choice.

Stone poles speared down from the roof.  Looking up, I saw that the edges of the crack in the roof had fanged teeth, and that figures were sliding down the metal poles.  Two female, one obese male.  Spitfire, Faultline and Gregor the Snail?

Not quite.  Faultline and Gregor, yes.  I didn’t recognize the other woman, and she was too tall to be Spitfire with her mask off.  Red haired, slender, older than Spitfire or Labyrinth had been.

She slid down the pole, up until the moment Trainwreck leaped from the stage and caught the base of the pole with his shoulder.  He was built like a football player in a quadruple-thick layer of cast iron protective gear, steam billowing behind him as he tore past the stone pole like it was nothing.  It cracked in four places, and the girl dropped out of the air.

One section of the pole hit the ground in an upright position, and she landed atop it with one foot, wobbling briefly.  Controlling the angle the pole fell, she angled her fall toward a nearby wall of the maze.

It wasn’t enough.  Trainwreck smashed the pole from under her, sending her flying through the air to land in the midst of Labyrinth’s maze.

Labyrinth created a short pillar below the metal case and canisters, and began to extend it towards the gap in the roof.  Skidmark used his power to force the things off the top of the pillar and onto the platform, where they rolled.  A few stray papers fluttered from the case.

There was a crack of gunfire, and I saw the momentary light of the shot to my right.  I couldn’t see over the wall, but I saw Trainwreck lumbering forward, one oversized metal gauntlet raised to protect his head, the only vulnerable part of his body.  I directed some bugs to the scene, and realized that a woman with the exact same proportions as the red-haired woman was firing at Trainwreck.  She’d made it through the maze and back to the skirmish with Trainwreck so quickly?

There was a brief pause in the gunfire, then a single shot fired.  Sparks marked the ricochet between his shoulder, the back of his hand, and the armor that rose behind his head.  He dropped to one knee with a suddenness that suggested he was wounded.

I hurried to the wall.  I could use my bugs to find my way through the maze, getting a sense of the layout, but I needed something faster.  Labyrinth was using her power and adjusting the battlefield with every passing second.  The way things were, given how she wasn’t aware of who I was, I was included among her enemies.  If I didn’t go now and the battle resolved one way or the other, I might lose my window of opportunity to get Bryce.

There was no way I was going back without him.  The intensity of the emotion I was feeling on the subject surprised me.

I hated the idea of going back to Sierra and telling her I’d failed.  Hated the idea of that conversation on top of the news I had about Bryce joining the same Merchants that assaulted her friend with a broken bottle.  I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t be leader of a territory and know that someone out there was maybe telling others I hadn’t followed through, fighting that constant nagging doubt in the back of my mind that wondered if ‘my’ people were whispering or laughing at me behind my back.

And maybe a small part of it was that my meeting with my father had been a reminder of how important family was.  Bryce was the errant youth, his sister the anxious family member.  Were my emotions here tied to the parallel between them and my father and me?

“Help me over,” I ordered Minor.  There was a crash not too far away as Trainwreck tore through one of Labyrinth’s walls.

“Can give you and Brooks a boost, but not sure if I can follow,” Minor told me, “Maybe if I find a place with something to stand on-”

“That’s fine.  Look,”  I drew an arrow on the wall with my bugs, “I can give you directions.”

There was little surprise on his face at the demonstration of my power.  He gave me a curt nod, dropped to one knee, and wove his fingers together to give me a stirrup for my foot.  I sheathed my good knife, stuffed the spare between the sheath and the strap that attached it to my midsection and stepped inside the bridge of Minor’s hands.  He heaved me up, almost throwing me.

The cut on the back of my arm burned as I found a grip, then hurt twice as much as I hauled myself onto the top of the wall, my toes scrabbling on the untextured surface for traction.  I reached down for Brooks, but he shook his head and waved me aside.  He wanted to come up on his own.

Fine, whatever.

I hopped down into the next corridor.  The far left had an archway leading into one of the more open areas, a circular area that was serving as a clearing for Trainwreck and the red-haired girl to fight.

I crouched down as I reached the doorway, peeking out and trusting my bugs to give me the fuller story of what was going on.  Brooks appeared behind me and crouched, gun raised, his back to the wall.  His breathing was quiet and controlled even after his recent climb and jog.

Trainwreck and the new girl on Faultline’s team were facing off on the far side of this area.  Behind Trainwreck, I saw a section of wall toppling, spotted Faultline dashing through the obstruction as though it were barely there.  She ran up behind Trainwreck and slashed her fingertips across his heel as he was stepping forward.

As he set the foot down on the marble floor, his ankle shattered and his foot broke free of his calf.

He caught the ground with the stump of his mechanical leg, and she darted in close to cut through the knee of his other leg.  He fell onto his back as she slipped between his legs, and she quickly turned to begin using her fingertips to cut down the wall, like a jungle explorer using a machete to hack through brush and vines.  The red-haired woman joined her.

The ground rumbled as sections of the black marble floor rose to form into broad, shallow stairs, leading from the two young women to Skidmark’s stage.  The capes in Skidmark’s group were struggling to find ground to stand on, as they were crowded back to the edges of the platform by the statue that was still emerging from the wall.  A head and two forearms with reaching hands, all in dark stone.

It was eerie, to see the changes that had occurred in our surroundings in the time it had taken me to cross the wall and wait for the fight to pass.  If the attentions of the Merchants had erased any familiarity I had towards the Weymouth shopping center, Labyrinth had cremated the remains and erected something else in its place.  It was a cathedral, dedicated to a goddess that was very real and having a very active hand in current affairs.  Labyrinth.

Which reminded me of the fact that I needed to get through this maze.  Labyrinth’s power was drawing many of the crawling bugs down into the ground as it refurbished the floors and consumed the piles of trash or rubble.  I still had the bugs on the ceiling, but I didn’t want to give our presence away.  Of the relatively few bugs I was willing to use, a share were being used to direct Minor and placing them in strategic locations to get a sense of the layout.  As the maze took shape in my head, I showed Minor the way.

I stepped into the clearing and, double checking nobody was in earshot, I approached Trainwreck.  Brooks followed just behind me, watching my back.

Trainwreck didn’t look like much, just going by the face.  He had a round face, small eyes, greasy hair tied back in a ponytail and scarred cheeks.  He looked like a homeless guy who hadn’t had a shower in a long time.  The only thing setting him apart from the Merchants were the gunshot wound near the corner of his jaw and the steam-powered armor that rendered him strong enough to pound the crap out of Armsmaster.

I asked him in a low voice, “Trainwreck.  Are you still working for Coil, or did you leave?”

He tensed, and his eyes turned my way, though he couldn’t turn his head with the hardware around it.  I stepped back as he used one arm to prop himself up and get a better look at me.

“No idea what you’re saying,” he said.  He gave me a level stare, and I was almost convinced.  But I’d seen him in the parking garage when I first found out Coil was the Undersider’s employer.

“Right, total nonsense, sorry,” I said.  I tried not to show fear as he tried to get to a standing position with his ruined mechanical legs, looming over me.  “But if you were working for the man, maybe you could find some excuse to knock over that wall over there…”

I pointed at the nearest section of wall.

“You’re fucking nuts,” he told me.  He raised his arm, and my legs tensed, ready to leap towards him if he took a swing at us.  As big as he was, without him being able to use his legs, being in close would be safer than trying to leap back out of his reach.

He brought his hand down on the wall I’d pointed at to heave himself to an upright position.  The wall fell as he rested his weight on it.  Using his other hand to help balance himself, he gripped the wall in his heavy gauntlet and flung the section of wall at Faultline and the red-haired girl.  The girl turned and stepped out of the way as the wall rotated in the air, bounced between her and Faultline with mere inches gap between them, and slid back down the stairs.  He didn’t pay any further attention to us as we ran for the gap he’d opened.

My power let me get a general map of the people who were still unconscious or prone, and the bugs wouldn’t stand out too much as they checked the bodies.  I went by body types, trying to find people of Bryce’s height and build.  The path Trainwreck had opened gave us avenues to two people who could have fit the mark, with a third over the next wall.

Good news?  The first of the prone bodies I went to was Bryce.

Bad news?  He was injured.

Scrub’s power had torn through the clusters of Merchants during the fighting, and Bryce’s new ‘family’ was no exception.  The girlfriend was dead, her head and shoulders gone, muscle and fluids flowing out where the flesh had been annihilated.  The girl’s mother was a goner too.  She lay on her back, her face missing.  Had she been behind her daughter, holding her, hit by the same blast?

‘Thomas’ was still alive, the black man with the scar on his lips.  The man who had hurt Sierra’s friend from the church, who had literally torn the guy a new asshole, if I’d gotten Sierra’s meaning right.  Thomas crawled slowly for the nearest arch, breathing hard, his face drawn with pain.  A slice had been taken out of his arm, shoulder, and a section of his back, as though a guillotine had grazed him from behind.  I wasn’t quite sure how he hadn’t died yet, with the amount he was bleeding.

Brooks stooped down to help Bryce, who had gotten off lightly compared to the others.  He was missing a large portion of his right hand, and he’d had the presence of mind to try to loop his belt around the injury to control the blood loss, pulling it tight.  He seemed like he’d lose consciousness any second.  Brooks retrieved some medical supplies from his backpack and began tending to the boy.

I watched Thomas struggle towards the door.

Minor arrived fifteen or twenty seconds after Brooks had started to work on the boy, standing guard while our medic took care of Bryce’s hand.

Brooks helped Minor to get the boy to a standing position, while I watched Thomas struggle on.  He was getting weaker, fast.  The blood loss had been too severe.

Skidmark had several parahumans working for him, and I didn’t know all their powers.  Maybe Thomas would get care.  Maybe Skidmark would attend to his people.

Probably not.  I knew that by leaving him here, I might be leaving him here to die, but the chance of him surviving anyways was pretty slim. Besides, bringing him would slow us down, and I wasn’t sure we could afford that.

I shook my head a little, as if it could cast away the layers of little justifications and excuses I was putting together.  I was searching for a rationale, a reason to leave him behind.  Also, maybe, I suspected I was trying to give a reason to the fact that I had almost no sympathy for the man.

If I was going to leave him there, I’d own up to what I was doing.

Sierra had wanted Thomas and his followers to suffer, and I’d agreed to make it happen.  I couldn’t do anything about Bryce’s girlfriend or her mom.  They were dead, and it had probably been instantaneous and painless.  Thomas, though?

Brooks followed my gaze to Thomas.  In his accented voice, he asked me, “You want me to bandage him up?  Don’t know how much I can do.”

Thomas heard and stopped crawling, dropping onto his belly.  He didn’t look toward me, but I knew he was listening.

“It’s fine,” I told Brooks.  “Focus on the boy.”

He nodded, then helped hold Bryce’s prone form while Minor got a better grip.  Thomas didn’t move, react or say anything.

“Let’s go,” I said.

We ran, and with Brooks keeping one hand on my shoulder to guide me, I glanced behind us to get a sense of what was going on.

The battle was still ongoing.  Gregor the Snail was here, but unlike the others, he wasn’t operating in Labyrinth’s world.  He passed through the walls of the maze, spraying streams of slime at Trainwreck, who had apparently advanced halfway up the stairs by using his hands to help him walk.  Trainwreck retaliated by throwing a chunk of stairs at Gregor with one hand while trying to block the stream of slime with the other.  The section of stairs hit the wall of the maze just in front of Gregor, some of it bouncing over to pass through Gregor.  Not real, as far as he was concerned.

What did this look like to Gregor?  Was he standing in the mall as it had been, while Trainwreck seemed to stand on thin air?  Or was Trainwreck on the ground?  I couldn’t parse it.

Mush had started pulling himself together, but Labyrinth was making his job into a struggle.  His right arm had divided, stretched, forked out and reconfigured until it looked like a mass of reaching veins and arteries.  He plunged it into one of the trash cans that Labyrinth was absorbing into the floor, and when he withdrew it, the tendrils had formed the connective tissue for an oversized hand crafted out of garbage.  His other arm and much of his lower body had already gathered some garbage around it, letting him stand several feet taller than he had before.  The skin of his head and body was peeling off into more tendrils, reaching for more trash and distributing some from his arms to his torso.

From what I could gather, he needed some kind of loose matter to form the body of his other self.  Dirt, compost, trash, maybe even sand.  Problem was, however fantastic his surroundings might have been for this five minutes ago, Labyrinth was screwing him over by cleaning things up, maybe inadvertently.  One upper arm, his naked upper body and his nearly bald head were all exposed and vulnerable.

Scrub had climbed up to one corner of the platform, and was keeping to the edge of the fight.  His intent was clearly to be close enough to Faultline’s group to possibly tag them, but not so close that one of his uncontrolled blasts would catch a fellow Merchant.

My bugs told me we were close to Lisa, Charlotte, Jaw and Senegal.  I caught Minor’s attention and pointed, and he put Bryce down long enough to give me a boost up to the top of the wall that stood between us.  I straddled the wall and waited for Brooks and Minor to figure out how to get Bryce up to me so I could pass him down to the others.

From my vantage point, I could see more of the battle unfolding on the far side of the mall.

One powered Merchant charged Faultline and collapsed through the ground she had strategically weakened.  She kicked him several times in the face before the next member of Skidmark’s group tried to take her on, drawing and pointing a gun.  Faultline drew her feet apart, and then dropped through the floor of the platform in a spray of splinters.

To her right, the red-headed woman was striding towards Scrub.  He aimed a shot and missed by a fraction, and she didn’t even flinch.  Another try, another miss.  As she got close, he let his power go haywire, and a dozen flashes erupted in close vicinity to him.  None touched her.

She had her gun drawn, but she didn’t shoot him.  Instead, she grabbed him by the collar, then wrenched him to one side so he tipped over the side of the platform and fell the twenty or so feet to the ground below.  It wasn’t enough of a fall to guarantee that he was out of the fight, but she seemed confident enough to turn away and move on to the next target before he’d even finished falling.

Gregor was keeping up his steady pressure, alternating between blasting Trainwreck and blasting Mush with one hand and aiming at Skidmark with the other.  Skidmark used his power to push away the worst of the slime, but it was clear he was losing.  His power wasn’t strong, it didn’t have much more push to it than a strong wind.  Any attempt to get it as effective as it had been at the edge of the arena took time and multiple layers of the effect.  In short, Gregor could make the slime more easily than Skidmark could get rid of it.

A knotted bandage tied around Bryce’s good arm was thrown up to me, and I used it to draw his arm up while the others managed his lower body.  Once I had his wrist, I gripped it firmly in one hand, my upper body hugging the top of the wall to keep myself from being pulled off.

Minor gave Brooks a boost and the medic straddled the wall facing me.  We worked together to raise the unconscious boy over the top of the wall and pass him down to where the others waited.

I glanced back towards the fight.  Faultline had emerged from beneath the platform and moved around to the side, and using her power to draw hand holds into the side of the platform.  The cape who’d been aiming at her with the gun stooped over the hole she’d dropped into and looked down to see if she was still down there.  He was oblivious as she hauled herself over the edge of the platform and attacked him from behind, striking him with one elbow, then reversing the turn of her body to sweep his legs out from under him with one extended leg.  The sweep of her foot had apparently coincided with a use of her power, because there was a cloud of stone dust as he collapsed onto broken, uneven ground.  From my angle I couldn’t see for sure, but I thought maybe he’d fallen head first into the hole she’d first descended into.

Brooks and I hauled Minor over, and I waited while he climbed down, since I was already fairly secure where I was.

Skidmark was losing.  It was obvious from where I sat, and I could see his changing expression as he saw Mush collapse beneath Gregor’s sludge and realized he had no friends left.  Gregor, Labyrinth, Faultline and the red-haired woman were all in action, and Skidmark was pretty much alone at this point.

I hadn’t seen Newter or Spitfire, and I couldn’t be sure if he was okay or not.  Sure, the Merchants could have hit him with weapons rather than their bare hands, but he was quick, he had his tail, and he only needed to touch someone to drug them out of their minds.  Spitfire might be the one babysitting Labyrinth somewhere out of the way.

It had to suck for Skidmark, losing like this.  He’d risen to power based on a streak of good luck and momentum rather than any talent, deed or ability.  Now it was falling apart.  He’d lost, he’d had his ass kicked in front of the bulk of his followers, and he would likely never regain what he’d had.  Not that I felt bad for him.  There was a kind of justice to it.

He didn’t even have a power that would let him go down in a blaze of glory.  No, his final act here would be one of petty spite.

His power streaked from his hand to the ground where the canisters and metal case sat.  I could see Faultline’s expression change behind her mask, saw her set her feet and start sprinting for the case before Skidmark’s power even took hold.

The metal box and canisters launched out over the edge of the platform and into the air above the crowd.  Only a few papers escaped the case at first, but his power had saturated the insides of the box.  Just after reaching the apex of its flight, his power seized the contents and the case expelled everything from within.  Papers slid off one another and into the air, forming a small cloud.

“Taylor!” Lisa shouted.

I knew what she wanted.  I drew clouds of my bugs from the ceiling, catching the papers that weren’t saturated with Skidmark’s power, collecting my bugs on them.  I could have maybe carried them directly to me with enough bugs, but I found it easier and more discreet to use the bugs and nudge the papers into floating on the air currents, like paper airplanes without the ‘airplane’ aspect of things.

As they got close, I took a firmer hold over them and moved them directly to us.  The papers crumpled as my hands closed around them.  Four or five pages.  I couldn’t be sure two might have been stuck together.

“We need an exit,” I said, as I hopped down from the wall.  I handed Lisa the papers.

Lisa nodded, “I’ve been thinking on that.  Look.”

She pointed at one corner of the mall.  It looked like any other section, heavily altered by Labyrinth’s powers.  The shops had been almost entirely consumed by Labyrinth’s powers, and were further shrouded by the floor-to-ceiling statues of human figures that stuck out of the walls.  In the corner Lisa was pointing at, there were male and female figures, expressions solemn, hands reaching, moving so slowly I might have thought it was my imagination.  The shop below was nearly gone, the entrance nearly covered up.

“Not seeing it,” I said.

“Look at how they’re standing.  The male figure is sticking out of the left wall, reaching with his right hand, the female figure is doing the opposite.  Look past them, at the corner.”

I did.  Between the figures was the point where the two exterior walls of the shopping center joined… nothing jumped out at me.  The walls were bare.

“I don’t see it,” I repeated, as she tugged on my arm and started running forward.  As a group we started moving toward the corner.  “What am I looking for?”

“Nothing!  There’s nothing there because her power isn’t extending to that corner.  She’s too far away, on the roof at the other side of the mall. Which means the interior of that shop isn’t affected by her power!”

However ominous the giant statues were, they didn’t react to our passing.  The exit was small, barely three feet across.  If Lisa hadn’t given me her reasoning, I wasn’t sure I would have had the guts to go through.  It was spooky to think about putting myself in a smaller space like the store interior and having it close tight behind me.

The bodyguards had to go through the doorway in a crouch, and Minor dropped Bryce to let the others drag him inside, just so he could fit.

As Lisa had suggested, the shop interior was largely unaffected by Labyrinth’s abilities, though it had been trashed by looters and the effects of Leviathan’s attack.  We found the back rooms, and Jaw kicked the door open.  From there, we made our way to the emergency exit, cleared rubble away and escaped into the parking lot.

A handful of others had found escape routes too, I noted.  Merchants were crossing the parking lot at a run, or helping wounded buddies limp away.  We weren’t so conspicuous.

I hurt.  I’d been cut on the arm, and I’d taken my lumps in too many other places to count.  My knuckles and fingertips were scratched raw from climbing the walls of the maze and moving rubble, my cheekbone throbbed where I’d been elbowed, and my fucking contact lenses were still irritating.  Never ever something I could get used to, even with other things taking up my attention.

But we’d made it.

We moved at a light jog for a good distance before Brooks called us to a stop.  We lay Bryce down for him to look at, and he decided we needed call for a pickup to get the boy more serious medical attention.

While we waited for the car to arrive, Lisa, and I sat down on a nearby set of stairs.  The other bodyguards were still on duty, still watching for trouble.  Charlotte stood a distance away, hugging herself.  She looked like she wanted to leave, but lacked the courage to go alone.

I was going to go reassure Charlotte, but Lisa retrieved the papers I’d given her and smoothed them out against her leg, and the widening of her eyes caught my attention.

“It’s a letter or contract from the people who made the stuff, talking to the guy who’d bought this stuff.  Let’s see, we have… page two.  Pages eighteen and nineteen.  Page twenty-seven.  Page sixteen.  Wonder if we can put a narrative together.”

“You probably could,” I said.

She glanced over one page, then handed it to me as she moved on to the others.  I read it.

client one, and clients two through six for confidentiality purposes.  For clarity, and to help ensure that the proper clients receive the intended products, we must restate facts for client one to double-check.  Client one is the negotiator for each of the clients, guardian of clients two and three and is not intending to consume the product.

This cannot be stressed enough.  Client one is not to share or use any of the product intended for other clients.  Ignoring this warning or failing to adhere to any other warnings or directions within this documentation will compel Cauldron to carry out the countermeasures and call in all debts noted in sections 8b and 8c on pages seventeen, eighteen and nineteen.

Clients two through six are noted here in as much detail as is allowed given the agreed-upon confidentiality.
■  Client two is the elder of client one’s two relatives noted here, female.
■  Client three is the younger of client one’s two relatives noted here, male.
■  Clients four and five are client two’s friends.  Client four is female.  Client five is male.
■  Client six is the friend of client three, male.
Both vials and protective containers are noted with the numbers specific to each client, each containing the requested upon products from the catalogue.

I wish to give written evidence of the verbal exchange between Cauldron and client one on February 18 2011.  Client one is informed that client four scored a borderline failure on the psychological testing and that results may lead to a Deviation scenario

“What’s on the other pages?” I asked.

“Sixteen is accounting.  Bank statements, confirmation of money exchanged, a list of what was bought.  Seven figures base price, more for this Nemesis program, still more for some powers.  Don’t have all the pages I’d need to get it, but I’m getting the sense the more unique powers and the stronger ones cost way more.”

‘The sense’, she’d said.  Her power filling in the blanks.

“Pages eighteen and nineteen refer back to something called the ‘Nemesis program’, potentially revoking it, they’re talking about debts, services required by this ‘Cauldron’ using the clients’ powers.  There’s a bunch of specifics on how the time, effort and risk of said services would factor in with one another.”

“People can buy powers?  How many people are doing this?”  I felt a touch offended at the idea.  I’d earned my powers through my hardships.  Most of us had.

“Enough that there’s a whole enterprise here with a private army.  There’s this bit that very politely notes that breaking the rules will get you hunted down and executed by Subjects, capital S.  Clients are warned that these guys are entirely loyal to Cauldron, will not accept bribes.  And these Subjects are apparently something different from Deviations.”

“Cauldron calls us Subjects.  The PRT calls us Case 53s,” a voice said from above us.  “Regular people call us monsters.”

Our bodyguards wheeled on the spot, a set of guns training on Newter, where he clung to the side of the building.  They had been covering the possible approach points from the ground.  They hadn’t been expecting trouble from directly above us.

“I heard of the Case 53 thing,” Lisa told him, backing away.  “The rest is new.  You work for them?  No.  But you’re related to this.”

“Gregor, Shamrock and I were test subjects.  Guinea pigs to test the new formulas, so the buyers don’t get fucked.  According to Shamrock, three in five of us don’t even survive.  One in five Subjects are retained and brainwashed so they can protect the business and enforce the contracts.  Shamrock was going to be one of them, but she escaped.  The rest of us have our memories removed, and we’re released as part of the ‘Nemesis program.'”

“Which is?”

Newter glanced at the papers, “I’d really like to know.”

“So you followed us.”

“Something about the way that one moved,” Newter pointed at Jaw with his tail, “Reminded me of some other mercenaries I’ve come across.  Don’t bother shooting, by the way, I’m too quick.”

Lisa gestured, and the bodyguards lowered their weapons.

Newter frowned, “I gathered you were mercenaries, decided to spy, but finding you’d taken the papers was a surprise.  Who are you?”

Lisa looked at me, without a ready answer for once.  I looked over at Charlotte and sighed.  She’d already put some of the pieces together.  She could probably figure it out from here.  I might as well control when that happened, so I wouldn’t get caught off guard further down the road.

I raised the piece of paper, as if to hand it to Newter, and I directed bugs to cluster on it.  In moments, the half of the paper closest to him was dark with various flies and creepy crawlies.

Charlotte’s eyes widened.  This was apparently her putting the last piece into place.

“Ah, Skitter,” he said.  Apparently my having saved his life once and gifting him a paper bag filled with money didn’t do much to ease his wariness.  He wasn’t any less guarded when he asked, “Why are you here?”

I pointed at the unconscious Bryce.  “An errand.  Didn’t mean to get in your way.  I only grabbed the papers as a spur of the moment thing, and because they would’ve been ruined if they’d just drifted all over in there.”

“That wasn’t much of a concern.  One of my teammates is collecting the papers as we talk, and I expect she’ll find nearly all of them.  The ones that she could find with some luck, anyways.”

“We’re honestly not looking for trouble, and  I have no problem with giving you these.” I banished the bugs on the paper and stepped forward to extend it towards him.

Lisa followed my cue, offering the others, “Wouldn’t mind copies of whatever you’ve got.”

Newter frowned.

Before he could say anything, Lisa hurried to add, “I’m good at figuring stuff out.  I’m a fountain of knowledge.  I want to know more about this stuff, and I could help you guys in exchange for what you’ve already got.”

“I’d have to ask Faultline.  She doesn’t like you.”

Lisa grinned.  “And I don’t like her.  But she’s not stupid, either.  She knows this is mutually beneficial.”  Lisa drew a pen from her pocket and scribbled on the back of one page.  “My number, if you’re interested.”

He took the sheets, looked them over, then rolled them up and stuck them in his back pants pocket.

“We’ll be in touch one way or another,” he said.

Then he was gone, around the side of the building and up to the roof in heartbeats.

I looked at Charlotte, and she shrank back, as if I could hurt her by looking at her.

Which was dumb.  It was fairly obvious to anyone who considered my power that I didn’t need to look at people to hurt them.  Not that I’d hurt her, anyways.  She’d done nothing to deserve any such thing, beyond being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Charlotte, Bryce and Sierra.  The civilians.  I still had to figure out how to deal with them.  My heart sank.  Social interaction: not where my talents lay.

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Infestation 11.6

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“Is he for real?” I looked to Lisa for an answer.  “Can they do that?”

“Don’t think he’s lying.”

The crowd roared, and I turned to see why, just in time to see the aftermath of the first attack.  One of the Merchants in the ring had just bludgeoned someone with a length of pipe.  Backing away, he found someone he knew, and through some unspoken agreement, they drew together, each protecting the other’s back.

Others were having similar ideas.  Groups of friends were banding together, leaving others alone.  One of the loners found another guy without any friends around, shouted something I couldn’t hear, and they drew together.  His new ‘friend’ turned and struck him down from behind not two seconds later.  The traitor got his just reward when three young men and a grungy looking old man tackled him to the ground and started beating him.

At the corner nearest to us, a woman got smashed in the nose.  The spray of blood landed in the area of Skidmark’s power and shot straight back into the melee.

Inspired by this sight, a man who stood outside the ring grabbed a piece of rubble and threw it down at the edge of the ring.  The chunk of concrete flew into the massed people, striking a man who was crouching and trying to avoid the worst of the fighting.

This act started a chain reaction.  The audience turned on the man who’d launched the chunk of rubble, clustering around him, punching and kicking him, and shoving him to the ground.  Others were inspired by his idea, and did much the same thing, using Skidmark’s power to pelt the people in the arena.  One man helped by a kid who might have been his son upended a trash can on the glowing ground to send rotted food and other rubbish flying into the ring.  Others moved to stop them or shove anyone who got close enough onto the colored ground.  The violence was escalating and it didn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon.

“We should go,” Lisa said.  She turned to Jaw and ordered, “Bring the boy.”

Jaw grabbed Bryce by the shirt and hauled him to his feet.  He pointed at the girl who had been sitting next to Bryce, “And her?”

“Leave her.” Lisa called out, raising her voice to be heard over the screams and cheering.  She said something else, but I couldn’t make it out.

The crack of a gun being fired went off somewhere.  Instead of stopping the crowd, it seemed to provoke them, pushing those who hadn’t been participating into action, like runners who’d been waiting for a starter’s pistol.  It was as though the Merchants felt more secure with their hands around people’s throats than they did trying to get away.

Skidmark gripped the railing as he hunched over it, grinning a smile with teeth that seemed to be every color but white.  His eyes were almost glittering as he watched the chaos he’d set in motion.

We moved as a group, Lisa’s soldiers in a tight circle around us with Bryce, Lisa, the rescued girl and me in the center.  We made our way toward the nearest exit, but our way was barred by an unfolding brawl between two groups a good distance from the main spectacle.  Rivals?  Enemies seeing an opportunity to exact vengeance for some past event?

The girl who’d been on the bench with Bryce ran for the thick of the melee surrounding the ring.  She was shouting, almost screeching, “Thomas!  Mom!”

Bryce struggled in an attempt to go after her, but Jaw held him firm.

I almost missed what happened next.  A woman from the group fighting in front of us ran, and a band of young men charged after her, which brought them just in front of us.

We collectively backed out of the way, but Bryce had other intentions.  The boy wrenched out of Jaw’s grip and threw his shoulder into the small of Senegal’s back.  The man was only barely able to keep from stumbling forward into the charging Merchants, but with his attention elsewhere, Bryce managed to slip past.

I joined Minor and Brooks in giving chase, and though Minor was bigger and stronger, I had the advantage of a slight build.  I ducked between the people and followed Bryce into the thick of the ‘audience’.

Bryce had reached his girlfriend, and wrapped his arms around her.  Still holding her, he turned to see us approaching.  I was in the lead, and Minor close behind me.

He looked the other way, past the glowing perimeter of Skidmark’s arena, and I followed his gaze to where a middle-aged woman with bleached blond hair and a taller black man with a scar on his lips stood.

I recognized them from Sierra’s description.  They were the same people who had attacked the church.

The man -Thomas?- beckoned with a wave of his arm, and Bryce and his girlfriend ran, dropping to the ground as they touched the border of the ring.

“No!” I shouted, as the effect of Skidmark’s power sent them careening into the ongoing free-for-all.  My voice was lost in the cacophony of the screaming, shouting, hollering crowd.

I stared helplessly at the unfolding scene.  The two teenagers managed to get to their feet and gather together with Thomas, the mother, and one or two others.  They were soon lost in the jumble of people that were all punching, kicking and strangling one another, spurred on by adrenaline, self-preservation, alcohol, stimulants and greed.  There was little enough room that when someone fell, they were trampled by those that were still fighting.

Minor reached me and ushered me back to the others, and we backed as far away from the fighting as we could.

The moment I saw Lisa, I asked her, “Should I-” I left my question unfinished.  Should I use my bugs?

“No.  The moment an enemy makes their presence known, Skidmark might try to break this up and send the crowd after any unfamiliar faces.  Not saying they’d get us, but they could, and there’d be other victims too.”

“Fuck.” I looked at the ongoing fighting.  “We should do something.

“I’m open to ideas,” she said.

“Can we- can’t we run?” the girl we’d rescued asked.

“Look, um, what’s your name?” Lisa said.

“Charlotte.”

“Charlotte, we came to get that kid.  My friend feels it’s important, and she’s usually got a pretty damn good reason for doing what she does.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“So it’s up to her, what we do here”

What were our options.  Using Lisa’s power?  I wasn’t sure how it applied here.  If she had a way of addressing the audience, maybe there was something she could say to turn the tide, or turn them against their leaders… but the only way to do that would be to get the microphone Skidmark had.

We had Lisa’s soldiers, but no matter how well-trained they were, there was a certain point where fighters in quantity overcame fewer fighters of higher quality in a brawl.  Not to mention that some of the Merchants had guns.  The great equalizer.  I was pretty sure Lisa’s soldiers would be packing, but the problem with guns was that they drew attention, and we definitely did not want to fall under too much scrutiny.

This was what the Merchants were.  Even less organized than the ABB, they were humans reduced to pack behavior, with Skidmark and his people acting like kids who would put animals in a cage and shake it set them on each other, instead of house-training them.  None of this made the Merchants any less dangerous, though.  Just the opposite.

I had no options here, in the face of this.  The most I could do would be to use my power on the entire crowd, and that would turn this already disturbed situation into something else entirely.

“We hold our ground,” I told Lisa, “Unless things get bad enough that we’re at risk.  We wait for the fight to end, we see if we can find him, and we make our exit.  Sticking around also means we can get more info on what Skidmark’s got in those vials and where he got them.”

“Okay,” Lisa confirmed.  “That works.”

The minutes that followed were among the longest I’d experienced in my life.  It wasn’t a tedious, slow, agonizing passage of time like I’d experienced in the hospital bed, waiting to find out if I was being arrested or if my back was broken.  No, these minutes stretched on because there was so much going on, and I couldn’t lose my focus, look away or pause for contemplation for a second.

Different groups tried to pick fights with us.  It was nonsensical, given that we weren’t even in the ring, but adrenaline was running high and we stood out because we were apart from the rest of the fighting, isolated.  We had stuff they could take, and warm bodies they could… well, warm bodies.  It was enough.

We tried to hold a formation, with the bodyguards holding the outer perimeter and the less experienced combatants, myself included, in the center.  It quickly became apparent that these things didn’t really hold up in a real combat situation.

For one thing, our enemies quickly figured out what we were trying to do and tried to force Lisa’s soldiers to break ranks.  They would hang back and throw things, or stay just out of reach as they held weapons at the ready, looking for a moment when our front-line fighters were distracted or otherwise occupied.  It forced Lisa’s soldiers to move out of formation to deliver with the enemy with a few decisive hits, then back up to close the gap in the line.

That was the plan, anyways, but sometimes the opponent was too nimble to be taken down, and other times, they delayed Lisa’s people enough that someone could slip through the line and attack one of our less capable combatants, myself included.

I held a knife in each hand – my combat knife and the one I’d taken when we’d rescued Charlotte.  When I was forced to fight, I avoided lethal strikes.  I had a sense of where the major arteries were and avoided them, even when I knew I could make a quick cut at someone’s wrists or neck.  Holding back didn’t do me any favors, and I got smashed in the left ear once, struck in the gut and chest a few times, and a nail that was stuck through someone’s makeshift club sliced the back of my upper arm.

Still, Lisa’s soldiers afforded me time to breathe.  I remained vigilant for any break in ranks and incoming attacks.

My arm smarted where I’d been cut, and my ear throbbed.  I swallowed hard, glancing towards the ring, where people lay in heaps, and only two-thirds of the combatants were either injured, unconscious, dead or playing dead.

Feeling pressured, Senegal reached for his gun, but was forced to duck back and to the side to avoid being bludgeoned by a heavy metal lock one of the Merchants had clipped to the end of a length of chain.  The follow-up swing knocked his weapon from his hand.  Someone else, a stocky man with eyebrows like caterpillars, moved through the gap to charge for me bare handed.

Could be worse.  I set my balance and readied to strike with my knives, waiting until he closed in and-

And I was somewhere else.  It was like remembering something profound that I’d forgotten.  I’d seen this before.

Huge creatures filled my perception.

It was hard to say how I knew they were two different creatures, when each of them existed in multiple parallel spaces all at once.  Countless mirror moved in sync with one another, each occupying the same space, just as solid as the others, differing in how they moved and the worlds they interacted with.  Each of them folded, unfolded, expanded and shifted without taking more or less space.  I couldn’t wrap my head around it, even as I felt there was something like a pattern there.

Some distant part of me realized I’d seen something similar to that folding and unfolding once, in a much simpler form.  A tesseract, a fourth dimensional analogue to the cube.  The difference was that while the cube had six flat faces, each ‘side’ of the tesseract had six cubes, each connected to the others another at each corner.  To perceptions attuned to three dimensions, it seemed to constantly shift, each side folding or reshaping so that they could all simultaneously be perfect cubes, and each ‘side’ was simultaneously the center cube from which all the others extended outward.

The primary difference between these things and the tesseract was that these beings I was looking at were alive, and they weren’t simple models I was viewing on a computer screen.  They were living entities, lifeforms.  There wasn’t anything I could relate to any biology I knew or understood, nothing even remotely recognizable, but they were undoubtedly alive.  They were enigmas of organs that were also limbs and also the exteriors of the creatures, each simultaneously some aspect of the entity as it flowed through empty space.  It didn’t help that the things were the size of small planets, and the scope of my perceptions was so small.  It helped even less that parts of them seemed to move in and out of the other dimensions or realities where the mirror images were.

The pair moved in sync, spiraling around one another in what I realized was a double helix.  Each revolution brought them further and further apart.  Innumerable motes drifted from their bodies as they moved, leaving thick trails of shed tissues or energies painting the void of empty space in the wake of their spiraling dance, as though they were made of a vast quantity of sand and they were flying against a gale force headwind.

When they were too far away to see one another, they communicated, and each message was enormous and violent in scope, expressed with the energy of a star going supernova.  One ‘word’, one idea, for each message.

Destination.  Agreement.  Trajectory.  Agreement.

They would meet again at the same place.  At a set time, they would cease to expand their revolution and contract once again, until they drew together to arrive at their meeting place.

-the Merchant caught me off guard, as I reeled from the image of what I’d just seen.  He caught me across the cheekbone with his elbow, and pain shot through my entire skull, bringing me halfway back to reality.  Someone grabbed me, her chest soft against my back, her grip around my shoulders painfully tight.  Charlotte?  Or Lisa?

The shift from what I had seen to relative normalcy was so drastic that I could barely grasp what I was sensing.  I opened my mouth to say something and then closed it.  I couldn’t unfocus or take in the scene as a whole, as the entirety of my attention was geared for seeing… what had I been looking at?  It escaped me as I tried to remember.  I shook my head, striving and failing to see past the countless minute details or the shape of things: the way the Merchant’s facial features seemed to spread out as he advanced towards me, the contraction of his body as he bent down, the nicks and brown of rust on the knife he picked up, the one I’d dropped.  I still held my good knife.

I closed my eyes, trying to blink and fix the distorted focus, and it only helped a little.  I looked to my left for help, saw Minor and Jaw with their hands full, their movements too hard for my eyes to follow.  To my right?  Lisa was slumped over, and Brooks held her.  Merchants were closing in on them.  Senegal stood in front of me, and though his gun was gone, he was using the length of chain that he’d taken from one of the Merchants to drive our opponents back and buy us breathing room.  It wasn’t enough.  Three capable fighters weren’t able to protect seven people in total.

I used my power, and wrenched my eyes closed.  It helped more than anything, as the tactility of my swarm sense gave me a concrete, solid sense of the things around us.  Many of the Merchants had lice on their skin, in their clothes and on their hair.  A small handful of flies buzzed around the area.  With a bit of direction to guide those flies to where I needed them, I had a solid sense of my surroundings and what the enemy combatants were doing.

With panic and disorientation nearly overwhelming me, I had to resist the urge to use my power to call a swarm together.  Using this many bugs, to get a sense of what was going on?  It wouldn’t attract undue attention.  I let bugs gather on the ceiling of the mall, drawing them down through the large crack where part of the roof had caved in, as a just-in-case.

I kept my eyes closed as I fought back, pulling out of Charlotte’s grip to strike at the Merchant, cutting him across the forehead.  He growled something I couldn’t make out and charged me.  Knowing I wouldn’t be able to beat him in any contest of strength, I threw myself to one side, landing hard on the ground and nearly tripping Senegal.  I brought my knees to my chest, and then I kicked outward to strike him in the calf with both heels.

I wasn’t thinking straight.  I should have predicted that he’d fall on top of me.  His shoulder hit my chest, his body weight heavy on top of me.  His knife hand was trapped under his body, near my waist.  I was more fortunate, with my right arm free, and I pulled the knife’s point across his ribs, aiming for a shallow cut that hurt more than it injured.  He screamed and dropped his weapon, and I scrabbled to slide it back towards Charlotte, Brooks and Lisa.

Senegal turned and kicked my attacker away from me.  While Senegal used the lock on the end of the length of chain to strike the man in the jaw, I tried to stand.

Stupidly, I’d opened my eyes as I stood, instead of trusting to my power to keep a sense of the immediate situation.  Motion sickness hit me like a sack of bricks, and I nearly fell over.  Charlotte caught me to keep me from tipping over, only narrowly avoiding stabbing herself on my good knife.

“Oh my god,” she murmured.  “You’re…”

Had I given myself away?  I hadn’t used that many bugs.

No, it was something else.  I could tell from the flies I’d placed on her head that she was looking up.  Her attention turned to me, then Lisa, and then back to the higher object.  I forced my eyes open, controlling my movement and my breathing to reduce the threat of nausea, and saw she was looking at Skidmark’s platform.

Skidmark was slumped against the railing, struggling to his feet.  Squealer, Mush, Trainwreck and their other subordinates weren’t faring much better.

Skidmark grabbed his microphone and broke into laughter, the nasty chuckles echoing through the area.

“Seems like one of you assdrips just earned his stripes,” he cackled.

I saw a flash of white from within the ring and it dawned on me what had just happened.

Another flash sparked in the ring, then a second.  Both were in close proximity to a boy no older than I was.  White smoke poured from his eyes, nose, ears and mouth, with smaller traces flowing from his scalp, stirring his hair.

He flinched as someone whirled on him and raised their weapon, and a burst of white light appeared two feet to the other person’s left.  A miss.  The person swayed toward where the flash had been, as if it had pulled at him.  The glowing boy stuck one arm out, towards his target, and another flash of white appeared a yard behind his target.

The man charged, and the boy tried a third time.  The blast intersected the man, and when it faded, the man’s upper arm, forearm, elbow, and the right side of his torso and hip were gone.  Blood gushed from the area where his flesh had been carved away by the light, and his dismembered hand dropped to his feet.

The boy screamed in some combination of horror, pain and rage, and flashes of the whiteness erupted randomly around him.  Some caught people who were lying prone on the ground, others hit standing combatants, while most simply hit thin air.

A trigger event.  I’d just seen someone have their trigger event.

But what had happened to Skidmark’s group, Tattletale and I?  I could vaguely remember something, thought about trying to put it into words, as if describing it could help call it to mind in a way that I could describe it, but they disappeared as I reached for them.  I was reminded of Imp’s power.  Before I could get a handle on it, I’d forgotten entirely, and I was struggling to even remember what I was trying to do, my thoughts muddling the idea of it with my attempts to get my bearings.

And Charlotte, who was helping me stay balanced on my feet, was staring at me wide-eyed.  I remembered her exclamation of surprise.

If everyone on stage with powers had been affected, and Lisa and I were reacting the same way, it couldn’t be that hard for her to put the pieces together.  Charlotte knew.

I looked to Lisa, for advice or ideas, but she was still slumped over, and she wasn’t recovering.  Why?  If this was some kind of psychic backlash from someone else having their trigger event, had she maybe been hit harder because of her power?

I hurried to her side, while Brooks turned to rejoin the fight and help re-establish our front lines.

“Lisa!” I shook her.  She looked at me, her eyes unfocused.

“They’re like viruses,” she said.  Her voice was thin, as if she were talking to herself.  “And babies.  And gods.  All at the same time.”

“You’re not making any sense, Lisa.  Come on, get it together.  Things are pretty ugly right now.”

“Almost there.  It’s like it’s at the tip of my tongue, but it’s my brain, not my tongue,” her voice was thin, barely audible, as though she was talking to herself and not to me.  “Still fillin’ in the blanks.”

I slapped her lightly across the face, “Lisa!  Need you to come back to reality, not go further into your delirium.”

The slap seemed to do it.  She shook her head, like a dog trying to shake off water.  “Taylor?”

“Come on,” I helped her to her feet.  She almost lost her balance, but she was still recuperating faster than I had.

Charlotte took over the job of ensuring Lisa was okay, and I moved forward to help back up the other guys.  With a knife in each hand, I stood behind the trio of Brooks, Senegal and Minor, ready to stop anyone who tried to slip by.  I kept my eyes closed.  I could manage so long as I didn’t try to move and keep my eyes open at the same time.  It was swiftly receding.

The last group to tackle us had largely been beaten back.  Another group made some threatening moves, but they seemed to be in rougher shape than us.  Their leader was an amazon of a woman with a wild look in her eyes and matted hair, and I could see concern flash across her face as she looked us over and noted the disparity in the condition of our groups.  It struck me she was in a bad spot, knowing her group would be thrashed if she took us on, but at the same time, she couldn’t order her guys to back off without looking like a coward.

Whatever decision she would have made, we didn’t get to find out.

“Stop!” Skidmark hollered into his microphone.

It took a full minute for everyone to break off in the fighting and back off to a point where they didn’t feel immediately threatened.

So many injured.  How many of his own people had Skidmark just lost in this stunt?

Did he care?  He stood to gain five new parahumans for his group.  Six if you counted the guy who’d had his trigger event.

“If we wait any longer, there’s only going to be one of you cockbiters left in the ring!  We got five of you fuckers left, and that’s all we need!”

Only five?  There had been at least eighty in the ring at the beginning, and still more had joined the fight afterward, one way or another.

I could see the remaining five as the audience moved back to give them space.  A family of three, it seemed, a woman with a gaping wound in her stomach, her hand crimson where it pressed against the injury, and the boy who’d had his trigger event.  I didn’t see Bryce or his new ‘family’ in the mist of the people retreating from the scene.

A flash of light marked another uncontrolled use of the new cape’s power.  It struck close to the ground, removing the leg of someone who lay unconscious or dead on the ground, but it left the ground perfectly intact.  Why?  When it consumed clothing and flesh but not the building itself?

“Boy,” Skidmark pointed, “Approach the stage!”

The ring flashed and disappeared.  The boy turned, as though in a daze.  He flinched as another burst of light sparked a good ten feet away.  He limped toward Skidmark and stared up at the Merchant’s leader.

“You’re gonna need a name, kid, if you’re going to join the Merchant’s upper circle.”

The boy blinked, looking around, as if he didn’t quite understand.  Was he in shock?

“Come on, now.  Let’s hurry it up.”

There was a spark of the boy’s power, and the flash removed a beachball-sized section of rubble beneath Skidmark’s ‘stage’.  The boy stared at it.

“E-Eraser?” he answered, making it a question.

“Like the puny pink nipple on the end of a pencil?  Fuck that,” Skidmark snarled.

“Um,” the boy drew out the noise, all too aware of his audience, probably unable to think straight.

“Scrub!” Skidmark shouted, and the crowd roared.

How in the hell was Scrub better than Eraser?  In what insane reality?

Skidmark waited until the noise of the crowd had died down before he raised the vial, “No point in you having a drink of this shit.  Wouldn’t do sweet fuck all.  Pick someone.”

The boy stared at Skidmark, processing the words.  He flinched as another flash occurred near him.  A hand clutching one elbow, he turned toward the crowd.  When he spoke, his voice was shaky, “R-Rick!  Doug!”

Two people emerged from the massed people who stood around where the audience had been.  One had blood running from his scalp to cover half his face, while the other was coughing violently, blood thick around his mouth and nose.

“Can…  Can I give it to both?  Can they share it?” the boy with the glowing hair asked.

Skidmark chuckled, and it was a nasty sound with very little humor to it.  “No, no.  You definitely don’t want to do that.  Pick one.”

“Doug.  Doug can have it.”

The boy who was coughing looked up, surprised.  The one with blood on his face, Rick, suddenly looked angry.  “What the fuck!?”

A flash of white high above and to the right of the boy with the powers made everyone nearby cringe.  It tore away a chunk of a metal beam that was helping to support the damaged roof.  People were giving a wider berth to the boy with the powers.  I suspected his abilities and his apparent lack of control were the only things keeping Rick from running up and punching him.

Was this division & the hard feelings on purpose?  If it was intentional, if Skidmark was dividing his allies from their former groups and cliques so they couldn’t gang up against him, I’d have to adjust my estimation of him.  Not that I’d like him any more, or even respect him, but I’d give him credit for intelligence.

“You didn’t help me when I got pulled into the ring,” the boy with the powers told Rick, “Doug at least tried.  He gets my prize.”

As Doug approached the stage, taking the long way to keep his distance from his newly empowered ‘friend’, I became aware that my bugs were dying on the roof, where I’d gathered a swarm in preparation during the chaos.  A patch here, a patch there.

No.  Not dying.  They were stunned, their senses obliterated by bursts of chaos and false sensations.  I had an idea of what it was.  I’d felt the same thing before.

I turned to Lisa.  Moving my left hand from the scratch on the back of my upper arm, I discreetly pointed up and murmured, “There’s company on the way.  We should go before there’s trouble.”

She looked up, then nodded assent.  Tapping Minor on the shoulder, she gave him a hand signal, and he notified the others.  We began moving.

The person on the roof was joined by others.  Some bugs died beneath their footfalls.  More bugs were stunned as the first individual crawled forward on all fours, around the lip of the roof and onto the ceiling of the mall, hanging off of it by his hands.  With the building largely unlit, I couldn’t make him out.

Newter was here, and the rest of Faultline’s crew.

We reached the first exit, and no sooner had we reached for the door than the handle disappeared.  The gaps separating the door from the wall filled in, as though wax matching the color of the door was dripping through the gaps.  There were similar things happening at the other entrances, I saw, the doors fading into the walls, becoming little more than discolored blotches.  Nobody else had seemed to notice, with their attention wholly focused on the woman who was making her way down from the stage with the vial for ‘Doug’.

When the fighting had started, Lisa had dissuaded me from using my power, out of a concern that the ensuing riot and chaos would get people hurt, and that the mob might start to hunt for strangers in their ranks.

I had no idea why they were here, but it seemed Faultline was about to crash the party in a far more direct way than we had.  We were about to see that bad scenario unfold, and our escape routes had vanished.

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