Infestation 11.8

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I could see Dr. Q grow more irritated with every person that filed into the office.

Ten people in total.  There were the eight that we’d all packed into the car and fake ambulance Coil had sent.  Lisa, me, Bryce, Charlotte, Minor, Senegal, Jaw and Brooks.  Two more, our drivers, had stepped in to verify everything was okay before leaving to stand guard outside the front of the building.

The good doctor took one look at our group, ordered us to put Bryce on the first bed, then sighed and said he’d patch the rest of us up when he was done with the boy.  Lisa suggested me for the next in line, which means I was made to sit down on the bed in the far corner.  It wound up working out on several levels, because it gave Lisa a chance to talk privately with Minor, and it gave me a chance to have words with Charlotte.

Dr. Q ordered the remainder of Minor’s squad to leave until they were called in, which meant there were more people standing guard outside.  I wondered if it was reaching the point where the guards would attract more problems just by virtue of drawing attention to themselves than we’d face otherwise.

Charlotte looked spooked.  Maybe rightly so.  She had to be aware that she was privy to information and details to a degree that we couldn’t just let her go.

I moved into a cross legged position on the bed, adjusting the pillow behind me to keep the headboard from rubbing against my back.  I pointed, and told Charlottte, “Sit.”

She obeyed, but she sat on the edge with her legs dangling, her body twisted to face me, as if she wanted to be able to run at a moment’s notice.

After some consideration, I frowned and told her, “I don’t know what to do with you.”

“You don’t need to do anything?” She made it a question, a request.

“You’re the first person who knew me that knows about this.”  I paused.  “Or knew of me.”

She looked down at her hands, “I- I don’t… I didn’t see anything.”

“Charlotte,” I frowned, “Look up at me.  Meet my eyes.”

Reluctantly, she did.

“I’m not stupid,” I told her.  “And as cute as that whole cliche is, you and I both know you saw everything.  This is serious.”

She looked at the scene to our left, the doctor, Bryce, Lisa and Minor.  Leaning towards me, she whispered, almost plaintive, “Why did you bring me here?”

“Because you’d already seen too much.  There was no avoiding it.  We couldn’t hide it from you without leaving you behind, and neither of us wanted that to happen, right?”

She shook her head with a glum expression on her face.

Seeing that, I answered her question from before, “I brought you here because I wanted you to know that our group isn’t just a few kids in costumes running around.  We’re an organization.”

“I don’t want to know this!” she said, clutching her pants leg in her hands.

“You need to,” I started.  I was about to go on to say something more, but I was distracted as another group of soldiers entered the room.  They carried a white cooler between them, and set it at Bryce’s bedside. I lost my train of thought as I watched to see if Bryce was okay.

The cooler was opened, and bags of blood were hung on the wall beside Bryce.  Once that was done, the soldiers wordlessly carried the cooler out the door.

I sighed, “Look, Charlotte, I’m not your enemy.”

“You saved my life,” she said.

“That’s maybe an exaggeration.  I saved you from being assaulted by those men, probably-”

I could see her shrink into herself.

“-I’m sorry.”  I finished, lamely.

“You’re a villain,” she said, and it took me a second to realize it was more of a non-sequitor than an admonishment for reminding her of what had nearly happened to her.

“I’m a villain,” I agreed.

“And you’re going to tell me that if I ever open my mouth, you’ll kill me.”

“That is one option.  Or, theoretically speaking, I could hurt you or your loved ones.”

She deflated, which was pretty impressive given that she hadn’t exactly been brimming with vigor before I’d opened my mouth.  It was like she didn’t even have the energy to be afraid.

“I’m not going that route,” I told her, “I don’t want to be that kind of bad guy.”

She looked up at me.

“I’m improvising, and you’re going to have to forgive me if my ideas are a little rough around the edges… but two ideas spring to mind.  Number one is that you leave.  I’m offering you an out.”

“Leave?  The city?”

I nodded.  “Leave Brockton Bay.  You have any family here?”

“My mom.  She’s doing the training to join the construction crews.”

“You’d leave the city with your mom.  Put all this behind you, the ruined city, what happened at the mall, me, everything.”

“And I wouldn’t say anything,” she finished my thought.

“Right.  You’d keep your mouth shut.  Because if you did start discussing stuff you shouldn’t know?  Those soldiers, the hackers, the plants we have with police and FBI and government?  My psychic friend over there?  They’d find you.”

I could see her clutch her pants leg a little tighter.

“And believe me, Charlotte, I don’t want to hurt you.  But it would be out of my hands.  I’m not the top dog here.  The person in charge?  They would handle things after that.  Understand?  They would handle you.”

“I’m not saying anything.  Really.”

“I know.  And I know you wouldn’t say anything even hinting at what you know, unless it was to a therapist and you were absolutely sure it was confidential.  That’s what I’m proposing.”

Her head hung, “I… don’t think I can leave like that.  I wanted to, before all of this, but my zaydee, my grandpa, he refuses to leave, and he can’t take care of himself when the city’s like this.  It’s why we didn’t evacuate.”

“You could tell your mom and grandpa some of what happened.  That the Merchants got you, that you got away, that you don’t feel safe here.”

She buried her face in her knees.  “No.”

“Okay.  So that leaves option two.”

“I-” she started.  She stopped when I raised one hand.

“Don’t say anything until I explain it.  I’ll forget what I want to say if I get distracted.  You’re going to work for me.  And every doubt and possibility that just made you tense up at that idea?  It’s not going to happen.  You’ll be safe.  Safer than you were before.  You won’t have to do anything illegal unless you’re willing.”

“I’d still be helping you, I’d be helping a criminal, indirectly.”

“You would.  But I think you’d be surprised at my approach.  I’m not looking to hurt innocents.  I’m not pushing hard drugs, I’m not demanding protection money.”

“Then what are you doing?”

Funny, how everything always seemed to tie back to the beginning.  I was put in mind of the conversation I’d had with the Undersiders on our second meeting.  The same conversation that had led to me joining them.

“I’m afraid the full details only come with membership,” I echoed Lisa’s words to me from back then.

“I don’t really have much of a choice, do I?”

“You do.  More than you think.  Don’t give me a response just yet.  Think about it for a bit.  You’re staying at least until you get those scrapes and scratches looked at.”

Charlotte looked at her hands.  Her knuckles and fingertips were torn up, and she had a shallow cut on the side of her neck.  “This isn’t anything worth worrying about.”

“The way this city is right now?  You’ll get an infection if you don’t get that taken care of.  Relax.  Believe it or not, you’re safer right here, right now, than you’ve been for the past few weeks.  Breathe, think about what you want to do.”

She glanced around, and I could tell she didn’t believe me.  Still, she met my eyes and offered me a nod.

Well, I hadn’t solved the Charlotte problem just yet, but I’d at least addressed it.  If I was honest with myself, part of the reason I told her to wait on her answer was to buy myself a reprieve, give myself time to think.

Maybe that was a bad idea, because being left to ponder let the anxiety build up.  I was worried.  Not just about Charlotte, but about my territory.  Had the Merchants attacked it in the meantime?  Lisa had said they would mostly be at the party, but I couldn’t be absolutely sure.  Grue would have been watching it for me, but he’d be tired, and he didn’t have the same awareness over the area that I did.

I almost regretted leaving for this, for Bryce, even though I knew I’d do it again.

If anything calmed me down, it was seeing Lisa with the two squad leaders.  She laughed a little, and put her hand on the arm of the other squad captain, Fish.  When she caught me looking her way, she smiled and gave me a wink.

When Dr. Q had done everything he could for Bryce, he turned his attentions to me.  I got more stitches, in my arm this time, which was fun.  I also got to see every single one of my cuts and scrapes fizz with foam as he disinfected my injuries, which stung like hell.

He was nearly done when a knock came at the door.  Jaw was on the other side, and he was escorting Sierra, as I’d requested.  She went immediately to Bryce’s bedside.

“His hand,” she said.

“Things got violent,” Lisa said, stepping towards her.  “We didn’t start it, but they got ugly.”

Sierra nodded mutely, then turned to Bryce.  She knelt at the side of the bed and held his intact hand.

“I’m sorry,” Lisa said.

Sierra shook her head, her dreadlocks swinging, “No.  I understand.  The hand isn’t your fault.  He’s here and he’s alive because of you.”

“No.  I’m sorry because I have something to tell you that’s going to be hard to hear.  But you need to know this.”

Sierra looked up, her brow creased in concern, “Did they drug him?  Dirty needles?  Did they… was he-”

“They didn’t touch him,” Lisa reassured Sierra, “But that’s because he wasn’t one of their victims.  He was one of them.”

Sierra shook her head, “No.  You must have misunderstood.”

“The people who attacked the church?  He was with them.  He got hurt helping them fight to win some prize the leaders were offering.”

“No,” Sierra shook her head again.  “He wouldn’t!”

Lisa shrugged, unable to find the words to convince her.

Sierra sounded angry now.  She stood, confronting Lisa, “No!  Where’s Skitter?  Where’s your boss?”

I hesitated.  My secret identity, such as it was, was already falling apart.  It wasn’t that I was that committed to it, since I wasn’t ‘Taylor’ that much of the time these days, but there was always that worry in the back of my mind that I was burning my bridges as far as being able to go back home, or that I was possibly giving out clues that someone could use to trace back to my dad and hurt him.

On the other hand, I could see how Sierra was on the verge of losing it.  I couldn’t tell if she was going to cry, hit Lisa or say something she shouldn’t, but I couldn’t let her do anything that would get her in trouble with the soldiers.  I stood from the bed.

“Sierra,” I called out.

She wheeled on me.  I watched her expression change as she stared at me and realized who I was.

“You got hurt,” she said, looking almost stunned by that realization.  How bad did I look, that my injuries distracted her from her brother?  Or was it the realization that a supervillain could get hurt?

“Things got ugly,” I said.  Then I added, with emphasis, “Lisa wasn’t lying.”

She shook her head, “It doesn’t make any sense.  He wouldn’t do that.  It doesn’t fit with the guy I grew up with, ate dinner with.”

Lisa spoke from behind her, “His parents were in the hospital, his home and school was gone, and he was a scared, confused kid that was offered a community and the power to change things.  It’s like what cults do.  They prey on people who are at their most vulnerable, people who are lost, with no attachments, who are hungry and weak.  It’s easy to underestimate how readily they can get to someone.”

“Fuck!”  Sierra turned to kick the side of Bryce’s bed. “Is that supposed to be an excuse?  No way he gets off that easy!  He joined them, you said!  He wasn’t brainwashed when he fucking decided to go with him!”  She kicked the bed again, hard enough that it shifted an inch or two away from her.

I could see the Doctor start forward in response to the assault on his furniture and patient, but Minor, Jaw and Fish moved first.

“Guys, stop,” I ordered.

They did.  It was kind of strange, to have people listening to me.  Sierra turned and saw the soldiers, and I could see emotions flicker across her face.

“He’s not getting off easy,” I said, “He lost most of his hand.  I’m not a doctor, but he might lose the rest, depending on how the circulation is.”

“He’ll lose his remaining fingers, keep the thumb,” the Doctor spoke.

“So he’ll have the rest of his life with that as a reminder of his bad call,” I told her.  “The real question is what we do with him.”

Sierra was so focused on the responsibility, the blame and the betrayal that I think it took her a few seconds to process the problems that came with getting her brother back.  I could see it hit her, the idea that she might have to repeat the experience of losing her brother, with all of the same pain and worry, the moment he got a chance to slip away.

Dr. Q apparently didn’t care about the drama.  Once he was more or less confident that Sierra wouldn’t be disturbing his patient, he got up and walked over to Charlotte to start patching up the girl.  I walked over to Sierra and led her away from her brother’s bedside to the far corner of the room, next to Charlotte and the doctor, where she wasn’t getting in anyone’s way.

“Can you keep him?” she asked, as we stopped.

“Can I offer him a bed?  Theoretically.  But he’s just going to run.  Not that there’s anywhere for him to run to, but-”

I stopped as I saw a confused expression on her face.

“The Merchants may be done for.”

“Because of you?”

I shook my head, “Someone else.  The leaders got pretty badly embarassed, they may have trouble getting their followers to respect them after getting their asses kicked like they did.  The actual criminals would still be on the streets, probably, but they won’t be as organized.  Add infighting, rival groups, greed… they won’t be as focused.”

“But that girl said my brother was with the people from the Church, he could find them, or they could find him.”

“They’re not a consideration any more,” I told her.

Her eyes widened.  “Because of what I asked you to do?”

What was the proper response, here?  I felt like anything I told her might offend her.  If I said yes, would she be horrified?  If I said no, would she see it as a failure on my part?

“In small part because of that, yes,” I admitted, leaving it vague.

Her forehead creased in a frown.

“Look,” I admitted, “I need to get back to my territory.  If you need a place to stay, you’re welcome to come with, but we do need to decide what to do with Bryce.”

“Can you keep him prisoner?  Until he comes to his senses?’

“I would if I thought it would do any good.  He’s only going to get angry and resentful at being locked up, and he’ll be all the more eager to run.”

“But he’s going to run anyways.”

“Probably.  He won’t believe me if I tell him about his buddies.”  It doesn’t help that Lisa lied to him about Sierra.

“So what do we do?”

I was at a loss for an answer.  I turned and called across the room, “Lisa!”

She broke away from her conversation with Minor and Fish to join us.  “‘Sup?”

“We’re worried the kid will run.  You have any ideas on what would work?”

She shrugged. “What if you give him what he wants?”

“Which is?”

“He wants excitement, he wants to feel like a grown up, he wants respect, and maybe a bit of power at a time in his life he maybe feels pretty powerless, what with losing his house, his family, his safety, all that.”

“Okay.  And we do this by?”

“With your okay, I’d recruit him.”

“That sounds like a monumentally bad idea,” I admitted.

“The soldiers there can keep him in line.  I’ll keep him away from Senegal and Brooks.  Minor, Pritt and Jaw could watch him and instill some discipline in him, and they’re uniquely equipped to track him down if he tries to slip away.  I’d keep him out of trouble, and have him gather information and act as a pair of eyes on the street.  He’ll hate it at first, with the soldiers giving him a hard time, on top of the missing hand, but I think he’ll take to it once he’s actually doing something concrete.  What kid doesn’t want to be a secret agent?”

I had my doubts, but I didn’t want to shoot Lisa’s idea down.  So I looked to Sierra and asked, “Thoughts?”

She frowned.  “Can it be temporary?  I don’t want him to be locked into anything even after schools get going again and we’re trying to get things normal again.”

“It can be temporary,” Lisa assured her.

“He doesn’t get hurt.”

“He’ll have one of those guys with him ninety percent of the time,” Lisa said, pointing to Minor, Jaw and Fish.

I saw Sierra look at me, noting my injuries, and I knew exactly what she was thinking.  Still, she kept her mouth shut on that particular topic.  “Okay.  But I join too, so I can keep an eye on him.”

“I’d love to take on another recruit,” Lisa smiled.  She turned to me, “But she saw you first.”

Sierra looked between the two of us, then asked Lisa, “You don’t work for Skitter?”

“Partners, believe it or not,” Lisa replied.  “We’re controlling different territories.”

“Oh.  Two territories.”

“Nine,” Lisa corrected her.  “Nine villains, nine territories.  The city isn’t getting better and the people in charge aren’t up to the task, so we’re taking over.”

“You’re trying to fix things?”

“Some of us.  Most of us.  Some of us want to help, like Skitter there, and others are doing it because we know that when things are up and running again, we’re going to be a part of the status quo.”  Lisa grinned.

I spoke up, “That’s the basic idea of what we’re doing.  You heard what I said to the people in my territory.  I’m trying to get people fed, I want them safe, and I wanted to help you and your brother.  If you’re working for me, that’s the sort of thing you’re going to be helping me with.”

Sierra shook her head, “I only said I’d join because I wanted to keep an eye on my brother.”

Lisa shrugged, “Then I’ll make you a deal.  You join Skitter’s group, and I’ll give you a contact number.  Whoever is babysitting Bryce will have the answering phone, to give you an update on your brother, anytime, anywhere.  Or put you on the phone with him, if that’s what you want.”

“That’s not-”

“It’s not perfect, no.  But Skitter’s probably going to let you head into my territory to see Bryce any time you want-”

“Definitely,” I interjected.

“-and not to put too fine a point on it, but the guilt over betraying you, coupled with resentment, and the fact that he’s in this rebel-against-your-parents phase and you’re the closest thing he has to a parent right now? It’s maybe best if you give him his space.”

I saw the faintest change in Sierra’s facial expression, saw her look over at Bryce, her eyebrows drawing together.  Lisa’s words had hurt her.  They’d been true, no doubt, but I had to find a way of gently suggesting that Lisa take a gentler approach.

“Okay,” Sierra said to me.  “But I can leave any time.”

“You can,” I replied.

“And I will, the moment you break our deal, or the moment Bryce gets hurt.”

“I believe you.”

She stuck out her hand to me and I shook it.

“Now go,” Lisa said, “I’ll send Sierra your way with one of my boys, when she’s done visiting Bryce and seeing that he’s settled in.  I know you’re itching to check on your territory.”

I nodded.  “Thank you.  For the help finding Bryce, for making this work, here.”

She grinned and waved a hand at me, “No problem, no problem.”

I gave Lisa a quick hug before heading over to Charlotte.

There was no negotiation.  She was close enough to have heard some of our conversation, and she’d seen the bit with Sierra, besides.  Whatever it was, it seemed to have grounded her.  She didn’t look as uncertain as before, and she had one hand extended for me to shake.

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Because really, you can leave the city.”

She shook her head, “My grandfather needs to stay.  He’s spent the latter half of his life in his home, and I think it would kill him to leave.”

“If you’re sure,” I told her.  She nodded.

I shook her hand.

“Grue?” I hollered into my lair, as Charlotte and I stepped inside.  “Mask on!  Got a guest here!”

Despite Lisa’s relatively cavalier attitude on the subject and my own concessions, there was no point in spoiling his secret identity, too.

“Right!” he called down from upstairs.  In a moment, he came down the stairs, his helmet on.  He stopped as he saw me, “What happened?”

“Bit of a scuffle.”  I replied.  I’d had a chance to see myself in the mirror.  The bruise on my cheekbone had been a nice mottled yellow-green.  I asked, “Any trouble?”

He shook his head.  He wasn’t smothered in darkness, so his voice was normal as he said, “Quiet.  Was your errand successful, at least?”

“Successful enough.  This is Charlotte, one of my new… employees.” What was I supposed to call them?  Henchmen, employees, minions?

“Already recruiting?” he whistled, low.

“Two new hires.  The other girl’s going to be on her way in a while.”

“You’ve gotta slow down.  I only heard what you’d done to take control here after I’d arrived.  I was worried you’d provoked a war and left me to handle things, until Lisa told me the major threats were occupied elsewhere.”

“Sorry.”

“Seriously, you’re moving fast on this.  Imp and I have only just started rooting out the gangs and other criminals in our territory.  We haven’t even talked about who we’re going to recruit or how.”

“I’ll explain later?”

“You don’t have to.”

“I want to.  Just… later.”

“I’m getting the feeling I’m in the way,” Charlotte spoke up, “Is there any place I can go to get out of your hair?”

“Kitchen, if you’re hungry, or-”  I stopped as she practically lit up at the suggestion.  I pointed at the kitchen, “Go.  Take whatever, enjoy.”

It was gratifying to see her glee as she started rifling through the cabinets to find piles of stuff ranging from treats to dry pasta to cases of soda.  Grue and I migrated to the empty room that had held the supply crates, where we were able to see Charlotte but not necessarily in earshot.

“If you’re pushing yourself this hard to prove yourself to me-“

“It’s not that.”

“Okay.  But really, you don’t need to prove yourself.  You know Tattletale just called me on the phone?  Ten minutes ago?”

Ten minutes ago, I would’ve just left the doctor’s place, en route for my lair with Charlotte.  I frowned.  “What did she say?”

“Chewed me out big time, about how I was being too hard on you, after the… revelations at the hospital, about turning you down.  Calling me a clod, basically.”

I felt a flush warm my ears.  “I told her not to interfere.”

“Well, she did, and I think she was right to.  I’ve been a bit hard headed.”

I shrugged.  Couldn’t agree without offending him, but I didn’t disagree either.   I’d been stubborn in my own ways too.

He asked, “So do you want to call it even?  I said it before, but I thought maybe we could become best friends, somewhere down the line.  I’d like to go there again, if you’re willing.  If it’s not awkward or-“

I felt the flush deepen and hurried to interrupt him before he could bring up my asinine confession again, “It’s good.  Yes.  Let’s go with that.”

“Good.”  He clapped one hand on my shoulder.  A sign of camraderie, friendship, with the subtle effect of reinforcing that I was at arm’s length.  Or was I reading too much into things?

I could live with it.  It was worlds better than the quiet hostility and hurt I’d been sensing from him as of late.

“Is it cool if I drop by sometime?” he asked.  “So we can keep each other up to date, or maybe just hang out?”

“Hanging sounds good,” I answered him, feeling lame as I said it.

“I’m gonna go sleep.  Long day.  You take care of yourself, alright?” he said by way of a goodbye as he headed for the door.

I nodded, “You too.”

When I walked over to the kitchen, Charlotte had a box of toaster strudels in one hand and a package of cookie dough in the other.  She’d washed her face, and only trace amounts of the caked-on makeup were still there.  She looked worlds younger, and was like a little kid as she asked me, “Can I use your oven?”

“Go for it.  But I get some,” I smiled.

As my new minion set about figuring out the oven, I was able to stop for a moment.  Doubts and insecurities still weighed on me, but I couldn’t feel guilty for not making more progress today.  I’d done what I could to move forward on my plan to help Dinah.  Both Lisa and Brian had acknowledged that I was making great strides forward, and that gave me hope that I might be impressing Coil as well.

Things weren’t perfect, but they were better.  I was on speaking terms with Brian, I was making headway on my plans, Lisa was making headway on her end of things, and in some small way, I felt like I’d finally followed through with that dream I’d had at the start of the year, of being a superhero.

I was a villain.  I’d given the order to let a man die.   Maybe my abandonment of Thomas would weigh on my conscience more after I got some sleep and my thoughts were clearer.  Maybe not.  But I’d also done something to help people, without ulterior motives.   I’d given Sierra her brother back, I’d saved Charlotte.  I was happy about that.

All in all?  If I didn’t think too hard about it?  I could feel cautiously optimistic for the first time in a long while.  For the first time in weeks, months, I could feel like everything just might work out.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Infestation 11.7

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

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.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Infestation 11.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“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.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Infestation 11.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Leviathan’s attack and the waves had done a huge amount of damage to the shopping center, and it seemed like the Merchants had interrupted the efforts to shore it up and rebuild.  Construction equipment had been left behind and bore the decorations of the same hooligans that had hotwired and taken them for their own use.  The bulldozer closest to me had been spray painted in hues of purple, blue and red, and it had bras, children’s toys and defaced flags strung around it, among other things.  Clothes racks from one of the clothing stores in the mall had been tied crudely to the scoop and the jutting parts had been clubbed into rough points, as if they thought they could use the vehicle to run into people and impale them.

Trash cans had been dragged into place around the mall, and burned with an acrid smell of melted plastic and rancid meat.  Countless Merchants had gathered, some perching on piles of trash or rubble as lookouts, and it seemed like everyone was striving to be heard over the music that blared from the countless speakers that were set up in and around the mall.  Not every set of speakers was playing the same music, or even the same kinds of music.  The blend of a half-dozen techno, dance and rap tracks devolved into a single grating, uneven noise.

Senegal put his hand on my shoulder again, and I didn’t stop him.  As a group, we approached the side of the building where two larger guys were standing guard. They noted the elastic bands that Lisa and Minor wore, handed each a red elastic, and then waved them through.

“They’re with us,” Lisa spoke, gesturing towards the rest of us.  The guy gave Senegal and I the go ahead to pass, and I took the offered rubber band and pulled it around my wrist.  The second we were clear, I brushed Senegal’s hand from my shoulder.  He smirked at me in response.

“No faggots,” the other man spoke.

We looked back and I saw Jaw and Brooks with a small crowd around them.

Jaw looked at Lisa, and she gave a discreet hand signal, making a fist and tapping her leg twice.

A moment later, Jaw was stepping in close and slamming the heel of his hand into the doorman’s nose.  He fell roughly on a pile of rubble, and his ‘friend’ who’d been guarding the door with him stepped forward.  Jaw caught the man’s hand and pulled him in close, smashing his skull into the man’s nose.  As the man fell, blood gushing from his nose, Jaw straightened, cracking his knuckles.

“Anyone else want to complain?” Jaw asked.

Nobody did. I was surprised at how quickly people backed off and went back to whatever they’d been doing before.

Jaw collected two red elastics, put a hand on the small of Brooks’ back and nudged him inside.

The interior was so crowded we could barely navigate, and it was rank with the sweet and sour smells of sweat and garbage that had just started to reek.  Body lice had found hosts with a full fifth of the people here, and more were spreading to new hosts in the shoulder to shoulder press of the crowd.  The tide of bodies around us might have crushed us if our bodyguards weren’t clearing the way.  Senegal and Minor simply pushed through the crowd with enough force that some fell over, while Jaw and Brooks followed our group.  Nobody complained too loudly, and from the way others took it in stride, it seemed this was the norm.  Here, I was coming to understand, might made right.

Judging by the packs of people, ‘might’ wasn’t necessarily physical strength.  Those who had the force of numbers at their backs or the better weapons could do what they wanted.   If they didn’t have numbers, sheer physical strength or weaponry that put them one step above the other guys?  They became victims instead.

“Want to buy a lady?  Or maybe a sir?” one of the vendors leered at Minor.  A group of men and women were gathered in a ‘stall’ behind him, watched by another Merchant.  Were they whores or slaves?  I wasn’t sure I wanted to think too long about it.

“No,” Minor answered.  “Have a girl.”

“Get a second!  Or do you want something else?  Got bullets, got some treats.  Booze?  Bad?  K?  Decadence?  Madman?  Nose powder?”

“Not interested,” Minor answered.

“Not.  Interested.”  The Merchant rubbed his chin, looking skeptical, “Right.”

“Wait,” Lisa grinned.  “Decadence sounds good.  How much?”

“Twenty per.”

“Bullshit,” she replied.  “Not even if it was pure, which it probably isn’t.  Eight bucks.”

“Ah, we have an expert here, do we?  Can’t blame me for trying.  You have to understand, it’s hard to get product with things the way they are.  Ten.”

“Eight.”

He looked around, stared at her for a few seconds, then conceded, “Eight.”

“For me and two of my buddies here.  That’s twenty-four bucks?”

The man nodded eagerly, “Twenty-four.”

She forked over a ten and a twenty and collected her change and three pills.  She turned to me, “Open up.  It’s ecstasy.”

“I dunno,” I answered her, feeling legitimately nervous.  I didn’t want to refuse her outright and blow our cover, but I definitely didn’t want to get high.  I was uncomfortable enough with the idea to begin with, but doing it here, in this kind of chaos?

“Trust me,” she told me.

Obediently, I opened my mouth.  She pressed one small pill down on my tongue.  I closed my mouth.  She turned to Brooks and gave him one as well.

As our bodyguards led us through the crowd, she leaned over until our heads were touching, “Sugar pills.  A little sleight of hand on my part.  Just for appearances.  Don’t stress.”

“Could’ve fucking told me,” I hissed.  I wasn’t sure if she could hear me over the pounding music, but if anyone could fill in the blanks in what I’d said, it would be her.

More people were pushing product and stolen goods at the edges of the mall, some pimped others or prostituted themselves, while yet others were scrounging through the stores and then offering their finds for cash or barter.  The roof at the center of the mall had collapsed and what remained was shored up, but there was a gaping hole that was open to the darkening sky.  Beneath that hole, the party was already underway.  People were dancing, fighting, clustering in groups or chanting.  Sometimes two or three at a time.

As we found some breathing room, Lisa gathered the group together.  I withdrew the picture, “We’re looking for this guy.”

Nobody disagreed or debated the point, not even Brooks.  Senegal had dropped the smirk and was all business as he remained at my right shoulder, tall enough to see over the top of the gathered people.  On the far end of our group, Minor did much the same thing.  That left Lisa and I between them.  Brooks and Jaw left to go looking on their own.

In front of us, someone got tackled to the ground.  His attacker began pounding at his face, while the people around them cheered.  We detoured around that group, which brought us face to face with an exhibition.

The scene was set at the front of a woman’s clothing shop, and the window had been shattered.  Where the mannequins stood in the display window, there were three women and a girl.  The women were trying on their clothes, openly undressing and then dressing in whatever the throng of people around them threw their way.  Their eyes had the glazed over looks of people who were on something, and their skin shone with a faint sheen of sweat.  They smiled as they posed provocatively and hugged the mannequins, showing off the clothes.

As if the clothes were what the crowd was there to see, and not the skin that was revealed while the women changed.

The teenage girl at the far right of the stand was another story.  She was dark-haired and the makeup she wore looked like it had been applied by someone who hadn’t used makeup before.  She clutched the collar of her sweatshirt in both hands and stepped back as the crowd surged forward, reaching for her.  Being barefoot, she couldn’t step down from the display platform without stepping onto broken glass, and any attempt at running would only lead her into the reaching mass of Merchants.  If she’d taken the same drugs as the other women, fear had already sobered her up.  She looked entirely alert and she looked terrified.  No red band on her wrist.  She wasn’t here by choice.

Someone climbed up onto the platform, grabbing at one of the women.  He wasn’t up there for two seconds before the crowd dragged him down and threw him to the ground.  The people around him stomped and kicked him for his temerity.

That was social cooperation on a really twisted level.  From my interpretation, they weren’t doing it for the women, but for themselves.  They all wanted the women, but if someone stepped up to take one for himself, they’d collectively beat him, for trying to take what they’d silently agreed to share by way of watching.

That meant the teenage girl’s situation was especially grim.  She couldn’t run, and if she didn’t give the crowd a show, they’d lose patience with her and treat her just as they had the other guy, or worse.  If she did give them a show?  With the way emotions were running high, I expected things would turn ugly right around the moment the crowd started to get bored.  Exhibitionism would only buy her time.

“Let’s go.” Lisa pulled on my arm.

“We should help her.”

Lisa glanced at the girl, “There’s at least a hundred people here that need help.  We can’t save them all.”

“We should help her,” I growled the words, “I won’t fucking sleep tonight if I walk away from this.”

“You’ve got a little superhero showing through, there,” she whispered right into my ear.

“I am going to help her, with or without you,” I hissed, “Even if that means using my powers and throwing subtlety to the winds.”

“Okay, okay.  Probably don’t have to go that far.  Hold on.”

Lisa pulled on Minor’s arm, and he bent down so she could speak in his ear.

Minor straightened, and with one fist clenched, he made his way through the crowd, pushing people to either side, and then stepped onto the stage.

The insults hurled his way were impossible to make out over the noise of the music and the larger crowd.  He ignored them as he stepped behind the girl, caught her around the waist, and then threw her over one shoulder.  She screamed.

“I’m buying this one!” he hollered, “Whoever brought her, here’s your fucking money!”

He revealed what was in his clenched fist – money and pills.  The sugar pills Lisa had brought?  He cast them into the crowd, and in that instant, the exhibition was over.  The crowd tore into one another, fighting over what had fallen onto their heads and shoulders, or drifted past them onto the ground.  The other women backed into the clothing store.

As Minor plowed his way through the crowd, Lisa lunged forward.  She caught the wrist of an older man, and I saw that she’d just stopped him from turning a knife on Minor.

I moved to back her up, kicking the guy in the side of the knee.  He dropped the knife and it skittered along the floor to the boundary of the crowd.  I fell on top of it, covering it with my body to prevent anyone else from taking it, then grabbed it for myself at the first opportunity.  Senegal helped clear the crowd out of the way so Minor had an exit route, and I stood, pointing the knife at anyone who looked like they might make a move for us.  The size and muscle of our bodyguards posed too much risk for the Merchants here, with the potential rewards of getting the girl from them being far too scarce compared to the immediate rewards that were in arm’s reach.  The crowd let them be and continued to scrabble for the bills and pills.

We legged it in making distance from there, and the girl screamed and kicked the entire way.  People around us laughed and hooted.  I couldn’t make out everything that was said, but there were lewd comments and dirty remarks cast our way.

I was swiftly losing faith in humanity.  Not that I had much to spare.

How many people had joined the Merchants after everything went to hell?  One in two hundred of the people who’d declined to evacuate the city?  One in a hundred?  One in fifty?  How many of these people had been ordinary citizens until civilization broke down?  Had I passed any of these people on the street while going about my day?

We headed into a hallway that branched off into a side entrance and bathrooms, but the rubble blocking the door and the lack of water in the bathrooms left little purpose for the area beyond being a quieter spot, away from the party.  Lisa signaled, and Senegal moved to stand guard at the entrance.

The hallway now held only Minor, Lisa, me and the rescued girl, along with two small groups of younger people.  There was a couple making out at the far end of the hallway, getting hot and heavy, oblivious to their audience.  Nearer to us, in the alcove that led to the out-of-order bathrooms, there was a trio of teenagers that were so plastered with drink that they couldn’t sit upright.  Empty bottles were scattered around them.  It was as much privacy as we’d get.

Minor put the girl down, and she immediately shrank back, getting her feet under her as if ready to bolt.

“You’re safe,” Lisa assured her.  “We’re not doing anything to you.”

The girl wiped at her eye with the back of one hand, smearing thick eyeshadow and eyeliner across her temple.  “But-”

“She’s right,” Minor spoke, standing, “You’re as safe as you’re gonna get for the next little while.”

“Oh god,” the girl sobbed.  She moved forward, ready to give Minor a hug, but he stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.  He didn’t speak, but only turned to Lisa.

“Don’t thank him.  Thank her.”  Lisa looked my way.  “We wouldn’t have gone out of our way to help if she hadn’t been stubborn.”

Before I had a chance to respond, the girl threw her arms around me, hugging me tight.

Lisa motioned to Minor, and he headed off to join Senegal in guard duty, leaving the rest of us alone.  Better, probably, if the girl’s state left her uncomfortable or spooked around guys.

“Thank you,” the girl sobbed into my shoulder.

I hugged her back, reflexively, a little shaken.  Why had it taken this long for someone to say that simple thing to me?  I’d wanted to be a hero, once upon a time.

“I didn’t do anything,” I managed to get the words out.

“Thank you,” she repeated.

I stood, letting the girl rest her hands on my shoulders to get to a standing position herself.  I glanced at Senegal and Minor.  No problems there.

“Oh my god.”  I wasn’t sure who it was.

It was the girl we’d rescued, staring at me.

“What?”

“You go- you went to Winslow High.”

“No,” I stepped back, pulling my shoulders out from beneath her hands.

“Yes.  You’re the locker girl.  I almost didn’t recognize you without the glasses, but everyone at school knows who you are.  You’re with the Merchants now?”

“You’re thinking of the wrong person,” I said, with a note of irritation in my voice.

“No, I’m almost positive.  You were that girl that got shoved in that rank locker with all that stuff they carted away in biohazard bags.  The girl who went so mental they had to have a group of cops and paramedics haul you away for the first month of the semester.”

“Enough!” I shouted, suprised at my own temper.  The group of teenagers who were having drinks by the bathroom turned to look at us.

Seeing my burst of anger, the girl did a complete one-eighty, from awe and surprise to desperate apologies.  That didn’t necessarily improve things.  “Oh god, I’m sorry.  You know, I didn’t think about how it would bother you, saying that.  I really did want to help, you know, to do something back then, but-”

“But you didn’t,” I growled at her.  “Just like everyone else, you left me in that locker.  You didn’t go get help.  You didn’t report the people who did it, not even anonymously.  You felt bad?  You wanted to help?  Is that supposed to mean something to me?  Is it supposed to be some consolation? You were too lazy or cowardly to step up and do anything about it, but hey, at least your heart was in the right fucking place, huh?”

“No, that’s not…” there were tears in her eyes, and she was having trouble stringing words together.  I should have felt bad, for going off on someone who was probably in a pretty delicate emotional state, but I wasn’t feeling particularly gentle.

“You obviously heard the story about me being hospitalized, you probably helped spread it.”

“You don’t understand,” she said.  She startled as Brooks passed Minor and Senegal and approached us with a brisk stride.  It threw her off her stride, and she stumbled over her words as she tried to pull her excuse together.  “Um.  It, um.  It was Emma Barnes, she-”

Brooks had reached Lisa’s side and informed her, “Found him.”

“Emma Barnes what?” I asked the girl, trying to bring her focus back to the conversation we’d been having.

She looked from Brooks to me, and I could see how lost she was.

“Nevermind,” I cut her off before she started stumbling over her words again.

“What’s going on?”  the girl asked.

“We came here for an errand,” Lisa answered her, “Up to ‘locker girl’ here to decide if you can tag along.”

“You can’t- you can’t leave me here,” the girl said, eyes widening.  She looked to me, pleading.

I sighed.  “She can come.”

“More dead weight,” Brooks frowned.

I raised an eyebrow.  “For someone with the primary job of giving people medical care, you’re pretty dead-set against helping others.”

“I have a low tolerance for people who get themselves into an ugly situation and then expect others to bail them out.”

“That’s fine,” Lisa said.  “Just so long as you do your job.”

“I always do,” Brooks retorted.

“What’s going on?” the girl said, for the second time, “Who are you?”

“Just shut up and keep up,” I said.  We joined Senegal and Minor at the entrance to the hallway, then followed Brooks’s lead as he strode across the mall.  We got bogged down once more in the press of people dancing, jumping and grinding in the center of the mall.  We would have lost sight of Brooks, but he hopped up onto the side of the water fountain by the collapsed stairwell to get high enough for us to see him.  Minor and Senegal cleared the way for the rest of us.

“I’ll do the talking?” Lisa offered.

“Sure,” I said.  It made sense.  If we did rescue Bryce, I didn’t want either him or his sister making a connection between Skitter and the girl in his rescuer’s group.

As we reached the side of one grouping of stalls, I spotted Jaw standing in front of Bryce.  He had one steel-toed boot planted on the same wooden bench that Bryce was seated on, his broad gut almost in the boy’s face.  Beside Bryce was a teenaged girl with bleached blond hair, who was almost lying across the bench in her attempt to keep back from Jaw.  There was nobody near enough to Bryce to be his kidnapper, nobody with a weapon, no handcuffs or chains.

Shit.  I didn’t like what that suggested.

“This your boy?” Jaw asked, as he noticed us.

“Yeah,” Lisa said, without even glancing at me.  “What happened, Brycie?  You join the Merchants and neglect to tell your sister, go to stay with her, and then give all the info on where she’s staying to your new friends?  You that big a scumbag?”

Bryce scowled.  I could see him trying to look confident in front of his girlfriend.  “Not what happened.”

“Then tell me a story, kid.  Keep in mind, what you say plays a big role in what happens in the next few minutes.”

“There’s no story to tell,” Bryce glared at her.  “Our house falls down, my family moves in with my dad’s friend.  Everyone else goes to work, I’m left with two of the lamest fucking families ever.  I was doing more chores in a matter of days than I’ve done in the rest of my life combined.”

“Poor baby,” Jaw rumbled.  Bryce looked up at the man and then looked away, angry.

“Got sick, then when I get better my sister drags me to this church, same fucking thing.  Lame people, lame place, and I just know I’ll be doing more fucking chores to ‘earn my keep’.  Fuck that.  Some people came to trash the church, and I figured, hey, there’s a way out.  Have some fun.”  He cast a quick glance at the bleached blond girl next to him.

Fuck.

“Got a reality check for you,” Lisa told him, stepping closer, “Those people who ‘trashed’ the church?  They hurt your sister.”

“What?  No-”

“She’s in ICU, bro,” Lisa lied.

I didn’t get a chance to see where she was going from there, because Lisa was interrupted by a booming voice that rang through the entire mall.  “Hey Sisterfuckers!”

The music had died all at once, and a slow roar spread through the entire mall, rising to a climax.  Cheering.

All heads were turning to look the same direction.  I followed their line of sight.

A crude platform had been pulled together at one side of the mall, where the rubble was piled highest.  The leading figures of the Merchants stood at the front, just behind a railing of metal bars that had been haphazardly welded together.

Skidmark held the microphone and wore his traditional costume, dark blue and skintight, with the lower half of his face and the area around his eyes exposed.  As costumes went, it was pretty lame, even with the cape that he’d added since the last time I’d seen him.  Especially with the cape.  There were people who could pull off that sort of thing, like Alexandria.  Skidmark wasn’t one of them.

His girlfriend was at his side, her shoulder touching his.  Squealer was streaked with oil stains, with some even in her hair.  She wore a white top and jean shorts that were each so skimpy that she was more indecent than she’d be if she had been naked.  She had a remote control in one hand, and her makeup was practically caked on.  Not so dissimilar from the girl we’d just rescued, in that respect.

Beside Skidmark, opposite Squealer, was Mush.  He bore a resemblance to a particular pink skinned, scrawny goblin of a creature from those fantasy movies.  His hair was so thin he might as well be hairless, his large eyes were heavy-lidded with dark circles beneath them, and his skinny limbs were contrasted by a bulging pot-belly.  All of the worst features of an old man and a malnourished child thrown together.  Except he was real; just an ugly, ill person.

Behind them stood their subordinates.  I recognized Trainwreck, but there were five more I couldn’t place.  Five who, for all I knew, were new to the cape scene.

Trainwreck’s presence was interesting.  Was he still with Coil?  On our side?

“That’s more capes than they had a month ago,” I spoke, leaning close to Lisa and pitching my voice low.

“They’ve been recruiting,” Lisa muttered.

When Skidmark spoke, his voice carried through every speaker and set of headphones in the building.  “You quim-jockeys up for tonight’s main event!?  They don’t get any better than this!”

The cheering swelled again, that ear-splitting sound you got when hundreds of people all tried to shout louder than the rest.

Skidmark raised his hands, and then swept them in a downward motion.  Twin shimmers not dissimilar to the heated air you saw above a hot road blasted towards the crowd.  Where the shimmers touched the ground, they changed the color of the flooring, creating bands of glowing ground six or seven feet wide.  After swirling for a moment, the colors settled into a gradient, stretching from violet on one side of the line to a pale blue on the other side.

The people who found themselves in the middle of the effect were dragged towards the blue side, as if they were standing on a steep slope.  The crowd roared, and began pushing people towards the effect.  Anyone who touched the purple side was caught with a greater force, dragged through to the blue side and cast towards the bulk of the crowd, sliding on the ground with enough force to stagger anyone they ran into.  The blue side seemed weaker, with anyone stepping on it finding strong resistance, as if they were trying to move against a strong headwind on oil-slick ground.  Only a handful of people made it out without being pushed back by the effects of Skidmark’s power or by the crowd that ringed the area.

Skidmark repeated the process to draw what I realized was a crude square in the middle of the mall, the ‘blue’ sides facing inward.  As he layered his power over the same area, the colors of the effect became darker, the ground below less visible and the effects on the people were all the more violent.  The blue sides had become dark blue, and instead of simply pushing against those who touched them, they threw people back towards the center of the ring.

“You piss-licking losers know what the red armband means!” Skidmark crowed, “Bloodshed!  Violence!  We’ve got ourselves a free for all brawl!”

The noise the crowd made reached a peak it hadn’t even approached before.

“Last five standing in the ring get a prize!” a mean smile spread across his face.  Even from where I stood on the other side of the mall, I could see how bad his teeth were.  “No rules!  I don’t give a shitstained fuck if you jump in at the last second or if you use a weapon!  Anything goes!”

People howled, hooted and jeered, but I could see some of the faces of the people trapped in the ‘ring’.  Most of them weren’t cheering.

“Fuck me,” Lisa whispered, “He’s trying to get people to have trigger events.  That’s how he’s recruiting parahumans.”

“Our contestants don’t seem to be too excited!” Skidmark shouted.  “Need an incentive?  Let me tell you cockgarglers what you stand to win!”

He snapped his fingers, and one of his powered subordinates, a woman with long hair covering her face, hurried forward.  She held a metal box.

Skidmark placed the case on the railing and popped it open.  He placed what looked like a metal canister on the railing, then withdrew the next.  By the time he was done, five metal cylinders were spaced out in front of him.

He picked up the center canister and began unscrewing it.  “Before, we gave our winners the pick of the pick, the best stuff our boys and girls have been able to grab from the rich assholes with their fancy-as-fuck houses and jobs!”

Every eye in the place was on him.

“But tonight is fucking special, because we won the lottery when we found this shit!”

He withdrew a stoppered glass vial from the canister and gripped it in his right hand.  With his other hand, he held the stainless steel canister.  He thrust both hands over his head, each object clenched tight.

“Superpowers in a can!”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Infestation 11.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Coil had put Bitch’s hideout in an area nobody wanted to be, masked with the appearance of a building nobody sane would want to enter.  Grue’s place and my own lair were camouflaged in outward appearance and set in more discreet locations.  Tattletale’s place, by contrast, was in plain sight, and it was also one of the highest traffic areas I’d come across in the past few days.

The city block that hosted Tattletale’s hideout was a short distance from Lord street, and it sported only two intact buildings.  The first building was a gas station that was currently hosting more than a dozen wrecked or flooded cars that had been dragged off the road.   The rest of the area had lots where buildings had once stood, each bulldozed clear of the rubble that had been left in the wave’s wake and surrounded with sandbags to keep the water from pouring in.

The second building was a sort I’d seen often enough as of late.  I’d stayed in similar places for nearly two weeks before rejoining the Undersiders.  The structure stood in the center of the area, surrounded by tents and communal areas that were sheltered by tarps set over metal frameworks – a dining hall, a medical bay, portable washrooms.  Each of these outdoor stations had dozens of people gathered around them.  It was a shelter.

She’d told me not to dress up, so I hadn’t.  She’d also told me not to wash my hair today, but it was too late for that.  I’d donned a brown spaghetti-strap top, rain boots and a pair of lightweight black pants that were a little worn from the past few weeks, but had the benefit of drying quickly.  My knife was tucked inside the waistband of my pants, at my back.  Not obvious, not entirely hidden either.

Way things were these days, cops were letting things slide as far as concealed and openly displayed weaponry went.  People needed protection, and so long as the armed didn’t break the rules about using the weapons on people who didn’t attack them first, most people wouldn’t give them much trouble.  Some shelters wouldn’t let you in with a weapon, of course, but some did, and others disallowed firearms but let other weapons slide.

I made my way inside, joining the rest of the crowd.  Cots filled the majority of the building’s interior, and both possessions and people made navigating between the beds difficult at best.  Signs were spread out over the walls, some professionally made, others written in plain print with permanent marker:

‘Priority Order: Sick, injured, disabled, old, very young, families.’  In smaller print below was the message, ‘Please be courteous and give up your places to priority individuals.’

‘No pets’ was written on a square of white cardboard in permanent marker and triple underlined.

‘Abuse or threats directed at staff or other residents will NOT be tolerated.’

‘Belongings go under your cot.  Excess + mess may be removed from the area.’

‘No smoking within 30 paces of facility‘ was printed on a professionally made sign, but the line that was scrawled beneath in permanent marker was not: ‘there are sick people here!’

I found a big, burly guy that wore an orange vest and name tag and approached him.  He was talking to someone else, so I waited.

When he turned to me, he frowned, “You wanting to stay here?”

“No, but-”

“Opened our doors yesterday, and we’re already nearly full.  Any more space is reserved for priority people.  If you want a place, you can try the other shelters down-”

“No.  I have a place.  I’m just looking for Lisa.”

“Works-here-Lisa or Staying-here-Lisa?” he asked.

“Both?” I guessed.

“Front desk.  If she’s not there, wait.  She’ll probably be in the back getting something for someone.”

I headed to the front desk where a crowd of people had gathered.  The desk itself was a simple construction of unpainted, unvarnished wood.  The people were wet, dirty and didn’t look to be in the best of health.

Lisa was at the end of the front desk furthest from the front doors, wearing the same orange vest and name tag the other staffer had been.  Her hair was in a french braid, with a few strands hanging free.  She was talking to a woman who might have been fifty or sixty.  A large black and white map of the city had been stapled to the wall behind the counter where Lisa was working.  Colored pins marked various spots on the map, and areas had been outlined and shaded in with markers and highlighters.  Words were written in the boundaries of these sections.  Many areas were marked with yellow highlighter, with the words ‘Merchant Territory: Very Dangerous!’, blue marker, with the words ‘Chosen Occupied: Avoid!’, or variations of such.

The Boardwalk and surrounding area?  Green marker, ‘Skitter: Low threat, free supplies?’

I looked and noted that Tattletale’s area was partially blocked in by black marker.  According to the map it was contested by an overlapping of Grue’s territory and the Merchants.  Red pins marked some of the areas.

I supposed that made sense.  If she left her own territory empty, it would be conspicuous, and it would be strange to mark it as Tattletale’s when she hadn’t done anything noteworthy to claim the space.

“Where did you say your house was?” Lisa asked the older woman.

“Dewitt and Pagne.”

Lisa turned and found the area on the map.  She held the marker so it hovered over the spot.  “And they’d moved in?  You’re sure?”

“They’ve been there for four days, as far as I can tell.  I’m afraid to get too close, but there’s always people there.”

Lisa colored in a small section of the map with yellow highlighter, extending the size of a nearby block of the Merchant’s territory.  “I know it’s small consolation, but at least now others will know to steer clear.”

“Okay,” the woman answered with a note of sadness in her voice. “That’s all I wanted.”

“Things will get better,” Lisa promised, smiling gently.

The woman smiled back in return, glancing at the open area of cots and displaced people.  With a light laugh, she said, “I suppose they have to, don’t they?”

“That’s the spirit.” Lisa grinned.

She was still smiling when she turned my way.  “Lost and found?  Want to check how your neighborhood’s doing?  If you’re looking for someone, you can leave a photo.  Every night, I’ll be taking digital photos and sending them to the other shelters.”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes.  “I’m here because a friend invited me to a party.”

She winked, then shouted, “Dimitri!  Take over for me!”

A man from the crowd behind me shouted his response.  Lisa waved me behind the counter and led me through a door.

“Surprised you aren’t running this place,” I told her.

“Too obvious,” she answered with a smile.  She threw one arm around my shoulders.  “And this lets me be right at the center of things.  Information from the people who are out there every day, watching.”

“Good setup.”

“And it gets better, because I have this.”  She opened another door.

The room was small and it was hot with the running computers that were crammed into it.  Six people were seated at different points in the room, each with their own computer.  Two more computers sat unoccupied.  The walls were scattered with photos, maps, printouts and post-its.  Black tape joined these elements together in a bizarre configuration that looked like part tree and part maze.  All of our enemies were up on the wall: The Merchants, Fenrir’s Chosen, the Pure, the Protectorate, New Wave and the Wards.  There were pages relating to something Lisa was calling Case 53.  Dragon was up there, as was Scion.  The Slaughterhouse Nine were on a bulletin board, but Hatchet Face’s picture was crossed out in red marker.

“Impressive.”

“I’d like to think so.  With word-of-mouth and gossip from the crowd out there and the web info and the concrete data in here, I’m pretty in touch with all that crap.  Except it’s tiring.  I’m feeling the beginning of one of those headaches I get when I use my power too much.  So you and I are going out for some fresh air.”

“Knowing where we’re going, I doubt the air’s that fresh.”

“It’s a saying, kiddo,” she smiled.

“I know.  I’m just a little worried about there being trouble.  I…” I lowered my voice, all too aware that Lisa’s computer guys could see me unmasked.  I didn’t want them to connect the dots.  “…just feel uncomfortable without my stuff.”

“This is strict recon.”

“And the people we’re doing recon on are dangerous.”

“True.  But we’ll have escorts,” she led me into another room: hers.  A quick glance around showed that a section at the back was curtained off, while the front had a desk with a computer, a bank of phones and two television screens.

“Escorts?” I asked, as the door closed behind us.

“Like dates for a really fucked up prom.”  She worked her cell phone out of the pocket of her jeans and dialed. She held one finger up for me, telling me to wait and be silent.

It took a moment before she spoke, “Minor?  I want you, Senegal, Jaw and Brooks in my office.  Civvies.”

As she put the phone away, she shrugged at me.  “I know you’d rather Brian come with, but he’s got his own thing going on, you know?”

“Oh, no.  I’m ok that he isn’t coming,” I told her.  “Things are bad between us.”

“I totally didn’t know you’d confessed to him, you know?  I saw the awkwardness between you two, and the distance, but I assumed it was because you’d used him as a shoulder to cry on.  My power filled in those blanks all wrong.”

“Yup.  Confessed.  Not sure what sucked more.  Him saying he thought of me in the same terms as he thought of Aisha, that he considered me a friend, knowing I’d fucked said friendship up, or him implying he’d only been nice to me because he pitied me.”

She frowned, “I’m going to kick his ass, for being that-”

“No!”

Lisa frowned at me.

I went on, “Don’t interfere, don’t make things worse than they already are.  He’s mad at me, he’s hurt by what I did, and, um,” I bit the corner of my lip between my teeth, tried to think of how to gracefully state what I wanted to say, “We’re already separated.  You get what I mean?  We’re each in our own territory, doing our own things.  If something happened to push us further apart, I dunno if I’d even ever get his friendship back.”

“Oh, Taylor, no-” Lisa started.  Before she could launch into any reassurances, there was a knock on the door.

“Come in!” Lisa called out, then she told me, quickly, “We’ll get into this later.”

Seeing the first three men come into the room, I was left with the distinct impression that Lisa had picked out the biggest, meanest looking men in her retinue.  Then I saw the fourth guy.  Where the first three were in the neighborhood of six feet in height, physically powerful, the fourth was an inch or so shorter than I was, though he was still in good shape.  Better shape than me, for sure, but not someone imposing, like the rest.

Of the four, I noted the guy who was wearing the most wrinkled clothes, with the thick beard and the broad gut.  He wasn’t imposing because he’d packed on muscle like the others, but because he was big, looking like a grizzly bear that was dressed up like a person.  What caught my eye, though, was the ironic fact that this same guy was having the hardest time at shrugging off that stiff-backed, square-shouldered military bearing that had been hammered into him at some point during his onetime career.

These guys were soldiers.  Coil’s, and now Tattletale’s.

Lisa pointed at one of the taller men, a blond guy with a long face.  Not long in terms of being sad, but in terms of how genetics had put it together.  “Minor.  Team captain.”

The next guy, darker haired, with unshaved scruff on his cheeks and chin, she identified as Senegal.

She smiled as she turned to the burly, overweight man.  “Jaw.  I’m still waiting to hear where he got the nickname.”

“No comment,” Jaw rumbled.

That left only the smaller guy.  “Brooks,” she told me, “Our field medic, though I’m hoping we won’t be needing his services there, and ex-airforce.  Handy with radios and computers.  Also pretty good with a gun.”

Jaw nodded assent to that.

“These four will be our lookouts, bodyguards and helping hands on our little errand.  We can pose as couples.”  She grinned at that.

Brooks spoke, and his voice had a hard sing-song accent I had a hard time placing, “Couples?  Four guys and only two girls?”

“Minor escorts me.  Senegal escorts my friend.  And…” she took Jaw’s hand and placed it on Brooks’s shoulder.  “You have your date.”

Jaw laughed, and Brooks turned red, anger etching his face.

“The fuck?” Brooks growled.

“Watch it,” Minor spoke.  He didn’t raise his voice or add any inflection, but I could see Brooks react as if he’d been slapped.

“I could have brought Pritt,” Lisa admitted, “But I’m more comfortable with there being more guys in our group.  Chances are good we’ll get in a minor scuffle somewhere along the way, and way the Merchants operate, they’re going to respect guys more.  Ready to head out?”  She looked at her cell phone’s display.  “Party starts soon, and we’ve got to walk.”

Lisa removed the orange vest and name tag and then walked around to her desk to retrieve a series of colorful elastic bands.  She snapped one around her left wrist, then handed two to Minor.  She wore one yellow.  He wore one yellow and one black.

That done, she led the way out of the shelter, giving a sloppy salute to her ‘boss’ at the front desk.  Together, we walked as a crowd.  We were a block away from the shelter when Senegal put one hand on my shoulder and pulled me closer.

Uncomfortable, I looked up at him to see his expression, and I didn’t like what I saw.  It reminded me of a look I’d seen on Bitch’s face from time to time.  That look where I could see that animal that had been at the core of any of us since before we walked upright.  Just like Bitch, the animal at Senegal’s core was vicious.  The difference was that he was much better at pretending to be normal, and his animal wasn’t angry.  It was hungry.

He wore a polite smile and wasn’t doing anything more offensive than holding me, but something in his demeanor told me that Senegal wasn’t bothered in the slightest to be a thirty-ish guy with a teenage girl in one arm.  Just the opposite.

“Hands off,” I told him.  I didn’t want to remove his arm because I knew that if I failed, if he resisted me, it would only reinforce his position over me.

He didn’t budge.  “Your friend there is the one calling the shots, and she said we’re a couple.  Until I hear different-”

“Knock it off, Senegal,” Lisa ordered him.

The soldier backed off, raising his hands in an ‘I’m innocent’ gesture.  That fake smile was still plastered on his face.  Would I even know it was fake, if I hadn’t spent the time around Bitch?  Or would I just think he was a slightly awkward guy with poor sense of boundaries?

Coil’s guys were supposedly all ex-military.  My gut was telling me that Senegal hadn’t finished his tour or whatever the terminology was.  I couldn’t picture it any other way, having seen what I had.  He’d been relieved of duty.

“The rest of you walk ahead,” Lisa instructed, “I want a few words in private with her.”

“Who is she, anyways?” Brooks challenged her.  “Far as I can tell, she is dead weight.”

“I’m saying there’s a reason she’s here,” Lisa spoke, her voice firm.  “That’s good enough for you.”

“But-”

“Brooks,” Minor cut him off.  “Come.”

Lisa and I let the others walk a bit ahead.

“Doesn’t look like things are perfect here,” I muttered.

“I might have made a move for my territory sooner, if I wasn’t trying to wrangle this.”

“Why’d you stick me with Senegal?”

She frowned.  The others had gotten far enough ahead of us that she felt ok to start walking.  I joined her.

Lisa explained, “Logistics.  I needed Minor around so I could have words with him about our long-term plans, and because I want to build a rapport.”

I nodded.  I wasn’t going to argue that point.

“The problems are Senegal and Brooks.  They’ve become friends, and Brooks is the kind of guy that’s influenced easily by his peers.  He’s good, he’s useful, but he wants to be in Senegal’s camp, and he’s not smooth enough to pull off what Senegal does, even if he’s smart enough to see what Senegal’s all about, so all you get is a dick who could be dangerous if things go the wrong way.  I wanted to keep them separated, so I couldn’t pair them together, and things would be worse if I stuck you with Brooks, on a lot of levels.”

“Okay.  But you have other guys, right?”

“Pritt and Dimitri.  Dimitri’s second in charge of the group, and he’s the only one other than Minor who I trust to run the shelter and everything that goes on in the background.  Our stuff.  Pritt’s good, she’s capable, but she’s a hardass in a way you see with some women in a job dominated by men.  CEOs, high-end lawyers, police officers…”

“And soldiers.  Right.”

“Right.  Compensating for something.  She’d do more harm than good if I left her behind without someone else to supervise, and I already said why I didn’t want her along in our group.  So long as our guys outnumber the girls, we’ll look less like potential victims.”

“Okay.”

“Put up with Senegal.  Hell, if you’re uncomfortable around him, use it.  Not everyone that’s at the Merchant’s party will be a willing participant.  We’ll fit in more if you act skeeved out by him.”

I crossed my arms over my chest and brushed at my shoulders, as if it could shake the feeling of Senegal’s arm resting on me.  “I don’t like showing weakness to a person like that.”  To a bully.

“Play along, and I’ll make sure you never see him again after tonight.  We just need him for this one errand.  He’s got that look that can scare people, without being too obvious about it.  Between him and Jaw, we actually kind of look like Merchants.”

“Okay,” I spoke, jamming my hands into my pockets.

“Tell me about your territory grab?”

I did, going into detail about the play I’d made, dealing with the Merchant who had tried to cut me, encountering Battery, then returning to my lair to fend off my enemies from a safe vantage point.

“…Problem is my range only extends eight hundred feet or so around me.  My territory’s larger than that, which means I can only cover part of my territory at a time.  It bugs me, because I know I can reach further, I’ve had times where I could.”

“Right.  I remember you asking about that, but I was distracted.”

“Any ideas?”

“One theory, and there’s a good bit and a bad bit to it.”

“Yeah?”

“Just going by how my own power fluctuates, hearing what you’re saying about yours?  You got a range boost that day of the hearing, right?  When you went to your school to talk about the bullies, and everything fell apart?”

“Right,” I said.  “And the day Leviathan came.  It wasn’t just range.  The bugs were responding just a bit faster.  Maybe a tenth of a second faster, but yeah.”

“Ok.  Here’s my theory then.  I think your power’s strongest when you’re closest to the situation where you had your trigger event.”

“What?”

“Honestly, I’m highly suspicious that it’s true for any cape out there.  Whenever you’re in the same kind of mindset or same sort of physical situation you were in when you got your powers, your powers get stronger.  The bad news is that you probably can’t leverage that to your advantage.  Your powers would operate off of hopelessness and frustration, because that’s what drove you to get your powers in the first place.”

Fuck.  It fit, more or less.

“The really scary part is that it might be doing us a disservice, because it works like a Pavlovian trigger.  Like how the dog who hears the bell ringing every time he gets food starts to drool when he hears the bell, this might be subtly urging us back into ugly, violent or dangerous situations with the benefits of having our powers temporarily boosted.”

I wasn’t sure I liked the implications of that.  “Then what’s the good news?”

“It’s kind of like a defense mechanism.  The worse a situation gets, the stronger you’ll get.  It’s probably happened before, to small degrees, but you haven’t noticed it.”

“You said you saw evidence of it in your own powers?  Can I ask?”

Lisa looked back over her shoulder, as if checking nobody was following us.  She sighed.

“I don’t want to press,” I hurried to tell her.

“Another time?” she asked.  “I don’t want to get into a bad headspace just before we do this thing, tonight.”

“That’s fine,” I answered her.  “Really, you don’t have to say.”

“I said no more secrets, didn’t I?  Just give me time to figure out how to explain.”

“Of course.”

She gave me a one-armed hug.

I realized where we were going well before we got there.  Even hearing the music and knowing who the Merchants were, I was still shocked to see it.

Weymouth shopping center, the mall I’d gone to all my life, was now a rallying point for Merchants.  Hundreds of them, it looked like, all gathered together for one grand, debauched festival.

Half of the Merchants I could see wore a fresh band around their wrists, or hanging from their clothing, like badges of honor.

Lisa had noticed it too.  “Yellow bands were for a test of courage, black for near death experience.  The red ones they’re handing out at the door?”

“Blood?” I guessed.

“Bloodshed, yeah.  Something ugly’s going to happen tonight.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter