Parasite 10.6

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The residual foam on my glove made my hand sticky as I reached into the compartment at my back and grabbed my baton.  It took me two tries to get my thumb onto the button so I could whip it out to its full length.

I strode towards Bitch, weapon in hand.  Tattletale hurried to catch up to me, turning to keep an uneasy eye on the ongoing fight with the Protectorate.

“Hey, Skitter!” Tattletale grabbed my shoulder.

I whirled to face her, hand clenching my baton.  I could see the change in her expression as some piece fell in place for her.

Shit,” she swore, “Hey, listen-”

She didn’t get a chance to finish.  White smoke billowed around us.  My first thought was that our adversaries were using some sort of bug spray.

The way today was going, it would be just my luck.

I held my breath and hurried out of the cloud, Tattletale following, and searched for the source.  Assault was taking on Regent and Imp, while Grue and Shadow Stalker were dealing with Battery and Weld.  Bitch and her dogs, on the other hand, were facing down Triumph.  Not the matchup I would have chosen, taking on the guy with the sonic shout using dogs with sensitive hearing.

I almost went after Bitch right then and there, but self-preservation won out over any desire for retribution.  As Tattletale and I made our way around the cloud, I spotted Miss Militia.

A black-green energy crackled in her hand, and she lobbed a grenade my way.  I scrambled back, only for it to turn out to be another canister of smoke, billowing out between Miss Militia and me.

Why the smoke?

The bees I had in the smoke were acting funny.  I was surprised to find out why.  I’d known that beekeepers used smoke to pacify the bees before collecting the honey.  My assumption had been that it acted as a tranquilizer, putting them to sleep.  In reality, it was forcing them to revert to instinctual behavior.  It made them want to eat and feed and to flee.  For those near enclosed spaces or even the corners of walls or the foundations of buildings, it made them adjust their wingbeats to divert the flows of oxygen.

If she’d been intending to use the smoke to screw with my insects, she’d underestimated my power.  I canceled out the instincts and sent the bugs through the smoke, blind, feeling out for her.  I found her running towards us, through the smoke.

“She’s coming!” I shouted.

In retrospect, that was a mistake.

Much as I might have warned Tattletale and the others, I’d also informed Miss Militia on my location.  I turned to run, but she was already raising her gun to fire with an ear-shattering crack.

From the way it cut past my bugs, and the wake of disturbed air the pellets left behind them I could only guess she’d just grazed me with a shotgun.  I collapsed sideways to the ground, and the pain came a heartbeat later, radiating over half of my upper body, from my shoulder to my right butt cheek.  I was guessing it was nonlethal ammunition – it could well have been lethal, for the sheer degree of hurt it delivered, if my costume had prevented it from penetrating.

Before she could shoot again, I directed my bugs to her hands and eyes, hoping to incapacitate her.  I still had a small few of the capsaicin-loaded bugs, and sent them all her way.

As hard as it was to see in the smoke, there was still faint light.  That light disappeared the instant Grue used his power.

Miss Militia was staggering and reeling as her hands and face lit up with stings and burns.  The gun wasn’t in her hands anymore, which meant we weren’t at risk of getting shot.  I sent more bugs across to the other members of the Protectorate, to try to disable them.

Tattletale fumbled around and found me in the darkness, clasped her hand around the same hand I held the baton with, and helped me to my feet.  She gave me her support as we limped away.  Nothing seemed to be broken, judging by what I felt.

The darkness disappeared after we’d traveled across the street.  Grue greeted us.  “Dragon?”

“Kaput, thanks to Tattletale,” I spoke.

He looked back the way we’d come, “Damn that smoke.  Listen, Tattletale, head down this street, wait for us.  Skitter and I are going back in to find and retrieve the others.”

I supposed that would be another benefit of using the smoke.  If you didn’t expect to be able to see, then it didn’t hurt to deny your enemy that same privilege.  Miss Militia had been thinking about this.  If her team wasn’t so sparse on members, she could have done a lot more damage.

“My bugs are telling me they’re over there, there and there,” I pointed in the direction of our teammates.  “That’s all I can do for you.  I kind of got shot, not sure I’m up to running around.”

His head snapped around to face me, “Shot?”

“I’m okay, it was nonlethal.  I think,” I assured him, “Go!”

He did, glancing over his shoulder to look at me before disappearing back into the midst of the darkness.

Tattletale and I made our escape.  We got three blocks away before we found a spot to hide.  Tattletale got out her phone and began sending messages, presumably to Grue and Coil.

Our hiding place was the lobby of an apartment building.  Boards had been placed over the windows, and there were signs that some people had camped out here, not long ago.  It was otherwise similar to Grue’s apartment complex.  Less tidy, obviously.

“You okay?” Tattletale asked me.

“That question seems to come up a lot.”

“I’m sorry.  I knew the gun would inevitably overheat, and what little I could read off of Dragon told me she’d deal with that above anything else.  I didn’t think you’d be stuck there, too.”

“No.  Your gun thing there saved my skin.  The real problem was…” I trailed off.  I still had the baton in my hand – the residual containment foam meant I’d probably have to peel the glove away from the weapon.  I clenched the weapon tight.

We sat in silence for nearly ten minutes before the rest arrived as a massed group.  Shadow Stalker was limping, and two of the dogs were their normal size, draped across Bentley’s back, but everyone was more or less intact.

Bitch’s eyes widened fractionally as she saw me.

I was already standing, barely feeling the hurt from where I’d been grazed.  Blood pounded in my ears, and I could feel the buzz of my insects.

“How-” she started.  I didn’t let her finish.  My baton held in both hands, I struck her in the upper thigh.  When she didn’t fall, I let go of the baton and backhanded her.  She toppled, and protests and shouts echoed around me.

It hurt.  Damn it, I’d never really hit someone with my hands before.  I wondered if I’d managed to break something.

There were still bugs on some of my teammates.  I could sense them approaching, Grue and Imp moving to stop me.  I ducked out of the way of their hands before they could grab me, and then held up my baton, menacing them.  I cast a momentary glance towards Shadow Stalker, then augmented my voice with the buzzing and chirping of my swarm, “Don’t.”

“What the hell are you doing!?” Grue roared.

“Ask her,” my response was barely above a growl.

Grue glanced down at Bitch, who was rubbing her chin, opening her jaw wide, as if testing it.

I dropped down to a crouch so quickly that my knee slammed into the ground.  I grabbed the upper end of the baton and pulled it over Bitch’s head, forcing the bar between her teeth, pulling back hard.

Grue moved to stop me once more, and I shook my head.  He hesitated, then stopped.

Bentley was pacing towards me, snarling at the attack on his owner.  I met his gaze with my own, unflinching, and he didn’t lunge to attack, maybe because he didn’t want to hurt his master in the process.  I didn’t break eye contact with the dog as I spoke with the swarm buzzing in accompaniment, “Regent, this isn’t for Shadow Stalker’s ears.”

“Got it,” Regent spoke.  Shadow Stalker moved to the bench by the elevators, sat down, and buried her face in her arms, covering her ears.  Regent informed me, “She can’t hear much of anything, now.”

“Bitch,” I pulled on the bar, eliciting more struggling from Bitch, “Just tried to fuck me over in the fight with Dragon.  Shoved me into the foam.”

Bitch made a muffled noise, then jabbed me in the side, where I’d been grazed by Miss Militia’s shotgun.  It hurt, and in the interest of keeping her from doing it again, I shifted my position so I could force Bitch onto her back against the ground, her head pinned down by my baton.  She could still hit me and jab me, but my shins could take a lot more abuse than her jaw could.  I belatedly realized I’d taken my eyes off Bentley, but he didn’t maul me.  When I looked up, I saw Tattletale had a grip on his chains.

“You’re a coward, Rachel,” I spoke, “You just did the very same thing you hate me for almost doing.  You stabbed me in the back.  You fucked over your own teammate.”

She mumbled something around the bar.  The look in her eyes made me seriously worry she would kill me when I let her go.

“I’m in a position to hurt you now, and I’m pissed enough to do it,” I spoke, my voice low.  “But I won’t.  This vendetta against me ends, now.  You got your shot at me, you fucked it up.  If you’re still mad at me, you fucking better cope, got it!?”

She snarled out two muffled words.  I suspected they were rude.

When I spoke next, I bent low and whispered the words for her and her alone, “When you’re tossing and turning and trying to sleep, remembering what I did and said here and getting pissed off about it?  Remember that you were the weak one.  You embarrassed yourself, fucked up, you were the weakling, the wuss who couldn’t even confront me face to face.  And knowing you like I do?  I’m betting it’s going to gnaw at you.  That’s as much a punishment as I could inflict, I think.  That’s on you, not me.

“You said it yourself, a while back.  It’s a mistake to underestimate me.  You want another shot at it, it had better be really damn good.  Because if it isn’t, I’m going to survive, I’m going to get away.  And then I might break your jaw for real.  For starters.”

I stood, removing the baton from her mouth and stepping away, to give her room to stand.  Leaning against the wall, I pressed the button and collapsed the baton into the handle.  I stared at her.

Working her jaw, she stood and glared at me.  She either didn’t have a response for me, or she did and her jaw hurt too much for her to try giving it.  None of the others were jumping into the middle of this.

In the face of the silence, I offered one final comment, “I think I’ve already covered what happens if you want to continue this vendetta.  Now I’m going to offer you a deal.  Number three, I think, and my deals with you are usually pretty fair, if I may say so myself.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“I fucked up, you fucked up, whatever.  Insult for insult, blow for blow, I’d like to think we’re even.  So now I’m going to trust you to have my back.  I’m going to put myself in more situations where you have a prime chance at fucking me over, backstabbing me, catching me at my most vulnerable.  Because we can’t function as a team any other way.

“I’m going to treat you like a damned teammate, Rachel, but I’ll go one step further.  You think you can put this behind you and satisfy yourself with what you tried to pull earlier tonight?  Cool.  Because if you’re willing, I’ll come with you to help take care of your dogs.  I’ll bring fucking lunch, if you want it.  That’s the deal I’m offering you, pissed as I am right now.  I’ll be your damn friend.”

She looked away, down at the ground, scowling.

“Take it or leave it.”

She decided to leave it, apparently.  Bitch stomped away, slamming the door the moment Bentley passed through it, leaving the rest of us standing there in the rubbish-strewn apartment building.

Grue sighed audibly and looked over our group, “We’d better go.  We should decide what we’re going to do with Shadow Stalker, now.”

“We could keep her,” Imp spoke.

Regent shook his head, “Nope.  There are drawbacks to this, and one of them is that I lose control of anyone I’m controlling while I sleep.  Better to get rid of her on my terms than have her trying to shoot me in the throat while I take a nap.”

“And it’s kind of fucked up,” I spoke.

“I thought you were all-in,” Regent said.

“I am.  But that doesn’t mean I’m an idiot,” I retorted.  “This kind of mind control-”

“Body control,” Regent interrupted, his tone bored, “Her mind still belongs to her.”

“Semantics.  This kind of mind control is pretty high up there on the scale of fucked upness.  People are going to respond to that.  It might be the nudge they need to start responding to us with lethal force.  Think of how different tonight would have played out if Dragon and Miss Militia hadn’t held back.”

“Sure,” he shrugged.  “Whatever.  I don’t know why you’re arguing with me.  I agree, we should get rid of her.”

“What did you do, back in the old days?” Tattletale asked.

“Kept three people I used regularly, with my sister’s help.  But this is fine.  Look, watch.”

Shadow Stalker stood, lowering her hands and arms from around her head, and walked over to the door.  She faced Regent.

“I’m letting you go,” he spoke.

And then he did.  She dropped to all fours on the ground, grunting.  A second later, she was loading her bolt, spinning to point her crossbow at him.  She stopped before firing.

“There’s a catch,” he spoke. “My power?  Once I’ve figured someone out?  It’s a lot easier to control them, after.  Any time you come near me, I can do this.  I can use my power and retake control in the blink of an eye.”

He had her raise her crossbow and point it at her temple.  It was a tranquilizer dart, but the meaning seemed pretty damn clear.

“Next time I get control?  I’m keeping you for a full day.  Maybe two, if I feel like pulling an all-nighter.  And here’s the funny part,” there was no humor in his voice, “I’m going to do it even if I’m in civilian clothes, if my power tells me you’re in range.  You won’t even know when it’s coming.  You’re now a liability to the Wards, and you won’t ever know when or where I’m going to get control again…

“Unless you leave.  Skip town.  Join another team.”

She nodded, slowly.  The movement was jerky, which was peculiar.  Was he giving her limited control of her own movements?

“Now let’s walk you off to the other end of the city before I release you.  I don’t think you’re quite stupid enough to try and follow us, but I think my teammates would be more comfortable if they were sure.”

Shadow Stalker turned and walked through the door.

Regent looked at us, shrugged.  “Good enough?”

“She might be mad enough to come after someone else in our group, but yeah.  Good,” Grue said.  “Let’s go deliver the stuff.”

We didn’t meet Coil in the underground base, and the people surrounding him weren’t all the same uniformed mercenaries that had made up his entourage in our prior meetings.  The meeting place was at the south end of the Docks, near the border to the downtown area, and it was closer in appearance to the refurbished, ramshackle building where I’d reunited with the Undersiders than anything else.

The building was an old quadruplex, and it had been reinforced with metal panels, sandbags and plastic sheeting to keep the interior crisp and dry, much as the other building had.  Small rooms with bunk beds filled half of the lower level, with a bathroom, kitchen and living room taking up the rest.

Finding the lower level empty, we headed to the second floor and found an open space supported by two metal pillars.  There were a half-dozen mercenaries with Coil, as well as a collection of people who looked like they had come from every walk of life.  Teenagers, professionals, and two guys that might have been capes – one thin, short guy with brown skin and a tattoo around his mouth, depicting a mess of sharp teeth penetrating the skin of his cheeks and lips.  The other was burlier, shirtless, and wore a rusty, old fashioned looking mechanical rigging around his hands, with a bear-trap jaw plate.  The frame seemed set up to hold metal claws around his fingertips while allowing his hands the full range of motion.   He had a spiked collar of much the same style.

Coil sat in a black leather armchair, with a laptop set on the table beside him.  Dinah was there, too.  She sat at the base of the chair, on a cushion just beside Coil’s feet, picking at the threads of her white dress with a dazed single-mindedness that told me she had probably received her ‘candy’ pretty recently.

“Undersiders.  Tattletale informed me you were successful, despite complications.  May I see it?”

Tattletale stepped forward and handed Coil the USB thumbstick.  He plugged it into the laptop, then turned the computer so the middle-aged man to his left could type away.

“Data’s corrupted, sir.  Looks like the download was interrupted at the ninety-seven percent mark.”

“Can you fill in the blanks?” Coil asked him.

“Probably.  Will take some time.  There’s encryption.  Good encryption.  Maybe a few days, with the full team working on it?”

“Most likely it is Dragon’s work,” Coil spoke. “Let’s assume it’ll take a week, minimum.  Perhaps Tattletale will be able to assist.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Priority number one, I want the data on the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

I felt a chill, but didn’t say anything.  Was he intending to hire them?  It would be a huge mistake in my book, if he was.

Regent asked the question for me, “The Slaughterhouse Nine?”

“At least some of their members have been seen in town, preying on the locals, disrupting recovery efforts.  The recent chaos makes the city a playground for them,” Coil spoke.  “One of my teams is bound to run up against them soon.”

“How likely is it?” Tattletale asked.  She tilted her head in Dinah’s direction.  “Can you ask her?”

“I suppose.”  Coil put his hand on Dinah’s head, stroked her hair, then slid his hand down the side of her face until he could place his fingertips under her chin, raise her head to look at him, “Pet?”

It was disturbingly intimate in a way I’d rather not think about.  No, not intimate.  That was the wrong word for the impression I was getting.  Possessive.  I looked away.

“Yes?” Dinah asked.

“Likelihood that one of my groups encounters the Slaughterhouse Nine?”

“Who?”

He moved to take the laptop, and the middle-aged man stepped back to let him.  He typed for a few seconds, then turned it around so Dinah could see.  It was a gallery of images.

“Bonesaw.” he spoke.  The girl on the screen looked barely older than Dinah, maybe the same age as Aisha.  The image showed her wide-eyed, a spray of dried blood painted her face at a diagonal.

“Shatterbird.”  A dark-haired, brown-skinned woman with a helmet covering the upper half of her face, in a beak shape.  I was reminded of Iron Falcon, the boy I’d tried to help, who’d died in the Endbringer attack.  From what I’d read, Shatterbird usually used her power as the Nine arrived in a city, to maximize panic and terror.  I supposed they were flying under the radar for now.  Fuck, I’d have to do something about my costume, just in case.

“Crawler.”  No portrait, this time.  It was a still from a surveillance camera, a misshapen silhouette, not even humanoid, in a shadowy area.  I’d come across stories about him when I’d been researching possible superhero names for myself.  Not pretty.

“Mannequin.”  Another long-distance shot.  The figure was standing by Bonesaw in the photograph, with other hulking figures within the shadows of the background.  He stood almost twice her height, and he looked artificial.  His body was in pieces, each section wrapped in a hard shell of ceramic or plastic or white-painted metal – I couldn’t be sure.  His joints were a mix of loose chains and ball joints.  A Tinker with a body-modification fetish.  I couldn’t say how much of the transformation was his own power and how much was Bonesaw’s work.

“The Siberian.”  A woman, naked from head to toe, her body painted in alternating stripes of jet black and snow white.  She had gone up against the Triumvirate – Legend, Alexandria and Eidolon – on a dozen occasions, and she was still around to talk about it.  Or around, at least.  From what I’d read, she didn’t talk.

“Burnscar.” Younger, maybe an older teenager or a young-looking twenty-something.  She looked almost normal, with her dark hair badly cut, but then I saw the vertical row of cigarette burns marking each of her cheeks, and a faint glow to her eyes.

“Hatchet Face.”  This was one I hadn’t even heard of.  The man didn’t wear a mask, and his head was shaved.  He looked like he had been beaten, burned and just plain abused so often that his face was as much scar tissue than flesh, and he didn’t look like he’d been handsome to begin with.

“Jack Slash.”  Jack looked like someone on the attractive side of average, his dark hair cut short and styled with gel.  His beard and moustache were immaculately trimmed so that each had a serrated edge, and his shirt was wrinkled, only half buttoned so his hairless upper chest showed.  He had kind of a Johnny Depp look to him, though he had more of a widow’s peak, a longer face and lighter eyes.  Good looking, if you looked past the fact that he was a mass murderer.  He held a small kitchen knife in the photo.

There were parahumans who were fucked up before powers entered the picture, like Bitch, and there were parahumans who became monsters after they got their powers, like Bakuda.  Then there were the really dangerous ones, the people who had probably been monsters before powers were even on the table, and then they got worse.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, you had Bonesaw, who was like some kind of artist, as psychopaths went.  The sort of person that drew other lunatics to her, just because they wanted to see what she would do next.  Even that wouldn’t normally work as a dynamic, but as I understood it, Jack somehow managed to play them off one another and keep the group more or less intact.  He was familiar enough with the psychology of his group and just plain charismatic enough to keep them from killing one another.

Which wasn’t to say they didn’t.  There were only eight members in their group at present, and the turnover rate was pretty damn high, because they had a tendency towards recklessness, infighting and showy displays.  They thought nothing of descending on an elementary school, just because they could.  When the heroes came for them, they came with lethal force.

“Mmm,” Dinah said.

“What is it, pet?” Coil murmured.

“It’s him.”

“Who?”

She pointed at the screen, at Jack Slash.  “Him.”

“You’re going to have to explain it to us, pet.  What about him?”

“He’s the one who makes everyone die.”

I shivered.  What?

“Everyone here?”

Dinah shook her head, her hair flying out to either side.  “Everyone.  I don’t understand.  Can’t explain.”

“Try,” he urged her.

“Sometimes it’s in two years.  Sometimes it’s in eight.  Sometimes in between.  But if he’s alive, something happens, and everyone on Earth starts to die.  Not that everyone doesn’t die anyways but they die really fast when that something happens, all one after another, and in a year almost everyone is dead.  So I said everyone, if that makes sense and a few live but they die pretty soon after anyways and-“

“Shh, pet.  I think we understand what you’re saying.  Quiet now, unless you think of something important.  We need to consider this.”

Silence reigned for a few long seconds.  You could have heard a pin drop.

“His power isn’t all that, I don’t think,” Grue spoke, slowly, as if considering the words as he spoke.  “Space warping effect, so any blades he’s holding have an edge that extends a horrendously long distance, all with the optimal force behind the swing.  Swings his knife, cuts through an entire crowd.  Doesn’t make sense that he’d be able to murder everyone on Earth.”

“Unless he somehow cuts the planet in half,” Tattletale mused.

That was disquieting.

“No,” Dinah spoke.  “He doesn’t.”

“I think we need more numbers if we’re to understand this, pet.  What is the likelihood that he succeeds in this?  To one decimal point.”

“Eighty three point four percent.”

“You said if he’s alive.  What if we killed him?  Now?  To one decimal point.  If I use my power.”

“Thirty one point two percent chance someone kills him before he leaves the city, if you use your power.  It doesn’t happen until fifteen years from now, if you do.”

“So it still happens?” Coil asked.

“Yes.  Always happens.”

Tattletale spoke up, “He’s the catalyst for something else, then.”

“Is it always successful, pet?  This something that kills everyone on Earth?”

She shook her head, “Not always, not all the way.  Sometimes more people live.  Sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands, sometimes billions.  But millions or billions always die when it happens.”

“If I were to send the Travellers?  How likely would they be to kill him?”

“My head hurts.”

“Please, pet, this is important.  To one decimal point.”

“Twenty two point six percent.  Thirty point nine percent chance some of them die.”

“And the Undersiders?”

“Eleven point nine percent chance they succeed.  Fifty five point four percent chance they die if they fight those people.”

Coil sighed, then straightened.  He looked at the middle-aged man, handed him the computer, “I strongly recommend you get what information you can on the group.  Any detail in the PRT records could be invaluable.  Lose sleep if you have to.”

The man took the laptop, swallowed, and then offered a quick bob of his head.  The others in the assembled group around Coil looked just as alarmed by what they’d overheard.

“We should contact the local heroes,” Grue spoke.  “Let them know what’s up.”

Coil nodded, slowly, “I’ll look into it.  That said, I think the numbers illustrate one thing.  You are not equipped to fight that group.  If you encounter them, you-“

“Sixty percent,” Dinah muttered.

“Sixty percent, pet?”

“Sixty percent chance the Undersiders encounter some of those people.”

Coil turned to look at us.  “So you’re likely to encounter them.  When that happens, you run.  Cede any territory, abandon any job.  I would rather you were alive than successful in a job.”

“Got it,” Grue spoke.

“In the meantime, we move on to the next phase of my plan,” Coil spoke.  “You may be wondering about this location, how it is similar to the new headquarters I provided you.  I have outfitted these areas to be your stations, points from which you will operate, work to seize and keep territory.  I have several more.  If you’re amenable, I would have each of you take one of these stations for yourself.  Grue, this would be your station, shared with Imp, which I assume is alright?”

Grue looked around, “Big place and a lot of beds for two people.”

“More on that later.  Rest assured, I can provide staff, help.  I expect you’ll wish to find and recruit people of your own.  Contact me about funds – I will ensure that anyone you hire is paid well.”

Grue nodded.

“Regent?  Your territory is near Grue’s, close to the water.”

Regent nodded.

“Bitch is absent?”

“Interpersonal stuff,” Grue replied.  “She’ll be back.”

“A shame.  Your other headquarters, where I moved your collective belongings, that will be her station.  Barker and Biter here showed up for the Endbringer fight, and I got in contact with them.  They, alongside these three young individuals,” he gestured to the two parahumans, and three college-aged kids who looked rather intimidated, “Will work under her.  Barker and Biter profess to be fearless, and should have little difficulty managing the dogs, even when Bitch’s abilities are at work.  The men and the young lady I’ve provided have some degree of training in veterinary medicine or handling dogs.  Let her know this.  She is free to accept them or refuse them as she sees fit.”

Grue looked over the five people who would be Bitch’s henchmen, nodded.

“Tattletale, I’ve set up quarters near Lord Street, in one of the ABB’s old locations.  I assume your teammates will want to be in contact, and this area is both accessible, and it can reach any other area readily.  The area is already furnished with computers, and you’ll find staff there, people who are capable at gathering information, be it from media, computers or the streets.  You’ll also find a small force of mercenaries that I’ve assigned to you, so you can act on that information where you see fit.”

“Cool.”

“Skitter, I have set up quarters near the south end of the Boardwalk.  Reconstruction and repair work is still ongoing there, but if you will be patient, it may well be one of the more lucrative locations when things are up and running again.”

I nodded.  That wouldn’t be far from my old home, close to our old hideout.  Did that mean something?  Did he know who I was, or had Tattletale suggested it?  I felt uneasy about that.

“Regent, Grue, Imp and Skitter, I realize I have not detailed any employees to you to begin with.  I leave it to you to start this task for yourself, to decide what you need and how you intend to operate.  Once you have decided this for yourselves, let me know, and I will endeavor to help you fill in the blanks in your individual operations.

“As you leave, you’ll receive emails on the locations of your individual headquarters.  For the time being, all I require from you, for now, is that you establish order and assume some measure of control over your territories.”

There were nods all around.

“Your payment for tonight’s job will be in your accounts shortly, with a bonus for the obstacles you faced.  Any questions?  Any topics you would like to raise for discussion?”

“A few questions, but I figure I’ll see what’s up with this new role we’re taking,” Grue replied, “Then I’ll ask them.”

“Good.”

“I’ve got something I’d like to talk to you about,” I spoke, augmenting my voice with the swarm’s noises to mask it.  “In private.”

“Yes.  That’s fine, I was hoping to have a private conversation with you anyways.  Anyone?  Anything else before we part ways?”

Nobody had anything further to say.  Grue and the others turned to leave, and the crowd around Coil followed them soon after.  One of Bitch’s henchmen – Barker, was it? – leered at me as he passed, dug his hand into his groin in some sort of scratch or a lewd gesture.

Lovely.  He’d get along great with Bitch.

When the group had left the room, I could hear noises downstairs, as they moved about the house.  Or maybe it was Grue, checking his new place.  I was left alone with Coil and Dinah.

I wasn’t sure I liked that our group was being split up like this.  The timing seemed bad.  I’d sort of been hoping I could repair the divide, and that would be hard if we were each in our own territories, doing our own things.

I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.

“I heard about the incident at the hospital, following the Endbringer attack.”

I nodded.

“Tattletale told me that you know I was fully informed about your true nature.”

“Yeah.”

“Did she explain how?”

I shook my head.  She’d told me about his power in confidence.

“Well, I suppose I may share that detail at some point in the future.  You understand my desire to keep certain things private?”

“Yeah, no.  I get it.  It makes sense, it’s smart.”

“Mmm,” he murmured.  He turned to his pet, stroked her head like one might with a dog or a cat.  She stared down at her dress, picked at a thread that was sticking out, stretching it out long.  The thread snapped, and she let it drift from her hand to the ground.  Then she started picking at another.  Coil interrupted my observations, “So.  You wished to discuss something?”

“Yeah.  I’ve made a decision.”

“Do tell.”

“Before, back in the limousine, you asked me what I wanted out of all this, what I desired from my deal with you.”

“Yes.”

“I asked you to fix the city, you told me you planned on doing that anyways, that I should ask for something else.”

“And you’ve decided.”

“Yeah,” I took a deep breath.  “Dinah.  Your… pet.”

“You want me to release her.  I’m afraid-“

I hurried to cut him off, “No.”

He stopped, tilted his head slightly.

I swallowed, felt an ugly feeling in my gut, “I know she’s invaluable to you.  I know how useful her talent is, and the lengths you went to in getting ahold of them.  I don’t like it, but I get it.”

He didn’t respond.  He just stared at me, his mask lacking eye holes, just black cloth stretched over eye sockets.

“I… All I’m asking is that you let her go when you’ve done it.  When you take this city, when you succeed in your plan, you release her to go home to her family.  If you do that, I’ll work for you.  I’ll try harder than anyone, to get this city under your control, and then I’ll work for you for as long as you’ll have me, afterward.”

“I’m afraid, Skitter, that this deal doesn’t quite balance out.  I intend no offense, but my initial impression is that my pet is far more valuable to me than you are.”

No.  My heart sank.

“But I can accept it,” he spoke.  “Provided you prove to me that your talents are worth losing hers.  I admit, the active assistance you can provide might prove more useful when the city is firmly in my grasp, when I have less to be concerned about in terms of day-to-day operations.”

I nodded, numbly.

“Anything else?”

I shook my head, then turned to leave, wordlessly.

When I went downstairs, Tattletale and Regent were already gone.  Maybe they were checking out their new places.  Grue and Imp were in the ‘living room’, opening crates of stuff to see the supplies they had available.

I wasn’t up to talking to them, or explaining the recent conversation.

Leaving the building without a word, I sloshed through the water.  I realized my fists were clenched, and my glove was sticking to itself, thanks to the residual containment foam.  Annoying.  I wondered if I could scrub it off.

When I peeled my fingers away from the glove, I realized my hand was shaking.

I took a deep breath, to calm my nerves.  I could do this.  Whatever I had to do, I was going to help that girl.

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Parasite 10.5

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The four engines mounted on the shoulders of Dragon’s armor shifted position, each aiming at a different point within the lobby.  Tattletale was the first of us to turn and run, the rest of us moving to follow as Dragon opened fire.

All in all, Dragon unloaded four streams of containment foam into the lobby, each of the shoulder mounted turrets  gushing like firehoses.  Only flecks of the spray struck us, but they expanded into blobs of foam the size of golf balls and softballs.  Each blob was tacky, sticky, and any attempt to wipe it away just smeared it and exposed more surface area to the air, making it expand more.

If we’d started running a fraction of a second later, we might have been screwed.

Weld moved to block our retreat, but Shadow Stalker stepped up to fight him with one of the dogs, Bentley, joining her.  It made for a pretty effective combination, as Weld couldn’t swing hard enough to hurt the dog without risking hurting his teammate.  The way Regent was having Shadow Stalker fight, there was no self preservation or defense, which worked out to being a more effective combat style than anything else, in its own way.  I was pretty sure Weld had never fought someone who was actively trying to get hit.

I’d been drawing my bugs closer to the building since we arrived, and I brought them into the fray as Dragon continued to lock down the lobby with the spray.  The first tactic I tried was blocking the spray with the bugs.  I didn’t intend to stop the spray, exactly, but I hoped that I could cause the bugs to catch it & drop down atop Dragon, sticking to her.  It didn’t work – the spray was too strong, and the bugs were blasted much too far away.  Only one or two landed on her, and even then, I doubted the positions were that ideal.

Instead, I adjusted my tactics.  The idea was the same, but I didn’t want to sacrifice bugs for the purpose of clogging her systems or blocking her guns if it would be that ineffective.  I gathered some bugs on anything that looked like a sensor – glass panes or openings in the armored vehicle, and I set the rest to gathering on the shattered glass that littered the floor of the lobby.  The feet of the insects and arachnids had setae, or small hairs, which branched further into setules.  These fibers, in turn, harnessed Van der Waals forces to cling even to surfaces as slick as glass.

I’d been reading up.

I didn’t use this grip to stick to the surface, but instead employed it to collectively lift and pick up the glass.  Six or seven bugs could lift a decent-sized piece of glass if they were on the ground, while anywhere from twelve to thirty could fly with one if I managed it right.

I had a few hundred to employ, with more still arriving.

With this glass, I did my best to catch and block the outlying flecks and drips of spray as it flew through the air, at the periphery of the streams.

The spray knocked some pieces of glass from the air, and struck some bugs, causing the group to lose their collective grip and drop the glass.  That was to be expected.  Others, though, caught the foam on one of the flat panes of the glass.  As more bugs rose with the glass between them, I organized them into loose walls and barriers, to maximize the area they were catching and to overlap so that less bugs were exposed to incoming spray.

“She’s got a disadvantage,” Tattletale spoke, her voice low, “This suit is meant to fly to serious crises at a moment’s notice, deal with dangerous foes.  She’s packing too many lethal weapons.”

“That’s a disadvantage?” Regent asked.

“She’s not about to kill us.  Bad PR, especially for a notable hero traveling into another country to fight virtual unknowns like us.  So we only have to worry about her nonlethal weaponry, and she doesn’t have many.”

I nodded acknowledgement, but my focus was elsewhere.  As I judged that enough bugs had caught the foam on one pane of their individual pieces of glass, I directed them to carry the glass down to Dragon.  As I positioned the bugs, the glass stuck to lenses, vents of hot air, vents where air was rushing in, and the smaller joints near segmented areas.

Dragon didn’t seem to notice or care.

“Can she see me?” Imp asked.

Tattletale started to speak, but stopped when one of the streams changed direction to spray closer to us, forcing us to retreat in a hurry.  I glanced at the gift shop.  Would it be a good idea to retreat in there?  The walls were glass, which was both good and bad in that both Dragon and our group could break through it.  The problem was that we risked being trapped if we headed in there.

“No way she got here this fast,” Tattletale spoke, “She’s based in British Columbia, on the other side of the continent.  This has to be remotely controlled, like the one she used to fight Leviathan, which means the only eyes on you are digital, and-”

“She’s not,” Regent interrupted.

“What?” Tattletale asked him.

“There’s someone in there, I tried using my power on her, experimenting, and I felt some kind of nervous system.  Too much material between me and it for me to do anything with it, and I wouldn’t really try it while I’m controlling Shadow Stalker anyways.  I’d probably backfire.”

Shadow Stalker was still fighting Weld.  As Dragon turned a stream toward them, Weld reacted fast enough that I suspected he had some line of communication to her.  He backed out of the way, and Shadow Stalker and the dog both moved in the other direction, with a stream splashing where they had been brawling a second before, blossoming into a pile of foam as tall as they were, separating the two groups of combatants.

Most of my first wave of bugs had either been shot out of the sky by errant bits of spray or had placed their initial pieces of glass and were going back for more.  This wasn’t a K.O. hit, and Dragon was too good to let something this minor stop her, however it might delay or hamper her.  The real issue was that this was too slow, and we were on a tight time limit.  Less than a minute, and the Protectorate would arrive.  Their team was smaller with recent deaths and Armsmaster’s ‘retirement’, and I hadn’t heard about any new recruits.

Then again, I hadn’t heard about the Ward’s new recruits, and here Weld was, being annoyingly persistent.  I was assuming he was the new leader, given his tone with Shadow Stalker.  I wondered if being ridiculously tenacious was a job requirement for being in charge of the Wards.  It made sense to have a commander who wouldn’t be removed from the field by an errant attack.  You wanted someone who would stay in the thick of it for the whole fight.

The gift shop jutted out from the wall of the lobby some, the glass panes arranged to showcase more of the pictures, action figures and memorabilia with three broad windows than they might with one.  This layout gave us some cover from Dragon’s attacks.  Even when the force of the spray served to break the windows, the expansion of the foam at the edges of the frame soon blocked the worst of it off.  If anything, it was closing the windows off.  Only the pane of glass facing us was left unbroken and largely free of foam.

Sensing this, Dragon started to advance further into the lobby.  Her broad, mechanical feet began hissing with vapor, and the goo my ground-borne bugs were hauling towards her began to run, losing its consistency and stickiness.  She set one foot down directly on a pile of foam, and lifted it up again with no difficulty.  It was clear: the foam wouldn’t hamper her.

“So she’s piloting that thing, then?” Imp asked.  “My power works on her?”

“We can’t be sure,” Tattletale spoke, “Don’t risk it.”

Dragon advanced another step, circling our relative cover from the window to spray inches closer to us.  The way it was piling up, there would be no way to go over it, and the route we had available for going around the far end of it was rapidly closing.  We were getting hemmed in, our backs to the wall by the window.

“Imp!” Tattletale shouted, “No!”

I looked at her, confused, but I didn’t have time to figure it out.  A flare of orange light caught my attention.  Dragon’s mouth had opened wide, and she was spewing something like an ignited accelerant into the lobby.  With this fluid, she drew a three-foot wide line of flame onto the lobby floor, stretching from just below her to the stairwell door by the front desk.  She’d cut off our escape route.

Weld leaped into and through the flame, his hook hands swinging wildly.  Some of the accelerant had landed on him, making him burn, but he didn’t seem to mind.

He turned ninety degrees and lunged forward in response to something I couldn’t see or hear, then swept his hooks out in a frenzied series of blind attacks.  On the third swing I saw Imp duck beneath the attack, then stumble back out of his reach, towards us.

“The fucking fuck!?” she shouted.

“Dragon can see you, you twit, and she’s relaying directions to Weld!” Tattletale shouted at our new member, “And what the hell were you hoping to accomplish over there!?”

“I could’ve figured something out,” Imp pouted.

Tattletale didn’t have a response to that.  Instead, she hauled her gun up and then fired a short burst at Weld.  He backed up into the wall of flame, oddly enough, and Tattletale stopped firing.

Two of Dragon’s shoulder turrets were now being set to the task of controlling the flame and keeping it from spreading across the lobby, to the front desk or up to the ceiling.   Twin jets of chemical spray kept the fire limited to the areas Dragon wanted it.

“Doesn’t she care about property damage?” I asked.

“She prefers to keep her data secure and pay out of her own pocket for any damage.  Betting this place is slated for some major renovations anyways, given the state of things,” Tattletale explained.  The foam was inching closer to us as Dragon prowled further into the lobby.

More of my bugs set sticky pieces of glass down on top of lenses and sensors.  That was apparently enough for Dragon, because she stopped spraying the foam altogether and started using the two turrets that weren’t dedicated to fire management to deploying the same vapor that shrouded her legs.  It surrounded her, and the work I’d done to stick things to her began to come apart as the foam turned runny.

A wave of darkness swept over her.  Grue was awake, and had formed a loose group with Shadow Stalker and the dogs.  All but one of the dogs were normal sized, now, with no sign or trace of their mutations.

They still faced the hurdle of passing by Weld, but a blast of darkness and an abrupt change of direction faked out the young hero, letting Grue slip by.

“Dragon’s here!?” he shouted, aghast.

“Yeah!  But we got the stuff, had to wait for you!”

“Go through the gift shop, We’ll meet you outside!”  He charged right behind the spot where Dragon was still within the cloud of darkness, and out the front door.  Shadow Stalker simply passed through Weld and bolted for the door, running faster than the Ward’s leader could, while the smallest dogs stayed just out of his reach, bolting after Grue.  Bentley, the only dog currently under the effects of Bitch’s power, a little beaten and battered, came running towards us, far, far too eager for something that large and strong.

Bitch grabbed his collar before he could leap up to greet her, redirected his momentum, then wrenched him toward the window.  “Go!” she shouted, pointing.

Bentley eagerly plowed through the remaining display window, knocking over DVD racks as he landed in the shop.  We followed him in.

The shop had everything cape related, from movies showcasing individual members of the teams to books, magazines, figurines, toys and posters.  The layout of the shop made it awkward as a battlefield.  The shelves, racks, stands and display cases forced visitors into a winding path as they navigated the shop.

The window looking out on the street was smaller than the display windows, and was covered by metal bars.  Tattletale began unloading the lightning cannon on the bars.

Dragon lunged out of the darkness, then spotted us, her shoulder turrets orienting in our direction.  We ducked behind a heavy wooden magazine stand filled with cape magazines and tourism pamphlets as Dragon opened fire with two streams of containment foam.

Tattletale maintained the electrical assault on the bars even as she joined us in taking cover with her back to the magazine stand.  The gun she was holding began to whine, with a pitch so high I could barely hear it.  Bentley reacted, though, turning his head one way, and then the other.  It made Bitch’s job of holding his collar and ensuring he stayed behind cover twice as difficult.

The bolts holding the bars to the window frame melted before the bars themselves did.  One side swung free, then the entire assembly dropped down on top of a bookshelf.

The entire room shuddered as Dragon forced her way through the display window.  One gigantic metal talon slammed down on the bookshelf, annihilating most of our cover, and we scrambled to find shelter behind the remaining stands.  Her back legs began working their way towards us, the front of her body staying stationary.  This made her back arch, and her head and shoulder mounted turrets gradually shifted to point downward.  It would be seconds before she was spraying the foam down from directly above us.

The whine of Tattletale’s gun reached a crescendo, and a blindingly bright arc of electricity flew from the side of the barrel to skip along the floor.  I worried it would ignite something, but it winked out before it could.

Tattletale lunged for the shelf next to the magazines, grabbing a head-and-torso model of Miss Militia.  She jammed it in between the trigger and the trigger guard of her gun, forcing the trigger into a depressed position.  Then she lobbed the setup over the back of the shattered bookshelf.  The lightning licked the wall and the ceiling before the gun crashed to the floor.  Dragon lurched back to get away from it.

“Go!” Tattletale shouted, setting her feet below her, then leaping between the twin streams of foam that Dragon turned toward us.  She came only an inch shy of making contact with the heap of foam that Dragon had created.

Dragon heaved herself over and beyond the electrical surge the gun was still pumping out, chasing Tattletale, swiping with one mechanical claw.  I got the sense she was pulling her punches to avoid murdering my teammate, because the attack was slow.  Tattletale slipped past, stepping onto the bookshelf to clear the window.  Or maybe it had something to do with the bugs I had gathered on her sensors.

With Tattletale’s escape, Bitch, Imp, Regent, and I were left in the gift shop.  Dragon’s lunge for Tattletale had put her directly in our path to the window, and an uneven pile of containment foam surrounded her, in the middle of the room.

Regent and Imp made a break for it.  Imp ducked around to the left, coming within a hair of being caught by the spray Dragon turned her way, then used the cover of the bookshelves to stay out of the line of fire as she ran for the window.  Dragon half-turned away from the rest of us in pursuit.  Regent moved as if he were going to try to move beneath Dragon using the distraction Imp had provided, clearly intending to step on her metal foot.  He changed his mind when a crackle of visible electricity flashed down the mechanical limb.  He turned a hard right, picking up a piece of bookshelf, and used the wood to block the majority of the spray as he passed beneath one of the stray streams.  From there, much as Imp had, he had a clear route.

Dragon moved to bar more of the window with the bulk of her body, her back arching.  Her upper body and head now pointed almost down at an angle, the streams from her shoulders reorienting to block off the escape routes available to Bitch, her dog and me.

So I did something risky and borderline stupid.  I lunged forward and stepped onto the metal foot of Dragon’s armored suit, like Regent had been planning to do until he discovered it was electrified.

I had known the same spider silk I’d used for my costume was insulated against electrical charges, had even put that into practice in my fight against Armsmaster during the fundraiser.  This was something altogether different.

I could feel the faint tendrils of electricity snake over the surface of my body, though I only stepped on the metal foot once.  I couldn’t tell if the source of the electricity was the gun Tattletale had rigged and thrown – Dragon’s tail was close enough to it for the electricity to flow to her – or if it was from Dragon’s body itself.

Though the footing was unsteady, I was careful not to touch the metal leg with my upper body, and even turned my head away, risking throwing myself off balance, so my hair wouldn’t make contact with it.  As I understood it, the biggest danger the electricity posed was that my body would become part of a circuit.  If the circuit included vital organs, I’d be a goner, and that kind of closed circuit could happen if the electricity could run from my hand and through my heart on the way to my foot.

The gamble and assumption I was working with was that electricity followed the path of least resistance.  Insulated costume vs. vapor in the air?  It would travel through the vapor.  Insulated costume vs. metal leg?  It would travel down the leg.

Either way, I was glad when I didn’t burn my foot or have it get fried or go numb.  I was damn glad I didn’t die.

With all of this consuming my attention, I was caught off guard when something large brushed against me while I was mid-leap.

The impact threw my airborne momentum off, drove me to one side.  My first, most immediate, thought, before I even considered the source of the attack, was where I was about to land.  It was reflexive, but I sent a spray of bugs out from the armor near my glove, scattering them onto the area just in front of me.

Before I had even figured out what my bugs were sensing, I reacted to their signals.  I slammed my arm out, rigid, my hand splayed, and felt a jarring pain as I tried to absorb my entire body weight with one arm and force myself away.  I felt a lack of traction as my hand made contact with something soft and squishy.  My maneuver was too minor to make a real difference, but I managed to buy myself a precious few inches.

My hand, arm and shoulder were caught in the containment foam.

I tried to raise myself to see Dragon looming above, but the foam offered only a rubbery resistance.  It had set with the contact, bonded to my costume.  I was pinned face down on the ground.

What I did see, as I raised my head as high as I was able?  Bitch was astride Bentley, who’d grown large enough to ride, and they were standing near the window leading into the street.  I could only see her eyes behind the plastic of her mask, and everything else was communicated through her bearing, her posture, the angle of her head.  I’d seen something similar when I’d first met her.

It hadn’t been Dragon that knocked me into the foam.

Dragon turned her upper body to strike at Bitch.  As she moved, her back leg was close enough that some of the vapor was getting on me, slowly liquefying the foam.  It was too slow to matter.  Dragon had me.

Her stainless steel jaws snapped for Bentley, but the dog was already slipping out the window.  Bitch had dismounted and was running to one side, heading off in a different direction to exit at the far end of the window.

Which left me in the gift shop with Dragon.

“I have a sworn responsibility to protect that data,” she said as she turned her attention to me.  She sounded surprisingly normal.  Her voice was clearly digitized, but it was still too human to match the massive metal frame.

“Can’t help you there.  One of my teammates has it.”

“Where are they taking it?”

I stayed silent.

“Your teammates left you behind.  I’ve read the file on what happened after the Endbringer attack.  Hard feelings?”

“Something like that.”

“If they aren’t going to be loyal to you, why protect them?”

Because someone else was depending on it.  But I wasn’t going to say that out loud.

The whine of the lightning gun increased by an octave.  I saw Dragon’s upper body shift in reaction.

“Move the insects away from my suit, now,” Dragon ordered me.

“Why would I-”

“Now,” she ordered, and there was an urgency in her tone that banished any suspicion on my part that there was a ruse or that somehow it might serve my interest to disobey.  I withdrew my bugs, but I kept them poised to return if needed.

Dragon moved back, and her body coiled around the spot where the gun had fallen, segments meeting to loosely interconnect with one another, forming a dome-shaped encasement.  Two shoulder turrets began dispensing foam directly downward, into the dome.

“Count yourself fortunate, Skitter.  I’ve never killed a criminal without explicit permission and all the filed paperwork, and I’m not about to start with you.  I’ll be in contact.”

“What?”  I had to raise my voice to be heard over the high pitched whine.  I couldn’t figure out what she meant.

“Think about what I said.  Take a close look at those priorities of yours.”

The vapor had melted enough foam that I could pull myself free and stand.  I got five paces away before the whine ceased.  A second later, lightning began to spill from the gun in overtime.  Dragon’s body served to block the vast majority of it, but a few arcs slipped through the cracks in her body.

The full meaning of her words struck me the moment the gun detonated.  A large portion of her suit was destroyed, as was one of the limbs.  Dragon fell to one side.

She’d saved me?

Regent had said Dragon was inside, piloting it, hadn’t he?  I stepped closer, trying to see if she was okay.

Regent was right.  There was someone – something – in the suit of armor.

It looked like a fetus, the features were crude, barely humanoid in any sense of the word.  The eyes were half-formed, and it had no nose, only a beak-like mouth.  The head was half-again as large as the body below the neck.  Wires wove in and out of orifices.

It turned to look at me, then made a low mewling sound.  The metal around it began to glow red-hot, then white-hot.  Burns consumed the thing and the flesh changed to a charred black texture as the metal of the frame began to melt and dissolve.  Whatever had happened with the Dragonslayers, it seemed Dragon was dedicated to eliminating all traces of her work when her suits were damaged.

But was that Dragon?

No.  She’d seemed to know she was sacrificing her suit, but she’d also said she was going to get in contact with me in the future.  I backed away, then ran for the window.

So what the hell had I just seen?

Had that been someone who was physically affected by their powers?  I wasn’t even sure if it was human.

I had a growing, uneasy feeling that this wasn’t related to powers and trigger events in the conventional sense.  I pushed it out of my mind.  I had something more pressing to focus on.

I set my foot on the bookcase, then stepped up and through the window to exit the building.  I could see the others dispatching two members of the Protectorate.  Tattletale hurried towards me, said something about the explosion, that she thought I’d be out by now.  I barely registered it.  My attention was on one person as I strode forward.

Bitch.

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Parasite 10.4

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I could detect a definite note of irritation in Dragon’s voice, despite how she’d synthesized it to mask her tone, inflection and speech patterns.  “You were tampering with my system,” she accused us.

In the dim light the monitors shed, I could see Imp trying the door by the stairs.  It didn’t open.  I gave it a try and verified it had sealed shut.  I wasn’t entirely sure why I’d expected a different result.  Maybe I’d been hoping Imp had been making a horribly timed joke?  It wouldn’t be beyond her.

“We were, but we’re done now, so we’ll be on our way,” Tattletale called out, her voice raised to be picked up by whatever microphones Dragon was using to listen in on us.  I could see her pulling the USB drives from the computer.

Dragon informed us,  “I’m reading the files and notes we have on you as we speak.  Tattletale, it seems you have a penchant for needling your opponents.  Rest assured, if you intend to try it, I won’t rise to the bait.”

Imp hefted her fire axe and struck just beside the handle of the door.  The door itself was hollow, but it was made of something like fiberglass, and the axe only made a small hole, a half inch across and less than two inches long.  She struck again, slightly higher.

“So few think they will,” Tattletale said with a grin.  “So.  I guess you’ve locked us in here, huh?”

“Yes.  You’ll get out, perhaps, but not before reinforcements arrive.”

“We’ll see,” Tattletale answered.  She began moving toward the Wards’ quarters.  She looked from one security camera to the next, as if trying to figure out if she was being watched.  I did have my bugs covering the lenses of the cameras I’d been able to find, but that wasn’t to say that they could have something more concealed.

It was kind of creepy, that the kids here were observed constantly like that.

“You tried to steal official data, and you put a virus on my system.  Epeios’ work, I believe.  I’m more insulted by the fact that you went to that hack than I am about the virus.”

“Had to slow you guys down somehow,” Tattletale called out.  She motioned to me, and I hurried toward her.  Imp let go of the axe to rub and shake her hand.  Regent grabbed the weapon to take over the job of hacking at the door.

I followed Tattletale into one of the rooms at the other end of the Ward’s headquarters.  Pieces of technology littered the area.  There was a small bed in one corner so littered with pieces of junk, screws, scraps of metal and unfinished projects that I doubted the occupant had used it to sleep in a long time.

Kid Win’s room, had to be.

“Gear up,” Tattletale said.

“What?”

“Taking a tinker’s stuff to keep is a bad idea, what with GPS signals and tracking and all that, but at the very least, we can use this to get out.”  She swept her arm over the room, where stuff lay on every surface.

Dragon’s voice echoed through the chamber, “I can hear you, Tattletale.  Do not use a tinker’s devices.  Power supplies can overload, weapons and equipment can misfire.  Only the tinker who made it can verify the devices as safe and operate them properly.”

“Right, sure,” Tattletale called out with a note of sarcasm in her voice.  “Because it’s not like there’s any high profile mercenaries out there who’ve made a career off of using a tinker’s stuff.”

Dragon didn’t reply.  Had Tattletale found a sore spot?  I knew the Dragonslayers were mercenaries who had taken the parts of one of Dragon’s armored suits to outfit themselves as high tech mercenaries.

Tattletale looked up and glanced around the room, then whispered to me, “Don’t worry about misfires.  I think my power will help us spot those.”

I wanted to believe her, but she’d been wrong before.  It would be Murphy’s law for her power to go awry here, with us blowing our faces off or something.

Still, I didn’t stop her from picking up a gun without a handle.  She pointed it at the wall and pulled the trigger that sort of dangled beneath the gun.  A yellow dot appeared on the wall, then started smoking.  She glanced over her shoulder, and when I turned to see what she was looking at, I saw a matching dot on the wall.  She moved the gun, and the dots both moved.

“Laser with invisible beam.  Ricochets,” she murmured.  “Doesn’t burn that hot, wouldn’t do any damage to anything or anyone.  Wouldn’t incapacitate our opposition or get us out of here.”  She put it aside.  “Look for something better.”

Dangers aside, borrowing Kid Win’s stuff wasn’t a bad idea.  At the speed Regent and Imp were cutting through the door handle, I figured it would be minutes before they were through.  We had to get out of here before the Protectorate arrived.  Even with their numbers cut by recent casualties and injuries, that would be very, very bad for us.

I uncovered three guns that looked like they might work.  Tattletale looked them over.  “Nonlethal flamethrower that probably didn’t pass review, some kind of forcefield barrier cannon and some kind of gun for fighting bigger foes.  Nothing too dangerous, but don’t point them at any of the rest of us until you’ve tested ’em out.”

Nodding, I lifted the one that was five feet long, needle-thin and spearlike.  I worked to get it out of Kid Win’s quarters and aimed it at the largest chair, by the computers.  I depressed the trigger, and a blue flame the length of my forearm spat out the end, consuming the chair.  The seat bent under the heat, melted plastic pooling on the floor, an acrid smell assaulting my nostrils.  The flames that licked the remaining material cast some extra light on our surroundings.  It was pretty thorough destruction for less than two seconds of sustained fire.

How the hell is that nonlethal?

I hurried over to the door, and both Imp and Regent backed away to let me fire.  I pulled the trigger… nothing.

“He took the power and fuel supply from that to use for something else, put crap components in there instead!  Let it recharge!” Tattletale shouted across the room, “Almost one minute before you can shoot again!”

Fuck.

Dragon would have overheard that, but she didn’t comment.  Instead, a sprinkler system kicked into gear, misting down from the ceiling.  Though the quantity of water was low, the effect on the burning chair was immediate, and the flames disappeared with surprising quickness.  What little of the moisture soaked into my mask tasted faintly bitter.

Then Dragon shut off the monitors, plunging us into absolute darkness.

I left the weapon with Imp and hurried over to the other guns, using the few bugs I had with me to ‘feel’ my way, sensing their locations and identifying anything I might trip over.  The second gun, though it had looked more complete than any of the others, had two triggers on the front and two by the handle.  I tried various combinations and got nowhere.

The last gun was heavy.  I hefted it with both hands, then told Regent and Imp to move aside as I aimed it at the door.  Didn’t want to waste any first shots if this was going to take forever to recharge as well.  The gun vibrated, rattled, and shuddered for a full five seconds before it fired.  The shot didn’t cast any light, but it struck the door with enough force that the entire door buckled outward.  I hit the door with my shoulder, and the upper hinge came free.  There was a light in the stairwell, shedding some meager light on us.

“Tattletale!” I called out.  “We got through!”

By the time Tattletale reached us, Regent and I had brought the door down.  The lock was still extending from the handle to the frame, but we’d taken the door off its hinges, and we were free to pull the door open from the other side.  We hurried into the stairwell and began heading back upstairs.

“Fight upstairs is going south, we need to step in, fast,” Regent spoke.  I felt out with my bugs to get a sense of where each of the combatants were, then nodded a hasty agreement.  I began taking the stairs two at a time, though the gun I carried had to weigh a good thirty or forty pounds.

We were halfway up when we came across a pair of unconscious PRT officers.  I looked at Tattletale.

“Imp did this,” she told Regent and me.  “She went ahead, remember?”

It took me a few seconds to realize who she meant.  Damn it, having to keep track of Imp and having her power throwing me off my stride was getting to be annoying.  The team prior to now had a kind of synergy, with the way my bugs and Tattletale’s power let us deal with Grue’s darkness, and how the dogs could smell opponents through it.

We found Imp at the top of the stairs, aiming the spearlike gun.  The blue flame poured out, melting a large hole in the fiberglass.  We crouched in the stairwell as Imp opened the door.  I was so distracted by the sight of the PRT uniforms waiting for us in the hallway that I didn’t see where Imp went.

The reaction wasn’t as strong or immediate as I would have expected, given the burst of flame and the door opening.  A side effect of Imp being the one to carry it out?  One person shouted and alerted the others.  Regent used his power on the one closest to him, causing him to stumble sideways into his comrades. Their ranks descended into chaos.

I readied the few bugs I had on my person, then hefted my borrowed gun.  I backed down a stair as I asked Tattletale, “This thing is nonlethal, right?”

She didn’t have an answer for me.  Instead, she yelped out, “Back!”

She practically pushed me down the stairs, and I caught a glimpse of her covering her ears, shutting her eyes.  Despite the fact that I was on the verge of landing face first on the landing of the stairwell, I didn’t use my hands to stop myself.  I turned to take the impact with my shoulder, tucked my chin to my chest and covered my ears.  Regent jumped out of my way as I landed, his arms pressed against the sides of his head.

It had to have been a grenade.  The blast ripped through the upstairs hallway, and left me gasping even from inside the stairwell.  Tattletale was up before I was, hauling me to my feet and up the stairs, Regent followed just behind us.

The grenade had been of the nonlethal variety, but not quite a flashbang.  The gathered soldiers were reeling, stunned, and Imp was crouched by the only one who was still conscious.  She drew a taser from her sleeve, tagged him, then stood.  She had one of the PRT’s grenade launchers slung over one shoulder, the flamethrower-thing in one hand, and the taser in the other.  She handed off the grenade launcher to Regent, then put the taser away, holding the flamethrower.

To reach the hallway where Grue and the elevator were, we had to head out past the gift shop and around the front desk.  Everyone we’d left behind was still there, friend and foe, but things hadn’t gone well in our absence.

We found Bitch and Shadow Stalker backed against the elevator at the far end of the hallway.  The three dogs were spread out between them and Weld, limp and unmoving.  They’d shrunk down almost to their normal size.  I had to watch for a few seconds before I could see the rise and fall of Sirius’ chest and verify he was alive.

Weld stood beside Grue, binding a length of cord around our leader.  The way he was positioned, Bitch wasn’t able to get by, and I could only assume that Regent had Shadow Stalker there because Bitch lacked the means to defend herself solo.  The elevator, naturally, wasn’t running.

I lifted the heavy gun, then aimed it at Weld and Grue.

“Where did you get those guns?” Weld asked, squaring his shoulders as he turned to face us.

“Borrowed ’em,” Tattletale smirked.  Then she fired the gun she was carrying.  An arc of electricity crackled between the nozzle of her gun and Weld.  Seemingly unconcerned, he started running towards us, metal feet pounding on the tile.

Tattletale backed up one step, and I took that as my cue to back up three. This guy could hit hard, and none of us was capable of going toe-to-toe with him.

There was no need to worry, as the lightning gun’s effects added up and Weld collapsed to the ground before he got halfway to us.  Tattletale stopped firing, and I could see that the metal of Weld’s body was glowing with the heat he’d absorbed.  She stepped closer and swung her gun at him, smacking him across the face with the barrel.  It stuck, and she swiftly backed up.  I wouldn’t have thought he was that hot, that the metal would bond.

Weld staggered to his feet and tore the gun away with both hands, leaving a melted mess that extended from his cheekbone to his forehead on one side of his face.  Gun removed, he started reforming his hands into sticks, four feet long, with the ends curved into blunted hooks.

I raised the gun that had nearly knocked the door off its hinges and pulled the trigger, aiming it at both Weld and Grue.  Nothing.  Whether it was due to a lack of charge, a malfunction, or whatever, it just didn’t work.

Weld began to charge us, and he was nearly to us when Imp stepped in his way and tried to fire.

“Don’t-” Tattletale started.

As with my gun, the flamethrower didn’t work.  Weld clobbered her just as she was beginning to utter a swear word, catching her with both hands to fling her aside.  She tumbled into a sign.  That put him only a few paces from me.

Shadow Stalker was already running toward us.  She entered her shadow state to leap forward, interjecting herself between us and him before going solid.  There was no grace in her movement as she threw herself at him, no particular technique she employed.  They slammed into one another, and she went limp, her body getting tangled up in his legs as he trampled her to the ground.

A short distance from us, Regent fell to one knee, grunting slightly.  A backfire?  Or something else?

More out of an attempt to minimize the damage to Shadow Stalker than actually being bowled over, Weld fell.  I did as Tattletale had done before, and struck Weld with the metal of my gun’s barrel.  As I’d hoped, he was still hot enough that the gun bonded to the metal of his body, I could help to hamper his movements.  Rather than hit him in the face, I struck him across one arm, so the gun made contact with both his forearm, where the hook-hand started, and his bicep.  My hope was that it would limit his range of movement.

Tattletale, Weld and I hurried to back away as he began to climb to his feet, Tattletale recovering her lightning gun.   I could see her debate striking him again, but she seemed to decide it would be better to keep her distance and hold on to it.

I could see Shadow Stalker materialize behind Weld, with Bitch approaching from the other end of the hallway.  One of the dogs, the setter whose name I couldn’t quite remember, had climbed to her feet to join Bitch.  Grue was still out of action.

Weld started laughing, the noise just a little off, coming from someone who I suspected didn’t even have to breathe.

Tattletale caught some meaning in his laughter a second before Regent did.  Tattletale, Regent and Shadow Stalker all simultaneously turned toward the front of the building.  Regent and his puppet uttered a whispered “Oh shit” in unison.

The floodwater and moisture were stirred into an whirlwind flurry around the metal frame by turbines and jets, pushing water and debris a distance away as it set down.  As the engines turned off, the water slopped back into place, lapping around four metal legs.

It was squat, the frame low to the ground, with a snakelike head, and a segmented, sinous body.  It had four legs and a long tail that trailed on the ground in a zig-zagging shape, segmented much as the body had been.  It would have been intimidating enough on its own, but the four engines that were mounted on its upper body, extending out of each of its shoulders in two places, were some combination of a weapons array and a propulsion system.  They bristled with turrets and missiles.  It opened its mouth briefly to vent off some vapor and I could see more weapons contained within.  Foremost among them was some kind of massive cannon.

That explained why Dragon had been so quiet.  When she’d talked about reinforcements, Dragon had been talking about herself.

“Okay,” Tattletale spoke as she backed up, moving her gun to point it at Weld, then Dragon and then back to Weld again.  “Good news, that’s a model Dragon designed for speed, meant to get places fast.  Like, say, if she wanted to get an armored suit from Toronto to Brockton Bay to personally take a hand in dealing with a group of teenage villains.  It’s not really that serious a combat model.”

I looked at the weapons that bristled from Dragon’s shoulders.  If I didn’t know Tattletale’s power, I wasn’t sure I’d believe her.

“Well, that’s good,” Regent replied, “Except it can still totally kick our asses.”

Tattletale didn’t disagree.  “Best tinker in the world?  Probably.”

I glanced behind us, where Weld was standing with excruciating slowness.  He was already cooling off.  The dog by Bitch’s side was growling, now.

Tattletale continued, “The bad news is that the Protectorate is about a minute away, Grue’s still out of action, and there’s pretty much no chance we’re going to get out of here before then.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Parasite 10.3

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

We burst into action the moment Weld called out his warning.

Bitch drove her shoulder into the PRT uniform that held her back, then backed towards the front desk.  Weld had already changed his hand into what looked like a baseball bat with four sides to it, long enough to reach from his wrist to the ground.  Studs the size of golf balls ran down each of the four faces, with a blunted spike on the end.

Weld and Flechette were variables we hadn’t planned for.  It was unfortunate, but Weld in particular was also very well equipped for the task of keeping us from retreating back to the front door.

Weld swung at Shadow Stalker, but his club passed through her.  Fearless, she stepped close and punched the metal arrowhead of one of her crossbows into his right eye.  He stepped back a few steps, one hand going to his eye, and she threw herself at him, bringing her knees to her chest and then kicking out.  Her feet slammed into his chest, and pushed him further back.  Weld only staggered back a short distance, and it was Shadow Stalker who landed hard on her back.  Kicking a five-foot-nine-inch block of metal had to hurt, but Regent doesn’t exactly have to be careful with Shadow Stalker’s body.

Bitch slipped past the pair of them, reaching the front door.  I could hear her whistle at a volume that I doubted I could scream.

Grue and Regent were already free of their cuffs, the three PRT uniforms closest to them lying down on the ground.  Tattletale was grinning at the four wards at the end of the hall closest to the elevator – Kid Win, Clockblocker, Flechette and Vista.  The laughter didn’t belong to Tattletale, however.  It was cackling, sounding like someone having way too much fun.

Flechette shouted, “They’ve got someone with the Stranger classification!”

We did?

The Wards recovered fast enough.  Vista was working to distort the ends of the hallway, the front doors, and the elevator at the end of the hall into impassable terrain.  Flechette fired a shot at Grue, pinning him to the ground, quickly loaded and fired a second, rooting his feet to the ground.

Flechette was loading for a third shot when a girl in black clothing with a horned demon mask and black scarf struck her weapon with a fire axe, splitting the metallic string and knocking it from her hand.

The girl with the horns was on our side, wait- I could almost remember her.  Some relation to Grue.

Then it slipped from my recollection, and I was distracted by the fact that Flechette was disarmed, her weapon broken.  How had that happened?

I couldn’t afford to worry about it.  I had to focus on contributing.

I released the bugs from beneath my costume, drawing them out from beneath the panels of my armor and the compartment at my back where I kept my equipment and weapons.

I’d known I wouldn’t be able to bring many bugs, and that it would be difficult to get more on site with a clean, sturdily built structure like this one.  I could gather a swarm, but it would be a few minutes before the bugs arrived en-masse.  I might have started sooner if I hadn’t been so concerned about alerting someone and giving us away.

The nine hundred and seventy bugs that poured forth were roughly equal numbers of bees, wasps, spiders, mosquitoes and cockroaches.  It was a smaller number than it sounded like, and their deployment was slower because of the way I had them arranged, stingers and abdomens carefully kept out of contact with one another.

I hadn’t come without a plan.

The bugs found their way to Vista, Flechette, and Kid Win, the only young heroes with exposed skin, at roughly the same time as they managed to get beneath the masks and protective clothing of the two PRT uniforms that were holding me.

At first the teenaged heroes swatted at themselves and backed away, as was usual.  The ‘fun house mirror’ distortion at the exits stopped spreading as Vista’s concentration broke, and Flechette dropped one of the small lengths of pointed metal that she’d been withdrawing from her belt.

Then Kid Win cried out, his words raw and barely intelligible because he was also screaming as he shouted them, “It burns!”

Capsaicin was the chemical that made hot peppers burn your tongue.  It was also the active ingredient in pepper spray.  I’d used pepper spray a few times, myself, and I’d had it accidentally used on me when I’d been out in costume, rather recently.  At the time, I’d stepped in to help fight back a crew of the Merchants up near the old Boardwalk.  They’d been aiming to loot the stores, and a contingent of people who’d created an armed force in the ruins of the upscale shopping district had stepped up to fight them off.  One of the defenders had sprayed a looter, and caught me in the effect as well, maybe intentionally.

I’d stepped back and let my bugs do the work while I recovered.  After the fight had wrapped up and I’d headed back to a shelter in my civilian guise, I’d been left to consider the fact that my bugs were vulnerable to the pepper spray.  By all rights, I should have been alerted to that fact the night I sprayed Velocity at the fundraiser, but I hadn’t been able to keep that many bugs on him, then, and I’d had many, many other distractions at the time.  It had escaped my attention.

While sitting up all night at the shelter, with kids crying and wailing and assholes making noise to intentionally piss off the other hundred people in the room, I’d had time to think.  The next morning, I’d woken up, donned my costume and started experimenting to see if I could protect my bugs somehow.  Pepper spray was only one thing.  I was bound, sooner or later, to go up against someone who used some kind of bug spray or gas on my tiny minions.

Had I found a solution?  Not so much.

I had discovered that I could use hair spray to coat the abdomens and stingers of my bugs, and then dip said abdomens and stings into some of the capsaicin. With a bowl of each in liquid form and two single file lines of bugs, I could dose a fair number before I went out in costume.  It did wind up killing some of the less durable ones eventually, either through the hairspray obstructing breathing or the capsaicin getting on the bug, but the end result was that I’d stumbled onto a weapon while trying to experiment with defenses.  I had figured out how to use my bugs as a delivery mechanism, smearing pepper spray onto fresh stings and bites.  I could jam their abdomens into people’s noses, mouths and eyes to cause intense burning and pain to the point that it made them nauseous.

Flechette screamed, falling to her knees, her hands to her face.  One of the PRT uniforms that was holding me let me go to stagger blindly toward the front desk.  I struggled to get away from the other one, but he held me tight even as he bent over, threatening to topple to the ground with me beneath him.

So yeah.  It worked.

Clockblocker had been in the lead of the group as we’d all headed toward the elevator, and had been delayed by the fallen PRT uniforms and his collapsing teammates.  His costume covered his entire body, preventing the bugs from getting to him, so once he got past his allies, there wasn’t much to get in his way.  He charged straight for Grue, and Grue responded by shrouding his immediate vicinity in darkness, though he couldn’t do much else.  One of Flechette’s bolts had nailed the sides of one of his boots to the ground – the other shot had missed, maybe because she couldn’t see his foot and hadn’t wanted to put a spike through his actual flesh.

Clockblocker closed the distance and plunged into the darkness after Grue.  He emerged out the other side, and the darkness dissipated behind him, revealing Grue, frozen in time.  Even the shadows smouldering around Grue’s body faded, revealing his motorcycle leathers and the helmet with the skull-face molded into it.

Which was bad.  It could be up to ten minutes until Grue was back in action, and we couldn’t necessarily afford to babysit his body until he reanimated.

The other PRT officer that was holding me broke away when a girl with a horned mask drove the wooden end of a fire axe into his shoulder.  Regent made Clockblocker stumble, and the horned girl shoved the PRT officer into the boy.  They both fell in a heap.

“Hey!” A girl shouted.  I looked and saw a horned girl crouched by one of the fallen PRT officers, holding the foam sprayer.  Imp.  Right, it was Imp.  She looked at Tattletale, “It won’t fire!”

Tattletale hurried over, grabbed the fallen officer’s arm, and lifted it over to the handle of the gun.  She put his finger on the trigger and aimed the gun at Clockblocker, unloading spray on top of his upper body just as he managed to heave the fallen officer off of himself.

Flechette threw a dart into the foam canister, and both Imp and Tattletale backed away as foam began spilling out of the hole, rapidly expanding to partially cover the uniformed officer.  After a moment’s pause, she threw a spike of metal into every other canister on the other fallen guards.  One even erupted into a pressurized spray, jetting up at an angle to hit the wall, creating a growing barrier a few feet in front of me, partially blocking me from reaching the rest of the combatants.

Before Flechette could turn her darts on us, Regent reached out, causing her to fumble and drop it.  A second later, he grunted and fell to all fours.  Nothing I could see had touched him.

A backfire?  So easily?

I was already turning to check when a primal scream tore its way from Shadow Stalker’s throat.

She’d been fighting with Weld, and Weld almost fell over when he swung and she didn’t enter her shadow state.  He couldn’t stop all of his momentum, but he stepped close and let his upper arm hit her instead.  They stumbled together, Shadow Stalker continuing to scream like she was trying to empty her lungs of every last trace of oxygen.

She raised her crossbow in my general direction, then moved, almost staggered, one step to the side.  From her new vantage point, she targeted Regent; her movements weren’t fluid, and her shot flew past him.  It hit Tattletale instead with a glancing blow, raking across her collarbone to penetrate her shoulder at a shallow angle.  Tattletale was spun off-balance and fell.

Shadow Stalker moved to load her crossbows, but her movements were jittery and jerky to an even greater extent than they had been a second ago.  She stopped midway through the motion, her head turning as she looked from one hand to the other, and then looked up at Weld, who was in close proximity to her.

“H-h-help.”  She stuttered.

A fraction of a second later, Regent was in control again, and Shadow Stalker was attempting to repeat her maneuver from earlier, driving an arrowhead into Weld’s other eye, moving quickly and with as much grace as ever.  He swatted her hand aside, and she entered her shadow state to avoid his follow-up swing with his club.

A series of crashes and the sound of breaking glass showering onto tile announced the arrival of Bitch’s dogs.  They had barreled their way through the bulletproof glass that led into the lobby.  Weld spun to face them, and Shadow Stalker abandoned her fight with him, using the opportunity to finish reloading her crossbows and fire one at Vista, who was hunkered down on the floor, my swarm all over her.  At least the girl wouldn’t be in further pain from what my bugs had done.  I could inflict pain if it meant getting a job done properly.  That didn’t mean I liked doing it.

“Shadow Stalker is conscious in there!?” Weld shouted, his back to us, attention on the three advancing dogs.  None of the dogs were as big as they could get, Bitch couldn’t manage them if they were too large, but it was still the equivalent of three rather agile bears or three unnecessarily burly jungle cats joining the fight, each with some added natural protection in the horned growths of bone and calcified muscle.

“Since a little while ago,” Regent answered.

That was disturbing.  I didn’t have a better way of putting it.  I’d almost been paralyzed by Leviathan in the Endbringer attack, but even before that, the idea of being left conscious but unable to move of my own volition had always spooked me.

I’d never had a relative in the hospital suffering from anything like that, and I couldn’t remember seeing any movies or shows on television that might have put the idea in my head at an impressionable age.  Still, it was one of the first places my mind went when I thought about worst case scenarios and horrific fates.  It had been in my thoughts more over the past two or three years, and the idea had been showcased in more than one nightmare over the past two weeks.

Maybe it was more general than that.  Not a fear of paralysis, specifically, but of helplessness.

The dogs started fighting with Weld, and it didn’t seem to be a fight they would win.  They were faster, they had the advantages of numbers, I even suspected they were stronger.  Despite that, when it came down to it, Weld was a walking, talking statue.  They could hit him hard enough to knock him down, but they couldn’t set their teeth into his flesh or deal any lasting damage.  When Weld hit them, by contrast, the hits were most definitely felt.

Still, their intervention did allow us to turn our focus to the others.  Vista was out of action, as was Clockblocker.

“Help Skitter!” Tattletale ordered, sounding urgent as she turned her attention to the remaining Wards that stood between us and the elevator.  Who was she talking to?

Then I felt hands at my back.  I flinched, but they held firm.  A second later I felt my cuffs come undone.  Imp.  Right.

I was getting the distinct impression that it was easier to recall her and react as if she were present if I hadn’t been actively trying to pay attention to her.  It was almost as if actively trying to commit her presence to memory had the opposite effect.  Except how was I supposed to put that knowledge into practice, if acting on that knowledge counted as recognizing her presence?

I didn’t get a chance to work it out, because Imp was gone from behind me a moment later, and we were faced with the issue of dealing with Flechette and Kid Win and the fact that our movements were getting more and more limited by the growing piles of adhesive, nigh-indestructible foam.

Kid Win had pulled himself together enough to draw a small blue pistol from his waist.  I tensed, bending my knees and shifting my weight to the balls of my feet so I could move the instant he aimed at me.

He didn’t fire it, though.  Instead, he slapped his chest, and the armor there opened up, revealing a circular depression.  He slammed the little blue gun there, where the weapon stuck like it was glued in, or maybe because of a magnet.  The chest portion of his armor closed up.

He staggered to his feet, swatted at his face, then looked like he immediately regretted doing that, judging by his pained grunt and gritted teeth.  His costume started to light up, glowing with a silvery light where it had been gold, before.  Two pear-shaped pieces of metal that had been attached to the armor on his shoulders raised into the air, floating.

Abruptly the pieces of metal jerked so the smaller ends pointed at us, and they each belched out blue sparks the size of softballs.

Imp appeared as she ducked out of the way of one, while Regent avoided the other.  Tattletale was still on the ground, one hand to her shoulder, and the shots passed well over her.

I didn’t see the need to dodge – the shots weren’t fast moving, and both seemed ready to collide with the walls on either side of me.  What I didn’t expect was for their trajectory to slow, then stop altogether, before they hit the wall.  Picking up speed, they headed back toward Kid Win.

“Heads up!” I shouted.  Imp and Regent turned just in time to avoid the boomeranging projectiles, but the distraction nearly cost them as the guns above Kid Win’s shoulders blasted off another two ‘sparks’.

“What the hell!?” Imp shouted.  The returning sparks had fallen into a lazy orbit around Kid Win.  Two, then four, then six sparks orbited him, with more joining the mass.  As the seventh and eighth sparks joined the ring that spiraled around Kid Win, arcs and flashes of electricity began to dance between them, making it into a loose ring that encircled him.  He advanced a few steps.

My bugs were dying in droves with the residual electricity, but Kid Win, at least, was largely incapacitated, his eyes swollen nearly shut, with some bugs gathered over and around his eyes to further obscure his vision.

I’d read up on the Wards, when I first got my powers, I knew they weren’t allowed to use lethal weapons.  Shadow Stalker had to use tranquilizer darts instead of real arrows, though she violated that rule often enough, and this device of Kid Win’s, no matter how intimidating, wouldn’t be allowed to do any sort of serious injury.

“Shadow Stalker!” I shouted, “Charge Kid Win!”  Expendable assets.

“Can’t!” she and Regent shouted in unison, “It’ll disrupt my control!”

Hearing that, Kid Win turned and fired a pair of sparks in their general direction.  The sparks flew further and faster, and they reached far enough that I actually had to dodge those.  One slammed into the spray of foam that the canister was blasting into the wall, while the other sailed toward Shadow Stalker, but stopped a few feet short and then looped back toward Kid Win.

That left one option.

Bitch wasn’t around, which left it to me.  I whistled, hard, getting the attention of the dogs.  When the dog with the squarish, almost snoutless head turned my way.  He’d be the bulldog puppy, Bentley.  I took a step toward Kid Win, pointed at the young hero, then shouted, “Get him!”

A ragged, horn encrusted tongue lolling out one side of his mouth, Bentley eagerly tromped past Weld, who lashed out with his club but only grazed Bentley’s rear flank.  Recklessly, the dog charged Kid Win, slamming into him, taking the full brunt of the ring of vibrantly blue electricity.

The dog and the boy crashed to the ground together, and skidded far enough toward the elevator that they collided with Flechette, who had retreated from the storm of blue sparks, her back to the elevator.    Bentley stood, flashes of brilliant blue light crackling at the chain that was rigged around his muzzle.  He limped strangely, but it wasn’t due to any injury.  From what I could tell, he’d stepped in some of the foam as he ran, and his foot was sticking to the floor.  More foam had splashed his shoulder.  In any event, the two teenage heroes were down, and it looked like the sparks had done more to incapacitate them than it had the puppy.

“Good boy!” I called out, “Good Bentley!”  His tail, shorter than any of the other dogs, wagged at the attention.

Shadow Stalker, Imp and the two remaining dogs had Weld on his heels, Imp doing her best to smack him in the face with the fire axe and have the metal obscure his vision.  Bitch slipped past the melee.  I looked away, tried to figure out a simple way to get by the spout of foam that was still sputtering out of the hole Flechette’s dart had made in the tank while still avoiding the flailing PRT uniform that was kneeling a short distance from me.

The next thing I knew, I was being slammed into a wall, hard.  For one moment I thought it was Weld, but I heard the snarling of the dogs and the noise of impacts.  I knew Weld would have hit me harder.

No, it was Bitch.

“You do not give orders to my dogs!” she growled in my ear.  “You do not get a say in whether they are good or bad!  Do that again and I will order them to chew you up and spit you out!”

“Bitch!” Tattletale shouted, I could almost see her out of the corner of my eye, cringing at the pain shouting caused her.  She still had the crossbow bolt sticking out of her shoulder, “Not the time!”

Bitch made a feral noise as she broke away from me, releasing me from my position against the wall.  I turned around to see her grabbing the flailing soldier and throwing him on top of the foam canister that was still spraying in fizzing spurts.  She walked on him to head toward the elevator.  Reluctantly, I followed.

Tattletale got Imp’s help in dragging Vista to the elevator door.  Regent took over and helped Imp hold Vista there, their fingers prying her eyes open until the retinal scan finished, then dragged her inside.

“Come on!” Tattletale urged us.

I looked back at Grue.

“Bitch, the dogs and Shadow Stalker will be here to protect him!” she called out.

I considered a moment, then nodded.  I joined the rest of the group in the elevator, and we headed down to the lowest floors.

“Cameras,” Tattletale spoke.  I nodded, and sent bugs into the room, found the surveillance cameras that were spaced at regular intervals around the room, and covered the lenses with bugs.

We exited the elevator, stepping into the Ward’s headquarters.  The room was vast, with a high domed ceiling that probably made this floor three stories deep.  A computer console with a dozen monitors sat to our right, and the far end seemed to be walled off into several smaller rooms.  The signs at the doors to the left implied they led off to the bathrooms.

To think that, if things had gone a little differently, I might have wound up here.

Tattletale was at the computer in an instant, reaching into her belt pockets to retrieve a series of USB thumb drives, which she slid into the available ports of the computer.  The monitors went to a blue screen.  As she typed, the word ‘JPIGGOT’ appeared on each monitor.  When that word disappeared from the screen, she typed a password, a row of asterisks appearing on the screens, twelve or thirteen characters long.

Then gibberish filled the screen.  Some looked like code, much looked like random numbers, letters and symbols, even hearts, spades and smiley faces.  Some of the snippets of code appeared to be file names.

“This should be every document the PRT has on file for their teams, barring the most secure documents, which wouldn’t be kept accessible, even in this isolated network.”  She handed me a pad of gauze from her belt.

“How long?” I asked.  I snapped the feathered end off the crossbow bolt, then pushed it out the other side.  The arrowhead wouldn’t take to being pulled out backward.

“Two minutes.”

“But we may have to wait up to ten, depending on when Clockblocker’s power wears off.”  While I talked, I held the gauze to her shoulder with one hand and took the offered tape with the other.  There was a rip in her costume, and I opted to tear it a little wider and put the gauze beneath before taping it on, to let the skintight fabric hold it firm.

“Bad luck he got one of us, yeah.”  Tattletale made a face, “Regent, let us know if there’s movement from Grue up there, through Shadow Stalker.”

“We’re going to have to fight our way through their reinforcements if we wait too long,” Regent said.

“Probably.  But not the Protectorate.  The only one who could get here fast enough to matter would be Velocity, and he’s dead.”

“They could have new members like the Wards did,” I said.

Tattletale frowned, “True.  They recruited those guys fast.  Especially since they’ve been here a few days.”

“Either way, we should make a quick exit,” I advised.  “Fast as we can manage, anyways, with Grue being stuck like he is.”

As the screen filled with more gibberish, reaching the point where there was more white text than blue background, we prepared to make our exit.

“Elevator’s down.”

“Of course it is,” Tattletale sighed, “There are stairs, through the door by the little window, where the tourists look in,” Tattletale said.  She waited with one hand poised over the USB drive.

A half second before the last blue dot on the screen disappeared, the entire room plunged into darkness.  The computer screens went black.

Silence reigned for a few heartbeats.  It wasn’t Grue’s power, though.  I could hear my own breathing.

“Someone cut the power?” Imp asked.

“No,” I heard Tattletale, “Separate power source, buried deeper beneath the building.  Same with the computers, there’s nothing upstairs or even in the city that could turn them off.  They’re hooked up to that power source, they’ve got internal batteries, and the only external connection is by satellite linkup.  They might terminate our connection to the computer database via the satellite feed, but not the lights.”

“So this is bad?” Imp asked.

A computer generated face appeared on the computer screens, illuminating us and our immediate surroundings with the pale glow the image cast.  I didn’t recognize the face, but I could guess.

Dragon.  She was onto us.  Yeah, that was pretty bad, as these things went.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Parasite 10.2

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

3 Days Ago

I drew in a deep breath, then exhaled, long and slow.

“I got your back,” Lisa told me.  I nodded.

With a push, the door swung wide open.

The inside of the building didn’t match the exterior.  It was situated in one of the low-lying areas of the Docks, where the flooding had yet to fully dissipate.  The buildings around here were in such bad shape that nobody was willing to use them for shelter or venture inside to take things.  On the inside, however, the place was reinforced with girders and beams.  Pieces of sheet metal sat between the thick metal shafts and the exterior wall, with holes cut to accommodate the windows.  Handles on the metal shutters suggested that the plywood could be moved aside in a pinch.  At ground level, there were stacked sandbags of a slightly different make from the usual, with plastic stapled over each pile.

The place hadn’t yet been organized.  A pair of beds sat in one corner, surrounded by assorted pieces of furniture.  The building’s interior was dry, crisp, and brightly lit.  It might have appeared sterile, if not for the spray paint on much of the sheet metal, and the tracks of dried mud on the ground near the door.

Our arrival was met by the furious barking of a half-dozen dogs.  A set of gates ringing the front door stopped them from attacking us.  Brian was sitting on the far end of the room, beside Aisha.  He wore his regular sparring uniform, and Aisha wore much the same thing, though she was wearing shorts instead of yoga pants.

His little sister?  Here?

Alec was sitting cross-legged on a pile of furniture, a bowl of colorful cereal balanced on one knee.  A long cut ran from just beneath his ear to his shoulder, beneath his shirt.  He was watching a TV that was plugged into an extension cord that hung from the ceiling.  He’d turned my way at the barking of the dogs, and I almost missed him uttering the words, “You gotta be kidding.”

One of the dogs apparently recognized me, because it stopped at the gate and wagged its tail.  A part of me took that as a good sign.  Then Bitch appeared, immediately wheeling on me, water flying from her damp hair.  She’d probably just come from the shower – she wore loose fitting army pants and a black tank top that had darker spots where beads of water had soaked into it.  A towel hung around her shoulders.  As she saw me, emotion hardened the lines of her face.  Her hands clenched as she strode toward me.  I saw the aggression in her body language, squeezed my eyes shut and tried to relax.  I remembered what Brian had said during our sparring, about how tensing up would only make you more vulnerable.

If that was true, I was really glad I hadn’t tensed up.  She was sturdily built and she didn’t hold back in the slightest.  She kicked down the dog gate, and an instant later, her fist connected with my cheekbone to send me sprawling to the ground, my tailbone absorbing most of the impact.  I’d been knocked around by Lung, Glory Girl, Bakuda and even Leviathan.  Some of those guys hit magnitudes harder than Bitch did, but it still hurt like hell.

It spoke volumes that while Lisa stepped forward so she could defend me, Grue and Alec didn’t.  The dogs tentatively passed through the open gate, but hung back in deference to their master.

“I-” I broke off mid-sentence – opening my mouth to speak had caused the pain in the right side of my face to come to bear, full force.  “I deserved that.”

Bitch delivered a swift kick to my shoulder, making me grunt and fall flat onto my back.  “Deserved that too.”

“Point made,” Lisa told her. “Stop.”

“Fuck you,” Bitch snarled.  She pointed at Brian.  “It’s irritating enough that he wants to start giving orders and calling himself our leader, I’m not putting up with it from you, too.  I do what I want, and what I want is to beat her face in.”

Bitch turned, strode to the pile of furniture, and then lifted one of the loose shelves that had been removed from the bookcase.  It was  a piece of wood chipboard about three feet long and a foot deep.  Lisa moved to put herself between Bitch and me and stave off Bitch’s attack.  She turned to Brian, “Hey, a little help, here?”

Brian frowned, “Why did you bring her here?”

“To talk,” Lisa said.  When Bitch tried to move around to her left, Lisa shifted her position to stay in her way.  I sat up, used my legs and hands to put some distance between Bitch and I.

“She was going to fuck us over!” Bitch shouted.

I shook my head, but Bitch and Lisa’s movements left me unsure if Brian had seen.  I called out, “No!  I wasn’t!”

Brian stepped forward and put a hand on Bitch’s arm.  She scowled but lowered her improvised weapon.

He leveled a serious look at me, “Lisa said you were, and when it comes down to the two of you, I’m going to choose her.  What Armsmaster said made too much sense, and a few of the little things about you suddenly made a lot of sense.”

“No, I- I mean, I was going to betray you-”

“I’m going to fucking kick her teeth in!” Bitch shouted.

“Past tense!” I raised my voice, “I changed my mind!”

Bitch made a deeper noise, low in her throat.  Aisha and Alec approached, which contributed to the loose half-circle of people and animals  around Lisa and me.  Tension hung heavy in the air.

“You changed your mind,” Brian didn’t sound as though he believed me.

“Dealing with Armsmaster?  Realizing what an asshole he was?  It was kind of a wake up call.  I’d already begun to think of you guys as my friends.  And what we were doing, it wasn’t so bad.  Most of our fights were against Lung’s gang…”

Barring Lisa and Aisha, every set of eyes on me was glaring.  I climbed to my feet, flinched a little as Bitch shifted position, fearing another attack.  My cheek was radiating pain, like someone was driving a nail into it.  My shoulder didn’t hurt half as much, but it wasn’t exactly fun, either.

“I-I changed my mind after we raided the fundraiser and talked to Coil.  I went home, and when I started thinking about sending that email to the Protectorate, I realized I couldn’t.  It would have meant explaining things to my dad and leaving you guys.  I couldn’t do either.”

“That wasn’t all that long ago, and it sounds pretty thin to me.”

I raised my arms, in a bit of a helpless gesture, then let them flop back to my sides.  “It’s the truth.  I’m not good at this, at talking to people or convincing them.  All I can do is tell you how things were from my perspective and hope you’ll see I’m sincere.”

He folded his arms, “Is that all you came to say?”

I drew in a deep breath, then sighed, “And I’d like to be back on the team if you’ll have me.  Please.”

His eyebrows rose, “I seem to recall you leaving in a huff after our last conversation with Coil.  What’s changed?”

“You have to understand, I was angry at myself as much… more than I was angry at you guys.  For letting that thing with the little girl happen, for not connecting the dots.  But I’ve thought about it, talked to Lisa, and I’m open to talking about it if you’re willing.”

“And why should we believe you, in all this?” he challenged me.

“I can vouch-” Lisa started to speak.

“Taylor can answer for herself,” Brian cut her off.

I floundered for an answer.  I got the distinct impression that they wouldn’t be satisfied if I couldn’t provide one.  A knot of ugly emotions gathered in my stomach, building as I felt the condemnation of these people I’d been so close to, not so long ago.

Realizing that much gave me an idea.  It wasn’t much, though.

I turned to Brian, “You remember when we were on the way to your apartment, what happened?”

“Which?  That thing with the bully, or-”

“After that.  The, um, awkward conversation.”

“Hey, dork,” Alec cut in, “He’s not the only one you have to convince.  You can’t omit details and leave us in the dark here.”

“Yeah!” Aisha added.  Brian gave her an annoyed look.

I looked at him, then looked down at the ground, feeling heat spread across my face.  The flush in my cheeks made the side of my face throb.  I hated feeling humiliated, felt way too many ugly emotions rising in a long-conditioned response, a spark of anger at the forefront of them.

Stiffly, I replied, “I… let Brian know I was interested in him.  Romantically.  It was the truth.”

“Ahhhh,” Alec responded.

I knew it!  Totally knew it from the second I saw you at his apartment!”  Aisha cackled.

I stole a glance at Brian and saw his expression hadn’t changed in the least.  When he spoke, he did it with a small shake of his head, “You could have been doing that to get me to let my guard down.”

“Bullshit,” Alec retorted.

“What?” Brian turned toward Alec.

“I said bullshit,” Alec repeated himself.  “Taylor said it herself, she sucks ass when it comes to lying and being smooth.”

“She lied well enough when she was keeping her undercover act a secret.”

“I didn’t lie, exactly,” I said, quiet, “I just didn’t tell you.”

Nobody answered that statement.  I felt dumb for saying it, however true it may or may not have been.

Alec added to his earlier comment, “I don’t ever pay attention to that team drama shit, and I picked up on the fact that she liked you.  It was so obvious it was irritating.”

It was strange, Alec was standing up for me.  He was insulting me while he did it, but he was still backing me up.

“That could have been an act,” Brian stressed.  “And even if it wasn’t, it doesn’t mean anything in the end.”

“You don’t really believe that,” Lisa replied, “You’re pissed at us.  I don’t blame you.  I’d be pissed at us, too.  But you’re only calling her a liar because it’s a hell of a lot easier to be angry at her if you think the person you befriended was a fake.”

Brian sighed, loudly. “Don’t turn your power on me.”

“Who says I am?”

Chancing a look at Bitch, I saw she was pacing back and forth, each set of paces short and restless.  She didn’t seem to have calmed down any.

I wasn’t feeling much better myself.  I said as much, “All I want is for things to go back to the way they were.”

“It’s not that easy,” Brian replied.  When I met his eyes, he looked away, his brow furrowing.

When had things been good?  What point in time was I so eager to return to, where I hadn’t been wracked by guilt or nervousness?  By the time I got over my fear of getting caught, I’d run away from home and cut ties with my dad.  Then, before I could come to terms with that, I’d found out about Dinah, which had affected me more than anything else.  I’d terrorized hostages, maimed a supervillain, hurt superheroes, but it was Dinah that left me lying awake at night, feeling helpless, feeling like I was the scum of the earth.

And I couldn’t help her from the outside.  That, more than anything, was why I was here.  I wasn’t strong enough to fight Coil on my own, I couldn’t go to the heroes and rely on them to handle it, not with Coil’s power giving him two attempts to escape, two attempts to any  counterattacks, two attempts to track down the person who’d informed on him and deal with her, and take his pick of the outcomes he wanted.  That wasn’t even getting into the more complex uses of his abilities, only using one of his concurrent realities to try something, doing it over and over again until he got a result he wanted to keep.  I couldn’t beat him in any kind of confrontation.

Lisa had convinced me.  I would only solve this by getting in Coil’s good graces, talking to him as someone he could respect and listen to.

I couldn’t do that without convincing these guys to let me back on the team.

“No,” I answered Brian, “You’re right.  It’s not that easy.  But if you’ll have me, I’m willing to work my ass off to make it up to you.  I’m pretty good as a member of this team, you know it.  If you want to monitor my every move, fine.  Any restrictions you want to put on me, fine.  I’ll even give up my pay from Coil and any jobs we do.  Whatever you want.”

He shook his head, then asked me, “Why?  Why come back?”

“Because I’ve been to the shelters, I’ve walked the streets and seen what the Merchants and Chosen are doing out there.  I want to resolve this thing with Dinah.  Whether I like it or not, I know that the fastest way to get to that point where everything’s okay again is working with Coil.”

Lisa spoke, “I want her back on the team, obviously.  If we’re voting, that’s where my vote is going.”

“Mine too,” Alec said, “You’re wound up, Brian, maybe it’s Taylor being gone, maybe it’s Aisha and your dad getting attacked, maybe it’s the general situation with the city, but it’s getting miserable to be around you.  Taylor was always the one who was on the same page as you, she’d be someone you can work with and talk to, at least.  You’ll be happier in the long run if she’s around.  And we’ll be happier if you’re not so fucking crabby.  ‘Sides, if she’s giving up her pay, then it doesn’t even cost us anything.”

“It costs us a lot,” Brian said, his voice low, “If mistrust and tension fucks up our team chemistry, especially if we start fucking up in the field, because of it.”

“So you’re voting no?” Lisa pressed him.

“Do I get a vote?” Aisha cut in, before he could respond.

“No,” Brian and Lisa refused her in unison.  Aisha made a face, but didn’t seem too bothered.

“I don’t want her on the team,” Bitch spoke.

Brian shook his head, “I don’t know what to tell you, Rachel.  Alec’s right, for once.  We need her.  We need the firepower, out there, at the very least.  Looking at this objectively, I think I’d have to say we should keep her.”

“Which is three votes for, one against,” Regent noted.

Bitch threw the piece of chipboard she was carrying into the wall, hard.  One of the dogs started barking in response or in alarm.  She spat in my general direction and then stalked over to the far end of the room, her dogs trailing after her.  The metal stairs clanged with the impacts of her boots as she ascended to the next floor.

Lisa hesitated, then followed after.  Alec glanced at us, then put a hand on Aisha’s shoulder and led her away, leaving Brian and me alone.

“Thank you,” I said, quietly, to Brian.

Brian shook his head, “Don’t thank me.  Alec’s right when he says that we’ll probably get over this.  Maybe we’ll even become friends again and get to the point where we can talk about it.  But that isn’t going to happen today, and definitely not right here and now.”

“Okay,” I replied.  But he was already walking away, leaving me standing alone at the entrance.

I had told myself I would rise above the likes of Sophia and Armsmaster.  I was all too aware of their flaws, and first and foremost among them was arrogance, pride.

So I’d swallowed mine.

Now

There were so many ways this could go wrong.

Tattletale held a pair of binoculars and scanned the building in front of us.  “There’s movement.  We’re good to go.”

“Go,” Grue ordered.

Hitting the target wasn’t so hard.  My bugs flowed in through windows and Bitch took the entrances.  Angelica had free rein, slow as she was, while the other dogs stayed on leash.  Grue hung back with Tattletale, Regent and me, while Imp moved forward, not charging in, but staying close.

The tricky part would be balancing this.  Too far one way or the other, and this got really ugly, really fast.

Our targets were looters, and they were well armed, though bullets were getting to be in shorter and shorter supply.  Coil had sources, and the Chosen did as well, but these guys were from the Merchants.  They were vagrants, addicts and people who subsisted by mooching off the system.  When the system had failed, they’d latched on to the only group that would take them.  More had joined because it was safer and easier to be among the thugs, looters, scavengers and thieves than it was to be among the victims.  Safety in numbers.

They weren’t strong or trained, and I couldn’t call them brave.  That said, they were bolstered by a kind of desperation.  I’d seen it before, when I set my bugs on some of my enemies, how some panicked or saw the futility in fighting the swarm and others just fought on heedless of the damage they were taking and the pain they were feeling.

That same desperation posed an issue as far as our plan.  If we gave them a chance, they wouldn’t hesitate to hurt or kill us.

They’d raided countless homes and businesses, taken everything of value they could uncover.  Phone lines were down everywhere, police response times far slower with the roads in the condition they were.  The looters had amassed a small fortune in stolen possessions, and intel said they were storing it here.  As reasonable a target as any.

My bugs drove the bulk of the looters out into the street.  Between Grue’s darkness and Bitch’s dogs, those same looters were driven back and cornered, hemmed in by the snarling beasts.

The second we had the situation under control, Shadow Stalker dropped out of the sky, a crossbow in each hand.  Tattletale and Grue were darted a second later.  She reloaded in a second using the cartridges that had been set on her gloves, then darted Imp and me.  By the time the dart embedded in the armor of my costume, Tattletale and Grue were slumping to the ground.

The fabric of my costume blocked the dart, so I didn’t go down.  I drew my baton, snapped it out to its full length, and charged her.

She backed away, loading and firing another series of bolts at Regent and the dog closest to her.  By the time I reached her, she’d fired a second dart into the dog, then shot Bitch.

My baton passed through her, of course.  She walked through my arm, stepping right behind me, and then drove her knee into my side.  I grunted and fell over, and she retrieved and slammed a dart into my shoulder before I could recover.

Take it easy, Regent.

Bitch managed to scream an order to her dogs before she ‘passed out’, “Go!”

The three newer dogs hesitated, but Angelica didn’t.  She huffed out a snarl as she passed them, and the others took her lead and joined her in stampeding down the street until they disappeared from sight.

I laid in the water, aware of how cold it was, trying to ignore how dirty it was.  My lenses afforded me an advantage in that I could watch what was going on without my open eyes giving anything away.  I saw Shadow Stalker touch her ear, then murmur something.  Tattletale had gone over everything Regent needed to know as far as that particular routine and the orders to give.

It took three minutes for the PRT to arrive.  I saw the green and white flashing lights and heard the splashing before anyone stepped into my field of view.

“Holy shit,” one of the PRT uniforms spoke.

“Restrain them and throw them in the van,” Shadow Stalker ordered him.

“Jao, get the containment foam,” one uniform spoke.  The captain?

“They’re tranquilized,” Shadow Stalker spoke, sounding disinterested, “Don’t waste resources.”

“Protocol states we use containment foam, especially when there’s an unknown.”

“The girl with the horns?  Mover three, teleports through shadows,” Shadow Stalker lied.  “None of them can escape restraints on their own.”

“But if Grue uses his power-“

Shadow Stalker turned, then fired another dart into Grue.  “Satisfied?”

We’d drained the darts of the sedative, of course.  Still, I was betting Grue would have words for Regent after this was over and done with.

The uniform didn’t back down, “No.  I want to know why you don’t want them fully contained.”

“Because I’ve been up since five in the morning, it’s well past midnight now, and I’m going to have to start doing fucking paperwork the second we get these guys in a cell.  I’m not allowed to walk away until they’re in custody, so if I let you foam them, I’m going to have to wait another half an hour to an hour for the solvent to get mixed and brought to them, five or ten minutes for it to work.  Fuck that, they’re down.  Listen to the hero who just took down a whole fucking team and get them in the truck.”

There was no reply to that, but a moment later, someone picked me up and started carrying me.  I maintained deep breaths, kept my body limp.  A few bugs congregated on me and the uniforms moving us, and I didn’t do anything to dismiss them.  Maybe they would distract the uniform from the fact that any of us were still conscious.

 I was placed on the cool metal floor of the containment vehicle, my hands cuffed behind my back.  A few seconds later, someone was thrown over top of my upper body.  Too light to be Grue or Bitch.  It would be Imp or Regent.

The metal doors slammed shut and locked with an audible shift of internal machinery.

So many ways this could go wrong.

We had safeguards, of course, including but not being limited to Coil’s assistance.  Still, there was something profoundly unsettling about allowing myself to be cuffed and imprisoned.

“No ears on us,” Tattletale murmured, “We’re good so long as we keep our voices down.”

“PRT is having words with the remaining ‘witnesses’ who stuck around to grab loot after the dogs ran off,” Regent informed us with a whisper.  “They’re backing up the story we wanted to sell.”

We’d passed one hurdle, at least.  The act could have gone either way – if we didn’t sell it well enough, we could have wound up with the PRT arresting us for real.  If we timed it wrong or if one of the looters decided to attack us while we were pretending to be tranquilized, something ugly might have happened.

“You hit me way too hard,” I murmured.

“Muscle memory,” Regent replied.  “Blame her, not me.”

“You alright, Imp?” Grue asked.

“Duh,” she replied.

It was a good few minutes before the truck bucked into motion.  Out of unspoken agreement, we stayed quiet, just to be absolutely sure that the driver wouldn’t hear us.  It was maybe ten or fifteen minutes before we arrived.

“We’re at their headquarters,” Regent spoke, his voice hushed.

“Then we’re in good shape,” Grue answered.

“Weld and the Wards are coming out to meet Shadow Stalker.  Heads up.”

The back door of the van opened.  I could feel cooler air enter the enclosed space.  There was an audible click of a gun, as if they were anticipating an attack the moment the doors opened.

“Wow,” one of the boys commented.  I was guessing it was Kid Win or Clockblocker.  “How’d you pull that off?”

“They were distracted, I picked them off.  That little freak that saw me with my mask off was wearing armor, so I had to resort to CQC,” Shadow Stalker made it sound matter-of-fact.

“Riiiight,” one of the other boys said, sarcastic.

“You’re quiet, Weld,” a girl’s voice.  Vista?

Who was Weld?

“Basking in how fucking awesome I am?” Shadow Stalker gloated.

“Maybe later.  For now…” the accented male voice spoke, “Just satisfy my curiosity.  You know the passwords we memorize each week, and you know why we memorize them, right?”

“Yeah,” Shadow Stalker replied.

One of the other boys spoke, “For any interaction with any flagged shifter or,” the boy paused, “master.  Oh.”

“So,” Weld said, “Keeping in mind that Regent is the highest rated Master in the city, I’d like for you to give us this week’s password.”

There was a pause.

“Comanche Six-six-two,” Shadow Stalker spoke.

Another pause.

“Alright,” Weld confirmed, “Pick ’em up and haul them into the holding cells.”

It was all I could do to stay still and not show my relief.  Tattletale had anticipated this much, had drilled Regent on it, but she had been wrong in the past.

Imp was lifted from on top of me, and Tattletale was picked up next, from right beside me.

I was among the last to get lifted off the floor of the truck.  Shadow Stalker held me until a pair of PRT uniforms could haul me to my feet and lift me by my armpits, my feet dragging on the ground, my head hanging.  I chanced a partial opening of my eyes, knowing my lenses would hide them, to sneak a sidelong peek at this ‘Weld’.  Metal skin, metal hair, and a strange melted-junkyard texture to his shoulders.  I’d crossed paths with him before the Endbringer event.

He spoke, his voice quiet enough that it was probably intended for just him and Sophia, “Where are the dogs?”

“Tranquilized them, they didn’t go down.  Ran when Hellhound dropped.”

Weld nodded, “This is good work, but it doesn’t excuse or make up for what happened earlier.”

“Whatever,” Shadow Stalker replied.

“No.  This is serious.  You assaulted a team member.  I’m not about to let that slide.”

On one level, I wasn’t surprised to hear that.  I knew, cognitively, that she had that kind of personality.   But emotionally?  I hadn’t really believed it.  It caught me off guard to hear she was that big a problem in the Wards, as well.

A few seconds passed before she finally asked, “What are you going to do?”

“After these guys are securely in custody, we’re going to have words with the Director.  She wants you on this team, for whatever reason, so I don’t expect your probation will be broken, but there’s going to be consequences.”

“Fuck,” Shadow Stalker said.

And you’re going to apologize to Kid Win.  I don’t ever want you assaulting him again.”

Shadow Stalker paused.  “Stop fucking testing me.  I’m too tired for this.  It wasn’t Kid Win.”

Weld nodded.  I blinked a few times in surprise.  Tattletale hadn’t gone into this, hadn’t anticipated it. Weld had just tried to trip up Regent/Shadow Stalker, and Regent had anticipated it.  A bullet dodged.

I saw we were passing by a front desk.  I’d never been in the building, but I had passed by it a few times.  It was surprisingly empty.  There weren’t many PRT uniforms around, either.

“Who was it, then?” Weld asked.  It took me a second to parse what he meant.

Shadow Stalker groaned, “Fuck off!  It’s me.”

“Hey,” he turned, putting one hand on her shoulder to stop her mid-stride.  “Who was it?”

She glanced at the group.  Clockblocker, Kid Win, Vista, and the girl from the Endbringer fight who called herself Flechette.

“Clockblocker,” she guessed.

Weld didn’t move an inch, and my gut told me Regent/Shadow Stalker was off the mark.  My heart sank.

Clockblocker and Kid Win stopped walking and looked our way curiously.

“Heads up!  Trap!” Weld shouted.

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Parasite 10.1

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Creepy crawlies riddled the building’s interior, and I hadn’t even used my powers to bring them here.

No power meant the building was dark.  The city, and consequently the building, were flooded, which meant it was moist.  With exceptions for some of the luckier areas, pretty much every service was suspended, which meant no mail and no trash pickup.  Trash bags were accumulating anywhere that people lived, here included, and when they had run out of trash bags, people had started littering, throwing their trash out the windows or leaving it in hallways instead.  To top it off, the weather was getting warmer.

For bugs, all of these converging details made the city into a paradise.

I walked in the lead of the group, with Imp a step behind me and to my right.  The two of us held flashlights, but Imp was barely paying attention to hers.  She held a knife much like mine, and she dragged the point against the wall as we walked down the hallway, carving a groove into the paint.  Her flashlight spent more time pointed at her feet than in front of us, leaving me the burden of lighting our way.

I stopped, turned the flashlight on an open apartment door.  “Here, maybe?”

Grue grunted, adjusted the position of the unconscious body he had draped over one shoulder, “Scout it.”

Bitch nodded, letting Angelica off the chain, pointing at the door.  Of the four dogs she had with her, only Angelica was still under the influence of her power, standing three times her usual size.  Despite the invigorating effects of Bitch’s attentions, the dog moved slowly as she loped into the apartment.  It was painful to look at her – she was moving as though she were ten years older than she was.

The other dogs pulled at their chains, wanting to follow.  Bitch made angry clucking noises, then ordered them to sit.  They were slow to obey, but I think something about the look in Bitch’s eyes told them they’d better listen.  One of them reared back as I sent more bugs into the interior to investigate.

Bitch had been short-tempered lately.  The loss of two of the dogs she was closest to?  It played a large part in that.  She’d lost eight dogs in total, and Angelica had only lived because she had been too hurt to be brought along.  Problem was, Angelica wasn’t recovering from those injuries, and from what I gathered, she might not ever recover completely.  Bitch was forced to rely on a single crippled, obedient dog and three dogs that were in the peak of health, but impatient and untrained.

Of course, I couldn’t deny that a big part of her attitude was me and the fact that I was here.

Angelica returned to the doorway, looked up at her owner, and then returned to the apartment.

“No problems,” Bitch spoke, translating Angelica’s body language for everyone present.  Grue looked at me, and I nodded confirmation.

I led the way inside, using my flashlight to scan the area.

The apartment had been ransacked, but it wasn’t the kind of ransacking that suggested the looters had gotten to it.  No, it was the very thorough removal of everything valuable that could be carried away by a family of three or four.  There were two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen with room for a small table and accompanying chairs.  There was a smaller bed in one room and a king sized bed in the other.  Dresser drawers, cabinets and bedside tables were all open, clothes strewn around the rooms.  The occupants had left in a hurry, and I was guessing they probably hadn’t expected to come back or find much of their stuff here when they did.

Tattletale grunted as she dropped one box beside the couch, where it landed on something with a crunch. “City’s trying to restore order one area at a time.  May be doing more harm than good.  This building’s been declared uninhabitable, which isn’t exactly doing anyone any favors, because most places in the city are just as bad or worse, and a lot of people don’t have anywhere else to go.  Anyways, they’re kicking everyone out, trying to clean up as best they can, get rid of that trash, do what they can about the infestation of rats and bugs.  Might still be a few people around, but I doubt anyone’s going to be poking around enough to find us before eleven or so tomorrow morning.”

“Then we have time to do what we need to do,” Grue spoke.  He used one foot to drag one of the dining room chairs out from beneath the table, placing it in the center of the kitchen.  I hurried to his side to hold the seat in place as he hefted the limp body from over his shoulder and set it down.  Shadow Stalker nearly tipped over, but together we caught her and leaned her back.  Her head lolled.

Regent put down a second, smaller box next to the one Tattletale had brought.  I switched positions with Tattletale – she began searching Shadow Stalker, removing crossbows, cartridges of ammunition and two small knives.  She found a phone with a touch screen, then reached beneath the unconscious girl’s hood to pluck a wireless earbud from the girl’s ear.  After rubbing it on Shadow Stalker’s cloak to clean it, she put it in her own ear and started fiddling with the smart phone.  After a few seconds she pronounced, “GPS hasn’t been activated.  They probably won’t turn it on to look for her until she fails to return from patrol.”

“Can you stop them from activating it?”  Grue asked.  “Or maybe we could have Skitter’s bugs or a dog carry that piece somewhere else?”

Tattletale shook her head, “I can turn it off.  Give me a minute.”

Regent and I had already started hauling extension cords out of the box Regent had been carrying, untangling them and feeding them over to Grue.  He began winding a cord around our captive, starting with loops around her wrists and arms, going up her arms to her chest, then back down to bind her body to the chair.  We handed him the next cord, and he did much the same thing with Shadow Stalker’s legs.  As he worked the bindings up her extremities, he kept his index and middle fingers on her, wrapping the cord over top of them.  When he was done with the loops at one spot, he moved his hand up further, then repeated the process.

“Copping a feel, Grue?” Imp mocked, as she let herself half-spin and collapse lengthwise on the couch.

“Making sure it isn’t tight enough to cut off her circulation.”

“Ah.  You an expert on that stuff?  I didn’t take you for a bondage freak,” she stretched.

He sighed, “Just get the generator.”

“I just lay down.”

“So stand up and then get the generator,” he ordered.

She made a show of slowly standing and, with exaggerated motions, dragging herself over to the box Tattletale had brought.  She retrieved a black plastic portable generator that wasn’t much bigger than a microwave oven.  She acted like it was ten times heavier than it was as she hauled it over toward the spot where Sophia sat.

Grue, for his part, ignored her.

Once the wires were in place, he used duct tape to secure them, then he got two more chairs, laid them on their sides and taped them to her chair.  He was almost done when Imp finally concluded her charade with the portable generator.  The LEDs at the ends of the extension cords lit up as we plugged each cord in to the generator, glowing a dim orange.  Grue stood, then pushed the refrigerator away from the wall so he could unplug it and plug the appliance into the generator.  I couldn’t be sure if it was to ensure a steady current  through the wire or because he wanted a working fridge.

I’d finished unpacking the wires, so I picked up the empty box and entered the living room to put one box inside the other to minimize the mess.

Bitch had claimed the sofa for herself, reclining with two dogs up beside her.  She was rubbing her forearms, which were probably strained from controlling the more unruly dogs with the chains.  She glared up at me, and there was something ugly in her expression.

I couldn’t blame her for being angry.  Her dogs, some of her closest friends in the world, had died because she had been saving me, only for her to find out shortly afterward that I had been a traitor.  Maybe saving me hadn’t been her primary motivation, but it seemed she’d used the past week and an unhealthy dose of simmering anger to revise her perception of things so I was to blame for what had happened.  It wasn’t getting better, either.  She seemed to get angrier with every hour spent in my company, and I was worried I’d have to face the brunt of it very soon.

“She’s awake,” Tattletale called out.  I hurried to the kitchen, leaving Bitch where she was.

Our captive hadn’t budged an inch.

“She’s sitting there, pretending to sleep in the hopes that we’ll say something.  It would be clever, might even work, if I wasn’t here,” Tattletale said, with a bit of a wry tone.

Shadow Stalker’s head rose and swiveled as she surveyed the full extent of her bindings.  Then she glanced at us.

After a long pause, she spoke, “Electrical cords.”

“Strongly advise you to avoid using your power to pass through them,” Tattletale answered, “And in case you’re thinking of dropping straight down through the floor, don’t.  We’ve got extra lying under the chair.”

The heroine leaned hard to one side, looked down.  “Hm.”

“You’ll be a little groggy,” Tattletale grabbed the last remaining chair from beside the kitchen table to sit down opposite the vigilante ‘heroine’.  “The fight took a lot out of you, and we tased you, and I took the liberty of sticking you with one of your own tranquilizer bolts.”

“You don’t hold back,” Shadow Stalker commented, seemingly unfazed by her circumstances.  She tested the strength of her bonds, experimentally.

“Says the person who tried to slit my teammate’s throat,” Regent spoke.

Shadow Stalker looked at me, the eyes behind her mask moving to my throat.  “Tough costume.”

She doesn’t even deny it.  I can’t believe I’ve gone to high school with this lunatic.  I resisted the urge to respond, shrugged instead.  Too easy to get into an argument, too easy to let something slip and reveal who I was.

“Well, you fuckers got me,” she cocked her head to one side, “What’s next?”

We all turned to look at Regent.  Regent, in turn, gave Shadow Stalker a serious look.  He ran his fingers through his dark hair.  Tattletale stood from the chair, and Regent sat, putting himself four feet away from the heroine.  His mask was a plain white, a half-smile perpetually frozen on the smooth, unadorned face.

Her eyes went wide behind the eyeholes of her mask, and she pulled hard against her bonds, “No!  Fuck!  Have you seen his files?  You don’t know-”

“We have an idea,” Tattletale interrupted.

“Fuck you!”  Shadow Stalker shouted.

“Guys, do me a favor?” Regent asked, not taking his eyes off Shadow Stalker.  He smacked his scepter into the palm of one hand, “Gag her, then give us some privacy?”

“You sure?” Grue asked, as Tattletale moved over to Sophia’s side, bent down to get some excess cord, and lifted up her mask just enough to wind the cord into her mouth.  The duct tape made a tearing noise as she freed a length from the roll.  I could still make out the swearing on Shadow Stalker’s part as she tugged at her bonds and rocked her seat.  The setup Grue had created by duct taping the other two chairs to her helped ensure she couldn’t throw herself to the ground and maybe break the chair in the process.

“I’m cool.”  Regent shifted the position of his stool a half-foot to his left, so he could lean back against the corner of the refrigerator.  He brought one of his feet up onto the seat of the stool and rested his chin on his knee.

“Just as long as you’re sure,” Grue spoke.  “How long?”

Regent glanced at Grue, then looked to Shadow Stalker, “Depends on her.  Could be fifteen minutes, could be three hours.”

Shadow Stalker grunted, long and loud.

Grue began ushering us out of the room, and we obeyed, except for Imp, who seemed to need a little bit of an extra nudge – Grue blocked her view of Regent and our captive with his body and put a hand on her shoulder to push her toward the door.  Following, I cast a backward look over my shoulder, saw Shadow Stalker’s arm twitch.  She winced, mumbled a swear word around her gag.

Grue shut the kitchen door behind us, and for a moment, all was dark, quiet and still.

Bitch and her dogs were all lying together on and around the couch, Bitch’s hand on Angelica’s head, where the dog lay just below her.  Only Angelica’s eye was open – Bitch and the other three dogs had their eyes closed.  Angelica’s excess flesh had been shed and deposited on the floor as she shrunk down to her natural size.  It looked like Bitch had kicked most of it one corner of the living room; blood and other fluids streaked the carpet between the base of the couch and the corner.

“Can we watch TV?” Imp asked Grue, “We could get one of the extension cords and-”

“No.”

“Or plug in one of the lamps so we can-”

“No,” he repeated.  “We’re here for another few hours.  We do nothing that could draw attention.  That includes having lights, flickering or otherwise, shining through the window of an apartment that’s supposed to have no power.”

“What the fuck am I supposed to do?”

“Sleep,” he glanced at Bitch, who was trying to do just that, “While the rest of us stand watch.  Or go looking for a candle or flashlight and read somewhere the light won’t show through a window.”

“Fuck reading.  We could find a movie and watch-”

“No movies, I just told you why we can’t turn on the TV.  Why would a movie be any better?”

“We could cover one of the windows!”

“I want everyone keeping an ear out for trouble.  You agreed to follow my orders, didn’t you?  No TV, no lights.”

They glared at one another, Imp’s chin defiantly raised so she could meet Grue’s ‘eyes’ – the dark sockets of his skull-faced helmet.

“One of the people who lived here was a teenager, a little younger than you, Imp,” Tattletale cut in, “Go find the bedroom, see if there’s anything interesting.  Anything left behind will probably get stolen before the family gets back, so you could keep some stuff for yourself, if you find anything good.”

“Yes!” Imp spun on her heel and strode off to the other end of the apartment.  Bitch opened her eyes and furrowed her brow in irritation at Imp’s outcry, or maybe at the recent argument, but she just shut her eyes and made a deliberate attempt at returning to sleep.

Grue waited until Imp disappeared from sight before groaning, “It’s tiring, dealing with her.”

“All of us irritated each other when we first joined the team.  Give it time.  We’ll find a rhythm.” Tattletale reassured him.

Grue turned his head my way, but he didn’t say anything.  I wondered if he had been about to say I was the exception, then changed his mind.

Instead, he spoke, “I’m going to lie down for a bit in the master bedroom.  Tattletale, Skitter, you keep an eye on things.  Wake me when you need a relief.”

“Sure thing, boss,” Tattletale answered him.  I couldn’t bring myself to reply, and stayed quiet instead.

As Grue was leaving, Shadow Stalker screamed from the kitchen, a strangled, muffled noise.  Grue paused, waited a moment, and then continued in the direction Imp had gone, opening and closing the door at the end of the short hallway.

I hugged my arms against my body.  Glancing toward the balcony showed that none of the windows were broken or open.  It wasn’t because I was cold.

“You okay with this?” Tattletale asked.

“All-in,” was all I could say.

She smiled a little, almost apologetic. “All-in.”

We were doing this to Sophia, I told myself.  The same girl who had abused, insulted and tormented me almost every school day since I’d started high school.  She’d punched, kicked and shoved me.  Had ruined my belongings, insulted me, thrown food at me, humiliated me, and had goaded others into doing much the same things.  She was the one who had pushed me to that do-or-die point where my powers manifested.  If that wasn’t enough, she had tried to kill me less than an hour ago, not because I was a criminal that deserved the death penalty, but because I had seen her unmasked.  I was inconvenient.

And with all that in mind, I couldn’t be sure that she deserved this.

Tattletale got her MP3 player and put an earbud in the ear that didn’t have Sophia’s device in it.  The other earbud dangled from the cord, faint music playing from it.  Grabbing a blanket from the arm of the couch, she curled up in one of the armchairs.

I took her cue, pushing one chair across the carpet so it was by the sliding glass door leading to the balcony.  I didn’t settle in right away.  First, I exercised my power.

There were definitely enough bugs in the building for me to use.  I found the spiders in the building, and set them to preparing webs, stringing strands across every doorway, hallway and stairwell for every floor in the building.  I directed buzzing houseflies and mosquitoes into every apartment, including the one we were in, and placed at least one bug on every person I found still inside the building – a trio of unwashed men in the basement, among the storage area where residents kept the stuff they couldn’t have in their apartments, a pair of teenagers that lay on the roof, holding hands, an older man near the top floor, alone, and one family of five on the second floor.

After a moment’s consideration, I set spiders to stringing webs around the balconies as well.  When capes were in the cards, I couldn’t afford to ignore the possibility of grappling hooks, rappelling, teleportation or flight.  The spiders would sense any movement of the webs, and I could sense what the spiders did, in turn.

I found a book on a shelf that looked readable, then sat down sideways in the chair, so my back was against one armrest and my legs hung over the other, the kitchen door in front of me, the balcony behind.  There were no lights in the apartment or out on the street, but the heavy clouds weren’t blocking the moonlight for the time being, which afforded me the opportunity to read, looking up after every page or two to double-check that things were quiet and still.  It might have been peaceful, if not for Shadow Stalker’s occasional grunt or scream from the direction of the kitchen.  On occasion, she went into her shadow state for a fraction of a second, then reverted back before the wires passed through her.  Regent hadn’t called out, so I assumed all was well.

Bitch’s bulldog, Bentley, was lying on the couch with his head nestled in Bitch’s armpit.  I was on chapter three of my book when he began snoring, surprising me with how steady and loud the noise was.  Sirius, the lab I’d met on a prior occasion, lay between Bitch’s legs, his head lying across her belt buckle.  A setter was curled up at the base of the sofa with Angelica – I couldn’t remember its name.

Bitch looked so peaceful, here.  It was strange seeing her relax and rest so easily when, day-to-day, even before recent events, she seemed to be on edge to a degree that would drive most people to insanity.  It wasn’t aggression or anxiety, exactly, but some combination of the two.

Tattletale was playing some game on her mp3 player, I saw.  The mosquitoes I’d placed discreetly on Brian’s back told me he was turning over constantly.  He was as restless and agitated in relaxation as Bitch was when awake.

Imp, I could sense, was taking apart the teenager’s room, finding CDs and DVDs and holding them up by the window, maybe to see them in the light, as I was with my book.  I hadn’t known her to rest in the three days I’d known her.  I could almost believe she was one of the capes that didn’t need to sleep, but the theory would have felt a lot more tidy if I could connect it better to one of her powers.

I turned my attention back to my book, looked up again when I heard a bang from the kitchen, a grunt and a scream.  The bugs I’d placed on Regent didn’t show anything amiss, but I couldn’t really get anything from the contact with Shadow Stalker.  She was violently flickering in and out of her shadow state, now, and the slow speed with which she was returning to normal seemed to suggest she was fighting the urge to use her power.  Regent was standing, but he hadn’t called for help, so I started to read again.

When I’d read the same page four more times and realized I hadn’t actually taken in any information, I dog-eared the page and closed my book.  I focused on each person in the building in turn, followed by a double checking of the spider webs, the others here in the apartment-

I stopped short.  Regent was sitting, unmoving, and in the last ten seconds or so, Shadow Stalker had disappeared from the chair.

“Fuck!” I shouted, standing.  How?

Bitch climbed up off the couch, and Tattletale stood, looking to me, eyes wide.

When I realized why her eyes were wide, I let the bugs flow from beneath the panels of my costume.  I knew in an instant that Shadow Stalker was behind me.

Deftly, she grasped my wrist, knocked me to the ground, and then pointed her crossbow straight at my eye, the arrowhead clinking against the lens of my mask.  Which definitely wasn’t bulletproof or arrowproof.

For several long seconds, we remained there, unmoving.  Brian and Imp appeared in my peripheral vision, but they stopped when they saw Shadow Stalker.

Shadow Stalker started laughing, then stood, holstering her crossbow.  I felt Regent stand in the other room.  When the kitchen door opened, he was laughing as well – the exact same cadence as Shadow Stalker.

He ran his fingers through his hair, and Shadow Stalker moved one hand, as if to do the same thing, but the hood she wore stopped her.  She stepped away, and her movement seemed uncannily out of character; maybe a bit of a slouch, a bit of swagger, that hadn’t been there before.  Her eyes met mine.

“Totally got you, Dork,” she chuckled.

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Sentinel 9.6

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Shadow Stalker paused in her patrol when she arrived at the roof of the Hillside Mall, downtown.  She’d hoped to run into some looters, had had some luck earlier in the week at this spot, but it seemed that police forces were stationed at the entrances, now.  Annoyed, she walked over to the corner of the roof, so the toes of her boots were just at the brink.

She got her smartphone and dialed Emma.  The phone automatically made the wireless connection to her earbud.

“Hey, superhero,” Emma answered.

“How’s Portland?”

“Good food, good shopping, boring as hell.  I wish I could come back, hang out.”

“I wish you to come back, too,” Shadow Stalker admitted, “These morons are fucking pissing me off, and I’m not getting enough breaks from it.  I don’t have the patience for this.”

“Which morons?  The Wards?”

“The Wards,” Shadow Stalker confirmed.  She sat down on the ledge.  “They’re children.”

“Yeah,” Emma replied.  She didn’t prod for more information or clarification.  Shadow Stalker had gone over this before enough times, in one variation or another.

That didn’t stop her from returning to the subject, “Sure, some of them are older.  Some have more time in the field than me.  Maybe.  But they’re still children, living in their comfortable, cozy little worlds.  I dunno if you’ve seen what the city’s like now-”

“-I saw some on the news.” Emma interjected.

“Right.  Damaged, destroyed, fucked up.  This is a place those kids visit, and they’re still convinced they can fix it.  I’ve lived with this all my life.  Waded through this shit from the beginning.  I know they’re deluding themselves.  So yeah, they’re immature, new to this, and I don’t know how long I can fucking put up with them.”

“Two and a half more years, right?”  Emma asked, “Then you’re off probation, free to do your thing.”

“God, don’t remind me.  Makes me realize I’m not even halfway through it.  I can’t believe it’s already been this long, constantly hearing them bitch about dating, or clothes, or allowances, and every time I hear it it’s like, I want to scream in their face, fuck you, you little shit, shut the fuck up.  I’ve killed people, and then I washed the blood off my hands and went to school and acted normal the next day!”

Silence hung on the line for a few long moments.

“I remember,” Emma spoke, a touch subdued.

Shadow Stalker chewed on her lower lip, watched a butch policewoman pull into the parking lot, then hand out coffees to the others on duty.

“If it weren’t for all the crying and the complaining, I would almost be glad Leviathan had attacked the city.  Tear away that fucking ridiculous veneer that covers everything.  Get rid of those fucking fake smiles and social niceties and daily routines that everyone hides behind.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”  Shadow Stalker didn’t elaborate too much further on the subject.  Leviathan had revealed the desperate, needy animal at the core of everyone in this city.  He’d made things honest.

Most were victims, sheep huddling together for security in numbers, or rats hiding in the shadows, avoiding attention.  Others were predators, going on the offensive, taking what they needed through violence or manipulation.

She didn’t care what category people fell into, so long as they didn’t get in her way, like Grue had a habit of doing.  Worse yet were those who seemed intent on irritating her by being lame and depressing, like Taylor or like Vista had been this past week.

They weren’t all bad.  The victim personality did have a habit of pissing her off, but she could let them be so long as the person or people in question stayed out of sight and out of mind, accepting their place without fight or fanfare.  There were some ‘predators’, she could admit, that were even useful.  Emma came to mind, the girl went a long way towards making life out of costume tolerable, and there was Director Piggot, who had kept her out of jail thus far, because she fit into the woman’s overarching agenda of PR and the illusion of a working system.

There was a need for that kind of person in society, someone willing to step on others to get to the top, do what was necessary, so they could keep the wheels spinning.  Not all of them were so useful or tolerable, of course, but there were enough out there that she couldn’t say everyone with that kind of aggressive, manipulative psychology was a blight on society.  She could respect the Piggots and Emmas of the world, if only because they served as facilitators that allowed her to do what she did best, in costume and out, respectively.

She was a ‘predator’, whether she was Shadow Stalker or Sophia.  Few would deny that, even among her own teammates.

A convoy of trucks on the road below caught her attention.  Each vehicle was painted dark, and two had the look of army vehicles, with gray-black mottled cloth or canvas covering the cargo or personnel at the rear.  They had their headlights off to avoid drawing attention.  There were two good possibilities for who they might be.  The first was that it was a shipment of supplies.  Food, water, first aid and tools, which would mean there was a small contingent of capes inside one of the trucks or in the immediate area.  The second option was that it was Coil and his troops.

She realized she was still holding the phone, and the noise of a television or music told her Emma was still on the other line.  “Something’s going on.  Going to see if it leads to anything interesting.”

“Call back when you’re done, give me the recap.”

“Right.”  She hung up.

Leaping into the air, she entered her shadow state, every part of her body shifting gears in the span of a half-second.  Her lungs automatically stopped taking in air and her heart stopped beating.  She was suddenly hyperaware of changes in the atmosphere, movements of air as it passed through her body.  She had enough solidity for her body to seize the air molecules as they passed through her, and in this manner, each of her cells nourished itself.

It was strange, to feel so still.  She lacked even the most basic processes and routines that normally kept the body going, things people rarely gave a second thought to.  There was no near-silent roar of blood in her ears, no need to blink, no production of saliva in her mouth or movement of food and water in her gut.  She just existed.

But the movement of air through her body made her feel just as alive, more alive, in a very different way.  The material and gravel of the rooftop were still warm from the day’s sunlight, even submerged beneath a thin layer of water from the rain.  This rising, heated air from this surface offered her an almost imperceptible added buoyance.  The rest of her ascent was carried out by the momentum from her leap and the fact that she was nearly weightless.  Jumping fifteen feet in the air to a rooftop one story above her was almost effortless.

She turned solid long enough to land.  Changing back brought a sudden, thunderous restarting of her heart, a shudder running through her entire body as her bloodstream jerked back into motion.  It only lasted the briefest of moments as she bent her knees and threw herself forward.  The moment her feet left the ground, she entered the shadow state once again, sailing across the rooftop.  She used one wispy foot to push herself out further as she reached the roof’s edge, so she could glide just above one rooftop without even touching ground.

In this fashion, she kept pace with the trucks, which weren’t moving slowly but weren’t going full-bore either, likely because of the condition of the roads.

It was five minutes before trouble arrived.

It was Menja that made the first move, stampeding out of a nearby alleyway, standing at a height of twenty feet tall.  She drove her spear into the engine block of the lead truck, stepped in front of the vehicle and wrenched her weapon to tip the truck over and arrest its forward momentum.

The truck immediately behind tried to stop, but the flooded pavement made it impossible to get enough traction.  It skidded and collided into the back of the foremost truck.

Miss Militia was climbing up out of the lead truck’s passenger door in an instant, hefting a grenade launcher to blast Menja three times in quick succession.  The giantess stumbled back, raised her shield – her sister’s shield – to block a fourth shot.  Hookwolf, Stormtiger, and Cricket all joined the fray, followed by their foot soldiers.  On the PRT’s side, the trucks emptied of PRT troops and one more cape, Assault.  They mobilized to defend, and the noise of gunfire rang through the night air.

Shadow Stalker crouched at the corner of the roof, loaded her crossbow and fired a shot at Cricket.  It passed a half-foot behind the woman.  Her second shot was on target, and Cricket dropped a few seconds later, tranquilized.  Good – The woman’s radar might find Shadow Stalker if she wasn’t in her shadow state, and Shadow Stalker could be far more effective if the enemy didn’t see where she was attacking from.

Who else?  Menja was classified as a breaker, the spatial-warping effect that surrounded her made incoming attacks smaller even as she simultaneously made herself bigger.  The darts wouldn’t even be noticeable to her.  Stormtiger could deflect projectiles by sensing and adjusting air currents.  With the right timing, so her shots came out of the shadow state as they arrived to make contact with him?  Maybe.  But he was engaged in a fist fight with Assault, and she’d be risking tagging the hero.  Hookwolf?  No point.  He was currently in the shape of a gigantic wolf made of whirring metal blades.  Even if the dart did penetrate something approximating flesh, which it wouldn’t, his entire biology was so different that she doubted he would be affected.

Instead, she settled for targeting the clusters of Hookwolf’s troops.  ‘Fenrir’s Chosen’.  Each of the thugs had white face-paint extending from forehead to cheekbone to chin, in a crude approximation of a wolf’s face.  She began dropping them at a steady rate, aiming for the biggest, the most aggressive and the ones who looked like they were in charge of lesser troops, the captains.  As the troops began falling, Hookwolf’s forces became unsettled, hesitating to advance.  Hookwolf reared up on two legs, pointing and howling orders, likely demanding they attack.  His words were incomprehensible from the rooftop where Shadow Stalker crouched, but the tone left no mistake that he was threatening them to drive them back into the fight.

The distraction afforded Miss Militia time to prepare and fire a mortar straight into Hookwolf’s chest.  As he collapsed backward, his chest cavity gaping open, her gun shimmered, split and transformed into a pair of assault rifles.  She unloaded clip after clip into the enemy ranks; rubber bullets, most likely.  The innate issues of the nonlethal ammunition were almost negligible in Miss Militia’s case.  She could reform the gun in a second if a gun jammed.

Shadow Stalker watched a crowd of Hookwolf’s Chosen move to flank, moving along the sidewalk, where the crashed truck blocked the view of the PRT forces.  Shadow Stalker raised her crossbow, hesitated.  She could jump down, take them down in close quarters combat.  It had been her entire reason for going out, after having to deal with the irritation of Vista.  She craved that catharsis.

She holstered her crossbow, prepared to dive into their midst, and then paused as she saw the Chosen stagger back, lashing out with their hands.  One shouted something, which was odd given how they had been trying to be stealthy only a moment ago.

What?

Then another figure stepped out of the alleyway closest to them.  A girl, skinny, but not in the attractive way you saw in magazines.  Spindly.  Was that the right word?  The girl was hard to make out in the gloom – there were no lights on the street, and the only light was what filtered from the moon and through the rain clouds.  The girl glanced left, around the back of the truck, then glanced right, where she might have seen Shadow Stalker if she looked up just a little.  The lenses of her mask caught the moonlight, flashing a pale yellow.

Skitter.

A feral smile spread across Shadow Stalker’s face, beneath her mask.

Shadow Stalker resisted the urge to jump down, watched as the shadow of the bug girl’s swarm moved over the Chosen, almost obscuring them from view.  The bug girl drew her combat stick, whipped it out to full length, and dispatched the Chosen one by one.  Shadow Stalker couldn’t see the hits, between the darkness and the obscuring mass of the swarm, but she saw the splashes and movements of the Chosen as they fell to the ground, clutching their faces, knees, and hands.

Some of the bugs flowed out to pass over the PRT forces and the Chosen.  The thugs started recoiling and slapping at themselves, but Shadow Stalker couldn’t see much reaction from the PRT forces.  They were made of sterner stuff, in a way, and their uniforms covered them thoroughly enough that the bugs wouldn’t do nearly as much damage, if they were even attacking.

Skitter emerged from the center mass of the swarm, carrying a bag of supplies from the truck.  It was green canvas, large, not dissimilar to a gym bag.  Pulling the strap over one shoulder, she briskly retreated back into the alley, the bugs trailing after her like the tail of a slow moving comet, or the steady trail of smoke from a candle.

“Hungry, are you?” Shadow Stalker murmured to herself.  She shifted into her shadow state, moved along the rooftop to follow the girl.  Shadow Stalker was almost entirely silent in this state, virtually impossible to see, especially in this light, unless someone was actively looking for her.  She was a gray shadow against a background of black and shades of gray.

You saw my face.  Shadow Stalker thought, Records say you’ve got no team, now.  Operating alone between the old Boardwalk and the east end of Downtown.

She leaped to the next rooftop, and the movement carried her a little ahead of her target, helped by the fact that the bug girl was moving a little slower with her burden.  Shadow Stalker paused and reached up beneath her cloak and between her shoulder blades.  She withdrew a cartridge for her crossbow, each bolt loaded in at a slight angle, so the aluminum ‘feathers’ at the tail of each bolt stuck out.  She popped out one bolt to examine it, then turned it around so the barbed, razor sharp arrowhead caught the moonlight.  As Skitter passed beneath her, she turned the bolt’s point so her perspective made it appear to be at the girl’s throat.

Operating solo means there’s nobody to miss you.

She entered her shadow state and moved further along the rooftop, only to feel a group of flying insects pass through her body.  A fraction of a second later, Skitter was running, abandoning the bag, disappearing around a corner, not even turning to look Shadow Stalker’s way.

“You want to run?  I don’t mind a bit of a chase,” Shadow Stalker smiled behind her mask, loading the cartridge into her right-hand crossbow.  She leaped after the girl, gliding down to street level, rebounding off a wall to turn the corner and give pursuit.

Skitter had turned around, was waiting as she rounded the corner.  The bug girl sent a mass of insects out to attack.

The bugs passed through Shadow Stalker’s body, slowing her momentum.  She suspected that if there were enough of them, they could even carry her aloft, push her back.  But there weren’t – the swarm wasn’t quite big enough.  As the stream of insects passed through her, reoriented in preparation to flow through her again, she pounced.

The residual bugs threw her off, slowing down her power.  Her body had to push them out of the space it wanted to occupy, delayed the change back to her normal self by a half-second.  Her hand passed through Skitter’s throat, but she caught her balance, drew her rearmost foot up and back in a half-spin.  Her heel collided with Skitter’s mask.

Skitter went down, and Shadow Stalker turned her crossbow on her fallen opponent.  She was about to fire when the combat stick lashed out.  She lifted the crossbow up just in time –  had she been a second slower, the stick might have broken her weapon.  Acutely aware of the bugs clustering on her, she dropped into her shadow state before they could crawl beneath her mask.

The stick passed through her head, once.  She resisted the urge to snap back to her normal form and retaliate.  The girl was powerless here.  Shadow Stalker could afford to hound her, drive her to the brink of desperation, wear her down.

The bug girl switched to a one-handed grip on her baton, flying insects clustering around her to mask her movements as she backed away a step.  She used her free hand to push the wet hair out of her face.  Then she adjusted her costume, reaching to tug her shoulderpad forward a bit, then reached behind her back to do much the same with the armor there.

“You really want to fight me?” Shadow Stalker asked her opponent, a note of incredulity in her voice.  She raised her right crossbow.  The one with the lethal ammunition.

Skitter didn’t reply.

Whatever else Shadow Stalker might think of the bug girl, how the girl was creepy, a freak, she had to admit Skitter had demonstrated enough viciousness to date that she could almost respect the girl as a fellow predator.  An idiot, for wanting to fight her, but kindred, in a fashion.  “Alright, fine.”

Skitter gripped her weapon two-handed again.  The grip was strange.  Something in her left hand?

Shadow Stalker realized what it was.  She simultaneously moved back, gripped her cloak with her left hand and shifted to her solid state to raise the fabric as a barrier.  The pepper spray spattered her cloak.

When she was sure the spray had dissipated, she threw her cloak back over one shoulder and shifted to her shadow state to escape the bugs that were crawling on her, taking advantage of her solidity.   She lunged after Skitter, who was running, already turning a corner at the other side of the alley.

Good runner, but I’m faster.

Shadow Stalker didn’t need to slosh through the water, but she knew she would be faster than the other girl even if she did.  It wasn’t just her shadow state eliminating wind resistance, or the lightness of her body.  She was a trained runner.

She bounded from one wall of the alley to the one opposite, staying above the water, pursuing her target.

Skitter was going up the steps of a fire escape.  Shadow Stalker aimed and fired a bolt – the girl ducked, and the shot clipped a railing instead.

Good reflexes.  Shadow Stalker brushed away at the bugs massing around her.  Or do your bugs help you watch what I’m doing?  Disturbing little freak.

Apparently deciding the fire escape wasn’t a great option, Skitter climbed over the railing and leaped a half-story down to the pavement, putting a chain link fence and some accumulated trash bags between herself and Shadow Stalker.

MoronI can walk through that fence.  She loaded her crossbow, aimed, and fired through the fence at the girl.

A flash and spray of sparks erupted as the shot made contact with the fence.  Skitter stumbled as the bolt hit her, but Shadow Stalker couldn’t see if it had done any damage.

No, what concerned her was the flash.  She ignored the fact that Skitter was disappearing, entered her solid state and touched the side of her mask.

Lenses snapped into place, showing a blurry image of the alley in shades of dark green and black.  The chain link fence, however, was lit up in a very light gray.  Similarly glowing, a wire was stapled to the brick of the building next to the fence, leading to a large, pale blob inside the building.  A generator.

The fence was electrified.

Shadow Stalker snarled at what had almost been a grave mistake, entered her shadow state and leaped up and over the fence, being careful not to touch it.

One of the reasons she couldn’t move through walls at will, beyond the huge break in her forward momentum and the excruciating pain that came with stalling in the midst of a wall, was wiring.  She remained just as vulnerable, maybe even more vulnerable, to electrocution.  The people in the PRT labs couldn’t tell her if she could be killed by electrocution – traditional organs were barely present in her shadow state – but it was one of those things that couldn’t be properly tested without risking killing the subject.

End result?  She had to be careful where she went, had received tinker-made lenses to help her spot such threats.

Skitter had known the fence was electrified, judging by the route she’d taken through the fire escape.  The area here didn’t have any power, so the question was whether it something this area’s inhabitants had set up to protect themselves… or was it a trap Skitter had put in place well in advance?  No.  More likely the girl had studied this area before carrying out any crimes.

Still, it troubled her that the girl had thought to use the fence like she had.  She really didn’t like the idea that the villain had not only seen her face, but that she might have figured out one of her weaknesses.  Two, if she counted the pepper spray.  Being permeable was a problem when she absorbed gases, vapors and aerosols directly into her body.  It wouldn’t affect her if she was in her shadow state, and it would eventually filter out, but if she were forced to change back, she’d suffer as badly as anyone, if not worse.

Shadow Stalker caught up to the girl yet again, saw Skitter running with her swarm clustered tightly around her.  Was the girl wanting to make herself a harder target?

Hardly mattered – Shadow Stalker loaded and fired another bolt.

At the same instant the bolt fired, the swarm parted in two.  Two swarm-wreathed figures covered in bugs, each turning at a right angle to round a corner.  The bolt sailed between them.  One was a decoy, just a swarm in a vaguely human shape.

She checked the sides of the alley and the recessed doors.  Could they both be decoys?  She couldn’t see any obvious hiding spots that Skitter could have used at a moment’s notice.

Shadow Stalker closed the distance, placing herself at the intersection between the two bug-shrouded figures.  Holding each crossbow out in an opposite direction, she fired at both targets at once, snapping her attention from one to the next in an attempt to see which reacted to the hit.

One slowed, began to topple.  She lunged after, in pursuit, loaded her crossbow and fired two more shots into the center mass of Skitter’s body while airborne, then kicked downward with both feet as she landed, to shove the girl into the ground.

Her body weight dissolved the blurry silhouette into a mess of bugs.  A trick.

Snarling, Shadow Stalker wheeled around, ran in the direction the other half of the swarm had gone  Had the girl’s armor taken the bolt?  Had the crossbow shot missed?

More bugs were flowing from the area to join the swarm, bolstering its number enough for it to split again.  She wasn’t close enough to be sure of a hit, and she didn’t want to waste her good arrows, so she delayed, leaped forward to close the gap.

The swarm split once more, making for four vaguely human figures in total, each cloaked in a cloud of flying insects.

Shadow Stalker snarled a curse word.

One figure turned on the spot, moved as if to slide past Shadow Stalker.  She lashed out, striking it in the throat, failed to hit anything solid.

She loaded her crossbows, fired at the figure on the far left and the far right of the trio.  No reaction.  She dove after the remaining one.

She made contact, drove the bug girl’s face down into the water.  She shifted into her shadow state, straddling Skitter.   The girl turned over of her own volition – easy enough, as Shadow Stalker was barely solid, but when Skitter tried to stand, Shadow Stalker resumed her normal form for a second – just long enough to force the girl back down.

Picking one of her non-tranquilizer bolts from the cartridge, she held the point of the ammunition to Skitter’s throat like a knife, “Game over, you little freak.”

Skitter cocked her head a little, as if analyzing Shadow Stalker from a different perspective.

“What are you looking at?” Shadow Stalker spat the word, “Nothing to say?  No last words?  No begging?  No fucking apologies?”

Skitter went limp, letting her head rest against the ground, the water lapping over most of her mask.  Dark curls fanned out in the water around her, swaying as the water rippled.

“Guess I don’t need to worry about the villain who saw my face, now.”  Shadow Stalker went solid and drew the razor-sharp tip of her bolt across Skitter’s throat.

The fabric didn’t cut.

Skitter struggled to get free, but Shadow Stalker’s body weight was too much for her to slide free.  She gripped the girl’s wrists with her hands, pinned them to the ground.

“Irritating,” she spat the word.  She could always go into her shadow state, stick the arrow inside the girl and then return to normal.  The problem with going that route was that it left a very characteristic imprint in the victim.  She would need a way of covering up the evidence.  Something she could hit Skitter with afterward that would make the wound too messy to analyze for evidence.

While she craned her head to one side to the next to search for something useful, her surroundings were plunged into darkness.

It took her only a moment to realize what that meant.  She climbed off Skitter, moved to run.  The darkness was oppressive, sluggish in moving through her, unlike ordinary air.  She was slower, wasn’t taking in enough oxygen.  Against her will, her power instinctively adjusted, shifted her into a middle ground between her regular self and her shadow state.  It left her slower, heavier.

She baited me.

A massive shape tore through her, dissipated her entire body.  She pulled back together, but it was hard, painful and uncomfortable on an unspecific, fundamental level.  It left her breathing hard, feeling like she’d just put her body through five hours of the hardest exercise of her life.  Enervating, was that the right word?  Bugs were gathering inside and around her body, making it a little harder and a little more time-consuming to pull together.

Then, before she had succeeded in pulling herself all the way together, it happened again, another large form striking from another direction, passing through her lower body.

She sagged.  Gasped out in pain as another shape passed through her head and shoulders.  The darkness absorbed her cry so it barely reached her own ears.

It was only seconds later that the darkness dissipated.  She was on her hands and knees, barely had the strength to move, let alone fight.  She tried to raise her right crossbow, but her hand seized up, no longer under her own control as it bent to a pain like a bad Charlie horse.  Her fingers curled back, and the crossbow tumbled from her fingers.  She still had one in her left hand, but she was using the heel of that hand to prop herself up.

Her opponents were revealed as the shadows passed, arranged in a rough ring around her.  Hellhound and her dogs took up half the clearing, in front of Shadow Stalker.  She held a metal ring in each hand, with two chains extending out from each ring.   The chains, in turn, were connected to harnesses around the heads and snouts of the ‘dogs’, each animal only a little smaller than a refrigerator.  They were monstrous, with scaly, horned exteriors and exposed muscle.  Not as big or ugly as they could get, Shadow Stalker knew.  The smallest one was barking incessantly.  Three of the four were pulling on the chains, hungry to get at Shadow Stalker, clearly intent on tearing her apart.  Hellhound’s sharp pulls on the chains contracted the bindings around their snouts, which made them stop before they could get too close.

Grue stood to her left, arms folded, almost indistinguishable from the darkness behind him.  After her first humiliating loss to him, she’d made it a mission to drive him out of this city.  He’d stubbornly refused.  A girl Shadow Stalker didn’t recognize stood just behind him, wearing a black scarf and a pale gray mask with pointed horns arching over the top of her head.  The eyes of the mask had lenses that were black from corner to corner, stylized to look fierce, more animal than human.

Rounding out the group were Tattletale, Regent and Skitter.  Tattletale smiled, her hands clasped behind her back, while Regent twirled his scepter in his fingers.  Skitter stood between the two of them.  The bug girl bent, then crouched until she was almost at eye level with Shadow Stalker.

A laugh escaped Shadow Stalker’s lips, building until she couldn’t balance her upper body on her weakened arm.  She bent so one shoulder hit the ground, rolled onto her back, arms at her sides.  She looked up at Skitter, “All that drama, all that fucking nonsense about allegiances, betraying your team, was it a trick, some joke?”

Skitter shook her head slowly.

Shadow Stalker tried to rise, but the growling of one of the dogs intensified.  It was the only one that wasn’t pulling on its chain – the largest and most monstrous of the four, with one empty eye socket.  Between the threat of the dog and the lack of strength in the arm that Regent wasn’t fucking up, Shadow Stalker gave up and let herself slump down.

“Well,” she spoke, her tone sarcastic, “How wonderfully fucking nice for you, that you guys patched things up.  You even have a new member, congratulations.  I guess everything’s back to normal for you freaks.”

“No…”  Skitter spoke, and the bugs around her chirped, buzzed and droned to match the pitch and tone of her words.  The villain hadn’t done that when the Undersiders attacked the fundraiser, she remembered.   Her voice was quiet, which only made it more eerie.  The girl held out her hand, and Regent passed his scepter to her.

“…Things are different now,” Skitter finished.

Skitter drove the scepter into Shadow Stalker’s body.  It was everything Shadow Stalker could do to stay solid as she felt the tines of the crowned stick biting through the fabric of her costume and into her stomach.  She resisted the instincts that two and a half years of exercising her powers had lent her, because she knew what came next.  It’ll be worse if I’m in my shadow state, maybe lethal.

Being tased didn’t hurt as much as she’d expected.  It was like being doused in ice water, her entire body seizing, straining, and refusing to cooperate, the pain almost secondary.  What hurt most was the way she involuntarily clenched of her jaw.  The strength with which her teeth pressed together made her worry she might crack a tooth.

It only lasted a moment, but her body wasn’t any more cooperative after the current subsided.  She lay there, huffing small breaths, every limb unresponsive.  A deep, furious rage grew inside her chest, but she was impotent to do anything to release it.

A pair of hands seized her, sat her up.  Her arm dangled limp to her side.

Grue spoke from behind her.  “Skitter, lift her legs.  Regent, support her midsection.  Imp?  Give me a hand with her upper body, take the other shoulder.  We lift on three, alright?”

“Right,” someone said.

“One, two, three!”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Sentinel 9.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Don’t cross the yellow line,” Flechette spoke.

“Right,” Vista agreed, “I got the message the last time I came this way.”

Flechette leaned forward, found a string, beaded with water from the rain.  She plucked it twice.

Parian sloshed out from a nearby alley.  A nine-foot tall rabbit with an eyepatch and boxing gloves followed a few feet behind her, moving on two legs, swaggering forward like it had a chip on its shoulder.

“It’s cute!” Vista smiled.

“Hi Vista,” Parian greeted her.  “Hi Flechette.”

“Hey,” Flechette smiled, “We come bearing gifts.”

Vista stepped forward and held out a shopping bag, “A dozen gallons of water, some rice, some tins of beans, multivitamins and first aid supplies.  My power will wear off pretty soon, so get the bag somewhere safe before then.”

“It’s basic stuff,” Flechette said, “But it’ll hold you for a little while.”

“Thank you,” Parian spoke, reaching over the makeshift yellow line for the bag.  She held it behind her back with both hands.  Just over her right shoulder, cloth formed into a rough shape, a trio of needles with attached spools of thread weaving in and around it, a razor cutting at pieces of it.

“How are you managing?”  Flechette asked.

“Some kids came through around noon, roughed up the mother of one of my friends.”

“I told you to call me if there was trouble!”

“I handled it.  Kind of.  They ran when they saw my rabbit.  According to my friend’s mom, they were trying to get someone to tell them where they could get food, and she was afraid they’d take everything if she told them where we have our stuff.  I think they were more hungry than dangerous.  Not enough food going around.”  The cloth took on a rough shape with arms and legs.  “Erm, that makes it sound like I’m blaming you guys-”

“You’re right,” Flechette interrupted.  “We’re not doing a good job of getting supplies to everyone.  We can’t.  Any time we try to distribute it, a group like Hookwolf’s gang or the Merchants try to seize it.  Even if the heroes on duty fend them off, the citizens get scared away.”

“I suppose we’re lucky to have this haven, here.  So far.  I dunno how long before someone I can’t scare off comes through.”

“You have my number.”

Vista turned away as a third voice sounded in her ear.  She stepped away from the conversation, shook her head a little to shake off the water that the steady rain was depositing on her.

Vista squeezed the earbud, “Sorry?  I didn’t catch that?”

“Weld here.  Kid Win has something to report, asked everyone to come in.  Can you make it back here quickly?”

“Okay.”

She hurried back to Flechette’s side and waited a few seconds for a break in the conversation.  When none was forthcoming, she put a hand on Flechette’s arm.

“What’s up?”

“Weld wants us back asap.”

A look of disappointment crossed Flechette’s face.

“I’ll see you later?” Parian asked.

“I’ll stop by later, unless I’m done with patrols for the night,” Flechette shrugged.

“I’ll look forward to it,” Parian replied. She turned to Vista, “Here.”

Vista accepted her gift.  A stuffed rabbit, made in the last-minute or so.  It was finely detailed, wearing a fancy dress with lace trim.  The fur had a softness that indicated high quality material, despite being wet.  She would have been delighted with the gift, were she four years younger.

It was still a really nice gesture.

She suppressed her annoyance at the child’s gift and offered a smile instead, “Thank you, Parian.”

“Let’s go,” Flechette spoke, “Back to headquarters?”

“Back to headquarters.  Come on, we’ll take my shortcut.”

They walked two blocks east to reach Lord street.  Beneath the water’s surface, they could see a fissure that ran down the center of the road, zig-zagging from one lane to the other.

Vista stepped out into the middle of the road at the edge of the fissure, then concentrated.  She felt her power extend to every solid object in front of her, formed a map in her head.  There was nobody out there, which made it easier.  Slowly, carefully, she began adjusting.  She truncated the length of Lord street, then did it again, repeating the process to make the four lane road shorter and shorter.  The fissure down the center of the road squeezed against itself like a compressed spring.

“This is disorienting,” Flechette spoke, as she gazed at the scene.  “My power gives me a grasp of angles… and I’m worried I might have a seizure if I try to use it to get a sense of what’s happening here.”

“It’s not that complicated.  Everything’s like wet clay, and I’m smudging it around.”

Vista deemed her work done, started walking forward.  Flechette followed, eyeing the distorted sidewalk at the edges of the effect.

“You’re powerful, kiddo,” Flechette said.

“Kinda.”

“You could be one of the top dogs in the Protectorate, in five or six more years.”

Vista frowned, “They said the same thing about Dauntless.”

“One of the Protectorate members who got killed, if I remember right?”

Vista nodded.

Flechette frowned, “That’s… unexpectedly dark, coming from you.  Where did that come from?”

“What we do is dangerous.  Sometimes we die.  I don’t see why I should worry about what happens five years from now when I might not even be here.”

“Are you having second thoughts about being on the team?”

Vista gave Flechette a look, “No.  Not in the slightest.”

“But if you’re concerned about risking your life…”

“I didn’t say I was concerned,” Vista said, a note of exasperation in her voice, “Just that, hey, it might happen.  I’m being realistic.”

“I can’t tell if you’re being amazingly mature about the topic of death or if I should be really concerned about you.”

Amazingly mature?”

They had reached the PRT building.  A trip that had taken them thirty minutes on the way out had taken them four on the way back, with the aid of Vista’s power.  Flechette held the bulletproof glass door open, raised a hand in greeting to the PRT uniform who stood alert on the other side.  “You know what I mean.”

Vista had to bite her tongue.  Pointing out that people were being condescending had a way of making her look petulant, which only compounded the problem.  Yes.  Because any maturity on my part is something special.  Doesn’t matter that I have nine months of seniority over Kid Win, being thirteen means everyone expects me to be squealing over Justin Beiber or the Maggie Holt books, or dressing in pink or-

Her train of thought stopped dead when her eye fell on the portraits on the wall above the front desk.

Three feet high and two feet wide, the two pictures were black and white, bordered by foot-wide black frames.  The pictures themselves were head-and-shoulders shots of Aegis and Gallant, both in costume, masks on.  She knew from her own experience that the pictures would have been taken in their first week on the team.  Gallant looked so young.  He had still been so young when the tidal wave had smashed into him and caved in his chest.  Only seventeen.

She looked at her own picture.  In contrast to the boys’, it was vibrant, filled with color.  Her eyes, costume and the frame of the picture were a high-saturation blue-green, the background of the image a sunset orange to highlight her blonde hair.  Vista was young in that picture too.  Her photo had a missing fang tooth on the bottom row, which created a small, dark gap in her awkward smile.  She’d been just a month shy of turning eleven, then.

She hated that picture.

She hated it all the more because she couldn’t help but wonder if the time would come when that picture would be hanging over the front desk in black and white, smiling that guileless goofy smile that was everything she didn’t want people to remember about her.

Hell, were they even doing Gallant justice?  The guy who’d set out to be the literal knight in shining armor, lived his life with more chivalry than any five people you plucked off the street?  All he got was a photo and a name on a memorial.

“You okay?” Flechette asked.

Vista tore her eyes from the portraits, “I’m fine.  Let’s go, Weld’s waiting.”

Without waiting for Flechette, she marched for the elevator.  Flechette fell in step behind her.

Everyone else was sitting in the meeting room, except for Director Piggot, who stood with her arms folded.

“Thank you for being prompt,” Piggot spoke, “Would you please have a seat?”

Vista obediently sat in the chair closest to her.  Flechette found a chair beside Weld.

“Kid Win?” Piggot prompted.

“Here’s the deal, guys.  I went out to talk to Chariot, and there’s a bit of a complication.”  He tapped the screen of his smartphone, and the computer screen at one end of the table changed to show text from a series of emails.  “Chariot hasn’t yet agreed to join the team, but there’s evidence that he fully intends to join as a mole for an unknown party.”

“This evidence was assumed using legal methods, of course,” Piggot spoke.

“Of course,” Kid Win grinned in a way that left no doubt for anyone present that he was lying through his teeth.  “We believe this unknown party is Coil.  There’s no other criminals in town that would really do this.  Fenrir’s Chosen aren’t that subtle, and they’re too racist to work with Chariot.  Purity’s group is, again, too racist.  The Undersiders aren’t well-funded enough.  It doesn’t fit the Travelers’ MO.”

“That,” Piggot spoke, “And there are prior cases of Coil using undercover operatives.”

“Prior cases?” Weld asked.

“This doesn’t leave this room,” Piggot spoke.  Vista nodded alongside everyone else.  “We know there are three agents employed in this very building who are working for Coil.”

“Seriously?” Clockblocker asked.  “As in, right now?”

“Yes,” Piggot nodded, “We might have gone entirely unaware, but Dragon found that one face on our security camera footage matched up with that of a known soldier of fortune.  On investigation, we found two more.  Capable gunmen, each with a wide array of skills ranging from facility with computers to multiple languages.  Very much the type Coil would employ.  We might have arrested them, but I spoke with people with higher credentials and clearance than myself, and we came to the unanimous agreement that it would be ideal to keep those mercenaries employed here.  It allows us to keep a close eye on them for knowledge we could use, and we occasionally feed them bad or misleading information, obviously with a great deal of consideration each time.

“Which brings me to the primary subject of this meeting,” Piggot informed them.  “I would like to do the very same thing here, with Chariot.  He would work alongside you, quite likely see you unmasked.  You would socialize with him, and you would pretend not to know that he is passing on information to his employer.  For that, for the risks you would be undertaking, I require your express permission.”

Kid Win whistled.

“Dealing with the relationships between team members is difficult enough to begin with,” Weld spoke, “And you want to add this into the mix?”

“I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I didn’t think you could handle it.”

“What if we say no?” Clockblocker asked.

“If only one or two of you disagreed, out of fear of your civilian identities being used against you, I would propose splitting up your team’s schedules so you did not share any shifts with Chariot.  Ideally this would coincide with each of you returning to school, so your busy schedules could serve as sufficient excuse for why you do not cross paths with the boy.  Given how complicated this becomes, I would much prefer that all of you were onboard.”

“I have no problem with it,” Weld spoke, “But I have no secret identity, no friends or family here to watch out for.  I totally, one hundred percent understand if anyone else has objections.”

“Not a local or a long term member of the team, here,” Flechette said, “My vote probably shouldn’t count, but I’m okay with it, if it’s what the PRT needs to do.”

“Good,” Piggot spoke, “And the rest of you?”

Shadow Stalker was next to agree, followed by Kid Win, Vista and then a reluctant Clockblocker.

Piggot offered them a rare smile, “Good.  For your information, the earpiece communication channel, the computers at this console, the spare laptops and the spare smartphones will all be continually monitored by a team upstairs.  Your own laptops and smartphones will be free of this prying.  This makes it doubly important that you do not lose these possessions or let him gain access to them.”

“He’s a tinker,” Kid Win pointed out, “He might be able to figure out he’s being watched.”

“Admittedly true, but I have assurances from Dragon that the programs and devices she has put together are sufficiently discreet.”  She clasped her hands together, “Thank you, Wards, for your cooperation.  Your service since the start of the Endbringer event has been exemplary.  Trust me when I say I will find some way to make it up to you.”

She moved to leave, stopped, “And Kid Win?  Good work.”

Kid Win smiled broadly.

The Wards watched in silence until the moment the elevator door closed.

“It’s really freaking creepy when Piggy acts human,” Clockblocker commented.  There were chuckles from the rest of the group.  Vista’s own titter was tinged with relief.  The crack was a sign that Dennis was putting out an effort, acting more like his old self.

“Alright guys,” Weld spoke, clapping his hands together once, generating a muted clink, “We needed to be ready with a response in case Chariot replied, I’m sorry about interrupting your nights.  Lily, could I have a word with you before you head out again?”

Flechette nodded and followed Weld to the far corner of the room.

Vista went to get a sports drink from the kitchen in one of the alcoves.  Kid Win was sketching in a notebook.  If he was feeling inspired, it would be best to leave him alone.

She stood behind him at enough of a distance to avoid distracting him, and watched the comedy on the TV, sipping her drink.  She felt a hand on her shoulder, turned to see Weld.

Weld spoke quietly, “You look like you could use a shower.  Go warm up, then get yourself dry and in comfortable clothes.  Clockblocker is replacing you on your patrol, you can come with me in a few hours.”

She nodded.

“Come see me when you’re done.  I want to have a chat.  Nothing bad.”

She nodded again.  So Flechette said something.

She headed into the bathrooms, detoured into the adjacent girl’s bathroom with accompanying showers.  She kicked off her boots, removed her body armor, and hung the armor on one of the drying dummies.  She removed the dress and peeled off the stockings, and hung the clothes on a second dummy, where they would be subjected to a steady, gentle flow of warm air.  Her boots were placed upside down on the heating vent below the dummies, propped up against the wall.  She removed her underwear last, putting it in a basket with the rabbit Parian had made, and grabbed a towel.

It felt strange, removing her costume.  It was like she wasn’t herself.  When had she started seeing herself more as Vista than as Missy Biron?  When her parents divorced, and she started taking extra shifts to get away from the oppressive atmosphere?  After one year on the team, two?

She hung the towel up and stood under the spray of hot water, rinsing off the dirt and the grime that had come with the damp, dirty water that was everywhere outside, now.  It didn’t take long to soap up and rinse off, but she spent a long few minutes leaning there with her hands against one wall of the stall, letting the water run over her, not thinking about anything in particular.

She cranked the water off and walked over to the sink to look at herself in the mirror, her towel around her shoulders.

The water had removed most of it, but there was a line of dried blood flecks on her throat from where the wire had pulled against it.  She had another, similar, mark on her left arm, by her elbow.  She picked the flecks away with one fingernail, then rinsed her finger clean with a spray of water from the faucet.  Only a pink line remained.  Neither serious enough to warrant worrying about.  There was bruising on one of her knees, the thigh and around the side of her pelvis where the bone was closest to the skin, from where rubble had fallen on her, green-yellow in color.

There were older injuries too.  Small scars on her hands, tiny cuts on her legs, the bump of a dime-sized keloid scar on the top of one foot.  The one that caught her eye was on the right side of her chest, an inch and a half down from her collarbone.  An inch wide, the scar puckered inward a bit.  It had been the result of an altercation with Hookwolf as the villain escaped the scene of a grisly attack on a grocer, a year ago.  A blade on the villain’s arm had punctured her armor as he’d knocked her aside.  She’d felt the pain of her skin being penetrated and she’d kept quiet about it out of a desperate need to shake the label of being the team baby.  She didn’t want to be seen as the one always in need of help and protection.  It would have been embarrassing to ask for medical attention, only for it to be a scratch.

It had only been later that she’d seen how serious it was, how much it had been bleeding into the fabric of her costume, underneath her breastplate. She’d stitched it up herself, here, in the showers.  She’d done as best as she was able, worked with a kind of grim determination.  Not the most competent job, in the end.

She kind of regretted that series of decisions, now.  She was a late bloomer, looked younger than she was, but when she did eventually have the sort of cleavage she could show off, the scar would be there, plain as day.  It might even be worse, when that time came, depending on how the scar stretched as her chest grew.

Vista might have tried asking Panacea to fix it, but hadn’t been able to summon up the courage.  Now, as she thought about it, she thought maybe she didn’t really want to get rid of it.  A part of her took a perverse kind of pride in the fact that she had a scar, as though it was some kind of proof to herself that she was a good soldier.  It was a sort of validation of the philosophy she’d been outlining to Flechette.  Why stress about a scar on her chest when some villain could kill her before it became an issue?

A toilet flushed in one of the bathroom stalls, and Vista hurried to pull her towel from around her shoulders and wrap it around herself, hiking it up to cover the scar on her chest.

Sophia strolled over to the sink next to Vista.  She gave the younger girl a cool look, “Don’t freak out, midget.  It’s not like you have anything worth hiding.”

Bristling at the midget comment and the crack about her chest, Vista just stared at herself in the mirror, ignoring the girl.

Sophia finished washing her hands, then got her toothbrush and brushed her teeth.  She took her time, while Vista stood there, clutching the towel around herself with both hands.

Finishing, Sophia put her toothbrush away, and, as she’d been doing recently, put a hand on Vista’s head as she passed by.  Only this time, she mussed up the younger girl’s hair, with more roughness than was necessary.  “Carry on, kid.”

Great, Vista thought.  Dennis might be acting more like his old self, but Sophia is too.

She combed out her hair, sorting out the tangles that Sophia’s attention had given her, dried off, and then went to her locker to get a change of clothes: A t-shirt, sweatshirt and flannel pyjama pants.  Comfortable clothes.  She pulled on slippers and went to find Weld.

Sophia was manning the console, browsing Facebook.  Kid Win was testing out the armor – four guns with the size and shape of large pears were floating around the shoulders in a loose formation.

Rather than distract Chris or have to deal with Sophia again, Vista left the headquarters and headed into the elevator.  Weld’s room was in the hallways one floor up, opposite Kid Win’s workshop.

The door was open, and he was there, reclining on the a heavy-duty chair of the same model as the one he had in the conference room.  He had headphones on, his feet on a granite counter where his computer sat.  She’d never been in his room.  Looking around, she saw rack upon rack of CDs, DVDs and vinyl records.  There was no bed, but he didn’t really need to sleep, so that made some sense.  It was easily possible that he slept in the chair.

His head was bobbing with the music until he spotted her.  He gave her a quick nod, pulled off his headphones and turned off the speaker system.

“You wanted to talk to me?” she asked.

“I sent Flechette on patrol with you because she’s got an objective perspective on the team, and I wanted to see if her thoughts on you echoed my own.  True enough, you were only out for a short while, and she’s already expressed concerns.”

“Okay.”

“Tell me straight up, are you doing okay?”

“People keep asking me that.  I’m fine.”

“Flechette said you were sounding pretty fatalistic when you were on patrol, a little while ago.  I know you were fond of Gallant, that you were pretty inconsolable when you were in the hospital, at his bedside.”

Vista looked away.

“And now you’re acting like nothing fazes you, even the idea of you maybe dying in the near future.  I have to know, Missy.  Do you have a death wish?  Are you going to be putting yourself in unnecessary danger?”

“No,” she said.  When his expression didn’t change, she repeated herself, louder, “No.  You saw me against the Travelers.  I don’t think I did anything stupid there.”

“You didn’t.”

“I just want to do a good job as a member of this team.  Carry on their memory.  Act like they would want me to act.  I can work twice as hard, be twice as tough, twice as strong, if it means making up for them being gone.”

“That’s a pretty crazy burden to be shouldering.”

“It’s fine.”

“And it could go somewhere problematic, if you get frustrated, let it consume you, alongside this blasé attitude towards death you seem to be adopting.”

“I can deal.”

Weld sighed.  “Maybe.  Maybe not.  You know what I think?”

Vista shrugged.

“I think you should let your teammates take some of the responsibility there.  Trust them to help carry on the legacy.”

She shook her head, “Nobody else seems to care as much-”

Weld raised a hand, “Stop.  Let me finish.  Remember that your teammates have their individual strengths to their personalities.  I don’t know enough about Aegis or Gallant to say for sure, but I think maybe Clockblocker is stepping up to become more of a leader, in Aegis’s absence.  It could be part of why there’s friction between him and me, even if he doesn’t fully realize it.”

“Gallant was sort of preparing to be the team leader, for when Aegis graduated,” Vista said, her voice quiet.

Weld nodded.  “The impression I’ve picked up, and forgive me if I’m off target, is that Aegis was the head of the team, the leader, strategist and manager.  Gallant, maybe, was the heart.  The guy who tied you all together, kept the interpersonal stuff running smoothly.  Would I be wrong in assuming he was the one who handled Sophia best?”

Vista shook her head.  A lump was growing in her throat.

“Okay.  With all this in mind, I have one suggestion and two orders.  My suggestion?  Stop trying to be everything they were.  Be what you’re good at, a caring, sweet young woman who everyone on the team likes.  My professional opinion is that you have it in you to fill some of that void Gallant left.  Use that empathic nature of yours to help others with their own struggles.  Be the team’s heart.”

Her eyes started watering.  She blinked the tears away.

“And my orders?”

“Order number one is that you go see the PRT’s therapist.  If I can clear it with Director Piggot, figure out a way to make the patrol schedules work, I’m going to try to get everyone to go.  I’m honestly kind of flabbergasted that nobody higher up than me has mandated it already.”

“Okay.”  In a way, she was relieved, at that instruction.

“Order number two is to let yourself cry, damn it.  Stop holding it back.”

Just the mention of crying made her eyes water again.  Vista wiped it away once more, “I’ve cried enough.”

“If your body wants to cry, then you should listen to it.  It doesn’t make you any weaker if you let it happen.  You think I’ve never cried?  Looking like I do, facing the disappointments and frustrations I have?  Maybe it’s self-serving to think so, but I think it takes a kind of strength to let yourself face your emotions like that.”

The tears were rolling down her cheeks, now.  She let her head hang, her damp hair a curtain between her and her team leader.  He stood, pulled her into a hug.  She pressed her face against his shirt.  It was soft, but the body beneath was hard, unyielding.  It was still very gentle.

When she pulled away, a few minutes later, his shirt was damp.  She sniffled, taking the offered tissue to wipe at her eyes and nose, Weld spoke, gently, “I’m always here to talk, and the therapist will be there too.”

Vista nodded.

“If you need a break from the team, just say the word.  I’ll talk to Piggot.”

She shook her head, “No.  I want to work.  I want to help.”

“Okay.  Then we’ve got patrol in… two hours and fifteen minutes.  Go relax, watch some TV, maybe take a nap.”

“Alright.  Don’t you dare let me sleep through patrol.”

“I wouldn’t.”

She made her way back to the elevator, noting the lights were on in Kid Win’s workshop.  Heading back down to the base, she walked toward her cubicle-room.

“Holy crap, you’ve been crying again?  I thought you were over that.”  Sophia commented from the console.  She was on her laptop, sitting just to the right of the main console.  Nobody else was present in the headquarters.  Again, the two of them were alone.  Was Sophia’s nice act only for when others were around?

Vista turned, irritated.  “I was venting a little with Weld, what’s your issue?”

“I just really hate crybabies,” Sophia turned back to the computer.

Crybaby.  Whatever else someone could say about Sophia, there was no denying that she was very, very good at finding someone’s weak points, be it during a brawl or in an argument.  Vista couldn’t think of an insult that would have needled her more.

“Bitch,” Vista muttered, moving toward her room.

She thought she spoke quietly enough that Sophia didn’t hear, but the girl did, because she had a response.  “You annoyed him, you know.”

Vista stopped in her tracks, stayed where she was, her back to Sophia.  She replied without turning around “Weld?  You don’t know-”

“Gallant.  Twelve year old following him around all the time, brimming with prepubescent lust and lovesick infatuation?  And he can feel all of her emotions?  You know how gross that would be?  How disturbing and awkward?”

Vista clenched her fists.

Sophia went on, “Think about it, every time you got just a little turned on while you looked at him?  Every time you crushed on him?  He felt it, forced himself to smile and play nice even as you totally repulsed him, because he was that kind of guy.  You know he was that kind of guy.”

“I loved him,” Vista spoke.  The first time she’d spoken the words aloud.  Why did it have to be to Sophia?  Why couldn’t she have said it to Gallant, before he passed?  “There’s nothing gross about love.”

“You don’t know what love is, little one,” Sophia’s condescending tone rang across the room, “It was a first crush, a little infatuation.  Real love is what he had with Glory Girl… that long-term bond that survived through a dozen really nasty fights, and brought them back together again and again.  A schoolgirl crush is easy.  Real love is hard, something tempered and enduring.”

Vista turned to look at the older girl.

Sophia was reclining in her chair.  She smiled a little, “I know it sucks to hear now, but it’s better to hear it straight than to look back and realize how horribly stupid you sounded, five or ten years down the road.”

“I am not going to feel stupid for how I feel now.”

Sophia shrugged, “Kids.”  She turned her attention to Facebook.

Vista unclenched her fist.  She could tip Sophia out of her chair, bend the computer screen, carry out any number of petty revenges.  But Weld’s advice stuck in her head.

“What happened to you, Sophia?”

Sophia looked over her shoulder.  “You’re still here?”

“What kind of situation led to you becoming like this?  So casually cruel, so lacking in basic human decency?”

“My advice is for your own benefit, little tyke.  I’m not the bad guy.”

“You’re the only one who doesn’t have any friends on the team, you keep yourself at a distance, you talk only with your friend or friends from your civilian life.  Even there, you’re always in trouble.  Getting suspended, picking fights.  It’s like you want to break your probation and go to some juvenile detention facility for the next few years.”

“Not your business.”

“Out in costume, you’re scary.  You hurt people like you’re hungry for it.  I just want to know why.  Where did you come from?  What situation led to you being like this?”

“Drop the fucking subject.  You’re irritating me.”

Vista sighed.  Feeling the traces of anger and the hurt from Sophia’s words, she still tried to soften her parting words as she turned to go back to her room, “If you ever do want to talk about it, I’m willing to listen.”

“I’m not about to talk about it with you.  Fix your own shit before you start worrying about me, crybaby.”

Frustrated, disappointed in herself for failing in her first genuine effort at taking Weld’s advice, trying to reach out to a team member that needed it, Vista shook her head, muttered, “I pity you.”

The sound of a laptop crashing to the ground made Vista turn.  She saw Sophia in her shadow state, wispy, her skeleton visible beneath her skin, warped.  The girl’s eyes were too reflective, her entire body seemed to bend and distort, not completely solid as she leaped towards Vista.

Sophia dropped out of her shadow state in time to push Vista flat onto her back, hard, one fist gripping the collar of the younger girl’s t-shirt.  She shook her.  “Pity?”

Feeling strangely calm despite the pain that radiated through the back of her head, where it had struck the ground, Vista spoke, “Weld said it takes a kind of strength to face your emotions.  Are you really that scared, Sophia, that you’d attack me instead of talk to me?”

Sophia raised a clenched fist.  Vista screwed one eye shut, anticipating the hit.  It would almost be worth it if she hit me and violate the conditions of her membership on the team, to have her gone.  But we need all the help we can get, right now.  “The security cameras are watching us right now.”

Sophia dropped her hand, stood, and stalked over to the far side of the room.  She gathered her costume in her arms.  “I’m going on patrol.”

“It’s not your shift,” Vista spoke, sitting up.

“Don’t fucking care.  If Weld asks, I’m doing a double shift.”

And then Sophia was gone, having used her shadow state to disappear through the elevator door.

“Okay,” Vista spoke, pulling herself to her feet. “Guess I’m manning the console.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Sentinel 9.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I’m a tinker.  I’m supposed to be smart.

So how can I have been so stupid?

Ballistic raised one hand and pointed at Kid Win.  He waited until Kid Win moved before kicking at the uneven, rubble-strewn ground, sending a spray of concrete and wood fragments flying like a hail of bullets.  It only grazed the teenage hero mid-leap, lacerating the side of his stomach, hip and thigh, chipping his armor.  It still hit hard enough that it twisted him in midair.  He landed on his back atop the rubble that covered the ground, grunted.

“Hey!” Ballistic bellowed, “Little girl!”

Kid Win saw Ballistic pointing at Vista.  The villain, between his build and armor, had the frame of a football player, a dramatic contrast to the young heroine.  He pointed at her, paused long enough for her to bend the ground into a semblance of cover, then launched a chunk of concrete at her.

The concrete flew at an angle that wouldn’t have hit the girl anyways, struck the barrier and shattered, sending debris careening onto and into the girl.  Vista screamed and fell backwards, part of her barrier crumbling to land on top of her.

He’s telling us exactly where he’s going to attack next.

Kid Win looked up, saw Sundancer with her orb hovering a good fifteen feet off the ground, keeping it away from the walls of the building and the corpses that were hung above them.  Even though it was fifteen feet up and thirty feet away, he could feel the heat of it prickle his exposed skin.  He knew from the Endbringer fight that she could make it bigger, move it faster.

As the burning sphere drifted forward, staying at roughly the same height, Flechette and Glory Girl were forced to scramble away.  Shadow Stalker leaped off of the top of the wall and into the alleyway next to the building to get away from the heat.  Only Vista remained where she was, caught under debris that she was striving to shrink down and push away.

It dawned on Kid Win.  Sundancer and Ballistic, at the very least, were holding back.  Because they were strong enough that going all out would leave corpses.

The revelation didn’t make him feel any better.  In fact, it was just the opposite.  If these guys got desperate or panicked, they might stop being so polite about it.

Trickster and Genesis were tangling with Weld and Clockblocker – Clockblocker was putting paper in the air, freezing it to give himself footholds to go after his flying opponent.  Any time Genesis moved to attack, Clockblocker set paper in her way, edge towards her, or he tried to duck in close enough to touch her.  Giving up on more physical means, she exhaled a cloud of the choking smoke.  Clockblocker and Weld both worked together to minimize the spread of the cloud, using paper and plywood, freezing it in place with Clockblocker’s power.

Kid Win decided they had a handle on that.  It was up to him to help against Ballistic and Sundancer.

As he climbed to his feet, breaking into a run before he was even standing straight, he raised his spark pistol and fired off a series of oversized blue sparks at Ballistic.

Trickster managed to teleport him again, swapping his position with Ballistic’s.  The forward momentum of his sprint was enough to get him out of the way of his own gunfire.

His spark pistol sported a small power core that used spatial warping technology to magnify and then reabsorb a steady electrical current.  The barrel was wired with a helix-shaped electromagnetic rail, based on some of Armsmaster’s old data on the ‘hard’ light Purity and Dauntless created.  Nanomolecular, ionically charged rifling on the barrel’s interior was arranged to guide the fired charges into a rough elliptical shape, which sustained their shape and consistency the longest.

In laymen’s terminology, it was not unlike a power bar that was plugged into itself, with a small addition that made each revolution of the current larger than the one before.  An attached battery kept the current going.  The shots themselves were ‘hard’ electricity condensed into balls, which meant they had a physical impact to them, due to how they carried and transferred kinetic energy.   Given how the weapon charged, waiting a few seconds between shots meant the next shot hit harder, up to a limit.

I can make something like this, which is brilliant, then I go and dismantle my fricking hoverboard to get parts for a project I never even finish.  Idiot.

Ballistic marched towards Vista, who was trying to climb to her feet.  He was intercepted by Glory Girl, who slammed him into a wall.  She punched him, drove her knee into his gut, then slammed him against the wall again, to keep him off-balance and hurting.

Ballistic slumped against her and grabbed at the collar of her costume for support.  A second later, Glory Girl was a blur, disappearing into the skyline.  His attacker gone, Ballistic fell onto his hands and knees with a grunt.

Flechette threw a handful of darts at Sundancer, pinning the girl against the wall.  Somehow Flechette had avoided Trickster’s attention.  How?  Kid Win turned to look, saw that she was standing so her body blocked Trickster’s line of sight to both the darts and his teammate.

So he can only teleport what he sees?

Kid Win moved to mimic Flechette’s technique, running to a position where he would be between the injured Ballistic and Trickster.  He cocked his spark pistol.

He was nearly lined up for his shot when his gun disappeared from his hand, an awkwardly sized piece of wood taking its place.  A second later, his mask and visor cracked against a hard surface.  He had to grip the wall to steady himself and keep from falling.  He’d been teleported.

Then the wall moved beneath his hand, and he heard Clockblocker shout, “Get down, Kid!”

He let himself fall, simultaneously realizing he had been leaning against Genesis, in her gargoyle-like form.  Weld slammed into the villainess, his left hand in the form of a heavy miner’s pick.  It did a surprising amount of damage, but she didn’t seem to care.  She gripped Weld around the face with a claw, raked his chest twice with criss-crossing slashes of her other hand, leaving deep gouges in the metal.  The same noxious black smoke that she had been breathing began to billow out of the hole the pick had made in her chest.

Clockblocker charged, but Genesis shoved Weld so the two heroes stumbled into one another, delaying them long enough for her to leap into the air.  She beat her wings to keep herself aloft and out of reach.

Kid Win unslung his laser rifle and fired at the villainess.  His first shot grazed her, as one flap of her wings carried her higher into the air, but the next two hit the mark.  One struck her in the shoulder, leaving a hole large enough to fit his hand through, the other struck her in the side of the head, doing a similar amount of damage.

Genesis dropped from the sky, exploded into a mess of dark smoke and pebbles as she struck the ground.

Feeling a moment’s panic, he checked the settings on his gun.  Normal levels, no anomalies.  It could heat metal and other inorganic materials, cut through more fragile materials, but against a person, it wouldn’t do more than hurt and maybe leave the mildest kind of burn.

That’s her power, he reminded himself, you didn’t kill her.

But his gun had done a surprising amount of damage.  Was it some interaction with how she pulled her new shapes together?  A specific wavelength, a weakness to lasers?

He wasn’t about to complain.  He wheeled around, fired on the other villains.

An injured Ballistic opened fire on Vista, discharging a series of pieces of rubble at an angle.  It struck the ground just in front of the girl and fallout from the impacts showered her.  Each shot drove her back further, buying him a chance to limp to Sundancer’s side.  He touched the darts that were fixing her to the wall, sending them flying into Weld’s face.

“Fuck!” Weld cursed, the metal spikes of the darts jutting out of his jaw, cheekbone, eyebrow and forehead, “Takes forever to get my face right after something like this!”

Trickster’s teleportations had placed the enemy’s group in the interior of the building, with the Wards surrounding them.

Surrounding one’s enemy wasn’t quite an advantage when the enemy could teleport, but for a moment, they all paused where they were, various weapons at the ready.  It was the kind of momentary peace that fell when everyone was waiting to react to what the others were doing.

A wind blew past them, and Kid Win blinked as a fat droplet of water spattered against his visor.  It was starting to drizzle.  He glanced up at the corpses where they hung on the walls of the building.

“The water’s going to wash away the evidence if you don’t let us go and hurry to check on the bodies,” Trickster spoke.

“Crime scene techs can’t get here in time with the roads like they are,” Weld spoke.  “And we’re not allowed to touch the evidence anyways.  Rules.”

“Rules?  You shouldn’t sweat those things so much,” Trickster chuckled, “Here, I’ll help you out.”

Weld disappeared, and the burned corpse flopped to the ground.

“Shit!” Clockblocker shouted, running forward.

Weld dropped from the wall for the second time in a matter of minutes as the restraints intended for the woman’s corpse tore free of the concrete.  Vista reshaped the wall to ease his descent.  Kid Win raised his laser rifle to fire at Trickster.

Dumb.  He regretted it the second his finger left the trigger.

As he predicted, he found himself somewhere else in the blink of an eye, and the impact of his own gunfire slammed into his back, intensely hot.  He threw himself to the ground at the base of the building, where water pooled, rolling so his back was submerged.

It’s not lethal, can’t do any permanent harm, you had it vetted, tested on pig meat.

The balance of the fight had abruptly shifted.  Clockblocker, Flechette and Vista were where the three Travelers had been, and vice versa.

“Nuh uh uh, kiddo,” Trickster spoke, as the gap in the wall began closing behind his group, “Up you go.”

The flayed corpse appeared in Vista’s position.

No!  Kid Win turned, saw Vista on the wall.  She’d gotten tangled in the loops of wire that had been holding the corpse up.  The metal wire was coiled around a shattered part of the wall, and more than one wire had caught around her neck.  Another looping of wire bound her body, one of her arms caught against her side.  She struggled to pull at the wire on her neck with her free hand, but it was little help.  The wire pulled so tightly against her throat that Kid Win feared it would cut her skin.

“Trickster!” Sundancer cried out, horrified.

“Just run!” was the villain’s only reply.  The three villains started running, leaving the building behind, their footsteps sloshing and splashing.

Kid Win raised his laser pistol, aimed carefully, then fired, landing the shot a half-foot to the right of Vista’s throat.  The wires heated and split, freeing her, and she dropped a foot before catching on more wires.  Nothing dangerous, this time, but it was a fair distance to fall and one slip could see her getting cut on the wire, strangled or cracking her head open as she fell.

Shadow Stalker materialized behind Trickster, catching him around the throat in a headlock.  She used one foot to kick his feet out from under him, and then forced him face first into the water.

Kid Win hesitated.  Help her or help Vista?

Vista.  Shadow Stalker would say she could handle herself.  Made a point of trying to.

He fired more shots to free Vista, missing the wires one or two times.  The heroine, for her part, focused on angling the wall beneath her to allow herself to slide down instead of falling the full distance.

Ballistic shot Shadow Stalker, driving her back.  The attack had left a gaping hole just below her heart, the edges wispy.  The gap closed, but the attack had separated her from Trickster, and hurt her badly enough that she crumpled to the ground, a hand to her chest.

Kid Win fired a salvo at the retreating villains, grazed Ballistic.  Sundancer turned, directing her orb between their groups.  She dropped it into the water.  Massive clouds of heated steam rose where the orb met water, obscuring the battlefield.

By the time it cleared, the villains were gone.

It took a minute to check that none of them had suffered any permanent damage.  After some debate, they moved the bodies to a more secure, dry spot, inside the building. Glory Girl managed to make her way back two minutes after the Travelers were gone, helped with the last body that still hung on the wall.  By the time they were done, the rain was pouring down.

Kid Win stared down at the corpses, an ugly feeling in his gut.

He was dumb, easily distracted, prone to leaving his projects unfinished, and it was moments like this that this knowledge hit him particularly hard.  His dad had made him get tested, and the doctors had labeled him with ADD and dyscalculia.  He held to the opinion that the ADD diagnosis was way overused – he liked to think that he was just a daydreamer, prone to getting lost in his thoughts.

The dyscalculia was something concrete that he couldn’t deny or explain away.  He couldn’t keep numbers in his head, couldn’t make the most basic intuitive leaps or connections with them.

All of that had been before he got his powers.  Nothing had changed, except that now he could visualize something, instinctively know how he could put it together.  His disability or disabilities put him a step behind the rest.  His daydreaming was worse, because his thoughts were so damn interesting, now.  He couldn’t take reliable measurements without using computers to do it.  Couldn’t finish half his projects without feeling compelled to move on to something else.

The PRT staff insisted he was exceptional with antigrav and guns, had it even marked in his file, but he knew it wasn’t so true.  He finished his guns because they were simple, in their own way.  It was easy enough to take three half-finished gun projects and mash them together.  Create something with multiple settings, even.  As far as he was aware, he was the only Tinker in the PRT’s records that didn’t have a defined specialty, gimmick or trick.  He was increasingly worried that his special talent as a tinker was being able to occasionally make something despite his learning disability.  Which would suck, if it were true.

There were exceptions.  He’d finished bigger projects.  His hoverboard, driven by the idea of how awesome it would be to fly.  Even then, it had been a chore.  Monumentally stupid of him to dismantle it.  The idea and motivation driving the action had been good: he was graduating the Wards in a little while, he’d be expected to change his name and adjust his methods, because an adult calling himself Kid Win was lame.  He’d had an idea about a harness with a floating array of turrets that could fire different munitions depending on what gun he holstered in the main slot.  Self adjusting and adaptive the way his Alternator Cannon was.  Except he’d gotten frustrated at a snag in the testing, put it down to take a break and hadn’t picked it up again in six days.  His hoverboard had effectively been destroyed for no reason, when it might have made the difference in getting the Travelers into custody.

His Alternator Cannon was the real gem.  It had been the result of a medication the PRT’s doctor had prescribed, which he’d been forced to stop after two weeks when he began to get increasingly dizzy, anxious and nauseous.  While he’d been taking the pills, he’d been focused, had a glimpse, maybe, of what he could do if it weren’t for his distractibility and daydreaming.  When Piggy had spoken of destroying the thing, the mere thought had been crushing.  Then Leviathan had destroyed it for real, maybe the only truly brilliant thing he’d be able to make.  He harbored fears it might even the only brilliant thing he’d ever be able to make.

He wasn’t the worst hero ever, he knew that.  He had things he could do.  He could let the worries and the dozens of unfinished projects alone, most days.  That changed when his team got thrashed.  Thoughts like that had been plaguing him since the Endbringer event a week ago.  He couldn’t shake the notion that he was in the running for the weakest member of the team.  The notion that he was dumb, second-rate.  That this loss, here, was his fault, because he had dropped the ball.  The people of this city deserve a better hero, a more focused one.

Weld spoke, disturbing him from his thoughts, “I just got a message.  PRT is on their way.  We head back now.”

Hearing the unenthusiastic replies of his teammates, Kid Win realized that the rest of the team wasn’t in any better of a mood than he was.  Losing had a way of doing that.

Strangely comforting.

“Got word from the Protectorate.  They’re handling the case with the bodies, we’re not to touch it or get involved in any way,” Weld spoke, folding his arms.  He had what looked like acne – blisters of extra-shiny metal on his face where the remainder of the darts hadn’t yet been fully integrated into his ‘skin’.  He reclined in an expensive, custom-made office chair, capable of supporting his dense, heavy body.  Everyone else had found seats in the central room of their headquarters.  Everyone, that was, except for Glory Girl, who had gone home.  She wasn’t yet an official member of the team.

“No word on what’s going on?” Clockblocker asked.

“They’re staying quiet on the subject,” Weld spoke.

Vista leaned forward, “Maybe a serial killer?”

“We should focus on what we do know,” Weld shook his head. “As far as tonight’s patrols-“

“Actually,” Kid Win cut in, “Sorry.  But I have one theory.”

“What?” Clockblocker asked.

Kid Win glanced at Weld, checking to see if their leader was ok with it.  Weld didn’t say anything, which he took as assent to continue.

“There were two other crime scenes, right?  Any idea if there were the same number of bodies at each crime scene?”

“Same number-” Weld raised an eyebrow, “Why… Oh.  Shit.  I think I follow.”

Smarter than you’d think, given his brute-force power and his appearance, Kid Win realized.  Or I’m just that bad with numbers.  The connection took me twenty minutes to make.

“Three crime scenes with three bodies each.  So it’d be nine bodies?” Clockblocker asked, “Each killed in some different way?  I don’t see what killer that would fit with.”

“Not one killer,” Kid Win answered, “Nine bodies, each for different killers.”

“The Slaughterhouse Nine,” Clockblocker leaned back in his seat, groaning, “Fuck, that’d be all we needed.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time they’ve arrived at a location in the wake of an Endbringer event,” Flechette pointed out.

“Maybe it’s them,” Weld conceded, “And maybe the Protectorate figured that much out, with the clues they have from the other two scenes.  It could be someone or something else.  Either way, it’s not our case, not even in our league, and we should stay as hands off as we can manage.  We need to talk about patrols and tonight’s duties.”

“The grunt work,” Flechette offered a literal grunt to punctuate the statement.  Kid Win and Clockblocker chuckled.

“Vista’s due for a patrol, and as a young member, she has to go with someone.  Lily?”

Flechette smiled a little, “Quick to make me pay for the snark, huh?  No, it’s cool, I’ve been wanting a chance to shoot the shit with Vista.”  She extended her fist, with index finger and thumb extended to form a gun, mock fired it at her junior teammate.  Vista rolled her eyes.

“Clockblocker, you and I will handle the night’s shifts after that.  Your call if you want to patrol with me or not, we can cover different routes and go for a wider area if you’d rather.”

“Alright.  We’ll figure it out.”

“Leaving Shadow Stalker.  You okay with the late-night, Sophia?”

“Yeah, fine,” Sophia didn’t look up from her laptop.

“And me?” Kid Win asked.

“Special duty, tonight,” Weld smiled, “You’re recruiting.”

“Recruiting?”

“There’s a kid calling himself Chariot.  Been racing around the city with a powered suit that lets him move a hundred miles an hour.  Assault finally caught up with him last night, brought him into custody.  Wound up calling the kid’s mom, got him to agree to talk to our recruiter.  You.  You’ll be meeting the kid in his home.”

“Why me?”

“Shared interests.  You’re both tinkers.  You have the best idea of how he thinks.”

Kid Win nodded.  He couldn’t quite put his finger on what he was feeling.  A measure of excitement at the idea of getting to talk to another tinker that wasn’t Armsmaster?  Sure.  Fear?  Would he be replaced by a new tinker?  It was an immature thing to be spooked about, he knew that, but that didn’t make it any less real.

“Cool,” he spoke, by way of agreement.

“You convince him, it’ll look good to the guys upstairs,” Weld informed him.

Right.  Great.  Pressure.

“Now, onto a more serious topic.  I’m seeing that this team is really disorganized, these days.  I have no problem handling the brunt of the paperwork, it gives me a degree of insight into what’s going on that the files don’t.  I don’t even mind cleaning up the kitchen and showers here when the janitors are off duty.  But we really need to communicate.  Last night Flechette went on patrol and ran into a situation with Parian she should have been briefed on.  It could have turned hostile.”

“Sorry,” Vista muttered.

“It turned out okay,” Flechette smiled a little.

“Right.  It’s okay, it’s understandable, given all we’re trying to handle,” Weld reassured her, “But we can’t miss out on details and updates on the overall situation.  The Protectorate have their hands full with the gang wars between Fenrir’s Chosen, Purity’s group and Coil,  they’re now dealing with this serial killer or serial killers, and they’re still updating the records.  So here’s what we’re going to do, I’ve checked it with Piggot, she agrees.  I’m picking up an extra patrol shift, and I’ll be adjusting your patrol shifts down by twenty minutes each, moving them around slightly.  With the downtime that creates, we’re going to have meetings like this, every day.”

Pausing, Weld glanced at Clockblocker, as if expecting a response.  When Clockblocker only nodded assent, Weld’s eyebrows rose a fraction in surprise.  He continued, “Gives us a chance to talk about our recent patrols, fears, concerns, ideas.  Or hell, just talk, because I’m seeing this trend where we only see each other in passing, while patrolling or in class, and some of you are going out of your way to spend time together and hash stuff out, even at the detriment of stuff like school.”

“You’re talking about class, earlier,” Clockblocker said.

“More or less.  Not saying it’s a bad thing, but we can restructure our schedules, make time for it, instead of detracting from an area we need to pay attention to.”

“Sure,” Clockblocker agreed.  Was there a note of irritation in his voice?  Kid Win couldn’t tell.  Dennis was playing along, at least.

“Now, about the paperwork you guys have been submitting, there’s been a few recurring problems…”

Kid Win sighed and settled into his seat.  This was going to be a little while.

The building was ugly, had trash piled up on either side of the front door, a sour smell wafting out from it.  The water level wasn’t so bad here, and the building was almost entirely intact.  The only sign of damage was the boarded up windows on the first and second floors where the glass had been knocked out of the window frames.  Red brick, it seemed like the usual sort of tenement building one would find in the Docks.

He stepped inside.  A Hispanic boy in the front hall whistled sharply as Kid Win stepped inside, while a group of Asian-American boys and girls in dirty clothing ran around him, screaming at a ear-piercing volume as they continued a game, some pointing and hooting at the superhero.  Occupants aside, it was dark, with only two dingy lightbulbs and no open windows.

It’s nine o’clock at night.  Don’t these kids have a bedtime?

He checked the folded paper he had in his hand, found the room number, and headed up the stairs.  A morbidly obese, older man sat halfway up the stairs, maybe a babysitter for the kids.  Kid Win hoped the man was a babysitter, because the man was white and the kids weren’t, meaning he probably wasn’t family.  If he wasn’t getting paid, there was only one uncomfortable explanation for why the man would be willing to tolerate that yelling and squealing.

Or maybe he’s deafLet’s go with that.

The fat old man didn’t budge an inch as Kid Win approached, forcing the boy to squeeze by.  He made his way up, ignored a gang of fit twenty-something Asian guys who were standing guard in the hallway on the second floor.  On the third floor, he headed past people who were sleeping on blankets in the hallway, found apartment 306.

The door opened a second after he knocked.  A tired looking Hispanic woman greeted him, “You’re the superhero, I take it?”

“Yes.  Kid Win,” he extended his hand.  She shook it firmly.

“Ashley Medina.  My son’s back through here.”

There was a sense of pride in the narrow apartment, Kid Win saw.  An undercurrent of aesthetic taste, matching knick-knacks and furniture.   There were marks of a vacuum cleaner’s recent run over the carpet and both kitchen counters and dining room table were immaculately clean in a way that suggested she’d gone to some effort to clean up.  In a building like this, though, there was only so much you could do.  There was a water stain on the ceiling, dark brown marks on the carpet under a small rug, maybe from a previous occupant.

“If you’ll wait here, I’ll get him.”

Kid Win sat on the sofa.  He noticed the cathode ray tube television was missing its screen, had been gutted.  Quite likely for parts.  The toaster was a goner, too.  Only the wireless modem in the corner of the kitchen had survived, green lights blinking.

He has priorities, at least, Kid Win thought, with mild amusement.  Gotta have an internet connection.

When Chariot arrived, Kid Win stood, offered a hand.  There was a delay before the kid shook it.  He was lanky, with big ears and close shorn hair that made him look slightly goofy, but he had a wary look in his eye.  He wore a t-shirt and jeans that were stained with grease, had lots of little cuts and stains on his fingers, hands and forearms.

Been thereSubstandard tools, not enough parts.  I can use that.

“Please sit,” Chariot’s mother said.

Kid Win obliged.  Chariot was the last to take a seat.  Was he reluctant, something else?

“Chariot, is it?”  Kid Win ventured.  God, hope I don’t fuck this up.

“Mm,” was the noncommital reply.

“Just to give me an idea, on a scale of one to ten, how interested are you, in maybe joining the Wards?”

“Ten’s high?”

“Ten’s a lot of interest.”

“Four.”

“Trevor!” Chariot’s mom admonished, “They offer funding, education-“

“We do,” Kid Win interrupted.  If mom pushes, this guy’s only going to get less interested.  Shit, a four is low.  Maybe if I do the talking… “It’s good money, with room for better money.  Especially for a tinker like you or me.”

“How’s that?”

“The guys in charge want tinkers.  They really want tinkers, both because they want us in a position where we won’t be making trouble for them, and because and they want the kind of stuff we can create.”

“I’m not giving up my stuff.”

Kid Win paused.  This is like looking into a mirror to a year and a half ago.  “Look, I can see your TV, your toaster.  Chances are you’ve gone to the Trainyard or a scrapyard to find some stuff.  Old batteries, car parts, chains, good metal, whatever.”

“He wanted to go to the Trainyard,” Chariot’s mother cut in, “I told him no, caught him trying to sneak out.”

Chariot scowled a little, looked away.

This would be easier without her here.  “I get it.  Been there.  You’re hungry to use your power, but more than any other kind of cape, you’re facing a hurdle in terms of the entry-level resources you need.  This is where the team would support you.  You get funding, a lot of funding, to put your stuff together.”

Kid Win reached into his belt, retrieved a compact disc.  He placed it on the glass coffee table, then withdrew a set of small tools from the other side of his belt.  He dismantled the object and began laying out the components one by one.

Chariot reached for the nearest component, and Kid Win moved to block the boy’s hand.  “Don’t touch, please.  Look only.  Trace oils and static charge could damage something.”

The boy gave him an annoyed glance, bent over the table to look closer at the chips.

“What’s this crystal?”  Chariot asked.

“3D computer chip.  Uses light instead of electrical current.  They’re made by this Protectorate tinker down in Texas.  She gets funding to produce a set number every month, in addition to her regular pay.  So long as you’re in the program, you can put in an order for her stuff, with the specs you want.”

“And this metal threading, gold?”

“Gold, for maximum conductibility.”

“That’s a camera, this would be the power source, that part does something with wavelengths, and this reads energy… but I’m not getting it.  What does this do?”

Kid Win quickly slipped the pieces back together, turned the compact device over, then pulled out his smartphone.  Touching the screen, he activated the compact device.  It floated above the coffee table.  He turned his smartphone around to show them the image it was streaming from the device’s camera.

“So much effort, for a video camera?” Chariot’s mother commented, “My tax dollars are going towards this?”

The dumbfounded look Chariot gave his mother put Kid Win in the awkward spot of having to suppress a smile.  This is a point for me.  If I asked him again, what would he say?  Five, six?

“You join the Wards, you get exactly what you need to reach your full potential as a Tinker.”  A small lie there.  Not like I’ve reached my full potential.  “And anything you make, the PRT buys the rights from you.  If you’re willing to give up that much, you can do well for yourself.”

“You’re talking money?” That had piqued Chariot’s interest.  He leaned forward, elbows on his knees.

“I maybe shouldn’t, but I’m going to tell you what I’m getting out of it, because it’s almost definitely going to be the exact same for you.  I get paid, but the money goes straight into a trust.  I’ve made enough to pay for my college education, and every dollar I earn beyond that is going to be waiting for me as a cash award, if and when I graduate from a four-year postsecondary program.  I’m getting four hundred dollars in allowance each month, just to mess around in my workshop, all my materials are paid for, and I currently have about two thousand dollars sitting in the bank, right now, from that.  Once I turn eighteen?  I make more.  It automatically transitions to a job with good pay, working with the Protectorate, and the hours will be totally flexible around any classes I take.”

“But he’s risking his life,” Chariot’s mother spoke.  Chariot frowned.

“He is.  There are responsibilities.  But honestly?  There’s zero way he’s going to be able to go out and try out any of the stuff he’s made without running into trouble.  People are going to pick fights, just because he has powers.  If he tries to hang out in a workshop he establishes on his own, they’re going to find him, strong-arm him into putting something together for them.  Not just villains, either.  Heroes too.  Being a tinker doesn’t just make you a target.  It makes you a resource.  It’s why pretty much every tinker out there is a member of a larger, more powerful team.”

“Then Trevor could just not use his powers?” she spoke.

“Sure,” Kid Win folded his arms, leaning back against the back of the couch.  “What do you think, Chariot?  You think you could keep from using that power of yours?  Be normal?”

Chariot frowned, looked down at his scratched-up hands, “No.”

Kid Win nodded in agreement, “It’s a part of you, Chariot, a part of how you think, now.  I’m telling you this is the best option.  The safest.  Having a team means you’re protected, free to do what you need to do.”

Chariot’s expression indicated clear interest.  Then he frowned, “I don’t want to give up my stuff to others.  It’s mine.”

Something struck Kid Win as off about the reply.  What was it?   It was out of tune with the flow of the conversation, didn’t quite match up with Kid Win’s own experiences being recruited.  Maybe it sounded forced?  But why would Chariot fake reluctance?

He pushed forward, anyways, “I get that, really.  But it’s only given away in name.  You still get to use it, you just can’t give it away or sell it to others.  The benefit is that you gain access to all the stuff and plans other PRT tinkers have made.  I can’t show you any more of that than I have, but the fact is, you’d be able to look at my blueprints as easily as I could look up yours, get inspiration…

“…Or you could look at the sort of stuff Dragon makes.”

Chariot’s eyes lit up.

“Tell me you’re not interested, now.”

“I’m… kind of interested.”

Again, that vibe.  Pretending he’s not as interested as he is.

“They can’t force you to join, but they do want you on the team.  There’s no negotiating.  You’d get the same I get, pretty much, so if you’re holding back or trying to fake like you don’t want to join when you do, you’re just wasting your time and mine.”

“I’m not,” Chariot replied, defensive.  “It’s only… this is a big deal.”

“It is.  So take my card.  Call me if you have any questions, or if you want me to pass on word that you’re joining the team.”

Kid Win fished in his belt and then handed his card to the boy.  Black with white lettering and his starburst-gun emblem on the back.

“Okay,” Chariot replied.

“Talk it over with your mom.  Get back to us.”

“Thank you,” Chariot’s mother spoke, standing.  Kid Win stood as well.  He shook her hand again.

“Not a problem,” Kid Win replied.  He punched the boy lightly on the shoulder as he stood, “Join.  It’d be good to talk shop with someone else that gets this stuff.”

Chariot nodded.

The mother led Kid Win to the door, and he headed out the building – the fat man from the stairwell was gone, and only the Hispanic boy by the front door was still in the hallway.  Kid Win stepped outside.

Something’s off with this scenario.

He tapped his foot a second, then stepped around the building and into the alleyway.  He retrieved his smartphone, and used it to send the hovering camera up to the third floor, checked in the windows where the apartment would be.  The boy was leaving the bathroom, going into his room.  Kid Win moved the camera to the next window over, the boy was sitting down at his computer, turning it on.

Straight to the computer.  Hm.  Kid Win pocketed the hovering camera, then turned his attention to the smartphone.  According to the phone, there were three wireless modems in the building.  One was named with a string of violent swear words, the other was on its default settings.  Both were unlocked.  He chose the third, locked connection, clicked a button on the screen to have his phone decrypt the password.

Fifteen seconds later, he could see someone online.  Kid Win watched the white text scroll by with details on the connection’s activity.

Google docs – pages of technical stuff, the boy was adding notes on gold wiring, shortform notes on antigravity, 3D crystals.  The next page the boy visited, five minutes later, was an email account.

Twenty seconds later, an email was sent.

To: C1298475739@cryptmail.com

Guy from wards came.  I’m in.

Kid Win stared at the screen for a long while.  Cryptmail.  That wouldn’t be an agreement with the PRT.

“So someone got to you before we did,” he muttered to himself.  He tapped the armor over his ear twice to open a communications channel, “Console?”

“Weld here, manning the console.”

“Do me a favor, call everyone back to the base for a quick meeting?  And maybe call Piggot?”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Sentinel 9.3

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Welcome to Parahumans 103: Theories and Patterns.  I see we have a packed auditorium, and according to the enrollment list, we have no less than three hundred students taking the TV course.  A bump up from the last two trimesters, so I must be doing something right.”

Clockblocker looked around the room.  Six PRT uniforms sat in the front row, helmets off, three with notebooks open on the desks in front of them.  Weld and Flechette sat in the desks closest to the door, exchanging murmured words as the professor on the screen began going over the course syllabus.

Glory Girl sat just in front of him, wearing a black, long-sleeved shirt, arms folded on her desk, chin resting on the back of one hand.  Vista, odd as it was, sat beside the other heroine, had been the only one to offer any conversation.  When Glory Girl hadn’t seemed interested in talking, Vista had instead offered her silent company.  Clockblocker wasn’t exactly sure how Glory Girl had gotten into the Wards headquarters to attend the screening, but she was here, uncharacteristically quiet, much in the same way that Vista had been this past week.

Kid Win sat to Clockblocker’s right, fidgeting by taking apart his pen and putting it back together, his eyes not leaving the screen.  Shadow Stalker was sitting as far away from everyone else as she could manage, at the back corner of the room.  She sat sideways in her seat, back to the wall, her feet resting on the seat next to her.  Her attention was directed entirely at the keys and screen of her cell phone, rather than the projector screen at the front of the room.

Only thirteen people present, altogether.

“…for disability and pregnancy accommodations, the course syllabus gives you all the details you need on who to contact.  If you aren’t already, you’re going to be sick of hearing all that by the time you graduate.  We’re required to go over it in the first class of every class we teach.

“So.  Let me start off by addressing and banishing some assumptions you may have.  This is not an easy class, and anyone who took Parahumans: History and Society or Parahumans: Case Studies and Powers will be aware of this.  Even for those of you who emerged triumphant from the previous two semesters should know that PARA-103 may be something of a shock to you if this is your first year of University.  Here, primarily, I will be looking for creativity, problem solving and research abilities.  Skills and abilities that, frankly, aren’t stressed enough in high school.

“For this class, I want you to think.  Parahumans.  People with powers.  They’ve been around for nearly thirty years.  Where did they come from?  Why are they here?  It’s common knowledge that parahumans are ordinary individuals who gained abilities.  It is too easy, however, to assume that this is the sum total of our knowledge.  I want you to think further on the subject.  For example, why does virtually every parahuman ability have some application in confrontation and combat?  Is this the nature of humans, to turn any progress to violent ends, be it science or superpower?  Or is it by design, an individual’s hand at work?

“With the destructive potential of these abilities, why do so very few individuals perish in the chaotic and unpredictable emergence of their talents?  For the first two or three weeks of the class, we’ll be talking about these most pivotal moments in a given parahuman’s existence, these trigger events, when an individual first gains their powers, typically through some form of trauma.

“Throughout the course, we’re going to be looking at correlations and patterns, both in relation to trigger events and other things.  For example, how does the nature of the trigger event shape the power?  A study by Garth and Rogers suggests that psychological stress leads to a higher prevalence of mentally driven powers.  Tinkers, thinkers, masters, shakers.  The more physical violence that is involved, the higher the bias towards physically driven powers.  Garth and Rogers suggest a sliding scale, but it may not be that cut and dry.

“A followup study by Garth touches on what we know about cape ‘families’.  If one individual in a family has powers, it is far more likely that others will as well.  Almost always, this trend is either descending or lateral, it seems to transition from parent to child, or one sibling to another, but not from child to parent.  We’ll talk about the theories on why.  For those of you wanting to read ahead, take a look at Garth’s notes on the Dallon and Pelham families in chapter nine.  We can surmise that the different scenarios leading to trigger events may be directly related to the differences in powers, even among closely related members of a cape family.  Similar trigger events and related individuals, similar powers.  The more distant the relation and the more varied the trigger events, the more drastically different the powers they possess in the end.”

Clockblocker glanced at Glory Girl, to see if the mention of her family had stirred her interest.  She hadn’t budged an inch.  Was she asleep?

He couldn’t help but sympathize.  This is a monumental waste of time.  I could be out there, helping people.  Or spending time with my family.  The Protectorate was coordinating shifts so the Wards could collectively get at least some education in the meantime, on Piggot’s orders.  Except this wasn’t useful, this wasn’t applicable to the ongoing crisis right here, right now, in this city.  Cooped up in a PRT conference room, learning stuff that didn’t apply to actual field work.

Hell, it was on videotape, a recording of last year’s lectures.  Why couldn’t they watch it in their off hours?  It was just a fucked up set of priorities enforced on them from the people in charge.

He shifted restlessly, annoyed, angry.

“Trigger events are a crucial element for study, because the timing, nature and spread of these emerging powers may provide a clue as to where these parahuman abilities come from.  More women than men have powers, for example, and there are more powers in undeveloped countries than there are in industrialized ones – Some of you may remember me mentioning this fact in the 101 class, when I was talking about the witch burnings in The People’s Republic of Uganda.

“Another pattern we will be exploring is the apparent effect of multiple trigger events occurring in the same time and place.  There is a very strong correlation between coinciding trigger events and individuals displaying three or more powers rather than one or two predominant ones.”

“Hey, Flechette,” Kid Win called across the room, “You’ve got a bunch of powers, right?”

She turned in her seat, “Sure.”

“Anyone else get powers at the same time you did?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Could someone nearby have gotten their powers, without you knowing?  Way things played out?  Did any capes show up around the same time as you?”

Flechette frowned, “Yeah.  A rather persistent villain.”

“Worth thinking about.”

Weld turned around, “Critical thinking and applying this stuff is good, but let’s not forget the lecture.  Or the other people in the classroom.”

Is he trying to get people to dislike him?  Clockblocker wondered.

The professor on the screen was answering a student’s question, “…I think Eidolon expresses a single power.  But thank you.  Good question, and good lead-in to the next section of the course we’ll be discussing.  After we wrap up on trigger events, we’re going to be moving on to what we call ‘outliers’.  Parahumans or parahuman-related elements that deviate from the norm.  Any guesses?”

“Scion.” A student on the TV spoke.  The camera shifted to him late, and by the time he’d responded, the professor was pointing to another.

“Endbringers.”

“Nilbog.”

“I wouldn’t suggest Nilbog, but we can debate the point later,” the professor spoke, “Perhaps a subject for a course paper.  Scion, yes.  Endbringers?  Yes.  We have no reason or evidence to suspect they gained powers by normal means.  Another group you may or may not be familiar with are what the PRT terms Case Fifty-Threes.  Often the ‘monstrous’ parahumans, we’ll get into more depth on the subject.”

Clockblocker glanced at Weld.  The boy was digging through his canvas backpack for something.  Was he one of them?

“Weeks five and six, assuming we’re on schedule, we’ll pull all earlier material together and discuss the beginnings of the parahuman phenomenon.  Not for the individual, as with trigger events, but as a whole.  Where do capes come from?  There is the patient zero theory, typically working under the assumption that Scion is the source of these abilities.  This, however, raises questions about where Scion came from.  The theory is corroborated by the case of Andrew Hawke, who came into contact with Scion on the very first sighting of the hero, only to manifest powers of his own… but there are others who manifested powers without ever coming into contact with Scion or entering a location where Scion had visited.”

“There’s the viral theory, supposing some advanced virus, though it is flimsy at best in justifications, with no identified culprits, method of transmission or explanation as to how it provides the actual powers.  The genetics theory is popular, but has been thoroughly debunked.  We’re going to talk about how it was debunked…”

Clockblocker felt a vibration at his wrist.  He reached inside his glove to get his cell phone.  A text.

From: Mom

Dad’s not doing well.  You may want to come by the hospital.

He stood, and Weld turned to give him a look.  He ignored the metal skinned boy, headed for the back door of the classroom, his keypad beeping as he dialed the number.  It was ringing as he closed the door behind him.

“Mom?”

“Dennis.”

“How bad is it?”

“As bad as last weekend.  Worse.”

He closed his eyes.  More statement than question, he said, “He’s not getting better.”

“No.”

“Okay.  Do you need me there?  I can use my power, buy the doctors time to think or get prepared if there’s a crisis.”

Her voice was tight.  “No, Dennis.  It’s not that kind of situation.  They’ve got him on a respirator, and the doctors don’t have much hope he’s going to be able to breathe without it, again.  The antibiotics can’t fight the infection on their own.”

“So he’s going to die.”

“I’m sorry.”

“A few hours?  Days?  A week?”

“The doctor says it’ll be the next few days.”

He clenched his fist, relaxed it.  Not fair.

“Hey, mom?  Listen, I’ve got to run.”

“Come by, Dennis.  Before it’s too late.”

“I’ll try.”

“I love you.”

“Love you too.”

He hung up, paused to compose himself.

Not fair.

Stepping back inside the classroom, he returned to his seat, but didn’t sit down.  Instead, he stepped up a little further to where Glory Girl sat and touched her shoulder.  When she raised her head, he pointed to the door.  She nodded, stood.

When they were both in the hallway, he spoke, “Sorry to pull you away from that.”

She shook her head, golden curls swinging, “Not missing anything.  I’ve already taken this class.”

“Oh.  Then why are you here?”

“New Wave may be disbanding.  My mom suggested that if I wanted to keep being a hero, I should consider joining the Wards.  So I’m here, checking things out.  Your leader and director okayed it.”

“Are you?  Joining?”

“Don’t know.  They’re willing, if I agree to some extra rules and stipulations.  They’d be putting me on probationary membership, like they did with Shadow Stalker.  I came by to get a sense of things, see if it’d be worth going through the hassle instead of going solo.  I thought maybe I was ok with doing it until I saw the portraits in the lobby.  Now I’m not so sure.”

Clockblocker nodded.  She didn’t need to explain.  Where the Wards’ portraits hung in the lobby of the PRT offices, the portraits of Aegis and Gallant had been reprinted in black and white, surrounded with thick black frames.  One was apparently in the works for Browbeat, who had been too new to even have an official costume, let alone a portrait.  They had been repositioned to be just above the front desk and below the PRT logo, with wreaths and flowers beneath, tokens from the PRT employees.  The building wasn’t open to the public, and was surrounded by PRT squads, but the public would get their chance to pay respects.

Glory Girl had lost three people she was close to on that day.  Gallant – Dean when out of costume – was a loss she shared with Clockblocker.  Her boyfriend, his friend.

“I know it’s crass, I know you guys have rules,” he spoke, “I’ll understand if you get angry.  But… my dad has leukemia.  He was a few days into some pretty rigorous treatments when Leviathan came.  He got hurt when one of the waves hit, and some infection got at him through the wounds.  He has pretty much no immune system, doesn’t have the strength to fight it off.”

“You want me to ask my sister to use her power on him.”

“Please.”

“Okay.”

The response startled him.  He looked up at her, caught off guard.

She explained, “I’m not promising anything.  Like you said, Amy has her rules about taking requests.  But I’ll see if I can convince her.  Again, no promises.”

“Thank you,” he said, “Really.”

“And if you want to pay me back, maybe tell me about Gallant sometime.  Share some stories I wouldn’t get to hear otherwise.”

“For sure.”

The door opened, and Weld stepped out into the hall, followed closely by Vista.  Clockblocker felt a pang of annoyance, bit his tongue before he could say anything.

“Everything okay?” Weld asked.

I could tell them, Clockblocker glanced at Vista, but the rest of the team would find out.  They don’t need another thing to worry about.

“Things are okay,” Clockblocker spoke, carefully.

“We paused the video, waiting until you guys are ready.”

“Alright,” Clockblocker replied.  He added, “Thank you.”

“I’ll trust you have reason for this,” Weld smiled slightly, showing a row of white metal teeth, “But don’t take too long.  You’re on patrol at two this afternoon, and that doesn’t allow us much leeway for delays if we want to finish watching.”

“Alright,” Clockblocker repeated, his tone growing impatient.  He watched as Weld returned to the classroom, shutting the door behind him.  To the closed door, he muttered, “Tool.”

“He’s trying,” Vista piped up.  “It’s hard to be leader, but he’s working hard.”

“That’s my whole problem with him,” Clockblocker answered, annoyed, “He gets on our case about patrols and training and paperwork, then turns around and says he’s not asking us to do anything he isn’t doing himself.  Except he only sleeps one or two hours a night, he barely eats, doesn’t need to use the washroom or shower.  He’s got no friends or family here to look after.  He can afford to work hard.  He’s a f…rigging robot.”  He censored himself for his junior teammate.

Vista shook her head.  “That robot, and he’s not really a robot, by the way, is doing as much paperwork as the rest of us put together.  He only makes us do the paperwork he can’t do himself.  Even if he doesn’t have to.  That gets brownie points from me.”

His temper flared.  “What, are you channeling Gallant, here?  Standing up for…” he trailed off before he could finish.  Realized who he was talking to.  “Shit, no, I…”

Vista just stared at him.  After a second, her eyes got shiny, and she looked down at the ground, an angry expression on her face.   She wheeled around and ran down the hallway.

He moved to chase her, stop her, but the hallway folded together, letting her reach the end in two strides, snapping back to its full length as she passed along it.  She rounded a corner in the distance.

He looked at Glory Girl, his voice small, “I’m sorry.”

She answered him with only a glare.  He wondered if she would hit him.

She relented, looking in the direction Vista had run off.  “It’s okay.  We’re all worn down, at the end of our ropes, and you’re worrying about your dad on top of that.  You get one pass from me.  One.”

He nodded.

“But you’d better go after that girl and apologize.  Because the way I heard it from Kid Win, you were the one who told everyone else to be extra nice to her, because she was taking it hard.  You convinced Shadow Stalker to play nice, and from what Kid Win said before class started, that was a pretty big deal.  Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know your team like you do, but I’d guess that if you don’t fix this, your team won’t forgive you for a long time.”

“Yeah,” he swallowed.  Was she using her power?  He was getting a bad vibe from her.  Like he was locked in a cage at the zoo with a murderous jungle cat.

She poked him in the chest with a finger.  “A real apology.  You own up to what you said and did, acknowledge that it wasn’t fair of you to say, and you promise to do better in the future.  That probably means you should cut Weld some slack, because Vista wants you to.”

“Okay.  Right, okay.”

She pushed his shoulder, making him stumble in the direction Vista had gone.  Easy to forget how strong she is.  “Now go.”

He ran.

Definitely don’t get the sense I’m forgiven, there.

He checked two empty rooms and made one nervous check of the women’s bathroom before he found Vista halfway down the stairwell at the rear of the building.  She had one leg up on a higher stair than the other, her hands clasped around her knee.  She turned her head partway, acknowledging that someone was there, then wiped at her eyes with the sleeve of her costume.

“I’m sorry,” he spoke to her back.

“You’re a jerk.”

“I am.  I’m the worst jerk.”

Vista twisted around to look up at him, “You said that in front of Glory Girl, too.  He was her boyfriend.”

“I know.  She said she understood and that it was okay, but I don’t know how true that is.  Before I figure that out and work out how to make it up to her, I want to make sure you’re okay.”

She hung her head.

It was a long time before she spoke.  “He was the reason I looked forward to coming here every day.”

He walked down the stairs and sat down next to her.  “Yeah.”

“I knew I didn’t have a chance with him.  He was way older, he was rich, handsome.  He was dating Glory Girl, or they were just getting over a breakup, or he was starting to patch things up with her for the millionth time.  There was never a good time to talk to him one on one, unless we were out on patrol together, and I dunno what I would have said if there had been a chance.”

“He liked you.  He was fond of you.”

Vista gave him a sidelong glare, “Are you lying to me?”

“No!  No.  I’m saying he actually enjoyed doing patrols with you.  Never had an unkind word to say about you-”

She interrupted, “He didn’t have an unkind word to say about anybody.”

“Not exactly true.  When Piggy caught on to the fact that Shadow Stalker was doing solo patrols every night, made us take turns going with her, he had a few things to say.  About both Piggy and Shadow Stalker.”

Vista smiled slightly.

“He enjoyed your company, Missy.  There were little signs, but I believe it.  When Triumph or Aegis assigned him a patrol shift with Kid Win, Browbeat or just about anyone else, it was ‘okay’, or ‘yes sir’.  But when it was with me or you, it was ‘great’ or he’d just smile really wide, like it had made his night.  It sounds dumb when I say it out loud-”

“No. I kind of noticed that too.  I thought it was wishful thinking.”

Clockblocker sighed, “He was a good guy, and it’s shhsss…ucky-”

“You can swear around me, Dennis.  I’m thirteen, not eight.”

He smiled a little behind his mask, feeling embarrassed.  “Okay.  Sorry.”

More seriously, he admitted, “It’s shitty of me to snap at you for doing what he would do.  Glory Girl said I should let the grudge toward Weld go, partially for you, and she’s right.  You’re right.  I was, am, angry.  At the pointlessness of what happened, what’s still happening out there.  I get frustrated and angry when I’m here, because I feel like I should be out on the streets.  I get pissed off when I’m out on patrol because I feel like I should be with my family… but when I’m with my family, I feel frustrated and helpless because I can’t do anything there…”

He stopped himself before he admitted the full extent of his difficulties back home.

“…I was taking it out on the new guy, when he probably doesn’t deserve it.”

Vista let her head rest on his arm.

“I miss the old Dennis.  The guy who picked a sorta rude codename and announced himself in front of the news so Piggy and the other people in charge couldn’t really make him change it.  Because it was funny.  Because he liked pushing the limits and because he saw this all as something fun.  The new Dennis is so angry.  Now I guess I get why.”

“Aren’t you?  Angry?  At everything that’s going on?  At the unfairness of what happened?”

She shook her head, which amounted to rubbing her head against his shoulder.  “Yeah.  But you can’t let it consume you.  If you really don’t like Weld, you don’t have to force yourself to get along with him.  But don’t stay like this.  Don’t stay angry.”

He nodded.  It wasn’t so easy, though.  Letting things go, relaxing, he couldn’t help but feel like he’d fall apart if he did.  He couldn’t get his hopes up about Panacea’s willingness to help his dad – and facing any of that head on, without a buffer of smouldering fury?  It might leave him unable to serve and protect the people who really needed it.  He felt his pulse quicken a step at the thought of it.

He hedged his answer, “I’ll work on it.  Sorry if that’s been bothering you.”

“It’s okay.  I’m tougher than I look.”  She bumped one fist against the armor that covered her chest.

“And I’m sorry, again, for saying what I did.  You’re good people, Missy.”

“Want to go back to class?” she asked.

“If you’re okay?”

She nodded.

When they returned, the Wards and Glory Girl were out in the hallway.  The PRT officers were rushing out of the room, pulling their helmets on.

“You’re back,” Weld informed them, “Just in time.  Class is cancelled.  We’ve got trouble.”

The scene was set up in the husk of a building.  Walls loomed on three sides, but there was no roof remaining.  The floor was uneven, composed of layers of broken boards, shattered drywall and chunks of concrete.

“There’s two more crime scenes like this?” Clockblocker asked, eyes wide.  He craned his neck upward to look above them.

“Yeah,” Weld spoke.

“It’s the middle of the day,” Kid Win spoke, “Broad daylight.”

Clockblocker looked at the overcast sky above.  Not quite daylight. And people weren’t around.  It was still ballsy, and more than a little scary.

On each of the three interior walls of the older building was a body, twenty feet above the ground.  Each had received a different kind of treatment.  To their left was a corpse that had been flayed, the gender no longer identifiable.  Directly opposite their group was the corpse of an obese woman, charred black.  Completing the scene was the body of what appeared to be a homeless man, or one of the people who’d been rendered homeless by the recent disaster, judging by the layers of clothing he wore.  His limbs had been severed at each joint, then reconnected so each was joined by a short, foot-long length of chain.  Nails placed through the chain kept him in position, head hanging, a macabre puppet with an overlong body.  The chains jangled and swung in the wind.

Occupying the same building as the corpses was a familiar group.  Trickster, Sundancer and Ballistic stood beneath the corpses.  A winged figure that might have been a gargoyle, demon or dragon was clutching to the sides of an empty window frame with three talons, the other reaching toward the homeless man.  Genesis.

“Pardon the cliche, but this isn’t what it looks like,” Trickster spoke.

“I believe you,” Weld spoke, “I’ve read your file, and this isn’t your M.O.”

“Excellent, excellent.  I commend you,” Trickster tipped his hat, “Then we’ll be on our way?”

“No.  But if you come into custody-”

“You’ll arrest us for any number of other criminal charges we’ve got waiting.  And you can’t promise that one of your superiors won’t try to stick us with the blame for this.”

Weld frowned.

“Let us go.  Whatever happened here, it deserves your full attention.  You should be trying to find and capture the real criminals.  This guy here was still alive when we arrived.”  Trickster pointed at the man with the chain limbs.

“Can’t do that.  You’re still suspects, regardless of how much this deviates from your usual methods.”

“A shame,” Trickster bowed.

In the blink of an eye, Weld disappeared, and Genesis loomed in his place, eight feet tall and nearly as broad across the shoulders, a body of pebble-like scales, heavy with muscle, a short tail and broad bat wings sprouting from her shoulders.  She spun to face the rest of the Wards as Weld fell from the window.

Ballistic turned on the fallen captain of the Wards, unloading a barrage of debris and rubble to keep the metal skinned boy off-balance and on the defensive.

Clockblocker lunged for Genesis, hand outstretched.  He was mere inches away when Genesis disappeared from in front of him.  Or, rather, Clockblocker had been moved somewhere else.  A lack of proper footing made him stumble, and he nearly collided with one of the dilapidated walls of the ruined building.

As he spun in place, catching a glimpse of Genesis exchanging blows with Glory Girl, he had his position swapped yet again.  He found himself once more with his back to the brawling pair.  One of them bumped into him, and he sprawled.  If only he’d been able to tell if it were Genesis or Glory Girl that bumped into him; had he known, he might have used his power, taken Genesis out of the fight.

Annoying.  He climbed to his feet, wary of more teleportation hijinks.

Kid Win wheeled on the spot to raise a square-nosed pistol and fire what looked like a brilliant blue flare at Trickster, but the teleporter swapped positions with him.  Kid Win ducked the moment he was teleported, but he still got grazed by his own shot, blue sparks showering off his armored costume, small arcs of electricity dancing briefly around the metal joins.  Sundancer created her flaming ball – small, but still far too bright to look at – and sent it after Kid Win.  The young hero scrambled for cover, dropping his gun in his hurry to get away from the superheated orb.  Flechette moved to shoot, then reconsidered, threw a handful of darts at Trickster instead.  The darts disappeared in midair, and splinters of wood and small stones dropped straight out of the air where they had been.

Really fucking annoying, Clockblocker revised his summation of the teleporter.

Shadow Stalker had positioned herself on the ragged top of the wall where the roof had crumbled away, high above the skirmish, cloak billowing.  She fired a shot at Ballistic and Sundancer, reloaded as Ballistic sent a piece of rubble flying through her shadowy form, then fired again.  The Travelers had body armor, so she wasn’t doing more than distracting them.  The needles of the tranquilizer darts wouldn’t pass through the durable armor or material.

“Red rover!” Vista shouted, “Go!”

Good girl.  Clockblocker dashed for Trickster, and the distance between them compressed to a matter of feet, the highest points in the uneven ground flattening to make running easier.

Trickster swapped him with Vista, placing him several feet back.  Ahead of him, he could see the girl where he’d just been, within a few feet of the teleporter.  Clockblocker found his footing, darted forward once more.  Again, Vista’s powers helped close the distance.  Kid Win, Flechette, and Vista joined him in charging the enemy, so that Clockblocker wouldn’t be set too far back if he was teleported to their locations.

Sundancer moved the orb in between them and Trickster, igniting a few of the pieces of wood that were exposed and above the water.  Vista responded by raising her hand to shrink it dramatically.  Weld ducked one of Ballistic’s attacks, then charged for the orb, striking it out of the air with one fist.  The blow dispersed it enough that Sundancer couldn’t draw it back together, and a wave of hot air washed over everyone present.

Weld, for his part, staggered back, his hand glowing white-hot.  He flexed his glowing hand, and it moved slowly, stiffly.  Even as far down as his elbow, the metal of his arm was an orange-red.

Clockblocker didn’t get a chance to see if Weld was okay.  He charged around his team leader, using the metal boy’s broader body to put himself in Trickster’s blind spot.  From this position, he tried to charge and tag the villain.

An instant before his hand could brush against Trickster, the villain was gone, and Weld was in front of him.  His hand touched the metal of Weld’s back.

He breathed a sigh of relief when Weld turned around.  Only the fact that he’d expected something along these lines had allowed him to turn his power off in time.  Spinning around, Clockblocker reached for the space Weld had just vacated, but Trickster was already swapping places with Glory Girl to place himself as far away from the thick of the fighting as he could get.

I can’t keep track of this guy.

Clockblocker looked around to survey the situation.  His group was sandwiched between the Travelers, now.  On one side, Sundancer and Ballistic crouched in the far corner of the building.  Trickster and Genesis stood on the other side, atop the rubble that spilled across the building’s entrance and onto the flooded street.

Genesis inhaled, chest expanding, and Weld was the first to react, stomping one foot hard into the rubble underfoot, using his foot to raise a large, ragged piece of plywood.  With his hands, he forced the large wooden board into a standing position, placing it between himself and Genesis.  Kid Win, Flechette and Vista wheeled on Ballistic and Sundancer.

Weld’s piece of plywood served to block the worst of whatever it was that Genesis exhaled.  From what Clockblocker could see around the plywood, it was a dark, gray-black vapor.  Wisps billowed around the edge of the board and drifted their way – it had a bitter smell and taste, like ashes mixed with something foul.  Even inhaling a trace of it through the air holes of his mask forced barking coughs from his lungs.  His teammates seemed to be in rougher shape, Vista falling to her hands and knees.  The changer’s exhalation hadn’t even reached them directly.

So, that’s what a changer nine brings to the tableDifferent forms, each with their own powers.

Weld staggered as Genesis lunged forward, and Clockblocker ducked low under Weld’s arm, planted a hand against the plywood.  He felt his power snap out to encompass the material, and he fixed it in place, cutting it off from the flow of time.

A second later, he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.  Weld, standing over him, gave him a quick smile and an offered hand.  He returned it with the briefest of nods and took Weld’s hand to stand straight.  Together, the pair of them stepped back and away, to see Genesis rising into the air with heavy flaps of her bat-like wings, inhaling to prepare another blast of the noxious smoke.

He felt oddly calm as his group squared off against the villains with some of the highest power ratings in Brockton Bay, beneath the grim display of the three hanging corpses.  He reached into the slot of the armor at his side and withdrew two sheaves of paper.  Moving his thumbs in one direction, he fanned out the papers, holding them like anyone else might hold a pair of knives.

He realized what it was, this calm.  Whatever else it was, this fight was a refuge from that feeling that had plagued him since the fight with Leviathan ended.  The feeling that he was always in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, in the face of a city in crisis and a dying father.  This, right here, was where he was needed.

This is what I’m here for.

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