Snare 13.3

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How the hell was that motherfucker that fast?

He wasn’t even trying to avoid my bugs, so I had a sense of where he was as Grue, Bitch and I tore down the street on our dogs.  I rode behind Grue on Sirius, my arms on his shoulders, while Bitch rode Bentley, Lucy’s corpse lying across her lap.

We’d lost a couple of minutes as we helped Bitch retrieve Lucy’s real body.  It was eerie to see.  When the dogs grew, they really appeared to be adding mass, literally growing and stretching.  Somewhere in the transformation, after they weren’t recognizable as the animals they had once been, their real bodies were reformed inside a placenta-like sac.  Mannequin’s gunshot had opened a hole in Lucy’s chest and penetrated that membrane to kill the real dog within.  We’d used my knife and Grue’s raw strength to help pull the dog free in a grim sort of anti-childbirth.

It might be seen as a waste of precious time in a crucial moment, but I doubted we would have had Bitch in our corner otherwise, and without her, we wouldn’t have a ride, so to speak.

I’d consoled myself with the fact that we had a pair of massive, muscular steeds that could outpace any car you’d see on the street, and Mannequin was limited to his two legs.  The thing was, somewhere around the point where he stopped trying to evade my tripwires and my bugs and picked up speed, when he really started moving, I realized he was actually faster than the dogs.

Mannequin covered a lot of ground with his long legs and seemingly endless energy, and he didn’t have any injuries.  The dogs, Bitch and Grue did.  Mannequin had been aiming at the animals more than he’d aimed at Grue or Bitch, so the damage to my teammates was more or less limited to a few flecks embedded in the legs, buttock and feet.  The injuries were small, but one in Bitch’s stomach worried me.  There were way too many vitals that could be hit with that location, and it was bleeding worse than any of the others.

She wanted to press on, and I wasn’t about to try and change her mind.  I wouldn’t be able to stop her, for one thing, and I did want to help my people.

Mannequin moved in a straight line, onto rooftops, down to the ground, or halfway down and through windows that had been stripped of glass, emerging from the far side.  My bugs swarmed him where I could get them to, trying to snag him with lines and threads of silk and hamper his movements, but I could only get him with a small few at a time.  He was approaching the edge of my effect’s reach, and I knew I’d lose track of him shortly.

Once I did, I wasn’t sure I’d catch him again.  He could apparently see my bugs and since our last confrontation he’d gained the ability to see the spider silk I was placing on him or in his vicinity.  It was remarkably high-resolution vision for someone who hadn’t been able to notice that I didn’t have a pool of blood spreading out beneath me during our last fight.  Or was his inability to see that because he was calibrated to see the small things?

It wouldn’t matter if I couldn’t find him or catch up to him.

“He’s veering left!” I shouted to my teammates, “Faster, Sirius!  He’s getting away!”

I could feel a tremor in Sirius’ body, like the momentary tremor of a twitching muscle, but in every muscle.  My legs spread a fraction further apart as he grew larger, his ribs expanding further in either direction.  The increase in his speed was small but noticeable.

I cast a glance over my shoulder at Bitch.  Her mask had fallen off at some point when we’d been retrieving Lucy or during our ride.  She looked drawn, the lines of her mouth and the bones of her face that much more prominent.  Had I failed to notice she was like that before, was it pain from her injuries that did it, or was it anger?

Whatever it was, I suspected this use of her power was drawing on reserves she didn’t have.

Mannequin disappeared into the penthouse floor of an apartment building, and I positioned bugs at the very periphery of my range to prepare lines of thread and to gather so they could land on him as he emerged.

Somehow, I couldn’t say how, he emerged from a lower floor, mere seconds after he’d entered the building.  He brushed past a small handful of insects, and then he was out of reach of my swarm.

“He’s out of my range!” I shouted.

Nobody responded.  I had to double-check that Bitch hadn’t fallen from Bentley’s back.  She didn’t look any better than she had a moment ago, and she looked out of breath.  I expected the pain of her injuries was taking its toll.  As for Grue, I couldn’t really see anything but the back of his head and his shoulders while I clung to his waist.  I didn’t get the sense that he was about to pass out, either.

No use in responding when you couldn’t spare the breath and everyone knew what the answers would be.  We’d search for him at the last place we’d seen him.  My territory.

Giant paws pounded on the wet pavement as we raced for our destination.

How the hell were we supposed to fight him?  If we could even find him?

He’d have some countermeasure for my bugs and my cocoon strategy.  There was no way he’d let himself get caught up in the same trap twice.  Grue’s power didn’t affect him.  Bitch’s dogs did affect him, but they weren’t bulletproof.

That was without factoring in any additional weapons he had.

One arm around Grue’s waist, I drew my phone from my utility compartment and dialed Genesis from my contact list.

“Genesis here.  What?”

“Mannequin en route to my territory for some kind of revenge against me for our last fight.  How fast can you pull a body together?”

“Two minutes.”

“He’ll be there in five.  Clear people out of the way, and put together a form that can take a beating and hamper him.”

“On it.”

Sierra was the first and only contact I’d entered into the phone beyond the ones Coil had put in prior to giving them to us.  I contacted her next.

“Sierra here, boss.”

“Clear people out of the area, and contact everyone you gave a phone to, telling them to hide and take cover.  Mannequin’s coming back to make trouble.”

“Got it.”

I hung up.  With the jostling movement of the dog’s running, I didn’t trust my ability to put the phone away in the compartment, so I held it in one clenched fist.

During the six or seven minutes it took us to cross from Ballistic’s territory to my own, my teeth were clenched so hard I thought I’d break something, my neck and shoulders so tense they felt more like stone than flesh.

I valued my ability to come up with answers, but my mind was empty.  I wasn’t sure how I’d deal, and the worst part of it was that it wasn’t me that was necessarily going to pay the price.

As we entered my territory, I felt strangely composed for the anxieties that tore through me, a little detached from things.

My bugs swept through the territory, and I did my best to recall where tripwires had been set and figure out which had been broken.  I checked on my people, using bugs to make sure they were standing and that they were somewhere safe.

Could I sweep through my territory using squadrons of flies with dragline silk stretched out between them, to the point that he couldn’t slip past them?  It would take time to set up.

No.  There was no need.  As I approached the heart of my territory, near my barracks, I found him, standing in the middle of the road.

“There!” I called out to my team.  We changed direction and charged toward the street in question.  We stopped when he came into our view.

Mannequin stood in the center of the road, his back to us.  Half a dozen of my people were lying on the road, unconscious or dead.  I couldn’t see any blood.  There were a couple more people in nearby buildings that had fallen as well.  How had he reached them?  Why hadn’t Genesis and Sierra been able to get everyone out?

A quiet horror ran through me like ice water.

Genesis, too, was on the road, in the process of dissolving.  She’d taken on the form of something like a stegosaurus crossed with a scorpion, all brawn and armor plating, with a long, prehensile, wickedly spiked tail.  He’d beaten her.

Very little of the silk I’d laid on him was still intact.  My bugs settled on him, and began to draw out more silk, binding him.

He turned our way, and his mouth opened like a ventriloquist dummy or a christmas nutcracker.  It jiggled up and down, silently, mocking.  Laughter without sound.

“Fucker!” Bitch screamed.  Then she whistled, with a volume and pitch that could make crowds stop in their tracks.  Bentley charged.

The bugs I had on Mannequin began to die.

That took me a precious second to process.  “Bitch!  It’s a trap!”

She turned to look over her shoulder, and Bentley took some cue from that, because he turned slightly.  Maybe that helped, because she hauled him into a hard left turn, wheeling around.

Whatever it was that Mannequin was doing, it spread fast, knocking my bugs out of the air and reaching out past Bitch and Bentley before they realized the threat and started running away from him.

“Get back!” I shouted.

Bitch urged Bentley into a run.  They made it four steps before Bentley collapsed.

Tumbling to the ground, Bitch landed and couldn’t sustain her own weight with her injured leg.  She landed flat on her stomach, and then began making retching sounds as she gasped for air and continued to crawl forward.

Mannequin’s mouth continued jittering up and down, and he took a step closer to us, his hands upturned at his sides.

Gas.  Colorless, scentless, swift to spread and it incapacitated in seconds.  If my bugs were any indication, it also killed its victims shortly after.

I looked around, hoping and praying for some sort of outside assistance.  Nothing.

It was down to me, Grue, Sirius and Bastard.

Bastard looked unnerved.  His master and alpha were out of action.  He took a step forward, then back.  He was unnerved by Mannequin, and I suspected he could smell the gas.

“Bastard!” I said.  He whipped his head around to look at me.

Here’s hoping that Bitch trained him well.

“Get your master!  Go!  Fetch!” I pointed at Bitch.

Bastard turned, started forward, and then stopped.

“Go!  Fetch, fetch!”

He bolted.  Mannequin continued walking slowly towards us.  He didn’t move as Bastard approached and picked Bitch up by the back of her pants.

It would be so easy for him to simply shoot Bastard and slow him down long enough for the gas to take effect.  He didn’t.

“Bastard, come!  Come on!”

The puppy ran back to us.  There was nothing we could do for Bentley.

I hopped down and grabbed Bitch as Bastard came back to us.  He growled as I approached, but he didn’t protest as I took Bitch into my arms and dragged her back toward Grue and Sirius.

Grue didn’t dismount, but I doubted he would have managed well if he had, given his injured leg.  I tried to ignore Mannequin’s steady approach as I propped Bitch’s limp form up against Sirius’ side long enough to lift her arms up to Grue’s waiting hands.  Together, we hauled her up so she was lying astride Sirius’ shoulders, just in front of Grue.

“Gas,” I muttered.  “There’s a cloud of gas around him.”

“Fuck me,” Grue said.  “I’d hoped we could at least hit him.”

I looked at Bastard.  Too small to ride.  He was the size of a pony, but he wasn’t built for riding in the same way, and the spikes and bony plates that covered him were too densely packed for me to find any sort of flat patch to sit on.  I reached for the chain that trailed from his muzzle.

He growled again, vicious.

I was taken aback for half a second.  Then anger set in.  I barked, “Enough!” and I snatched up the chain.

He growled again, and I hauled on it.  The way it was rigged, it looped around his snout so it would tighten around the end of his nose when the chain was pulled.  It was like a choke collar, but focused more on the sensitive snout than on the throat.  He recoiled and tried to pull away, and I tugged again.

This time, he went still, resisting less.

“You’re with me, puppy,” I said, pulling on the chain as I backed away from Mannequin.  “Grue, take Bitch and get to cover.  I can’t see inside your darkness so long as that gas is wiping out my bugs, and he isn’t bothered by it, so remove it as fast as you apply it, but try to push the gas away or displace it or whatever.”

“We need a plan to win this,” he said.

“Priority one is surviving until we think of one,” I replied.  “Genesis will be back in action in a few minutes.”

“A few minutes is a long time.”

“I know,” I looked at Mannequin again.  He’d closed his mouth and was standing still.  I pointed.  “You go that way, I go this way.  Keep an eye on the sky.  If there’s trouble, we signal each other.”

He nodded once.

“Go!”

We split, and Mannequin broke off, chasing Grue.

I headed the opposite way.

Think, Taylor, think!  Mannequin was a smart guy.  Everything he did would be calculated to achieve some specific goal.

Why was he here?  He wanted to hurt me.  He wanted to hit me where it hurt, and he’d done it.  He’d killed no less than ten of my followers.  Charlotte and Sierra could easily be among them.

He had let us find him because he wanted to bait us into a trap.  It had worked against Bitch, for the most part.  She wasn’t dead, I hoped, but she was out of action.

What about the small stuff?  The little things?  After he’d caught Bitch, he hadn’t shot her, and he hadn’t shot Bastard when the puppy was making its rescue attempt.

Why?

He could have been conserving ammunition.  What was that term for ‘the simplest answer is often the correct one’?  It didn’t matter.  It was possible.

I moved my bugs closer to Mannequin, to test his presence for gas.  Only a few perished.  There wasn’t much, if any.  His mouth was closed.  He was catching up to Grue.  Grue must have noticed, because he directed Sirius up into an alley and towards a roof.

Mannequin stopped and raised one arm, then fired.  My bugs felt the concussion of the shot, but no reaction from Grue and Sirius.  There was a pause, then another shot.  Again, no reaction.  Two misses.

Okay.  So Mannequin was shooting now, when he hadn’t been before.

Were there other clues?  What had changed after he’d closed his mouth?

He’d started running, for one thing.

So he hadn’t been running, he hadn’t been shooting…  What had been holding him back?  It could have been him trying to look intimidating, but he could have achieved the same ends by shooting Bastard and making me watch Bitch die.  He could have been just as scary running towards us as fast as he’d sprinted from the ambush site to my territory.

The gas.  If the gas was coming from his mouth, and he was being careful in how he moved, that meant there was something about the gas.  I even had an idea about what it was.

Maybe he hadn’t wanted to blow himself up.

He’d been invested in terraforming, once upon a time.  Making inhospitable environments hospitable.  Chances were he was loaded down with custom-made organisms that were primed to generate the gas he was using, maybe even storing it in a compressed form.  Given his tinker abilities, they could be advanced enough to account for the sheer volume of the gas.  It could even be how his guns operated: with compressed, combustible gas used to fire the shot.

There was no way to say for sure, but my gut told me I was right or I was pretty close to the mark.  His actions, both the obvious and minor ones, make a complete, logical sense if I assumed he was spewing out massive volumes of flammable gas.

Could I even take advantage of that?  The amount of gas he seemed to be putting out would make for a devastating explosion.  It could potentially hurt him, but I couldn’t say if the shockwave or the blast itself would kill me or any nearby innocents.  If there was enough gas, it could even damage or destroy nearby buildings.  Some of the structures around here weren’t exactly sound.

If nothing else, it gave me a clue about what to watch for.  It also gave me a last-ditch weapon if things really went south.  I ordered my bugs into the building I’d designated as my people’s barracks and collected some small items with silk and clouds of bugs working in unison.

A spear of darkness soared towards the sky.  When it lost momentum, it began billowing outward and drifting slightly with the wind. A signal.

“Come on, Bastard!” I ordered.  I bolted for Brian’s location.  I crossed the street, glancing at the fallen Bentley, and I headed toward an alley.

My bugs crossed paths with me, and the items made their way into my hands.  A cheap plastic lighter and a packet of matches.  I stashed the matches between my belt and my hip and slid the lighter into a small pocket in my utility compartment.

I really hoped I wouldn’t have to use them.

Entering the alley, I swept through the area with my bugs, directing them to extend outward with lines of silk between them.  They were gathered close enough to one another that Mannequin wouldn’t be able to avoid them.

I found Mannequin and the black smudge of Grue’s form at the opposite end of the alley.  Sirius and Bitch were a distance away, both sprawled at the base of a building, covered in rubble.  I wondered how this scenario had unfolded.  How had Mannequin hit them that hard?  Grue had reached the roof, the last I saw, and I’d missed what came next because I hadn’t wanted to lose precious bugs from my swarm by getting them gassed.  Whatever had occurred, Mannequin had turned the tables and brought them back to the ground, hard.

Mannequin looked at me, and his mouth was open, engaged in that same shuddering up and down movement as before.  I raised one hand to the fabric that covered my nose and mouth and backed away.  Were Bitch and Sirius close enough to be getting gassed too?  I could feel bugs crawling on them.  Both were breathing, though Bitch’s breaths were rapid and hoarse.  My bugs were alive, as well, which meant they were safe where they were.  A quick test with my bugs told me the cloud around Mannequin was small, with a radius of about four or five feet.  There was no gas around me, either.  The bugs on me weren’t suffering, and they’d be the first to die or feel symptoms.

But Grue?  Grue had surrounded himself in a thick cloud of darkness, to the point that I couldn’t make out his arms and legs in the midst of it.  From what I could gather, he was getting some benefit from it, and was pushing the gas away.  How long could he sustain that, though?  Was the darkness filtering it out, or was he holding his breath, slowly suffocating?

“Mannequin,” I said, sounding a million times more calm than I felt.  “You’re going to back off and you’re going to let him go.”

He cocked his head to one side.

I raised the matchbook and, after checking again that my bugs were gas-free, lit it.  A handful of my bugs carried it into the air.

“Or I light you up,” I said.

Could I?  I believed I could.  Maybe it was fatigue speaking.  Maybe it was the grim recognition of the fact that Mannequin had spoiled any hopes I’d had of winning Coil’s respect and saving Dinah when he’d murdered the people in my territory.  He’d singlehandedly destroyed my reputation and dealt a grave blow to the thing that had been driving me forward.  Maybe a teeny-tiny part of it was hopelessness, knowing that I couldn’t  beat him otherwise.

So yeah, if he was going to snatch my hopes of saving Dinah from me, if Bitch and Grue were about to die anyways, I could turn the tables and blow us all up.  I might not save Dinah, but I could save all the people Mannequin would murder otherwise in the course of his career.  No bluffing.

He stepped back, and I realized his foot had been on Grue’s chest.  I watched as Grue stood and then began limping toward me.  Bastard growled and tugged on the chain I held.

I was in the process of reaching out for Grue to help steady him when I saw Mannequin move.  He closed his mouth, raised one hand, and I could see a hole appear in the base of his palm.  The barrel of a gun.

“No!” the word was as much a grunt as anything else as it came from my throat, too choked for me to say anything normal.  I grabbed for Grue as I’d planned and I shoved him to the ground.

In a movie, that might have been the heroic sequence that occurred in slow motion, where the lunatic villain missed the pivotal shot by a hair and blew himself up in the process.  We’d be left bloody but victorious.

But Mannequin didn’t fire.  He was too collected to do any of that.

He adjusted his aim, directing his hand-gun to where I’d pushed Grue to the ground.

“No!” I said, and the sound wasn’t a grunt this time.  I stepped in the way, putting myself between Mannequin and Grue, arms spread, half-kneeling.  Bastard tugged on the leash again as he stepped forward, and I almost fell on my face.  I could let him go and sic him on Mannequin, but he’d almost certainly die like Lucy had.

“Bastard, back,” I said, tugging him to one side.  I wasn’t about to let a dog take a bullet for me.

Besides, a part of me suspected that Mannequin was going to let me live so he could make me watch while he killed my friends and followers.

I stared at his blank, featureless face, praying my instincts were telling me the truth.

Then he shrugged, and my heart fell.

Three things happened all at once.  The first and most painfully obvious was that I got shot full in the chest.

The second was that I realized Grue was using his power to shroud us in darkness.  He’d probably started the second Mannequin shrugged.

The third was the explosion.

Long, disorienting seconds passed in the aftermath.  The pain hit me like a summer rain.  There was a second of nothing at all, I realized it was starting, and then I was treated to buckets of it.  I writhed, my ribs screaming in agony, trying to find some position where the pain would be less and failing.  I felt like a hot poker was being shoved into the spot on my ribs where I’d taken the hit the previous night.

“Hey, hey,” Grue said, “You’re okay.  You’re in one piece.”

I shook my head, unable to catch my breath.  Each time I inhaled, it seemed to double the pain.

“You gotta stand, T-  Skitter.  Stand up.”

More through Grue’s efforts than my own, I was helped to my feet.  Every movement exacerbated the pain in my chest.

I gingerly touched the site of the gunshot.  Flecks of what looked like glass fell as I ran my hand over the cloth.  Still couldn’t breathe.  The explosion had ignited every piece of rubbish at this end of the road that stood taller than the inch-high water level.  Grue and I weren’t, thankfully, blazing.  My hair hadn’t been ignited either, and perhaps most importantly, we hadn’t been pulverized by the shockwave.  It hadn’t been a huge explosion, but it had been substantial enough.

I looked for our opponent, and I saw Mannequin virtually unscathed, lying in the shallow water.  The blast had knocked him sprawling, but he’d disconnected his parts so only lengths of chain attached each.

An application, perhaps, of that martial arts principle.  How did it go?  An oak is broken by the hurricane’s winds, but the supple willow only bends?  He was already pulling himself together.  There was barely a mark on him.

“Run,” Grue said.

I was about to voice an agreement when I saw Bastard lurch to his feet.  The chain leading to his muzzle wasn’t in my hand.

Bastard pounced on Mannequin, taking one of the villain’s arms in his jaws.  Clenching, he began whipping Mannequin around like a rag doll.  Twice, Mannequin’s lower body was bludgeoned against the nearby wall.

Yeah, didn’t expect us to be that tough, did you?

Mannequin turned the tables in a second.  Between one of Bastard’s shakes and the next, the villain stopped flopping around.  I realized he’d ejected the knives from his toes and staked them in Bastard’s neck and snout for leverage.  His one free hand dangled at his side.

Moving was agony, but I was lurching towards them in a half-run before I fully realized why.  Mannequin raised his free hand and pointed it at Bastard’s left eye.

I caught his arm and hauled it back in the same moment he fired.  Bastard repaid my kindness by whipping Mannequin to one side, striking me.  Both Mannequin and I fell sprawling to the ground.

No sooner had I fallen than Grue was there to help me up.  He was slower than I was with that granular buckshot in his leg, so he’d only just caught up.

Mannequin on the ground, Bastard off to one side, largely untrained with no master and nobody holding his chain, Grue and I both helping one another stand.

That vibrating mouth of Mannequin’s was going again, puffing gas into the air, maybe to buy himself some breathing room from the dog.

“Bastard, stay,” I said.  What commands had I heard Bitch give her dogs?  “Off!”

Couldn’t say whether Bastard obeyed or if he just didn’t want to attack anyways.

I had to check twice to see that there wasn’t anything burning in Mannequin’s immediate vicinity.  No stray garbage to ignite the gas, sadly enough.

I looked behind me, and saw that the flames were raging.  Even the water’s surface was on fire.  How?  Had there been some chemical nearby, or something in the gas that transferred to the water’s surface?  Our avenue of retreat was shrinking.

Whatever.  I reached behind my back and retrieved two items.  The change purse was the first.  I popped it open.  A variety of quarters, dimes and nickels, all kept in place with wadded tissue, and a few small paper packets of smelling salts.

It was stupid to be carrying change around, really, but I’d wanted to have some on hand since it had crossed my mind during my first night out in costume.

I grabbed a tissue and tore it, once, then twice, until I had a series of strips.  Then I ignited them with the lighter, the item I’d grabbed with my other hand.  Dragonflies gripped the burning tissues in the instant I let them fall from my fingers.

Mannequin shut his mouth, stepping back.  Half of the tissues went out or were dropped by the burned dragonflies before they got close enough.  Which meant that the other half made it.

The gas ignited for a second time, but I didn’t get to see it.  Grue shielded us with his darkness once more.  Whether it was to dampen the shockwave or keep us from being blinded by the light or something else, I didn’t know.  I could only trust that it worked.  The darkness dissipated, we were standing, Mannequin wasn’t.

A whistle from Bitch’s direction and a signal that was too brief for me to catch sent Bastard forward.  With Bitch’s condition, I couldn’t imagine how she handled it, but she managed to pump Bastard up.  He grew to half-again the size he’d been, roughly as large as a small car, and when he bit down on Mannequin’s arm this time, he broke the material.  He adjusted his grip until he had Mannequin’s lower body and legs in a hold, but the material there proved sturdier.

Two arms in two fights, I thought, with a grim satisfaction.  The flames at our back were getting a touch too close for comfort, so I stepped forward, supporting Grue.  His arm around my shoulder, we approached as close as we dared to Bastard’s mayhem.

Sirius was hauling himself out of the rubble, with Bitch in the arch that formed with his front legs, chest, and the ground.  She stood, shaky, still breathing funny, making rhythmic facial motions like she was swallowing convulsively or gagging.

Grue limped over to Bitch’s side.  She couldn’t stand without Sirius’s support, but Sirius was shoring up the rubble with his body.  Grue gave her the support she needed and the pair of them made their way towards us.  Sirius stepped away from the wall and the rubble he’d been holding up tumbled to the ground, and he returned to his master’s side.

“Bastard,” Grue said.  “Monster.  Freak.”

Grue took Bitch’s hand and placed it on my shoulder.  She didn’t pull away.  Once he was sure we were both standing, he stepped away.  Bending down with an excruciating slowness, Grue picked up a piece of rubble that had to have weighed fifty or sixty pounds, roughly cone-shaped.

Bitch seemed to follow his line of thinking.  “Sirius, hold!”

The dog lurched forward and placed both front paws on Mannequin’s body, pinning his arm and chest. Bastard growled at the one who was intruding on his quarry, and Sirius growled back.

Bastard quieted.  It seemed he didn’t fully realize that he was bigger, more dangerous and less injured.  He was too used to being the puppy, with Sirius as the full-grown one.

Grue limped around the scene until he stood over Mannequin’s body.

“Ignore the head,” I said, quiet.  “Nothing important in there.  I’m not joking.  It’s a decoy.  Get him in the chest.”

Grue nodded and hefted the chunk of rubble until it was over his head, point facing forward.

Would it puncture?  Hard to say.

Worth a try.

“Do it,” Bitch growled, beside me.  “Killed Lucy.”

“Bentley too, maybe,” I said, quiet.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t know if he made it.  There was no way to save him.”

“Do it,” she repeated herself.

Grue didn’t get a chance.  An eruption of fire tore through our surroundings.  Not an explosion.  There was no shockwave, and barely any noise.  It was more like a push, intensely hot and brief.  We were knocked sprawling, dog and human alike.  The agony in my ribs hit me worse than ever as I was knocked flat onto my back in the water and a huff of air was struck from my lungs.

“No,” Grue said.  “You can’t interfere!”

The Protectorate?

It would be disastrous if the Protectorate-

No.  I fixed my eyes on the scene.  Much worse than the Protectorate.

Burnscar tapped her finger to one side of her nose.  “I won’t tell if you don’t.”

“You can’t assist him.  They’re your rules.”

“Jack’s rules, not mine.  But fine,” Burnscar said.  Something about the tone in her voice: it sounded casual, but there was something in it that reminded me of Shadow Stalker and Sophia.  It wasn’t angry like Shadow Stalker was, but it had the same emptiness.  I just hadn’t really picked up on it in the past.

Burnscar gave Mannequin a hand in getting to his feet.  Cracks marred his lower body, and his left arm was a mess of cracked ceramic and pale gray organic pulp.  I heard her murmur something.

Mannequin shook his head.  Burnscar said something else.

He raised one hand, and Burnscar slapped it in a lazy high-five.

She turned towards us.  “There.  He just tagged me in.  Forfeited his turn.”

She cracked her knuckles, and every flaming piece of debris on the street became a pillar of fire, stretching vertically for the sky.  The fire snaked over the surface of the water to cut off our avenues of retreat.

“My go.  I’m taking round two.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.8

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I hadn’t actually slept in for a long, long time.  It was not the start I wanted for my day.

I’d been too tired to sleep, I hadn’t been able to get my thoughts to slow down, and I hadn’t been able to resist just one more check of my territory to ensure people were safe and sound.  Compounding it all were my injuries, which did an excellent job of jolting me from the twilight of almost-sleep any time I moved the wrong way or shifted position.  When daylight had started to stream in through the slits in the metal shutters, I’d pulled a pillow over my head and tried to get just a few hours more.

If I wound up having to face down Mannequin or any other members of the Nine, I’d need to be well rested.  Running on two or three hours of sleep would get me killed.

It sure didn’t feel like the added sleep I got made any difference.

My injuries and the general aches from running barefoot and fighting Mannequin had all melded together into one giant, stiff bruise.  It would be easier to name the parts of me that didn’t hurt.  My chest was the worst, each of my breaths drawing a stab of pain from the lowermost ribs of the right side of my body.  It took me two tries to get up from my bed and stand.

A quick investigation showed that bruises had spread across my abdomen, yellow and blue.  Some careful prodding showed that the tissues beneath the bruises weren’t rigid or particularly tender.  That meant there was no serious internal bleeding, if I was remembering right.

If this kept up, I was going to need another go at the first aid courses, to refresh my memory on the particulars and brush up on my skills.  February felt so very long ago.  So much had happened in the last few months.

Shuffling over to my bathroom, I groaned quietly at the sight of the shards of mirror and shower door that were carpeting the floor.  I made my way back to my room and put on some slippers, grabbed a shirt I didn’t care much about and dropped it on the bathroom floor.  I kicked it around enough to get the worst of the shards out of the way, brushed the glass out of the shower and onto the tiled floor, and then cranked the shower on.  The water pressure wasn’t even half of what it should be, and it was cold.  It didn’t warm up over the thirty seconds I stood there holding my hand under the flow.

I jumped in anyways, in the hopes of waking myself up and getting my hair wet enough that I could make myself look somewhat presentable.  I knew from experience that not washing my hair had a way of making it frizz out hardcore.  Not that I’d be able to tell, with every mirror within a thousand miles in pieces.

I dried off, put on my contacts, combed my dripping-wet hair into place, and stepped back into my slippers to navigate through the sea of glass shards and head back to my bedroom to dress.

My TV, laptop and phone were all useless.  There was no way to get information on recent events.  I couldn’t call the others, couldn’t check the news for details on the events of the past night, couldn’t even know if I’d managed to save anyone when I’d been waking them and leaving messages.  I was left to expect the worst, and it soured my already iffy mood.

I made my way downstairs, unlocking the door that led between the second and third floors.  The second floor was relatively unscathed – the metal shutter had kept the floor-to-ceiling windows from sending their contents indoors, and the terrariums were hard plastic rather than glass.  Knowing Shatterbird was in town, I’d been reluctant to spend much time in a room with sixty or seventy sturdy glass cases, and I was glad to have one less room to clean.  Still, there was no shortage of mess.

Sierra and Charlotte were downstairs, talking at the kitchen counter.  They fell silent as I appeared.

They didn’t speak as I walked over to the cupboard.  Tea.  Tea, maybe some toasted breakfast pitas, some bacon, an egg…

Opening the cupboard, my hopes of having a solid breakfast to start my day were dashed. Bottles of spices that had been on the same shelf as the teabags had exploded, sending their contents and countless glass shards throughout the cupboard.  The cupboard reeked of cinnamon and cumin and various peppers.  They weren’t the only casualties there.  Bottles of cooking supplies had exploded on the upper shelves, and their contents had settled overnight, most of it pooling on the shelves in layers of congealed liquid that were thick with the needle-thin particles of shattered glass.

I looked at the pair of them.  Neither spoke, and Charlotte even looked away.

I hated this.  Hated feeling flawed, knowing they saw me that way.  Being bruised, sore and stiff, I was visibly mortal to them.  I hadn’t been able to stop Mannequin from hurting bystanders, or protect and warn my people about Shatterbird.  How were they supposed to respect me as someone in charge?  Sierra was even older than I was.

Well, I’d have to make use of them anyways.  My focus on the cupboards and the damage inside, I asked, “Charlotte, you up for a job?”

“Yeah,” she said, behind me.  When I glanced back at her, she looked away again.  I knew I’d taken some hits, but did I look that bad?

“It’s a bit of a walk, but I need to get up to date on events.  You’ll be going to the territory of a guy named Regent.  He’s a friend, and it’s close.  Tell him about the Mannequin incident, tell him I’m alive, and get details on what happened to Tattletale and the father.”

“The father?”

“He should know what I mean.”

“Okay.”  She met my eyes as she responded.  Better.   I wrote the address down for her, then watched as she headed off to pull on her shoes and make her way off to the cellar exit.

“And me?” Sierra asked.

“Go to the basement, get a box of supplies, and bring it up.  There should be a propane stove in there.  Cook up some rice, and then start cleaning out the cupboards.  Wear gloves, and focus on picking out the stuff we can keep from the stuff that needs to be thrown out.  Use the box from the supplies to hold some of the extra trash if you need to.”

“Okay.”

I walked over to the corner to find a broom and dustpan.

“You’re cleaning up too?”

“Yeah.  You were at the hospital last night, right?  How did things go?”

“Nobody listened to me at first when I tried to warn them.  It was only when Battery showed up at the hospital and confirmed that the Slaughterhouse Nine were around that people started trying to prepare, but there wasn’t a lot we could do in those ten minutes.  There were a lot of people in the hospital, and a lot of equipment, monitors and displays, lots of windows.  Everyone who could got under their beds, and people put mattresses against the windows in rooms where there were people who couldn’t move.”

“But they were okay?”

“Most?” Sierra frowned. “I couldn’t really tell.  It was chaotic, lots of people running around, equipment failing.  Battery tried to grab me to ask me how I knew what was happening, and I used the chaos to slip away, spent the rest of the night in my parent’s room, hoping she wouldn’t spot me.”

“And they’re okay?  Your parents?”

“They’re okay.”

I smiled a little.  “Well, that’s good.”

She smiled back.  “You know, you’re not what I expected.”

“I’m not what expected, frankly,” I said.  I turned my attention back to the cabinet, found the dustpan and stood up.

“That reminds me-”  She paused.  “Nevermind.”

“Say it.”

“It wasn’t last night, but I overheard something at the hospital.  Something involving you and Armsmaster?”

I sighed, suddenly reminded of how weary I felt.  I saw her expression fall.  She said, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“No.  It’s fine.  What did you hear?”

“That you betrayed your team, and that you’d wanted to be a hero but, um,” she paused, “Couldn’t?”

She’d changed her mind about how she was going to finish speaking.  What had she left out, and had she stopped herself from saying it for my sake or for her own self-preservation, not wanting to piss off the villain?  I wanted to be a hero and I failed?

Given recent events, I wasn’t sure I could blame her for thinking along those lines.

“No, that’s not exactly right,” I responded.  “Long story short, once upon a time, I wanted to be one of the good guys.”

“What happened?”

“Took me a while, but I decided I’d rather have the likes of Tattletale and Grue at my back instead of siding with the sort of people who follow Armsmaster.”

“Really, Armsmaster?  Is he that bad?”

“Bad enough that Mannequin wants him to be the ninth member of their group.”

Sierra’s eyes widened.

I figured I wouldn’t mention that two of my teammates, including the one I’d sent Charlotte to meet, had also been nominated.  Regent had only been nominated out of spite, and Bitch… I wasn’t sure what the story was there.  “I’m going to be upstairs, cleaning up the balcony and the other rooms.  Give me a shout when the rice is done, or if you find anything breakfast-ish that’s edible.”

“Okay.”

I headed up to my bathroom and began to sweep up.  I deployed bugs to help me find the shards that the broom wasn’t catching.

I occupied myself with my other bugs as well.  I went out of my way to avoid using the spiders I’d employed to fight Mannequin, drawing from bugs in the streets and surrounding area instead.  I sent the weakest, smallest and most useless of the bugs to my spiders for a morning meal, then fed the non-spiders who were a little less reliant on protein.  With the other nearby bugs, I started collecting the smallest pieces of glass throughout the house.

The uncertainties of the day, the worries about Lisa and Dad, having my routine disrupted and the spoiling of my breakfast and morning shower had put me in a bad mood.  It would have been nice to say that it made me feel better, getting things in order again, and it did, but it wasn’t a cure-all nor was it a perfect distraction.  There was no way I could relax with the things I had hanging over my head.

Doing this felt like I wasn’t doing something to help Dinah.

Once I finished the bathroom, I tidied my room and opened the shutters on the windows.  Glass that had fallen against the shutter sloughed off to the second floor balcony, with stray shards falling onto the hardwood.  My bugs obligingly fetched them up for me.

Reams of glass shards fell as I opened the heavy shutters that stood just behind the pedestals with the mannequins I was using to design the costumes.  I stepped out onto the balcony and set about sweeping up the glass and dumping it into the trash can, using my bugs to collect what the dustpan wasn’t catching.  I wasn’t in costume, and I was in plain sight on the balcony, but I doubted the concentration of bugs was enough to draw attention.

Ten minutes passed before I heard from Sierra.  I assumed it would be about the food, but it wasn’t.

“Skitter!  You’ve got company!”

Every bug I had in the cabinets and corners of the room streamed forth to check the intruder, my thoughts immediately shifting into a combat mode.  What escape routes did I have?  Could I help Sierra if there was trouble?  What tools and weapons did I have on hand?

The second my bugs settled on the intruder and felt that familiar emanation of outward pressure, like a faint breeze, I calmed down.  I felt a mite embarrassed as I made my way downstairs to greet Grue.

“Christ, T- Skitter!” he exclaimed, the second he saw me.

“What?”

“Your, um-” he gestured at Sierra shaking his hand, agitated.

“Employee?”  I suggested.

“Your employee just informed me that you fought Mannequin last night?

“Yeah.”

“Are you suicidal!?”

“He’s not that strong,” I said, defensively.  “I mean, scary as fuck, he’s strong, but he was beatable.”

“Do you not recall the very specific numbers we got on our chances against these guys?  Fifty-five percent chance we die if we fight them!”

“There were people in danger.  My people.  I thought a forty-five percent chance of survival was worth the risk.”

He tapped his finger against the forehead of his helmet.  I could almost make out the noise through the thin emanation of his power.  “Could you ask your employee to give us some privacy?”

“I can go for a walk,” Sierra said.

“Thank you,” I told her, “I’ll signal you with my power when we’re done.”

My heart was speeding up just a bit as we waited for her to leave.  I distracted myself by limping over to the propane stove that was positioned on the countertop and checking the rice.  There were containers and boxes of food arranged on the counter that Sierra had apparently checked and deemed edible.  Nothing especially good for breakfast.

As the door closed behind Sierra, I hugged my arms against my body and said, “Please don’t tell me you asked her to leave because you have bad news about Lisa or my dad.”

Grue pulled off his helmet and the darkness dissipated around his head.  It was Brian’s frowning face I saw, now.  “Your dad is fine.  He was already fully checked out and sent home.  Lisa is… less fine.”

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s not life threatening.  I just don’t know if it’s hit her yet.  Coil’s doctor stitched her up, but he told her to expect a scar.  I don’t know if it’s shock, the blood loss, or if it’s that she hasn’t seen herself in a mirror, but she doesn’t seem to care.  Cracking jokes, even.  Isn’t- is it sexist of me to wonder why a girl doesn’t care more about her looks being spoiled?”

“It’s easily possible she does care,” I said.  I was thinking back to her interactions with our enemies in fights.  In particular, our run-ins with Glory Girl and Panacea during the bank robbery and Jack Slash last night seemed to stand out.  “I think maybe she handles stress and problems by throwing herself headlong against them.  It’s how she operates in costume, against serious threats and unexpected situations.  There’s a word I’m trying to pin down, it’s not reckless, but-”

“I think reckless may be a very good word to choose,” Brian replied.

“No.  It’s…” I reached for the word and couldn’t find it.  I was too tired, and my brain wasn’t really in that gear.

“I’m surprised, sometimes, at how much attention you pay to us.  You seemed to have Rachel down cold, and your description of Lisa seems pretty apt.  Makes me wonder how you’ve analyzed me.”

“I’m not all that.  Really.  There are exceptions, but dealing with people isn’t my thing,” I said.  Feeling awkward, I distracted myself with the rice, taking it off the propane stove and scooping some out into a bowl.  Holding the pot, I pulled at the wrong muscle and felt my rib protest.  I winced, and I wasn’t able to hide it.

Noting my pain, Brian commented, “I can’t help but worry you’re self destructing, Taylor.  You can’t go up against the Nine to protect people you don’t even know.”

“I can.  I’ll manage.”

“How much sleep did you get last night?”

“Dunno.  Two or three hours, but I slept in.  What time is it?”

“Nine.”

“Maybe four hours?”

“You’re going to run yourself into the ground at this rate.  Or get yourself killed.  Take your time.  Go on the defensive, tell your people to stay out of trouble and avoid drawing the Nine’s attention, rest.  You can work on this territory thing over the next few weeks, instead of days.”

I shook my head, “I can’t.”

“Right.  Just like you rejected Hookwolf’s suggestion that our groups take a break.  I won’t say that hearing you muttering to yourself was the entire reason I refused his offer, or even half the reason, but it was a factor, and I think I deserve answers for going up to bat for you.  What’s going on?”

“I made a deal with Coil.”

Brian folded his arms, much as I was doing.  “What deal?”

“He said that if I can prove my services are worth it, he’ll release Dinah.”

Brian shook his head.  “No.  There’s got to be more to it.  You’ve been distant, driven, and you’ve done some very un-Taylor-like things in the past few weeks.”

I ate some of the plain brown rice.  Could I tell him?

“There is more to it.  Lisa and I talked it over after the Endbringer thing.  She doesn’t like the Dinah situation either, even if she’s more willing to roll with it.”

“Right.  Just for the record, I’m not in love with the kidnapping and confinement of some kid, either.”

I nodded.  “So Lisa suggested the deal.  But knowing Coil, and from what Lisa says, and from the way Coil framed it when I posed the deal to him and just my gut, I- we don’t think he’s going to let her go.”

“No, I don’t think he would.  Her talents are too valuable for him.  But that doesn’t explain your attitude lately.”

I shook my head.  “I-”

I stopped and raised one hand.  Sierra was outside, not too far away, and there was a small group of people around her.  What had gotten my attention was the fact that she was tapping her finger against the origami cube.  She’d wanted to signal me without doing anything overt, maybe.  Or without my calling a swarm down to her location.

“-Something’s going on outside.  Come with?”

Brian nodded.

I headed upstairs and got my costume on in record time.  I couldn’t help but note how dusty it was from last night’s encounter, and how the one arm was still crusty with old containment foam.  It was torture to actually get my limbs into the legs and sleeves and zip up, and to contort myself to attach my armor.  Especially doing it quickly.  I ended up enlisting Brian’s help with the armor at my shoulders and back.

I could feel Sierra’s steady but insistent tapping on the cube all the while.

They were a short distance down the beach, but they started walking towards us a little bit after we entered the storm drain, and met us halfway.

Sierra was in the company of a pair of Japanese boys and a petite Chinese girl with a pierced nose and a thousand-yard stare.  There was a degree of attitude coming from them that was all too familiar.  Gang members.  Of course.  Just because Lung and Bakuda were no longer around didn’t mean there wouldn’t be scraps of the ABB in the area.  They wouldn’t be liked, but they were there, they were equipped for trouble and criminal activity was all they knew.

“Sorry to interrupt your business meeting,” Sierra said, looking from me to Grue.

“It’s fine.  What’s going on here?”  I controlled the tone of my voice.  They didn’t seem too fazed by this encounter with two supervillains.  Were they veterans of Lung’s rule?  Or Bakuda’s?

A Japanese guy with a mop of hair covering his eyes and a bad slouch looked from Sierra to me and spoke in a very American accent, “You still looking for muscle?”

He didn’t look like he had much muscle, but I wasn’t about to comment on that.  If nothing else, I was a little too stunned at what he was offering to say anything witty.  “Pretty much.”

“We heard you took on Mannequin,” the girl said.  “That’s ballsy.”

“Thanks,” I said, in my driest tone.  Stupid as it was, that statement meant something to me.  Nobody had really congratulated me since my fight with Mannequin.  I hadn’t congratulated myself.  It was hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that they respected me for what had happened with Mannequin.  A victory was a victory, but people had gotten hurt, I’d gotten hurt.

The second Japanese guy spoke up.  He was in his early twenties and his accent was thick enough that I didn’t realize he was speaking English at first.  He pronounced ‘girl’ more like ‘gurru’. “Other day, girl was knocking on neighbor’s door, talking about you.  Said you was good boss.  Nice, generous, fair.  But we think that means you weak, before, not so much of that now.”

I shook my head slowly.  “No.  I’m not weak.”

“We know you has trouble with Lung and ABB before.  Not friendly.  But they gone, we still here.”

“You should know this isn’t about preying on the people in my territory.  Just the opposite.  If you’re looking for an excuse to bully the people around here, you’re in the wrong place.  The only people we fuck with are our enemies.”

There were nods from all three.

“No starting violence, no drug dealing, no prostitution, no threatening people, and no drug use or drinking unless it’s a hundred percent limited to your own time.”

A look passed between the two boys.  Which of my points had given them that momentary hesitation?  Still, they nodded again.

“Do you guys have a place?”

“Nah,” said shaggy-hair.

“Come on,” I said.

I led them to the nearest spot to get from the beach to the old Boardwalk, and into the Docks.

I had our destination in mind.  During my stay in the area, nobody had occupied it.  A thorough check of the structure found no splintering supports or framework, and there was no crumbling masonry.

I opened the doors and strode inside, followed by the new members and Sierra.  Grue followed at the tail end of our group.

The square building had been a garage for the biggest sorts of trucks or for boats, and sported three sliding metal garage doors, only one of which still opened.  A cargo container sat in the back corner.  I had my suspicions that boxes of recyclables had been piled up along the walls when Leviathan’s wave hit.  Now, scraps of metal, paper and other trash littered the floor inside until the floor was barely visible.  “If you’re really interested in joining, you can start by cleaning this place up.”

“Why?” the girl asked.

“If my say-so isn’t good enough-”

“No,” she raised her hands to stop me.  “Just… can’t I know what the point is?”

“I want you somewhere accessible.  This is close to my command center, it’s dry, it took a hit from a tidal wave and it’s still in remarkably good shape, and it’s spacious enough to serve our purposes.  At least to start off.”

“Can I ask what they are?”

I looked around, and it was Grue I looked at while I spoke.  “Having everyone in the Docks spread out like this, over this wide an area?  It’s a problem.  We’ve got single families living in warehouses and factories that could comfortably house three to five families, and they’re dealing with problems that we could handle far more easily as a group.  And there’s the logistics of it, getting supplies to everyone when there’s only three to six groups of people on a given city block.  I want to bring people from the fringes in, so we’re not so spread out.  Get everyone working for the collective good.  Build a community and tie everything to a smaller area.”

“There’s going to be resistance,” Grue spoke.  “People aren’t going to want to move, and they’re too spooked about run-ins with Chosen and Merchants to trust one another.”

“If-” Sierra started, but she stopped when Grue snapped his head around to face her, intimidated.  She tried again, “If she’s going to try it, now would be a good time.  Word’s getting out.”

“About what, specifically?” I asked.

“You fought Mannequin, you said you’d make him pay, and then you did.  And you did it to save people, people from the docks.  I think people are realizing you’re for real.”

I couldn’t think of a response to that, and nobody volunteered anything further.  Instead, I said, “Come on, let’s get to work.”

It wasn’t the nicest of jobs, but my new employees worked without complaint.  Or, to be more specific, the girl and shaggy-hair complained often but they didn’t direct those complaints at me or the job, specifically.

Since the usual means of communication were out, and it might be some time before cell phone towers were out, I’d have to use messengers to pass word on to Coil.  I began explaining what I planned to do with the space to Sierra, outlining the need for bunk beds, a cafeteria or kitchen and an area for people to sit.  The area wasn’t a quarter of the size of Lisa’s shelter, but it was a refuge, maybe.  A place where people could congregate and get some peace.  And, ideally, it could be a barracks for my soldiers.

I instructed my new employees to stack the crates of trash outside the door.  I stayed outside with Sierra and Grue when they went back in to get more.

“You’re going to have to watch those ones,” Grue said.

“I know.  Listen, I want to send Sierra down to meet the boss, pass on word about stuff I need.  Can you escort her part of the way?”

“Sure,” he said.

“If you’re willing, Sierra?  I know it’s somewhat dangerous to cross the city, and our groups don’t control all of the territory between here and there.  I could send one of those guys with you.  Bit of a walk, though.  Maybe forty-five minutes both ways.”

“No, I can go alone, if it’s not too bad.”

“Good,”  I said.  I turned my head to see a trio of young men who were approaching us.

It took the one in the lead a bit of courage before he could approach me.

“Yes?” I asked, when he didn’t speak.

“We were remembering how some girl was saying you were recruiting, the other day.”

“I was and I am.”  My heart was pounding.  Why was this happening now, when it had met with only resistance earlier?

“Don’t want to do anything illegal.”

“Not asking you to.  You okay with starting with some clean-up?”

He looked at his buddies -or were they brothers?- and nodded.

“Sierra here will tell you what needs to be done.  Put in a good effort and I’ll pay you at the end of the day.”  My thoughts were on the small safe that I was using as a bedside table.

His eyes widened slightly at that.  “Mind if I go and get my cousin?  He’ll be interested too.”

“Go.”  I ordered, and Sierra led two of them inside while the leader of the newest group ran off at a half-jog.

“Seems like you started something,” Grue said, when the last of them were out of earshot.

I shook my head.  “I don’t even understand how.”

“Still think you’re moving too fast.  Like I said earlier, there’s no good reason for it.”

“Dinah’s a good enough reason for me.”

“Maybe.  But you’ve got to find time to relax, get some sleep, maybe have some fun.  Or you’re going to make mistakes, and you’ll set yourself back days or weeks in your plan.  Slow and steady wins this race.”

“Can’t afford slow and steady,” I said.

Why?  You were telling me earlier, but we got interrupted.”

I’d been glad for the interruption, and I was profoundly disappointed the subject had come up again.  I folded my arms and looked away, down the road to where it gradually sloped to the shattered Boardwalk and the ocean beyond.

Here was the leap of faith.  The test of my trust in him.  “Because if I don’t amaze Coil, if I don’t force his hand and give him absolutely no reason to say I failed… he’s going to keep Dinah.  If he does, the only way to free her is going to be if Tattletale and I take Coil down.  And I don’t think we’d succeed.”

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Plague 12.1

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The first beetle gripped the corner of the paper in his mandibles and slowly pulled it back.  Two more moved to the edges of the folds and held them firm.  The fourth and largest of the four beetles ran its head left and right along the paper until it was firmly creased.  Each of the four changed positions and repeated the steps at a different point.

“That’s really creepy to watch,” Charlotte said, from where she sat at the kitchen table.

I looked up from the laptop I was using to view a webpage on origami.  “Is it?  I’m pretty used to them, so I don’t give it a lot of thought.”

“They’re so organized and human.  Bugs shouldn’t act that way.”

“I don’t really believe in thinking that way anymore,” I said, absently.

“What way?”

I had to stop to compose my thoughts.  I glanced at Charlotte, and Sierra, who was standing by the fridge, silently eating her breakfast.  “I don’t believe in shouldn’t, like there’s some universal rules about the way things should be, the way people should act.”

“So there’s no right or wrong?  People and animals should do whatever?”

“No, there’s always going to be consequences.  Believe me when I say I know about that.  But I do think there’s always going to be extenuating circumstances, where a lot of things we normally assume are wrong become excusable.”

“Like rape?  Are you going to tell me there’s a situation where rape is okay?”  Charlotte asked.  I would have thought I’d touched on a hot subject if her voice wasn’t so level.

I shook my head.  “No.  I know some things are never excusable.”

“Right.”

“But as far as bugs are concerned, at least, I figure anything goes.”

“It’s still creepy.”

“Give it time.  You’ll get used to it.”  I picked up the tightly folded piece of paper that was the end result of my little experiment.  I pushed at two corners of the tight paper square, and it settled into a cube about three-quarters of an inch on each side, with holes on two opposing faces.

I directed a housefly into one hole and settled it inside, then fed a braided length of twine through the holes.  I handed the result to Charlotte and ordered the bugs to start making another.

“A necklace?”  Sierra asked.  She put her plate down in the sink and ran water over it.

“Or bracelet, or a key chain.  So long as you have this, I’ll know where you are, because I can keep an eye out for the fly in a box.  The real purpose of this, though, is when there’s an emergency.  You can crush the box and the bug inside, and the moment that happens, I”ll use my power to protect you.  It won’t be instantaneous, but you’ll have a swarm descending on whoever is giving you trouble in anywhere from fifteen seconds to a minute.  If it works out, I can make something a little more stylish for the future.”

There were nods from both of them.

“I can’t protect you from a bullet or a knife wound, but I can screen the people in your vicinity, feeling them out to see if they have weapons on them and give you a heads up so you don’t get in that situation to begin with.  If there’s potential trouble like that, I’ll warn you by drawing this symbol with my bugs…”

I drew three lines that crossed in the center, using the flies and beetles that were working on a cube for Sierra.

“Okay,” Charlotte said.  Sierra nodded.

I got the bugs working on the second cube again.  “I’ll use numbers to inform you on the number of people nearby.  You’ll want to approach a situation differently if there’s twenty people than if there’s five.  Maybe have one of you hang back and be in a position to crush the cube, or just keeping your distance.  Or just avoid the situation.  Trust your gut, use your best judgement.”

“What exactly are we doing?”

“For now, just door to door.  I’m going to mark the places you should visit, where there are families or groups of people.  I need the info I can’t get with my bugs.  Who are the people in my territory?  What do they need: Maybe medical care, clothes, more food, maybe someone’s giving them trouble?  You find out, take notes, then pass that information to me.”

“That’s it?”

“For now.  I’m going to ask you guys to travel as a pair, obviously.  You’ll be safer and there’s a better chance you’ll be able to signal me with the necklace if something goes wrong.  Not that you should need the cube, but I prefer having some redundancy.”

The pair nodded.  Sierra bent over to pull on the rain boots I’d provided her.  Charlotte was already wearing hers.

“That’s the general plan.  We’ll work out other tasks and maybe other signals later, in case you need my attention but not for an emergency, or if you want to cancel a request for help, whatever.  That leaves payment.”

“I was wondering about that,” Charlotte said.  “But didn’t know how to ask.”

“We’ll try for six to eight hours a day, five days a week, but consider it flexible.  Not to spook you or anything, but I’ll know if you’re slacking.  I’m thinking two hundred and fifty dollars a day, and obviously it’s under the table, so you’re not getting taxed on it.”

“That’s a little more generous than I was expecting,” Sierra said.

I didn’t like Coil, pretty much despised his methods, but I did agree with his sensibilities on some things, like personnel and making sure people wanted to work for you.  It wasn’t like I couldn’t afford it.  I had yet to spend the earnings from any of my earlier villainous stints, since Coil was providing everything major I needed.

“There’s another reason I’m putting you guys out there.  Two people aren’t going to be enough for what I’m planning long-term.  I want you two to trust your guts on this, but you’re also going to be keeping an eye out for possible recruits.”

“You’re hiring others?” Charlotte asked.

I nodded.  “I’m looking for people who are young, reasonably fit, and able to follow orders.  With you two out there, I’m hoping others see a pair of girls who are secure, happy and healthy in my employ.  You recruit someone I decide is worth keeping?  I’ll reward you.  But this isn’t a competition, got it?”

Both girls nodded their heads.

“If you don’t have any questions-”

“I do,” Charlotte piped up.  “Do you have a mask I could wear?”

I frowned.  “I was hoping you guys would put a more human, less sinister face on things.”

“I don’t want to run into someone I know and have to explain.  Not that I think anyone I know lives around here, but-”

“Okay, no, I wouldn’t expect you guys to go unmasked when I won’t.  That wouldn’t be fair.  Give me a few seconds,” I told them.  I headed upstairs to my office.

Over the past few days, I’d received deliveries of the more specific and obscure items I had requested from Coil.  Among them were cases of more exotic bugs, a sturdy work table I kept upstairs in my room and five mannequins with custom measurements.

Coil’s people had taken the time with Brian, Lisa, Alec and Aisha to get comprehensive measurements and hand casts.  Bitch had refused.  This had led in turn to the creation of the mannequins, which had been shipped to me and set up on the pedestals beneath the shuttered window.  One mannequin for each of my teammates and one for me.  There was also a little folder of notes from each of the others on what they wanted, including some photos, clippings and print-outs for reference.  Grue had included pictures of the little statuette he had bought at the Market, which he wanted me to copy for his new mask. I hoped to have a costume for each of us in short order.

I’d already finished a few draft attempts at designing Lisa’s mask, since it didn’t require much cloth and the nuances of it were tricky.  The way her old mask fit her, it hid her freckles and eyebrows and changed the apparent angles of her eyes and cheekbones so her entire face had a different look to it.  Emulating that was hard, since the texture of the silk compared to the material of her mask didn’t let me copy it over exactly.  I’d used the scrapped attempts to test different dyes and how they reacted with the fabric.  I grabbed the failed masks, pressing each against a white piece of paper to ensure they weren’t going to stain skin, and then headed back downstairs.

“Got black, more black, dark purple, blue and blotchy crimson.  Take your pick.”

Charlotte took a black mask that would cover her eyes and the lower half of her face, adjusted it until the eyeholes were in place, and then set about fixing her hair.

“Sierra?”

“Not much point.  My hair is pretty recognizable,” she flicked one of her dreadlocks.

“Won’t do any harm.”

She took the second, smaller black mask.  While she put it on, I deposited a fly and threaded twine into the second origami cube so she had her emergency signal.

“Good luck,” I told them, grabbing two black clipboards with attached notepads and handing them over.  “Come back around noon, we’ll eat, and you can give me an update on how things are going.”

“Will do,” Sierra replied.

My minions moved on to their morning’s tasks.  I headed back upstairs and finally let myself breathe.

I missed staying at the loft, when things were easy and I was free.  I was happy with how things were going with my new recruits, but I was realizing that living with them would mandate changes to my lifestyle.  There were appearances to maintain, and I couldn’t be seen slacking off or being a slob.  I couldn’t sleep in or put off my shower until later in the day.  I couldn’t let myself collapse in a sweaty heap after a hard morning run.  I’d woken up at six in the morning to be sure that I could run, shower, dress and look like I was on top of things by the time they were up.  After a late night, it left me feeling a little worn around the edges.  I harbored some concerns about my ability to help Dinah if this kept up.

The pair had spent some time with their families before returning to my lair.  I’d been anxious in the meantime, worrying they would have second thoughts or turn me in, wearing my costume and waiting in a nearby position in case capes converged on my lair. I’d been both gratified and relieved when they’d returned.  One hurdle crossed.

Both Sierra and Charlotte had seen me bleeding, when I’d come back from rescuing Bryce.  It sounded so minor, but I didn’t want them imagining me as hurt and mortal when they were supposed to trust me and look up to me.  What bugged me even more than that was the fact that Charlotte knew my secret identity. I was fairly certain she would keep it to herself, but she’d seen me as Taylor.  She’d seen me at what was perhaps the lowest point in my life.  From a distance, but she’d seen it.

Charlotte now served under me out of a mixture of obligation and fear, but I wouldn’t feel secure in my reputation until I’d divorced Skitter from that image of a weaker, abused Taylor.

I worked on all five costumes at the same time.  Low-level multitasking was either a minor benefit that had come with my powers or, more likely, a skill I’d developed in the half-year I’d spent micromanaging thousands or tens of thousands of bugs at the same time.  I didn’t need to expend any focus on the simple task of laying out the thread, and the only time I really had to pause to give them direction was when it came to the creative input and the more complicated tasks of deciding how everything fit together.  I could only make some calls on style and what would suit the respective recipients’ tastes when I’d made enough progress and seen the groundwork laid out.  Where I could, I used my bugs to model ideas and options, forming possible shapes for masks, collars and armor panels.

When I wasn’t occupied with that, I focused on Sierra and Charlotte.  I checked their surroundings, discreetly screened nearby groups of people for weapons.  I marked each door with symbols to count the people inside, notified the girls if people were armed, and I put a circle on doors that they were to visit, an ‘x’ on doors they should skip.

A lot of people were ignoring the knocks.  I let them be.  After a few days, if they were still ignoring my minion’s attempts to talk to them, I’d maybe give them a bit of a nudge or leave them a message using my bugs.

Apparently overwhelmed with the requests from his various rulers of the Brockton Bay territories, Coil had started delegating some of his people to act as intermediaries.  I got in contact with Mrs. Cranston, the intermediary he’d designated to me, and outlined what I needed.  Waste removal was a big priority, as was clearing out the storm drains so the water could drain from the flooded streets.  I let her know that my services were available if she wanted help identifying where the blockages were, or if the trash removal teams needed protection from interference.

Once those big issues were resolved, a lot of the smaller ones could be attended to.  Too many problems came with large numbers of people spending the majority of their time wading ankle-deep in water that was swimming with warm garbage.

Time passed quickly, what with my focusing on the costumes, Sierra and Charlotte, arranging the cleaning up of the area, using bugs to sweep for troublemakers in my vicinity and experimenting on a smaller scale with dyes and costume options.  I had a smaller collection of Darwin’s bark spiders that Coil had procured for me in a specialized terrarium to emulate the hot temperatures they were used to, but I couldn’t use them to make anything until they had given birth to at least one new generation.  When I did, though, I expected that the fabric they created would be as superior to the black widow’s work as the black widow’s silk was to conventional cloth.  There wasn’t much room for error with the small number Coil had provided, so I was being careful with the breeding process.

My cell phone rang, and I knew from the bugs I had placed on the two girls that it was Charlotte calling.  That, or someone else had coincidentally phoned me the same instant Charlotte dialed on her phone and raised it to her ear.

“Yes, Charlotte?” I asked.

“Um,” she was taken back a little.  “There’s this place here with two families, and they’re in the middle of packing up to leave.  I thought you’d want to know, in case they were gone before we came back at noon to eat and tell you about it.”

“That’s fine.  What’s the problem?”

“Rats.”

Of course.  The trash would offer a steady diet to vermin, and the flooding would deter many of their natural predators.  The rodent population had exploded, and it could easily be getting to the point where it was interfering with people’s daily lives.

“Their neighbors have the same problem?”

“We haven’t been able to get any of them to answer the door.”

I searched the area around Charlotte.  Sure enough, there were hundreds of rodents lurking in the areas where humans weren’t active.  They nested in rafters, walls and piles of rubble.  Some were apparently getting courageous enough to venture into people’s living spaces, climbing onto tables and into discarded clothes and beds.

No wonder they wanted to leave.

“Tell them to step outside.  If they hesitate, warn them they might get hurt.  They won’t, but it’ll make them move.”

“Okay.”

I hung up, then hurried to pull on my costume, donning latex rubber socks before pulling on the leggings.  At the same time, I gathered a swarm near the rat house.  I began a systematic attack against the rodents there.  Bees, wasps, hornets, fire ants, regular ants, mosquitoes, biting flies and spiders gathered and began attacking the rats furthest from the house and began steadily working their way inward.  Some rats fought or ran, but more bugs gathered each second.

I hurried out the door and took my shortcut through the false storm drain to the beach.  Drawing a host of bugs around myself, I headed toward the rat house with long strides.

The compartment of armor at my back buzzed, and I reached back to retrieve my cell phone.  It was Grue:

can I come by?

I quickly replied:

On errand.  Don’t come to my place.  Meet me at Bayview and Clover.  Not too far from our old place.

It was only a moment before I got a reply:

got it. am already otw.  close.

So he was already on the way when he called?  I wasn’t sure what to think about that.  It suggested it was a social call with the assumption I would be okay with it, which I didn’t mind, but that didn’t really fit his personality.  More likely there was something that he wanted to discuss with me in person.

The rats died at the hands of my bugs, thoroughly poisoned or envenomed, or even eaten alive by the ones that bit repeatedly and didn’t even bother to chew or swallow the flesh.  It wasn’t a fast job, as there were hundreds of the rodents and they were surprisingly tenacious. I wanted to be thorough.

It took me eight or so minutes to arrive, with the roundabout route I had to take to get from my lair to the beach and then back over toward the Docks.  A heavy cloud of bugs surrounded the house, and a group of eight people of different ages were clustered on the far side of the street, watching the scene like they were watching their house burn down.  Sierra and Charlotte stood apart from the huddle, a short distance away.

I covered my approach with a cloud of bugs and slow, quiet footsteps.  Nobody noticed me arrive.

“Just a minute or two longer,” I said.  Charlotte and some of the family members jumped.

“You,” a man who might have been the patriarch of one of the families pointed at me, “You did this!”

“Yes,” I answered him.

“Is this some sort of game to you!?  We were prepared to leave, and you keep us from getting our things?  Add another infestation to the one that’s already there!?”

“She’s just trying to help!” Charlotte said, with a tone like she wasn’t expecting to be listened to.  I got the impression she’d tried convincing him earlier.  I raised one hand to stop her.  It was better if I handled this myself.

The man drew himself up a fraction, “No reply, huh?  I’d punch you right here, right now, if I thought you’d give me a fair, no-powers fight.”

Irritated, I told him, “Count backwards from a hundred.  If you still want to when you’re done, I’ll give you that fight.”

He set his jaw stubbornly, refusing me the courtesy of a countdown.

Ignoring him, I looked at a young boy in the group.  Eight or nine years old, “What’s your name?”

He looked up at his mother, then at me, “R.J.”

“R.J.  Can you count to a hundred?”

“Of course,” he looked offended at the idea that he couldn’t.

“Show me.”

“One, two, three…”

Only a small fraction of the rats were left.  The largest mass of them had been herded into a corner by the swarm, and in their panic they had done nearly as much damage to each other as they were doing to the bugs.  Stragglers remained elsewhere, but as good as they were at navigating the nooks and small spaces of the house, the bugs were just as good, organized by my will, and they vastly outnumbered the rodents.

“Thirty-one, thirty-two…”

Before the last of the rats were dead, I began organizing roaches and other sturdier bugs to have them cart the dead rats away.  I filled the corners of the stairs with massed insect bodies, until it was more like a ramp than a set of steps.  I stepped up to the house to open the door and let the swarm start bringing the dead rats outdoors.

“Seventy-seven, seventy-eight, seventy-nine…”

I knew I wouldn’t quite have enough time to clear out the entire house of the rat corpses, so I cheated by hauling the rats through the walls, into the unoccupied neighbor’s residence and out the kitchen window at the back of that building.  The last of my bugs left the sky around the house.  I timed the arrival of the last few dead rats with the end of R.J.’s countdown.

“So many,” Charlotte gasped, as she saw the three or four hundred rats held high by the swarm.  Judging by the family’s expressions, they hadn’t known how many rats they’d had nesting inside their home.

Turning to the dad, I told him, “Your rat problem is dealt with, and nearly all of the bugs are gone.  Some of my swarm will remain so I can keep an eye out for any future infestations, but you won’t see them.  Now, if you still want to swing at me, I’m okay to go a round or two.  No powers.”

His mouth twisted in a scowl, but he didn’t move to attack me.

Walking over to Sierra and Charlotte, I quietly asked them, “Would I be right if I guessed he wasn’t the one who asked for help?”

“Yeah,” Sierra said, “She did.”

Sierra pointed at the woman who was protectively clutching R.J.’s shoulders.

“Is this satisfactory?” I asked the woman, raising my voice.  “The dead rats will be cleared out of the area in a few minutes.”

“They’re really gone?  They won’t come back?”

“They’re gone, and they won’t come back until someone forces me to move out of this territory.”

“Thank you,” she said.  She opened her mouth as if she was going to say something else, then stopped.

Well, at least the mom thanked me.

“You’ll want to sterilize the place.  Rubber gloves, bleach.  Boil or replace every dish, every piece of silverware, toothbrushes, linens and clothes.”

“We don’t really have the ability to do all that.  We don’t have much money, let alone those things.  Stores aren’t exactly open, and we don’t have running water or electricity either.”

Geez.  “What have you been drinking?”

“We have a rain barrel and we have a water collector on the roof that came with the supply kit.”

That’s not good enough for this many people.  “Do you have a propane tank?  One should have come with the supply kit.”

“It’s nearly empty.  We’ve been using the propane to cook rice, but we don’t have measuring cups, and if we use too much water, it takes too long to cook, and so we’re running out of the gas.”

She sounded so tired.  Getting by with eight people in one household and no facilities would be such a chore.  Add the stress of rats getting into the food, tearing at sheets to get material for nests, crawling on them as they slept?  I didn’t know how she’d coped.

I hoped my dad’s situation was better.

“Make a note,” I ordered Sierra, “If these people are having trouble, it’s easily possible others are in similar straits.  We’ll want a fresh set of supplies going out to everyone in my territory.  For this family, a delivery of cleaning supplies; bleach, rubber gloves.  They’ll want some new clothes, you can get their sizes after I leave.  Supplies, of course, and containers to keep the food in.  Tupperware.  We’ll arrange for a doctor to come by and check them for bites, scratches and infections.  Standard inoculations.  The doctor will know how to handle that stuff better than we do.”  Hopefully.

“Okay.”

“And measuring cups.”  I smiled behind my mask.

“We can’t pay you back for this, even if you give us a loan, we won’t be able to.” the mom said.

So they were assuming I was putting myself in some loan shark role.  Get them indebted to me, leech them for cash.

“It’s on the house,” I waved her off.

“Thank you,” she said, again.  I felt bad for feeling the way I did, but I thought her gratitude was a little muted for what I was giving her.

I could sense Grue a block away, my bugs settling on his helmet, unable to see as they got close.  I could feel that faint push of the darkness billowing away from him.  He’d been watching for a minute or two.

“If there’s nothing else that’s pressing?” I asked.

Silence, a few shaken heads.  I turned to go and meet Grue where he stood at the corner of one building.

“Taking up a side business in extermination?” he asked me.  I thought I detected a note of humor in his voice.

“Assisting my people.  Some goodwill will help when I’m more firmly in power here.”  I couldn’t help but sound a mite defensive.

“Yep.  That guy over there will be singing your praises.”

I looked over my shoulder at the ‘dad’ who’d been giving me a hard time.  He was ignoring Sierra and Charlotte, who were talking to the larger group of people.  Instead, he watched the bugs cart the dead rats down the street, as if he thought I would slack on the job.

“I don’t understand people sometimes.”

“My guess?  When everything went to hell, he told himself he’d be the ‘man’ for his family.  Take charge, provide, protect.  He failed.  Then some little girl waltzes in and takes care of all that all at once?”

“Little girl?”

“You know what I mean.  Look at it from his perspective.”

“What if I recruited him?  Gave him the opportunity and the power to help others?”

“He’d be intolerable.  I mean, sure, things would get better in the short-term.  But over the long haul? You’d wind up with someone who criticizes every last thing you do, every last call you make, to make himself feel better about the fact that he isn’t the one in control, the one calling the shots.”

“Fuck,” I said.  “I thought you said you weren’t good with people.”

“I’m not good with girls, mainly.  Guys?  Or ‘manly’ guys like him?  I’ve met enough people like him in the gyms with my dad, in fighting classes.”

“Guys and girls aren’t that different.”

“Aren’t we?  Look at our group.  Regent and I are going on the offensive.  I’ve got Aisha and I making constant, coordinated attacks against enemies in my territory, terrorizing groups with attacks from the cover of my darkness, or from someone they can’t even remember fighting.  Regent’s got a squad of Coil’s soldiers with him, and he’s tracking and kidnapping the leaders of enemy groups and gangs, using his power to control them and then having them sabotage their own operations, or start fights with other groups that leave both almost totally wiped out.  Then he cleans up the mess.”

“And us girls?”

“Lisa’s running the shelter, and she says she’s doing it to get more info, but I think she doesn’t mind how it connects her to the community there, either.  You, too, are almost nurturing in how you’re treating the people in your territory.  And you’re acting like you’re getting that aspiring superhero thing out of your system.  Or entrenched deeper into it.  I can’t tell.”

I didn’t like that he was mentioning that.  Sore spot for both of us.  “Just following my instincts.”

“And maybe pushing yourself a little too hard, too fast in the process.”

“Mmm,” I offered a noncommittal response.  I could have asked how Bitch fit into his interpretation of events, but I already knew the answer.  Normal rules didn’t apply to her.  “I think all this ties more closely into how our individual powers work than it does to gender.”

“Maybe.  But… no,” he changed his mind after thinking for a second.  “I think both you and Lisa could be a lot more aggressive.  It kind of worries me that you aren’t.”

“Worries you?”

“If you aren’t taking out the other gangs in your territory and turning a profit, why should Coil bother keeping you there?”

“First of all, I’m totally prepared to squash any troublemakers the second they make themselves known around here.”

“Assuming you can find them.”

“I can.  Second of all, Coil didn’t say a thing about turning a profit.  He has money.  Scads.”

“He has his own money.  Money that he has to devote time and attention to earning.  If your territory never starts earning for him and just becomes some black hole that sucks up tens of thousands of dollars of his money each week, you think he’s going to be okay with that?”

“What do you want me to do?  That doesn’t involve taking protection money or peddling drugs?”

“Those would be your biggest revenue streams.”

“I’m taking control like he wanted me to.  Faster than the rest of you.”

“But you’re not leaving yourself in a position to do anything with that control.”

“I can get all of the people in my territory onto Coil’s side.  And I have over three hundred and fifty thousand dollars I can put towards infrastructure here.”

“That’s not as much as you might think it is, when you’re talking about this much territory.”

“No, but it’s something.  Look, Coil’s a proud guy.  He said it himself.  He’d be upset if he took over the city and it wasn’t better than it was before.  I’ve got the old Boardwalk here.  I can help set that going again.  I’ve also got the Docks, here.  A part of it.  If I can improve things here, if I can take this place and make it better than it’s been in decades, wouldn’t that be a feather in his cap?”

“Even if things went smoothly, that’s not going to happen fast, and it’s not going to be easy.”

Not fast.  Grue had been pretty merciless in trying to poke holes in my approach, but the realization that he was right on that score was like a punch in the gut.  “If I can show Coil I’m making headway…”

Even I wasn’t convincing myself.  Coil wouldn’t give Dinah up for something as minor as a good start.  I think Grue noticed my dejection.

“I’m sorry if I’m being hard on you,” Grue settled one hand on the armor of my shoulder.

“No.  You’re right.  I’ve been thinking too short-term.”

“I really did want to come by and talk about less serious things.  It’s a shame we can’t.”

“We have time to do that, don’t we?  We could go back to my lair, hang.  I can show you what I’ve got done on your new costume, and we could talk about the mask,” I suggested.

He shook his head.  “No.  What I meant was that I’d hoped to spend today talking about that stuff.  But we’re not going to get the chance.  Something more serious has come up.”

“Oh hell.”  My initial suspicions had been right.  This wasn’t a social call.

“Regent got a visit from one of the Slaughterhouse Nine last night.  So did Coil, though the man is quiet on details.  Coil’s also reporting that Hookwolf got a visit on Tuesday, and one of Coil’s undercover operatives died in the ensuing carnage.  The PRT office downtown also got hit, according to Tattletale…”

“They’re active.”

“Yeah.  More to the point, they’re recruiting.  Looking for a ninth to round out their group.  Regent was one candidate.”

“Who was the other, at Coil’s?”

“Coil isn’t saying.  We think, with Tattletale’s educated guess helping us out, that Hookwolf might have been another possible recruit.”

“And at the PRT offices?  Shadow Stalker?”

“As good a guess as any.  We’re not sure where she wound up.”

“So what does this mean?”

“It means Hookwolf is calling together a meeting of the local powers that be.  Crook, criminal, mercenary and warlord.  We have to decide if we want to go.”

“He was one of the people they visited.”

“He was.  Which means this could be a trap.  Some kind of grand slaughter to commemorate his joining the group.  Taking out the other prospective members in the process, like Regent.”

“Or it could be a target for the Slaughterhouse Nine to attack.  Create chaos, maximum bloodshed, the kind of stuff that gets attention.  They’d be killing some of their possible recruits, but that’d suit them, being unpredictable, never letting you think you’re safe.”

Grue nodded.

“At the same time, if we don’t go, it’s crucial info that we’re missing out on.” I thought aloud.  “What does Dinah say?”

“Her power is out of commission after the attack on Coil’s base, apparently.”

“So we’re flying blind, with only Coil’s power to back us up.”

“Whatever it is.”

“Whatever it is.” I echoed him, feeling bad for the dishonesty and my lack of disclosure. “What do Coil and Tattletale have to say about the meeting?”

“Coil wants everyone present.  Tattletale thinks Hookwolf is on the up and up, but he’s only one of the potential problems that could come up.”

I thought of the others who would be at the meeting.  “Like the fact that Skidmark is one of the local powers.  Or he is if he’s managed to recuperate rep-wise from the ass kicking that Faultline gave him.  He’s not exactly the type to keep to the truce at the meeting.  An unpredictable element.”

“Yeah.”

“But if Tattletale is right, and Hookwolf isn’t on the side of the Slaughterhouse Nine, if we can trust Skidmark to have the basic common sense to back the rest of us up if they attack-”

Brian turned toward me, and I could imagine him giving me an ‘are you serious?’ look behind his visor.

“-Or at least not get in our way,” I corrected myself.  “We could fight back, if it wound up being most of the villain groups against the Nine.  Our group’s powersets lend themselves to slipping away if that went sour, and Tattletale might be able to sense trouble before it hit us.”

“You’re talking like you want to do this.”

“I do.  Kind of.  If all the top villains of the city attend and we don’t, are we really doing ourselves any favors?  Our rep will take a nosedive, we’ll be out of the loop, and there’s nothing saying we wouldn’t be targeted by the Nine all the same if we sit it out.”

“Why do I get the feeling your decision here is motivated by your rushed attempts to get more control, more rep and finish this phase of our territory grab as soon as possible?”

“Because it is.”

He sighed, and the sound was eerie, altered by his darkness.  “To think I used to like that you were hardcore serious about the supervillain thing.”

That touched on that sensitive subject again.  My original motivations, my act, such as it was back then.  I turned the subject of our debate back to the meeting.  “What do you think?  If it was up to you and you alone, would you want us to go?”

“No.  But it isn’t up to me and me alone.  When I weigh everything in my head, including the risk of our groups spending time fighting and arguing on the subject when we could be organizing and putting measures in place to protect our territory in our absence?  I think it makes more sense to accept it and go with the flow.”

“When is the meeting?”

“With a situation this critical?  There’s no time to waste.  Tonight.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Infestation 11.8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reluctantly, she did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You saved my life,” she said.

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

I could see her shrink into herself.

“-I’m sorry.”  I finished, lamely.

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

“I’m a villain,” I agreed.

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

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

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

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

She looked up at me.

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

“Leave?  The city?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not saying anything.  Really.”

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

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

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

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

“Okay.  So that leaves option two.”

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

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

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

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

“Then what are you doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“His hand,” she said.

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

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

“I’m sorry,” Lisa said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sierra,” I called out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Guys, stop,” I ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Merchants may be done for.”

“Because of you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her forehead creased in a frown.

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

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

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

“But he’s going to run anyways.”

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

“So what do we do?”

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

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

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

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

“Which is?”

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

“Okay.  And we do this by?”

“With your okay, I’d recruit him.”

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

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

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

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

“It can be temporary,” Lisa assured her.

“He doesn’t get hurt.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.  Two territories.”

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

“You’re trying to fix things?”

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

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

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

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

“That’s not-”

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

“Definitely,” I interjected.

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

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

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

“You can,” I replied.

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

“I believe you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Because really, you can leave the city.”

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

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

I shook her hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Already recruiting?” he whistled, low.

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

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

“Sorry.”

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

“I’ll explain later?”

“You don’t have to.”

“I want to.  Just… later.”

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

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

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

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

“It’s not that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded, “You too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Infestation 11.3

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I sat cross-legged in my chair on the second floor of my lair.  A mug of tea was warm in my hands, and the room was dark.  Only a faint light filtered in through the slats at the top of the metal shutter that covered the window.  My mask rested on one knee.

My attention swept over my territory, with an emphasis on the centermost area near where I’d held my speech.  The reach of my power wasn’t quite good enough to extend to the outer edges of my territory, which left me anxious.  I was craving one of those moments when my power would go into overdrive and increase its range.  Minutes passed as I followed my ‘subjects’ and did what I could to get to know them.  My bugs remained on the backs of people’s elbows, at the small of their back, and I’d maybe put a small fly in their hair if it was long enough that they wouldn’t feel it.  Not enough to bother anyone, or that anyone would necessarily notice, but enough for me to track their movements.

Two groups arrived within a minute of one another, each at different points of my territory.  Thirty-two people in all, with eight in the first group and twenty-four in the other.  Both groups reacted, jumping and backing away as my swarm swept over them.  I could feel the vibration in the air as one in the second group laughed.  The others joined him.  I’d held off on attacking, just using the bugs to get a headcount and a sense of who was there.  There were men and women, young and old.  Each of them had weapons of some sort, and fifteen in total had guns.

The Merchants were responding to my bid for control.  Good.

I sipped my tea and found it was lukewarm.  I took big gulps in the hopes of finishing it before it got cold.

One of the Merchants in the first group shouted something, loud enough for it to carry down the street, and fired a gunshot.  Impulsively, I tried to tune into my bug’s hearing and interpret what he was saying, but the strangeness of the noise stopped me.  It didn’t translate from a bug’s ‘ears’ to mine.

The first group started running down the length of the street.  They scattered, with smaller groups of two people each heading to different buildings.  Finding the windows boarded up and the doors locked or barricaded, they started tearing at the plywood and planks.  Some struck at the doors with their improvised weapons.

There were people inside two of those buildings.  Not many, but still.  Those were my people.

Using my swarm on them would have been easy, but this wasn’t just a question of taking the Merchants down.  I needed to do it so effectively and undeniably that they would hesitate to come back.  If I did it well enough, ideally, word of mouth would help keep others from trying anything similar.

Why did that line of thinking sound so familiar?

It dawned on me: Bakuda.  She’d said something similar when she’d been doing her monologue and pretending to be the new leader of the ABB.

Well, that was disquieting.

Still, my reasons were different.  I wanted to protect my people.  Bakuda hadn’t been motivated by an interest in anyone but herself.

I dismissed that line of thinking and gathered the swarm into a vaguely humanoid shape with a head, arms, and a torso.  I tried to balance it on two columns like legs, but I erred in favor of dissolving that into one column for the lower body over risking having it fall over.  A good thing the ground was mostly dry, there, or I would have required far more bugs to maintain the shape with the lowermost critters constantly drowning or being pushed away by the motion of the water.

I piloted the swarm-figure slowly towards the first group.  Someone noticed and turned away from the door he was trying to smash down with his makeshift club.  He shouted and laughed, drawing the attention of others.

Running forward, he swung the club at the swarm like he was trying to hit a home run.  The head was scattered, dashed to pieces, and he laughed again.

Until the rest of the swarm dogpiled him.  Then he started screaming.

Roughly half of his ‘friends’ laughed at him.  Lots of laughter.  Were they all on something?  The remaining four people hurried to his side and tried to claw the masses of bugs away from him.  As they got bitten and stung in retaliation, they backed away, brushing the bugs off of their arms and legs, leaving him to his fate.

The bugs I had in the area coalesced into another vaguely humanoid shape.  Then another.  In moments, I had a half-dozen figures in a loose ring around the group.  I moved them forward, and my enemies backed away from them.  I used this to herd the Merchants until they stood back to back in a tight circle, surrounded.  They had their weapons raised, but they had to know how ineffectual the baseball bats and guns would be.

Then I waited, keeping the swarm-figures remaining as motionless as possible.  If it weren’t for the man still thrashing on the ground, screaming, it would have been eerily still and quiet.

The second group was oblivious to the events a few blocks away as they roamed through my territory.  A woman in the group was singing, loud enough that her voice would be carrying to nearby residents.  She was letting them know that trouble was near.  I noted that she was holding a plastic tank of gasoline, if the topographic map I was getting from my swarm-sense was right, and the box in her other hand could easily have been matches.  That wasn’t good.

Still, her group had yet to do anything.  I kept an eye on them and waited.

Someone in the first group made a run for it, rushing for the space between two of the swarm-figures that surrounded his group.  He didn’t make it.  The swarms both intercepted him, and he went down, howling in pain.

Unease gave way to panic as the group realized they were trapped.  A woman shoved a man into the nearest swarm, trying to use him to clear the way, but she only got two more steps before the wasps, black flies, mosquitoes and hornets caught up to her.  She violently swung her arms around herself in a futile attempt to fight off the bugs, and succeeded only in throwing herself off-balance and falling to the ground.  The spiders, ants, centipedes, millipedes, beetles and all of the other crawling parts of the swarm rolled over her, burying her beneath their mass before she could stand.

The remaining four Merchants in the first group exchanged muttered words, some kind of plan.  Then three of them broke for it, each headed in a different direction.  I wasn’t sure what outcome they expected.  A mass of bugs caught each of them, and they all went down, limbs flailing, screaming.

That left only one.  He dropped into a crouch, his hands on his head, and looked frantically around for some kind of escape route.

So I gave him one.

The swarm-figures parted enough that he had a chance to retreat.  It took him ten seconds to notice it, and another few seconds to build up the courage to make a run for it.

He bolted.  Seeing the general mass of insects down the road, he decided to turn into a series of alleyways.  I let him run for a minute.

He was halfway down an alley when I drew the ambient bugs from the vicinity into a loose humanoid shape, not as dense as the others.  Still, seeing it stopped him in his tracks.

He turned to retreat the way he’d come, only to find another swarm coalescing into a second figure at the other end of the alley.  His head whipped around as he realized he had no escape routes left, and then he screamed, a primal, despairing sound.

The swarm figures moved towards him at a glacial pace, with more bugs joining them every second, to give them more mass and more raw attacking power.  His composure cracked before they even reached him, and he charged headlong into the swarm that had been at the far end of the alley.  Bugs tore into him, pinching and stabbing him, and he made it nearly to the edge of my power’s range before his legs buckled.  He landed on top of a pile of the trash that the nearby building’s residents had been stacking in the alleyway, and the swarm started mauling him.

Group one down.

I finished my tea, then made a face.  The teabag had leaked grit, and some had settled into the bottom of my cup.  Bitter.

I put the empty cup down at the base of my chair, and then I turned my attention to the second group.

I didn’t even need to think about it.

“I’ll do it,” I told the redheaded girl with the dreadlocks.

She looked surprised.  Odd.  She’d asked me, but she hadn’t expected me to help?  Or had she expected me to demand something from her in exchange?

Should I have demanded something in exchange?

“Stay here.  I’ll be right back,” I said.

I turned and walked to the front of the truck, knocked, and the driver popped the door open for me.

I spoke in a low voice, “We’re done here.  Tell Coil I need more supplies.  Seven cases at a minimum, by the end of the day.  And tell him I think you guys did a good job, so if he’s up to giving you any kind of bonus, it would be a good time.”

He gave me a tight nod, then closed the door.  The truck drove off, leaving me with the girl.  I approached her, and I could see the effect I was having on her.  She was unwilling to meet my eyes, and her fidgeting stilled as I turned my full attention to her.

“Your name?”

“Sierra,” she answered me.

“Let’s walk, Sierra,” I said.  “I need details if I’m going to help.  The more you can tell me, the better.”

She joined me as I headed towards the sidewalk, and after taking a moment to compose her thoughts, she started telling me what had happened.  “Three weeks ago, everything was so normal.  I was finishing up at college.  Bryce, my brother, went to Arcadia High.  My uncle was staying with us because he was down on his luck, as my dad put it.  I’m almost positive it had something to do with his drinking.”

I nodded.

“Then Leviathan came.  The sirens woke us up early in the morning, we hurried to the shelter, and by the time it was midday, we were standing in front of what used to be our house.  Flattened, everything we ever owned was gone.”

“I’m sorry.”

From the look on her face, it seemed like I’d surprised her again.  What kind of image did she have of me?

“Thank you.  We- we stayed in a family friend’s basement, and they had another family there as well, on the upper floors, so it was crowded.  But it was better than the shelters, or so we thought.  My dad, my uncle and I worked with one of the cleanup crews.  Trying to get things normal again.  Until word got out that one of the crews had been attacked, the women assaulted.  Um.  So they told me I couldn’t work with them.  I worked for one of the shelters instead.  Handing out sheets, making beds, keeping track of names and passing on requests for stuff like insulin or other meds that people needed.  Long hours, thankless…”

She put a hand to her face, “I’m rambling.”

“It’s fine.  Better that you give me too much information than not enough.  Keep going.”

“My uncle got sick fast.  He had a cold just days after Leviathan came, and it got complicated after, became pneumonia.  The hospital sent him out of town for medical care, and we got word he’d died just two days after that.  Respiratory distress or something.  Drowning in his own lungs.  Less than a week from the time he got the cold to the time he died.”

She stopped talking, and I didn’t push her, giving her time to compose herself.  Had she been close to her uncle?

“By the time we heard the news, Mom and Dad were sick too, and Bryce was showing symptoms.  It wasn’t a cold.  It was more like the flu, but with what happened to my uncle, we didn’t want to take any chances.  None of them could keep anything down, sinus problems, pounding headaches, tired… we went to the doctors and they said it could be toxic mold exposure.  The moisture, always being cold and damp, and not having enough to eat, being in that basement, with the foundation possibly cracked or the mold disturbed by the vibrations and damage in the attack… Um.”

I wondered if this was pertinent to what happened to her brother, or if she was just really wanted someone to talk to.  I didn’t want rush her, but I did try to get her on track,  “So your parents and brother got sick.”

“And I was left alone.  I guess I was saved by the long hours at the shelter, I wasn’t spending half as much time in the house where they got exposed to the mold.  I had to find a new place to stay.  A guy from the shelter heard my story, offered to give me a room in the church.  Near here.  I was grateful, I took it.  My brother got out of the hospital, and he came to stay with me.  He got the cot, I got the floor.  A day and a half later, they came.”

“The Merchants?”

She nodded.  “They attacked the church.  Nine or ten of them.  We outnumbered them, but they had weapons, and they caught us by surprise.  One of them threw a molotov cocktail through a window.  There were other families there, families with kids, so I grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to stop it from spreading.  Spraying around- I couldn’t put it out, didn’t want to try in case I just spread it around, so I just contained it, for all the good it did.”

She shook her head, “They came through the doors and began attacking people, one of them grabbed my brother, I- I panicked.  I used the extinguisher to spray towards them and tried to pull him away.  I couldn’t, and others were approaching, so I left him and I escaped through the broken window where the bottle had been thrown inside.  When I got back an hour later, there were fire trucks and police and ambulances there.  My brother was the only one missing.  The others were there, but badly hurt.  Burned or cut up, beaten.  Derrick, the man who’d invited me to stay there-”

She broke off, and she stopped walking, turning away so her head was facing away from me.

I waited patiently.  When she’d turned back so I could see her face and started walking again, I gently asked, “Dead?”

She shook her head.  Quietly, she said, “They cut him up with a broken bottle.  The doctor said they bent him over and shoved it between- he’ll have a tube running out of his stomach and into a bag for the rest of his life.  And he might never walk again.  You understand?”

“I think so.”  Not that I wanted to.

“Not about what they did, I mean, do you understand what I’m saying about these assholes, these… I don’t even have words to describe them… to say how much I hate them.  God!”

“Keep going,” I urged her.

“I don’t know you.  I barely know about you.  I heard something about you in some bank robbery around the time I had exams-”

“That was me.”

“I don’t know how you operate.  I don’t know your methods, outside of what I just saw back there.  But I want you to know that I’ve always considered myself a pacifist.  I’ve never been in a fight, I’ve always tried to stand up for people and give them the benefit of a doubt, to be fair and never do anything to hurt another person, even with words.”

“Okay.”  How long had it been since she slept?  I was having trouble following her train of thought.

“So I think it should mean something extra, something special, when I’m telling you to hurt them.  Fuck them up.  Hurt them as much as you think they deserve, then double that.  Triple it, just- just make them-”

She stopped yet again, choking on her words.

I had a hard enough time keeping afloat in a conversation when I was Taylor.  How was I supposed to do it as Skitter?  What was appropriate, what was expected?  I hadn’t figured any of this out, yet.

I put a hand on her shoulder, and she flinched.  I left the hand there, and I measured out my words.  “Trust me when I say I have that handled.”

She looked at me, and I gave her a small nod.

“God,” she muttered.

“Tell me more about them, and tell me anything about your brother that might help me identify him.”

She startled, as if shaken from a daydream.  She reached into her pocket and handed me a folded picture.  It was hard to pin down the kid’s age.  He was skinny in a way that suggested someone who was going through a major growth spurt but hadn’t yet filled out.  He had large, blue eyes and a snub nose.  There wasn’t a hair on his face, and his black hair was spiked so the top stuck up in every direction.  Like so many guys, he didn’t seem to know how to style his hair.  He ignored the sides and back in favor of overdoing the parts he could see when he looked in the mirror.

The boy could have been a tall eleven year old and he could have been a young-looking sixteen.

“Bryce?” I asked her.

She nodded.  “Bryce Kiley.”

“Is there any chance he escaped?”

“No.  I’ve checked all the usual places.  His friends, our old house, what’s left of it.  I stopped by the hospital where Mom and Dad are, and the nurses say they haven’t seen him.”

“How long ago did he disappear?”

“Two days ago.”

I nodded.  I vaguely recalled that the forty-eight hour mark was when police considered a missing person as good as gone.  That didn’t mean I wouldn’t try.  It also meant I could feel less guilty about handling things here, with my territory, before starting my search.

“Did you get a look at the people who took him?”

“Some.  The one nearest me, he was fat, white, and he had one of those bushy wild man beards.  You know the kind I mean?  It sticks out everywhere, no grooming-”

“I know what you mean.”

“And his hair was really long and greasy, so it stuck to his scalp.”

“Okay.”

“Then there was one woman.  Maybe middle-aged, bleached blond hair.  Trailer trash.  And she was with this tall black guy with a scar on his lips.  He was the one who was grabbing Bryce.  He had a bottle in one hand he was drinking from and a length of pipe in the other, so I think he was the one who used the bottle on Derrick…”

“Were they wearing anything?”

“I don’t think anything major.  Um, most of the guys were shirtless, and the ones who were wearing clothes were wearing t-shirts, some with no sleeves or with the sleeves torn off.  Oh.  And a lot of them had these bands around their wrists.  Plastic, colored, sometimes one or two, but the black guy had a lot.  I remember seeing the ones on the black guy’s wrist, and thinking it didn’t seem like something he would wear on his own.”

“Ok, that last bit is especially good.”  Were they a way of marking status?  More bands for higher status, with different colors meaning different things?  “Anything else?”

“I can’t think of anything major right this second.”

“Okay.”  I thought.  But she might come up with something more?  “Where are you staying?”

She hesitated to answer, but she finally relented and admitted, “Nowhere.  I was out all last night, looking.  I was going to go back to the place we’d stayed at first, our family friend, but…”

“The mold problem, and you said it was crowded.  That won’t do.  You’ll come with me.”

Concern flickered across her face.  “I don’t know-”

“It’s better if you’re close, so you can answer any questions I have and so I can keep you informed.”

She frowned, and I could practically see her working to think of a way to get out of my offer without offending.  I knew if she didn’t come with me, she’d probably wind up searching for a mediocre to unsatisfactory place.

“This isn’t really negotiable,” I told her, just to forestall any excuses.

For her part, she didn’t argue.

We made our way to the beach, and after I’d checked both ways, I led her into the storm drain.  It took some urging to get her to enter the darkness, and I had to grip her hand to lead her into the oppressive black.  I unlocked the barred door that led into the cellar and locked it behind us.

When I flipped the switches to light up the ground floor, her eyes went wide.  “You have power.  Erm, electricity.”

“And running water.  Stay here a moment.”  I took the stairs two at a time to get to the second floor.  Nothing too sensitive there, but I did walk up to the stairs leading to the third floor and slid a panel across the stairwell.  With my keys, I locked it in place.  I didn’t feel it was that obvious to anyone glancing around the room.  It looked like a section of wall until you saw the keyhole.  I verified the bugs were all locked up tight in their individual compartments in the lids of each terrarium, then headed back to Sierra.

“I’m making tea,” I spoke, as I came down the stairs.  “You want some?  Are you hungry?”

“I’m not a tea drinker, and I haven’t had it in years, but that suddenly sounds like the best thing in the world.”

“I’m afraid I don’t have a kitchen table or chairs or even a living room for us to have the tea.  There’re beds in the other room, if you want something to sit on, and you can make yourself comfortable there.”

“This is strangely domestic for a villain.”  I turned to look at her and she hurried to add, “I mean-”

“It’s fine.  I’m not offended, I am a villain.  But I’m also a person under this mask.  Someone who prefers tea to coffee, who enjoys reading, who…”  I floundered.  “…likes sweet and savory foods but dislikes anything spicy or sour.  Point being, I’m someone who wants to make sure you get taken care of.  Especially if you’re among the people I’m protecting in the territory I’m claiming.  Go.  Find a bed.”

Obediently, she went to do just that.

I put the kettle on, then got the sugar.  What did I have that would go well with tea?

I got out a box of graham cookies with chocolate on one side.  I poured out the tea into mugs and put a teabag in each.  I poured milk into a small measuring cup so Sierra could have milk with her tea if she wanted, and similarly doled out sugar into a small bowl and placed a spoon inside it.  Then I tore open the box of cookies and sorted them onto a plate.

I put everything onto a tray and went to find the room where Sierra would be seated.

She was lying on the bunk bed, already fast asleep.

Quietly, I set the serving tray down on one of the luggage trunks at one corner of the room, collected my own tea and went upstairs to the second floor.

It took me three tries.

On the third attempt, the beetle, supported by others and a crack in the pavement, successfully struck the match against the side of the box as the other bugs adjusted its position.  A small flame flared at the end.

Other bugs leveraged matches out of the box the woman had dropped, gripping the matches in their mandibles, sometimes two or three bugs to one match.  Like a relay, they touched one match to another, passing on the flame from the beetle’s match to each of the others.  It wasn’t long before there were more than thirty beetles each with a lit match in its mandibles.  Some died from the heat their own matches generated, but most were able to stand it.  I could imagine the visual of it; kind of like a small sea of tiny flames like lighters at a concert.  Or maybe it was closer to a lynch mob, a crowd holding torches, radiating with an imminent threat of violence.

It was a shame it was closer to noon than midnight.  I imagined the effect would have been even more exaggerated in the darkness.

The woman stepped away, pulling off one of her wet shoes.  She threw it at the bugs, and it rolled over a few.  A heartbeat later, it burst violently into flame.  It didn’t make a difference.  The swarm that was armed with matches was already too spread out for one shoe and one small fire to slow them down at all.

The woman’s attempts to remove her other shoe made her fall over, and she suppressed a grunt of pain as she landed.  She successfully kicked off her other shoe, and then began simultaneously fumbling with her belt while trying to crab-walk backwards away from the advancing sea of tiny flames.

I could picture it.  It would be intimidating:  A sea of bugs acting with a backing of human intelligence, each with their tiny torches.

Doubly intimidating if a swarm of bugs had made you drop and spill a can of gasoline onto your shoes and the cuffs of your pant legs.

She successfully undid her belt, then began trying to remove the tight-fitting jeans she wore.  The woman got as far as getting her jeans around her ankles before she got stuck.  Some beetles and roaches took to the air, carrying matches to the ground behind her, cutting off her retreat.  She screamed at the others in her group, but nobody leaped to her assistance.

A beetle fluttered forward and touched a match to her jeans.  In an instant, the bundle of cloth at her feet was on fire.

She tried to pat it out, but her efforts to remove her shoes had gotten trace amounts of gasoline on her hands.  Her right hand ignited, the insects on it dying, and she threw herself to one side to thrust it into a hole in the road where water had collected, her feet still kicking as she tried to remove her jeans.  Gasoline transferred to the water’s surface and flickered with the faintest of flames.

One of her friends finally stepped forward to help her, grabbing her under the armpits and dragging her ten feet down the road to a spot where more water had collected.  Together, they worked to put out the flames, dousing her bundled jeans into the water.  I could maybe have stopped him, driven him away, but my interest was more on spooking them than causing grievous physical harm.  I wouldn’t lose much sleep over burning her with the things she’d intended to use on others, but I wouldn’t stop her from putting herself out.

Apparently seeing the woman get set on fire by the swarm had done its job in unnerving my enemies.  The group scattered, and I let them run.  One by one, I took them down by creating the human shaped swarms and then attacking them.  Some fought, others ran, but each of the Merchants succumbed eventually, choking on the bugs or losing all self-control in the face of the pain the attacking swarm inflicted.

The human shapes were less efficient than a regular swarm, but I imagined the psychological effect was that much greater.  A swarm of bugs was something you could encounter any day.  An uncannily human figure that you couldn’t hurt with any conventional weapon, who threatened incredible pain if it got close enough?  It was something my enemies would remember, and it was something they could tell others about.

I gathered the swarm into a figure that stood next to the woman with the burned feet and her friend.  I drew more and more bugs into the swarm, bloating it and drawing it up to the point where I couldn’t make it any larger, without the bottom half giving way.  I gauged it to be somewhere close to twelve feet in height.

Then I let it fall on top of them.  That polished off group two.

I stood from the armchair, stretched, and pulled on my mask.  I bent down to pick up my mug, then headed downstairs to check on Sierra.  She was still sleeping, but I’d known that.  I’d felt secure about removing my mask only because I had bugs on the girl, to keep track of her.  I’d know the second she stirred.

I went into the kitchen before sending a text to Coil:

Merchant burn victim & other wounded near Sandstone & Harney.  Send medic?

No use having the woman die from any complications from her injuries.  Besides, maybe he could get her to offer up information in exchange for her freedom.

I dialed Lisa next.

“Hey, Boardwalk empress,” she answered me.

“Tattletale.  How’s it coming?”

“It’s not.  I’m gathering intel on the enemies in my territory.  A few have migrated my way in response to what the rest of you are doing, regrouping.  I’m trying to see if there’s any useful tidbits of info I can pick up, and if there’s maybe a way to fuck with all these guys at around the same time, so they know there’s nowhere left to go.  In the meantime, I’m helping Grue out, figuring out where he’s got Merchants hiding in his area.”

“He’s doing okay?”

“No problems, last I heard.  You?  I saw that cloud of bugs earlier.”

“Made a big play.  Everyone here should know this is my territory, now.  Merchants tested the waters, I dealt with it.  Remains to be seen if this works out in the long run.”

“Hmmm,” she replied, “I’m getting the impression you’re a little further along than the rest of us.”

“If that’s the case, then that’s great.  I want to be in Coil’s good books.”

“I want you to be too.  You know I’m here to help if you need it.”

“Yeah.  That’s why I’m calling, actually.  I need to find someone.”

“Do tell.”

I gave her the rundown on everything Sierra had told me.  She stopped me when I got to the bit about the armbands.

“Those aren’t for rank,” she informed me.  “But you’re not wrong in saying they’re like status.  They’re more like… boy scout badges.”

“Boy scout badges?”

“From what I can gather, you get one for attending one of the Merchants’ ‘events’.  Colors are supposed to represent what the each one was about.  It translates to a kind of respect, showing you’re loyal, whatever.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“And neither am I, to be honest,” she replied.  “And that bothers me.  So in the interests of getting intel and maybe getting a lead on this missing boy of yours, do you think you could get away from your territory, tonight, to join me in figuring this out?”

“I don’t want to leave just yet.”

“Merchants are throwing a big bash tonight, so I doubt they’ll be attacking your territory.  In fact, I’m wondering if they were attacking your territory to get cash or stuff to barter at the event as much as they were responding to your claim.”

“Maybe.”

“And Chosen aren’t a threat right now?  They haven’t said or done anything yet?”

“Not yet, no.  Haven’t run into any.”

“Grue and Imp are probably going to want to wind down and go on the defensive later today.  You can have one of them babysit your territory if you’re worried.  You have no good reason to refuse.  Come on, let’s go see what a Merchant’s party is all about.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Infestation 11.2

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Water sprayed in the truck’s wake as we cut a path through the flooded streets.

It was a military vehicle.  I wasn’t one to know much about cars, and I knew even less about stuff like military vehicles, so I couldn’t put a name to the truck that was carting me and eight of Coil’s workers through the Docks.  It was like a sturdy pickup truck, but the rear section was wider and it was hidden beneath a green tarp that had been stretched over a framework of metal bars.  The tires were massive, with deep treads allowing the truck to navigate all but the most cracked sections of road where Leviathan had brought the underground pipes and drains through the surface.

The interior was loaded with the supply crates that I’d had Coil’s guys load into the vehicle.  Each set was strapped together and tied down to the floor and sides of the truck with belts.  There wasn’t much room for the seven of us in the back, and we’d been forced to sit on the crates with little legroom.

A part of me wanted to converse with Coil’s men and get to know them.  Another part of me, a larger part, told me that I shouldn’t.  I had to convey power and confidence.  I wasn’t sure I could do that while making small talk.  With much the same reasoning, I’d chosen not to help with the loading of the truck.

The men Coil had sent me were dressed up in the same outfits worn by the cleanup crews I’d seen around the city, picking up debris, trash and dead things.  They wore heavy plastic one-piece bodysuits, made of a material I compared to those heavy-duty industrial rubber gloves that my dad kept under the sink, each in blue and yellow.  The suits were loose-fitting, and only the upper halves of their faces were visible behind the clear plastic goggles they wore.  Their mouths were hidden by the filters intended to prevent mold, dust and airborne pathogens from getting into the worker’s lungs.

The masks also, I noted, did a good job at hiding the identities of the six men and two women.  If it weren’t for that, I’d think Coil was trying to be funny, giving the hazmat crew to the bug girl.

Whatever image I conveyed, whether it was in the role of a leader or as a potentially dangerous villain, it had given me elbow room.  Coil’s employees had chosen to sit, cramped together, closer to the rear of the truck.  I sat atop a crate with my back to the truck’s cab, watching the road behind us.

In a way, it was good that I wasn’t engaging in conversation.  It let me focus on what I needed to – my bugs.

Generally speaking, there were two routes I tended to go.  The first put me in one spot, drawing my bugs from the area.  A three block radius made for a good number of bugs.  The second situation came about when I’d taken the time to gather a few select bugs from here or there, while covering a whole lot more area.  I’d done it before the bank robbery, to get a prime selection of bugs.  I’d also done it before we attacked the ABB the first time, with the other groups.  Never enough to draw attention.

This was different.  This time, I wanted attention.  This time, the city was a breeding ground for the bugs.  Warm, moist, and filled with food.  This time, I was gathering everything I could and I was covering a lot of ground.

We’d been driving for fifteen minutes around the perimeter of what I hoped would be my territory, gradually closing in towards the center.  I found the bugs closest to the edges and sent them toward the middle.  Of the ones that could fly, I had them gather overhead.  It was more bugs than I’d ever controlled at once.  My power seemed to crackle in my head as I drew in and interpreted all of the data.

I was almost convinced I would finally see the upper limit of my power.  That I’d reach for more bugs and realize I couldn’t control any more.  It didn’t happen.

The clouds of bugs that were gathering in the center of my territory were starting to cast a visible shadow on the area.

They weren’t the only bugs I controlled.  I had others on separate tasks.  With a number, I created barriers, heavy clouds in alleyways and across streets.  My motives here were purely selfish – I laid these barriers between the southmost end of the old Boardwalk and the Docks because I didn’t want my dad entering the area.  My gut told me that if he got a good look at me in costume, he’d know who I was.

Besides, it didn’t factor into my plan.

I had other bugs sweep through the inside of the buildings in my range.  I made contact with people, stirring some from their sleep.  As I sat on the crate in the back of the truck, nearly motionless, I was making a tally.  How many people were here, and where were they?

When I had a sense of things, I began organizing my bugs into formations.  I started in the areas with lots of people clustered together: a warehouse with no less than eighteen people; a tenement crammed with what I assumed were families, with lots of small children; and an overly warm building with a large group of half-dressed people drenched in sweat.

As I got those groups out of the way, I turned to targeting smaller groups, probably collections of families or friends.  Where people were too deep in their sleep, I had the bugs nip at them to wake them.

They would wake up and see what I’d done.  On their walls and floors, much as I’d done at the fundraiser, I had my bugs organized into arrows, pointing the way out the doors, down to the streets, and towards the truck’s destination.  I drew out the letters to the word ‘supplies’ and left them in the brightest lit, warmest spots in the rooms where people were.  Accounting for the illiterate, I put the bugs down in the shapes of basic food – a drumstick, a cut of cheese, a can.

I knew I wasn’t the best artist.  I worried I was confusing matters with the pictures.  I could only cross my fingers.

Today wasn’t one of the days my power was working double time, with double the range.  I’d wanted to make sure to reach as many as I could, so I’d started drawing the arrows and words with the bugs early.  The unfortunate downside of that was that it meant we were left with barely any time to set up after we arrived at our destination.  I’d knocked on the window to get the driver to stop at an intersection where the road was torn up and traffic was difficult for conventional vehicles.

I stayed in the truck as Coil’s men unloaded it.  I sensed some of the people venturing out of their residences, and I was careful to leave them unmolested by the bugs, using only what I had to in order to track them.  Watching from windows and entryways, encouraged by those who left, others ventured to follow.

The area in which I’d ordered the truck to stop was open.  I hoped would encourage the growing crowd to approach.  The truck was parked in the middle of the road, and the boxes were unloaded onto the ground just below the rear of the truck.  I wasn’t sure I liked that they were getting wet, but I knew they were at least partially waterproof.  I should have thought to ask Coil for some kind of platform or pallet to set them down on.

It wasn’t two minutes before the first people started to arrive.  The first few were kids, no older than ten, gathered in a loose pack, maintaining a wary distance.  The next two groups were families, parents with their kids in tow.  I noted that the group of men who stepped out of an alley were armed, with knives and clubbing weapons hidden under their clothes and in their jackets.  One of them swatted one of the flies I was using to feel him out.  Were they members of the Merchants, or just a band of grown men that had taken to carrying weapons to protect themselves?

I’d known this move of mine would attract people of all types.  If they were Merchants, I was okay with that, I’d accounted for it.  Above all, I knew that this offering of supplies would attract the people who were hungry enough to venture out into the outdoors with the oppressive cloud of bugs looming above them.  I would also attract the people who would want to confront me, Merchants included.

As people arrived and some ventured closer to the pile of boxes, one of Coil’s workers cast a wary glance over his shoulder, in my general direction.  I should have told Coil’s men not to look my way or show any uncertainty.  It would hurt the effect I had hoped to generate.  To dissuade people from taking the supplies, I set a cloud of bugs around the piles of boxes, enough to be obvious without obscuring what was there.   One of the guys with weapons approached anyways, and I had the swarm move towards him, condensing into a dark shape, buzzing loudly.  He backed off.

In this manner, weighing enticement against implicit threat, I managed to keep the crowd in place as it grew to dozens, then a hundred people, with more still approaching, pushing the number closer to two hundred.  Barely a fifth of all the people I’d tried to get in touch with.  I was okay with that.  It was enough to spread the word.

I was taking a risk, here.  Gambling.  It was like betting someone a million dollars that you’d hit a bullseye, when you’d barely played darts before.  It wasn’t that I was confident this would succeed.  It was that I really needed that million dollars.

In short, I needed to get underway with Coil’s agenda, and I needed to do it fast.

More people were still making their way towards us, joining the crowd.  The bystanders would be getting more confident with numbers at their back, and they would be getting increasingly worried that if the crowd grew too large, maybe they wouldn’t get any supplies for themselves.  If I put it off any longer, they could mob us, and I didn’t want that.

No, my gut told me this had reached the point where I had to act.  From my seat in the truck, I drew my bugs together into a humanoid shape, and had the figure approach from the rear of the crowd, walking towards me.  I waited, my attention focused on my swarm’s senses.

There was a gasp, then a general murmur.  A woman shrieked.  I felt the crowd part, heard the shouts.  They’d noticed the figure I’d created with the swarm.

Most eyes would be on it, now.  I scattered its shape and had the swarm leap or shoot towards the rear of the truck in a loose blob, arcing slowly through the air to land at the rear of the truck, on top of the crates.

The moment I knew the crowd would be unable to see, I stepped out of my hiding spot and into the midst of the swarm.  I scattered the bugs explosively, sending every one of the bugs flying or crawling directly away from me, revealing myself.  The people closest to the pile of crates I was standing on backed away.

To the crowd, it would look like I’d just transported myself to the back of the truck and materialized from the swarm.  I hoped.  It was a cheap ploy, obvious to anyone who thought about it.  I was banking on the fact that the swarm I had blocking out most of the sun and the whole dramatic lead-up would help sell the illusion.

I kept the bugs swirling around me, tightly packed together so they would be moving in tendrils and loops.  Like Grue habitually did with his power, I was aiming to use my own abilities to make myself look bigger, more impressive.  It was like a dog raising its hackles or a cat arching its back.

“Some of you know of me!” I called out, and the noises of the swarm accented the words, gave an eerie, strangely loud echo to my voice.  “My name is Skitter!”

I looked over the crowd.  So many kids.  So many who looked sick, pale with red cheeks.  Some people were dressed too heavily for this warm weather.  Everyone was dirty and damp, their hair greasy and clothes wrinkled.

My eyes fell on a figure in the back of the crowd, who stood out because she wasn’t unwashed or wrinkled.  Her white and gray costume had patterns on it in light blue that weren’t too different from a circuit board.  She leaned against a power pole, her arms folded, content to watch.  The people nearest her were watching her as much as they watched me.

I’d known I’d attract attention from the heroes.  Still, it was intimidating, a reminder of how fragile this whole thing was.

I swallowed.  I had to be confident.  I lowered my volume a step, relying on my swarm to convey my words for me.  It wasn’t perfect, there were parts of speech they weren’t good at making, but it worked well enough that I kept at it.  “I am laying claim to this area!  From this moment, I rule this territory!”

People could have booed or jeered.  I’d been almost convinced they would.  Instead, I heard a murmur running through the crowd.  Battery hadn’t budged, but I saw her pressing her fingers to her ear, and her lips were moving.  She didn’t turn her head away from me, and I could imagine her staring at me.

“I am not the ABB, I am not the Merchants, the Empire or the Chosen!  I am acting in your interests!”

Our group had discussed this, after talking to Coil the other night, and we’d hammered out more details yesterday, passing on the details to the Travelers.  Our methods would vary wildly, but we were all making our bids for territory this morning.  I decided not to mention that.  Let the others arrive at that conclusion themselves.

“I demand no money from you, I do not intend to interfere in your lives unless you interfere in mine!  I do not want to take or destroy what you have!”

I pointed at the crates that were beneath my feet.  I lowered my voice.  “These supplies are yours, a gift from me to you.  And there will be more, delivered regularly for as long as I am here.  My abilities will mean there will be no buzzing or biting flies harassing you, no cockroaches crawling over you as you sleep.  I am offering you protection, security, and reprieve, for as long as you are my subjects!  All I require is that you obey my rules, so hear me!”

“No gangs will operate here.  Merchants?  Chosen?  I know some of you are in this crowd.  Consider this my declaration of war.  I will not permit you to sell drugs, to hurt my people or steal from them, or to seek shelter in my territory!”

I raised my hand, and the swarm gathered coalesced into a tight mass above me, a vaguely spherical shape, six feet in diameter.

“My bugs can devour a cow to the bone in one and a half minutes.”  I had no idea if that was true.  It sounded good.  “I have a million eyes to watch you with.  Go elsewhere.

“To everyone else!  If you assist any of these groups, give them food, shelter, or business?  If you sell drugs, steal or prey on people in this area, you lose my goodwill.  You will receive no more supplies, and you will earn my attention, with eyes on you for every waking hour.  That’s strike one.  If I catch you doing it again?  I treat you as one of the enemy.”

I let my words hang in the air for effect, and to give my audience time to consider what I was saying.  I glanced at Battery.  She wasn’t moving to stop me… interesting.

“Each box contains enough basic food rations for four people.  They also have first aid supplies and water filters.  These supplies will keep you going until we can start fixing things and making more basic conveniences available.”

“If you want more?  Work for me.  This work does not have to be criminal, for I need people to pass on messages, to act as spokespersons for these neighborhoods, and to clean up or rebuild.  For anyone who does assist me, them and their families will have access to some of those foods you miss, to showers and electricity, and generous payment.  You and your loved ones will be dry, clean, and you will have fresh clothes.”

I looked over the crowd.  I could see people getting restless.  At least they weren’t lynching me.

“Thank you for listening.  These supplies are yours to take.  One to each family or group, up to two if your family is large enough.”

My monologue finished, I waited.  Nobody ventured forward.  Had I done too effective a job at intimidating them?

I was just starting to wonder what I’d do if nobody moved, when the first man stepped forward, followed immediately by his wife and a pair of kids.  The wife had a very red nose and circles under her eyes that made me think she had a bad cold.  The parents didn’t make eye contact with me as they accepted the box that one of Coil’s workers lifted down to hand to them.  The children hid behind their mother.  There was no gratitude, nor any thanks given, as the father turned to carry the box of food and necessities back to wherever he was taking shelter.

Seeing the first family leaving with their supplies, others grew brave enough to venture forward.  In moments, there was a crush of bodies.  I stepped onto the back of the truck as the boxes disappeared from beneath me, and I watched the crowd for any violence or fighting.  One altercation began as two men both grabbed the same box.  Before their violent tugging match got them or someone else hurt, I sent a buzzing flurry of bugs in between them.  They dropped the box and backed off, staring at me.  When I didn’t move to stop them or do anything further, they each returned to the pile to scrounge up different boxes, leaving the other on its side in the water.

There wasn’t enough in the way of supplies.  I could see the atmosphere shift slightly as people realized it.  There were too many people present versus the amount of boxes Coil had provided me, even with one box serving a whole family.

I knew Coil had more – his underground base had stored ridiculous amounts, so he had access to a supplier, or he was the supplier.  I began formulating a plan, figuring out how I’d get boxes to those who were walking away from here empty-handed.

I was interrupted from my thoughts.  A man shouted, and I saw the crowd backing away.

It was one of the men who’d had a weapon.  He’d drawn and swung a crude knife to ward people off and grinned maniacally at the reaction he was getting.  The scruff of beard on his chin was white, but it seemed rather premature given his apparent age.  He was shirtless, with a long sleeve shirt tied around his waist, and scratches crisscrossing his upper body.  His buddies stood back, smirking and grinning.

It was a bad judgement call to pull this right in front of me, but I supposed people were at a point where they weren’t at their most rational.  That, or he was high on something.  I could see him as a member of the Merchants, either way.

“Big man,” I called out, “You feel proud with that knife of yours?”

He turned towards me, “Fuck you!  I’m not scared of bugs.”

I stepped down from the back of the truck.  People backed away, but the man held his ground.  As I got closer, I saw how his eyes were too wide, and he chewed his lip like it was trying to get away from him.

“You a member of the Merchants?” I asked.

“Fuck you!” he snarled.

I wasn’t going to be able to have a conversation with this guy.

“Fine.  Don’t care.  You’re threatening my people?  You’d better be ready to take me on.”

“Not scared of you!”

I shrugged, “Prove it.  Use that rusty thing on me.  Stab me.”

He looked around at the crowd, hesitated.

“What?” I asked him.  “I thought you weren’t scared.”

“I’m not!”

“Then stab me!” I raised my voice, shouted at him.  “Or are you just a bully, getting weak in the knees when you’re facing someone that stands up to you!?”

He made a motion as if he was going to lunge for me, then stopped.

“Pathetic,” I snarled.  Not for the crowd.  I said it for him and him alone.

He lunged, holding the knife with both hands to drive it into my stomach, just beside where I had the armor.  I resisted the urge to bend over, but I did have to step back for balance, and I had to put my hands on his shoulders to steady myself.   I clutched his shoulders, digging my nails in for grip.  I could feel pain radiate from my stomach and into my lower abdomen and chest.  That was despite the fact that the fabric of my costume had kept it from piercing my flesh.

I forced myself to stand straighter, still holding his shoulders.  He stabbed again, but it was ineffectual.  Knocking one of my hands from his shoulder, he used the space that gave him to slash at my throat.  The first hit had hurt because of the force of the charge behind it, I could almost ignore these follow-up strikes.  He stepped back and looked at his knife, confused.  I hadn’t gone down.

I extended my arm and let the bugs flow from beneath my costume in one swift movement, like water poured from a cup, covering him.  The crowd backed away as the man began screaming incoherently.  He threw himself backward into the inch-deep water and rolled around like he was trying to put out a fire.  Maybe he was – the bugs I’d set on him were laced with capsaicin.

As his thrashing continued, I waited patiently, watching.  As he used one hand to prop himself up in a crawl, I stepped forward onto his knife hand.  My heel settled on his knuckles, and after I’d readjusted my footing, I ground it down, letting most of my body weight rest on that heel.

The volume of his screams increased.  As I lifted my foot, he moved his hand, rolling onto his back to clutch at it, dropping the knife in the process.

I bent down to pick up the blade, and when I stood up again, Battery was ten feet in front of me, one pace closer to me than any of the rest of the crowd that ringed me and the Merchant.

“I can’t let you use that,” she gestured towards the knife.  There was a faint glow from her costume.  I gathered she was charging up her power.

“Wasn’t planning on it,” I lied, swarm buzzing in sync with my words.  I’d considered stabbing the guy in the hand or somewhere where it wouldn’t be terminal, but hadn’t been certain on the route I would go.  I reversed the knife and gently lobbed it towards her.

She spent the accumulated charge of her power and caught the knife out of the air by the handle. “How does this tie into the stunt you helped pull at the HQ?”

“The Wards’ building?  The intel we got from there was valuable, and that kind of money buys a lot of things.”  I looked at the remaining pile of supplies.  The majority of the crowd had stopped collecting their boxes to watch the fight with the Merchant and my exchange with Battery.

As if noting what I was looking at, she glanced at the crowd encircling around us.  “I don’t agree with this.”

“But you’re not going to stop me, and you’re not going to try and arrest me, despite what happened the other night,” I answered her, “Because I’m the lesser of a whole lot of evils that are in the city right now.”

“Mm.  For now.”

“For now.  Until then, I’ve got supplies from an outside agent, I’m not stealing them from the same sources you guys use, and I’m getting them out to these people at my own expense.  I’m policing this area until the police can get back to doing it themselves, and I’m dealing with people who need to be dealt with.  You’re not about to get in my way, are you?”

Battery surveyed the crowd again.  “What’s your agenda?”

“Do I have to have one?”

“Yes.  Your kind always has an agenda.”

“Maybe I’m unique.”

“No, knowing what you tried to pull with pretending to be a villain?  Or pretending to be a hero that’s pretending to be a villain?  You’re more likely to have some scheme at play than anyone else.”

I sighed.  “Don’t know what to tell you.  No agenda.”

She frowned, “When we first set post-Endbringer measures in place, your team was listed as low priority, and we were instructed to ignore you.  Too costly in time and resources.  I suspect someone intended to change that after your little stunt the other night, but the memo hasn’t gone out yet.  You hear me?”

I tilted my head in a small nod.

“So I’m going by the book, and I’m walking away.  But I’ll be keeping an eye on you, on this, and the moment you go too far, we’re coming after you, no holds barred.”

“I wouldn’t expect any less,” I answered her.

With that, she disappeared in a blur, the water parting in her wake.

With her gone, the rest of the crowd swooped down on the remaining supplies.  People maintained a respectful distance, but oddly enough, they weren’t acting as scared of me as they’d been before I attacked the Merchant and before I’d talked to Battery.

Had her leaving me alone given me a measure of legitimacy?  More importantly, had it been intended to give me legitimacy as ruler of the area?  She hadn’t needed to step in right then.  Probably.  I had to admit I wasn’t sure if I would’ve gone through with stabbing the guy.

“Listen up!” I shouted.  I used my swarm to give me more volume, and to stand out against the noise of the crowd.  People went silent, and every set of eyes turned towards me.  I stepped up onto the truck, hiding myself briefly in the swarm as I hopped up.

I addressed them, “Not everyone will get a box today.  That is not an excuse to take what others have already claimed.  As I said, I will not tolerate stealing or theft among you.  If you try it, I’ll treat you the same as I treated him.”

As I pointed, the crowd parted slightly to reveal the Merchant who was still crawling away, simultaneously struggling to douse himself in the one or two inches water on the street and to crawl with three limbs – he was favoring the hand I’d stepped on.  His buddies were gone.  They’d left him.

“If you do not get a box, stay.  I want the head of each family or group to raise their hands.  This will help me ensure you get something before the day is over.”

It took a minute before the last of the boxes were claimed.  There were some resentful looks as the last of the people left.  I had thirty or so remaining people, and after some brief discussion, seven of them raised their hands.

I concentrated on the swarm, and found a collection of ladybugs.  I piloted a group into each set of raised hands, and watched as people lowered their hands to look.

“Each of you now has three ladybugs in your hands.  Keep them, and I will use them to find you later today to drop something off for you, with a small gift to each group of you for being patient.”

Slowly, they began to peel away from the group and leave.  I began letting the swarm disperse, but I used the fact that I had the bugs all together to direct a mass towards my lair.  The cream of the crop – the good ones.

As Coil’s men got back in the truck, my swarm-sense told me that one person had stayed behind.  I turned to get a better look at her.

She was twenty or so, and her red hair had been set into long dreadlocks that she must have been growing for years.  I wasn’t sure on the effect – white people didn’t grow good dreadlocks.  She wore rain boots, a calf-length skirt, and had a colorful bandanna around her forehead.  She was pale, and she fidgeted nervously, not making eye contact.  High or afraid?

Then she saw I was looking and she met my eyes.

“Yes?” I asked her.  “You’ve got the ladybugs.  I will get you a box.”

“No.  It’s not that.”  She looked at her hand where the ladybugs were.

“Then what is it?

“You said we were your people, that you were protecting us.  Does that mean you’re going against the other groups?”

“Yes.”

“My kid brother.  I- he needs help.  My parents are sick and they’re in the hospital and I can’t tell them because I told them I’d take care of him, um, and I asked the cops but they’re so busy and there’s no way they can help, and I was going to ask that hero, Battery, but then she disappeared so fast-”  The words spilled out of her mouth, less and less intelligible as she kept talking.  She only stopped when her voice cracked.

Breathing hard, out of breathlessness or emotion, she stared at the ground, clenching her fists.  I could feel one of the ladybugs get crushed in her grip, fading out of existence as far as my power was concerned.

“Stop,” I told her, without using my swarm to change my voice.  “Breathe.  What happened?”

She looked up at me, then she swallowed hard.

“The Merchants took him.  My kid brother.  I want you to get him back.  Please.”

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